Hoard coins have always captured the fancy of collectors. They might come from personal accumulations, banks that are clearing out their vaults of long disused coins, or they might come from the recovery of cargo from sunken ships.
Since the 1960s, coin collectors have seen all three scenarios play out. The question is: are there more hoards out there to surprise and tempt us?
There is no question that the largest and most important hoards historically have come from institutions, including the government. There have certainly been impressive private hoards stretching back to the silver hoard of the Harmony Society or the Randall hoard.
In more recent times it was the LaVere Redfield Morgan dollar hoard. Such private hoards were important, but realistically it has been the institutional or government hoard that has really had the most impact. That stands to reason as the government or major banks simply have the resources to assemble enormous numbers of coins and that is why for every LaVere Redfield there is an even larger Continental Illinois Bank hoard with even more coins and potentially an even greater impact.
If you look at the great hoards of the past you come to the conclusion that such hoards are unlikely today. After all, the silver dollars are now gone from the Treasury vaults and generations of dealers have ventured to Switzerland and France in an attempt to pick through the gold in the European vaults. Logic would simply suggest that there are no more hoards to be found yet questions still remain in a number of areas. The problem is that answering those questions is very difficult.
The world of the major hoard is a very mysterious one. It is not so mysterious to those involved, but it is naturally a not very often discussed world. In fact, for many years many of the major players in the discovery and purchase of hoards were frankly very tight-lipped. It was natural as they did not want to get into a bidding war such as was seen when the Redfield estate was purchased.
There was another factor as well and that was that many were very concerned about the impact of a hoard on the rare coin market and the prices of coins potentially found in the hoard. After all, there was evidence of a negative impact of a hoard on some prices found in the great release of Treasury $1,000 silver dollar bags in the 1960s.
In the case of the Treasury bag release, which took place over a number of years and saw an inventory of 219,000,000 silver dollars in 1958 drop to just over 3 million by the time the sales of bags at their face value of $1,000 was stopped in 1964.
Of course, it was a remarkable situation with the Treasury silver dollars as the government was basically providing buyers with a no risk chance to get rich. You paid $1,000, got a bag of $1,000 silver dollars and the worst you could do was just spend the coins. If, however, you got lucky, there were profits to be made and sometimes very good profits. Of course at the time $1,000 was a significant amount of money and the number of silver dollar collectors was very small.
The fact that there were not many silver dollar collectors at the time probably had the most significant impact along with the fact that so many coins were emerging at once. The quantities of some dates simply overwhelmed the market as the bulk of the interest in rare coins back in 1958 or 1961 was primarily centered on lower denominations and checking change.
It was an era where the Lincoln cent was king and there was a new hot Lincoln in the form of the 1955 doubled die obverse and then there were the 1960 small dates. In terms of interest at the time, a bag of 1895-O Morgan dollars sold for $1,000 was simply not very exciting.
In fact had there been a bag of the 1895-O it should have been extremely exciting as Q. David Bowers observes in his book, The Official Red Book Of Morgan Silver Dollars regarding the 1895-O.
“The 1895-O emerged as the single circulation strike variety that is not known to have been a part of any Treasury releases via bags,” he wrote.
The fact that there were no examples of the 1895-O made it special as the supply of the 1895-O in Mint State had virtually no help from added numbers in the 1960s. That has made it one Morgan dollar date that has actually benefited greatly by the major Treasury hoard simply because it was not in the hoard.
Questions about whether any more examples of the 1895-O would be seen were basically answered and now the 1895-O is an extremely tough and expensive date thanks to the fact that those questions have been answered.
In most other cases, however, the release of the Treasury holding had an adverse impact on prices. Dates like the 1898-O, 1904-O and especially the 1903-O had been seen as significant rarities prior to the massive release of the $1,000 bags. Most collectors simply had assumed that these dates had been heavily melted back in 1918 as a result of the Pittman Act, which had seen just over 270 million silver dollars destroyed.
It might have been lazy, but a date that was not found with any regularity was assumed to have been among those 270 million dollars melted. The 1903-O was literally not found at all. That saw it reach a price of $1,500 for an example in Mint State. That was close to the price of a new car. When hundreds of thousands of examples of the 1903-O started to pour out of the Treasury in late 1962 that price simply crashed to levels close to $15. Other dates had similar although less dramatic outcomes. Even today a sudden appearance of hundreds of thousands of Mint State examples of a given date would be difficult for the market to absorb, but back in late 1962 with very few Morgan dollar collectors in the first place there was virtually no hope for the price of the 1903-O – at least for a while.
