The ANA week has never been easy for a small numismatic firm like mine to handle, and when I learned that this year’s version included not one but two companies’ auctions I let out an audible groan. This was repeated when I saw the offerings online: both Heritage and Stack's Bowers had impressive sales, and I would need to carefully view them.
I booked flights to Orange County and Dallas to view the sales in person and at my leisure. One thing I have learned about auctions is that viewing conditions have to be ideal. For me this means the following: my special coin lamp, my music played loud over headphones, no distractions, and plenty of time to take notes on the coins I’m most interested in. I can’t do this at a coin show as, by then, my nerves are frazzled and I can’t properly concentrate. And when I don’t pay full attention, I make mistakes. In my level of dealing, a small mistake can equate to thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars so I want to be cautious, careful, and critical.
The sales were very successful for me. I spent in excess of $2 million dollars including a record-setting purchase of the ultra-rare 1861 Paquet double eagle. (But that’s another story.) The tale I want to tell here is about three coins which I have chosen for what I believe to be their overall level of interest to gold coin enthusiasts.
1. The One I Got at My Price
Lot 11077, Stack's Bowers. 1804 Small 8 over Large 8 half eagle, PCGS AU55, Old Green Holder.
A good client of mine has been searching for the “right” 1804 half eagle for the better part of two years. We’ve bid on a few at auction and always come up just a hair short; on others I’ve put the kibosh to the coin due to quality issues. The above referenced coin, after I saw it in person, was exactly what this collector would want and I knew it was a coin he would be excited about.
After we discussed it on the phone, we debated the value. I told him it was a coin I would gladly bid $10,000 on to stock it for my inventory. We decided to go to $11,000 in the sale, and I was told, “Don’t let this one get away.”
The coin opened at $9,000 and another floor bidder jumped in at $10,000. I bid $11,000 and waited to see if my bid would be topped. After a long pause, it wasn’t, and the coin was mine.
The collector texted me about fifteen seconds after the lot had closed and asked, “Was that our bid?” When I told him it was, I got back a short but rewarding text: “YESSSS!!!!!!!” He was happy, I was happy, and the coin now has a great new home where it will be appreciated for years and years.
2. The One I Ripped
Lot 12010, Stack's Bowers. 1854-S double eagle, PCGS MS64, ex SS Central America.
I’m going to be honest. It took me longer to “like” the SSCA coins than most gold coin experts. I had trouble with the coins due to the conservation and the lack of “originality.” But as time has marched on, I have come to like these coins, and certain coins from this wreck really excite me. This 1854-S was one coin that truly floated my boat.
This specific coin was the single finest of only 25 examples of this date found on the S.S. Central America. In addition, the 1854-S is a condition rarity in the Type One double eagle series, and it is desirable as the first double eagle from the brand new San Francisco mint. Not to mention the fact in person this coin was outstanding; quite possibly the best 1854-S double eagle I had ever seen and clearly finer, in my opinion, than the PCGS MS65 which sold for $115,000 in the Heritage 10/08 auction.
With this information at hand, I decided that I would bid up to $80,000 hammer on this coin and I might even stretch a bit if I had to. The coin, it turned out, was reserved by the consignor at $57,500. This meant that a $60,000 bid was required for a potential sale. The auctioneer opened the lot, I bid, and in a matter of seconds, it was hammered to me at $60,000, meaning I purchased it all in at $70,500. I considered this to be an excellent purchase and I grinned quietly, waiting for my next lot to come up in a few minutes.
3. The One That Got Away
Lot 4120, Heritage. 1865-S double eagle, NGC Improperly Cleaned, Uncirculated Details.
I don’t generally buy “problem coins” and I never, ever, ever doctor said pieces, but this lot was a really big riddle to me. It was the first and only truly Gem example of this date that I had ever seen except for one big problem: it had been lightly cleaned around the date years ago. Without this cleaning, this was a slam-dunk MS65 and, as an example with original surfaces (i.e., not from the Brother Johnathan or Republic shipwrecks) it could easily be worth $50,000++.
I had a dealer friend who is smarter than I am about such coins look at this and he agreed with me that it was a “no grade” now and likely a “no grade” in the foreseeable future. Still, I was haunted by this coin, and I threw in a bid of $5,000 just for the heck of it.
The coin wound up bringing $11,162.50, and I can guess which dealer bought it even without knowing the answer. I will be on the lookout for this coin in the near future and I won’t be shocked if it is in a “regular” MS65 holder and priced at some crazy number.
So there you have it: two sales, three coins, and one very tired dealer’s opinions. I greatly enjoyed my participation in both of these sales, and thanks go to Stack's Bowers and Heritage for putting on such a great group of coin auctions.
Do you buy rare gold coins?
Do you have coins to sell?
Would you like to have the world’s leading expert help you assemble a set of coins?
Contact me, Doug Winter, directly at (214) 675-9897 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve heard it said many times that, “All the great coins can only be found at auction.”
As my recent experience at the 2013 FUN show in Orlando will prove, this is far from the truth. At this show—and at most other major conventions—I am able to purchase great coins via private treaty from dealers and collectors. Many of these are fresh as the proverbial daisy having either never appeared at auction before or, if they have, many years ago.
As a dealer who specializes in choice and rare 18th and 19th century United States gold coins, I have a special place in my heart for important coins from the Eliasberg sale. Held in October 1982 by Bowers and Ruddy, this was arguably the single greatest collection of gold coins sold in the modern era. Unlike many other great gold sales, the Eliasberg pedigree is synonymous with high quality and, in most cases, when I see a coin is ex: Eliasberg, I get the mental picture of a very high end piece for the date.
