The Johnson-Blue Collection of Liberty Head Eagles: An Analysis

Every few years, an auction takes place that gives me a bad case of "Dinosaur Syndrome." By this, I mean the coins bring so much more than what I bid that I think to myself that I'm a dinosaur and am out of touch with current Numismatic Reality. After I talk myself out of this and take a deep breath or two, I find that analyzing the sale is a useful tool for my bruised psyche. Just prior to the 2010 Boston ANA convention, Stack's sold a specialized group of Liberty Head eagles that they named the "Johnson Blue" collection. These coins were interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, they were clearly fresh to the market and, I am told, many of them were purchased by the consignor back in the 1980's. Secondly, the coins mostly had original surfaces with a nice crusty appearance; a welcome change from the usual processed better date Liberty Head eagles that one sees available in today's market. Finally, there were a number of dates that you typically don't see much anymore (such as 1863, 1864 and 1865) in grades that were above-average.

I had a feeling that this was going to be a strong sale, but the final results were pretty stunning to me. In some cases my bids were close to winning a lot; in other cases they were laughably distant from the eventual final bid. Let's take a look at some of the more significant eagles in this collection and ponder on their prices.

1842-O MS61 PCGS, Lot 1094. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1842-O, Graded MS61 by PCGS. Lot 1094. Stack's sort of underplayed this lot in the catalog, but New Orleans eagle collectors knew that this was a special coin. There are just three Uncirculated examples known to me and this fresh example had excellent color and surfaces. The last Uncirculated piece to sell was Superior 5/08: 103, graded MS61 by NGC and pedigreed to the S.S. Republic shipwreck. It brought $29,900 but I discounted this price as the coin was not attractive. But given this prior sales record, I bid $40,000 for the Johnson-Blue example and thought I had a decent shot of buying it. I wasn't even close. The coin brought $74,750 which, to me, is an incredibly strong price and one that shows me the depth of this market.

1848-O AU55 PCGS, Lot 1101. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1848-O, Graded AU55 by PCGS. Lot 1101. This was a nice example of a date that isn't really all that rare in the higher AU grades. I figured it would grade AU58 at NGC. There have been at least seven different auction records between $5,000 and $6,000 in the last six years for AU55 coins and a nice AU58 is worth $7,500 to $8,500. This coin brought $12,650, or around double what I would have paid. And results like this set the tone for the whole evening.

1852-O AU55 PCGS, Lot 1108. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1852-O, Graded AU55 by PCGS. Lot 1108. I like this date very much but wasn't really overwhelmed by the quality of this coin. It was what I call "product." This means a coin that I would be happy to own but since it is just so-so for the grade, I wouldn't bid strongly for it. There have been at least nine auction trades in the last seven years for 1852-O eagles in AU55 (mostly in NGC holders and mostly low end for the grade) and they have typically brought between $5,000 and $6,000. This example sold for $8,912.50. While I don't regard this price as "astonishing" I do think it is very strong; especially when one considers that Trends for an 1852-O eagle in this grade is only $8,750.

1862 AU58 PCGS, Lot 1133. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1862, Graded AU58 by PCGS. Lot 1133. This is an interesting date. It is common in the lower circulated grades and only moderately scarce in AU53 to AU55 but it is very rare in properly graded AU58 and there are just two known to me in Uncirculated. The Johnson-Blue coin was among the best 1862 eagles I've seen; clean and lustrous with good color and nice eye appeal. But I didn't think it would upgrade. Enough of these have traded in AU58 that I expected a nice PCGS AU58 like this to bring $5,000-6,000; possibly as much as $7,500 given the nature of this sale. The final price realized was $25,300. What makes this price even more remarkable was that the far superior Bass IV: 681 coin, graded MS62 by PCGS, sold for just $12,650. Maybe I'm totally out of touch with the market, but I think you could have taken the exact 1862 eagle that sold in this auction and shown it to five very sharp gold dealers at $7,500 before the sale and all five (myself included) would have passed.

