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.

The 1856-S Eagle: A Study of Mintmark Varieties

I'd like to thank collector John Toffaletti for writing this interesting study of 1856-S eagles and contributing it to raregoldcoins.com for publication. I think you'll find it very interesting and it contains information that has never been published before. There appears to be new interest in the older gold coins from the San Francisco mint. This is especially true for the double eagles, but also for the other denominations.

In searching the eagles from this period, I have noticed that the 1856-S comes in two very different mintmarks: a large S located farther to the right between the arrow feathers and the stem of the right branch and a medium S, located to the left of these same arrow feathers and the eagle’s right claw (left claw as you view the coin).

I started searching the Heritage Auction Archives for this date and mint mark and noticed that the large S was sometimes described as “very rare” because that’s how it was described in Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of US and Colonial Coins. To me, “very rare” means a coin that is really difficult to find, so I was puzzled when the two most recent 1856-S Eagles in the Archives for April 2011 were both large S types.

Continuing to look farther down, the Archives appeared to confirm that the large S was less common among the images that I viewed: of the first 20, 14 were medium S and 6 were large S. Still, not what I would call “very rare”. However, I was really interested by now, so I continued down the list until I got to 1999, at which point Heritage did not include images in their Archives.

All told, there were 80 1856-S Eagles sold from April 1999 to April 2011, with 55 being the medium S and 25 being the large S variety. So the large S would certainly appear to be rarer by about a 2 to 1 ratio.

Now for the “double S,” as in Steam Ship. I noticed one P55 1856-S eagle had an exceptionally high price for the grade. This was a shipwreck coin from the SS Central America. In a recent article, Doug Winter mentioned that certain shipwreck coins were selling at markedly increased prices relative to their landlubber cousins. Winter noted that the greatest differential was for such coins with low “shipwreck populations”.

As an example, the very common 1857-S shipwreck double eagle sells for a small premium in the middle Uncirculated grades, while most others would sell for a significant premium. Since the large majority of coins found at shipwreck are double eagles, eagles would certainly have low shipwreck populations. Here is a list of the 1856-S shipwrecked coins on the Heritage Archive:

April 2010 N25 SS Republic $1955.00 March 2010 P55 SS Central America $7475.00 May 2008 N50 SS Republic $2990.00 June 2008 N45 SS Republic $1610.00 January 2002 P58 SS Central America $3450.00 (typical 58s sold for around $2600 at the time)

While I much prefer an original, attractively toned coin that survived actual circulation with minimal wear and damage, it is clear that these shipwrecked coins sell for a premium.

Now back to the mintmark search. Breen states that the medium S variety has at least 2 positional varieties. As I looked at the medium S eagles, I noticed that one of the medium S mintmarks really stood out. It seemed to be much lower and to the right than the other medium S’s that I had seen (but still an obvious medium S).

I saved this image and another of the more common medium S coin with the mintmark located in the upper left area. Now able to clearly compare these two images, I confirmed that the two medium S’s were located in distinctly different locations.

The more common medium S is more toward the left and tucked up between the arrow feathers and the left claw, with a line along the right tips of the S pointing almost directly through the left bar of the “N” in “TEN” [for an example, see the coin sold in the Heritage January 2011 auction, graded P58].

On the other type, the right tips of the S point almost to the middle of the same “N” and the top of the S is no higher than the lower tip of the arrow feathers [for an example see the coin sold in Heritage’s April 2008 sale, graded P40].

Also, I felt that another of the medium S marks seemed a little different than the others. Indeed, this third type of medium S variety is somewhat between the other two: the right tips of the S point down to the right of the left bar of the “N” in “TEN” and the top of the S is just above the lower tip of the arrow feathers [for an example, see the Heritage March 2010 coin graded P58 CAC. This same coin was later upgraded to an N61 and sold in the September 2010 auction by this firm].

Breen speculated that the large S eagles may have been the last of three deliveries by the San Francisco mint: Jan 1856: 14,000; Sept: 55,000; Dec 2,500. However, the relative rarity figures of the Heritage Archives do not support this.

Since the 1854-S eagle has a large S, while the 1857-S eagle has a medium S in the lower right position, this suggests that the first shipment of 14,000 were the large S variety. Most of the 55,000 shipment (from September) were the upper left medium S, while the final shipment was the lower right medium S. These numbers are congruent with the Heritage Archive numbers.

The rarest variety appears to be the medium S in the lower right position, followed by the large S, then the upper left medium S. The center medium S is relatively scarce also, perhaps about the same as the large S type.

In closing, I have to tip my hat to Walter Breen, who amassed much useful information about a huge number of coins without the grading service population reports or the great convenience of the Heritage Archives.