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Coin Market In-Depth: Remembering the Apostrophe Sales, 1978-1990

Coin Market In-Depth: Remembering the Apostrophe Sales, 1978-1990

By David Thomason Alexander for CoinWeek …..

The Background

Numismatic auctions in the U.S. were an integral part of the coin collecting scene since the 1850s. The relationship between collectors, professional numismatists, auction firms and the American Numismatic Association (ANA) has been complicated since the national organization was founded in 1891. ANA’s founder Dr. George F. Heath was a part-time dealer and the group’s “official organ”, The Numismatist, was already well established as Heath’s commercial price list before the organization itself was formed. Some early ANA members deplored commercial activity, looking on dealers as undesirables. The prestigious New York Numismatic Club (founded in 1908) still enforces a total ban on commercialism at its meetings today.

Early ANA conventions were minuscule by today’s standards, and featured neither a dealer bourse nor an auction. It was not until the 1922 New York convention at the Great Northern Hotel that the ANA set aside a commodious room in which dealers could buy and sell. Thereafter a bourse became an ever-growing feature of conventions. By the later 1940s, ANA had awakened to the bourse as a major source of income for the national organization and ANA auctions now were evidence that a given firm had “arrived”, with their sale catalogues becoming valued reference works.

Selection of convention sites became a major concern and participating dealers demanded that the gatherings be held in cities with demonstrable collector populations. Davenport, Iowa was the last “small town” convention in 1946. Complicated systems were evolved for awarding bourse tables to dealers who demonstrated support for the ANA and its many programs.

The collecting world expanded dramatically in the 1950s and ’60s, and the ’70s were years of ballooning convention attendance, with rapidly expanding convention business and escalating auction realizations for firms chosen to conduct the yearly sales. Landing an ANA convention was now a plum eagerly sought by contending dealers.

The 1970s were a red-hot time for coin dealers and the competition for bourse tables and the right to conduct the convention auction became fierce. The 1976 New York show reached a crescendo with some 26,000 registered attendees and a massive auction by the New York-based firm of Stack’s. Convention costs in the Big Apple proved staggering and numbers of dealers were found to be abandoning their tables on the last days of the show to cut expenses.

Individual collectors and families journeying into the city for the ANA expressed disappointment at finding the bourse and exhibits emptying on the last Saturday and expressed themselves vocally to ANA Board members on the subject. The simmering pot began to boil, with a largely new governing Board ready to listen and a numismatic press ready to publish complaints. The 1977 convention was scheduled for Atlanta, Georgia, though this was not believed to be a major “coin town” like New York.

The ANA Board awarded the Atlanta convention auction to Kagin’s of Des Moines Iowa, which had been active in the auction field since the 1930s. The head of the firm was A.M. “Art” Kagin, who set out to shatter all ANA records by assembling a sale of more than 5,700 lots, divided into five small catalogs in a slip-on cardboard binder. Attendance at the show never reached hoped-for levels though the sheer size of the auction forced late-night sessions lasting to the wee hours. Post-convention litigation lasted for years, notably suits between new ANA President Col. Grover C. Criswell and Kagin’s over the dismal performance of his Sutler paper money, which had gone under the hammer at 2:00 AM.

John Jay PittmanResentment over the early departure of bourse dealers reached a peak in Atlanta, when outspoken incoming president Criswell and his then-ally John J. Pittman walked the bourse floor with clipboards, jotting down the names of offending dealers. Soon after the show closed, the two raised the early departure issue before the new board and engineered the denial of tables at the 1978 Houston convention to five offending firms.

These included Stack’s of New York; Bowers & Ruddy of Los Angeles; Rarcoa of Chicago; Paramount International of Englewood, Ohio; and Superior Stamp and Coin, also of Los Angeles. These also happened to be the leading numismatic firms in the entire U.S. Despite a gleeful “we showed ‘em” attitude among ANA board members, the absence of these major dealers would notably impact the Houston convention’s bottom line.

But more than that, the action against these dealers had the wholly unexpected consequence of bringing them together for the first time in numismatic history to collaborate in staging an annual series of auctions that became known as the Apostrophe Sales based on their names: Auction ’79 through Auction ’90. These cooperative sales gave forthright competition to the official ANA convention auctions and were bitterly opposed by such ANA leaders as John J. Pittman.

The Auctions

Establishing cooperation among competing dealers was no easy task, though ground rules were relatively simple. Free of the staggering or extortionate fees demanded by the ANA for the convention sale, each firm would place 500 high-quality lots in their section of each Apostrophe sale. Each would catalog its section in its own customary style and provide color and black-and-white photography. All catalogs would be produced by a single printer and would be distributed in hard cover or paperback format.

Their uniform covers would present horizontal stripes of blue, red, brown, deep gold and white, which listed participating dealers in rotating order of presentation. Glossy stock gave the catalog interiors a high-quality appearance. Making the five-firm coalition work proved challenging and at the very start the first defection derailed plans for Auction ’78. Bowers and Ruddy, then a subsidiary of General Mills, announced its withdrawal from the group to pursue the official 1978 ANA Sale, highlighted by the Robert E. Branigan collection.

