The Not-So-Secret Secret 1883-O Eagle

About a month ago, I received an auction catalog from Olivier Chaponniere and Hess-Divo, two well-known Swiss firms located in Geneva and Switzerland, respectively. I often toss these catalogs directly into the recycling bin but thought I'd check this one out; if only because Hess-Divo has the reputation of selling some exceptional ancient and European coins. I went right to the United States gold section and started browsing. A few minutes in, I was startled to see an 1883-O eagle that had been graded AU58 by PCGS. From the photo, the coin looked very fresh and very nice and I was, needless to say, very interested. 1883 O $10.00, image courtesy of Hess-Divo

For those of you that are not familiar with the 1883-O eagle, a little background information is in order. This is the single rarest eagle from New Orleans with an original mintage of only 800. There are around 35-45 known in all grades including a unique Uncirculated piece that I sold around three years ago. There are a total of five graded AU58 at PCGS with none higher. I did a little bit of research on this specific coin and learned that it was new to the PCGS population report and, in all probability, totally fresh to the market.

At this point, I was feeling pretty cocky. After all, it was a European auction and not many American dealers were even going to know about the coin, right?

I started feeling a lot less cocky when I saw these two firms at the Central States show with the American gold coins from the auction on exhibit. My hat goes off to Chaponniere and Hess-Divo. I can't think of many times that European firms have brought American coins to an American show to market them to an American audience. And especially at a non-ANA show; can you imagine the excitement that these Swiss guys must have had regarding four days in Milwaukee? (But that's another story...)

I viewed the coins in person at CSNS and loved the 1883-O. It was fairly baggy but it had nice color, attractive semi-prooflike surfaces and a virtual absence of wear. It was the best 1883-O eagle I had seen in a few years and I felt it was at least the third or fourth finest known; and certainly the only one that was going to be available.

Now I had to determine what to pay for this coin. In regards to the 1883-O eagle, this date is a sort of Numismatic Rare Date Gold Franken-coin. No one cared about this date as recently as a few years ago but I've told collectors for years how rare and desirable it was. Around three years ago, low quality examples started to sell for three or four times more than they had only a few years before this. The last two AU58 examples that I handled were an nice AU58 (ex Pinnacle collection) and a beautiful NGC coin that I sold to a Washington, D.C. collector. I had sold them for less than $40,000 each but figured that in this market that they were going to bring around $60,000. So I bid $55,000 (which translated to $60,000 with the 10% buyers premium).

So how did I do? Not well. The coin sold for an amazing 90,000 Swiss Francs which, according to my on-line currency calculator, is around $78,225. I'm assuming the consignor was even more amazed as the catalogers had estimated the coin to bring 10,000 CHF.

I learned a few valuable lessons from this experience.

The first is, that in this day and age, you could hold a coin auction on the third moon of Saturn and it would still be publicized. The Internet means that the secret auction(s) of yore are now well-attended and the information that is available to collectors regarding pricing makes formerly secret dates not so secret anymore as well.

The second is that good coins will always be found by good collectors. I know the buyer of this coin very well and he was likely to have have bought it no matter where the auction was. The fact that the coins were brought to the CSNS show was amazingly helpful to him and I'm guessing it added at least $20,000 to the bottom line; if not more.

The third is that there are still really cool coins lurking in Europe. You'd think that with American dealers having scoured Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, etc. since the 1950's that there wouldn't be much left anymore. Not true. While coins like this AU58 1883-O eagle don't show up everyday, there are clearly still some eyebrow-raising coins left overseas.

The 1883-O Eagle Becomes Trendy (and Spendy...)

With little fanfare, the 1883-O eagle has become the coin du jour in the rare date gold market. This rare date, which for years was a cult item that was seemingly overlooked by all except for a small cadre of specialists, is suddenly a coin that is bringing big bucks. What’s behind the 83-O buzz? Let’s back up a bit and discuss some background about this issue. The 1883-O is the rarest New Orleans eagle with an original mintage of a ridiculously low 800. In my recent book on New Orleans gold, I estimate that there are three to four dozen known. This includes a single coin in Uncirculated (an NGC MS61 that I sold a few years ago) and perhaps a dozen that grade About Uncirculated.

