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Coin hoard stories always fascinate

Almost everyone loves hoards and treasure stories. From the time I was young I have been in that majority as once a week back in the 1950s there was a television program that had a treasure story. I saw it as must viewing whether the treasure was the Holy Grail or suspected pirate loot. No one ever struck it rich from the program, but for that half hour each week I would not talk or move from in front of the TV set for any reason.

Almost everyone loves hoards and treasure stories. From the time I was young I have been in that majority as once a week back in the 1950s there was a television program that had a treasure story. I saw it as must viewing whether the treasure was the Holy Grail or suspected pirate loot. No one ever struck it rich from the program, but for that half hour each week I would not talk or move from in front of the TV set for any reason.


Rumor has it you grow out of some things as you age. When it came to treasure and hoards I did not. In fact it got me in trouble or at least helped to get me a reputation in the small Wisconsin town Ridgeway where I lived for many years. I lived in one of the largest houses in town. It had a garage as well as an old building where I was told the former bank president routinely parked his buggy. When his bank failed, he skipped town.

The house was just filled with history and when I convinced a metal detector company that if I got a metal detector I would use it and report the finds in my column in a treasure hunting magazine the trouble started.

Like anyone in search of treasure you have to think positively, and I did, especially when I turned on the detector and it immediately was screaming that I had found something. In fact, I barely managed my first jump for joy and shout of "Eureka" when I realized that the metal in question was my outdoor grill.

That was only the start of the misadventures as I decided the large front yard would be a good spot to test my luck and skill. The problem was that there was metal everywhere and what should have been a couple small finds turned into what the neighbor’s described as “the trench.”

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It took all summer, but it was impressive as the trench extended perhaps 20 feet and went down about three feet as the metal readings just kept coming. As the neighbors watched the trench grow they became more interested. Some gathered every day to see what had turned up, which was usually very little. I did, however, begin to fill in the trench, planting new grass seed as I went.

I explained to one and all that I needed to plant new grass anyway and the trench was a good way of getting paid for the effort. In fact, even the few silver coins and couple of pieces of jewelry from the trench would not have paid for the seeds much less my time, although by the time the trench became a town attraction everyone had pretty much agreed my time was worth little or nothing.

Bored of the trench I decided to take the unfortunate exercise on the road. The Black Hills of South Dakota beckoned as they were the closest place where I felt logically there might still be treasure. It was great to see the old mines and Deadwood.

The camping might have been better if it was not near freezing at night and close to 100 degrees in the day. The fact that I had to share a bathroom with a motorcycle gang probably did not help either with the bathrooms at Mount Rushmore proving to be a welcome relief as they were heated and did not involve sharing the facility with someone who seemed to be named Snake.

After a week of alternately freezing and boiling while comparing notes on life and philosophy with someone who seemed to have a special attraction to reptiles I returned to home to my trench with one sorry flake of gold, but a lifetime appreciation for those who tried to find gold in the streams of the Black Hills.

The one redeeming discovery with my metal detector turned out to be located near the side door to the house, which would have been the closest door to where the former bank president was rumored to park his buggy.

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It was the gift that just kept giving as in an area of no more than a few feet I ultimately found more than 50 Indian Head cents. None was a better date, but the sheer quantity was stunning especially to someone who had spent months digging something rivaling the Panama Canal with only a few silver coins to show for the effort.

The theory behind the Indian Head cents was that the bank president or whoever owned the house in fumbling for his keys would frequently drop a cent and never bother to look for it. In Wisconsin winters that is especially likely, but it seemed to make the most sense of all the possible reasons for a hoard of Indian cents by the door.

In the world of hoards and treasure my Indian Head cents did not amount to much, but the other hoards and treasures that do were all described by Q. David Bowers in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards. For those who like treasures and hoards, it’s a great book and it seeks to provide information on virtually every treasure or hoard worth mentioning, which is why my Indian Head cents were not included.

In his description of hundreds of hoards and treasures Bowers make an excellent point, which is that accurate information about hoards and treasures is frequently more precious than the coins themselves. That is certainly the case for many and especially for older, historic hoards.

