The Pogue Quarter Eagles: A Post-Auction Analysis

As the early half dollars in the Pogue sale were hammered down—some at levels less than I expected—I turned to my client/friend seated beside me and told him “we might actually be able to buy some of the early quarter eagles; prices are really reasonable for the silver, and opening bids for the gold are lower than I would have thought.” As usually happens when I make such bold statements, I was so, so wrong.

The first of the Pogue sessions was held in New York on May 19th and I was excited to attend. The auction was conducted at Sotheby’s and the last time I went to a coin sale on 72nd and York, I saw the record-breaking 1933 $20 take the numismatic world by storm.

There were only 13 lots of gold coinage in Pogue I, and these contained a dozen Capped Bust Right quarter eagles (not exactly the most popular type or denomination of early gold) plus THE definitive 1808. My expectations were mixed for these given the overall quality. There were a few coins I loved, a few coins I didn’t, and one coin (the 1808) which I not only loved but had long elevated to legendary status.

The first coin to sell was Lot 1116, a 1796 No Stars graded MS62 by PCGS. This coin, with a fantastic Newlin-Garrett-Whitney pedigree had fetched $299,000 when last offered—as a raw coin—in Stack’s May 1999 auction. Unlike nearly every 1796 No Stars graded “Uncirculated” by the services, this coin was unmolested, totally fresh in its appearance and was free of rub on the high spots. It was a coin I really wanted to buy and assumed it would take a final bid in the $500,000 range to secure. This lot opened reasonably (at $280,000) but shot past my limit before I could literally get my bidding paddle raised. It wound up selling for $822,500 (note: all prices realized listed in this blog include the 17.5% buyer’s premium) which is by far a record for a 1796 No Stars in MS62. And it served as an excellent case of foreshadowing for what we would see ahead…

Lot 1117 was a 1796 With Stars graded MS62 by PCGS. While rarer than its No Stars counterpart in all grades, this variety doesn’t quite get the respect it deserves as it isn’t a distinct one-year type. The Pogue coin, last sold in Auction ’89, was clearly one of the top three or four finest known for the date and it would likely have graded at least a point or more higher had it not been for some noticeable hairlines in the right obverse field. It realized $440,625, a price which I thought was fairly strong, but certainly more reasonable than Lot 1116.

Just because a coin was included in the Pogue collection didn’t automatically mean true love for me (although in most cases it did) and Lot 1118, a 1797 graded AU58 by PCGS, was a coin which I didn’t care for. It appeared to be slightly oval in shape, leading to me to conclude it might have been subtly straightened after having been bent at one time. The coin opened at $120,000 and quickly closed at that number, meaning the final price realized with the buyer’s premium was $152,750. Given the quality of the coin, I regarded this as a very strong result.

The next coin, Lot 1119, was a PCGS MS65 1798 which quite possibly was my favorite coin in the entire sale. This coin had simply glorious color and it was one of the two finest 18th century quarter eagles which I had ever seen, along with the Parmelee 1796 No Stars in MS65. I knew there was little chance of me buying this, even with what I thought was a reasonably aggressive bid in the mid-400’s. The coin opened for $350,000 and it quickly became the object of a battle between two phone bidders. The final price was $763,750, a result which I view as being extremely strong but not a total surprise, given the extraordinary quality and eye appeal of the coin. Furthermore, it had sold for a then-impressive $291,500 in a mostly forgotten Superior 1991 auction and again in 2000 at a Sotheby’s sale for $268,500.

Lot 1120 was an attractive 1802 graded MS64 by PCGS. This was a case of a comparatively common date in a comparatively uncommon grade. However, I wasn’t totally sold on the coin being a true MS64 and my bid of $105,000 was based on it being a nice but hardly PQ example; comparable to the NGC MS64+ which had realized $115,000 as Heritage 4/11: 5324. It brought $211,520 which is a record price for the date and which, I would conclude, raises the bar for a “common date” Capped Bust Right quarter eagle in MS64.

I was very familiar with the rarity of Lot 1121, a Condition Census 1804 13 Star Reverse, graded AU53 by PCGS. I had literally just sold what might be the finest known (a totally fresh to the market PCGS/CAC AU55) and had also bought out of auction a PCGS AU58 for $322,000 in the Heritage 7/09 sale. I wasn’t crazy about the coin in the sale which, while certainly the third finest known, had a commercial appearance which was in strong contrast to the typical Pogue coin. I was surprised that the coin was opening at $325,000 and was pretty much in shock when it hammered for $499,375.