On the first day of the FUN show, I got a text message from a dealer who I have known for many years and who I do business with from time to time. He told me to come to his table to look at a group of coins and I went there quickly as I know this dealer isn’t someone who will waste my time with marginal stuff.
When he showed me the small group of coins, my heart skipped a beat as the group contained a number of New Orleans gold coins that I immediate recognized as being from the famous Eliasberg sale. One of these coins was something that I had been chasing since the mid-1990’s. That was the good news. The bad news was that this dealer is one of the very smartest guys in the coin business and he is not exactly known for giving things away. I knew I had to buy these coins; it was just a question of how much would I have to pay.
I’m going to discuss these coins in some detail. Since they are already sold, I’m not going to reveal what I paid for them but I will discuss how I figured values for each.
1842-O Half Eagle, Graded MS63 by NGC/CAC approved
The New Orleans mint produced a total 16 Liberty Head half eagles from 1840 to 1894, in two different designs. The No Motto coins, issued from 1840 to 1857, tend to be scarcer than their counterparts from Charlotte and Dahlonega and nearly all are very rare in Uncirculated.
The 1842-O is the second rarest half eagle from this mint. Of the 16,400 struck there are around five or six dozen known. When available, the typical 1842-O is very well-worn with most in the VF-EF range. In About Uncirculated, the 1842-O half eagle is quite rare with probably less than a dozen properly graded pieces known. But in Uncirculated, this date is of the highest rarity.
There are exactly three 1842-O half eagles known in Uncirculated: an NGC MS63 (the present coin), a PCGS MS61, and an NGC MS60. Remarkably, I have now sold all three of these coins, meaning that there are no longer any Uncirculated pieces available.
Of the three known in Uncirculated, this example is the finest and it has a wonderful pedigree. It was last sold in Stack’s May 1995 auction for $31,900 as part of the famous collection of No Motto half eagles owned by the late dealer Ed Milas. It was earlier in the Eliasberg collection where it brought a whopping $3,850 in October 1982. Eliasberg obtained the coin from the Clapp collection and it was first recorded in the George Earle collection sale of June 1912, conducted by Henry Chapman.
A number of things appealed to me about this coin as I made the decision to purchase it. The first was that I would be able to sell it. I had a specific collector in mind but even if he passed on it, I had enough confidence in the coin to buy it “on spec.” Probably even more important was that I loved the coin when I first saw it two decades ago and I loved it even more when it reappeared. It was still in the same old NGC “fatty” holder in which it appeared in the 1995 Milas sale and, even without having access to that catalog, I knew that it had not been messed with.
As you can see from the photo above, the most remarkable thing about this coin is its color. Both the obverse and reverse have splendid rich orange-gold and coppery color. If you don’t know what “real” color on a gold coin of this era is supposed to look like (and many collectors, I’m afraid, do not…) take a careful look at the toning pattern and the hues on this coin. Note how the color is perfectly blended and how it lays on the surfaces. Note how it doesn’t suddenly become darker exactly where there is a mark (as on coin where color is applied to masks flaws). And note the richness and the “purity” of the color.
Having sold the other two Mint State 1842-O half eagles, I had a good idea of the “base line” value for a high grade 1842-O. Knowing this, I factored in the amazing appearance of the coin, its pedigree and its numismatic significance as the finest known example of a truly rare coin. This was an easy decision for me to make and I doubt that there will be many New Orleans half eagles that I buy in 2013 with more panache than the Eliasberg 1842-O half eagle.
1844-O Half Eagle, Graded MS64 by NGC/CAC Approved
By the standards of New Orleans No Motto half eagles, the 1844-O is a “common” coin. It is plentiful in circulated grades and available, from time to time, in the lower Uncirculated grades. There are an estimated two to three dozen in Mint State with most in the MS60 to MS62 range. In MS63 the 1844-O is rare and it is very rare in MS64 with around five or six known to me. There is a single Gem known (graded MS65 by PCGS) and it is ex Bass II: 937 where it sold for a reasonable $34,500. A few years ago, it was re-offered to me by a Midwestern dealer for a six-figure sum.
In my opinion, this NGC MS64 has the best pedigree of any 1844-O half eagle. It was last sold as Lot 457 in Stack’s Milas collection in May 1995 where it brought $20,900. Before this, it was Lot 434 in the October 1982 Eliasberg sale, where it brought $4,620. It was earlier in the Clapp collection and it is not pedigreed prior to be obtained by the Clapp family.
As with the 1842-O half eagle described above, this coin was in the same old NGC “fatty” holder in which it had resided when offered in the May 1995 Milas sale. It was a degree of comfort to me to know that it hadn’t changed in appearance since then.
This coin had a very different look than the 1842-O. Where the first half eagle was all about its color, this 1844-O was more about its blazing mint luster. Unlike some of the high grade 1844-O half eagles which I have handled, this piece was very frosty in texture; most of the others are grainier and present a different appearance. The Milas/Eliasberg 1844-O half eagle had lovely light to medium yellow-gold color and really the only thing keeping it from an MS65 grade was a few small marks in the left obverse field.
While the purchase of the 1842-O half eagle was a no-brainer, I had to think a little bit harder about this coin. I generally don’t care for common dates in uncommon grades. But how often do you see any No Motto half eagle in real MS64, let alone one from New Orleans? So I thought for another two or three seconds…then happily bought the coin.
