One of the most ambitious collecting projects ever undertaken was the No Motto half eagle set assembled by Chicago dealer Ed Milas. Not only did Mr. Milas attempt to assemble a complete set of these rare coins (struck between 1839 and 1866) but he did it, for the most part, in the highest grade possible. After working on this set for the better part of two decades, Milas sold his coins at auction through Stack’s in May, 1995. The Milas set included 98 coins and was lacking only the 1842-C Small Date, 1854-S, 1863 and 1864-S to be totally complete. The coins ranged in grade from mid-AU to MS66 and included a host of individual pieces that were either Finest Known or high in the Condition Census for that specific issue. I would still rate this as one of the single greatest specialized U.S gold collections ever formed and it was one of the most interesting auctions that I ever attended.
I had seen a number of Ed’s coins on a piece-meal basis and had even sold him a few high-end Charlotte and Dahlonega coins indirectly. But it was with real excitement that I went to New York to view a collection that had attained true cult status among rare gold coin collectors and dealers alike.
I remember being very surprised to see that the Milas Collection had been sent to NGC to be graded. Stack’s, in the mid-1990’s seemed to sell far fewer encapsulated coins than their competitors and my initial reaction on viewing the coins in their holders was that NGC had gotten a little bit carried away in grading them. Of course today, these same coins in the same 1995 holders would seem almost quaintly undergraded.
What I remember most about this collection, nearly a decade and a half after the fact, was the wonderful quality of the coins. They were the sort of No Motto mint half eagles that you almost never see today. Most had wonderful original color, blazing luster and had never been enhanced. A number traced their origin to famous collections that had been sold in the 1980’s and early 1990’s including Eliasberg, James Stack, Jimmy Hayes, Bareford and Garrett.
From the standpoint of appearance and overall grade, the Philadelphia half eagles were the highlight of the collection. Coin after coin graded MS63, MS64 or even MS65 and I remember a number of the ex: Eliasberg coins having absolutely sensational fiery orange-gold coloration. Two coins that I really loved were the 1850 (graded MS65 by NGC) that was so amazingly fresh and crisp in appearance it looked like it had been made last week and the MS66 1852 that, to this day, rates as one of the single finest No Motto half eagles of any date that I have seen. As I recall, many of these Philadelphia pieces were purchased by dealer Steve Contursi.
The Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles in the Milas collection included some of the most famous (and most mind-blowing) high grade pieces known. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite as there were so many fantastic single coins. I remember the amazing MS65 1841-D that Ed Milas had bought a year earlier out of the James Stack collection for a record $88,000. In the Stack’s sale, a year later, it went for a relatively low $68,750. The Dahlonega half eagle in the sale that I liked the best was an 1853-D in MS64. While this date is relatively common in Uncirculated, this particular example (ex: Auction ’84 and Bareford) had absolutely superb color and surfaces. It brought $55,000 which I remember being a TON of money at the time. Most of the Dahlonega coins in the sale (as well as a majority of the Charlotte pieces) were purchased by dealer Winthrop Carner. Ironically, Carner ran into financial problems soon after the sale and many of the Milas coins were re-offered at the Numisma ‘95 auction where they brought considerably less than what Carner had paid for them earlier in the year.
The one Charlotte coin that everyone wanted to see in the sale was Milas’ 1859-C which NGC had graded MS66. Formerly from the Eliasberg collection, this coin remains the only Charlotte half eagle ever graded above MS65. I remember being a bit underwhelmed by the coin when I first saw it in 1995 (I saw it again a few years ago and was blown away by it...) and thought it had been the beneficiary of a push by NGC. It sold for $104,500 and it became the first Charlotte gold coin to eclipse the six-figure mark at auction.
What really excited me in this collection, though, were the New Orleans half eagles. They were amazing; probably the finest set ever assembled. The one coin that I really, really wanted to buy was the 1842-O graded MS63 by NGC. It is the finest known of three examples in Uncirculated and it has a fantastic pedigree (ex: Eliasberg and Earle collections). This was a rare instance where I liked a coin so much that I wanted to buy it to stash it away. In the end, I was the underbidder and it brought $31,900 which seems very, very reasonable today. I was able to purchase a number of the other New Orleans half eagles in the sale and I’ve handled a few of these two, three or even four times since the Milas auction in 1995(!)
If someone wanted to replicate this collection today, I’m certain it could not be done. Many of the Milas coins have, in the ensuing years, been processed and no longer show the superb, original look they had back in 1995. The number of very high grade, totally original Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles has greatly diminished since 1995 and I’m not certain that many of the high quality Philadelphia and San Francisco half eagles in the Milas collection could be replicated today either.
I hate to sound like Grandpa Winter but they just don’t have sales today like they did with the Milas collection back in 1995...