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More than Morgans in coin hoards


Did you buy any of the Morgan silver dollars sold by the General Services Administration sales in the 1970s and early 1980s? Congratulations. You were part of numismatic history as the U.S. government dispersed its remaining 2.9 million Morgan dollars.
Hoards are fascinating.

How about the famous Redfield Hoard of silver dollars that came on the market privately in the 1970s?

Without such hoards, the supply of Morgan dollars would be far less for collectors today and the prices probably much higher. The Morgan dollar hoards of the past 50 years are pretty well documented, but that is not the case with all hoards and it makes determining the impact of older hoards all the more challenging but interesting.

One of the interesting things about hoards is that they stretch all the way back to ancient times. That is because without banks the average wage earner in ancient times would be paid with coins and perhaps wanting to save some for an emergency it would be commonplace to find a safe spot, dig a hole and bury your coins. There were many such small groups, which is why ancient coin collectors and dealers seem to have been somewhat ahead of their U.S. collecting counterparts when it came to appreciating hoards not only for the coins they provided but also for the small glimpse into a past era they give us.

The situation in the early United States many centuries later was not all that different from the situation in ancient times. We have located a number of absolutely fascinating hoards over the years. One of them is called the Bank of New York Hoard from 1856. It was an entire keg of 1787 Fugio cents. Clearly this hoard was not the work of one individual, but it has certainly proved to be an important hoard for those wanting a nice Fugio cent today.

There was a another large hoard for another colonial issue in the form of the Col. Cohen hoard of 1773 Virginia halfpennies, which reportedly contained some 2,200 coins and which explains why the 1773 Virginia halfpenny is perhaps the only Colonial issue that is reasonably available in Mint State today. Of course like the Bank of New York Hoard, this was a larger group and as they were all basically the same date and denomination it appears to have been a one-time hoard perhaps from a business as the average Colonial farmer was not in the habit of having thousands of coins at one time and especially not in the habit of having thousands of coins that they then forgot or did not recover for other reasons.

There have, however, been discoveries of smaller hoards typical of the farmer or wage earner who did not want to come home with all their money. Such small hoards are not limited to ancient times or even rural areas of the United States. All over Central America small hoards have been found buried in walls and foundations clearly the work of an individual trying to keep the frequently large families in the area from spending all their funds, leaving something for emergencies or special events like paying for a wedding.

Probably the most typical of such hoards would have been the Exeter Hoard of Massachusetts silver that reportedly had 30 to 40 pieces of silver Massachusetts silver shillings buried in the sand in what appeared to be the remains of wooden box. Primarily Pine Tree and Oak Tree types, a small hoard of silver is a true classic in terms of being typical of such hoards from around the world. The owner either had no access to gold or was not wealthy enough for gold issues, but silver was available and within his financial means to save. Early Americans would get silver bury it and bring home the copper coins perhaps with a story about why there was not more money, but whatever the circumstances, which probably varied from hoard to hoard such small silver hoards are great fun and numerous in some parts of the world.

Certainly one of the most interesting, largest and important silver hoards in the history of the United States did not involve Morgan dollars. In fact, it was discovered about the time the first Morgan dollar was being produced as in the small town of Economy, Pa., a subterranean storage area produced a mass of silver coins from the period up to 1836, which has provided the market with a large percentage of today’s available half dollars of the period.

The utopian Harmony Society believed in paying “in money,” which to them meant silver and they were very thrifty. The total face value of the hoard was estimated at $75,000 and it was primarily in the form of half dollars from 1794-1836. When the hoard was accumulate, half dollars were the largest silver denomination readily available in circulation at the time.

In the hoard, the historic 1794 half dollar, according to the Coin Collectors Journal of 1881 was found some 150 times, which may be one-third of the numbers known today while the staggering total of 111,356 available date half dollars from the period 1808-1836 is a significant percentage of the numbers known today and an important factor in the relatively low prices of half dollars from the period.

As interesting as the individual dates in the hoard and its impact on the availability of many half dollars from the period today is the fact that the list of coins from the Harmony Society Hoard gives us an extremely rare view of what coins were in circulation at the time. The rare 1796 and 1797 half dollars were rare even then too as there were two examples of the 1796 and just a single 1797. Also in the one-coin-only class was one of the relatively few silver dollars in the group, but even one 1794 silver dollar is significant.

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While the Harmony Society Hoard was a group effort and the hoard was clearly simply pulled from circulation. The Randall Hoard was definitely a different situation as it contained Mint State examples of a number of dates of large cents from about 1816-1820.