1841-O Eagle, Graded AU58 by PCGS/CAC approved
Every dealer and many collectors have coins that are White Whales. If you don’t get that Ahab-ian reference, I mean an elusive coin that you are literally on a quest to buy, even if it takes years to track down. And when it becomes available…Ahab-ian things can and will happen.
While still not that widely known, the 1841-O eagle is among the most numismatically significant gold coins from the New Orleans mint. It is the first eagle struck at this mint and only 2,500 were made. It would remain the largest coin struck at a southern branch mint until 1850, when the double eagle denomination was introduced to New Orleans.
Of the 21 No Motto eagles from New Orleans, the 1841-O is the second rarest in overall rarity with around 60-70 known. This is an issue which was placed immediately into circulation and it saw hard use. When available, an 1841-O is likely to grade VF and a decent-looking EF coin is very scarce. In higher grades, I regard this issue as the single rarest eagle from New Orleans. It is unknown in Uncirculated and I believe that there are only two properly graded AU55 and finer pieces known: a PCGS AU55 in a California collection which I sold in 2007 and the present example. Having now owned both of them, I can pretty boldly pronounce that the PCGS AU58 is clearly the finest known.
If you have ever seen a typical quality 1841-O eagle, you are aware that this date just doesn’t have very good eye appeal. Most are very heavily worn and extensively abraded. More significantly, most have been processed and stripped to the point where they have zero original luster or surfaces. And that fact makes the existence of this choice 1841-O so miraculous.
While it is “only” graded AU58 by PCGS, I feel that this coin is actually Uncirculated as it has no real wear. Because of the fact that it is semi-prooflike, the surfaces appear a bit more abraded than they are in person. When I first saw this coin two decades ago, I thought it was a “baggy Unc” and I still believe this today; probably even more so.
The pedigree of this 1841-O is impressive. It was last sold as Lot 6238 in the Heritage 10/95 auction as part of Warren Miller’s collection (a set of Liberty Head eagles that is still probably the finest ever assembled). It was earlier sold as Lot 934 in Stack’s 10/86 auction and before this it was Lot 665 in the Eliasberg sale where it brought $4,400. Eliasberg bought it as part of the Clapp collection in 1942 and it was earlier purchased from the Massachusetts dealer Elmer Sears in 1920.
Of the three coins, this was the hardest to buy as it was many multiples more expensive than any other example of this date which has ever sold. But it was the coin I wanted the most. So how did I justify paying what I did?
In the last few years, the 1883-O has become the coin du jour of all New Orleans eagles. At least two AU58’s have sold for over $100,000 and this is a coin that is clearly more available in comparably higher grades than the 1841-O. I asked myself: “Self, what coin would you rather have: an AU58 1841-O eagle or an 1883-O eagle?” The answer was almost immediate: the 1841-O is an issue which I think has more upside than the 1883-O and it is an issue that is rarer; despite the very low mintage for the latter. I sucked it up, wrote a check and haven’t looked back since…
So how was your FUN show? Mine was pretty incredible actually. I was able to buy many, many impressive coins there but the three which will stand in my memory are these wonderful New Orleans pieces from the Eliasberg. This is what makes being a coin dealer fun and why I still look forward to major coin shows even after all the years I’ve spent going to them.
For more information on great New Orleans gold coins, Eliasberg pedigree gold coins or cool coins in general, please feel free to contact me by email at email@example.com.
Around four or five months ago, I got wind of a soon-to-be-conducted rare gold coin auction in San Francisco that sounded interesting, to say the least. I heard that it contained long date runs of Liberty Head gold and it featured such rarities as an 1854-S quarter eagle and an 1856-O double eagle. I live for "secret deals" like this. I'd fly to Fog City, spend in the high six figures, make a ton of money on my new purchases and have fun in the process. It was going to be SO easy... Except for one big thing. There are no "secret auction deals" anymore. The internet has made all information so accessible that deals like this tend to attract just enough of the big players in a specialized field like rare gold that they are extremely competitive. No, the San Francisco Surprise was going to be a bloodbath.
There were a number of factors that made this auction unusual. For one, it was being conducted by a stamp company (Schuyler Rumsey) and it would be interesting to see how they handled their foray into a new field.
So how did the sale do? And what does this sale tell me about the market and the rare coin auction market? The answers are interesting; far more so, in my opinion, than merely going over some auction highlights.
I thought prices for the sale ranged from sort of weak (for the very common pieces and the generics which probably would have been better sold outside of the auction venue) to exceptionally strong (for the very rare date $10 Libs). The few six figure coins in the sale were a touch on the weak side (they probably would have brought 10% more in a Heritage auction) while coins that appeared to have potential for upgrading or "improving" were strong to exceptional.
Did the heirs to this collection make a mistake choosing a stamp company and not going with an experienced coin firm like Heritage or Stacks Bowers? Typically I would have said a resounding "yes" but I thought Schuyler Rumsey did an outstanding job in nearly all respects. Their catalog was a bit amateurish but in the end this made no difference. Its hard to say for certain but I think many of the coins in this sale actually did better in this little, obscure auction than they would have at a major auction. Heritage may have 400,000+ registered members in their community and unparalleled technology but Rumsey reminded me of a few important facts about the auction business in general.
First, as I said above, if you get the right five to ten dealers in the room (or on the phone), the number of registered bidders or the number of hits on your website mean nothing. At least 50% of the value of the sale went to these five or ten dealers. The best way to make money in this sale would have been to lock these guys in their hotel rooms.