The more common 1804 14 Star Reverse was graded MS63 and it was offered as Lot 1122. I wasn’t in love with this coin as an MS63 as it was a bit “busy” in the right obverse field but it did have pleasing color and a good degree of originality. This exact coin had sold for $97,750 in a July 2004 auction and it realized $164,500 nearly a decade later.

The Pogue collection contained not one but two Uncirculated 1805 quarter eagles. The first, graded MS64+ by PCGS, had sold for $253,000 in an obscure 2005 Bullowa auction. This coin, offered in the Pogue sale as Lot 1123, had a superb naked-eye appearance but if you looked at it just right (with halogen light) there were some lines in the left obverse field. It opened very cheaply at $130,000 and the same two phone bidders who battled it out on nearly every lot fought all the way to a final price of $381,875.

The second 1805 quarter eagle, Lot 1124, was “only” graded MS63 by PCGS but I really liked it in spite of some fairly prominent obverse adjustment marks. I figure it might be buyable with my bid of $80,000 and I was oh-so-wrong as it soared to a final price realized of $129,250. This was a coin which I honestly believe had it been in any other sale than Pogue would have brought 20% less.

Lot 1125, an 1806/4 graded MS62 by PCGS, was a coin which really appealed to me on account of its spectacular fiery reddish-gold color. It had first surfaced in the October 1994 James Stack auction where it had sold for a reasonable $11,000 as a raw “AU” coin. I was prepared to bid up to $60,000 and was encouraged when it opened at $45,000. I was soon blown away by both of the determined phone bidders, and the final price realized was a very strong $94,000.

Lot 1126, an 1806/5 graded MS62 by PCGS, was a coin which I assumed would fall through the cracks despite its extreme rarity in Uncirculated (it’s the only Mint State example graded by PCGS) as it was more of a specialist’s issue than a date or type collector’s coin. It opened at a low $85,000 and I stayed in the bidding all the way up to $150,000 but I finally flew the white flag and let it sell to one of my phone-bidder-nemeses for $170,00, or $199,750 all in. Looking back after the sale (and with the benefit of hindsight) I don’t think this was a crazy price, and it was certainly closer to “market value” than some of the other early quarter eagles in the Pogue sale.

The next lot, an 1807 graded MS65 by PCGS, was a somewhat controversial coin. I didn’t like it but other savvy dealers I spoke with did. It was numerically significant as the only MS65 of this date graded by PCGS and it had considerable importance to type collectors looking for a high-grade example of this type. It opened at $170,000 and hammered at $500,000 after a protracted battle between the two bidders on the phone. At $587,500 with the juice, I regard this as a pretty amazing price, and one that Brent Pogue had to have a little smile about.

   The Pogue 1808 $2.50, PCGS MS65, shown courtesy of Stacks Bowers

The Pogue 1808 $2.50, PCGS MS65, shown courtesy of Stacks Bowers

Speaking of pretty amazing, the next and final lot of the night was the famous Parmelee-Jenks-Green-Judd-Hayes 1808 quarter eagle. The 1808 is an important issue as it is a single year type and while sometimes available in lower grades, it is excessively rare in Uncirculated. This coin, in a PCGS MS65 holder, has long been regarded as the finest known by a mile and it is a staggeringly beautiful coin with exceptional color, wonderful luster, and a “look” which totally eclipses that on any other 1808 I have ever seen. I expected this to be a runaway and figured it would require a bid of around $1.3 to 1.6 million to get it bought. It opened at $1 million and after furious bidding it closed at $2,000,000. At a total price of $2,350,000, it shattered the auction record for any coin of this denomination, and it solidified its position as the Single Greatest Quarter Eagle in existence.

So, what did I learn from the first Pogue sale?

I learned that the gold coins in the collection are likely to be the most sought-after pieces in the sales, and unless you come armed to pay record prices for essentially everything, you will leave New York with nothing more than memories. I learned that a lot of the fevered excitement that I anticipated never really happened, what with bidders now choosing to mask themselves behind the internet or by phone, not to mention hiding in the Sotheby’s “billionaire boxes” above the auction floor. I learned that if Sotheby’s does add something to the sale it is likely to be for coins like the 1804 dollar and not an 1804 quarter eagle. I learned that specialist collectors still rule auctions as one bidder bought many of the Pogue dimes, one bought many of the quarters, and two phone bidders carved up the quarter eagles.

The next Pogue sale occurs in New York in late September 2015 and I look forward to the chance to buy more of these exceptional coins.