As so often happens with older hoards, the details are a little foggy, or perhaps became a little enhanced over the years as it was allegedly a keg of large cents discovered under a railroad platform shortly after the Civil War. In reality, the evidence suggests it was a hoard used basically to pay a debt to a Georgia merchant and eventually it was purchased by John Randall at the going discounted rate at the time of 90 to the dollar, which certainly ranks as an historical bargain. Precisely how many or if it was in fact a wooden keg, which came in different sizes at the time, are questions we will probably never answer with certainty.

We will also probably never know precisely the breakdown of the dates in the hoard or even with absolute certainty every date in the hoard. Grading services, however, do provide a clue as by checking to see which dates in Mint State are unusually available we can reach some reasonable conclusions. While dates from 1816-1820 all appear in greater numbers than is usually the case, it is clear that the two main dates in the hoard were the 1818 and 1820 as they both appear more than any other date with hundreds of examples called Mint State by the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation and the Professional Coin Grading Service while dates not associated with the hoard from the same time are lucky to reach 50 examples graded.

Historically some have suggested that the Randall Hoard coins are likely to be “spotted red” while others have suggested they were “oily,” While the grading service totals make such descriptions possible, there is also a clear suggestion that there were some very nice coins in the hoard and even more important the numbers in Mint State make the dates most associated with the hoard lower priced possibilities for those looking for a nice Mint State large cent from the period.

Hoards have come in all sizes and have been assembled for a wide variety of reasons. It appears that starting around the late 1870s there was at least one and possibly more collectors who seemingly decided that low mintage gold coins were a path to future profits. There are reports of a couple $3 gold piece dates being saved in small numbers, but a bigger surprise comes in the form of gold dollars especially from 1879-1881. There were certainly not many gold dollar collectors at the time, but these were low mintage dates. The 1879 has a mintage of 3,000 while the 1880 is at 1,600. The 1881 mintage stands at 7,620. Seemingly any large supplies of such dates would be impossible.

When we check their prices, however, we find that in MS-60 the 1879 is $525 while the 1880 is $475 and the 1881 is just $460. The prices are very close to the available date prices of the gold dollars of the type and that just does not happen to such low-mintage pieces without help. The help came in the form of hoards involving hundreds of examples of each. They found their way onto the market in the 1950s. The coins now appear to all be dispersed, but clearly these hoards, which were almost certainly assembled expecting profits because of the low mintages, are the reason the dates are more available and less expensive than might be expected today.

Profits from rare coins have motivated more than one person over the years. The best example of the hoarder’s favorite may well be a pattern in the form of the 1856 Flying Eagle cent. The 1856, while technically a pattern, has been viewed by collectors over the years as an important piece and a part of a regular Flying Eagle cent collection. Those with the funds have also seen it as a road to profits. With a combined business strike and proof mintage estimated at perhaps 2,500 pieces, the 1856 was low mintage and with its important place as really the first attempt at a smaller cent, the 1856 also has an important place in history.

It is also worth noting that the 1856 was something of a sensation when it was first discovered in the 1850s as collectors all wanted an example of what they saw as the first Flying Eagle cent. That is a natural impulse. How many 1974 aluminum cents could the U.S. Mint have sold to collectors at the time the composition was being evaluated for general use?

So it was in the 19th century. The 1856 was selling for a dollar after just a few years and it has never looked back in price or importance. The hoards over the years like the John A. Beck Hoard in Pittsburgh have sometimes numbered hundreds of pieces. One hoard would be dispersed but many of its coins would simply end up in the next hoard, making the 1856 a coin that has almost permanently been found in hoards in large numbers.

In some cases, hoards have been very hard to recover. That is definitely the case with double eagles lost at sea. Modern technology in the form of metal detectors and other devices has made it possible to find many small ancient coin hoards and it has also made it possible along with a lot of hard work to find some of the ships that slipped beneath the waves back in the 1850s with large numbers of double eagles fresh from the new San Francisco Mint.

San Francisco Mint State double eagles from the 1850s and 1860s are not coins to be taken lightly. There were, after all, virtually no collectors at the time and none who were collecting double eagles by date and mintmark. Before the recovery of coins from shipwrecks, there was virtually no supply of Mint State San Francisco double eagles from the period as very few were saved.

Recovery of the cargo of the S.S. Central America proved to be the turning point in availability for the 1856-S and 1857-S, which were taken to the bottom with the ship in 1857 off North Carolina. The loss of this gold even helped fuel the Panic of 1857 in New York City financial markets.