Secondly, Rumsey's technology was far, far better than I would have expected. It was easy to bid on their website and, to be honest, it seemed to be faster and every bit as efficient as Heritage's. It might not have had all the bells and whistles that Heritage's system has but let's not forget that Rumsey is located in San Francisco and with Silicon Valley technology available to the firm they clearly have figured out how to effectively run an IT system.
Thirdly, in the words of Mr. Costner, if you build it, they will come. The sale contained some really rare coins (issues like 1863-1865 half eagles, 1861-D gold dollars and half eagles, Civil War date eagles plus an 1873 and 1876 eagle). Avid collectors know how rare these coins are and either they or their advisers found them. Many of these rarities sold to phone bidders and, in the case of at least a few bidders, they were sold sight unseen.
Which leads me to the next point. Rumsey was smart enough to know that they weren't coin experts. So they got some good advice. Smart move: they sent most of the coins to PCGS so this gave bidders confidence. Smarter move: they advertised the sale in Coin World and gave out catalogs at the Long Beach show. Smartest move: they got at least one bidder to look at all the coins before the sale and give them bids on nearly all the lots. I feared that $10,000 coins would open at $2,000 and we'd sit through interminable slogs waiting for them to hit their true value. This didn't happen. Three weeks ago I attended a coin auction put on by a firm that has 30+ years of experience and it was so maddeningly slow that I left early in fear that I was going to have an anxiety attack. The Rumsey sale was smoothly run and almost hitch-free.
Another point: the fight against coin doctoring must not be going all that well because I saw people paying pretty confident prices for coins that needed "help." As an example, there was a cleaned 1861-D half eagle (Lot 661) that seemed to me to not only be a "no grade" but to be one that would have to be extensively resurfaced to ever get in a holder. It had the detail of an AU55 but I thought it was a risky purchase at much more than $20,000. It sold for $40,250. The person who bought this coin--and he is a smart, veteran dealer--obviously thinks this coin can be fixed, it can wind up in an AU55 or AU58 holder and it can be sold for more than $50,000. Caveat emptor....
Yet another point: this was a fresh deal and the market is STARVED for fresh coins. Note that I didn't say it was a nice fresh deal. I thought around 10% of the coins were really nice and another 20-30% were kind of nice. But many of the coins were downright ratty. These didn't seem to matter to buyers. Nor did the fact that many of the not-very-nice coins were hard to sell as is and would become even harder to sell when they were scrubbed (or re-scrubbed) and upgraded.
A few highlights and my comments:
Gold Dollars: The 1855-D in PCGS VF35 sold for $12,650. It was a decent coin but nothing great. I guess this means that "basal value" for any example of this date in a holder is now in the low five figures. The nice AU53 1861-D gold dollar sold for $51,750 to a phone bidder who, I'm told, never even saw the coin. It's an AU55 and you paid an awful lot for it...
Quarter Eagles: The 1842 in PCGS 45 was estimated at $750-1000. It sold for $5,175. If only it was even remotely attractive. The very nice 1848 CAL in PCGS 55 sold for $63,250. I liked the 1849-C in PCGS 55 (I graded it a solid 58) but someone liked it better and it brought a solid $12,650.
Half Eagles: The only early half eagle I liked was the 1814/3 in AU58 but I was not willing to grade it MS62 like the successful bidder did at $25,300. The C+D half eagles were decent and I bought the coins I liked the best; sometimes at considerably less than my maximum bid. The Civil War coins were pretty schlocky but they brought strong prices anyway; the 1862 in AU55 was bid up to $12,650.
Eagles: Uggghhh...did I get blown away. I thought there were some pretty nice coins in this part of the sale. So did everyone else. The great AU55 1852-O? It sold for $18,400 (!) The undergraded 1865-S Normal Date in EF45? (I thought it was an AU53). It brought $24,150. The lovely EF45 1870-CC that I graded AU53? How about $97,750? Many, many price records were set.
Double Eagles: It was back to reality as prices for this denomination were strong but not insane like the Eagles. The nice 1856-O in EF45 sold for $276,000 which seemed like the "right" number. The 1861-S Paquet in VF35 sold for $51,750 while the 1866-S No Motto in AU55 went very strong at $83,275. There were some very pleasing CC double eagles in the sale and they all brought strong prices.
The recently concluded Heritage sale was not really a stellar offering from this firm. Falling after the outstanding array of coins sold at the 2011 FUN auction and occurring before what is likely to be a solid group at the Central States sale in late April/early May, the Sacramento auction did, however, contain a few really interesting coins. While I don't pretend to make comprehensive market assessments based on four pieces, I'd like to focus on these and present some thoughts. The first coin of interest was an 1850-D quarter eagle graded MS62 by PCGS. Sold as lot 4637, this piece brought $27,600 which is a record-setting price for this date. This exact coin was last offered as lot 1113 in the ANR 9/05 sale where it brought $21,850.
While I personally liked this coin quite a bit, its appearance was a bit on the "too crusty" side. Its color was real in my opinion but it was a tad splotchy and I could see some knowledgeable specialists thinking it might not have been attractive. The coin didn't have a CAC sticker and I have to assume that given the fact that Heritage sends many of the high end coins in their sales to CAC for approval that it flunked its test in Far Hills.
What I find interesting about this price realized is that the coin is not necessarily the finest known (there is a PCGS population of three in this grade but I think there are just two specimens graded as such) and it is in a series (Liberty Head quarter eagles) that isn't exactly "hot" right now.
