Importance of Good Pedigrees

Now, more than ever, people are beginning to realize the importance of a good pedigree when it comes to collecting coins. And the reason why people are paying big premiums for good pedigrees is surprising. Read on and I’ll give you my take on why well-pedigreed coins are suddenly selling for big bucks. As I have pointed out time after time, most of the coins that I see these days are not very nice. They have generally been scrubbed or conserved and very few are original. Which is exactly why people love coins from the great old collections like Bass, Eliasberg or Norweb.

If you know where a coin has been for the last ten or thirty or even fifty+ years (as is the case with most of the coins from the three aforementioned collections) you can state, at least some of the time, that the coin is original and that it has not been doctored. Thus, the Bass or Norweb or Eliasberg pedigree acts as a sort of semi-official “blessing” that the coin is original.

Now, it is obviously not the case that every coin with a Bass, Norweb or Eliasberg pedigree is automatically “good.” I have seen a number of coins with Bass pedigrees that clearly have had their appearance changed since they were originally sold.

If you are offered a coin from one of these sales, one of the most obvious things you should do is look at the original catalog and compare the coin to the photographic image. This may be a problem as far as the Eliasberg gold coins go since the images in this sale (which was held in 1982) are poor-quality halftones that show little detail. But the quality of the images in the Norweb and Bass catalogs are generally good enough to use for comparative purposes.

There is one “dirty little secret” about Bass pedigreed coins that many collectors do not know. When the coins were originally graded and slabbed by PCGS, they were designated as being from the Harry W. Bass Collection. If a Bass coin was broken out of the holder and regraded it would lose this designation at PCGS. That’s why some Bass coins are designated simply as being from the “Bass Collection.” These second-generation Bass coins are generally not viewed with the same enthusiasm as the coins with the original designation. The same holds true for Bass coins in NGC holders that were upgraded from the original Bass sales.

Certain pedigrees may be well known to specialists within certain collecting categories but have little significance outside of these boundaries. As an example, if you collect New Orleans gold coins you are familiar with the Pinnacle collection and would pay a premium for this pedigree. But if you collect 20th century gold, a pedigree that has greater significance to you might be the Duckor or Morse collections. One of the reasons that collectors value the Bass, Norweb and Eliasberg pedigrees so highly is that these are three of the few collections sold during the modern era that had impressive runs of coins across the board.

In the art world, the issue of pedigree has been very significant for years. Smart new collectors realize that if a painting had been in the collection of a prominent collector, it is generally a “safer” purchase that if it has been bouncing around between dealers or auctions. The same is true with coins. If , for example, a 1908-S double eagle with a Duckor pedigree is available for sale, I would generally feel that this is going to be a nicer coin than one with no prior pedigree.

Pedigrees and Numismatics

I. What Are Pedigrees and Why Are They Important? A pedigree is a list that documents the ownership sequence of a specific coin. It is the numismatic equivalent of a legal title chain. In the world of art and antiques, the pedigree of an object is referred to as its "provenance." On some coins, pedigrees can be traced back to the date of issue. On others, the pedigree information is far more sketchy and may only include recent owners.

Typically, a pedigree refers to a public auction appearance for a specific coin. This is due to the fact that since auctions are public, they are easier for researchers to trace. On many coins, pedigrees will have gaps caused by private treaty sales that are conducted in secret between two collectors, two dealers or a dealer and a collector.

Coins with good pedigrees often command premium prices over coins with no history. There are a number of reasons for this. Numismatics is a hobby in which history plays an important role. Knowing that a coin in your collection was good enough to be owned by a famous or important collector provides pride of ownership and a high level of connoisseurship.

Pedigrees are especially important on very rare coins. On coins that are controversial, such as a 1913 Liberty Nickel or an 1804 Silver Dollar, a lone pedigree serves to establish the fact that a specific coin is genuine. On other coins, it helps to establish if a coin is among the finest known for its specific issue.

There are certain great collections that carry considerable cachet in any collectibles field. In numismatics, there are certain collections that are important enough that PCGS and NGC indicate that a specific coin is from one of these collections. The following collections are regarded as among the most important numismatic assemblages and coins from these collections often carry a premium among collectors.

II. Collections That Are Regarded As Important For Pedigree Purposes

It is often very hard to prove that a coin is from a collection sold before 1980, due to the lack of availability of old catalogs, poor catalog descriptions and inferior photography. In addition, many of today's collectors are new to the hobby and are unfamiliar with these older sales. So, the collections that form this study are ones that have been held in the last two decades and are more familiar to today's collectors.

a. The ELIASBERG Collection Louis Eliasberg was a financier from Baltimore who began collecting coins in the 1940's. In 1942, he was able to purchase the Clapp Collection. This was a collection formed by a father and son from Pittsburgh between the 1890's and the 1930's. It contained superb coins from famous auctions held from 1895 to 1915 as well as pieces that had been purchased directly from the United States mints at their time of issue. The Clapp Collection was very advanced for its era as it contained not only very high quality coins but also significant die varieties and types as well.

Eliasberg continued to add to the collection and by the last 1950's it was regarded as the most complete and highest quality collection of United States coins ever formed.

After Eliasberg dies, his collection was divided among his two children. One received his gold coins and this collection was sold by Bowers and Ruddy in October 1982 as the "United States Gold Coin Collection."

The Eliasberg gold sale consisted of 1074 lots and the final price realized was $12.4 million. The highlights of the sale were the unique 1870-S Three Dollar gold piece and the excessively rare 1822 Half Eagle, both of which realized $687,500. Other areas of strength in this sale included long runs of early coins, many rare proofs and spectacular pieces obtained directly from the Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans and Denver mints from the 1890's and 1900's.

The remainder of the Eliasberg collection was sold by Bowers and Merena (the successor firm to Bowers and Ruddy) in two sales. The first of these was held in May 1996 and it contained colonials, patterns, copper coinage, nickel coinage and silver coinage from half dimes through dimes. The sale consisted of 1348 lots and it realized $11,598,000. Highlights included a Gem Proof 1913 Liberty Nickel which sold for a record $1,485,000 and the unique 1873-CC No Arrows Dime that brought $550,000.

The final Eliasberg sale was held by Bowers and Merena in April 1997. It contained silver coinage from twenty cent pieces through silver dollars and miscellaneous items from the collection. The sale consisted of nearly 2,000 lots and it realized $20.9 million. Highlights included a Proof 1804 dollar that brought a record $1,815,000 and a Gem Proof 1885 Trade Dollar that sold for $907,500.

The Eliasberg collection is the finest group of United States coins ever sold at auction. This is considered the most desirable pedigree for any coin to have, as it is a virtual guarantee that a coin is choice, original and appealing.

b. The NORWEB Collection

As with many of the great collections, the Norweb Collection was formed through a number of generations. The collection was begun by Liberty Emery Holden, the owner of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the 1890's. His son, Albert Holden, was an ardent numismatist who added a number of important coins to the collection between the late 1890's and his death in 1913. His daughter Emery May Holden Norweb (or "Mrs. Norweb" as she became known to the collecting fraternity) and her husband R. Henry Norweb Sr. were well-known collectors who were very active from the 1930's to the early 1970's; he died in 1983 and his wife passed away in 1984. Their son R. Henry Norweb Jr. and his wife are still collectors although they decided to sell the bulk of their family's collection in 1987 and 1988.

The firm of Bowers and Merena was chosen to sell the United States coins from the Norweb Collection. The first of three sales was held in October 1987. It contained half cents, Indian and Lincoln cents, two cent and three cent pieces, half dimes, dimes, twenty cent pieces, three dollar gold pieces, California fractional gold and colonials. There were a total of 1413 lots and highlights included a Gem Proof 1829 Small Planchet half eagle that sold for $352,000 and a Gem Uncirculated 1864-S half eagle that realized $110,000.

