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Auction results show lively market

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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What is your collection worth? If you have a “normal” collection, then it’s relatively easy to determine its value. If you have a run of proof sets, for example, or sets of popularly collected items such as Lincoln cents, Buffalo nickels, Mercury dimes and Washington quarters, then appraisal is relatively easy. Value guides abound, and either wholesale or retail prices are readily available for most coins in a wealth of different grades.

But, what do you do if your coins are exceptional, either in rarity or condition or both? How do you determine their value in that case?

One answer is public auction. You consign your potentially most valuable items to one of the major auction houses, such as Heritage Auctions, Bowers and Merena, or Stack’s. With their advertising, their mailing lists and their multicolor catalogs, you can be reasonably assured that the major auction dealers will obtain the maximum prices possible for your coins, given the prevailing market conditions.

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Actually, in 2010 some really great items sold by private treaty rather than at auction, but this is the exception, not the rule. Some of these exceptions included the finest-known 1794 Flowing Hair silver dollar, a 1909 VDB Lincoln cent graded Proof-68 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., and a Professional Coin Grading Service-graded MS-64 Brown bronze 1943-D cent.

The 1794 silver dollar set a new record for the highest amount paid for a single coin, as it sold for $7.85 million, well above the $7.59 million paid for a 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle at public auction in 2002. The seller of the silver dollar was Steven Contursi of Rare Coin Wholesalers, and the purchaser was Martin Logies, director and curator of the nonprofit Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation of California.

Laura Sperber of Legend Numismatics sold the proof 1909 VDB cent, which, in addition to grading Proof-68 Red Brown, also had a star designation from NGC and a CAC (Certified Acceptance Corporation) sticker, both of which are indications of the coin’s desirability and eye appeal. Although Sperber had always contended that the coin was not for sale, presumably the new buyer (the McCullagh Collection) made an offer that Sperber and Legend could not refuse. According to Sperber’s blog, “. . . the coin set a world record above $200,000.”

Obviously, that’s a pretty penny for a lowly Lincoln cent, but it pales in comparison to the $1.7 million paid for the unique 1943-D bronze Lincoln cent. Again, the seller was Sperber. This time the buyer was Bob R. Simpson, co-chairman of the Texas Rangers baseball club, who needed the coin to complete his PDS set of bronze cents dated 1943. He also has a complete set of 1944 zinc-coated steel cents.

But I don’t want to give you the impression that private treaty sales ruled in 2010, as that’s not true by a long shot. In fact, the year started with a bang, as the first major auction featured one of the key rarities in American numismatics, a 1913 Liberty Head, or V-nickel. And it wasn’t just any 1913 V-nickel, it was arguably the most famous one, the coin shown to a nationwide TV audience on an episode of “Hawaii Five-O.”

Graded Proof-64 by NGC, with a CAC sticker, this 1913 V nickel is known as the Olsen specimen, after one of its early owners, Fred Olsen. Olsen paid $900 for the coin in 1943. Other owners included King Farouk of Egypt, Dr. Jerry Buss (Los Angeles Lakers owner), and Texas collector Reed Hawn.

Not surprisingly, given its fame, the Olsen 1913 V nickel was the star of Heritage’s Signature Auction conducted Jan. 6-10, 2010, in conjunction with the Florida United Numismatists convention in Orlando. As such, it did not disappoint.

According to Greg Rohan, Heritage Auctions president, “The bidding on this coin was definitely competitive. The winner is an advanced East Coast collector who, needless to say, now has the ultimate centerpiece to his collection and has assured his place in numismatic history.”

His place in numismatic history is assured, of course, only if the collector decides to reveal his identity. Both the seller and the buyer were anonymous in this sale. When the bidding stopped on this piece, the final price, which includes a 15 percent buyer’s fee as do all the other prices in this article, was $3,737,500, which ties it for the third highest price ever paid at auction for a U.S. coin. In 2008, an 1804 silver dollar sold by Heritage achieved that same amount.