My pre-sale estimate for the coin was in the $17,500-20,000 range. I was assuming it would bring around the middle of this range and that it would be resold at around the figure it sold for in 2005.
The next coin was an 1879 quarter eagle graded MS66+ by PCGS. This was an exceptional coin; probably the best of this date that I have seen. But the 1879 is a pretty common issue in MS63 and MS64 and not even that big a deal in MS65. In other words, this was a semi-common date in a (very) uncommon state of preservation.
As I researched the valuation of this coin, I thought about a few things. The population for this date in PCGS MS66 is just four and, as far as I can tell, this example was the only piece to have received a "plus" designation for PCGS. A "normal" MS66 1879 seemed like it was a $5,000-7,000 coin so I guessed that this one might sell for as much as $8,000-9,000.
Wrong, Mr. Rare Date Gold "Expert!" The coin brought a stunning $17,250 which I find to be a pretty perplexing number. The previous auction record for this date was set back in January 1990 when an MS65 (probably now a 66 or even a 66+ by today's standards) sold for $6,875 in a Superior auction. In the Heritage 9/03 sale, a PCGS MS66 (without a plus designation but a pretty nice coin from my recollection) sold for just $4,600.
I have to assume that either two people saw this coin as a "lock" to upgrade to MS67 (and I'm not sure that as a population 1/none better coin in MS67 that its worth much more than what it sold for in the current 66+ holder) or two serious collectors got involved in a titanic ego battle.
The third coin is one that I doubt if more than a small handful of people thought was special. The coin in question was an 1844 eagle graded AU53 by PCGS. It was offered as lot 4805 and it sold for $8,625.
Compared to the last two coins I discussed, the price of this coin wasn't shocking. I was the under-bidder and I kind of regret not going a bit higher in an attempt to purchase this coin.
The Heritage cataloger didn't realize that this coin was from the Bass collection (ex Bass III: 588 where it brought $5,290). The PCGS holder didn't note this either but the coin was obviously ex Bass and it was unchanged since its last appearance in 2000.
The 1844 eagle is an under-appreciated rarity. Only 40 or so are known from an original mintage of 6,361. I doubt if more than six or seven real AU coins are known and the Heritage coin was unusual from the standpoint that it hadn't been cleaned or processed as most 1844 eagles are. It wasn't a really attractive coin (it had numerous deep abrasions on the obverse and reverse) but this date never comes nice and I though it was actually pretty solid for the grade.
One quick, interesting side note. Heritage 1/11: 7017 was graded AU58 by NGC and it was really, really ugly. It went cheaply at $7,475. The coin in the Heritage March sale was graded five points lower (even though it was nicer) yet it sold for nearly 20% more. This was clearly a case of someone buying a "real" AU53 coin versus someone buying a coin that wasn't an "AU58" despite what the holder said.
The fourth and final coin was an 1862-S double eagle graded MS63 by NGC. This piece had been approved by CAC and it was extremely attractive for both the date and grade.
The Heritage catalog hinted at the fact that this coin may have had a shipwreck provenance. I'm almost certain it was one of the best coins from the S.S. Brother Jonathan that had, after its original sale in a PCGS holder, been broken out, sent to NGC and upgraded. The coin had luster that, for lack of a better term, just seemed a little too "shipwrecky" to have not been from this source. Instead of being frosty like the typical high grade 1862-S double eagle, this one was a bit satiny with a semi-grainy texture and pronounced rose-gold color.
The coin sold for $57,500. The previous auction record for this date was $29,555 which was set by another NGC MS63 that was sold by Bowers and Merena in their May 2004 auction.
I was surprised but not shocked by the price that this coin brought. It is tied with one coin at PCGS and two at NGC as the highest graded and I have only seen one other MS63 (the coin that sold in the May 2004 sale that I referenced above). It was beautiful, its a condition rarity and its a Type One double eagle. With these three factors in play you had to assume it was going to smash the previous auction record to smithereens.
One final note. Heritage's market penetration as a result of their internet presence never ceases to amaze me. Even at a small, "minor" sale like the Spring ANA, no great coins fall through the cracks as they did even as recently as a few years ago. Heritage could sell a high quality U.S. gold coin at the Tripoli Airport coin show in May and still get a strong price.
With less fanfare than in past cycles, the super high end of the art market has suddenly gone ablaze. In the past few months, two iconic works have broken records. On May 4th, Christie’s sold the Picasso painting “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” for $106.5 million. This painting was owned by the Lasker estate and it was fresh to the market, not having been offered in many decades. I don’t claim to be a Picasso expert (nor have I ever seen this work in person), and my gut tells me that while it was a very nice quality work, it was not considered to be an A+ quality painting, unlike some of the early masterworks painted by Picasso in the early part of the 20th century) that were sold for epic sums last decade.
In February 2010, Sotheby’s garnered considerable attention when they sold Giacometti’s iconic “L’Homme qui Marche I” for $104.3; an all-time record for a sculpture at auction. I personally love Giacometti’s work and though this was an amazing piece of art it was one of five known and it was a challenging, complex sculpture that I think most people just don’t appreciate.
These two sales bring up an interesting question: if a flashy but non-masterpiece Picasso can bring $106.5 million and an iconic but odd sculpture can sell for $104.3 what would fresh, undisputed masterpieces bring in today’s market?
What these two sales have shown is that there is still an incredible amount of wealth in the world and an incredible desire to put this wealth into something tangible like art. This is probably all the more so due to the Greek debt crisis which has impacted European buyers even more than Americans.
