First Read: The D. Brent Pogue Collection: Masterpieces of United States Coinage, Part I
By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek.com….
Auction catalogs occupy interesting and sacred spaces in Numismatics.
A catalog’s immediate goal is to entice potential buyers to place bids. To that end, catalogs are, in essence, long-form advertisements–a craft in and of itself.
Yet if we grant them further consideration, we find that catalogs become much more than that. Each one is a final accounting of the personal enterprise of collecting. They become part of the permanent ledger of taste, skill and success. And more than all of this, catalogs form the connective tissue between the hobby as we experience it today–in the flesh, in real time–and the hobby of yesterday.
Today’s catalogs are far different than the photo-starved and description-deficient booklets and broadsheets of the days of yore. To compare the two is to do reference work in the field of apples and oranges.
But for the serious scholars among us, a four-page listing of numismatic items published at the turn of the 20th century could be the sole reference point of the collector origin of a great American rarity, like those that pour out of the pages of Stack’s Bowers Galleries and Sotheby’s The D. Brent Pogue Collection: Masterpieces of United States Coinage, Part I.
The catalog’s primary writing credit goes to coin dealer John Kraljevich. Kraljevich, based in South Carolina, is a brilliant numismatist and highly knowledgeable in the field of Americana. He’s also a talented writer and columnist for Coin World Magazine. Q. David Bowers provided the assist, writing many of the catalog’s historical vignettes. Coin photography was handled by PCGS (though not specifically cited, one assumes Phil Arnold handled the imaging duties).
As a leisure read, we found Kraljevich’s approach to each listing to be workmanlike and understated. Lots follow a logical progression and the narrative of these early American coins unfolds freely, aided by an easy flow of technical and historical information. Lot listings yield vital information about the coin’s pedigree, rarity, and physical characteristics.
Yes, potential buyers are urged to bid, but it’s not a hard sell. Some catalogers try so strenuously to evoke excitement that isn’t there that one is reminded of the waitstaff at a chain restaurant promoting the daily special. Nowhere in the Pogue catalog does one get the sense that the House is pushing coins it doesn’t like.
Recent Historic Collections: A Contrast
That the Pogue family assembled a majestic and historic collection goes without saying. The surprise announcement that the collection was coming to market caught many off guard, however, and the skittishness of the industry in its present state shows that the pending Pogue sales have hung like the sword of Damocles over the high-end coin market, despite the fact that Heritage Auctions has successfully maximized the profitability of the Eric P. Newman Collection over the course of several sales held in the past couple of years.
But the Newman and Pogue Collections are entirely different animals.
Newman, a first-class numismatist, owned a fair share of great rarities, but he was also an accumulator who owned hundreds if not thousands of “collector coins”. The result was that virtually any collector that wanted a Newman coin could get one.
The Pogues, on the other hand, were not accumulators.
The composition of their collection shows a dogged pursuit of the best-of-the-best and the rarest-of-the-rare. At the Whitman Coin & Collectibles Expo, Charles talked with Stack’s Bowers founder Harvey Stack about how well-stocked the collection was with “million dollar” coins. Charles suggested to Harvey that the Pogue Collection might well bear out 12 to 15 coins that bring a million dollars or more, a number in line with Stack’s Bowers’ thinking.
This first catalog will likely yield three of them, at a minimum.
The highlights are innumerous.
First you have the James Ten Eyck – Milton A. Holmes pedigreed 1796 quarter dollar [Lot 1051]. CoinWeek featured this coin in our Portland ANA National Money Show video coverage–where Charles got to handle the coin–along with the brilliant uncirculated 1807 quarter dollar [Lot 1056].
1796 quarter dollars are the only quarters struck in the 18th century. 6,146 were minted bearing that date, and it’s estimated that between 350 and 450 examples survive to this day. In the lot description, John Kraljevich offers some explanation for the relatively high number of survivors, citing and discrediting two apocryphal accounts of a great 1796 quarter hoard. Abe Kosoff believed it to number 100; the fish story later grew to a size of 200 in the hands of Walter Breen.
The Ten Eyck – Holmes – Pogue specimen is gorgeous and carries an MS-66 grade from PCGS. To date, PCGS has graded one example finer. That piece, illustrated on PCGS Coinfacts is “better” by one point and is vouched for by PCGS majordomo David Hall. But that coin exhibits weakness along the left dentils and stars. The Pogue specimen, by contrast, features a bolder strike in these areas and rivals the 67 coin with mirror-like fields and rich gold and aqua toning.
Stack’s estimates the Pogue coin will bring between $750,000 and $1 million.
Then there’s the “Legendary” Brand-Rogers 1796 half dollar [Lot 1102]. CoinWeek columnist Greg Reynolds covered this coin extensively in his February 11, 2015 column, calling it the “finest” 1796-’97 Draped Bust half dollar. Greg isn’t alone in his effusive praise for the coin; its backstory is the stuff of numismatic lore. Kraljevich describes in detail how John Jay Pittman enticed Lelan Rogers to track down the coin in the 1970s. A briefer description is recounted in Stack’s 1999 catalog for the John Whitney Walter Collection (a catalog also deserving of a Sunday morning read, or at the very least a spot on your bookshelf). PCGS grades the coin MS-66, but the numerical grade does little service to the coin’s +++ eye appeal. Presale estimate of this coin is $775,000 to $1,250,000. We expect it to hit the $1 million mark.
