By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….
“We have now one of the huge lots of the evening. The Sultan of Muscat–Childs–Pogue 1804 Dollar. The Class I Original. Finest Known Example of the King of American Coins… I am looking for a bid of Seven Million Six Hundred Thousand. Any interest at Seven Million Six Hundred Thousand? That is what you would have to bid.”
Tongues were wagging from the moment Stack’s Bowers’ auction caller Melissa Karstedt announced the opening bid of “Seven Million Six Hundred Thousand” for the Sultan of Muscat “1804” dollar.
In hand, the coin is without peer.
Originally struck for inclusion in a custom-made 1834 Proof Set, it was given as a gift to Said bin Sultan, the Sultan of Muscat (present-day Oman). That the coin survives in an almost flawless state of preservation is some kind of miracle. No longer blast white after years of mellowing and toning, the coin presents a predominantly muted pewter and blue hue, but other colors reveal themselves under adequate viewing light. In many ways, the coin’s color and appearance recalls the very best preserved Gobrecht dollars. Both types were struck around the same period.
Melissa Karstedt called all 63 lots in the fourth session.
But to show how special the Pogue IV sale was, the Sultan of Muscat–Childs–Pogue 1804 dollar wasn’t the only highlight of the evening. The equally compelling and only collectible example of the 1822 half eagle $5 gold coin was also up for bid. Like the 1804 dollar it, too, has its own literature, with Stack’s Bowers co-founder Q. David Bowers having written the most recent entry in the library, a 2014 monograph entitled The 1822 Gold Half Eagle: Story of a Rarity.
Outside of these two coins, 61 additional lots were on offer, including two million-dollar coins and a rare gold overdate that very well could have brought a million.
“Any interest at Seven Million Six Hundred Thousand? That is what you would have to bid.”
The dollar stood just a few feet away, housed in a rectangular glass case held upright by a clear plastic stand. Untouchable, and removed from the context of a great collection, its physicality seemed to diminish with every foot that separated it from the audience.
And those that had come to bid–and were cleared to bid on such a rare and expensive coin–were but a tiny fraction of that audience.
It is perhaps for this reason that the lot played out like it did and perhaps also why we must adjust our understanding of how Pogue IV unfolded to take into account a perspective that analysis of the sale so far has missed.
“Seven Million Six Hundred Thousand…”
From where we were sitting, one could see the subtle interplay of some of the industry’s biggest coin dealers as Melissa called out the starting price. Some sat stone-faced. Others sank ever so slightly into their seats. One dealer from California mercurially furrowed his brow as if in disbelief.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away watching the live feed online, Coin World editor-at-large Steve Roach began to tweet his minute-by-minute account.
His first tweet describes the scene as being “quiet”…
“Any interest at Seven Million Six Hundred Thousand? That is what you would have to bid.”
But we were there. And having watched our own video of the sale a few times since, we can attest that the lot was not greeted with silence. There was a range of reactions and emotion on the floor. It may have been too subtle for a laptop or smartphone, but what played out on the seventh floor of Sotheby’s auction house that night wasn’t quiet.
Especially considering the fact that the Pogues’ reserve price had beaten back all of the industry’s elite dealers and market makers, rendering them spectators in a seven minute tug-of-war between an ultra-wealthy owner and an ultra-wealthy bidder.
It’s doubtful that many in the room (or over the Internet) have seen the top of the market appear so “passive” before (not that it actually was). Or if they have seen something like it, then it’s been under unusual circumstances.
The Pogue IV Catalog, the Reserve Price, and How the Auction Was Called
The Pogue IV catalog differentiated itself from the three catalogs that preceded it in one key way: price estimates were not printed at the bottom of each lot. Instead, a separate loose sheet was included, along with a mail-bid form and an envelope.
The 1804 and 1822 headliners were the reason for this change in format.
While building session IV around these two coins, Stack’s Bowers anticipated that the Pogue family would want to place reserves on what the family perceived to be the premier pieces of the entire collection.
So the company, working against a firm deadline and the need to communicate important information to potential bidders, gave the Pogue family time to carefully consider the pricing levels that they required to part with their most treasured coins.
In the interim the catalogs were dispersed and the pre-auction process got underway. Those interested in any of the non-reserved lots were provided a range of estimates as to what the final price would be. Those interested in the 1804 and the 1822 were invited to inquire for more details.
Had someone called for more information, they would have talked directly to Stack’s Bowers Executive Vice President Christine Karstedt.
“We knew that the 1804 would sell for more than $4-5 million, so we told people who called that the range was between $5 and $15 million. But honestly, we didn’t know what the final reserve would be or who would be the final interested parties.”
A similar answer was given about the 1822.
“For the 1822, we told people that the range was between $4 and $12 million.”
Ultimately, final reserve prices were not in place until 5pm the night of the auction, which means that most people on the floor were probably unaware of them.
For her part, we confirmed that Melissa Karstedt knew about the reserves.
