By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.
What’s it worth? As the old saying goes, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard or seen this question by a novice collector, I would be a rich man. Well, that might be hyperbole, but I would certainly have more money than I have today.
Of course, it’s not just new collectors who ask the question. Big name collectors and those who have been collecting for decades also want to know the answer to this question. If you have truly scarce or rare coins, the answer can usually be found in the results of well-publicized public auctions. In this article, I’ll give you a sampling of what we learned about rare coin values from 2017 coin auctions.
If you’ve been reading my annual auction articles in Numismatic News in recent years, you may remember that I start by looking at all the million-dollar coins sold during the year. With a few exceptions, the annual number of these coins this century has ranged from a low of one (2001, 2002, 2004) to six (2012). The exceptions have been years that saw much larger numbers of seven-figure pieces (2005, 2013-2015). In those four years, the numbers ranged from 10-14.
This past year saw a reversion to a much lower number, as I counted just two million-dollar sellers. The first of these involved the so-called “King of Coins,” the 1804 silver dollar. This particular 1804 dollar was part of the D. Brent Pogue Collection, which was sold in five auctions held by Stack’s Bowers Galleries in Baltimore, Md, in conjunction with Sotheby’s.
The sales of Pogue’s magnificent collection earned nearly $107 million to set a new record for the most valuable coin collection sold at auction. All values cited in this article include the Buyer’s Premium (BP), which is typically 17.5 percent of the winning bid.
Pogue’s 1804 dollar was graded PR65 by Professional Coin Grading Service and is called the Dexter specimen because of a tiny “D” stamped into one of the clouds on the reverse. Rather than being placed there by James V. Dexter, however, the letter was probably the handiwork of another owner, William Forrester Dunham. Be that as it may, when the bidding ceased, the coin realized $3.29 million.
Amazingly, this is not the end of the story. Two days later, the coin sold again for an undisclosed higher price. The buyer was Bruce Morelan, owner of the PCGS all-time finest Registry Set of early American dollars. Acting as the buyer’s agent, Laura Sperber of Legend Numismatics bought the coin from its previous purchasers, Kevin Lipton and John Albanese.
Said Morelan, “I was shocked when the coin sold so low. I’m happy to pick it up for a few incremental bids over that level. While the coin is not necessary for the circulation strike early dollars set, it certainly is complementary to my set and collection as a whole.”
Two other coins from the fifth Pogue sale came close to the million-dollar figure. The first of these was the finest known 1811 half cent. Graded MS66 RB by PCGS, it realized $998,750. Graded AU58 by PCGS, a Sheldon-13 1793 Liberty Cap large cent went for $940,000, earning it the record as the most valuable circulated cent.
Stack’s Bowers also sold the other million-dollar coin, the fourth-finest example of the 1794 Flowing Hair dollar. This particular coin, graded MS64 by PCGS, with CAC sticker, traces its provenance to an English gentleman farmer touring the U.S. in 1794-1795. Called the Lord St. Oswald specimen, the coin realized $2.8 million at the Stack’s Bowers official 2017 American Numismatic Association auction in Denver. Overall, Stack’s Bowers auctions sold more than $12.4 million at the World’s Fair of Money.
Another couple of coins sold for $900,000 or more at auction in 2017. One of these was an 1861 Confederate half dollar graded PR40 by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, with CAC sticker. The coin was offered as part of the Eric P. Newman Collection Part IX U.S. Coins Signature Auction, which was conducted by Heritage Auctions in Dallas in early November. The coin realized $960,000, which includes a 20 percent BP. It was the first time this coin has been part of a public auction.
The other big winner sold at the Stack’s Bowers Galleries’ Official Auction of the 2017 Whitman Coins & Collectibles Winter Expo. Held in Baltimore in November, the Expo saw the sale of a 1792 Silver Center cent graded MS61 BN by PCGS, with CAC sticker. The star of the session in which it was offered, the cent realized $900,000.
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In addition to the spectacular coins I’ve discussed so far, many key coins did well at public auction in 2017. Key coins are typically coins in a series with the lowest mintages and the highest values. They are coins considered the keys to set completion. Examples include the 1877 Indian Head cent, the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent, and the 1916-D Mercury dime.
At Heritage Auctions Long Beach Sale held in mid February, the always popular 1909-S VDB cent in the spectacular grade of MS67 Red (PCGS Secure) realized $61,687.50. Other coins that did well in the sale included a 1794 dollar graded VF Details by PCGS. Even with problems, the coin earned $88,125. The top lot in the auction was an 1892 $20 gold piece, graded PR65 Deep Cameo by PCGS. This rarity brought in $146,875.
Showing how much difference half a grading point can make in the value of a key date, a PCGS-graded MS66+ RD 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent, with CAC sticker, realized “just” $22,912.50 in the Legends Rare Coin Auctions sale on May 18 at Harrah’s New Orleans. Held for PCGS members only, the company reported “decent prices overall, with areas of surprising strength.”
At Heritage Auctions sale in Dallas in early April, a key date to the Morgan dollar set in general and to the Carson City Morgan set in particular, the 1889-CC, brought $42,300. NGC assigned the grade of MS63 Deep Prooflike to the coin.
For the advanced Morgan dollar collector, the big key to the set would have to be the 1895, issued only as a proof with a mintage of just 880 pieces. A gem example (PCGS PR67 Deep Cameo) of this rarity realized $199,750 in a Heritage auction at the Central States Numismatic Society show held from April 26-May 2 in Schaumburg, Illinois.
