Was This 1875 $10.00 Worth $345,000?

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. 1875 $10.00 PCGS 53+, lot 7732, image courtesy of Stack's-Bowers

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.

Collecting $10 Liberty Head Gold Coins

If you have deep pockets and lots of patience, assembling a set of $10 Liberty Head gold is one of the greatest challenges in all of U.S. numismatics. Even if you are lucky as far as locating the rarities in this series, you are looking at a $1-3 million commitment of funds and a time frame that should last at least three to six years; if not more. I once asked a $10 Lib specialist how he came to choose his set. To paraphrase his answer, he replied something along these lines: “gold dollars were too small, quarter eagles were too monotonous, three dollars and five dollars were incompletable (due to the 1870-S three and the 1854-S five) and double eagles were overpriced. That left the ten lib series...”

It’s hard to argue with brilliant logic like that. And there are a few more points to add. First, the coins are underpriced. As an example, there are a slew of issues that are really cheap (right now) when compared to coins like $10 Indians or Saints or even Liberty Head double eagles. The second is that these coins are big and contain nearly half an ounce of gold. So every time you buy a “boring” common later date issue you are still accumulating a nice chunk of this precious metal. Thirdly, you don’t (currently) have a huge number of collectors competing against you which means that if a rare undervalued coin comes up for sale, you just might be able to buy it very reasonably.

If I were a collector just beginning this series there are a few things that I would do right away.

The first is choosing a great dealer to work with you. Yes, this is a self-serving comment and yes I think I’m the right man for the job. That said, this is a long, complicated series that involves a lot of coin knowledge and good decision making. You can’t assemble a good set of $10 Libs with a mediocre dealer guiding you and you surely can’t do it on your own.

Secondly, I would set parameters for my set even before I began. I would draft a list that included every date in the series and make a decision what grade range I’d want for each date. The most common mistake that collectors make is that they overspend on the common issues and underspend on the keys. I would avoid paying big premiums for uninteresting dates in very high grades but I would make it a point to make the real rarities in the set as nice as possible.

As you can probably guess, I’d also stress learning what a choice, original $10 Lib looks like and sticking with that “look” throughout your set. It’s amazing how rare many of these coins are with choice, original surfaces. Let me give you an example. Take a seemingly uninteresting date like the 1868. PCGS has graded 116 as of September 2009 but only forty-one are in AU50 or better. Let assume that out of these forty-one there are a bunch of resubmissions and the actual number is around 25-30 distinct coins. Most are going to be dipped, heavily abraded unnatural examples that barely make the grade. I’m guessing that there are fewer than ten 1868 eagles known that would qualify as “choice and original” and which would be high enough grade-wise for an important set of $10 Libs. So, this seemingly mundane issue suddenly becomes a challenge to find. And this holds true for many dates throughout the series.

The complaint I hear from some collectors about the $10 Lib series is that it’s “too long.” Here’s a point to consider. It’s no more “long” than the Lincoln Cent series and I haven’t heard too many collectors complaining about Lincolns being uncollectable due to length. And this isn’t even beginning to consider all of the new die varieties that have crept into the Lincoln Cent set and are now “required” to make a set competitive in the Registry.

I’ve also heard collectors state that this series is “too hard” to collect. I actually don’t think this is true at all. If you want to assemble a complete set in Uncirculated, yes it is too hard (in fact, it’s impossible...). But if you want to do a set in VF-EF grades or even in AU and Mint State grades it is completable.

What are the stoppers to this set? The rarest $10 Lib is the 1875 which has as few as 6-8 business strikes known. In the last two decades I’ve only handled a single example and I am aware of a whopping three pieces having traded since the late 1980’s. The 1864-S is another very rare coin but it does come around a bit more frequently than the 1875. After this, there are dates like the 1844, 1863, 1873, 1876 and 1877 that are really rare but which are certainly attainable.

I was discussing the $10 Lib series with another dealer the other day and we came up with an interesting conclusion. If one serious collector started a set each year for the next five year, the entire supply/demand demand ratio of this series would be dramatically changed. And if a good book about the series were to be published in the next few years...well, all bets could be off.

The Ten Rarest Ten Libs

This article is about the ten rarest Liberty Head eagles. Notice that I didn’t say “the ten most popular” or “the ten most expensive.” Readers may be surprised that this top ten list does not include any Carson City issues (although I was tempted to include the 1870-CC) and just one from New Orleans. In looking over the list you will note that six of the ten coins are from Philadelphia and at least one or two are probably not all that familiar to even the most advanced collector of Liberty Head gold. Most of these dates have very low original mintage figures (one, the 1875, has a mintage of just 100 business strikes!) and nearly all have remarkably low survival rates. To qualify for this list, an issue requires a total population of under 50-60 coins.

In order of their rarity, here is my list of the ten rarest Liberty Head eagles. After this list, I am going to devote a paragraph or two to each issue, covering topics such as the total number known, rarity in high grades, the finest known, Condition Census information, etc.