Two other coins in the same Heritage FUN auction exceeded the million-dollar mark: a 1927-D Saint-Gaudens double eagle and an 1874 Dana Bickford $10 gold pattern piece. Graded a lofty MS-66 by PCGS, the 1927-D realized $1,495,000, which gives it the second highest amount for which a 1927-D has sold at auction. The $10 pattern, graded PR-65 Deep Cameo by PCGS, brought $1,265,000. Heritage noted that this is only the third time that three coins have sold for more than $1 million in the same sale and the first time that all have been bid over the $1 million mark rather than achieving it through the buyer’s fee.

After this auspicious beginning to the 2010 auction season, only one other coin realized more than $1 million, a 1794 silver dollar. Graded MS-64 by NGC, the coin brought $1,207,500 in the Bowers and Merena Boston Rarities Sale held Aug. 7. The seller was Martin Logies of CCEF, the purchaser of the finest-known 1794 dollar mentioned above.

According to Greg Roberts, CEO of Bowers and Merena, “We started to see bidding activity before the live action began, with multiple bidders moving the coin from its opening bid to $750,000, where the lot opened on the live auction floor. It then quickly moved up $300,000 at increments of $50,000. When the bid hit $1 million on Saturday, the gasp from the crowd was riveting, and with two of the four bidders live in the room, the intensity was overwhelming.” The buyer remains anonymous at this time.

Interestingly, the 1794 dollar was not the rarest dollar sold at the Bowers and Merena auction, as approximately 140 of the date are estimated to have survived. With just nine pieces known, a PCGS-graded XF-40 1870-S Seated Liberty dollar earned $632,500.

Of course, the Bowers and Merena Rarities Sale on Aug. 7 was not the only auction activity in Boston. Heritage was the American Numismatic Association convention’s official auctioneer in Boston. With multiple auction events (U.S. coins, world coins, paper money), the company established a new record for Heritage ANA sales, bringing in more than $46 million. “I’d categorize the auction results as quite strong indeed,” Greg Rohan said, in what has to be an understatement.

The top lot in Heritage’s Platinum Night sale was an octagonal 1851 Humbert $50 gold slug, PCGS-graded MS-63. This piece garnered $546,250 for the seller, which is considerably more than the $40,700 it brought in 1996.

As testimony to the strength of the auction market at the Boston ANA convention, more than 93 percent of the U.S. lots sold in the Heritage auctions. This was true for an even higher percentage of the lots Heritage offered at its September Long Beach, Calif., Signature U.S. Coin Auction, where an impressive 96 percent of the lots found new homes. Top earner was a recently discovered 1856-O $20 gold piece, which NGC graded XF-45+. With spirited bidding, the double eagle climbed to $345,000.

As always, key coins, coins that are typically the highest-priced “stoppers” in popularly collected series, did well at auction in 2010. For example, at Heritage’s Platinum Night sale at the summer ANA convention, an outstanding example of the big key Mercury dime, the 1916-D, sold for $195,500. It must be noted that PCGS graded the piece MS-67 Full Bands, and it has a CAC sticker. Another major key, the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter, brought a hefty $149,500. PCGS graded this gem MS-67 Full Head, and it also carries a CAC sticker. Are these prices what is meant by “sticker shock?”

Heritage offered another nice 1916-D Mercury dime at its Long Beach Signature Auction conducted June 3-6. Graded MS-65 FB by PCGS, this coin sold for $48,875, which is well above its wholesale value.

Yet another example of the 1916-D Mercury dime sold for $74,750 at Stack’s Baltimore auction of the C.B. Slade Jr. Estate in mid June. Certified by PCGS, the coin achieved a grade of MS-66 FB. Another key date sold at the same auction was an 1895 Morgan dollar. Graded Proof-61 (lightly cleaned), the dollar earned $38,525 despite its obvious problems.

For the collector of Saint-Gaudens double eagles, one of the key dates has traditionally been the 1921. In terms of the total number known, the 1921 is perhaps the fourth scarcest coin in the series, behind the 1907 Ultra High Relief, 1927-D, and 1933. At least a couple of examples sold at auction during 2010.