For many years, the 1883-O eagle had sold for $10,000 to $15,000 in Extremely Fine grades when it was available. I do remember the Eliasberg coin (graded EF45 by PCGS) selling via private treaty around four years ago for $20,000 and saying at the time: “Man, that’s a lot of money for that coin!”

Things started to change for this date in the early part of 2009. The Heritage 2/09 coin, graded EF45 by PCGS, sold for an exceptional $29,388. I can remember right after the sale, a client of mine, who I had sold a lovely NGC AU58 example to a few years earlier for not much more money, said “Guess I got a good deal, no?”

Then came the Heritage 9/09: 1667 coin. It was graded NGC AU50 by NGC and, in my opinion, it wasn’t an especially nice piece for the grade. It sold for $43,125. After this lot hammered, I was really intrigued by the new levels and anxiously awaited the next auction appearance for the 1883-O eagle.

I didn’t have to wait long. The recently concluded 2010 FUN sale contained an example graded EF45 by PCGS. This coin was nice and original but (and this is a large but...) the obverse was covered with discoloration from impurities in the planchet. This was a coin that not everyone was going to like and I wondered if we’d see prices revert back to their pre-2009 level.

It sold for $25,875. Trends remains stuck at $15,000. So what gives?

I attribute the rise in prices to a few things.

1) When my book on New Orleans gold came out a few years ago, more people learned about this date’s rarity. The new information clearly drove up demand.

2) Liberty Head eagles have quietly become a popular area for collectors in the past few years. Many non-specialists are not aware of this but there are a number of new collectors building sets in this series.

3) It has become more market-acceptable to buy truly rare coins and you can’t argue with an issue that has an original mintage of fewer than 1,000.

4) Once the bar was raised in 2009 for this date, it became impossible to buy the 1883-O at old levels. In other words, the person who was brave enough to pay nearly thirty grand for an EF45 in the Heritage 2/09 sale made it numismatically acceptable for everyone else to pay close to this amount (or more in some cases) down the line. In a thinly-traded market, sometimes all it takes is one impressive auction result to make the market double or triple literally overnight.

The moral of the story? If you see other truly rare coins like the 1883-O eagle that are clearly undervalued but have compelling reasons to appreciate in value down the road, be a pathfinder/trailblazer and jump in before the masses follow.

Stand Alone Coins

I have noticed a very interesting numismatic trend in the past few years. The coins that have shown the greatest increases in demand (and have had their prices rise accordingly) are what I term "stand alone" coins. I loosely define a stand alone coin as one whose rarity and level of interest transcends the series of which it is a part. A list of qualifications for stand alone coins includes the following criteria:

    The coin is rare but not so rare that it becomes esoteric. The appeal of the coin is widespread. Its "essence" is easily definable--it has a great story or interesting history. It has "cross appeal" --i.e. collectors in various series all want this particular coin. It is affordable. It exists in relatively high grades(s).

Stand alone coins exist in many series and range in date from the 1790's to the 1950's. What follows is a list of coins that, in my opinion, meet the criteria that I listed above. I have also included a short comment about each.

1793 Half Cent: First year of issue; one of the first U.S. coins. 1796 Half Cent: Rarest single year of issue; lowest regular issue mintage. 1793 Half Cent: First year of issue; a desirable issue for 150+ years.

1793 Liberty Cap Cent: The rarest of the three types of 1793 Cents. 1799 Cent: Rarest Large Cent and hardest to find choice. 1856 Flying Eagle Cent: Rarest and most popular small cent. 1877 Indian Cent: Rarest Indian Head Cent. 1909-S VDB Cent: Most famous US small cent; a coin every collector wanted as a kid. 1955 Double Die Cent: Best known error coin; very distinctive appearance.

1792 Half Disme: First regular issue U.S. coin; association with George Washington. 1802 Half Dime: Rarest half dime; important U.S. rarity.

1796 Dime: First year of issue. 1838-O Dime: First mintmarked issue of this denomination. 1916-D Mercury Dime: Rarest and best known coin of this design. 1942/1 P+D Dimes: Only recognized overdates in the Mercury Dime series.

