The coin was an 1888 Liberty Head Half Eagle graded PCGS MS65. It was exceptional and by a mile the best example of this unheralded date that I’ve ever seen. Offered as Lot 4121 in the Rarities Night portion of this firm’s post-Baltimore sale, the coin sold for a stronger-than-expected $78,000. It had been off the market since the Superior February 1992 sale, where it sold for $12,650.
Viewed as a date, the rarity profile of the 1888 as a business strike resembles other Philadelphia and San Francisco issues of this era. It is common in grades through MS62, slightly scarce in MS63, and truly rare in MS64 – as evidenced by the fact that the current PCGS population in that grade is a scant five coins. Yes, it is possible that a few rolls of these exist in Europe, but no, they aren’t Gems and are more likely ultra-abraded MS61 and MS62 coins. Other than for John Clapp, Sr., no collector in 1888 had the foresight to purchase Gem business strikes of this date to put away, and the few collectors who bought Liberty Head Half Eagles focused on Proofs.
The Gem 1888 in the Stack’s Bowers sale was the very epitome of a condition rarity and it had it all: in an old holder, fresh to the market (last sold in 1992, as I mentioned above), and incredibly appealing from a cosmetic perspective.
But here’s the thing.
For years and years, I would buy esoteric coins like this, and they would sit and sit in my inventory until I finally found someone who “got” the essence of this coin. In other words, it was really rare, but the collector for it was even rarer.
Fast forward to 2021, and we have a market that is driven more by rarity than grade, and even more by rarity and grade tied up into one neat little package. It didn’t matter that this coin was an 1888 Half Eagle and that no Liberty Head Half Eagle specialists that I am aware of care much about Philadelphia Mint issues struck after 1877 (except for the Proof-only 1887). What attracted potential buyers to this coin was the fact that it was a population 1/0 coin at PCGS.
Today’s new breed of collector couldn’t care less that this exact gold coin might have brought $30,000 to $40,000 pre-pandemic. Frankly, I thought I might even have a chance to acquire it in this price range until I saw that it was opening at over $50,000 (including the 20% buyer’s premium).
For the new owner of this coin, $78,000 is likely chump change. I would be the first to admit that it actually doesn’t sound crazy at $78,000… unlike the recent sale of a PCGS AU53 1870-CC $20 for $1.62 million. The new owner might not give any regard to the fact that, until very recently, almost no one other than a small cadre of coin dealers would have bought this coin for real money and, even then, would likely have placed it in their “put-away coin stash.”
What the new owner cares about is that they now own a gorgeous pop 1/0 unquestionable-finest-known coin that is virtually certain to remain unique in Gem.
And in this new rare gold coin market, that pretty much says it all…
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