1863 AU50 PCGS, Lot 1135. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1863, Graded AU50 by PCGS, Lot 1135. I was reasonably certain that this coin was going to be a bidder favorite. The 1863 is among the rarest Liberty Head eagles with just 1,218 struck. There hadn't been a piece available at auction since Stack's 9/06: 1492 (a raw "AU" that sold for $21,850) and just five slabbed pieces had sold since 2000 (including the amazing PCGS MS63 that was ex: Bass IV: 683 and which, at just $52,900, has to rank as one of the single biggest bargains in the final Bass sale). The Johnson Blue coin was a bit "ticky" but it had nice color and was notable for its originality. It brought $27,600 which seems like an incredible price given that Trends is $17,500 and CDN Bid is $15,000. I'd say it is actually a pretty good value and that published price information is way too low; and should be changed to reflect the true value of this extremely rare issue.

1864 AU53 PCGS, Lot 1138. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1864 Graded AU53 by PCGS. Lot 1138. The 1864 is not as rare as the 1863 (mintage this year increased to a "whopping" 3,500) but its Civil War issuance makes it popular. The last comparable coin to sell at auction was an NGC AU53 (Superior 9/08: 458) that went for $10,925. The Johnson Blue coin was one of the nicer AU examples of this date that I've seen and I thought it was a good candidate to upgrade to AU55. That said, I never expected it to sell for $23,000. Especially since an NGC MS61 had brought only $16,766 back in Heritage 3/05 auction. But the market has clearly changed for Liberty Head eagles and yesterday's prices suddenly look like the bargains that I've been ranting about for the last decade+.

1865 AU53 PCGS, Lot 1139. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1865 Graded AU53 by PCGS. Lot 1139. The last of the four important Civil War Philadelphia eagles in this collection and a rare, underrated issue with an original mintage of 3,980. I find the 1865 to be a harder coin to locate than the 1864 although the PCGS population figures do not support this. The Johnson-Blue coin was a decent AU53 which was a trifle on the dull side but which had nice color and a good overall look. It sold for $9,775 which I though was a pretty reasonable price, given what the 1862 and 1864 eagles sold for. The last AU53 to trade at auction was an NGC piece, Heritage 2009 CSNS: 3844, that sold cheaply at $5,463. The Johnson-Blue coin brought more because it was nicer. Trends on this date is only $10,000 in AU55 and I think it should be raised to reflect the true rarity of this issue.

1870-CC EF45 PCGS, Lot 1149. Image Courtesy of Stack's

1870-CC Graded EF45 by PCGS. Lot 1149. This was one of my favorite coins in the sale. It was a choice, original example of a date that is recognized as the key eagle from the Carson City mint but which is, at the same time, a coin that is still undervalued in many respects. My gut feeling was that this coin was worth in the $40,000-45,000 range and I bid $35,000. I did not win the coin as it sold for $46,000. With Trends at $45,000 this seems like a very strong price for the issue but I actually think that while not "cheap" it was a pretty good value for the buyer. There have been very few nice 1870-CC eagles available since 2007 and the last decent piece to trade at auction, a PCGS EF40, brought $40,250 as Lot 2147 in the Heritage June 2008 sale.

What did this sale prove to me? The first thing was that it reiterated (for about the 8,776th time...) that there is a huge demand for nice fresh coins and when they become available, published price levels often have to be ignored if you want to buy them. The second thing was that the Liberty Head eagle series has really come of age. With the Liberty Head double eagle series out of the price range for many collectors due to the high price of the rare issues, eagles are no longer regarded as a poor cousin. There are clearly a number of collectors assembling date sets of eagles and many of the dates that were ignored in the distant past are now in demand. If a coin is high in the Condition Census, in a PCGS holder and attractive for the date and grade there are eager collectors who are not bashful about paying up for the coin(s). My guess is that Liberty Head half eagles will be the next series to show this surge of interest and if a fresh deal of these does become available, I wonder if we will see a repeat of the Dinosaur Syndrome where I leave another auction with my prehensile tail tucked between my legs.

Stack's Husky Sale

I never give these blogs titles but if I were going to, I’d call this one “it’s my blog and I’ll brag if I want to.” The brag topic? Early quarter eagle values and how this area of numismatics, which I’ve been literally begging people to buy for years, seems to suddenly have caught fire. In the recent Stack’s Husky Collection auction, there was a date run of early quarter eagles. In fact, with the exception of the ultra-rare 1804 13 Stars and the 1834, I believe that every major variety of quarter eagle produced between 1796 and 1834 was present. The prices realized for these coins was impressive and they represent further validation of my beseeching collectors of early gold to give this series the same attention that has been lavished on the half eagles and eagles of this era. Apparently, at least a few people listened.