Part II of the Norweb Collection was conducted in March 1988. This sale contained nickels, quarters, Trade dollars, gold dollars, quarter eagles, eagles and Colonials. There were 1269 lots in this sale and highlights included a Proof 1885 Trade Dollar that sold for $121,000 and a superb gem 1911-D eagle that realized $132,000.

The final Norweb sale was held in November 1988. This 1451 lot sale included large cents, half dollars, patterns, colonials, silver dollars, and double eagles. Highlights were a gem 1797 half dollar that brought $220,000, a Proof 1838-O half dollar that sold for $93,500, a 1792 Silver Center Cent that realized $143,000, an Uncirculated 1794 silver dollar which sold for $242,000, a gem 1893-S dollar which broke all records at $357,500 and the extremely rare 1861 Paquet reverse double eagle which sold for $660,000.

Overall, this 4000+ lot sale realized more than $10 million dollars. Many price records were set in all series.

The Norweb collection will long be remembered for its broad scope and superb quality. Over 95% of all United States regular issue coins were present and there were many finest known or Condition Census pieces in all series. The strongest areas included pre-1834 gold coins, early copper and silver proofs and mintmarked 19th century gold.

As with the Eliasberg collection, many of the Norweb coins were from famous auctions conducted in the early part of the 20th century. Thus, by owning a Norweb coin, it is often possible to trace its pedigree back another 50 to 75 years.

c. The GARRETT Collection

The Garrett Collection is another collection that was the result of the efforts of several generations of one family. In this case, the collection was begun by T. Harrison Garrett, an owner of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, in the 1870's. The collection grew considerably in the 1880's, until Garrett died in 1888. The collection was continued by his son Robert, who loaned it to Princeton University for nearly two decades at the beginning of the 20th century. The collection was acquired by Robert's brother John in exchange for his art collection. It was added to until the death of John Work Garrett in 1939, after which it was donated to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The first Garrett sale was conducted by the New York auction firm of Stack's in March 1976. This sale featured long runs of original 19th century proof sets and one of the finest selections of proof gold coins ever offered.

The bulk of the Garrett collection was auctioned by Bowers and Merena from 1979 through 1981. The first sale was held in November 1979 and it contained 622 lots which realized a bit over $7 million. The unquestionable star of this sale was an example of the celebrated Brasher Doubloon that sold for a record $725,000. As this sale was held during a numismatic bull market (as were the next two parts of the sale), many price records were set.

The second Garrett sale was held during the incredibly strong market of March 1980. Consisting of just 572 lots, the prices realized for Part Two was an impressive $7.05 million. The two highest prices realized were $400,000 for an 1804 silver dollar and $500,000 for a Proof 1851 Humbert octagonal $50 "slug."

The third Garrett sale was held in October 1980 in a market that was still extremely strong. A total of 496 lots sold for over $4 million dollars and numerous new price records were established. The highest individual prices realized for this sale included $130,000 for an Uncirculated 1795 $10 and $120,000 for a choice 1798/7 eagle.

The final Garrett sale was held in the more tranquil market of March 1981. Nonetheless, the prices realized for the 661 lots totalled over $4 million, bringing the gross prices realized for the four Bowers and Ruddy sales of this collection to over $25 million. This is the second highest price realized at auction for a single collection, exceeded only by the Eliasberg collection (which brought over $40 million).

The Garrett collection was one of the first great sets of American coins and included many extreme rarities with pedigrees back to the 1870's and the 1880's. This was clearly one of the greatest collections of all time and one which probably could not be duplicated today.

d. The ELROD Collection

For most of the first part of the 20th century, branch mint coins were overlooked by all but a small number of collectors. Assembling specialized sets of coins from Charlotte and the other branch mints really did not begin in earnest until the late 1950's/early 1960's. One of the first collectors to specialize in high grade examples of Charlotte coins was Stanley Elrod from Matthews, North Carolina. Elrod began collecting coins from his "local mint" in the 1960's and would go on to assemble at least three complete sets.

