The Byron Reed Collection Sale

In October 1996, the Western Heritage Museum and the City of Omaha decided to sell coins and manuscripts from the Byron Reed collection in order to raise funds for a renovation and expansion project to house the Reed collection. Reed, who lived from 1829 to 1891, was an unsung numismatic hero. Reed came to Nebraska in the mid-1850’s and became a successful businessman. He began collecting coins in the 1870’s and by the time of his death he had assembled one of the finest groups of United States coins ever assembled. Despite the importance of this collection it was largely forgotten until a small portion of it became available for sale a century after Reed’s death.

Spink’s of London was chosen to sell the coins and the auction was held at the old Christie’s showrooms on Park Avenue and 59th street in New York. Even though this sale seemed a bit out of the mainstream at the time, it was the sort of event that attracted all the big buyers. I can remember viewing the lots at Christie’s and thinking how out of place many of the coin dealers seemed in comparison to the well-dressed and impeccably groomed art collectors and dealers who were viewing lots from an upcoming sale.

The coins in the collection were, for the most part, fabulous. But this would not be an easy sale to buy out of. The salesroom would be full of every smart dealer in the country and the coins were, in many cases, very hard to grade. Some of the Proof silver type coins had been poorly stored and had literally turned black. And many of the Proof gold coins in the collection appeared to be lovely but were so heavily toned that they may have had heavy hairlines below the color if and when they were dipped.

I was mostly interested in the early gold coins in the collection. There was a splendid date run of Fat Head half eagles including such extremely rare coins as an 1828/7, an 1829 Small Planchet, and an 1832 12 stars.

One of the coins I really wanted to buy was Lot 113, an 1824 which I graded AU55 to AU58 (by today’s standards this coin would no doubt grade MS61 or even MS62). I had a bid of $14,000 and I stretched to $18,000 but was outbid by someone on the phone. The same pesky phone bidder outspent me on the next two lots, an 1825/1 that I graded MS61 to MS62 and an 1826 that I graded MS62. The two coins sold for $23,000 and $20,000 respectively. To make a long story short, I did finally buy one coin in the group: an 1833 Large Date that I graded MS61 to MS62 for $9,500. I remember thinking that the prices for these coins seemed insanely high. Today they seem insanely low.

Having the luxury of a decade’s reflection, I now realize that even though the prices in the Byron Reed sale seemed incredibly strong at the time, many of them are almost laughably low by today’s market values. We now forget just how awful the coin market was in 1996 and 1997. Not only did the coins bring a fraction of what they are worth today, but many of the people who spent big money in the sale had trouble selling the coins and they were later sold for losses.

The moral of the story: buy great coins in great auctions when the market is crummy and no one else wants them. Even better: let all the smart dealers buy them, let them get nervous because they can’t sell them and then buy them when they get even cheaper.