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1838-O sale mystery of 1989 unraveled

The 1838-O half dollar is a genuine rarity, with only 20 pieces struck and the fate, 170 years after striking, of just about a dozen known pieces in existence leaves some unaccounted for.
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The 1838-O half dollar is a genuine rarity, with only 20 pieces struck and the fate, 170 years after striking, of just about a dozen known pieces in existence leaves some unaccounted for. I?ve liked this coin for many years and made it a centerpiece of my new book that Krause is publishing in July, ?Profitable Coin Collecting.?

More than 50 public auction sales of this coin are of record, some over a hundred years ago. The Mickley sale in 1867 by Woodward saw the coin offered as Lot 1782 and the selling price of $2.75. The same coin was acquired by J. P. Clemens and when Edward Coogan sold his collection in 1878. Lot 159 contained the same coin and brought $15.

Frossard sold his own collection Oct. 2, 1884 and Lot 400 in that sale featured an 1838 New Orleans half dollar which brought the ?enormous? price of $63 only to find an early case of economic recession in the coin field so that by the time Lorin Parmalee sold his collection in 1890, the coin stepped back to $23.50.

Thomas Elder sold the Wilson collection in October 1908, and Lot 346 featured the very same 1838-O half dollar. It resounded to a $570 mark. In the span of 40 years, the coin rose in value from $2.75 to almost $600 ? weekly wages in the United States at the time averaged about $6.

In the 1950s, the Anderson-Dupont sale by Stacks yielded a $3,500 price realized for an impaired proof specimen. That coin would be resold nine times in the succeeding half century and form the basis of the mystery that has existed for almost 20 years.

The unknown answer: an August 1989 sale as Lot 202. What was the price realized?

This seemed like a fairly easy answer since at least seven different sales since 1989 offered other coins, or even this one, and referred to the auction sale, the lot, and its pedigree. None of them, however, listed the price ? though they did for many other items.

I had a vague recollection that this was one of many of the shadow auctions that surrounded the ANA convention each year, which began with the Apostrophe auction sales in 1979. Trouble is, I didn?t have the catalog. So I called the ANA library and the American Numismatic Society library and asked if they had a copy of the catalog and prices realized.

Little did I realize that this was the first of more than a hundred inquiries yielding a giant conundrum ? both organizations forwarded the page description but neither had a prices realized or hand price version of the catalog.

Next, I reached out to Dennis Baker, who then edited the coin dealer newsletter and today owns NumisMedia ? but he didn?t remember the sale of event or have any strong recollection. I decided to check the two weekly newspapers (I have nearly complete sets of both) and found no mention at all.

I decided to try the numismatic information program (NIP) funded by the Harry Bass Foundation, thinking that perhaps The Numismatist might have had a small story on the price realized. No luck there, either.

Back in the 1980s, I regularly attended coin auctions as a buyer and as a reporter and immediately thought of some of my colleagues and friends who did likewise. So I contacted Julian Leidman, who attended many of the other sales and normally was a great source of recollection.

Julian responded with a case of bad memory but very good suggestions. I?ve forgotten about Vintage, which was only around for a couple of years, but he remembered vividly. ?Larry [Hanks] had partners, I believe, David. I think that they were Dale Williams, now in Montana, Norm Pullen, now in Maine, his brother, Bill, now in Florida. One of them might have a catalog that is priced. You might also try Tony Terranova or Ken Goldman. I cannot find those catalogs, sorry.?

John Danreuther, similarly contacted, wrote, ?I can?t remember what it brought. I checked my catalog, but I don?t have prices realized for this lot. I did not attend that sale, so don?t have that info. I think Larry Hanks could help you, as he was the main man in that auction group. Larry should be able to give you the buyer, too.?

So I began correspondence with Larry Hanks, who remembered the coin, the catalog, but neither the consignor, the purchase price nor the winning bidder. I also started to look at alternative sources ? books that carried prices realized and similar. I thought the Coin World Almanac might be a good idea, but the coin was not covered.

