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Even rarities priced by popularity

If the only legally available 1933 $20 gold piece is worth $7.59 million as indicated by its 2002 auction in New York, do other rarities align their values in accordance with the numbers that exist?

Are coins where only one example exists more expensive than coins where two or three examples exist?

You would think so, but this is not necessarily the case. Larger coins or coins that have been in the headlines for generations are valued at premiums to coins that on the basis of rarity alone you would not think it to be the case.

If you attempted to gauge prices of great rarities based on the number known you might come away with the feeling that the people who have recently paid millions of dollars for some of the nation’s most important and rare coins had all lost touch with reality. You might come away with that feeling, but when great rarities go on the auction block there are more forces at work than simply numbers known.

Art of Making the Rare Coin Deal

How are coins bought and sold? What kind of negotiations take place? What are the best techniques to obtain the best deal from a coin dealer?

Texas collector Reed Hawn once explained it well when he discussed his purchase of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel at the Jerry Buss sale. When I suggested that I thought Hawn had gotten a very good deal, he agreed explaining, “I was ready to go higher. When it’s a coin like a 1913 you have to bid like it’s your last chance to buy it because it might be your last chance.”

In all probability anyone who has ever bid on and won a great rarity has a similar point of view as when there are only a few known the chance that another will be offered any time in the near future is definitely part of the consideration in terms of what you have to be willing to pay in order to obtain it and by doing so adding your name to the pedigree.

With the flurry of high prices and new million dollar coins in recent years, it might well be a good time to consider just where the rarities stand today in terms of price and in terms of prospects.

Still in the number one position is the 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle which realized a still stunning price of $7,590,020 in its one market appearance in July of 2002. That extra $20 is the cost the U.S. Mint added to “monetize” the coin, that is, it did not recognize it as having been legally issued prior to the payment of those 20 extra dollars. It is pretty hard to argue with current fact that the 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle stands as the most expensive coin of the United States. How long it will stay that way is another matter.
Second and third places achieved at auction are currently held down by the an original 1804 dollar at just over $4 million and the 1913 Liberty Head nickel which  is somewhat less than $4 million. At the moment it seems unlikely that either would be a serious challenger to the 1933 although at the right auction in the right atmosphere the Childs specimen 1804 dollar, which is enormously historic as one of the original 1804 dollars, cannot be taken for granted despite the fact that there are a number of other known 1804 dollars.

In the case of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, it is simply a numbers game. Certainly the 1913 is famous and that publicity helps its price. The fact, however, is that there are five known examples of the 1913 and even though a couple are housed in museums that still leaves at least two and possibly three for private ownership. That fact stands in the way of the 1913 ever topping the 1933 in price unless the one example of the 1933 is not sold for an extended period of time or unless others are made legal to own through one means or another.

Although numbers known may work against the 1913 ever topping the 1933 double eagle in price and probably also against the 1804 ever reaching the 1933, the fact is that numbers in the case of great rarities sometimes do not seem to matter in quite the same way they would matter in regular issues.

The proof can be seen in some recent auction prices which showed a number of new coins reaching $1 million for the first time. Included on the list were the 1894-S Barber dime which has perhaps 10 known along with the 1870-S Seated Liberty dollar where a similar number are believed to exist along with the 1866 no motto Seated Liberty dollar which has only two known examples and the 1885 Trade dollar which is one of just five known.

It is a diverse group and as the prices were all very similar it gives no indication as to just what it takes to have a coin top $1 million. The 1870-S dollar might be the one exception in the group as it was generally believed to be the finest known worthy of a higher price than the others. The 1894-S Barber dime is certainly tough but not in the 1913 Liberty Head nickel or 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle group while the 1866 no motto dollar and 1885 Trade dollar are low in numbers but also low in terms of public recognition as significant rarities.

Also realizing very strong prices in excess of $1 million were Brasher doubloons and while they have the low numbers known required to challenge the 1933 $20, they too suffer from a lack of recognition and also the fact that they are pre-federal issues not created at the United States Mint.

Realistically the possibilities are naturally very few when it comes to a serious current challenge to the 1933 double eagle.
That said, there are some other very interesting issues that in some cases have not sold in a very long time and some of these coins have the potential to at least top $1 million and in some cases go much higher than that.

It can safely be said that there are only perhaps four coins that stand a serious chance of producing prices equal to those of the Childs 1804, 1913 Liberty Head nickel or even the 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle. That said all the coins involved seem to have at least one part of their history that argues against them being multi-million dollar coins although they should certainly be $1 million or more coins.

Two of the potentially upper level rarities are 1870-S uses in the form of the 1870-S $3 gold and the 1870-S half dime. At least for a while the two had similar stories. Neither denomination was produced as a business strike in 1870. That was the year the cornerstone was being dedicated for the new San Francisco facility. The decision was made to put an example of all possible denominations in the cornerstone and that required a special striking of the half dime, quarter, dollar and $3 gold. In the case of the dollar it appears some extra examples were struck probably as souvenirs, which may explain why the bulk of the known examples seem to have light wear probably from mishandling.