The last of these was clearly the finest set of Charlotte coins ever assembled. It included a number of finest known and Condition Census pieces. It was first offered for sale as a complete set in the mid-1980's but serious negotiations regarding its sale did not begin until the end of that decade. It was eventually sold to a consortium of dealers who later sold it intact to California dealer/collector/investor Hugh Sconyers.

For the next few years, Sconyers added to the collection. He was able to include a number of coins that were significantly finer than the original Elrod coins but which, at the same time, were of similar quality and appearance to the Elrod coins that were retained. In the middle part of the 1990's, Sconyers decided to sell the collection and it was purchased by Winthrop Carner, a New York dealer who specialized in rare gold coins. Carner proceeded to break up the collection and began selling coins to an eager audience of new collectors. The majority of the coins went to two collectors: William Miller from Michigan and Paul Dingler from North Carolina.

Carner later sold the remainder of the Elrod collection back to Sconyers who then quietly brokered the coins to other collectors through a small number of dealers.

In February 1999, some of the Elrod coins were offered for sale as part of the Miller collection in the Heritage Long Beach auction. The pieces in the Dingler collection remain off the market and the other Elrod coins are owned by a number of collectors and investors.

The Elrod collection was unquestionably the finest set of Charlotte coins ever formed. Elrod was fortunate to begin collecting these coins at a time when he had little competition and nice, original Charlotte coins could still be found from time to time.

The Elrod pedigree carries a great deal of weight among Charlotte collectors as it is an assurance that a coin is not only among the finest known examples of its respective issue but that it is choice and original as well.

e. The REED Collection

Byron Reed was born in upstate New York in 1829. He moved to Omaha, Nebraska in 1856 and by the early 1860's, he had become an important figure in this new settlement. After the end of the Civil War, Omaha became an important gateway to the West and its economy boomed. Reed, who was one of the major landowners in this city, became very rich and assumed a prominent position in the business and political affairs of both the city and the state.

Byron Reed began to collect coins (as well as art, manuscripts and other objects) in the mid 1870's and continued his purchases until he died in 1891. After his death, the collection was willed to the City of Omaha and the Omaha Public Library. It was later placed in the Western Heritage Museum where part of it is now on display.

A portion of the collection was sold Spink's/Christie's in October 1996 in order to raise funds for the renovation, expansion and endowment of the Western Heritage Museum. As with all museum collections, the announcement of this sale was met with controversy. A decision was made to replace the coins that were sold with similarly dated but lower value examples.

The Byron Reed sale contained 407 lots of coins and it realized over $5 million. The strengths of the sale included proof gold coins and superb pre-1834 gold issues.

Highlights of the Reed sale included an Uncirculated 1796 With Stars quarter eagle that brought $232,000, a Gem Uncirculated 1864 quarter eagle at $132,000, a Gem 1828/7 half eagle that realized $159,500, a Gem 1829 small planchet half eagle at $374,000, a Gem 1832 twelve stars half eagle at $297,000 and a three coin partial proof set of 1875 gold issues that sold for $352,000.

Unlike some of the other great "name" collections that have been sold in recent years, the Reed sale represented just a small part of his holdings. There are many other great coins in this collection that are now on public display in Omaha and the estimated value of the entire coin collection is a conservative $25 million+.

The coins from the Reed collection are noteworthy for their originality. The silver coins from this collection were poorly stored and, unfortunately, they are so deeply toned that they have no eye appeal. The gold coins luckily avoided this fate and were characterized by nice color and good eye appeal.

f. The PITTMAN Collection

John Jay Pittman was different from the other collectors in this group. He did not come from great wealth nor did he have unlimited funds to buy coins with. His forte was an uncanny ability to spot good value and the ability to determine underpriced areas in the market before they became "fashionable" or fully priced.

Pittman was born in 1913 and went to work for Kodak in Rochester, New York in 1936. He began collecting in the early 1940's and became very active towards the middle part of that decade. Pittman's single most brilliant decision as a collector was to attend the sale of the famous King Farouk collection that was held on behalf of the Egyptian government in Cairo in 1954. At this sale, Pittman spent a considerable amount of money and actually wound up taking a second mortgage on his home to finance his purchases. When one considers what these coins sold for some forty five years later, it is clear that this great financial risk was amply rewarded.