1. 1875

2. 1864-S

3. 1873 Closed 3

4. 1863

5. 1865-S Normal Date

6. 1860-S

7. 1883-O

8. 1844

9. 1839 Head of 1840

10. The Coveted Last Spot on the List

1. 1875: The Philadelphia gold coinage of 1875 includes a number of issues with exceedingly low mintages. Only 400 examples of both the gold dollar and quarter eagle were produced but the survival rate is higher than expected. The three dollar is a Proof-only issue that has sold for over $100,000 since the 1970’s while the half eagle is a major rarity with probably no more than 10-12 known from the original mintage of 200. I believe that the 1875 eagle, however, is the rarest of all these impressive Philadelphia issues. I have seen it stated that as many as 12-15 are known but I believe that this figure is on the high side and that the actual number is more likely seven to nine. I have personally seen two or three that I would grade AU including Superior 6/97: 1541 and B&M 3/98: 2207 that were graded AU53 and AU50, respectively, by PCGS. The all-time auction record is $74,750 for an NGC AU55 sold as Lot 2102 in DLRC’s Richmond I auction in 2004.

Every business strike 1875 eagle (and I haven’t seen once since Heritage offered a PCGS VF35 in January 2006) is characterized by excessively abraded surfaces and inferior eye appeal. Some of the coins that have been certified as business strikes by both services are actually Impaired Proofs. Proof 1875 eagles have a different date position than business strikes and use a different reverse with the top of the second vertical stripe in the shield incomplete.

I believe that this is an extremely undervalued issue and if it were part of a more popular series it would be a $100,000++ coin.

2. 1864-S: The 1864-S is the rarest eagle from the San Francisco mint. Only 2,500 were produced and my best estimate is that around 25-30 are known. Unlike its cousin, the very rare 1864-S half eagle, the 1864-S eagle is unknown in Uncirculated and I have personally seen only two that I regard as AU - The Bass III: 658 (graded AU55 by PCGS; it sold for a remarkably cheap $36,800 back in May 2000) and a coin owned by a West Coast specialist. The all-time auction record is $50,600 set in the July 2006 B&M sale by a PCGS EF45.

This is a generally well-produced issue although most have weakness on the radial lines in the stars. I have only viewed a small handful of 1864-S eagles that had any mint luster and most are heavily bagmarked. This was an issue that saw considerable circulation and the majority of survivors are very well worn.

It is my suspicion that someone is hoarding lower grade 1864-S eagles. There has only been one example sold at auction in the last five years or so, despite a combined population of twenty-three coins at PCGS/NGC. Even assuming that this number is inflated by resubmissions, my instinct tells me that some savvy collector is sitting on a group of five to ten 1864-S eagles and torturing those of us who would love to buy an example.

3. 1873 Closed 3: All 1873 eagles (business strikes and Proofs) are found with a Closed 3 in the date. All other Philadelphia gold coins from this year are found with both an Open 3 and a Closed 3 variety. A total of 800 business strikes were produced along with 25 Proofs. There are an estimated 25-35 examples known. Unlike the 1875 and the 1864-S, most of the surviving 1873 eagles are not extremely well worn. In fact, the majority of the survivors grade in the AU range, suggesting that this issue saw little actual circulation. Most of the pieces I have seen are well struck and display satiny, slightly reflective luster. I have never viewed one that didn’t have heavy to very heavy abrasions and my guess is that most 1873 eagles were thrown into a bag and transported somewhere before being released into their brief period(s) of circulation.

The finest known is the ex: Warren Miller coin, graded MS60 by PCGS, which sold for $34,100 all the way back in October 1995. Prior to this, the coin had been sold as Stack’s 3/90: 1222. Bass III: 705 ($21,850; as PCGS AU58) is probably the second best. In all, I would estimate that there around a dozen or so in AU with most in tightly-held collections.

I recently sold a nice PCGS AU50 example to a prominent collector and this was the first 1873 eagle that I had owned in close to a decade.

4. 1863: All of the Civil War era Liberty Head eagles are scarce (with the exception of the 1861) but the 1863 is the key rarity in this subset. In fact, I regard it as among the very rarest 19th century Philadelphia gold coins. Only 1,248 business strikes were issued of which an estimated 30-40 are known. The finest is the superb Bass IV: 683 ex: MARCA 8/91: 755 that brought $52,900 in its last appearance (an amazing bargain) after Harry Bass had paid $104,500 for it back in 1991. The second finest known is an NGC MS62 from the S.S. Republic that is owned by a prominent Western collector. NGC has also graded an example in MS60.

Almost every example that I have seen grades EF45 or below and is characterized by excessively abraded surfaces. The luster is either soft and frosty or, less often, semi-prooflike and the strike tends to be bold with the exception of the curl directly above Liberty’s ear.

It has been a number of years since I have handled an 1863 eagle and the last example that I can recall having seen was an NGC AU58 that was sold at auction by Heritage back in 2005.

