This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
>> Subscribe today!
Hi-Yo, away! The coin market came roaring back from its parallel with national economic malaise with the reported sale of a gem uncirculated 1794 silver dollar for a show stopping $7.8 million. The coin, which some believe is actually the very first silver dollar struck by the Philadelphia Mint, is graded as among the best uncirculated coins of that year to be discovered – now termed Specimen-66 by the Professional Coin Grading Service.
Two major studies on the elusive 1794 dollar, one by Jack Collins, the other by Martin Logies, each agree that the coin is the top of the condition census. Some earlier remarks by catalogers who handled it as well as the Lord St. Oswald specimen, acquired at the Philadelphia Mint in the fall of 1794, lean toward the other as superior.
In any case, the test of which grade is the greater is measured in infinitesimal calibrations – and the one owned by Steve Contursi (and formerly Amon Carter, Jr.) – makes the case for a spectacular history that goes back more than 60 years, and in the process shows how a true rarity has fared.
The coin that broke all prior records – including the previous high of $7.59 million for the King Farouk specimen of the 1933 $20 gold piece – makes its first modern appearance when Col. E.H.R. Green’s collection was acquired by Burdette G. Johnson and the St. Louis Stamp & Coin Company.
It next picks up in dealer James Kelly’s inventory on Fixed Price List No. 20 in 1945; collector C. David Pierce (who later was a professional with several auctions to his credit in Gengerke’s auction records) acquired the coin, and the following year, 1946, the Hollinbeck-Kagin Coin Company, Des Moines, Iowa, offered the Pierce collection in a February (Page 196) advertisement in The Numismatist, the American Numismatic Association’s monthly journal.
Abe Kosoff and Abner Kreisberg (Numismatic Gallery) next acquire the coin and sell it to Will W. Neil. The next year, 1947, B. Max Mehl of Fort Worth, Texas, sells the Neil collection at a mail- bid auction, where it realizes $1,250. The winning bidder: Amon Carter Sr. It stayed in the Carter family until his son, Amon Carter Jr. died and had his collection sold in 1984. Stack’s handled that sale at $264,000.
That the coin earned the name of the Amon Carter specimen is not surprising. Both Sr. and Jr. owned the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and were great boosters of the city. Other than for historical reasons, few really remember the 1947 Will W. Neil collection sale conducted by B. Max Mehl, nor the price of $1,250). But it as news at the time.
The coin hit the block in uncirculated condition (described as proof-like by cataloguer Norman Stack). It was a significant event for the numismatic community.
Ed Milas, of RARCOA, was in attendance at the Stack’s 1984 event and told me at the time that he “had $150,000 to bid and I thought that would take it.” He estimated its pre-sale value at $120,000 and seemed very confident. Bidder 187, Hugh Sconyers, instead took top honors at $240,000 ($264,000 with the buyer’s premium)
The Lord St. Oswald piece, sold to A.H. Baldwin and Lester Merkin on behalf of Ambassador and Mrs. R. Henry Norweb, was sold by Bowers & Merena in 1988. The price then: $242,000. Bowers says that which of the two coins is better (at MS-63) remains a “toss-up”. The Jimmy Hayes collection had the other Lord St. Oswald piece: Hayes was known for his discerning eye for high-quality, better graded material – and in this coin, he had found a true mark.
David W. Akers attended that sale and spoke with me prior to the auction. He graded the coin MS-63+ and said that he had come to the sale expecting to buy the coin. It opened at a respectable $75,000 from a mail bidder, and moved rapidly in $5,000 increments to $80,000, $85,000, then $90,000. Kevin Lipton jumped in with a bid of $100,000, and it was off to the races. When the smoke cleared minutes later, Akers had the bid at $200,000 (a $220,000 total price). The market for the coin was stabilizing, but not moving steadily upward.
It’s not every day that a major rarity is sold, and it doesn’t always go up. The Neil-Carter-Contursi coin’s next auction appearance was in 1986 at the Hoagy Carmichael sale by Superior, where Anthony Terranova was the buyer at $209,000. It then evidently passed through several familiar hands: Ed Milas and Marvin Browder (for RARCOA), Andy Lustig (1988) at $375,000, and in 1991, Superior’s May, 1991 sale of “An Amazing Collection of U.S. Silver Dollars,” where it brought $506,000.
There were some intervening owners including Jay Parrino, but it is Steve Contursi who held it for the last several years, when he finally agreed to sell it to the Cardinal Educational Collection at $7,850,000.
All told, the Mint records show that 1,758 silver dollars were made in the first year of manufacture. About 120-140 specimens are known today, and ironically, it turned out that another of this early silver dollar date became the first rarity to cross the Rubicon of an auction where a single coin received a $100,000 bid.
In the fall of 1973, Larry Goldberg, then of Superior Galleries, called me in the newsroom of Numismatic News in Iola, Wis., to announce with pride, and some measure of awe, “We just sold the first $100,000 coin.”
That coin was an uncirculated 1794 silver dollar (they weren’t graded numerically for the most part back then – more about its contemporary grade, later), and actually brought $110,000, which television produce Ralph Andrews acquired for his collection. The coin’s pedigree was itself historic: British Lord St. Oswald acquired it at the Philadelphia Mint on a visit shortly after striking, on Oct. 15, 1794.
For those who want to see the progress of the 1794 dollar through the years, the accompanying lists shows some of the highlights of more than 140 sales for the 1794 dollar in all grades (the earliest that I’ve found is 1859, where the coin brought $6). (The conditions change; the subject coin was once called MS-63, now Specimen-66. B. Max Mehl thought it uncirculated with proof highlights.
The prices are all over the board, and are probably best seen in comparison with other coin prices, but that remains for the graph that accompanies this column to round out.
More Coin Collecting Resources: