"Why Can't I Find Coins to Buy at a Coin Show?"

"Why can't I find coins to buy at a coin show?"

That was the exact question Collector X asked me, in a somewhat whiny manner, at the recent Central States coin show.  But you know something?  I can understand his disappointment. He had taken three days off from work, spent thousands of dollars on a plane ticket, hotel and meals, only to come home from the show empty-handed. He's a coin junkie and I'm sure he won't be boycotting this summer's ANA convention but his question got me to thinking...

Why has it become so hard to find the coins you want to buy at coin shows?

As I told Collector X as we spoke at CSNS, he's not the only one who is having this problem. I've been going to coin shows for three decades and I've noticed them becoming more and more dry in the last few years. Here are some theories of mine as to why.

1. Heritage: The 900 Pound Gorilla In The Room

All you have to do to see the reach of Heritage is to look and the size and scope of their major auctions. With thousands and thousands of lots worth tens of millions of dollars, these auctions are like vacuums that pull a tremendous amount of material of the bourse floor. Some of the coins in the Central States sale(s) were dealer retreads and some of the coins were low end but there were hundreds and hundreds of choice, high end pieces. This includes many fresh coins that, in the past, might have wound up entering the market through dealer's inventories instead of through auction.

You know that zombie movie when an army of hungry, brain eatin' dudes keeps coming and coming at the heroes? That's sort of like Heritage. Last time I checked they employed just a few zombies but they are extremely formidable competition for small dealers like me and a lot of the coins that formerly would be offered directly to me show up in Heritage sales. And I don't think I'm the only small dealer who has this perspective.

As Heritage has grown and grown it has created a strange reality in the market. At this point, the coin market is essentially a duopoly (Heritage and the various Spectrum organizations) with a huge degree of separation between the Big Two and nearly everyone else. Since neither of these firms is retail friendly, they use auctions as a way to sell coins directly to collectors.

2. The Coin Show Circuit is Diluted

There are way too many coin shows. I go to between 15 and 20 per year and this is nothing compared to the really hardcore wholesale guys who go to 30 or 40. At this point in my life, I'd rather be going to fewer shows and doing the bulk of my work in my office where its more comfortable and I'm three times more productive.

But its a Catch-22 situation for me. If I don't go to all of these shows, I become less competitive with the five or six sharp guys who I know are going to be in on every single coin that I'm not going to get offered if I'm not going to be at a show.

But I'm not writing this to gain sympathy from you. You want to know how this dilution of shows affects your ability to buy. Here's one way which I bet you don't know.

3. The Shadow Coin Show

Collector X was one of the first hundred people through the door when Central States opened to the public. Yet, unknown to him, a "shadow coin show" had been going on for at least two days before where many of the nicest, freshest coins traded hands.

Not only is the coin show circuit diluted, it puts unrealistic expectations on dealers. Let's take my schedule at Central States as an example. I arrived on Tuesday and started a frantic search for coins literally as soon as I arrived. But this was already a day later than some dealers. So if I had arrived on Monday (ugghhh...) it meant a full-week commitment to Central States. I'm OK with this amount of time for FUN and Summer ANA when there are fresh coins available to buy, but it's impossible for me to commit this much time ten to twelve times per year.

Back to the Shadow Coin Show theory. There are now many dealers who arrive two days before a show opens to the public and leave Thursday morning; just when many collectors are arriving. With these two different schedules going on, everyone in the long run suffers.

4.  Many Dealers Don't Show New Coins at Shows

    Before I had an effective website, I would show many of my new purchases at a show. Today, I almost never show them. There are many reasons, good and bad, for this. I'm not alone in doing this.

  • I spend a lot of time and money on my site and I find it to be a good way for me to sell.
  • I have very limited amounts of time available at shows and it is more effective for me to use them to buy than it is to sell.
  • I like Collector X and I value his business. A lot. I feel better knowing that he was able to buy a few coins as soon as I listed my new purchases.

One more thought. Many of the dealers who had tables at CSNS are not really "retailers" per se. They may have some coins laid out in their cases but they are primarily wholesalers who lack: a) time b) couth c) desire to sell to people like Collector X. As I walked around the floor at CSNS, a thought hit me: there really aren't a lot of tables at the show with nice coins on display.

Which brings me to my final point...

5.  If You Don't have a Relationship With a Dealer You Might Be Wasting Your Time at a Show

I must have seen Collector X walk by my table ten times during his time at CSNS and he must have stopped by three or four times asking me if I had anything new to show him. I felt kind of sorry for him as making the endless shuffle up and down the concrete floors (the Coin Walk of Shame?) couldn't have been all that much fun. And he was there to have fun, right?

If you don't have a tight relationship with a few dealers, you aren't going to see squat in the way of good coins at a show. There. I said it.

1861-D $5.00 PCGS EF45 CAC

Let's say I buy an 1861-D half eagle in Extremely Fine. Unless Collector X is specifically looking for this coin (or it's one of the few shows in the year that I commit the time and resources to being able to invoice, process, and price my new coins) it's going to be hidden in a box in my safe or in my back case, and I'm not going to show it. To Collector X or Dealer Y. And I think this is the case with most other dealers.

Hopefully Central States wasn't a total waste for Collector X. He got to see the Newman coins (I told him to carefully study the patterns if only to see what true originality looked like), he schmoozed with a few of his numis-buddies, he got to breathe coins for a few days, and he probably learned that next year he'll skip Central States and keep his powder dry to the Summer ANA show. Or better yet, he'll let me do the heavy lifting and he'll find a few new items for his collection from my post-CSNS new purchase listings. (Shameless plug, I know...)


The San Francisco Surprise

Around four or five months ago, I got wind of a soon-to-be-conducted rare gold coin auction in San Francisco that sounded interesting, to say the least. I heard that it contained long date runs of Liberty Head gold and it featured such rarities as an 1854-S quarter eagle and an 1856-O double eagle. I live for "secret deals" like this. I'd fly to Fog City, spend in the high six figures, make a ton of money on my new purchases and have fun in the process. It was going to be SO easy... Except for one big thing. There are no "secret auction deals" anymore. The internet has made all information so accessible that deals like this tend to attract just enough of the big players in a specialized field like rare gold that they are extremely competitive. No, the San Francisco Surprise was going to be a bloodbath.

There were a number of factors that made this auction unusual. For one, it was being conducted by a stamp company (Schuyler Rumsey) and it would be interesting to see how they handled their foray into a new field.

So how did the sale do? And what does this sale tell me about the market and the rare coin auction market? The answers are interesting; far more so, in my opinion, than merely going over some auction highlights.

I thought prices for the sale ranged from sort of weak (for the very common pieces and the generics which probably would have been better sold outside of the auction venue) to exceptionally strong (for the very rare date $10 Libs). The few six figure coins in the sale were a touch on the weak side (they probably would have brought 10% more in a Heritage auction) while coins that appeared to have potential for upgrading or "improving" were strong to exceptional.

Did the heirs to this collection make a mistake choosing a stamp company and not going with an experienced coin firm like Heritage or Stacks Bowers? Typically I would have said a resounding "yes" but I thought Schuyler Rumsey did an outstanding job in nearly all respects. Their catalog was a bit amateurish but in the end this made no difference. Its hard to say for certain but I think many of the coins in this sale actually did better in this little, obscure auction than they would have at a major auction. Heritage may have 400,000+ registered members in their community and unparalleled technology but Rumsey reminded me of a few important facts about the auction business in general.

First, as I said above, if you get the right five to ten dealers in the room (or on the phone), the number of registered bidders or the number of hits on your website mean nothing. At least 50% of the value of the sale went to these five or ten dealers. The best way to make money in this sale would have been to lock these guys in their hotel rooms.

Secondly, Rumsey's technology was far, far better than I would have expected. It was easy to bid on their website and, to be honest, it seemed to be faster and every bit as efficient as Heritage's. It might not have had all the bells and whistles that Heritage's system has but let's not forget that Rumsey is located in San Francisco and with Silicon Valley technology available to the firm they clearly have figured out how to effectively run an IT system.