5. 1865-S Normal Date: Two varieties are known for this year. The better known is the spectacular 1865-S Over Inverted 186. The less visually impressive Normal Date is, ironically, the rarer of the two. I regard this as the second rarest eagle from San Francisco. I estimate that around 30-40 are known and nearly all grade EF40 or below. In fact, this is one of the rarest Liberty Head eagles from the standpoint of condition. I have never seen or heard of an Uncirculated example (although NGC has graded a coin in MS60) and I know of just three that I would call real AU’s (none better than AU50 to AU53).

The quality of strike is very distinctive with soft radial lines in the stars and a slightly concave appearance on the obverse. The reverse is better struck although many examples show weakness on the neck feathers. I have never seen an 1865-S Normal Date eagle that did not have heavily abraded surfaces and most have enough wear to lack any significant luster.

The record price at auction for this issue is $21,850 set by Heritage in January 2007 for a coin graded AU58 by NGC. I believe that a nice, original AU55 to AU58 could sell for considerably more in today’s market if it became available (or even exists).

6. 1860-S: Unless you know this series, you are probably not aware of the true rarity of the 1860-S. This is a very rare coin in all grades and one that is even harder to locate than its small original mintage of 5,000 would suggest. I believe that 35-45 are known including five or six properly graded AU’s and two in Mint State. This date was unknown in Uncirculated until two were found in the S.S. Republic treasure. The finer of the two, graded MS62 by NGC, is owned by a West Coast collector. The other, graded MS61 by NGC, sold for $37,375 in the Superior May 2008; an all-time auction record for this date.

The typical 1860-S is very well worn with VF to EF detail and shows signs of having been mishandled. The strike is typically soft with weakness on the stars and incomplete definition in the centers.

7. 1883-O: The 1883-O is the rarest eagle produced at the New Orleans mint. In my book “Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint 1839-1909” I suggested that 35-45 examples are known from the original mintage of just 800 coins. I still agree with this estimate. Since my book was published in 2006, very few 1883-O eagles have become available and the demand for this issue seems to have greatly increased.

Virtually every example that I have seen grades in the EF40 to AU50 range and is characterized by heavily abraded surfaces. Most are Prooflike and have had their luster disturbed by rough handling and/or numismatic abuse.

The finest known example, an NGC MS61PL (earlier graded MS60 by NGC), surfaced in a bid sale conducted by a dealer at the 2008 FUN show. It was purchased by a consortium of dealers and then sold to a private collector for a record price. With the exception of this coin, very few 1883-O eagles have been seen by me in the last three or so years.

8. 1844: I mentioned in the beginning of this article that there were a few coins on this list that were not well-known outside of the core collecting community of Liberty Head eagles. I would have to rank the 1844 as the number one sleeper in this group and it is a coin whose true rarity even surprised me as I was researching this group.

There were only 6,361 eagles struck in 1844 and my estimate is that 40-50+ are known. When you do find an 1844 eagle, it tends to be very well worn with VF and EF examples most often seen. I believe that there are fewer than ten properly graded AU examples known with most in the AU50-53 range. NGC has graded one in MS63 (I have not seen it) which may possibly be the Bell coin from 1944; they have also graded an MS61 example that Heritage sold in their January 2002 auction for a reasonable $10,063. The best example I have personally seen is an AU55 and I cannot recall having seen a nice 1844 eagle in over five years.

Every 1844 has two prominent die characteristics on the obverse. There is a horizontal die line below the first star and a series of vertical die scratches from the denticles out into the field near star three.

9. 1839 Type of 1840: I’m not totally certain that this variety belongs at the #9 spot on the list but I have always loved the 1839 Type of 1840 and it’s my list, so I’m going to put it into this slot, deserving or not.

This issue was created after the Eagle design was remodeled in 1839 and it is appreciably different from the Type of 1838 that was produced earlier in the year. It is rare in all grades with an estimated 50-60 known from the original mintage of 12,447. This issue is usually seen in very low grades with VF20 to EF40 examples being typical. It becomes rare in AU with around ten or so properly graded pieces known. In Uncirculated it is slightly more available than some of the other issues on this list. I would estimate that there are three or four known. The finest (and one of my single favorite American coins) is Pittman: 1912, ex: Farouk, Woodin. This coin sold for $143,000 back in May 1998 and it is now graded MS64 by NGC.

10. The Coveted Last Spot on the List: There were a number of other dates that offered strong claims for the #10 spot but there was so little separation between them in terms of overall rarity that I did not think it was fair to include one and exclude the others. These dates include the 1858, 1859-S, 1864, 1866-S With Motto, 1876 and 1877. If I had to choose one that was most deserving, I would probably pick the 1859-S, based on the fact that I have handled fewer examples of this than of the others in the last few years. But I could easily see collectors coming to the support of the 1876 or 1877 and the 1858 is certainly the best known date in this small group.

I personally find the Liberty Head eagle series to be among the most interesting in all of American numismatics. It is extremely challenging but, unlike many other hard series, it is not impossible to complete.