With more than $75 million dollars in rare coins having sold at the pre-ANA and ANA auctions, it is inevitable that some amazing individual pieces might have been lost in the shuffle. One coin that hasn't received much publicity is the 1875 eagle in the Stack's-Bowers sale (lot 7732 and graded AU-53+ by PCGS) that brought $345,000.
As far as I know, this is by far a record price for the 1875 eagle at auction, and I believe it is also an all-time record price for any business strike Liberty Head eagle.
Was this coin a good value?
When I first saw that this coin was reserved at $300,000 (meaning that you had to bid at least this amount, plus the 15% buyers premium) I was pretty aghast. This exact coin, then graded AU53 by NGC, had last sold for $41,400 in the Heritage 2001 ANA and the last auction trade of relevance was $74,750 for an NGC AU55 in the DLRC Richmond I sale of July 2004. My initial reaction was, "this coin will never sell and the consignor is being unrealistic."
But A LOT has changed in the coin market since 2001 and 2004. For one, the formerly-unpopular Liberty Head eagle series has become a collector favorite. I have written in the past that it only takes a small number of wealthy, passionate collectors to turn a formerly-overlooked series into one that is "hot." And this is exactly what has happened with Ten Libs. In a few minutes I made a quick 180 degree turn from "it will never sell" to "hmmm...it might actually sell."
Before we discuss the market for the 1875 eagle, I think its a good idea to talk a little about the issue itself.
With a mintage of just 100 business strikes, the 1875 is the undisputed key to the series. I believe that fewer than ten business strikes are known. Most of the 1875 eagles, like the one is the Stack's-Bowers sale, aren't especially attractive. This date tends to come with heavily abraded surfaces and since all the known examples are prooflike, these marks tend to be magnified. And this is further compounded by the fact that most 1875 eagles have been cleaned or dipped and do not have nice, warm color.
Here's another way of thinking about this issue. Let's say there are actually nine business strikes known. Of these nine, at least six or seven are off the market in tightly-held collections. This suddenly leaves us with maybe two or three examples that might be for sale. Of these two or three, at least one is going to be a coin that even by the standards of this date is going to be ugly enough that a wealthy collector will not want to use it to fill a hole in his set. That leaves serious collectors of Liberty Head eagles with very few chances to purchase the "right" coin.
Which is why this 1875 was being sold at a perfect time.
There were a few others factors working in this coin's favor. For one, it was in a PCGS holder and any of the Registry Set collectors thinking about this coin would have preferred it to its previous NGC holder. Secondly, it was a "+" coin, meaning that the graders thought it was above-average quality for the grade. I'd have to agree with them. For an 1875 eagle in AU53 it was actually a decent coin (though certainly not a "pretty" one in the true sense of the word) and I don't think the grade was pushed because of the Great Rarity factor.
The major factor was timing. Selling it at the ANA was a good decision and there was the X factor of wealthy collectors looking for places to put their money in these uncertain times.
But I think the numismatic significance of this sale is not fully appreciated by many dealers and collectors.
Only recently, circulated rare date 19th century gold coins were popular issues but they were never really the "big buck" coins that 18th and 20th century issues--typically in high grades--were. Until recently, the rap on coins like the 1875 eagle were that although they were really rare, collectors weren't sophisticated enough to pay huge premiums for rarity over condition. There were exceptions to this maxim (the 1854-O, 1856-O and 1870-CC double eagles, for starters) but these exceptions were almost always big, popular coins like double eagles.
I think the argument for rarity over condition grew louder a few years ago when coins like the 1854-S quarter eagle began to sell for $250,000+ in EF grades.
You can make the case that the 1875 eagle is a "better" coin than the 1854-S quarter eagle for a number of reasons. Firstly, its rarer. There are as many as 15 examples of the latter known and many are in wretched condition. Secondly, the 1854-S is a smaller coin, size-wise, and, as we all know, size does matter when it comes to value. Thirdly, the Liberty Head eagle series is probably more popular with collectors at this point in time than the quarter eagles of this design.
Coincidentally, in the same Stack's-Bowers sale there was a no-grade example of the 1854-S. It wasn't a "sort-of" no-grade; it was a total, absolute no-grade, and it still brought $201,250.
Using this sale as a measuring stick, I think the 1875 eagle was good value.
If that's not a compelling enough argument for the 1875 eagle, then how about this? In the Stack's-Bowers sale there was a Proof 1975-S "No S" Dime that sold for $345,000. It is (currently) a major modern rarity with just two known and its the first one ever to come up for sale.
But its a frickin' Roosevelt Dime...and a coin that half the dealers at the ANA (myself included) probably wouldn't have been "smart" enough to have paid $25,000 for if it had walked up to our table(s).
Using that sale as a measuring stick, the 1875 eagle might have been more than a good deal; it might have been a great one.
I remember talking to David hall a few years ago about the 1875 eagle. He was still collecting this series and he hadn't yet purchased this date. I remember him asking me what I thought he'd have to pay for one (I think I said around $100,000 at the time) and I remember him, presciently, asking me, "Why isn't this a half a million dollar coin?"
His question seemed sort of goofy then. It seems really smart now.