Thirdly, in the words of Mr. Costner, if you build it, they will come. The sale contained some really rare coins (issues like 1863-1865 half eagles, 1861-D gold dollars and half eagles, Civil War date eagles plus an 1873 and 1876 eagle). Avid collectors know how rare these coins are and either they or their advisers found them. Many of these rarities sold to phone bidders and, in the case of at least a few bidders, they were sold sight unseen.

Which leads me to the next point. Rumsey was smart enough to know that they weren't coin experts. So they got some good advice. Smart move: they sent most of the coins to PCGS so this gave bidders confidence. Smarter move: they advertised the sale in Coin World and gave out catalogs at the Long Beach show. Smartest move: they got at least one bidder to look at all the coins before the sale and give them bids on nearly all the lots. I feared that $10,000 coins would open at $2,000 and we'd sit through interminable slogs waiting for them to hit their true value. This didn't happen. Three weeks ago I attended a coin auction put on by a firm that has 30+ years of experience and it was so maddeningly slow that I left early in fear that I was going to have an anxiety attack. The Rumsey sale was smoothly run and almost hitch-free.

Another point: the fight against coin doctoring must not be going all that well because I saw people paying pretty confident prices for coins that needed "help." As an example, there was a cleaned 1861-D half eagle (Lot 661) that seemed to me to not only be a "no grade" but to be one that would have to be extensively resurfaced to ever get in a holder. It had the detail of an AU55 but I thought it was a risky purchase at much more than $20,000. It sold for $40,250. The person who bought this coin--and he is a smart, veteran dealer--obviously thinks this coin can be fixed, it can wind up in an AU55 or AU58 holder and it can be sold for more than $50,000. Caveat emptor....

Yet another point: this was a fresh deal and the market is STARVED for fresh coins. Note that I didn't say it was a nice fresh deal. I thought around 10% of the coins were really nice and another 20-30% were kind of nice. But many of the coins were downright ratty. These didn't seem to matter to buyers. Nor did the fact that many of the not-very-nice coins were hard to sell as is and would become even harder to sell when they were scrubbed (or re-scrubbed) and upgraded.

A few highlights and my comments:

Gold Dollars: The 1855-D in PCGS VF35 sold for $12,650. It was a decent coin but nothing great. I guess this means that "basal value" for any example of this date in a holder is now in the low five figures. The nice AU53 1861-D gold dollar sold for $51,750 to a phone bidder who, I'm told, never even saw the coin. It's an AU55 and you paid an awful lot for it...

Quarter Eagles: The 1842 in PCGS 45 was estimated at $750-1000. It sold for $5,175. If only it was even remotely attractive. The very nice 1848 CAL in PCGS 55 sold for $63,250. I liked the 1849-C in PCGS 55 (I graded it a solid 58) but someone liked it better and it brought a solid $12,650.

Half Eagles: The only early half eagle I liked was the 1814/3 in AU58 but I was not willing to grade it MS62 like the successful bidder did at $25,300. The C+D half eagles were decent and I bought the coins I liked the best; sometimes at considerably less than my maximum bid. The Civil War coins were pretty schlocky but they brought strong prices anyway; the 1862 in AU55 was bid up to $12,650.

Eagles: Uggghhh...did I get blown away. I thought there were some pretty nice coins in this part of the sale. So did everyone else. The great AU55 1852-O? It sold for $18,400 (!) The undergraded 1865-S Normal Date in EF45? (I thought it was an AU53). It brought $24,150. The lovely EF45 1870-CC that I graded AU53? How about $97,750? Many, many price records were set.

Double Eagles: It was back to reality as prices for this denomination were strong but not insane like the Eagles. The nice 1856-O in EF45 sold for $276,000 which seemed like the "right" number. The 1861-S Paquet in VF35 sold for $51,750 while the 1866-S No Motto in AU55 went very strong at $83,275. There were some very pleasing CC double eagles in the sale and they all brought strong prices.