Instead of boring you with a coin-by-coin dissertation, I thought it would be interesting to focus on four coins in the sale: an example of the Draped Bust Right type of 1796-1807, an example of the one-year type of 1808, and one example each of the 1821-1827 and 1829-1834 Capped Bust types.

My favorite Draped Bust Right quarter eagle in the Husky Sale was Lot 2036, a nice NGC AU58 1806/4 with pleasing original color and choice surfaces. This was the sort of coin that probably would have graded AU55 a few years ago but, even so, I liked it a lot and was willing to pay around $25,000 for it. Back around 2000, before early gold was on most collectors’ radar, a coin of this quality was worth around $13,000-15,000. Five years later, when early gold was starting its inexorable climb upwards, this same coin was worth around $17,500-20,000. In the Husky Sale it sold for $32,200; a level that exceeds the current Trends value of $30,000 or the CDN Bid of $23,000.

I’ve never been quite as enamored with the 1808 as other dealers but the fact that it is a one-year type coin (and a scarce issue in higher grades) has always made it extremely popular. Back around 2000, you could still buy a “slider” example for around $50,000 and even as recently as a few years ago, a nice Uncirculated piece could be obtained for $75,000 or so. The Husky: 2039 coin was graded MS60 by NGC and I liked the coin a lot for the grade; in fact, I thought it might upgrade to MS61 if resubmitted. It sold for $155,250 which seems to be the going rate these days for an MS61.

The 1821 quarter eagle in the Husky Sale was graded MS61 by NGC. I had mixed feelings about the coin. It was well struck and flashy but a bit on the bright side for my taste. Nonetheless, it is a highly important issue as the first quarter eagle of this type. Back in the late 1990’s, an MS61 example would have brought around $15,000-17,500 at auction. In 2005, an NGC MS61 was sold for $27,600 by Superior. The Husky: 2040 example brought $48,875 which I believe is a record for an 1821 quarter eagle in MS61.

The quality of the Fat Head quarter eagles (i.e., those produced from 1829 to 1834) in the Husky Sale varied greatly. There were two graded AU53 and two in MS64. I was interested in the 1833 which was graded MS64 by NGC and assumed it would bring around $42,500. It is interesting to look at auction records of this date. All the way back in 1998 the Heritage 1/98: 7517 coin graded MS64 by NGC brought $32,200 and in January 2007 a similarly graded piece (Heritage 1/07: 3400) realized $40,250. The coin in the Husky sale sold for $48,875.

So what do the results from the Husky Sale prove? What I learned is that, for the most part, early quarter eagles have probably doubled in value since 2005 and tripled since 2000. This is impressive but, more than any other type of early U.S. gold, I feel that early quarter eagles are still a good value - even at the new 2008 levels. I certainly don’t expect prices to double again in the next three years (although it isn’t totally out of whack to think that an 1833 in MS64 could be worth $95,000-100,000 in 2011 if the coin market doesn’t get whacked between now and then...) but I like the upside of these coins more than just about any other early gold denomination.

S.S. New York Coin Sale

S.S. New York Coin Auction - I recently learned that the coins from the shipwreck S.S. New York will be sold by Stack’s in July at this firm’s pre-ANA auction. Unlike some of the other shipwrecks that have been uncovered in recent years, the coins found on the S.S. New York will have an impact on the branch mint gold market. According to information gleaned from the NGC website, the S.S. New York was a light cargo and passenger ship vessel that operated between New Orleans and Galveston. It was destroyed during a hurricane on September 7, 1846. Seventeen crew members were killed and “thirty to forty thousand dollars in gold, silver and bank notes” were lost according to contemporary reports.

What is especially interesting about these coins is that they represent one of the most eclectic, diverse cross-sections of coins in circulation during the first part of the 19th century that has ever been found. Unlike the S.S. Republic and S.S. Central America, the coins in this group tend to be smaller denomination and much of the gold was produced in Dahlonega and the local New Orleans mint.(Even more interesting is the fact that only two Charlotte issues were included. This should tell us something about the geographic distribution of Charlotte coins).