As she opened the lot and stated its starting price, there was no immediate reaction from the floor. No paddles raised in the air. The firm expected interest in the coin, however, and as soon as Stack’s Bowers president Brian Kendrella placed the first bid on behalf of a long-time collector of “esoteric rarities”, all attention from the podium turned towards him and the right-side phone bank.
With each bid coming in over the telephone, Christine Karstedt – who also serves as an auctioneer for the firm but did not on this occasion – bid on behalf of the consignor reserve.
Nothing about this was out of the ordinary. Without a proxy bid on behalf of the Pogue family, there would be no way to push the price up towards the reserve. Additionally, the right to bid on the coin was not exclusively the phone bidder’s. Any bidder at any point could have stepped up and shifted the momentum.
D. Brent Pogue was watching from a private box. By the end, he’d see his family’s collection net another $16.74 million dollars.
Then the lot hit $8 million.
At this point, Q. David Bowers, who had been leaning against a table to take snapshots of the occasion, got up from his perch and approached the podium. He took a few close-up photographs.
And he wasn’t the only one in the room documenting the sale of this particular coin. In the back, two collectors recorded the lot using their iPads. Coin Dealer Newsletter (CDN) publisher John Feigenbaum, seated in the middle of the third row on the right, was filming with his cellphone. A woman sitting at the back of the left-side phone bank recorded the lot with her phone as well. She had a receiver to her ear.
Lawrence Stack and Vicken Yegparian joined Brian Kendrella on the phones.
The phone asks for $8.5.
Christine Karstedt took it and bid to $8.6. A light clap breaks out in the back of the room. With buyer’s premium the coin has now broken the record $10,016,875 paid on January 24, 2013 for the Cardinal dollar.
Melissa called out:
“Eight Million Six Hundred Thousand is bid. Looking for Eight Million Eight Hundred Thousand.”
Q. David Bowers rises to photograph the historic moment the 1804 dollar was up for bid.
Bowers approached the podium again, this time he got closer and said just loud enough for Melissa to hear, “Melissa, you are already at the World’s Record… say that!”
With this level of enthusiasm, it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t anticipate the final sale of the coin.
Melissa did not betray the knowledge that there was still a ways to go.
“What do you think? Should I start taking bids from all these cell phones in the air?”
Eight point seven on the phone.
Eight point eight at the table.
Then nine million. No coin in the history of numismatics has ever received a nine million dollar bid.
But that night it wasn’t enough.
“I have nine million two hundred thousand bid. Going once, nine million two hundred thousand going twice, are you sure? You’re sure? Alright nine million two hundred thousand… pass.”
Melissa’s delivery was matter of fact. The pregnant anticipation of the audience that a record had just been set broke, and the low-key commotion on the sales floor had swollen to the point that many in attendance failed to register the word pass.
“It’s a pass.”
After a few seconds, Melissa then turned the pages of the catalog and proceeded with lot 4021. A man stood up and walked towards our camera. His facial expression was one of surprise and disbelief.
There were 43 lots to go.
Damn the Experts and Damn the What Ifs…
In the week since the Pogue IV sale took place we’ve watched and rewatched the footage of those seven minutes, taking in each frame as if it were the Zapruder film.
Before the sale, there was a fair amount of discussion regarding the quality of the 1804 dollar. It has long been considered the finest known. This fact has not changed since the Pogues took possession.
What is open for debate is whether or not the coin has the value that the Pogues have placed upon it. Industry experts vary in their assessment. And while there are certainly far fewer collectors with the means to acquire great American rarities like the finest-known 1804 silver dollar or the only collectible 1822 half eagle $5 gold coin, there are no shortage of experts to tell you what they think the coins’ values are.
We’ve spent years digging around auction records and looking at realized prices for coins, but for the great rarities there is no rhyme or reason to justify what people are willing to pay on any given day.
The bottom line is this: nobody knows what the values of coins like these are. Only a handful of people can afford them in the first place. They are either unique or semi-unique. They have tremendous cultural and historical importance.
Collector Josiah K. Lilly’s estate donated his 1822 $5 Gold Coin to the National Numismatic Collection.
In the colloquial sense of the word, they are priceless.
And at the end of the day, value lies somewhere in between what the owner would get if they had to sell a coin out of necessity and what the owner could get for it if they didn’t need to sell but someone really, really wanted it.
Ultimately, the Pogues didn’t need to sell the coin.
Stack’s Bowers told us after the sale that the bidder was still interested in the coins and that something could still be worked out. Whether this remains the case or not we don’t know. For that matter, we still don’t know with certainty what the coins’ reserve prices were. $12 million? $15 million? More? Does it matter?
But we wonder how the evening of May 24 would have played out, for example, had the Pogues made it clear that this would be the last time the coins would be offered for sale….that if they didn’t sell then the coins would be donated to the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian. In this hypothetical situation, what would the experts say about the value of the coins?
We know what the Pogues would say.
They said it last week:
If you want to own the treasures of the Mack and D. Brent Pogue Collection, don’t expect a bargain and don’t expect it to be easy.