Similarly, Auction Prices Realized which Krause publications published into the year 2002 might be a good source ? and I had 1989 volume in my library. Unfortunately, it covered 1988. I bought on eBay the 1990 volume only to find that it didn?t cover the Vintage auction sale at all.

There was no reference to it, either, in my extensive reference library of some 5,000 volumes. I had previously bought both a catalog and some prices realized from Karl Moulton, and reached out to him. He did send the Vintage catalog, but it also lacked the prices realized. Bryce Brown had neither the catalog nor the prices realized.

I was beginning to think that this could be no sale or one where no prices realized were printed or possibly both. Larry Hanks then saved the day. ?I was a partner with Vintage Auctions at that time. I?ll see if I can find a copy of the prices realized. I do know the coin did sell,? he e-mailed. Now we?re cooking with gas.

He recalled that ?A collector from the Northeastern part of the United States was the buyer. If my memory serves me correctly, the coin either sold for $45,000 or $50,000. I?ll also check and see if I can find out who consigned the piece.?

I thought I was on the right track and ready for the answer but Larry continued that ?Unfortunately, in August, 2007, a large portion of my numismatic reference library (including hundreds of books and catalogs from 1858 to 1964) was destroyed in a flood in (of all places) El Paso. My original reference copy of the Vintage Auction with the prices realized was a part of the destroyed reference materials.?

Back to the drawing board. I reached out to Dwight Manley and Kevin Lipton, known for their discerning eye and purchase of major rarities. Dwight wrote back in an e-mail, ?Some guy that had Anchor Coins from Florida I think may have bought it ... he was buying them back then ... his name may have been Walter ...a stocky guy with gold chains.?

I spoke again with Julian Leidman who confirmed that ?Walter? collected 1838-O half dollars ? that?s right, collected them ? but that he didn?t think he was a purchaser. Since it is from Florida, I thought David Akers who responded to an inquiry? I am sorry but I did not attend that particular sale and have no record of the price realized or the buyer.?

Time to bite the bullet and speak to some more coin dealers who were involved in Vintage coin auction sales. Norm Pullen couldn?t have been nicer, and I caught up with him in Maine in the early spring. He also had absolutely no recollection of coin or event, though he suggested Larry Hanks could provide the answer.

Larry?s estimate of $45,000 was the first ballpark figure that made sense. A call to Dale Williams yielded what he termed a ?Swiss cheese? memory that brought me no closer to the buyer or the amount than before.

In the middle of all this, Heritage offered the coin in its Central States auction sale, which meant a great opportunity for a chart showing price changes over an extended period of time ? if only I could just get the price.
I spoke with Arthur Friedberg, of the Coin Currency Institute, who I?ve known for more than 30 years, and Neil Berman, who I?ve known almost as long. Neither had the catalog or prices realized or suggestions beyond checking with the ANS. During this time, the ANS library was in the process of packing up for a move, but Frank Campbell, the retiring librarian, couldn?t have been more helpful.

 He checked the coin dealer newsletter closest to the sale date and several other sources and came up with a goose egg. So, too, the ANA librarian Amber Thompson. Bryce Brown now stepped in with a promising suggestion for yet another library, the Fitzwilliam Museum and Ted Buttrey.

I wrote to Buttrey, as well as the keeper of the coins, and heard that they had the catalog (an online examination showed that) but also no prices realized. In response to my request, Ted also confirmed that the catalog was not hand priced. Stuart Levine, Sheridan Downey, Andy Lusting, Scott Travers Maurice Rosen, David Harper, Ron Guth, Wayne Homren, Jeff Friedman, Ken Goldman and others all jumped in with suggestions.

Ken Goldman had an epiphany; he told me he owned this particular coin in 1986 but has no knowledge afterwards. My task so far is summarized in an e-mail to Ron Guth, PCGS president: ?I?m researching the 1838-O half dollar for a chapter in a book on collecting and investing in rare coins (Krause, 2008) and heard that you had something to do with Vintage Auctions back in 1989.