The coins have been curated by NCS and, according to the reports that I’ve read, numismatists such as John Albanese, David Bowers and Mark Salzburg have commented on how exceptional they are from the standpoint of quality. In fact, Albanese was quoted as saying “...many of them look like they were just minted yesterday.”

NGC just published the first census of these S.S. New York coins and, from the look of it, there are some extremely interesting pieces that will be available. In my opinion, some of the gold coin highlights are as follows:

1845-D Quarter Eagle, NGC MS64

1840-D Half Eagle, NGC MS62

1842-D Large Date Half Eagle, NGC MS61

Two 1843-O Small Letters Half Eagles in NGC MS62

1844-D Half Eagle, NGC MS63*PL

Seventeen Uncirculated 1844-O Half Eagles including two in MS64

Six Uncirculated 1845-O Half Eagles including an MS63

Six Uncirculated 1844-O Eagles including two in MS63

Four Uncirculated 1845-O Eagles

How will the presence of these coins affect the market for branch mint gold? I believe that this group will be a real shot in the arm. First and foremost, it will focus positive attention on branch mint gold. Secondly, it is likely to attract new buyers who will be interested in the coins because of the shipwreck provenance. These buyers probably have never bought a branch mint gold coin (other than a San Francisco double eagle) before and their new purchase could possibly spur them on to collect other branch mint gold coins. Thirdly, it will add some much needed new product into the market. If you collect branch mint gold, you know how few really nice coins have been available in recent years and coins of this quality are sure to be readily appreciated by collectors, dealers and investors alike.

The two things that interest me most about these coins is how nice are they and whether the NCS curation make them look more like modern mint products than 150+ year old southern gold coins. One of my major past complaints about shipwreck gold coins is that I just haven’t liked the unoriginal look they possess. For every lovely 1856-S or 1857-S S.S. Central America double eagle I’ve seen in MS64 or MS65, I’ve seen high grade double eagles (and eagles) from other shipwrecks that have been enthusiastically graded and just not appealing to my eyes. If the coins are as nice as John Albanese and other experts say they are, then the bidding for the coins will be an interesting head-to-head competition between purists like myself and shipwreck coin specialists.

A few collectors have asked me if the quantity of coins from this shipwreck worries me. The answer to this is most definitely “no.” If you look at a full census of the coins that NGC has graded (it can be read at you will note that very few coins have quantities of more than ten pieces. The most plentiful issues from the shipwreck tend to be those that are already common (like the 1843-O Small Date quarter eagle, the 1843 half eagle and the 1844-O half eagle) so another dozen or so coins will hardly affect the rarity of these issues.

I am curious to see what the impact of six Uncirculated 1845-O half eagles and six 1844-O eagles will have on the market. Given the fact that I think I could sell all twelve of these coins by myself, I’m willing to bet that they will be easily absorbed into the market and will actually serve to raise prices for these two issues rather than lower them.

I’ve mostly sat out the Shipwreck Coin Stampede that has had a major impact on the gold coin market in the last decade. I am excited to finally have a wreck o’ my own and I am really looking forward to viewing the coins in Baltimore next month.

The Milas Collection of No Motto Half Eagles

One of the most ambitious collecting projects ever undertaken was the No Motto half eagle set assembled by Chicago dealer Ed Milas. Not only did Mr. Milas attempt to assemble a complete set of these rare coins (struck between 1839 and 1866) but he did it, for the most part, in the highest grade possible. After working on this set for the better part of two decades, Milas sold his coins at auction through Stack’s in May, 1995. The Milas set included 98 coins and was lacking only the 1842-C Small Date, 1854-S, 1863 and 1864-S to be totally complete. The coins ranged in grade from mid-AU to MS66 and included a host of individual pieces that were either Finest Known or high in the Condition Census for that specific issue. I would still rate this as one of the single greatest specialized U.S gold collections ever formed and it was one of the most interesting auctions that I ever attended.

I had seen a number of Ed’s coins on a piece-meal basis and had even sold him a few high-end Charlotte and Dahlonega coins indirectly. But it was with real excitement that I went to New York to view a collection that had attained true cult status among rare gold coin collectors and dealers alike.