How the Internet Has Changed Rare Coin Auctions

In my last blog, I discussed ways how the internet has impacted the concept of eye appeal when it comes to coins. Continuing this internet-related theme, I'd like to focus on how the web has impacted rare coin auctions. The impact of the internet on coin auctions in the past ten years has been monumental; more so, I'd venture to say, than virtually any other collectible. Ten years ago, the auction business had a number of vital firms offering coins; today it is essentially a duopoly. Ten years ago, auctions were primarily a place where dealers battled against each other in a sort of numismatic bloodsport; today, they are kinder and gentler. Most importantly, the numbers have grown beyond what I would have ever expected. It is now commonplace for an auction to realize $40-50 million; a decade ago this would have been startling, front-page-of-Coin World news.

Let's look at a few specific areas of how the internet has changed the coin auction market and, as you knew I would, I'll add my two cents worth about the positives and negatives of each.

1. Everybody (and I mean everybody) now has a computer. Ten years ago, it was not uncommon for me to speak with a well-heeled collector and have him say "I don't do computers." In 2011, if you don't have a computer, you are either a total Luddite or you are stubborn and doing yourself a huge disservice as you placing yourself at a hugely competitive disadvantage; sort of like fighting a war with sticks and fire clubs. And ten years ago, most people who had computers didn't have DSL or fast connections. Remember dial-up? Remember waiting two minutes for an image to load only to lose a connection? Not an image I look back at fondly...

The fact that everybody now uses fast computers is compounded by portability of these machines. Ten years ago, a collector might panic when he realized that an auction he cared about was the same time as his family's spring break trip to Florida. With laptops and iPads, your location is almost meaningless. This makes participation is an auction easier than ever as does, of course, the increased memory of today's computers.

What will see ten years from now? Three dimensional images of coins? Auctions broadcast live in 3-D? Tons of applications to make bidding and determining value easier? My guess is that we'll see things we can hardly imagine now and that they will continue to revolutionize the rare coin business.

2. Collectors have gained so much confidence in the auction process (kudos here to Heritage who I give total credit to for this) that a sizable percentage of coins at auction now sell to end-users. I don't know the exact percentage of coins in a typical Heritage sale that sell to collectors but I'm guessing its over 50% by value. And I'm guessing that ten years ago this figure was far less.

This brings me to a quick story. For me, the greatest coin sales of all time were the Bass auctions, held in 1999 to 2001. I can remember at the Bass II sale (to me, the single most memorable of the four sales) there were less than a dozen collectors in the auction room participating. And, of course, no internet and probably not much mail or phone bidding. Today, a sale of this magnitude would attract hundreds of well-heeled collectors from all over the world. The internet has made coin auctions so much more accessible and, as a result, they are now so much more collector-dominated.

3. Transparency is the numismatic buzzword of this decade; sort of like "green" is to consumer products. Ten years ago, the thought of transparency made numismatic auction firms recoil in horror. Only Heritage was smart enough to realize that by being transparent they would gain the trust of their clients and, in turn, do more business. The lack of transparency (and the failure to embrace technology early on) was one of the main things that did in Heritage's largest rivals in the coin auction business.

The coin auction business is now built on a platform that is far more transparent than other collectibles. This has had an impact on both collectors and dealers. In the past, a dealer could buy a coin from an auction, mark it up (or upgrade it) and offer it for sale, often with the potential buyer having no idea where it was from. Now, most coins in dealer's inventories can be easily traced to auctions. If a dealer offers a coin for $8,000 that just sold at a Heritage sale for $5,000, it might greatly offend a potential client. Margins, for internet-savvy buyers, tend to be smaller as a result.

4. This access to information has put the collector on much more level playing field than ever before. Even a new collector can see what coins bring at auction and now have a degree of comfort knowing that there is (hopefully) a legitimate under-bidder at 5-10% less than what they just paid.

To me, the existence of such huge databases as the Heritage auction archives and the PCGS auction prices realized archives are incredibly valuable. Ten years ago, I had my own databases for most branch mint gold but this was a ton of work. Now, someone else does the work for me and, frankly, they do it better. The amount of information available to collectors has leveled the playing field; not always the best thing for me as a dealer but certainly a great thing for the collector. Actually, let me correct myself. It probably, in the long run, is great for me as a dealer...

