Numismatic Miscellany

It’s another depressing, rainy day in Portland. What better way to share the love than to touch on some miscellaneous topics which while interesting are probably not “deep” enough to write a full blog on. A friend of mine recently made an interesting observation. In the six years since the final Bass sale, there has been any number of great specialized gold coin collections offered for sale at auction. This includes but is not limited to the Duke’s Creek collection of Dahlonega gold, the Old West and Morgan collections of Carson City gold, the Kutasi collection of Indian Head gold, the Lang collection of Carson City gold, etc. But in this time period, there have been no great specialized collections of early gold coinage, particularly quarter eagles and half eagles (specifically from 1813 to 1834).

Clearly, these coins are popular. And they have doubled or tripled in price in the past six years so you’d think that the new price levels would have brought a collection or two on the market. So where are these coins? If you look through most typical auctions these days you might find decent examples of the 1813, 1814, 1818 and 1820 half eagles. But where are the rarer dates?

I’m not certain that I know the answer but my guess is that a) these coins are rare enough that even if a relative “flood” were to come on the market you’d still only be talking about two or three examples of dates like an 1827 quarter eagle or an 1826 half eagle every year and b) the collectors who own coins like this tend to be deep-pocketed and the sort of people who once they buy a nice quality 1827 quarter eagle or 1826 half eagle keep it in their collection indefinitely with no intention to sell it. Option C, which I subscribe to a bit less, is that there are really no “collections” or coins like this in the first place, given their rarity and the high price per coin that collecting these series entails.

In the past month I’ve had no less than four or five clients mention to me that they really dislike NGC holders, particularly when it comes to small-sized coins. Before I start in on this point, let me make myself clear as I realize what I just said is a bit ambiguous and it could be misinterpreted. These people were commenting on the aesthetics of the NGC holder itself and not on the ability of NGC to grade coins.

After carefully looking at a few of the gold dollars and quarter eagles in my inventory which are in NGC holders, I think I can see their point. Small sized coins don’t look good in NGC holders. The coins look jammed into their openings and the rims are often lost. Many pieces wind up tilted at a rakish angle because they don’t fit properly. My suggestion to NGC would be to enlarge the openings for smaller coins. In PCGS holders, these coins appear to “float” and look more spacious because of the fact they are placed in a membrane which gives them more space.

I’m sure that NGC has more important items on their plate but when a number of sophisticated collectors all complain to me about their dislike for these holders (and voice their complaints completely independently of one another) it makes me think that NGC might have a big problem with small coins (sorry, couldn’t resist that pun…)

I recently read in a numismatic book dealers catalog (of all places…) that it was time to retire the auction catalog and have all coin auction catalogs appear on-line or on CD’s. While this sounds like a great theory in practice and it makes me feel all Jetsons-like to think that I could live my coin life paper-free, I do not agree with this idea.

There are two reasons that I like auction catalogs. The first is their tangibility. I may be showing my age here but I’m the sort of person who likes spending an hour every morning reading actual newspapers and not waking up with my cups of joe and the New York Times online. There is something visceral about having a newspaper in my hands that gives me pleasure. The same is true with a coin auction catalog.

The other reason I like the auction catalog format is that I can make notes in a paper catalog when I view the coins. If I’m perusing the latest Heritage or Stack’s sale online, I can’t make notes unless I print out pages. And if I have to resort to doing this, why not just have a catalog?

One thing I would suggest to the auction firms is to give their bidders a chance to custom design their catalogs. Customization is a huge new trend in retailing and it allows someone, as an example, to design a pair of Nike sneakers online according to their personal specifications. I would personally prefer that I get a Heritage catalog in the mail that contained only the series which interest me. This would reduce the bulk of the typical catalog and it would make me feel a bit more “green” knowing that I saved a few hundreds pages of paper every month. Given the technology which is ready available in the area of printing and customization, I would suggest that specialized catalogs are something that could be done easily and cheaply.

Exciting Coin Sets Yet To Be Assembled

In the twenty-five years that I’ve been a professional numismatist, I’ve had the opportunity to build some pretty interesting coin collections. I’ve put together two of the finest sets of New Orleans gold ever assembled, the unquestioned finest set of Carson City gold and numerous high grade Charlotte and Dahlonega sets, to name just a few. At this point in my professional career, what sets would really excite me to have the chance to assemble? First and foremost, I’d love to have a wealthy, patient connoisseur call me and decide that he wanted to put together a complete set of high grade United States gold. How much fun would it be to be able to buy all the really high grade and really rare issues that I’ve passed on in the last few years because I just didn’t have a home for them at the time?

(And how cool would it be to walk around a coin show with a checklist of all United States gold issues and have to look at it when I saw, say, a nice About Uncirculated 1858-S eagle and remind myself if the collection already had an example of this date or not…)

My dream collection would, in some ways, use the Eliasberg collection as a benchmark but it would have some obvious differences. When the Eliasberg collection was assembled, it was much easier to locate choice, original coins than it is today. Unfortunately, I would be unable to locate early gold that could rival the phenomenal unmolested pieces in the Eliasberg collection; many of which were purchased by the Clapp family as early as the 1890’s.

But I would also be able to buy many issues in much higher grade than what was present in the Eliasberg collection. As an example, many of the post-1880 issues in this collection were represented by very low grade pieces which would be considered unremarkable, at best, today. A number of these dates are now available in fairly high grade as a result of finds in Europe and other overseas sources. It would certainly be fun to tell this new collector that a coin that he just purchased in MS64 was represented by a dingy VF in the Eliasberg collection!

Another collection that I would love to work on would attempt to replicate the John Adams collection of 1794 Cents but in a less specialized fashion (for those of you unfamiliar with this collection, John Adams is a well-known Boston collector who formed a remarkable die variety set of 1794 Cents by Sheldon variety. His parameter for purchasing a coin was to find a piece with a great pedigree entailing as many famous collectors as possible. I have always thought that this was the most fascinating specialized collection ever formed).

The gist of the Adams collection was to “collect the collectors” who had become part of the folklore of the Large Cent culture. This has never really been done in the area of gold; partially because pedigree research on gold coinage is nowhere near as comprehensive as it is on early copper. But wouldn’t a collection that included examples from all of the great gold collections from the past be interesting?

Getting to assemble a major set of early gold coinage would be a lot of fun as well. I’m currently working on a few very impressive sets of early gold but I seldom—if ever—get the chance to buy the macho, six-figure pieces that sometimes come up for sale at shows and auctions. My personal dream assignment would be to assemble a world-class set of Fat Head half eagles (from 1813 to 1834) and to be able to purchase duplicate examples of the dates that the collector and I thought were “neat” or “undervalued.” And to maybe even expand this set to include the die varieties that exist for dates such as the 1818, 1820, 1823, etc. Now that would be fun!

But, really, I have no complaints about what I’m doing right now. I get the chance to work with interesting, nice people who trust my judgment when it comes to coins. Some of these people have become good friends of mine and I’ve now known many of them for over a decade (actually two decades in some cases).

That said, if Paul Allen or Bill Gates call me tomorrow and tell me they are ready to seriously start collecting United States gold coinage, I think I can get the proposal written pretty quickly…