I remember being very surprised to see that the Milas Collection had been sent to NGC to be graded. Stack’s, in the mid-1990’s seemed to sell far fewer encapsulated coins than their competitors and my initial reaction on viewing the coins in their holders was that NGC had gotten a little bit carried away in grading them. Of course today, these same coins in the same 1995 holders would seem almost quaintly undergraded.

What I remember most about this collection, nearly a decade and a half after the fact, was the wonderful quality of the coins. They were the sort of No Motto mint half eagles that you almost never see today. Most had wonderful original color, blazing luster and had never been enhanced. A number traced their origin to famous collections that had been sold in the 1980’s and early 1990’s including Eliasberg, James Stack, Jimmy Hayes, Bareford and Garrett.

From the standpoint of appearance and overall grade, the Philadelphia half eagles were the highlight of the collection. Coin after coin graded MS63, MS64 or even MS65 and I remember a number of the ex: Eliasberg coins having absolutely sensational fiery orange-gold coloration. Two coins that I really loved were the 1850 (graded MS65 by NGC) that was so amazingly fresh and crisp in appearance it looked like it had been made last week and the MS66 1852 that, to this day, rates as one of the single finest No Motto half eagles of any date that I have seen. As I recall, many of these Philadelphia pieces were purchased by dealer Steve Contursi.

The Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles in the Milas collection included some of the most famous (and most mind-blowing) high grade pieces known. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite as there were so many fantastic single coins. I remember the amazing MS65 1841-D that Ed Milas had bought a year earlier out of the James Stack collection for a record $88,000. In the Stack’s sale, a year later, it went for a relatively low $68,750. The Dahlonega half eagle in the sale that I liked the best was an 1853-D in MS64. While this date is relatively common in Uncirculated, this particular example (ex: Auction ’84 and Bareford) had absolutely superb color and surfaces. It brought $55,000 which I remember being a TON of money at the time. Most of the Dahlonega coins in the sale (as well as a majority of the Charlotte pieces) were purchased by dealer Winthrop Carner. Ironically, Carner ran into financial problems soon after the sale and many of the Milas coins were re-offered at the Numisma ‘95 auction where they brought considerably less than what Carner had paid for them earlier in the year.

The one Charlotte coin that everyone wanted to see in the sale was Milas’ 1859-C which NGC had graded MS66. Formerly from the Eliasberg collection, this coin remains the only Charlotte half eagle ever graded above MS65. I remember being a bit underwhelmed by the coin when I first saw it in 1995 (I saw it again a few years ago and was blown away by it...) and thought it had been the beneficiary of a push by NGC. It sold for $104,500 and it became the first Charlotte gold coin to eclipse the six-figure mark at auction.

What really excited me in this collection, though, were the New Orleans half eagles. They were amazing; probably the finest set ever assembled. The one coin that I really, really wanted to buy was the 1842-O graded MS63 by NGC. It is the finest known of three examples in Uncirculated and it has a fantastic pedigree (ex: Eliasberg and Earle collections). This was a rare instance where I liked a coin so much that I wanted to buy it to stash it away. In the end, I was the underbidder and it brought $31,900 which seems very, very reasonable today. I was able to purchase a number of the other New Orleans half eagles in the sale and I’ve handled a few of these two, three or even four times since the Milas auction in 1995(!)

If someone wanted to replicate this collection today, I’m certain it could not be done. Many of the Milas coins have, in the ensuing years, been processed and no longer show the superb, original look they had back in 1995. The number of very high grade, totally original Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles has greatly diminished since 1995 and I’m not certain that many of the high quality Philadelphia and San Francisco half eagles in the Milas collection could be replicated today either.

I hate to sound like Grandpa Winter but they just don’t have sales today like they did with the Milas collection back in 1995...

Stack's January 2007 Sale Review

For collectors of New Orleans and Carson City gold coinage, the Stack’s January 16-17, 2007 Americana auction offered an important selection of high grade coins. Billed as the Morgan Collection, these were pieces which I sold to a Midwestern collector between 1992 and 1999. Many were listed in the Condition Census in my books but had never appeared for sale at public auction. In the gold dollar section, the most important piece by a substantial margin was a superb 1850-O graded MS64 by NGC. I had sold this coin to its owner over ten years ago and, like all of the coins in this collection, it remained in an old holder. I purchased it for $16,100 which I thought was very reasonable for the unquestioned finest known example of the rarest New Orleans gold dollar.