These upper market sales have interesting applications to the very high end coin market. Now, obviously, coins don’t sell for $100 million dollars. But there are a number of coins that have brought (or would bring) $1 million or more if they were offered for sale.
It has been a long time since a truly great, truly fresh collection filled with $1 million plus coins came to market. Despite all the amazing coins that have been sold in the last three to five years, just a handful of these were “fresh.”
You’ll notice that I use the expression “fresh” a lot. What exactly does this mean? A coin that has been off the market for ten, 20, 30 or 100 years is “fresh.” This is especially true if it was owned by a specific collector or family and it was not shopped around in the interim. The aforementioned Picasso was fresh to the market as it had hung in the Lasker house since at least the early 1960’s and hadn’t been surreptitiously offered to a few big collectors by sneaky family representatives.
Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, it was not uncommon for amazing multi-generational family collections to become available. We dealers were spoiled by these collections and almost grew complacent when they were offered. But since the Bass estate was sold in 1999-2000, I can’t think of many “old time” collections that encompassed a broad scope having been sold at public auction.
That’s not to say that some great specialized collections haven’t been made available; both at auction and via private treaty (and don’t let the auction firms fool you into thinking that all the great coins sell at auction. They don’t...) but the very top end of the market hasn’t been tested since the middle of the 2000’s and the amazing top-end results in the art market art exclusive to painting and sculpture.
There are a number of potentially huge buyers waiting in the wings of the coin market if the right coins were to become available. Let’s say, for example, that the coins in the ANA museum (the Bass core collection) became available in 2011. I think you’d see absolutely amazing prices for these coins and I’m not so sure that they would all sell to the usual suspects.
All of a sudden, there seems to be a small “perfect storm” brewing in the world of collectibles. Gold is at an all-time high and I wouldn’t be stunned to see it race past $1,350-1,400 before it cools off as the result of profit taking. The economy is certainly not strong but it has recovered enough that people are spending money again. The wealthy have gotten even wealthier in the last year as a result of a robust stock market but seem uncertain what to do with their profits. The demand for great tangible objects (be they coins, sculptures, paintings, etc.) appears to be quickly rising with very little in the way of supply to satisfy consumers.
What I think this basically means is that if the right collection of coins were to come around in the next year or two, it would completely shatter all existing price records. This would be especially true if this collection met the following parameters: the coins were totally fresh, they were gold, they were interesting, they were well-pedigreed and they were properly marketed. In fact, I think these coins could even bring more than they might have at the peak of the market in 2006 and 2007.
Until a few years ago, the vast majority of coins that sold at auction were purchased by dealers. It was a safe bet to say that the prices realized at auctions were wholesale and collectors could assume that they would typically pay 10-20% more than what coins were selling for at auction. But this has all changed. One of the key elements to Heritage's rousing success in the coin auction business has been to make sales more collector-friendly. Today, a sizable amount of the coins that sell at auction are going directly to collectors. So, are auction prices now representative of the wholesale or retail markets? The answer is not as easy as you might think...
The answer is actually, as you might have, guessed, "answers." Nothing in the coin market is cut and dry anymore and the new auction market and the prices that coins fetch in an auction conducted in 2010 can have a broad range.
The first thing that has to be analyzed is what coin is being sold. If it's something that's extremely collector-friendly (like a rare date Type One Liberty Head double eagle) the price realized is likely to represent a retail level as it is likely to have been sold to a collector. If it's a widget or a low-end coin that sells cheaply we can assume that a bottom-feeder dealer bought it and the price it brought is clearly at the wholesale level.
The next thing that has to be gauged is the quality of the sale itself. One of the most amazing things about the Bass sales, in my opinion, was the fact that virtually all the coins were bought by dealers. If the Bass sales were to be held today (and conducted by a technologically savvy firm like Heritage) I would venture to guess that over 50% of the coins would be sold for retail as opposed to wholesale prices.
Is the coin in an auction a grading play? (In other words, is it an AU58 in an older holder that would upgrade to MS61 to MS62?) In this case it is a virtual certainty that the coin sold to a dealer. But there is an immediate asterisk that must be applied to the sales price. If the coin is worth $5,000 in AU58 and $13,000 in MS62, it is highly possible that at least two ramblin' gamblin' dealers would pay $10,000-11,000 for the coin. In such an instance, the collector needs to be careful not to assume that just because one AU58 coin sold at auction for $10,000-11,000, the next one(s) will as well.
Auction records are most useful when they occur with some degree of frequency (two or three examples per year) and when any anomalies can be discarded.
Let's say, for example, that a certain Charlotte quarter eagle in AU55 has sold at auction five times since 2007. The prices realized have been $3,500, $3,750, $2,650, $8,000 and $4,000. We can pretty much immediately boot the $8,000 auction record as we can assume that this was a severely under-graded coin with a large spread to the next highest grade(s). We can also boot the $2,650 record as this may have been for an extremely low end coin or it may have been in a "bloodbath" auction that, for a host of reasons, saw very low overall prices in specific areas of the market. This leaves us with three prices: $3,500, $3,750 and $4,000. A quick assumption can now be made that this AU55 Charlotte quarter eagle has a value in the range of $3,500 to $4,000. Another way of looking at this is that the wholesale value might be $3,500 while the retail value might be $4,000.
I have a theory that auction firms give collectors just enough information to do damage to themselves. They provide an archive of auction prices which show what coins have sold for and with a little bit of digging, the collector can determine if the coin sold on the floor, over the phone or to an Internet bidder. But unless someone really follows the market carefully, all of this "information" can do little more than serve as an easy way for the neophyte to make major mistakes. I have long said that hiring an auction representative for 5% is far and away the best value in all of numismatics. This fee (which amount to a whopping $250 on a $5,000 coin) is a small price to pay to have a specialist explain to you why a certain auction record is valid or not valid.