In the case of more recent salvage efforts of ships there is basically a full accounting for the coins as that is required by law to establish a legal claim and as such treasures are frequently sold at auction or by dealers. After being professionally graded, we can frequently find a full account of the coins discovered. In other cases such as the Treasury silver dollar holdings or gold returning from foreign banks, we have been able to quickly and easily spot numbers of coins suddenly appearing on the market.

The evidence is clear as when the suddenly rare 1903-O and other previously rare or at least tough Morgan dollars suddenly were available in large numbers there was no question as to why as they simply had emerged from the Treasury in quantity.

The 1924-S and 1926-D Saint-Gaudens double eagles were similar as they were seen as great rarities in the 1940s only to become much more available a couple decades later thanks to the fact that numbers had returned home from European vaults where they had been stored for many years. They may not be common today, but they are certainly much more available than was the case years ago.

Any recent hoard is usually very well reported. A good example is the Wells Fargo hoard of a reported 19,900 1908 No Motto Saint-Gaudens double eagles. In his book A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins Bowers has a letter describing the hoard from Ron Gillio who was involved in its purchase in the 1990s. The hoard was remarkable not only for its size but also for the condition of the coins involved as some were truly exceptional.

As it turned out, the grading services have helped to further show the impact of the hoard as both Professional Coin Grading Service and Numismatic Guaranty Corp. have a separate listing for Wells Fargo 1908 No Motto Saint-Gaudens double eagles and the numbers are fascinating.

PCGS has graded 1,167 examples of the 1908 No Motto double eagle as MS-66 but another 4,848 from the Wells Fargo hoard have received that grade. In MS-67 PCGS has seen 38 coins but the Wells Fargo hoard has supplied another 793 while in MS-68 there has only been a single 1908 No Motto coin graded not associated with the hoard but 100 coins from the hoard received that grade.

At NGC in MS-67 there were 94 coins not associated with the hoard but 941 coins from the hoard and in MS-68 there have been 10 coins not associated with the hoard but 147 from the hoard. Simply put the Wells Fargo hoard has basically been the prime source of supply for the 1908 No Motto Saint-Gaudens double eagle in grades of MS-67 and MS-68 and a significant supply of coins in lower grades.

Unfortunately in the case of older hoards we do not have similar documentary information. In fact, we frequently do not have accurate accounting of the coins or of their condition and that is frequently just the start of what we do not know about a specific hoard as oftentimes the story behind any hoard is also clouded in mystery. At times trying to determine what coins might have been in a hoard and how many of them there were can be an exercise in frustration.

Thanks to advent of grading services there is at least some small way other than the recollections of older collectors and dealers to put some hoards to the test. It is certainly not scientific, but it is possible by checking certain dates in certain grades to see if a hoard was possible and might have made a difference in our supply of certain coins today. In some respects it strikes me as a bit like looking at a distant star and see its light, which can be hundreds of years old as it took that long for the light to travel to earth. By looking at today’s numbers we can also look back in time to see if there is something unusual suggesting that a hoard found years ago would have produced an unusual supply of any specific date.

One of the most famous of all hoards is the Randall Hoard of large cents. Like any other hoard the details are sometimes sketchy as it appears that what was described as a “keg” of large cents was discovered by a Georgia merchant around 1868. The precise definition of a keg is subject to some debate and the precise dates and numbers of each date are also subject to speculation as the hoard passed through a number of hands including those of William Chapman, who allegedly pay 90 cents on the dollar for the coins and after promoting them they were sold to John Randall of Norwich, Conn. who attempted to sell them. On the latter’s death in 1878, they were purchased by William Cogan who was really one of if not the nation’s first mainstream coin dealers. Cogan reported various numbers of 1817, 1818 and 1819 cents as well as other dates although the evidence we have today would suggest the 1820 would have been the majority of the “various dates.” Ironically in a letter dated 1870 reprinted in the Bowers book Randall remembered the 1820, but also the 1825.