Such cases, however, were the exception as most of the Morgan dollar dates saw very little change as a result of the Treasury releases. The excitement surrounding the dollar release helped attract more and more collectors to them. This set off a long period of growth for dollar collectors that did not peak until 1989.
Also setting the wave of the future were the Morgan dollars that were not released as the few million remaining were primarily Carson City dates from the 1880s. The Treasury numbers were so high for the individual dates that in a few cases over 50 percent of the entire mintage was still in the Treasury.
The decision to sell these remaining coins at special prices was not universally popular, but the General Services Administration sales that took place for roughly a decade into the early 1980s saw all the coins sold and usually at prices close to the market value at the time.
Buyers were happy because in many cases while paying a premium price of $30 for a Mint State Carson City dollar in the case of the more available dates, they were getting good value. Many buyers got lucky receiving errors or new varieties as the coins were only offered by date with no special division for a different variety or error.
While the case can probably be made that the dates have not risen in price as fast as they might have otherwise the fact remains that no Mint State Carson City dollar no matter how numerous they were in the sales is priced anywhere near the lowest Mint State price during the sale, so the prices have risen since the hoard was sold.
Naturally the prospect of buying Mint State Morgan dollars for their face value or Mint State Carson City Morgans for $30 is an exciting one and the natural question is are there any other potentially similar hoards still out there waiting to be purchased and sold? The answer is probably not in the form of hoards sitting in the Treasury or U.S. banks. They, however, are not the only potential source for such hoards.
Over the years in some numbers U.S. silver coins have managed to leave the country. In fact it started about the time the U.S. produced its first coins as silver dollars were regularly being exported. In later years numbers of silver coins would go north to Canada and south to Mexico and beyond.
Sometimes the shipments would be official, while other times the coins would be carried by armies dispatched to one region or another. The vast majority of such coins were either sent back to the United States to pay for imports or they were melted as there were no collectors in the regions for U.S. silver coins at the time and the average resident of these countries would simply take a U.S. coin to their neighborhood jewelry store and sell it for its metal value with the coin later being melted.
There is still some limited evidence found today. Some Barber issues are believed to have been found in the Philippines where dates from San Francisco, such as the 1898-1900, were sent in some numbers. Other issues would have headed in other directions. The stories are many. They stretch back to the low mintage 1844 Seated Liberty dime, which according to one story, left in the pockets of soldiers headed for Mexico where the coins were used and then vanished forever. Actually, that story is suspect, but throughout Central America U.S. silver issues do exist in some numbers. More often than not they are dated after 1853 and the reduction in weight of the silver issues at the time, but there are still small numbers of pre-1853 dates seen usually in well circulated grades reflecting decades of indifferent care.
The more recent the silver issue, the greater the numbers likely to be found.
Stories about major hoards of silver, however, are rare although there is one suggestion that a Central American central bank reportedly has just over $200,000 face value in U.S. silver issues. A bank insider who claimed to have seen the hoard also claims that the coins which are allegedly in denominations below one dollar are in some cases still in their original bags. The idea of lower denominations is somewhat unusual and suspect, but if the amount was in silver dollars, it would literally be a drop in the bucket compared ti the amount the U.S. was holding as the coins in the hoard are allegedly from before 1930.
You can sit and speculate all day as to what dates might be in such bags, but the fact remains it is currently impossible to tell – assuming the coins actually do exist. Moreover, the situation is not likely to change any time soon as for this particular central bank to sell off what are seen as national assets would require a complicated set of official actions. That said, the GSA sales of Carson City dollars also involved some legal steps and with the value of the silver in such a hoard being many times the face value of the coins the incentive is certainly there to return a large profit to the country if the legal roadblocks to a sale can be overcome.
The situation with U.S. gold coins is different. They are the ones that have generally been the most well traveled and widely dispersed of all U.S. coins. The focus in the past half century has been the bank vaults of Europe, with France and Switzerland being particular favorites.
There is no doubt that before the 1950s, much like the view of Morgan dollars, our view of what gold coins were scarce or rare was somewhat out of line with the reality simply because we did not know that some coins were in other countries waiting to come home when the right buyer found them.
The 1926-D Saint-Gaudens double eagle was seen as one of the greatest American rarities and the 1924-S was not far behind, which Abe Kosoff in 1950 suggested had five known examples. That would have made it as rare as the 1913 Liberty Head nickel or 1885 Trade dollar. In fact, in the American market at the time, there may well have been only five examples known but that would change.