The first one sold at an auction conducted by Ira and Larry Goldberg just before the Long Beach Coin, Stamp and Collectibles Expo held in early February. Graded MS-62 by NGC, this particular 1921 double eagle earned $143,750. At the same sale, a 1930-S double eagle, graded MS-65 by PCGS, went for $161,000, and a high-relief, wire-rim 1907 Saint, graded Proof-67 Star by NGC, garnered $157,550.

The second 1921 double eagle was auctioned by Heritage at a sale held in late April, early May both online and at the Central States Numismatic Society convention in Milwaukee. Graded MS-63 by PCGS, the finally tally was $218,500. This coin was once part of the famous Norweb Collection. Other desirable Saints auctioned in the sale included a PCGS-graded MS-64 1920-S ($126,500), a PCGS MS-66 1932 ($126,500), and a PCGS MS-65 1931 ($92,000).

Another key coin highlighted the Bowers and Merena auction at the Whitman Coin & Collectibles Spring Expo held in Baltimore in early March. The coin was a virtually unimprovable 1901-S Barber quarter graded MS-68 by PCGS. This fantastic coin realized the record amount of $327,750.

The coins I’ve been discussing in this section are all rarity keys, coins that are scarce and pricy in any grade. Condition rarities generally do well at auction, also, particularly if they’re especially nice.
One classic example of a condition rarity is the 1927-S Standing Liberty quarter, a coin that’s relatively plentiful in low grades but decidedly uncommon in high grades. An example of this date, graded MS-65+ Full Head by PCGS, with CAC sticker, brought $149,500 in a Bowers and Merena auction for the Whitman Coin & Collectibles Baltimore Expo held in early November. In the same sale, the big rarity key 1916 graded MS-67 Full Head by PCGS, with a CAC sticker, sold for “just” $115,000.

Quite a few error and variety coins sold for hefty amounts during the 2010 auction season. For example, a PCGS-graded MS-65 CAC example of the always popular 1937-D 3-legged Buffalo nickel realized $35,650 at Bowers and Merena’s Orlando Rarities Sale conducted on Jan. 5.

A much rarer error coin, in a much lower grade, sold for nearly six times as much in Heritage’s Long Beach Expo auction in early February. This was a 1943-S Lincoln bronze cent, graded VF-35 by PCGS. One of just seven known, the coin earned $207,000, which is only slightly less than the $218,500 realized for a 1943-P bronze cent sold in Heritage’s FUN auction in January.

At Heritage’s early June Long Beach sale, a 1944-D Lincoln cent struck on a steel planchet realized $60,375. Graded AU-55 by NGC, the coin was from The Brenda John Collection. Another 1944-D steel cent, this one graded AU-53 by PCGS, sold for $37,375 in Heritage’s Summer FUN auction held in July. Some other interesting error coins from the Brenda John Collection (e.g., 1916 doubled die nickel, 1918/7-D nickel) failed to sell.

A Bowers and Merena auction held in conjunction with the Whitman Coin & Collectibles Baltimore Summer Expo (Jun. 18-19) featured major error coins and varieties. The highest grossing lot in the error portion of the sale was an NGC-graded MS-66 George Washington Presidential dollar struck on a feeder finger used in minting the coin. This oddly shaped piece of metal sold for $6,325. A similar Martin Van Buren dollar, graded MS-65 by NGC, brought $5,980. In the same sale, an undated Braided Hair large cent struck 35 percent off center realized $2,875, and a 1927 doubled die obverse Lincoln cent PCGS-graded MS-64 Red went for $2,645.

A couple of collections of early copper errors were featured at a pre-Long Beach sale held by Ira and Larry Goldberg Sept. 19-21. One was the Davy Collection of errors on half cents and the other was the Dan Holmes collection of large cent errors. The top grossing lot was a VF-25 1802/0 half cent, reverse of 1803, struck over a spoiled large cent, which realized $24,150. Next was an 1804 F-15 half cent, spiked chin, with an obverse brockage (mirror image of one side of the coin impressed on the other side), which garnered $23,000.