So 700+ words later, I'm back to my basic question: are auction prices wholesale or retail? As you can plainly see, there is no quick answer to this and I urge collectors, new or experienced, not to be lulled into a false sense of security based on what seems like unquestionable information.
For a period of around seven years (1986-1993), Superior became one of the major forces in the United States coin auction market. During this time, they conducted a number of extremely impressive sales which included some of the more interesting specialized collections of this era. Today’s generation of collectors seems to have little knowledge of these Superior auctions and this is a shame as some of them are invaluable references. In my opinion, the single greatest sale that Superior conducted during this era was the Jascha Heifetz collection which was held from October 1st to October 4th in 1989. Heifetz (1901-1987) is regarded as one of the greatest violin players of all-time and he was paid rock-star fees for performances during his lifetime. This meant that Mr. H was able to lead the good life, including a stately mansion in Beverly Hills, a weekend getaway in Malibu, a Bentley and the ability to indulge in hobbies such as coin collecting.
If I remember correctly, the majority of the United States coins in this sale were not actually owned by Heifetz. There were extremely interesting consignments from other collectors including an incredible run of San Francisco gold coinage, remarkable type coins, choice Patterns and a small run of early dollars which included stunning Gem examples of the 1795 Flowing Hair and Draped Bust as well as a mind-boggling 1799.
Something that I find very interesting about this sale is that it is one of the last major auctions conducted by Superior that included a large number of fresh, unslabbed coins. By 1989, the concept of slabbing high quality coins had become pretty standard. But it is interesting to see that a number of very nice raw coins were still available.
What I find even more interesting is looking back at the Heifetz catalog and seeing how nice the coins were back then. And I’m not talking about common coins in uncommon grades. The sale included long, long date runs of items like PR64 and better Morgan dollars with lovely original color, really nice mintmarked gold in VF, EF and AU grades with original color and surfaces and Proof gold from the 1860’s and 1870’s in PR63 to PR65 grades that doesn’t look like it recently escaped from a Science Project Gone Awry. In 1989, you could still find many coins like this in a good auction. Today, you simply can’t.
The Heifetz sale realized $16.3 million dollars. In this day and age, this amount is no big deal. But back in 1989 it was a ton of money for an auction. And if you spend a little time looking at the coins in the sale, guesstimating what they would grade today and figuring numbers...this sale would probably bring well over $50 million today!
You don’t believe me when I tell you the coins in this sale were cheap, cheap, cheap? How about a few random examples. Lot 3770 was a beautiful NGC MS65 1892-O Micro O half dollar in MS65. It sold for $20,900 in the Heifetz sale; today it’s easily a six-figure coin. A nice PCGS EF40 1794 dollar was offered as Lot 3814 and it sold for $39,600. Today, you couldn’t buy a 1794 dollar that had been run over by a train for less than $40k. Lot 3995 was an NGC EF45 1841 quarter eagle that was bid up to $25,300. Today, this coin is probably in an AU53 or 55 holder and is worth something north of $100,000. Lot 4426 was a raw 1857-C half eagle graded EF45. From the photo I’d say it’s an AU55 by today’s standards. It sold for $770 at the Heifetz auction. I am a seller of coins like this in 2007 for around $3,500-4,000.
My favorite coin in the sale was Lot 3816, a 1795 Draped Bust that was graded “MS66 Superb” by Superior. In case you aren’t aware of this, Superior had a reputation for being very conservative with their grading back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s and for an early dollar to be graded MS66...well, it had to be a really special coin. And this piece was just breathtaking. Amazing color, nearly prefect surfaces, incredible details; I remember thinking that if I could own just one United States coin this 1795 dollar would have to be pretty high up on the list. It wound-up selling for $231,000 which was an amazing price at the time but which seems cheap today.
One last lot—then I’ll stop. A raw VF30 1870-CC double eagle was sold as Lot 5060. I paid $18,700 for it and sold it to a client for $20,000. He recently sold the coin back to me (after we sent it in for grading where it was called an EF40). I sold it for nearly 12x his original cost. Not bad for a heavily circulated Carson City double eagle!
Looking back at the Heifetz sale, it’s amazing how much has changed in the past two decades. Superior imploded a few years after the Heifetz sale and is now an entirely different company than the firm that conducted the great run of auctions from 1986 to 1993. $16 million dollar auctions are now commonplace. Auctions are now full of slabbed coins. Grading standards are clearly different and prices have, in many cases, risen dramatically since 1989. Most interesting, what seemed pedestrian in 1989—from the standpoint of available coins—is now unusual if not downright rare today. In many ways, the Heifetz sale was the end of an era and this epic, impressive auction deserves to be better-remembered than it is today.
One of the more interesting (and lesser known) gold coin auctions that I’ve attended was the sale of the Stetson Collection which was conducted by the old Bowers and Merena in May, 1993. This was an instance where the back story (or stories in this case) was nearly as interesting as the coins themselves.
Beginning in 1992, an amazing hoard of gold coins started to quietly enter the market. This hoard consisted of tens of thousands of coins dated from the late 1830’s through, I believe, the 1920’s. It included large quantities of semi-key St. Gaudens double eagles, extensive runs of Carson City eagles and double eagles, large quantities of New Orleans eagles from the 1880’s through the early 1900’s, sizable quantities of San Francisco rarities and much, much more. It has never been revealed where these coins came from (although it is widely rumored that they came from an Eastern European central bank; given the time they were sold it would suggest that they were dispersed by a former Soviet bloc country in an attempt to infuse some Western capital).