?According to the catalog, which I have, Lot 202 is 1838 ? O half dollar. I can?t tell whether or not it?s sold because I don?t have a copy of the prices realized. The ANS has the catalog and no prices realized. The ANA lacks even the catalog. Karl Moulton?s Web site said Larry Hanks was a principal, so I contacted him; ownership was not relevant but the results were. I then cite the Heritage pedigree:

?Still looking for that elusive information on the 1838-O half. Julian had no information. Bowers no recollection. Neil Berman nothing. Zero from ANA and ANS Library. Karl Moulton no price realized. Frank Campbell of the ANS checked Auction Prices Realized and there is no coverage or listing. I found old issues of Coin World in August-September 1989 and looked to see if there was a story about the auction or the sale and found none. Though my Numismatic News holds are more disorganized (I was writing for Coin World then), to the same effect from what I did find. Dennis Baker, then editor of Coin Dealer Newsletter, also no recollection.

Beth Deisher yesterday checked her index and manually reviewed the same papers that I did ? no p/r, no story about them.?

?Nothing in The Numismatist that I could find. Jim Halperin and the Heritage team who are selling one at Central States also came up empty on the Vintage specimen. One thought that I have is that some of those in attendance might have kept book the way I used to at the Apostrophe sales, by bidder, opening bid and result. Larry Hanks (who recalls that it did sell, but can?t remember what price ? today he believes $45,000 ? lost his paperwork and library in a rare El Paso flood ? but was going to check.

 Dale Williams (who claims he is too old and has a bad memory and doesn?t remember at all), Ken Goldman (who told me he owned this particular coin in 1986 but has no knowledge afterwards), Julian Leidman (early on, who referred me to Larry Hanks and Ken Goldman, but had no independent recollection); all for naught. I still need the data.?

 Stuart Levine thinks he has a lead: ?I think that the 38-O in question may have been a coin that Julian Leidman bought out of a Herb Melnick sale around 1982. I think I remember the coin not selling in the 1989 sale. Ask Julian.?

And so I go back to my friend of 30 years Julian Leidman.

On April 6, Julian copies me with an e-mail: ?I have a colleague who is doing some research on the 38-O halves, Lowell, and we have been unable to find the price realized when you bought your coin. Would you be kind enough to tell me? I hope that you do well in the Heritage auction.? Yup! Julian found the 1989 buyer ? the 2008 consignor.

I drop a note to the writer and get back a reply that puts it all in perspective: ?I have the original catalog of that sale. The only thing I have is the minimum bid was $27,000. I started bidding at $32,000. There was a two-page write-up in the catalog about the 1838-O history, how and where it was minted.?

Back comes the conclusion of the search and the footnote: ? I do not recall my increments to the $37,000. It is graded by PCGS at Pr-45 at the time I bought it.? The price realized with the 10 percent buyer?s fee is $40,700. The buyer was Lowell Yoder, who sold the coin April 17, 2008, ?so it can be a blessing to help those in need and to serve our Lord and may my Lord bless you.?

 The price realized: $276,000 for the Proof-45 half dollar rarity ? a simple return of about 17 percent annually. And so its 54-year price history is logged as follows:

Anderson-Dupont, Stack?s, Nov. 1954, $3,500;
1957 ANA, Federal Coin Exchange, Aug. 1957 $4,450;
1983 ANA sale, Kagin, Aug. 83, $29,700;
Jasper Robertson collection, Mid American, May 1985, $32,500;
1986 ANA Sale Kagin Aug. 1986 $33,000
WH ?Woody? Blevin, Superior, June 1988, $44,000;
Vintage Auctions, Vintage Auctions, Aug. 1989, $40,700;
Yoder family, Heritage, April 2008, $276,000.

All this for a footnote to the chart. The book?s due out in July.