There is no doubt the Randall Hoard existed, but trying to figure out the number and dates involved is a tougher problem. Certainly there is a legitimate question regarding the 1825 and possibly the 1820. If we check the grading services for numbers of the dates involved in Mint State, we find the 1816 has been seen in Mint State 108 times by PCGS and 84 times by NGC. The 1817 shows numbers of 121 at PCGS and 74 at NGC while the 1818 totals are 296 at PCGS and 288 at NGC with the 1819 showing identical 81 Mint State piece totals at both. The 1820, which Cogan did not report, ironically shows totals of 267 at PCGS and 391 at NGC.

Certainly the grading service totals can vary for a number of reasons. What is important is how those dates would compare with similar dates and with the 1825. The 1822 for example was not mentioned in connection with the hoard and its uncirculated totals are 13 coins at PCGS and 14 at NGC. In the case of the 1825, which seems to be in some doubt based on the letter from Randall, it appears he was wrong as the 1825 Mint State totals are in line with non-hoard dates with PCGS reporting 27 and NGC reporting 14.

The conclusion we can draw is that the Randall Hoard made a significant difference as the dates from 1816-1820 have hundreds of examples graded at grading services that would not normally be expected. We can also suggest that Cogan for some reason overlooked the 1820 as being a part of the hoard while Randall included the 1825, which might have been represented by a few pieces, but there is no evidence that it was there in numbers similar to the others.

There is another hoard Bowers has in his book, which interestingly enough is barely ever mentioned. According to Bowers a 1918 auction conducted by Thomas Elder featured the collections of Robert Hewitt and B.C. Bartlett. The lots in the collections had many Mint State 1862 Indian Head cents. In fact, just the lots clearly called Mint State totaled 775 coins, but there were also mixed lots leading Bowers to conclude “it is probable the Elder hoard consisted of about 1,000 specimens of this date.”

In fact the hoard was potentially typical as we know that in the early days of the Civil War people had started to hoard copper-nickel Indian Head cents. No one quite understood why, but they were being hoarded and this group looks to have been such a Civil War hoard put away at the time of release and never brought out again until the sale.

Did the 1,000 pieces potentially make a difference in our supply today? The answer is definitely as PCGS has graded 779 examples of the 1862 with about 675 being Mint State, while NGC has graded 891 with about 850 being Mint State. Certainly there are more but some seen by the grading services were probably graded more than once, making this one group sold back in 1918 potentially over 50 percent of the supply today of the 1862.

Not every hoard traced to the 1800s is as easy to precisely identify as having an impact on certain dates and their availability today. Part of the problem in the case of perhaps the largest and most significant hoard of the 1800s, the Economite Hoard, is the size of the hoard itself.

The famous Economite Hoard assembled by the members of the Harmony Society prior to 1836 consisted of an estimated 115,000 half dollars from the period prior to 1836. It was an extraordinary hoard providing a glimpse into the circulating coins of the day, or at least the half dollars as the Harmony Society which assembled the hoard were followers of a German immigrant by the name of George Rapp and one of their beliefs was paying “In Money,” which meant silver and the largest silver coins in production at the time were half dollars. The Harmony Society would have been happy to hoard silver dollars, but they had not been in production since 1804 and there were very few to be had, so they turned to half dollars.

The first report of the Economite Hoard dates to 1881 and while we have some information we have only bits and pieces. For example we have a listing of some dates in the hoard and their numbers but in the case of dates from 1808-1836 we simply know there were a reported 111,356 Capped Bust half dollars, but they were not broken down by date, variety or condition. We certainly can see the impact of the hoard simply because half dollars of that period are more available than would normally be expected but in terms of specifics we have precious little information.

We do have a few dates and their numbers from the Economite Hoard and they certainly give us a small glimpse into the potential importance of the hoard. The first half dollar was the 1794 and it is a date that is always in demand. The hoard reportedly had 150 examples of the 1794 and the number has to be viewed in light of the fact that PCGS has graded 274 and NGC 100 in all grades combined. It can fairly be suggested that the grading services have not seen all the surviving 1794 half dollars, but it can also be safely pointed out that being a better date and an important one as well it would not be out of the question to suggest that they would see more examples of the 1794 in all grades than is usually the case.

The 1815/2 is similar as the reported number in the hoard was 100 pieces. The two totals for the 1815/2 and 1794 are suspiciously round, but accepting the idea that there were approximately 100 examples of the 1815/2 as well as roughly 150 examples of the 1794 we see the impact for today’s supply of the 1815/2 as PCGS reports 187 examples of the 1815/2 in all grades while NGC reports 150. Under the circumstances we have to conclude that today’s supply of the 1815/2 is dramatically improved because of perhaps 100 examples found in the Economite Hoard well over a century ago.

Hoarding takes places for a number of reasons and it appears the idea of profit was very much a part of some hoards in the later part of the 1800s. Bowers notes that such speculation was going on in the 1870s and we see examples in the case of three low mintage gold dollars, the 1879 with a mintage of 3,000, the 1880 with a mintage of 1,600 and the 1881 with a mintage of 7,620. The three were hoarded although we do not known with certainty who might have done the hoarding, although it was supposed to be a Baltimore investor and if that is true T. Harrison Garrett would be a leading candidate. Whatever the case with such low mintages the three dates should be very tough in Mint State or any grade for that matter, but Bowers points to a flood of these dates in the 1950s and 1960s and the grading services today back up that observation as PCGS and NGC have combined for over 300 Mint State examples of the 1879, which is potentially 10 percent of its mintage while the 1880 has been graded in Mint State over 275 times with the 1881 at over 550 times in Mint State.

Those numbers are certainly not normal for low mintage gold dollars and they go a long way toward explaining the prices of the three today, which in some grades are barely above available date levels. In this case the hoarding might have backfired as there can be too much of a good thing – at least if you hope to profit from that good thing being scarce but the collectors of today benefit by being able to obtain low mintage dates at a great price.

Over the years a couple of coins have simply been hoarder classics with very different results. The 1856 Flying Eagle cent was not even really a coin, but it has been accepted as one and it is certainly important as the first small-cent. In fact, the 1856 never really circulated in any numbers, but the Mint produced added examples for collectors and over the years some have attempted to obtain as many examples as possible. There have been hoards in the hundreds and a couple that were even bigger, including the George W. Rice hoard, which was sold in 1911 and included 756 examples of the 1856. Some of those 756 were probably purchased by John Andrew Beck, who by the time of his death in 1924 had managed to acquire 531 examples of the 1856.

We cannot really be sure of the actual mintage of the 1856 Flying Eagle cent and the range seems to be anywhere from 1,500 to 3,500 pieces with most being proofs, but some being business strikes. Whatever the actual mintage, the two hoards represented a significant percentage of the total produced and that is still clear today as NGC has graded 293 examples of the 1856 when you combine business strikes and proofs while the PCGS total stands at 798. Simply put, the Beck and Rice hoards have a higher total than the PCGS and NGC populations, which does not really mean anything in terms of price, but it does suggest that the Rice and Beck hoards were extremely useful in preserving the coin.

The evidence we have today of most hoards is faint. We can see it in lower than expected prices for a few gold dollars and unusual blips in the grading services numbers of some coins in top grades.

One modern issue other than gold and silver dollars, however, has become synonymous with the concept of hoarding and that is the 1950-D Jefferson nickel. The question with the 1950-D is not whether they were hoarded but rather whether any were not hoarded. The 1950-D because it was the lowest mintage Jefferson nickel at the time touched off massive hoarding. In his book Bowers points to a Milwaukee dealer who reportedly had 320,000 pieces, but that was well behind A.J. Mitula of Houston, Texas, who according to Bowers, “apparently acquired over a million pieces at or close to face value.”

It’s simple mathematics as the 1950-D had a mintage of 2,630,030 and if you add the Milwaukee dealer and Mitula that totals 1.3 million or more, which is almost exactly half of the entire mintage. Bowers, however, reports that there were “several players,” which suggests more than just those two. The final total we will never know and even though the 1950-D in MS-65 has posted recent gains after decades of basically no price increases, it is safe to suggest that the great hoards of the early 1950s had an enormous impact on the supply and price of the 1950-D.

Certainly there are many other hoards and some of them probably had significant impacts on today’s market. Investigating a hoard, however, is usually not easy. Beyond Bowers’ writings, we are still in many cases dealing with limited information and perhaps that sense of mystery adds to the appeal of hoard coins.

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