Auction '79A year later Auction ’79 actually launched the series, with sessions held at the Henry VIII Inn and Lodge in Bridgeton, Missouri, near the ANA convention in St. Louis. The Ohio firm of Paramount International had the lead position. A detailed examination of the company’s offerings reveals two high-grade U.S. Large cents and proceeds to bronze, silver, nickel coins and silver denominations from three cents to dollars without variety identification numbers in any series.

Paramount presented a surprisingly wide variety of material. U.S. patterns included an 1868 gold eagle and the “excessively rare” Bickford international $10 eagle denominated in six world currencies. Regular denomination gold coins from $1 through $20 followed along with five Pioneer gold lots. “U.S. only” collectors were surprised at the high-powered selection of rare and ultra-choice Canada and Newfoundland coins, world coins and world gold that concluded the Paramount section. Among spectacular Canadian rarities was the McKay-Clements example of the 1911 Canadian silver dollar, one of two known, and a superb Specimen striking of the 1921 50 cents.

At this time, Paramount was a major force in mainline U.S. coin auctions but was drifting away to devote more and more energy to distribution of world Proof sets and commemoratives by direct mail. Paramount auction offerings all featured numerical grading, the system originally created for U.S. early large cents and half cents by the late Dr. William H. Sheldon years before. In nearly universal use today, numerical grading was rejected in 1979 by two prominent firms taking part in Auction ’79: Stack’s and Ed Milas’ Chicago firm, Rare Coin Company of America (Rarcoa).

Paramount was also distracted by the State of Ohio’s ongoing legal action to collect sales tax it claimed was due on all Paramount sales from their Englewood headquarters in past years. By 1987 the firm was ready to bail out of Englewood and passed its Auction ’88 slot to David W. Akers Inc. Akers was a nationally known dealer famous for handling great rarities, meticulous grading and coping with market downturns by firing employees to balance the books. This policy littered Western Ohio with unemployed numismatists when he bounced 54 staffers at one go in the later 1970s. His firm remained with the Apostrophe sales until their end in 1990.

The New York firm of Stack’s was second in the Auction ’79 roster. Founded in New York City in 1934 and soon becoming one of America’s leading firms, Stack’s presented an all-American offering from early copper through commemoratives, U.S. gold and patterns with a short section devoted to original rolls of several U.S. denominations. Pioneer gold was highlighted by the massive 1855 Kellogg & Co. $50.

This coin was among the rarest in this uniquely American category that was already notable for lively disputes over authenticity of new discoveries and some older items. Centering on Eric P. Newman, John J. Ford Jr. and their vocal supporters, disputes over pioneer and western gold would last for years and did much to highlight the need for dispassionate, objective research and study.

Rarcoa’s section closely resembled Stack’s in style and descriptive language. A highlight was the 1877 copper gilt pattern half union or $50 piece that is one of the great rarities of the U.S. pattern series. Their offering of the 1787 Ephraim Brasher gold doubloon with “EB” on the left wing and two colonial-era Brazilian and British gold coins countermarked “EB” did much to boost Rarcoa’s selection and the overall value of Auction ’79. The pioneer gold section was extensive in both coins and ingots, including some Star Mining items now generally acknowledged to be fantasies of later date.

Superior Stamp and Coin presented a particularly varied offering including U.S. Colonial coins and regular issue U.S. Mint coinage highlighted by a Brilliant Proof example of the 1838-O half dollar and Proof-60 1895 Morgan silver dollar. World gold coins included a 1916 Chinese dollar hailing the elevation of President Yuan Shih-kai to the imperial throne of a new Hung Hsien monarchy. Since its founding by members of the Goldberg family in the 1940s, Superior had established a leading position in coins of the ancient world, and their Auction ’79 section was rich in Greek, Roman and Byzantine rarities.

To quote the euphoric summation appearing at the beginning of Auction ’80, the first Apostrophe Sale was “a smashing success.” The dealer roster for this second cooperative sale in 1980 was Superior-Paramount-Stack’s-Rarcoa, and the action unfolded at the Carrousel Inn just outside downtown Cincinnati, Ohio.

Superior’s section was devoted entirely to U.S. coins with especially rich offerings of Proofs.

Paramount opened with another selection of Canadian rarities, followed by such U.S. items as a 1795 Jefferson Head cent in VF-30 and an AU-55 1828/7 half eagle ($5); Pioneer gold was highlighted by a Proof-63 example of the Kellogg $50.

Stack’s varied its “all U.S. coin” program by adding several lots of rare American paper currency including Educational Series notes to its section.

Auction '81

Rarcoa made the Leo A. Young collection of Morgan silver dollars the highlight of its offerings.

