For years, I've been commenting on the die varieties of Dahlonega coins. My take has usually been somewhere along the line of "they are neat and they are fun to collect but I'm not sure that I ever see the market for these coins taking off." From time to to time, I talk to a collector who dabbles in Dahlonega varieties and I've even dealt with one or two who have been pretty hard-core. But, with some exceptions, I've never seen prices for these coins reflect this interest. Until possibly now. I'll be the first to tell you that you can't make a declaration about a market based on one auction but, the recent Heritage 2013 FUN sale had a large and varied collection of Dahlonega half eagles by die variety and there seemed to be a trend towards some of the rarer, more obvious varieties selling for premiums. Let's take a look at a few examples and try to make sense of them.
Lot 7189 was an 1854-D Medium D in an NGC VF30 holder. It was a nice coin, solid for the grade and original. NGC doesn't designate this variety so my brilliant plan was to break it out and send it to PCGS where it would grade, I hoped, VF30 and be designated as a Medium D. I bid $1,600 for the coin which would have put me into it at $1,880 with the buyer's premium. The coin brought $1,998 . The price was around 10% more than I expected. Certainly not a huge price premium but enough to make me raise an eyebrow.
The next coins that I found interesting were Lots 7193 and 7194; the former was an 1855-D Large D in NGC AU53 while the latter was an 1855-D Medium D also graded AU53 by NGC. In my experience, the Large D is the scarcer of the two (despite the fact that there were two Large D examples in the sale).
The first coin, lot 7193, sold for $3,182 while the second, lot 7194, sold for $3,290 which sort of disproves my theory that the market for Dahlonega half eagle varieties might be picking up. I partially attribute this to the fact that the Medium D coins are always weakly struck at the centers which means most collectors don't "get" this variety. Had Lot 7193, the Large D, been more attractive, I'm guessing it might have sold for some sort of premium. Clearly, this market is not yet developed enough that collectors are saying "this is a rare variety and even though the coin is kind of ugly I still need to pay a premium for it."
The two coins which were really interesting to me were Lot 7213 and Lot 7214. Both were 1859-D Large D half eagles. These varieties are designated by PCGS, they have very low populations figures and they are clearly visible to the naked eye; sort of the perfect storm for D mint half eagle varieties, if you will.
The first 1859-D (Lot 7213) was graded EF40 by PCGS and I thought the coin was extremely nice for the grade; maybe an EF45/AU50 on a good day. I figured it at $2,100, which meant a shade under $2,500 all in. The coin sold for $4,700 with the buyer's premium which I thought was remarkable.
The second 1859-D (Lot 7214) was graded AU55 by PCGS and I liked the coin even though it had an odd area of light toning directly above the head of Liberty at 12:00. I figured the coin at $3,750 or $4,406 with the fees. The coin wound up selling for $5,875 including the premium.
Were these prices strong? Just as a point of reference, an NGC AU58 1859-D half eagle in the same sale (Lot 7212) sold for $3,819 including the premium. The coin was a bit over-graded, in my opinion, but actually pretty decent and certainly an AU55 all day long.
Now, I don't know who bought the two 1859-D half eagles. They could have been bought by break-out dealers or telemarketers who figured the low PCGS populations meant a potential big score. But assuming they were purchased by variety collectors, I think these prices were extremely significant and they could portend an oncoming wave of interest in varieties.
My guess is that if varieties are to become of interest to collectors, they are going to be just the ones that are designated by PCGS/NGC and the ones that are easily seen with the naked-eye. Will someone care about one of the six varieties of 1848-D half eagle because of the position of the date or the placement of the mintmark? I doubt it. But I think they will care about a coin like the 1848-D/D half eagle which is genuinely rare and which can be appreciated by beginning and advanced collectors alike.
Kudos to Heritage for doing a nice job of cataloging these coins and my hats off to the collector who assembled this variety set, especially the two 1859-D half eagles.