David Akers Numismatic Auctions was chosen to sell the collection. The first Pittman sale was held in October 1997 and it featured 1264 lots of coins including half cents, large cents, small cents, minor coins, nickels, half dimes, dimes, gold dollars, half eagles, double eagles, territorial gold coins and proof sets. The total price realized for this sale was $11.8 million. Some of the highlights included a complete 1843 proof set that sold for $412,500, an 1844 proof set that realized $440,000 and an 1859 proof set that brought $426,250. Other notable coins included a Proof 1833 half eagle that brought $467,500 (Pittman paid $635 for this coin at the Farouk sale in 1954), a Gem Proof 1835 half eagle at $308,000 (this piece cost $140 in the Memorable sale of 1948) and a Gem Proof 1836 half eagle that realized $198,000 (Pittman purchased this as part of a large group of coins for $483 in the Farouk sale.

The second Pittman sale was held in May 1998. It consisted of 869 lots and the total price realized was $12.2 million. Included in this memorable offering were quarter and half dollars, silver dollars, quarter eagles, three dollar gold pieces, half eagles, eagles, proof sets, and miscellany. Some of the highlights included a Gem Proof 1852 quarter at $176,000 (it cost Pittman $50 in 1953), a Proof 1839 With Drapery half dollar for $132,000 (Pittman paid $725 for this in 1961), a complete 1845 proof set which brought $756,250, an 1846 proof set that sold for $522,500 and a Gem Proof 1838 eagle that brought $550,000 (Pittman bought this coin as part of a four coin lot at the Farouk sale in 1954 for $590).

The final Pittman sale will be held in August 1999. It consists of his foreign coins and its estimated value is $10-15 million. Assuming that this sale brings in the middle of this range, the entire Pittman collection will have brought over $35 million.

Coins from the Pittman sale are notable for their originality and superb coloration. These coins are very highly prized by collectors and a Pittman pedigree will, no doubt, become greatly desirable in the future.

g. The BASS Collection

Harry Bass was a Dallas collector who specialized in United States gold coins. His collection was unique in that it was concerned with die varieties of specific issues. Bass was a keen student and had more technical knowledge about varieties of United States gold coins than anyone else. What made his collection all the more impressive is that most issues were represented not only by multiple examples but numerous Finest Known or Condition Census pieces.

In the middle part of the 1990's, Bass announced that he was creating a foundation (the Harry Bass Research Foundation or HBRF) that was dedicated to numismatic scholarship and would contain his coins. The Foundation was responsible for creating groundbreaking research sites on the Internet and contains excellent reference sets of pattern coinage and paper money.

Bass died in 1997 and it was soon announced that the majority of his collections would be sold at auction by Bowers and Merena. The first Bass sale was held in May 1999 and it contained paper money, pattern coinage, colonials, a small number of regular issue copper and silver coins and miscellany.

The major value of the Bass collection is its gold coinage and Bowers and Merena has announced that these coins will be offered in two sales. The first is to be held in October 1999 while the second is scheduled for May 2000.

It is expected that these two sales will contain between 4000 and 5000 lots and they have an estimated value of $25 million. When these sales are completed they should break many records and the Bass collection will rank as among the most valuable ever sold at auction.

The Bass coins are being sent to PCGS and will be specially designated by this firm with the bass pedigree. It is certain that many of the coins will be removed from the PCGS holders and sent to NGC. The Bass pedigree will certainly be recognized by this grading service as well.

The Bass collection is one of the last great "old time" collections that will be sold and it is probable that coins with the Bass pedigree will be revered by future collectors.

III. Other Important Pedigrees

The following private collections or public auctions are considered very important by collectors:

Jack Lee Collection: A complete set of Morgan and Peace Dollars (including proofs from the first type) that is regarded as the finest ever assembled. This set was sold by private treaty to a group of dealers in 1998. The Jack Lee pedigree is recognized by both PCGS and NGC.

Knoxville Collection: A superb quality type collection that was assembled by a collector in this Tennessee city. It contains many finest known, ultra-high grade pieces. The Knoxville pedigree is recognized by NGC.

Whitney Collection: A highly specialized set of 1796 coins in all metals formed by John Whitney of New York and sold at auction by Stack's in 1999. The Whitney pedigree is recognized by both PCGS and NGC.

Price Collection: A very high quality set of Indian Head gold coins and St. Gaudens double eagles formed by Dr. Thain B. Price. This collection was auctioned by David Akers in 1998. The Price Pedigree is recognized by both PCGS and NGC.

Starr Collection: Also known to collectors as the "Philadelphia Estate." This collection was formed by Floyd Starr from the 1920's to the 1950's and contained a very wide range of important rarities. The collection was sold in three parts by Stack's. The first contained half cents and large cents, the second contained other regular issue United States coins while the third featured Canadian and World coins. This was one of the finest collections of American coins to be sold in the 1990's. The Starr pedigree is recognized by PCGS and NGC.

Milas Collection: Ed Milas, a well-known dealer, formed a magnificent set of No Motto half eagles (1839-1866) that were auctioned by Stack's in May 1995. This set was particularly rich in Charlotte and Dahlonega issues and contained many finest known coins. A number of these were re-offered in Stack's November, 1995 sale. The Milas pedigree is recognized by both grading services.

Bareford Collection: Harold Bareford was a New York collector who formed a very high quality collection in the 1940's and 1950's. His gold coins were sold at auction by Stack's in 1978 while his silver and copper coins were auctioned by the same firm in 1981. The Bareford pedigree is recognized by both services.

James Stack Collection: This very high quality collection was assembled in the 1930-1960 era and contained an exceptional array of high quality coins in all metals. The coins have been sold at a series of auctions by Stack's that began in 1975 and concluded in 1994. PCGS and NGC both recognize the James Stack pedigree.

Brother Jonathan: In July, 1865, the steamship S.S. Brother Jonathan was lost in the waters off the border of California and Oregon. Included in its cargo were thousands of United States gold coins with most of these being double eagles dated 1863-S and 1865-S. The ship was salvaged in 1996 and in 1999 Bowers and Merena sold these coins at auction. The high quality of these coins and the romance attached to them being from a shipwreck have made them very popular. Both PCGS and NGC recognize the Brother Jonathan pedigree.

IV. Some Final Thoughts and Important Considerations on Pedigrees In series that are collector-dominated, such as Large Cents or Bust Half Dollars, pedigrees are more important than in series such as Commemorative gold coins that are investor-dominated.

It is easier to determine the pedigrees on older "hand made" coins (i.e., those struck before the introduction of the steam press to U.S. coinage in 1837) because these coins were more prone to such phenomena as die cracks, planchet faults, etc.

Both PCGS and NGC will recognize the pedigree of a coin by providing a notation on the insert that is encased with their "slabs." To have either service provide a pedigree, it helps to make it easy to prove that a coin is from a specific collection. The easiest way to establish proof is to, of course, have a record from the auction sale which the coin came from. If this is not available and the coin is clearly recognizable as being from a specific sale, it helps to indicate a certain feature (such as a pattern of toning or the location of a mark or a manufacturing characteristic) that is easily visible in the catalog's photograph.

As Internet coin sales increase, the importance of a coin's pedigree will increase. If four people are offering the same type of coin for sale, the person who markets it best is mostly likely to sell it. Stating an important pedigree and explaining its significance is likely to make a coin more saleable; especially if the buyer is someone who has experience with antiques or art.

At this point in time, the Eliasberg pedigree is considered the most valuable among collectors. A coin with an Eliasberg pedigree typically commands a 10-15% premium due to its high level of demand. In terms of desirability, the next tier of "name sales" includes Pittman and Norweb.