1796 Quarter: First U.S. quarter dollar; one year type. 1870-CC Quarter: First Carson City quarter; earliest issue from this mint. 1916 Standing Liberty Quarter: Popular first year of issue; famous bare breast design. 1918/7-S Quarter: Rarest issue of this design; only overdated issue. 1932-D Quarter: Key issue in the newly-popular Washington Quarter series.

1794 Half Dollar: First U.S. half dollar; rare low mintage issue. 1796-97 Half Dollars: Rarest U.S. silver type (Small Eagle reverse). 1815 Half Dollar: Rarest year of the Capped Bust design. 1836 Reeded Edge Half Dollar: Popular low mintage; first Reeded Edge issue. 1839-O Half Dollar: First collectible branch mint half dollar; obverse mintmark. 1870-CC Half Dollar: First Carson City half dollar. 1921-D Half Dollar: Rarest modern half dollar.

1794 Silver Dollar: First U.S. silver dollar; very rare low mintage issue. 1836 Gobrecht Dollar: Popular short-lived design, attractive design. 1851-52 Silver Dollars: Very rare issues that exist both as originals and restrikes. 1870-CC Silver Dollar: First coin struck at the popular Carson City mint. 1889-CC Silver Dollar: Rarest Carson City Morgan dollar. 1893-S Silver Dollar: Rarest Morgan dollar. 1895 Silver Dollar: Popular proof-only(?) issue. 1921 Peace Dollar: First year of issue; one year type with High Relief design.

1855-C & 1855-D Gold Dollars: One year type coins; popular Type Two issues. 1861-D Gold Dollar: Only coin that was unquestionably struck by the Confederacy.

1796 No Stars Quarter Eagle: First issue of this denomination; one year type. 1808 Quarter Eagle: Rare and popular one year type. 1838-C Quarter Eagle: First quarter eagle from Charlotte. 1839-D & 1839-O Quarter Eagles: First quarter eagles from these mints; one year types. 1848 "CAL" Quarter Eagle: Struck from first California gold. 1856-D Quarter Eagle: Rarest issue from this mint; less than 1,000 struck. 1911-D Quarter Eagle: Rarest 20th century quarter eagle.

1854-O & 1854-D Three Dollar Gold Pieces: Only issues of this denomination from these mints. Closed 3 1873 Three Dollar Gold Piece: Affordable rarity with a mintage of 100+.

1795 Small Eagle Half Eagle: First year of issue and one of the first U.S. gold coins. 1838-C & 1838-D Half Eagles: First half eagles from these mints; one year types. 1839-C & 1839-D Half Eagles: One year type coins; only $5 Libs. with obverse mintmark. 1870-CC Half Eagle: First Carson City issue of this denomination. 1909-O Half Eagle: Only 20th century New Orleans half eagle.

1795 Small Eagle Reverse Eagle: First year of issue and one of the first U.S. gold coins. 1799 Eagle: Only affordable 18th century issue of this denomination. 1838 Eagle: First year of issue ; scarce, low mintage date. 1854-S Eagle: Earliest collectible issue from this mint. 1870-CC Eagle: First Carson City issue of this denomination. 1883-O Eagle: Lowest mintage New Orleans gold coin (800 struck). 1907 Wire Edge Eagle: Popular, low mintage, beautiful issue. 1933 Eagle: Only gold coin dated 1933 that is legal to own.

1850 Double Eagle: First collectible Double Eagle. 1854-O & 1856-O Double Eagles: Rarest Liberty Head double eagles. 1854-S Double Eagle: Along with similarly dated eagle, first collectible San Francisco coin. 1861-S Paquet Reverse Double Eagle: Popular experimental issue. 1870-CC Double Eagle: Rarest Carson City gold coin; first CC double eagle. 1907 High Relief Double Eagle: Popular, beautiful, great story; always in demand.

1893 Isabella Quarter Dollar: First modern commemorative issue; only commemmorative of this denomination. 1900 Lafayette Dollar: First commemmorative silver dollar. 1915-S Panama Pacific Exposition Round and Octagonal $50's: Largest size and value commemorative issues; low mintage and beautiful designs.

There are certainly other coins that could be placed on this list; my personal likes and dislikes definitely affected the coins that I included.

A collector who assembled a set that included nice examples of the 75 stand alone coins listed above would have a truly remarkable group that would encompass an incredible array of types and a broad range of dates.