A nice PCGS MS62 1840-O quarter eagle sold for $18,400 against a current Trends value of $17,000 in this grade.

One of the most interesting coins in the sale was not part of the Morgan Collection. This was an NGC MS62 1854-O Three Dollar gold piece which I thought was one of the two best examples of this issue that I’ve seen. It brought $74,750 which is easily a record auction price for this date but which fell short of the reported high five figure price which a PCGS MS62 example traded for via private treaty in 2006.

A number of lovely New Orleans half eagles were offered. I purchased a superb NGC MS63 1840-O for $34,500, a high end 1843-O Large Letters in NGC MS62 for $18,400 and a dazzling fully Prooflike NGC MS63 1844-O for $16,100. Two coins I liked but was outbid on were a PCGS MS61 1854-O which sold for $11,500 and the Pittman 1855-O in MS61 which brought $21,850; a record price for the date.

The Carson City half eagles in the Morgan Collection included a number of very important pieces. A choice AU55 1870-CC was sold for $37,375 and a really nice NGC AU50 example of the very rare 1873-CC realized $28,750 which is surely a record price for an 1873-CC in this grade. My favorite coin in the collection and certainly one of the single neatest coins I’ve ever owned was a glorious 1875-CC in PCGS MS63. It sold to a New York dealer for $103,500 and I think it was an extremely good value. Another lovely and important coin was an 1881-CC in NGC MS63. Like the 1875-CC it was the finest known example and it sold for $57,500; again, a reasonable price considering this coin’s rarity and significance.

Other notable prices realized for Carson City half eagles in the sale include $29,900 for the finest known 1884-CC (a PCGS MS61) and a strong $13,800 for a PCGS MS64 1891-CC.

The set of Carson City eagles in the Morgan Collection was complete and it rivaled the set sold in ANR’s Old West sale this summer as the finest group offered at auction since the Bass sales of 1999-2001. A PCGS EF45 1870-CC went strong at $46,000 and an impressive NGC AU55 1872-CC brought $34,500. One of the strongest prices in the sale was the $43,700 realized for an 1873-CC in PCGS AU50; Trends for this date is $30,000 in this grade. A lustrous but heavily bagmarked 1875-CC in PCGS AU53 brought $29,325 and an 1876-CC in PCGS EF45 realized $12,650 against a Trends value of $12,000 in this grade.

I was very happy to purchase a choice AU55 NGC 1877-CC for $27,600 as I thought it was comparable to the Bass coin which had sold for $41,400 back in 1999. Among the latter date Carson City eagles, a PCGS MS61 1881-CC with superb original color sold for $10,350, a gorgeous NGC MS64 1891-CC was bid to $17,250 and a fresh, attractive 1893-CC in NGC MS60 went very reasonably at $8,625.

There were not many New Orleans eagles in the collection but the star attraction, the only Uncirculated example known of the rare 1879-O, was a coin which I felt was one of the most important gold coins of this mint ever offered for sale. I was shocked to buy it for what I thought was an extremely reasonable $52,900. I also purchased a very choice 1880-O in NGC MS61 (I think it is the second or third finest known) for $16,100 which was also considerably less than what I would have paid. An NGC AU55 example of the rare 1883-O was bid to $20,700 and a choice NGC MS63 example of the vastly underrated 1899-O sold cheaply at $5,750.

My overall take on this sale is that prices were mixed. I think there were some incredible bargains and I think some prices were considerably higher than what I would have expected. I think this sale was hurt by the fact that it occurred less than two weeks after the mammoth FUN auctions and that the lots were not available for viewing during the FUN convention at Stack’s table as ANR used to display lots for upcoming sales.

When I communicated with the owner of this collection about his selling it, I suggested that he allow me to resubmit the coins for grading as I thought nearly every piece in the group would upgrade; some considerably. He didn’t take my advice and I wonder if this cost him money or not. It’s hard to say but when I start seeing how I did on these coins I bought after they’ve been resubmitted, perhaps I’ll have a better idea.