5. With the exception of Platinum Night sessions at FUN and summer ANA, the typical coin auction room is now nearly empty. You can go to a Heritage or Bowers sale at a B level show and see eight people in the room who don't work for the firm holding the sale; and four are there for the free food. People now use the internet to bid or they bid by phone.

I have mixed feelings about this. I don't miss the days when I'd be at a coin show from 8am until 6pm then run to an auction and work another five or six hours. Those 16 hour days were OK when I was 28 but they became less and less fun as I got older. But I do miss knowing who was buying what; especially at "name" sales or specialized collections where this knowledge was important for the future. I think this sort of "depersonalizes" the rare coin auction business and when I do get to dress up and bid on expensive, important coins in front of my peers I still get a little bit of a tingle.

6. You know the feeling when you are on eBay and you get outbid on an $8.00 post card? You get irritated and even though you know you shouldn't bid anymore, you bid another time (or two or three or four...) to get back at the anonymous competitor who is keeping you from adding that 1939 World's Fair postcard to your collection. Take the same scenario and apply it to a $50,000 coin. I call this the rise of the "I-must-have-it" internet bidder.

Heritage has created an amazingly efficient live auction internet platform that makes it easy to bid in their sales in real time. I can think of many occasions when two determined internet bidders have done battle on a coin worth, say $25,000, and wound-up pushing the selling price to $50,000 or even $75,000 because they were pissed at their anonymous competitor(s).

Heritage has made it so easy to bid and re-bid online that many collectors go "ah, what's another bid or two or three" before they realize that they've added a big amount of money onto a lot. But the beauty of this system is that there are two actual bidders in real competition. In the past, it could have been (and often was) one unfortunate bidder being run up by an unscrupulous auctioneer.

I could go on and on but need to get ready to go to the Baltimore coin show--and attend an auction. I'd love to hear your input on how the internet has changed the coin business. Leave a comment at the end of this blog and let me know your thoughts!

Some Interesting Results From the Recent Heritage Spring ANA Auction

The recently concluded Heritage sale was not really a stellar offering from this firm. Falling after the outstanding array of coins sold at the 2011 FUN auction and occurring before what is likely to be a solid group at the Central States sale in late April/early May, the Sacramento auction did, however, contain a few really interesting coins. While I don't pretend to make comprehensive market assessments based on four pieces, I'd like to focus on these and present some thoughts. The first coin of interest was an 1850-D quarter eagle graded MS62 by PCGS. Sold as lot 4637, this piece brought $27,600 which is a record-setting price for this date. This exact coin was last offered as lot 1113 in the ANR 9/05 sale where it brought $21,850.

While I personally liked this coin quite a bit, its appearance was a bit on the "too crusty" side. Its color was real in my opinion but it was a tad splotchy and I could see some knowledgeable specialists thinking it might not have been attractive. The coin didn't have a CAC sticker and I have to assume that given the fact that Heritage sends many of the high end coins in their sales to CAC for approval that it flunked its test in Far Hills.

What I find interesting about this price realized is that the coin is not necessarily the finest known (there is a PCGS population of three in this grade but I think there are just two specimens graded as such) and it is in a series (Liberty Head quarter eagles) that isn't exactly "hot" right now.

My pre-sale estimate for the coin was in the $17,500-20,000 range. I was assuming it would bring around the middle of this range and that it would be resold at around the figure it sold for in 2005.

The next coin was an 1879 quarter eagle graded MS66+ by PCGS. This was an exceptional coin; probably the best of this date that I have seen. But the 1879 is a pretty common issue in MS63 and MS64 and not even that big a deal in MS65. In other words, this was a semi-common date in a (very) uncommon state of preservation.

As I researched the valuation of this coin, I thought about a few things. The population for this date in PCGS MS66 is just four and, as far as I can tell, this example was the only piece to have received a "plus" designation for PCGS. A "normal" MS66 1879 seemed like it was a $5,000-7,000 coin so I guessed that this one might sell for as much as $8,000-9,000.

