The first of the Pogue sessions was held in New York on May 19th and I was excited to attend. The auction was conducted at Sotheby’s and the last time I went to a coin sale on 72nd and York, I saw the record-breaking 1933 $20 take the numismatic world by storm.Read More
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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 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 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 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 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.
In their recent May 2009 Central States auction, Heritage sold a number of very important high grade Three Dollar gold pieces. These were from the American Princess collection which, to the best of my knowledge, was one of the top collections of business strike Three Dollar gold pieces to ever be assembled. By looking at a few of these coins and analyzing the prices they sold for, we can get a better handle on the state-of-the market for very high grade Three Dollar gold.
Full disclosure notice: I sold a number of these to the owner of this collection between 2003 and 2006. I am familiar with the quality of the coins, the prices that he paid for them and their background. In the interest of confidentiality, I won’t mention what the consignor paid but will, instead, focus on what the coins sold for and try to place this within the context of what I expected them to bring in auction and how this relates to the current market.
1855, Graded MS66 by NGC. Sold as Lot 2681 by Heritage, this coin brought $40,250. There are two Superb 1855 Threes known: a PCGS MS66 in the Great Lakes Collection and the coin in the American Princess collection. This is the best 1855 that I have personally seen and I thought it had a good shot to cross as it was very fresh and had great eye appeal. The last auction record for a comparable example was in the 2000 ANA sale where an NGC MS66 (which I don’t think was this piece but am not certain if it isn’t the Great Lakes coin prior to crossing) sold for $25,875. With common date NGC MS66 three dollar gold pieces currently selling in the area of $25,000 I think that the American Princess coin brought a pretty strong price, all things considered.
1861, Graded MS67 by NGC. Sold as Lot 2685 by Heritage, this coin brought $51,750. This is the single highest graded 1861 three dollar seen by either service. It is certainly one of the best two I have seen. I don’t think the coin would have crossed to MS67 at PCGS but not as much because of the quality as the fact that PCGS just doesn’t like to cross MS67 gold coins. The best comparable was the PCGS MS66 sold as Heritage 1/05: 30639 at $46,000. I felt at the time that this MS66 1861 sold cheaply and it was, as I recall, a coin that was sold without reserve at around 3:30 in the morning after a Platinum Night sale that dragged on and on for what seemed an eternity. I thought that the 1861 in the Central States sale would bring in the area of $55,000 so in my opinion the buyer got a pretty good deal. If the coin does wind-up in a PCGS MS67, he got a great deal, as a “population one, none better” example of this scarcer issue could be worth as much as $75,000 to the right buyer.
1871, Graded MS64 by PCGS. Sold as Lot 2687 by Heritage, this example sold for $13,800. I wasn’t wild about this coin from a quality standpoint but I thought it was acceptable for the grade. Trends for the 1871 in MS64 is a very high $30,000 so, from a value perspective, this coin sold very reasonably. As a comparable, Heritage sold a PCGS MS64 back in their June 2004 auction for $13,800. Given the fact that prices for this series appear to have drifted back to their 2004-2005 level, $13,800 is probably exactly the right amount of money for this coin. That said, the buyer (a very smart dealer from the West Coast) is likely to do very well on this piece given the Trends play.
1873 Closed 3, Graded MS63PL by NGC. This coin was offered as Lot 2689 by Heritage but it failed to meet its reserve and did not sell. Interestingly, the only two major pre-1880 Threes in the American Princess collection that didn’t sell were two examples of the rare 1873 Closed 3. I was personally surprised that the MS63PL example did not hit its reserve. This is the single highest graded 1873 with a PL designation at NGC (PCGS, of course, does not designate gold as PL) and it is among the highest graded. My guess as to why it did not sell is that all of the major collectors of this series have a nice example (the Great Lakes coin is a choice PCGS MS64). I also think that there is still a lot of confusion about the origin of the 1873 Closed 3 and Open 3 issues that needs to be clarified. As an aside, this coin is currently available in the Heritage after-sale for $40,250 which seems like a pretty fair deal to me considering that an NGC MS64 brought the same amount all the way back in January 1998 (Heritage 1/98: 7700).
1880 Graded MS65 by NGC, 1882 Graded MS65* by NGC and 1883 Graded MS65 by PCGS. None of these three coins sold, despite being offered with pretty realistic reserves. I wasn’t totally shocked by the 1880 not selling. It was a solid coin for the grade but it’s not all that rare in Gem and most of the buyers of high quality coins in this series are looking for coins in PCGS holders. The 1882 is a coin that’s a pretty hard sell right now. It’s expensive, it’s not that rare and the look of the coin suggested it has visited the NCS lab. The coin that surprised me, though, was the 1883. The coin was really nice and it was in the “right” holder. Unlike the 1880 and the 1882, Gem 1883 Three Dollars are very rare. In fact, the PCGS population is just four in MS65 with two better. The fact that this coin didn’t sell (despite a pretty realistic reserve) indicates to me that there is real weakness in the upper end of this series right now. If this coin had been offered for sale in 2005 or 2006 (when the Three Dollar series was more active) it would have generated considerable interest.
1887 Graded MS66 by PCGS and 1888 Graded MS66 by PCGS. These two coins were offered as Lots 2698 and 2701. They sold for $23,000 and $24,150 respectively. In my opinion, both of these were very nice coins. In fact, when I sold them to the consignor, they were pieces that I had been very careful about selecting and had passed on a number of other examples of these dates. When the market for Gem threes was stronger, these two coins would have probably brought in the area of $30,000-32,500.
So what conclusions can we draw from this small but exceptional group of coins and the Heritage May 2009 CSNS sale? Here are a few things that come to mind:
1. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Three Dollar series is about as cold right now as at any time in the last decade. There are lots and lots of Threes on the market (though not many like the Gems from the American Princess collection) and the supply clearly outstrips the demand. That said, if I were a contrarian collector and I wanted to start a series where I could become King o’ The World it would probably be Threes.
2. In this series, collectors appear to be oriented more towards PCGS coins that NGC, especially very high grade pieces.
3. For most dates in the Three Dollar series, prices for MS65 and better coins appear to be down 20-30% from a year ago. There are exceptions to this rule but these would be for extremely rare and extremely fresh coins.
4. The market premium factor for semi-rare dates in this series is diminishing. As an example, a date like an 1887 or an 1888 in MS66, which is tons scarcer than an 1878, now sells for a much lower premium factor than it did a few years ago. For type collectors, this a great opportunity.
I’d like to dedicate this article to my friend TL. Hang in there, buddy, things will get better soon!