When the ship was located and recovered, it meant that more than 5,000 Mint State double eagles primarily of those two dates suddenly returned to the market. Some might have feared that the prices of the two would drop. In fact, they are slightly higher. It would be expecting too much to think that they would soar especially with thousands of examples hitting the market, but it has meant that the collector today now has a chance to at least acquire these two dates in top grades at reasonable prices.

Much the same can be said of dates like the 1863-S, 1864-S and 1865-S, which were found in the treasure of the S.S. Brother Jonathan when it was recovered off the West Coast. The numbers are not as large as was the case with the 1856-S and 1857-S, but the fact remains there are now many more examples of these 1860s dates than was the case in years past. It is a classic case of a hoard really being an opportunity, a fact an ancient coin dealer suggested to me long ago, and very clearly whether they are ancients or San Francisco double eagles, without the hoards many collectors would be unable to find and afford the coins they enjoy today.

Other hoards are nice and have great stories attached to them, but Morgan dollars still have a way of grabbing the spotlight. If most had to point to a favorite hoard story, it would be the tale of the LaVere Redfield Hoard of silver dollars. It was simply a case of this hoard or at least it’s owner coming straight out of Hollywood casting.

Redfield it seems was a person who did not believe in a number of things, including the government and personal hygiene. He did, however, believe in silver dollars and canned peaches among other things and after having made his millions he moved to Reno, Nev. There he began preparations for the end of the world, or whatever he anticipated, and in so doing he hoarded silver dollars and canned goods.

It probably would have been better for the condition of the dollars had he not mixed the dollars and the canned goods, but Redfield was not a collector. Whatever his beliefs, Redfield definitely acted on them as regularly he would drive his pickup to the bank and fill it with $1,000 silver dollar bags, which he would dump in his basement with the canned goods.

As it turned out, the disasters he encountered were primarily of his own doing as his security was not the best and he was robbed a couple of times. That said, when he died there were still enough silver dollars in his basement to make for a $7.3 million price from the A-Mark Coin Company, which was the price for 407,596 silver dollars of which 351,259 were called uncirculated.

The fun did not stop there, as a counting machine damaged some of the coins, but realistically the Redfield dollars were never going to become famous based on their extraordinary quality as that kind of went by the boards when the $1,000 bags bounced around in his truck and found a resting place with the canned peaches.

Even with what you would say was less than ideal storage conditions, the hoard provided us with thousands of Mint State examples of a wide variety of dates and the story remains a favorite with collectors.

Periodically a Redfield dollar can still be found in the original holder from the sale proving that the dollar inside while not perhaps the finest known still has a story second to none.

It is much the same way with the hoard itself as there were larger silver dollar hoards, but none with a more interesting owner.

LaVere Redfield became a legend but George Shaw and Morris Moscow should at least be in the same league as they were responsible for perhaps the most stunning hoard of key dates every assembled. Back in the 1940s Shaw was a coin dealer and one of the first to recognize the 1942/41 overate Mercury dimes. He enlisted the help of Morris Moscow who had a stand selling New York subway tokens and during the 1940s they simply checked the change as it came in.

Most of the coins ultimately saved by Shaw and Moscow were purchased by the Littleton Coin Company in the 1990s. The numbers were remarkable. There were 45 complete sets of Barber dimes except for the 1894-S, while the Barber half dollar total stood at 24 complete sets. All the key Barber quarter dates were also found including 8 examples of the 1901-S and 20 examples of the 40,000 mintage 1913-S as well as 19 examples of the 52,000 mintage 1916 Standing Liberty quarter.

Lincoln cents were apparently not seen in large numbers in the New York Subway System at the time, but there were still 44 examples of the 1914-D as well as 29 examples of the 1918/17-D overdate Buffalo nickel and a staggering 166 examples of the 1942/41 overdate Mercury dime.

The one total that virtually no one could believe was the 241 examples of the 1916-D Mercury dime. Now at $1,000 in G-4, the 1916-D with a mintage of 264,000 was a coin countless collectors wanted to find in circulation but few ever did. The 241 total is believed to be the largest single group of 1916-D Mercury dimes ever seen and it was joined by 600 examples of the 1921 Mercury dime and 450 examples of the 1921-D. Another stunning total was the 160 1912-S Liberty Head nickels, which had an even lower mintage than the 1916-D Mercury dime.

The New York Subway Hoard ranks as perhaps the most interesting hoard of the past century other than silver dollar hoards. There were others as there have always been throughout history. Whatever the coins or the story, the fact remains that hoards provide us with coins and sometimes very large numbers of them. While you may not know it, the odds are pretty good that in your collection there is at least one hoard coin that was probably a better deal simply because it had come on the market originally as part of a hoard.

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