Looking back, it can be seen that the Apostrophe series had been launched during one of the greatest bull markets the numismatic world had ever experienced, fired by an upbeat national economy, explosive increases in public interest in collectible coins and the sudden and delirious rise in precious metals prices triggered by the Hunt Brothers’ attempt to corner the silver market. Texas oil millionaires and wholesale collectors of ancient coins, Nelson Bunker Hunt and his brothers Lamar and William Herbert worked with Bruce McNall of Numismatic Fine Arts to amass continent-sized holdings of ancients, including thousands of pieces straight “from the ground” with the earth of their excavation still on them.

The Hunts’ most ambitious project was attempting to dominate the world silver market, which in turn triggered a dramatic rise in gold prices. The process was pure speculation, there was no sharp increase in industrial demand for silver and demand for silver in coinage was actually dropping sharply. Nonetheless, the whole world was suddenly scrambling to buy bullion or precious metal objects in virtually any form at any price. Endless lines formed outside refineries working 24-hour shifts. Gold and silver sizzled, from dental fillings to family heirlooms with no apparent end in sight as newsletter publishers and radio talk show hosts assured their eager listeners.

Suddenly flush with silver profits, speculators plunged to invest their bullion profits in rare coins, unburdened by knowledge of the coin field. Silver stumbled in early 1980, but the rush into coins kept the numismatic market looking solid for months. Bowers’ record-setting Garrett Collection sales buttressed this image and appeared to place the numismatic market above mere speculative enthusiasm. During 1981, the coin market began to slump as many dealers scrambled to raise cash to meet tax obligations incurred in the months of bullion profits.

By Fall 1981 the coin market reached the doldrums and the New Orleans ANA convention was little short of dismal.

Auction ’81 was conducted at the New Orleans Hyatt Regency Hotel and was a relatively bright spot during a dark interlude.

The numismatic market would not remain permanently in the doldrums as the effects of the bull market, bullion madness and the resultant slump wore off. Rarcoa opened with high-quality early U.S. coppers and patterns, continuing through the principal American coin series. A similar trajectory was shown by Paramount (with its usual Canadian contingent), Superior and Stack’s.

Auction ’82 was held at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge, Massachusetts coincident with the Boston ANA convention. Stack’s opened with its usual mainline U.S. lots, demonstrating that the highest-quality American coins had retained their core values despite the slump. Rarcoa and Superior followed suit, though Paramount highlighted exciting U.S. patterns including a copper 1877 $50 half union.

Auction '83 CatalogAuction ’83 marked a major departure, holding its sessions not in San Diego near the ANA convention, but in New York City.

Continuing “hard times” in the American coin market did not kill the Apostrophe Sales, however convalescent that market might be.

A major task facing the Apostrophe Sales was weaning consignors from traditional “do it NOW” thinking. Most rare coin owners were in a hurry to SELL once they had made their minds up to do so. Delay might bring second thoughts and unease deadly to the deal. Making the wrenching decision to sell in January was one thing, but waiting until July or August for the actual auction was another, especially in a time of economic uncertainly. Then too, not all dealers’ cash flow conditions would permit holding onto valuable numismatic property for months before liquidation.

Auction ’84 took place in Dearborn, Michigan; Auction ’85, Auction ’86 and Auction ’87 were staged in Chicago.

A major change in the dramatis personae came with Auction ’88 as David W. Akers Inc. took the place of the now departed Paramount. This sale’s sessions were called in Cincinnati in a return to closeness to the national organization’s host cities.

Auction ’89 returned to Chicagoland; Auction ’90 was held in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont, later the site of several 21st-century ANA conventions.

The Auction ’90 catalog was identical to the preceding years’ and the brief rah-rah introduction gave no hint that this would be the last Apostrophe Sale. This year saw another market downturn, though nothing as catastrophic as 1981. Far-reaching changes were coming to the auction world, including the disappearance of Kagin’s in its traditional form in 1984; Rarcoa would soon leave the picture while Superior would soon face a confused picture of internecine struggle, name change and relocation.

Third-party grading was sweeping the field (except as always for Stack’s), and the spread of rigid plastic capsules (“slabs”) would forever change the auction landscape. That four major firms had been able to work together for several years with such success still seems little short of miraculous from the vantage point of more than 20 years. A complete set of the Apostrophe Sale catalogs is today a valued part of any numismatic library.

Remarkably little was ever published giving a detailed history of the sales or reasons for their disappearance. Today, not one of the final four firms remains and nearly all of the leaders of the original companies have receded into history. Only the Apostrophe Sale catalogs themselves preserve a record of what must be seen as a remarkable venture in success through cooperation in a now-vanished world.

David Alexander
David Alexander
David Alexander has been an avid coin enthusiast since the age of nine. He has spent most of his professional life immersed in numismatics, writing for Coin World for several decades, and is an expert cataloger with a specialty in world coins and medals. A Life Member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), Alexander has received numerous accolades over the course of his career, including the ANA's Glenn B. Smedley Award and the Silver Medal of Merit. In 2013, Alexander was named ANA Numismatist of the Year. Alexander is also the founder of the Medal Collectors of America and is a Fellow of the American Numismatic Society (ANS).

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