Wrong, Mr. Rare Date Gold "Expert!" The coin brought a stunning $17,250 which I find to be a pretty perplexing number. The previous auction record for this date was set back in January 1990 when an MS65 (probably now a 66 or even a 66+ by today's standards) sold for $6,875 in a Superior auction. In the Heritage 9/03 sale, a PCGS MS66 (without a plus designation but a pretty nice coin from my recollection) sold for just $4,600.

I have to assume that either two people saw this coin as a "lock" to upgrade to MS67 (and I'm not sure that as a population 1/none better coin in MS67 that its worth much more than what it sold for in the current 66+ holder) or two serious collectors got involved in a titanic ego battle.

The third coin is one that I doubt if more than a small handful of people thought was special. The coin in question was an 1844 eagle graded AU53 by PCGS. It was offered as lot 4805 and it sold for $8,625.

Compared to the last two coins I discussed, the price of this coin wasn't shocking. I was the under-bidder and I kind of regret not going a bit higher in an attempt to purchase this coin.

The Heritage cataloger didn't realize that this coin was from the Bass collection (ex Bass III: 588 where it brought $5,290). The PCGS holder didn't note this either but the coin was obviously ex Bass and it was unchanged since its last appearance in 2000.

The 1844 eagle is an under-appreciated rarity. Only 40 or so are known from an original mintage of 6,361. I doubt if more than six or seven real AU coins are known and the Heritage coin was unusual from the standpoint that it hadn't been cleaned or processed as most 1844 eagles are. It wasn't a really attractive coin (it had numerous deep abrasions on the obverse and reverse) but this date never comes nice and I though it was actually pretty solid for the grade.

One quick, interesting side note. Heritage 1/11: 7017 was graded AU58 by NGC and it was really, really ugly. It went cheaply at $7,475. The coin in the Heritage March sale was graded five points lower (even though it was nicer) yet it sold for nearly 20% more. This was clearly a case of someone buying a "real" AU53 coin versus someone buying a coin that wasn't an "AU58" despite what the holder said.

The fourth and final coin was an 1862-S double eagle graded MS63 by NGC. This piece had been approved by CAC and it was extremely attractive for both the date and grade.

The Heritage catalog hinted at the fact that this coin may have had a shipwreck provenance. I'm almost certain it was one of the best coins from the S.S. Brother Jonathan that had, after its original sale in a PCGS holder, been broken out, sent to NGC and upgraded. The coin had luster that, for lack of a better term, just seemed a little too "shipwrecky" to have not been from this source. Instead of being frosty like the typical high grade 1862-S double eagle, this one was a bit satiny with a semi-grainy texture and pronounced rose-gold color.

The coin sold for $57,500. The previous auction record for this date was $29,555 which was set by another NGC MS63 that was sold by Bowers and Merena in their May 2004 auction.

I was surprised but not shocked by the price that this coin brought. It is tied with one coin at PCGS and two at NGC as the highest graded and I have only seen one other MS63 (the coin that sold in the May 2004 sale that I referenced above). It was beautiful, its a condition rarity and its a Type One double eagle. With these three factors in play you had to assume it was going to smash the previous auction record to smithereens.

One final note. Heritage's market penetration as a result of their internet presence never ceases to amaze me. Even at a small, "minor" sale like the Spring ANA, no great coins fall through the cracks as they did even as recently as a few years ago. Heritage could sell a high quality U.S. gold coin at the Tripoli Airport coin show in May and still get a strong price.

A Quick 2011 FUN Sale Analysis

The 2011 Heritage FUN Sale contained some of the most interesting and freshest coins that have appeared at auction in the last few years. Yes, there were some retreads, some low-end "stuff" and some run-of-the-mill lots, but there were also some really exceptional coins; most of which could be found in Thursday night's Platinum Night session. I'd like to focus on a group of coins from this session that I found exceptional. 1. 1864 Quarter Eagle, NGC PR65 Cameo, CAC Gold Label. Lot 5033. I have seen some pretty incredible Proof quarter eagles over the years but the truly amazing ones, at least from the standpoint of grade, tend to be date 1890 and later. Pre-1880 Proof gold coinage tends to be far, far rarer and really superb pieces, regardless of denomination, are almost never seen.