This incredible hoard was dispersed over a number of years in a quiet, orderly fashion. Some of the coins went to dealers who sold them to marketers or specialists. Other coins were sold at auction. The first group of these coins to sell at auction was at the aforementioned Bowers and Merena sale and I can remember being extremely excited to have the chance to purchase some very important and very fresh coins.
Before I discuss the sale (and some events leading up to it) I’d like to discuss the appearance of the coins themselves. Because of the massive size of this hoard (and the intelligence of the individual who was masterminding its dispersal) these coins were, for the most part, kept original and dirty. Many of them had the prototypical “euro-Grime” appearance which I describe as follows: extremely deep almost brassy orange-gold toning with a noticeable two-ton e appearance from blackish grime or dirt on the high spots. This appearance was almost certainly the result of the environmental conditions in which these coins were kept. On some coins, the look was very attractive. On others, it was pretty ugly and the coins needed to be dipped (or washed with soap and water at the very least).
When I learned about the sale I thought it was important enough to fly up to Wolfeboro, New Hampshire to view them in person. I made the flight arrangements, booked a room at the Wolfeboro Inn and set off to the Granite State. My flight from Dallas wound up getting into Boston late and I missed my connection to Manchester, New Hampshire so I wound up renting a car and driving. As I made my way up I-93 to New Hampshire it started to get extremely foggy and by the time I was within an hour of Wolfeboro, it was dark and almost impossible to see more than ten feet ahead of me.
Following the instructions I had received from Chris Karstedt (remember, this is many years before MapQuest or a GPS in the car) I slowly made my way across New Hampshire and finally made it onto the road that took me directly to Wolfeboro. About two miles from the town, I saw a very large and very dead deer in the middle of the road with a pool of blood surrounding it.
As I arrived at the Wolfeboro Inn, the first person I saw was dealer Ron Karp and he had a large ice pack clutched to his wrist. Ron, it turned out, had accidentally struck and killed the deer I had seen on the road a few minutes earlier and he was clearly in pain. As I recall, Ron would wind-up going to the emergency room of the Wolfeboro Hospital where he had his wrist (which was clearly broken) in a cast. For many years, every time I saw him, I thought of that dead deer splattered in the middle of the road...
The rest of the lot viewing session was less eventful and involved no dead deer but I do remember really liking the coins. My thoughts were that they were very undergraded in the catalog (and all were sold raw) and that a number of the coins were, at the time, Condition Census.
Two of my personal favorite coins in the sale were the 1849-O eagle graded “EF45” by B&M (this exact coin is currently in an NGC MS61 holder) and an 1852-O eagle graded AU55 (currently in a PCGS MS60 holder). I purchased the former for $6,875 which I thought was pretty reasonable and was ready to buy the latter for around $7,500-8,500. When it wound up bringing $22,000 I knew that I was in for a long night (incidentally this exact coin came up for auction in the 1999 ANA sale where I was able to buy it for $14,835. Sometimes, good things come to those that wait...)
The Liberty Head double eagles in the Stetson sale included some of the best Carson City pieces I have ever seen as well as some great Type One coins. I remember an incredible 1866-S No Motto that was graded AU53/55 in the catalog and which, by the conservative Doug Winter Standards of 1993 I called AU55+. This was back before most people knew just how rare this coin was in higher grades and this piece remains one of the two best 1866-S No Motto double eagles known. It brought a whopping $17,600 and would be worth around ten times this amount today.
Another coin that I’d love to turn the Way Back Machine to 1993 for was a nice Extremely Fine 1870-CC (graded VF35 or finer in the catalog) that sold for $57,200. I know this coin was graded EF40 by PCGS right after the sale; I’m guessing it would be at least a 45 today. The 1873-CC in the sale was incredible by the standards of this date and would grade at least MS62 today; it brought $34,100 in the Stetson sale and this was a record price for the issue that stood for many years.
I can remember purchasing an 1879-O double eagle in this sale that later graded AU55 at NGC for $12,100; today this same coin is easily worth 6 to 7 times this amount. A few of the other great double eagles in the sale that I didn’t purchase included an 1881 that I graded MS61 for $31,900, an extremely rare 1886 that I graded MS60 or better for $30,250 (this is a $100,000+ coin today) and a really nice AU58+ 1891 for $13,750. You need to realize that these were huge prices for these coins at the time and the very rare Type Three Philadelphia issues would remain significantly undervalued well into the late 1990’s/early 2000’s.
One other double eagle I remember fondly from this sale was a 1913-S that I graded “Superb Gem best I’ve seen!!!” according to my catalog notes. This coin sold for a then-remarkable $37,400 and I’d be curious to know what holder it resides in today.
After the huge success of the Stetson sale in May, the owner of this hoard placed more great coins in the B&M Tower Hill sale in September. This group included a nice date run of Liberty Head half eagles featuring some exceptional San Francisco pieces. These also sold for very strong prices although, as I recall, the sale itself lacked the electricity of the Stetson sale earlier that year.
The gold coins from this hoard continued to appear on the market in small to medium sized groups for another few years. I’m guessing that most have been dipped or changed so that they are no longer recognizable but if you own a nice New Orleans eagle from the 1850’s or a high grade CC double eagle, the chances are good they may have come from this hoard.