For many years it was simply assumed that one example of each of the other denominations was made and that the one example was sitting in the cornerstone. Then in the early 1900s the Woodin collection surprised everyone with an 1870-S $3 gold piece. How it got there is anyone’s guess, but as the one known example of the 1870-S $3 it realized a lofty price of nearly $1,500. The 1870-S would go on to eventually end up in the Eliasberg collection and sale where it fell just short of $700,000. That was over 20 years ago and since then there have been rumors of sales at over $1 million but no public offering of the 1870-S.

Certainly if there were to be a public offering of the 1870-S $3 it would be likely to fetch more than $1 million. The only question is how much more. The one thing holding it back in price is the fact that the known example was graded EF-40 with what were described as indications of jewelry use. In theory if you need or want the 1870-S, you have to take it in whatever condition it is found, but the fact that it is not in Mint State is likely to make at least some small difference in the price it is likely to bring. That small difference might well be enough to keep it from being in the small group of the most expensive issues.

In the case of the 1870-S half dime, we have an issue that was unknown until the 1970s. Everyone simply had to assume that the only denomination where an extra coin was made back in 1870 other than the Seated Liberty dollar was the $3 gold. As it turned out, that was not the case as in the 1970s a single 1870-S half dime appeared. There are any number of interesting stories about where it was found, but the important point is that it was found and authenticated.

Over the years the 1870-S half dime has seemingly struggled in price at least by the standards of great rarities. Q. David Bowers gives an interesting description of how its first price was determined in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards, suggesting that the deal was that it would be $25,000 more than the 1804 in the Garrett sale. The problem was that the 1804 in that sale like many of the other coins in the sale produced surprisingly high prices. As it turned out, the 1870-S became priced at roughly $425,000 and shortly afterward the rare coin market weakened, which saw it sell for much less in its next sale.

Since the 1970s the 1870-S half dime has been sold a couple times with rumors of other private transactions. The track record at least for a great rarity continues to be checkered at best. In fairness, the 1870-S simply got off to an unexpected start, but it is very hard to explain its troubles since. One factor that may play a role in keeping this unique coin from challenging the 1933 gold $20 is that smaller coins do not seem to do as well with collectors in terms of high prices as larger ones. The 1913 Liberty Head nickel might be the one exception to that trend and the nickel was popularized widely to the circulation finds generation by B. Max Mehl ads offering to buy it for $50.

With the better than $1 million prices now seen in the case of the 1894-S dimes, it is hard to dispute that the 1870-S half dime should bring at least the same price as an 1894-S Barber dime simply because it is the only one is known. The question of whether it should bring more is one we cannot answer unless it is offered at auction, but certainly if potential buyers were to view it the way Reed Hawn viewed this question for the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, the price could potentially go much higher.

The 1873-CC no arrows dime is in a similar situation. The 1873-CC no arrows dime has a listed mintage of 12,400 pieces. That year, however, was a year of change with legislation passing to slightly increase the weight of silver coins. That resulted in another 1873-CC mintage, but this time with arrows at the date. It appears that the entire mintage of the 1873-CC without arrows was melted with the exception of just one coin.

The 1873-CC no arrows dime has not had the same price difficulty seen in the case of the 1870-S half dime. That said, neither has it realized the sort of price that might be expected for a coin that is unique with its most recent sale being in 1999 when the one example, which is MS-64 or MS-65 depending on which grading service grade you use is thought to be a coin saved for the annual Assay Commission. It brought a price of $891,250 in 2004. At the time that was probably a solid price, but now with new price levels for assorted rarities far in excess of $1 million, the expectation has to be that if offered for sale the 1873-CC no arrows dime as the greatest Carson City rarity could command a price of well over $1 million.

But again, this is a one-of-a-kind coin. Does its small size also keep it from challenging the 1933 gold $20?

The sale of an 1866 no motto Seated Liberty dollar for over $1 million is worth noting as there were also a single 1866 no motto quarter and half dollar. These other two have not been on the market for years in part because they were missing. In light of the fact that one of the two dollars topped $1 million, it does not seem out of the question that if either the quarter or half dollar were to surface they too might go beyond $1 million although in both cases they suffer from not being well known.

If there is one other coin that could bring many millions of dollars in the right auction venue, that coin would have to be the 1822 $5 gold piece. In the case of the 1822 half eagle, we have a case where it is not unique, but it is perilously close as there are three known and two of the three are currently in the Smithsonian Institution, meaning there is only one at VF-30 available for private ownership.

The 1822 half eagle is a mysterious coin to say the least. The official reports suggest over 17,000 were made, but they could easily be wrong. Whatever the total produced it was likely that a large number were sold to brokers at the time as that was what was happening to virtually all U.S. gold coins, explaining why any date from the 1820s is so tough today. How the 1822 managed to have a mere three examples survive is anyone’s guess and amazingly the story is that one of the three was purchased by Harlan Page Smith for a bullion price of $6.50 in the late 1800s. True or not, the fact is the 1822 is virtually never offered for sale with the last public sale of the 1822 being the Eliasberg sale which saw it bring just under $700,000.