This 1864 Proof quarter eagle was from the Henry Miller collection and it was easily the best Proof quarter eagle in the sale. I'd even go out on a limb here and say that it was one of the best--if not THE best--early date Proof of this denomination that I've seen. It was in an old PR65 holder but I graded it PR67 DCAM. The coin sold for $80,500 which is a record price for a Proof of this year.

Only 50 Proofs of this year were made and I doubt if more than fifteen or so exist. The best that I had ever seen before the Miller coin was Bass III: 210, graded PR66 by PCGS, that sold for a very reasonable $27,600 back in 2000.

This coin was purchased by an extremely savvy dealer and it will be interesting to see what grade it will be after it is resubmitted for grading. I'd love to think that PCGS or NGC would call it a PR67 DCAM without it having to be conserved.

2. 1823 Half Eagle, NGC MS65 CAC. Lot 5096.. This was a coin that you had to see in person to really appreciate. When I pulled it out of the box during lot showing at Heritage's office in Beverly Hills my reaction was pretty to the point and it rhymed with "moley bit." In a nutshell, this was among the prettiest early gold coins that I've ever seen.

I knew this coin would be one of the most actively bid on lots in the Heritage sale and my guess was that it would wind-up in the collection of a prominent father and son in Dallas who have the best set of early gold assembled in modern times. It was purchased by a Chicago-area dealer for $299,000 bidding as an agent for a collector.

The 1823 is a scarce date in all grades with an estimated 100 or so known. It is typically seen in AU50 to MS61 grades and it is rare in MS62 to MS63. There are a few nice MS64's (there were actually two PCGS examples available at the FUN show) but this is the only Gem. It is from the Bareford collection and it had the sort of unmessed-with appearance that you almost never see anymore on early gold coins.

My opinion is that this coin sold for a ton of money but it was a ton of coin. I'd have to assume it was bought as a type coin and if this is the case, the new owner is getting a Fat Head half eagle that he or she will never have to worry about upgrading.

3. 1838-D Half Eagle PCGS MS63. Lot 5105. This was another fresh coin but, unlike the Miller pieces listed above, it had never been on the market until the 2011 FUN auction. I spoke with the dealer who consigned this coin and he told me that it was part of a small group of coins that had been in a New Hampshire family for many generations and was recently "rediscovered" by the family.

I am a big fan of this issue. It is the first half eagle made at the Dahlonega mint and a popular one-year type that is in demand in all grades. It is scarce in Uncirculated with fewer than a dozen known but most of these grade MS60 to MS61 and are characterized by processed surfaces. The 1838-D in the FUN Sale was only the second coin ever graded MS63 by PCGS and it was one of the two best I'd ever seen. It had lovely natural coloration, choice surfaces and a wonderful overall look that just shouted "originality."

This coin sold to a collector bidding on the floor for $57,500. It broke the previous auction record for the date which was set by a PCGS MS62 that brought $40,250 in the 1999 FUN sale.

4. 1857-O Double Eagle NGC MS62 CAC. Lot 5251 This was my favorite lot in the sale. I knew it was going to be a hard coin to buy but, more than any other coin in the sale, it was a coin that I wanted to own. I spoke with a client of mine who is a seriously collector of New Orleans gold (and Type One double eagles) and he agreed to let my represent him. We decided to bid $125,000.

The coin opened at $100,000 and I found myself bidding against two other dealers. I was able to raise my hand at the $130,000 mark but was outbid by another dealer at $140,000 and then watched another dealer successfully buy it at $150,000. With the buyer's premium the coin brought $172,500.

I can't imagine a New Orleans double eagle with much more eye appeal than this 1857-O (I liked it more than the 1852-O graded MS65 in the sale!). It had superb color, great luster and a really wonderful look that you really had to see in person to appreciate. I graded it MS63+ and am really interested to see what it winds-up grading. I wouldn't be shocked if it was graded MS64.

There are just two choice examples of this date known. The first is a PCGS MS63 that brought $97,750 back in the Bass III sale (May 2000). That was a huge price for an 1857-O double eagle back then but the market has really soared for great Type One double eagle in the ensuing decade and the more I think about it, the more I wished I had bought this coin; even at a level above what it sold for in the FUN Sale.

