Stack's Sells Two Important Dahlonega Rarities

In their recently concluded January 2010 Americana sale held in New York, there were two record-setting Dahlonega gold coins that I think are worth taking a closer look at. What were these two pieces and why did they sell for as much money as they did? The first piece was an 1861-D gold dollar graded AU53 by PCGS. I had sold this exact coin a few years ago and was familiar with it. It was very high end for the date and grade and, by today’s standards, would probably grade AU55 to AU58. I expected that it would bring around $40,000 or so. It sold for $57,500. I believe that this is an all-time record price for a circulated 1861-D dollar.

1861-D $1.00 PCGS AU-53, image courtesy of Stack's

This coin did so well for a number of reasons. The first, obviously, is that it was a nice coin. 1861-D gold dollars are not well-known for having good eye appeal and the last few that have been available have either been damaged or not terrifically appealing. The second is that there is currently an unprecedented demand for this date. The 1861-D dollar is an indisputably cool coin and a lot of people are looking for coins like this right now. Given the supply/demand ratio, it seemed likely that this coin would sell for a strong price but, again, I was pretty stunned at it bringing close to $60,000.

What would this coin have sold for in another environment? Probably a lot less. One thing about auctions is that it only takes two people to really want a coin and it can sell for a ton of money. If I had owned this exact 1861-D dollar and put it on my website, I’m sure my asking price would have been in the low $40’s and I might have not even expected to get that much money for it. But now that the bar has been raised for the 1861-D dollar, I expect that the next one offered will be priced enthusiastically, to say the least.

Another really exceptional Dahlonega coin in the Stack’s sale was an 1860-D half eagle graded MS63 by PCGS. This superb coin had an exceptional back story. According to the catalog it had been “received at the Dahlonega mint in 1860 in exchange for mined gold and scrap.” It had been in the same family since then and it was making its first appearance ever. It brought $43,125.

1860-D $5.00 PCGS MS-63, image courtesy of Stack's

I did not actually see the coin in person but at least two reliable sources told me it was absolutely lovely and had a good chance to grade MS64 if resubmitted. It was probably the second finest known example of this date and it was one of the freshest, most interesting Dahlonega half eagles of any date to come onto the market in a number of years.

The Duke’s Creek/Miles/Bareford 1860-D, graded MS64 by both PCGS and NGC, is traditionally accorded the status as the finest known 1860-D. It brought $49,500 all the way back in the Stack’s May 1995 auction. Given this fact, I expected the 1860-D to bring around $40,000 and I was actually the underbidder on the January 2010 coin, having dropped out at $35,000 plus the 15% buyers’ premium.

What this coin’s price realized tells me is that the market for very high quality, fresh to the market Dahlonega gold is very strong. There is little in the way of supply and when a once-in-a-lifetime coin like this 1860-D becomes available, collectors react accordingly.

State of the New Orleans Gold Coin Market

I was discussing the State of the New Orleans Gold Coin Market yesterday with a collector and he pointed out something very interesting to me. In the calendar year of 2007, there were probably fewer important high grade New Orleans eagles sold than any other gold denomination from this mint. This got me thinking and the more I looked into this statement, the more I realized that it was true. 2007 began with a bang for New Orleans eagle collectors when Stack’s sold the Morgan collection. Included in this collection were coins such as the only Uncirculated example of the 1879-O (an NGC MS61 that I purchased as an agent for a California collector for a record $52,900) and the third finest known 1880-O (also graded MS61 by NGC; I purchased this for the same collector for $16,100).

After the strength of this sale, I expected the proverbial flood gates to open and a number of important, high grade New Orleans eagles to become available.

Shortly thereafter, I was able to offer the magnificent Pinnacle Collection of New Orleans gold which contained a number of Condition Census pieces in all denominations. With the exception of double eagles which were never a focus of the original owner, the eagles in this collection were probably the weakest denomination, at least from the standpoint of grade. There were some truly lovely eagles in this collection but unlike the quarter eagles and half eagles (which were virtually all MS60 and better and which included numerous coins high in the Condition Census) the eagles were mostly nice, original AU55 and AU58 coins.

After this flurry of activity in January, the New Orleans eagle market was very dry until Heritage offered a small but interesting group of pieces in the ANA sale. Of particular note were the second finest 1882-O (a PCGS MS63) that sold for a record $37,375, one of the finest known 1897-O (a PCGS MS64 that realized $14,950)and the third finest known 1899-O (an NGC MS64 that went for a reasonable $12,663). Another important piece in this sale was a very high end PCGS MS63 1892-O that sold for a record-setting $10,350.

And then...nothing. The year ended with virtually no important New Orleans eagles appearing at auction and this trend appears to be continuing into 2008. Having just reviewed the FUN offerings from Bowers and Merena, Heritage and Stack’s I noticed a virtual absence of any significant New Orleans eagles.

So where are all the coins and why are they not coming up for sale? These are good questions and while I do not have definitive answers, there are a few reasons that I suspect are the root cause.

The first is pretty obvious. Many New Orleans eagles (especially the No Motto issues) are very rare in high grades. When you are talking about a coin like an 1842-O eagle in properly graded Uncirculated, you are looking at an issue with maybe three or four known. Coins that are this rare do not trade with a great degree of frequency.

Especially when we look at reason number two. The New Orleans eagle market is still in its infancy in terms of development and the “players” in this market tend to be buyers at this point as opposed to sellers. This means that many of the really cool pieces that exist are in tightly-held collections and are not likely to be sold at any time soon.

Another not-so-obvious reason is what I call the “spillover effect.” New Orleans eagles have a number of specialized collectors and these individuals are often competing with Liberty Head eagle specialists when important coins come up for sale. I know of at least three collectors who are working on completing high grade sets of Liberty Head eagles. This means that if, for example, a high grade 1846-O eagle were to become available, the New Orleans eagle specialists would be duking it out with the Liberty Head eagle specialists (not to mention the generalists who like interesting coins) creating an unusual amount of competition.

One other reason for the lack of available coins has to do with poor price reporting. I would contend that a coin like the aforementioned high grade 1846-O eagle is worth a lot more today than it was in, say, 2003. But Trends and CDN Bid levels are essentially the same as they were five years ago. Since this very rare coin shows no “paper profit,” what motivation would its owner have to sell it unless he needed money? Until Trends and Bid show accurate values for coins such as high grade 1846-O eagles, the people who own them have no real motivation to sell.

There were a few other interesting New Orleans eagles that sold privately in 2007. I sold Condition Census examples of dates such as 1843-O, 1849-O, 1859-O, 1881-O, 1883-O, 1894-O and 1904-O. I would assume that some other pieces were sold by dealers who specialize in rare gold coins as well.

It will be interesting to see if these market conditions continue for New Orleans eagles in 2008 and beyond. I see a strong new level of demand for this denomination and expect some deep-pocketed new collectors to focus their attention on New Orleans eagles. I just wonder if they will be able to find enough coins to satisfy their hunger.