One time Mehl called the 1822, The rarest and most valuable coin of the entire United States series!” He was a promoter to be sure, but in fact, he was not too far off the mark. Not unlike the 1870-S $3, the 1822 is probably hurt slightly in terms of the price it would realize by its grade, although in some minds that might enhance interest as this was a coin that actually circulated and that can be said about very few of the great rarities of the United States.
Realistically, however, the grade will not help in terms of price, but the fact that in all probability only one will ever be available for private ownership certainly will help and that in the right auction would potentially see the 1822 reach levels much higher than $1 million.
There are a couple other rarities that deserve to be in the group as they are at least as rare as Class I 1804 dollars and possibly in the group with the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, but they seem to have trouble getting the recognition that  leads to the sort of headline grabbing prices of some other great rarities.

Back in 1854 the San Francisco Mint began coin production. The place was small and not up to the task of producing large mintages of all denominations. The priorities that first year were not all that surprising in that the facility basically produced large gold coins in the form of eagles and double eagles. There was also a small gold dollar mintage and token production of gold quarter and half eagles. In fact both the 1854-S quarter and half eagle are major rarities as both had mintages of less than 300 pieces. The quarter eagle is scarce with perhaps a dozen or so examples. But the 268 piece mintage 1854-S half eagle is almost impossible. The last time an 1854-S half eagle was on the auction block it realized $170,000 and that was back  in 1982 with the coin being an AU-55, which is almost certainly the finest known. Just think about it. That price today should top $1 million and with a little promotion it could go higher as this is not only a rare coin it is also a very historic coin from the Old West.

If anything is holding the 1854-S half eagle back in price other than the fact that no one wants to sell one of the few known, it is once again the fact that it is not Mint State and perhaps the fact that with a mintage of 268 and the presence of a very scarce quarter eagle of the same year which had an even lower mintage, but which survived in greater numbers, causes some to not realize the rarity and importance of the 1854-S half eagle. Would you bid aggressively for a coin if you thought additional examples might suddenly swell the total of 3 known to 4 or 5?

The potential of the AU-55 example cannot be underestimated especially in light of the recent American Numismatic Rarities sale of the finest known 1796 “No Stars” quarter eagle for $1.38 million. That is another case of the finest known example of a very historic gold coin commanding a price far in excess of catalog listings and that could easily happen with the finest known 1854-S half eagle.

If there is a real sleeper among the great rarities a good choice would be the 1853-O no arrows and rays half dollar.
Realistically, the 1853-O without arrows and rays is a coin that is virtually surrounded by mysteries. We start with the mintage which is unknown. The reason is that in early 1853 a reduction in the amount of silver was passed by Congress. New Orleans had apparently already produced some half dollars, but those made with the new reduced silver amount had arrows placed at the date and rays added to the reverse. Those produced by the old specifications were apparently counted in the 1,328,000 mintage reported for the arrows and rays type.

With no reported mintage, the no arrows 1853-O half dollar was not even reported  for decades with most assuming that if any had been made they would have been melted as was suspected in the case of other 1853 coins struck before the change in silver weight and the addition of arrows at the date. Then in 1889 a no arrows 1853-O half dollar was offered with a report of another coming from Augustus Heaton in the 1890s. Years later there was another reported discovery making for three examples.

Trying to determine a price for the no arrows 1853-O half dollar is truly a matter of guesswork. In 1997 the Eliasberg example sold for $154,000, but it was graded VG-8. A VF-35 example sold for $368,000 in 2006. Certainly if offered again the VG-8 would bring an extremely high price, but that grade cannot help. The VF is another matter should it be offered again as it might well be seen as the finest likely to be available. Simply put, there are a lot of ifs concerning the no arrows 1853-O half dollar and that makes predicting a $1 million price difficult as it might well depend on which no arrow 1853-O is offered. Certainly if any no arrows 1853-O is put up for sale it will be a very interesting event as it is an extremely rare coin that is almost never offered for sale.

All things considered as the market continues to evolve, we are seeing a number of different and sometimes hard to explain prices emerging from the sale of great rarities. The logic of some of the prices may be open to question, but that brings us back to the Reed Hawn observation as in the case of a great rarity if two bidders are each determined to own the coin, the price can end up surprising everyone. That makes any attempt to explain the prices of great rarities based on their surviving numbers alone very difficult if not impossible as great rarities seem to have a life of their own especially when they appear at auction.

Just ask yourself. If you won the lottery tomorrow, which you jump into the chase for the 1913 Liberty Head nickel that everybody seems to be aware of, or would you go after something scarcer like the no arrows 1853-O half dollar. It is this question asked by those actually doing the bidding that makes prices what they are.

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