The sale ends with the offering of THE 1808 quarter eagle [Lot 1128], a treasure coin that has been plated many times over and a prized specimen that traces its pedigree over the course of a century’s worth of great collections, all the way back to the great Lorin Gilbert Parmelee, one of the American hobby’s founding figures.
In any other major collection of American coinage, this piece would be the pièce de résistance. In the context of what the Pogues had assembled over the course of the past 40 years, the coin barely cracks the Top 10. Pre-sale estimates provided by Stack’s Bowers have the piece bringing between $1.2 and $1.75 million.
We didn’t even mention the Pogue’s finest known 1794 half dollar [Lot 1095], or the “Forgotten” Eliasberg 1804 14 Star dime [Lot 1046], or Pogue’s beautifully-toned MS64 1792 half disme [Lot 1001]. Such is the strength of this grouping that these coins get only a mention.
The best-of-the-best and the rarest-of-the-rare.
Still, there’s a smattering of coins (all half dimes, incidentally) in Pogue, Part I that are within the reach of us mere mortals.
Pogue’s 1829 half dime [Lot 1019] is a beautiful coin, but it is by no means the finest known. Pre-Sale estimate is $2,750 to $4,500.
Similarly, the 1832 half dime on offer [Lot 1022], an Eliasberg coin, is expected to sell for $3,000 to $5,000.
One of our favorites at this tier is Pogue’s 1836 half dime [Lot 1031]. It exhibits beautiful radial toning, is a pop 3 coin with just 3 finer, and it’s expected to sell between $2,000 and $3,000.
Each of these coins is beautifully depicted and carefully described, with the historical context laid out for those wanting to learn more.
The same can be said for the rest of the catalog’s offerings. In total 128 lots are detailed.
What makes this catalog so compelling is how well it communicates to the reader what survives at the top end for each of the issues on offer. There are more than a few issues in Pogue, Part I that are out of reach for most collectors, but many of the coins detailed within can be found in various lower states of preservation. For those with an appetite for early American coinage, this catalog offers the opportunity to know and appreciate what survives at the highest end. In this regard, it’s a way to set or curtail expectations. For classics (unlike moderns), there are no MS-69s and -70s. Sometimes a die-cracked MS-64 or -65 is as good as it gets.
When CoinWeek established its Editor’s Choice Award last year, we set out to recognize books that were excellent in their respective areas and worthy of a place in every contemporary collector’s library.
Previous winners are Dr. Philip L. Mossman’s From Crime to Punishment: Counterfeit and Debased Currencies in Colonial and Pre-Federal America (2013, American Numismatic Society) and Q. David Bowers’ Coins & Collectors: Golden Anniversary Edition (2014, Whitman Publishing, LLC). We are pleased to add The D. Brent Pogue Collection: Masterpieces of United States Coinage, Part I to that list.
We consider it to be essential reading for numismatists of all levels and all budgets.
The D. Brent Pogue Collection: Masterpieces of United States Coinage, Part I.
Stack’s Bowers Galleries – Sotheby’s. New York. 277 Pages. Print.
$75, Limited Supply.
Potential buyers are urged to contact Stack’s Bowers as soon as possible to purchase.
The Known Unknown
When Charles interviewed Q. David Bowers at the Whitman Coin & Collectibles Expo in Baltimore this March, he brought up the subject of “Perfect Knowledge”.
Specifically, Charles asked Bowers whether we’re at the point where collectors of top end material can enter the marketplace with “perfect knowledge” of the best coins that survive for each issue. Perfect knowledge being defined as the ability to know with absolute certainty, which coins are exist at the top end of the market and of them, which is the absolute best.
What Charles was really asking was whether or not we’ve reached the point where issues such as those collected by Pogue and others were more or less known commodities; whether the better-graded existing specimens (nearly all of which have been traded publicly at one time or another) have been properly vetted by dealers and auction houses so that a sophisticated and accurate “quality” (we hesitate to use the term “condition”) census could be made; and whether it is possible to assemble an all-time finest collection that would be impossible to beat.
Bowers said that it’s “sort of hard” to have perfect knowledge.
“For example, I’m writing a book on Liberty Seated coins for Whitman and the 1870-S half-dime, which is unique, started out AU-55, and then it was NGC-63. Presently it’s PCGS MS-64, I’ve heard. When I cataloged as a guest cataloguer for Christies in 1999 or 2000, Chris Karstedt and I were involved in the publicity for the S.S. Central America, along with Dwight Manley and the Goldbergs. They asked me to guest catalog the first SSCA coins. So there was something called the 1853 over 2 double eagle from the Central America. It was certified as AU-58 on day one, it was put in the auction two months later, [and] it was sent back to the same certification service after the auction and came back as MS-62. So, it graduated four points in two months, so how can you build a scientific… how can you compare? You have X and Y axes both in motion. So I’m not too sure that anyone can do anything absolute.
“How many coins in Eliasberg were graded at the MS-64, which are now MS-65 or MS-66 now?
“How many coins from the Farouk collection, pattern coins in copper that were cleaned by King Farouk so they were bright orange–and were bought as bright orange by Harry Bass and sold by the Bass Estate as bright orange, which are now reconstituted and certified without any mention of being cleaned as Proof 64 or 65?”
Bowers’ point is well-taken and should serve as a cautionary tale to those who believe with religious conviction the data presented in population reports and represented on slab insert labels.
Buy the coin, not the holder.
Brent Pogue certainly did.