A number of key dates like the 1924-S, 1926-D and 1926-S were found in European bank vaults and purchased by American dealers. The numbers were not in the millions or even hundreds of thousands as was the case when the Morgan dollars began emerging from the Treasury vaults, but with fewer avid double eagle collectors, a few pieces here and 200 there make a big difference. The rare dates are still better dates in most cases but they now are at least available to buyers motivated enough to want to collect a double eagle set. In addition, large numbers of other dates also returned to the United States, creating increased supplies of many – usually in circulated or lower Mint State grades.
Questions, however, still remain. In the case of a number of dates, especially double eagles, the assumption has long been that after the Gold Recall Order of 1933 the coins were simply melted. If that sounds a bit like the 1903-O Morgan dollar tale it is because it is.
If the coins are not in the marketplace the logical assumption is that they were destroyed. That may very well be the case, but it must be remembered that double eagles continue to trickle out from a wide range of places.
There are numerous reports of double eagles from Guatemala with Q. David Bowers in his book, American Coin Treasures and Hoards, including a list of dates emerging from Guatemala to the U.S. market through Manfra, Tordella & Brookes in the early 1980s.
There was also a Heritage sale in 1989 of coins called “The El Salvador hoards of 1909-S double eagles” and there are reports of other denominations from other countries also hitting the market in recent times.
The hoards come in a variety of sizes. A hoard surfaced just a few years ago. It was carried by an old woman in a bag through dangerous areas of Central America on a bus. The hoard of double eagles had been the woman’s mother’s as she had been given them by a general with whom she had had an affair over the course of years.
Not able to put this scarlet woman (as she would have been labeled in the early 20th century) in his formal will, the general gave her a bag of double eagles with the dates being 10 examples of the 1904-S, two examples of the 1910-S, a 1907, 1900-S, 1876, two examples of the 1899-S, an 1890-CC, an 1894-S, four examples of the 1906-D, a 1908, 12 examples of the 1909-S, a 1914-S, three examples of the 1906-S and one example each of the 1911-S, 1902-S, 1852 and 1883-S.
In fact, there were more. There were two sisters and this bag of 44 coins, or $880 face value, represented just one-half of the total, but the others have yet to come on the market.
This was a lot of money at the time, especially for an average woman in a central American country. It isn’t exactly small change today.
The double eagles from the old lady are typical of assorted small hoards found throughout Central America. Saving them from being melted remains a full-time job as the average person in Central America has no copy of a price listing and no idea of where they could find a coin dealer to buy their coins. Instead, the local jewelry shop remains the likely buyer, with the likely price being bullion. There are also reports of any number of valuable coins, including one Panama-Pacific $50, being purchased for their gold value and then melted.
For collectors hearing those stories, it is almost painful wondering what has gone into the melting pot.
Melting is not an issue with the big hoards if there are any left. Certainly there are reports including one of millions of dollars in face value of U.S. coins still sitting in a central bank vault.
Less specific than the report on silver, the reports on gold do share something with the silver story in that if there are such hoards they will be very hard to get released and sold. To sell off something from a central bank in the region would require at minimum legislative approval and that is neither fast nor easy.
That said, the prospect of significant numbers of gold coins not seen in decades remains an enticing one. Double eagles remain the most likely denominations for these international hoards. Realistically, there are some better double eagle dates especially from the early 1920s where the notion that the coins were destroyed in the Gold Recall Order melting has never been a particularly comfortable way of explaining why the coins are so rare. This explanation would simply mean that these 1920s rarities would have been in American vaults with few if any being paid out for normal commercial use for well over a decade – and then destroyed.
It’s hard enough to agree that the extremely rare 1927-D would simply sit in vaults for over five years with virtually none being released, but when you go back to 1920 and 1921 it becomes even more difficult to accept the long-standing reason that the coins were never really released in any numbers. Certainly, that could be true and certainly the coins do not exist today, but remembering the list of rare dates that suddenly surfaced it is hard to be fully content with the idea that we may never see another 1920-S or 1921 double eagle hit the market.
What if a foreign central bank just happened to have been the recipient of a bag or two of the 1920-S or 1921. Even more startling, what if it had a bag of 1927-D gold $20s? Imagine how that would electrify the numismatic marketplace.
Whatever might eventually happen, there is a lot of smoke in terms of rumors, but at present still no fire in terms of new coins hitting the market in large numbers. They might never come out, but then that was what collectors in 1961 though of 1903-O Morgan dollars.
We will continue to see a small trickle of gold coins emerge from places like Central America, but whether we ever see another large government or institutional hoard is another question.