It was hard to limit myself to just four coins in this auction as there were dozens of really great pieces with great stories to tell. Prices were exceptional for the coins that merited them and this sale offers pretty convincing evidence to me that great coins are back in demand. (But did they ever really ever fall out of favor?)

When Auction Records Don't Tell the Whole Story

I’ve discussed how using previous auction records can be an extremely valuable asset in determining the current value of a coin. But there are instances when previous records can be misleading and they can keep a collector from making an intelligent buying (or selling) decision. When I recently attended the Heritage pre-ANA Platinum Night Sale, I was bidding both for my own account and for a number of clients. One of the coins that a client of mine had a strong interest in was an 1855-D quarter eagle graded AU55 by PCGS. The coin was pedigreed to the North Georgia collection and it had been off the market since its last auction appearance all the way back in January 1999. This could easily be confirmed three ways: it was in an older style PCGS holder, there were no auction records for this specific coin in the last decade and the consignor had been actively buying key date quarter eagles during the 1999-2000 era and it was likely that he had purchased it back then.

The next step for me was to view the coin in person and I travelled to Dallas a few weeks before the sale to look at the lots. I liked the 1855-D quite a bit. It had attractive medium to deep reddish-gold color, a nice planchet and I thought it was a high end example of a date that is seldom found with good eye appeal. I called the client the next day and reported the good news.

We then needed to determine the coin’s value. My first reaction was to go to Heritage’s auction archives and look to see what the last couple of PCGS AU55 examples had brought. Here’s what I discovered:

In February 2009, a PCGS AU55 had sold for $12,650. The only other relevant record for a PCGS AU55 was in June 2007 when an example brought $14,375. Trends for this date in AU55 is $27,500 which I told the client I thought was on the high side but I also mentioned that I thought the prior two auction prices seemed very low.

My next step was to go back to the two Heritage sales that the 1855-D quarter eagles had appeared and read my viewing notes. I first went to the February 2009 catalog. According to my notes, I thought that the 1855-D in that sale was “recolored with a large obverse flaw at 12:00.” Given the fact that I had scratched a large “X” through the photo and wrote “YUCK” next to it, I assumed I wasn’t crazy about the coin. Then, I checked the June 2007 sale. Voila! It was the same coin and my reaction was equally as harsh.

Just for grins, I also checked the Heritage January 2006 catalog where there was another 1855-D quarter eagle in PCGS AU55. This one had sold for $18,975 and, guess what, it was the same coin. So not only had this coin dropped in price from close to $19,000 to just over $12,000 it also meant that the PCGS population of nine coins in this grade was probably inflated as well.

My client was interested in this information but he was even more interested in what I told him next. According to my notes, the North Georgia coin had brought $32,200 all the way back in 1999. Even more interesting was the fact that this coin was graded the same ten years ago, meaning that it hadn’t magically gradeflated from, say, an AU50 to an AU55 as have so many branch mint gold coins.

As I stated earlier, the crux of the issue was what to pay for this coin. Based solely on the auction records cited above, I would have stated in the $13,000-16,000 range. But as I just explained, these records were misleading because they all represented one coin and this specific coin is probably the world’s worst PCGS AU55 1855-D quarter eagle.

In the end, we wound-up purchasing the coin for $23,000. Compared to the $12,650 that the last 1855-D quarter eagle in PCGS AU55 this seems like a high price. But I don’t think it is. What the auction records didn’t explain was that the 1855-D is an extremely rare coin in properly graded AU55, it is essentially unavailable any finer (PCGS has graded just three above AU55) and a high end coin with great eye appeal for the issue and a good pedigree is worth a premium to a serious collector.

My client hasn’t seen this coin yet (I just shipped it yesterday and he should be looking at it about the time I finish this blog) but assuming he likes it as much as I do, the moral of the story is don’t let previous auction prices keep you from making intelligent numismatic decisions. I give this collector alot of credit for being smart enough to figure much of this out on his own without me having to hold his hand through every step of the process. A good collector gets a great coin to add to his impressive collection. Sometimes, things work out for the best...