Overall, the sale earned more than $32.5 million, and Heritage was well pleased with the results, as 99 percent of the lots offered actually sold. Top honors went to an 1866 double eagle Graded NGC PR65 Cameo with CAC sticker. This magnificent piece brought $517,000 to the Heritage coffers. The coin had been donated to an Indiana church to help the congregation pay for a church building of its own. It obviously earned considerably more than its presale estimate of $300,000.
Another Morgan dollar key, the 1893-S, graded MS61 by PCGS, went for the astounding amount of $176,250. It was sold in the Heritage auction in conjunction with the Long Beach Coin and Collectibles Expo in June. According to Heritage, “This is the first mint state example of this coin we’ve offered since July 2015.” This undoubtedly explains the large amount paid for a coin despite its low Mint State grade. In the same sale, an 1895 Morgan graded PR64+ Cameo by PCGS realized $76,375.
About the sale, Jim Halperin, one of the founders of Heritage Auctions, had this to say: “The market for rare and unusual specimens is still doing very well.” His comment about “unusual specimens” probably refers to the sale’s top lot, a 107.76 ounce Kellogg & Humbert gold ingot, which sold for $188,000. As I write this, the ingot contains about $138,000 worth of gold.
Heritage offered another 1893-S Morgan in its July 6-9 auction at the Summer FUN show in Orlando. Graded AU55 by PCGS, this lightly circulated example went for $38,796.15. At the same sale, the big key to the Mercury dime series, the 1916-D, sold for $25,850. NGC had graded this example MS64 FB.
Illustrating that two coins with the same numerical grade can bring significantly different amounts, a pair of 1907 High Relief Saints, with Wire Rim, sold for $32,900 and $25,850. PCGS had certified both of the coins in the grade of MS64.
In addition to the rarity keys I’ve been talking about, there are condition rarities. These are relatively common coins that are inexpensive in lower grades but quite scarce and pricey in upper grades. The classic example is the 1892-S Morgan dollar. According to “Coin Market,” it’s worth just $45 in VG8 but $150,000 in MS65!
In fact, an 1892-S Morgan in MS63 (NGC) sold for $76,375 in the Heritage Dallas auction in early April. In that same auction, an NGC MS66 1908-S Saint, which is a mintage rarity because it had the lowest mintage of any of the regularly issued Saints (22,000), brought $70,500. In the Stack’s Bowers auction at the World’s Fair of Money, a 1908-S in a slightly lower grade (PCGS MS65) realized a slightly lower amount at $64,625.
A couple more condition rarities changed hands at Legend Rare Coin Auction’s 23rd Regency Auction Oct. 26 at the PCGS Members Only Show in Philadelphia. Both were Morgan dollars. A PCGS MS67 1892-S, with CAC certification, brought an astounding $470,000, whereas an 1893-O dollar, graded MS66PL by PCGS, with CAC sticker, sold for $411,250. In VG8, this is a $210 coin. Both coins were pedigreed to the Eliasberg collection.
Have you ever wondered what a complete set of $10 Indian Head gold pieces is worth? Consisting of 33 different coins, such a set sold for nearly $2 million at the Legend auction. Of course, this wasn’t just any old set of $10 Indians; it was the current #2 Registry Set of the series. Grades ranged from MS63+ to MS67.
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Oddities, unusual items, often do well at auction. For example, at the Heritage FUN auction held in Fort Lauderdale in early January, the top lot was a 327.97 ounce gold ingot from The Arizona Treasure Collection. Issued by Justh & Hunter, this huge ingot was worth just $6,162.78 when it was cast. Containing $417,216 worth of gold at today’s gold value, the massive ingot sold for $564,000.
An even more unusual item, an all-glass cent manufactured in 1942 as an experiment in alternative cent material, sold for $70,500 at the Heritage auction. This piece is one of just two such items known to exist. The other glass coin is broken in half.
The Heritage auction at the World’s Fair of Money contained a couple of unusual items: a 1943 bronze cent just recently discovered and a 1792 Birch cent. Graded NGC MS62, the Lincoln went for $282,000.
The Birch cent was last sold at auction in 1890, when it went for a whopping $75. Graded PCGS Genuine XF details, with repaired denticles and a filed edge, this Rarity-8 specimen realized $211,500.
Another oddity earned top honors in Heritage’s Long Beach sale in September. It was a 1795 Reeded Edge cent, one of only 10 examples known. It was certified as genuine by PCGS, with perhaps G4 details, and it sold for $192,000. To me, that seems like a lot of money to pay for a coin with “perhaps G4 details.”
Do you have any interest in “Hobo” nickels? These are Buffalo nickels on which either the obverse or reverse or both has been carved to resemble something other than an Indian’s head or a buffalo. A special session of Kagin’s Sept. 15 auction at the Santa Clara, California Expo dealt with these collectibles. The top lot was a “Bo” Hughes carving of a full-bearded man with a bow on his long brim hat. It sold for a record price of $4,465
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Once again, I’ve written an article about major numismatic auctions held in the preceding year. For the most part, the coins I’ve discussed are well beyond the numismatic budgets of collectors like you and me.
There’s no need to despair, however, as throughout the year there have been literally thousands of desirable coins offered at auction or at fixed prices that are quite affordable. To find these, check out eBay offerings or perhaps David Lawrence Rare Coins. On the latter site, I found the following coins with fixed prices: 1909 VDB Lincoln cent NGC MS64 RB, $55; 1935 Buffalo nickel PCGS MS64, $65; and 1943-S Mercury dime PCGS MS66, $40. At the GreatCollections auction site, there are currently literally dozens of uncirculated Morgan dollars with bids well below $100.
In other words, there is literally something for every collector at most numismatic auction sites. When you make your list of New Year’s resolutions, vow to check out coin auctions in 2018. I predict you’ll be glad you did.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.
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