Even books about coins sold well in 2010, with a George Frederick Kolbe auction held in New York City on Jan. 9 realizing slightly more than $1 million. The auction consisted of 400 lots from the Stack family library and 100 American Numismatic Society duplicates.

According to Kolbe, the 500 lots were estimated to bring in $540,000, so the actual results went well beyond expectations. In addition, every lot sold, which is an amazing feat by itself.

On hand at the auction was Harvey Stack, who joined the family firm in 1947. Stack called the first few lots and then returned for Lots 79 and 80, which featured photographic and other records of the Stack family’s acquisition of Col. E.H.R. Green’s gold coins. Each lot realized $80,500.

Kolbe’s firm auctioned the second part of the Stack family library on June 3, and the tally for this auction was more than $140,000. This time the take was only slightly more than the pre-sale estimate. One highlight of the sale was the Coin Galleries set of Stack’s catalogs, which realized $21,000, more than twice the estimate.

When writing an article like this, it’s easy to focus on the super coins and the auction lots that brought in the largest returns. For the majority of collectors, however, these coins are the antithesis of what they actually collect or even aspire to own. Because of this, I’ve selected a few auction lots from recent auctions that may be of more relevance to most collectors.

Teletrade is one auction firm that sells many coins that are so affordable that anyone can own them. If you’re interested in key coins in popular sets, Teletrade probably offers them in grades that you and I can afford. For example, a 1909-S over horizontal “S” Lincoln cent graded XF-45 by ANACS sold for $180 on Oct. 4.

For the Indian cent collector, Teletrade offered the big key, the 1877, in PCGS AG-3 in an auction on Oct. 5. The coin realized $402, which is a fraction of what a higher-grade piece would cost you.
If those are too pricy for you, what about a 1955-D Roosevelt dime in PCGS MS-66 Full Bands? This coin sold for $55 on Oct. 4.

Although Heritage Auctions sold three coins for more than $1 million apiece in its first auction of the year, Heritage also sells many coins at auction that are decidedly less expensive. I’m a particular fan of its Exclusively Internet auctions and have bought thousands of dollars’ worth of coins from this venue. Here are a few examples of coins sold recently at auction by Heritage: On Nov. 30, an 1862 Indian cent graded AU-55 by PCGS brought $64; on Nov. 28, a 1912-S V nickel in VG-8 (PCGS) realized $138; and on Nov. 21, a 2009-S Roosevelt dime graded Proof-70 Deep Cameo by PCGS went for $34.

I could list many more examples like this, either from Heritage or Teletrade or from other major numismatic auction companies, but you get the picture: Whether your taste and budget permit you to buy five- and six-figure coins, or whether you have to be content with two- and three-figure coins, you can find what you want at auction.

Last, but by no means least, the Original Hobo Nickel Society held its annual auction in conjunction with the 2010 FUN convention in Orlando. To the uninitiated, hobo nickels are artfully carved Buffalo nickels. Although the total take from the auction’s 97 lots of nickels and postcards was some $13,000 less than at the same auction in 2009 ($34,680 vs. $47,701), the price paid per lot was actually higher, as there were fewer lots.

The top lot was a “Bo’s Brother” carving by a famous hobo nickel carver, George Washington “Bo” Hughes. The coin went for $2,750, whereas the next highest lot was a carving of an Indian chief, also attributed to “Bo,” which realized $2,310. If you’re interested in hobo nickels and would like to participate in future auctions, dues are $15, with information available at www.hobonickels.org.

Well, that’s it for my annual survey of numismatic auctions. As in the past, great coins (and some not-so-great coins) found ready buyers at auctions throughout the year. Prices increased, new records were set, and, in general, both buyers and sellers achieved their desired ends.

With the year-long increases we saw in the precious metals markets in 2010, 2011 may prove to be even more lucrative for coin collectors than 2010. It’ll be interesting to see what effect that will have on the auction scene. I can hardly wait.

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