Eliasberg Redux

I recently returned from the St. Louis Silver Dollar coin show and the Scotsman auction, which was held in conjunction with the show on October 17th. I wasn’t originally going to attend this event as I’m not a big fan of St. Louis and wasn’t really anxious to travel right now. But the combination of a collection of superbly pedigreed gold coins (see below) and a desire to get a handle on this confusing coin market inspired me to make last second plans to go to the City with the Large Arch. First, let’s talk briefly about the show. The facility, in suburban St. Charles, is as nice as you are going to find for a medium-sized regional convention. The attendance, from a dealer perspective, was decent with many national firms manning tables. The public attendance was another story with a very small number of collectors in evidence.

My take on the activity at the show was that wholesale transactions were better than what I might have expected. There certainly weren’t a lot of five figure coins trading but I did see some good sized invoices being written. Yes, a lot of the coins that were selling were generics or bullion-related. But the market for reasonably interesting coins in the $1,000-10,000 price bracket doesn’t seem to be as adversely affected by the current economic slowdown as I might have expected.

The main reason I went to St. Louis was to attend the Scotsman auction. The lead consignment in this sale featured an intriguing group of 81 U.S. gold coins that had last appeared in the Eliasberg sale. For those of you that are not familiar with this collection, here’s a brief recap.

Louis Eliasberg was a Baltimore banker who, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, formed the greatest collection of United States coins ever assembled. The base of the collection was obtained from the Clapp family in 1942 and Eliasberg upgraded and filled-in holes for the next decade and a half. The U.S. gold coins from this collection were sold at auction by Bowers and Ruddy in October, 1982. That sale set countless records and is regarded as one of the most important auctions in the history of the American coin market.

I really had no idea which coins from the Eliasberg sale were going to be in the Scotsman auction until I arrived and, to be honest, the selection was a bit on the disappointing side. Around half of the coins were what I would basically describe as semi-numismatic (coins like an 1886-S eagle in NGC AU58) or off quality (an 1850-O quarter eagle that had been harshly cleaned). Clearly, the person who bought these coins from the Eliasberg Sale in 1982 was no connoisseur but he had still managed to acquire a few great pieces.

There were four great coins in the Eliasberg Redux sale. The first was an 1862 Gold Dollar graded PR67* Ultra Cameo by NGC. In 1982, it had been graded PR67 and it sold for $8,800. Twenty-six years later it sold for a healthy $48,875. The second great coin was an 1851 quarter eagle graded MS67* by NGC. In the 1982 Eliasberg Sale it was graded MS67 and it sold for a then-strong $7,425. In the Scotsman auction, it brought $28,750. The highlight of the consignment was an NGC PR66 1880 Flowing Hair Stella. In the 1982 Eliasberg Sale it had been graded PR67 and brought just $55,000. It sold for $494,500 in the 2008 auction which, I would assume, is a record price for any coin in a Scotsman sale. The last of the Big Four was an NGC MS65 1930-S $20 that had only been graded MS60 in the original Eliasberg sale. It brought $18,700 back in 1982 and it brought $195,500 in 2008.

But what about the lower priced coins in the sale—how did they do? I figured that there would be a considerable amount of interest and I was personally willing to pay a 15-25% premium for the coins that I liked on account of the fantastic pedigree. For the most part, my levels came up short. I did buy around a half dozen coins and was underbidder on another ten or so but on many ho-hum lots my bids were far too low.

I came away from this sale with a couple of Deep Thoughts. The first is that collectors DO care about pedigrees and there is still no pedigree that is more magic for gold collectors than that of Louis Eliasberg. There were dozens of collectors in the audience at the sale and bidding online who were willing to, say, pay $1,500 for a coin that was probably only “worth” $1,000 to $1,200. And I can absolutely see their point. As a collector myself, I find pedigree to be extremely important and a coin that combines good eye appeal and rarity (or at least scarcity) with an interesting provenance is pretty irrestible to me.

The second is that I was really impressed with the way Scotsman conducted the auction. I have never participated in one of their sales and I found them to be gracious, easy going and honest. In fact, I can think of a few older, more established auction firms that could learn something from the way that Scotsman promoted the sale, produced the catalog and made it a pleasure to do business with them.