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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: $1.38 Million Auction Record for a $5 gold coin

News & Analysis on scarce coins, markets, and the collecting community #90

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds….
At the FUN Convention in Orlando, an 1829 Half Eagle ($5 gold coin) and a 1793 Chain cent each sold for $1.38 million in a Heritage auction. My article about this 1793 Chain Cent was published on Monday. The primary topic here is this 1829 Half Eagle, which is certified as “Proof-64” by the Professional Coin Grading Service. The $1.38 million result, on Jan. 5, establishes an auction record for a Half Eagle (U.S. $5 coin) and this particular coin is very important for other reasons as well.

Additionally, this Half Eagle is awestriking. The reflective fields, russet tinted design elements, red toning, and green hues all contribute to a very attractive look that really captures the attention of coin enthusiasts.

The secondary topic here is the Duckor 1920-S Double Eagle ($20 gold coin), which was also auctioned on Jan. 5. I put forth reasons why this coin and its $575,000 price are particularly important and newsworthy. Before now, the Duckor 1920-S has not received the special coverage that it clearly deserves.

I. What is an 1829 Half Eagle?

There are two types of Capped Head Half Eagles. The first type, which dates from 1813 to 1829, has a larger diameter than the second type, which was minted from 1829 to 1834. Moreover, the first type features larger numerals, stars and letters. I find ‘Large Date’ and ‘Small Date’ to be the clearest terms. While the difference in diameter is mildly noticeable, the differences in the sizes of the numerals are readily apparent.

There are 1829 ‘Large Date’ Half Eagles and 1829 ‘Small Date’ Half Eagles. These are generally considered to be different dates and to be of different design types (or subtypes). In another words, a collector who pursues Capped Head Half Eagles would, in theory, need two 1829 ‘dates’ to complete a set. In actuality, however, Capped Head Half Eagles are the most difficult of all U.S. coin series to even 80% complete. Their relative rarity contributes heavily to their allure.

Harvey Jacobson owned both an 1829 ‘Large Date’ and an 1829 ‘Small Date.’ The topic here is the Garrett-Jacobson 1829 ‘Large Date’ Half Eagle.

In my column two weeks ago, I discussed the history of the Garrett-Jacobson 1829 ‘Half Eagle, and I cited descriptions put forth by experts in the past. For past auctions that were conducted in 1979 and 1988, each catalogue described this coin as being a prooflike business strike and also as a special striking or a Proof. Past cataloguers seemed to be covering themselves by asserting all possibilities may be true, without much in terms of explanations.

II. Proof Status

Currently, this coin is the only Capped Head Half Eagle of the ‘Large’ type that has been PCGS or NGC certified as a Proof. I have not seen the never certified Half Eagles in the collection of the Harry Bass Foundation. Reports regarding those are ambiguous. It is certain that there are Proof ‘Large Date’ Capped Head Half Eagles in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. As far as I know, this coin is the only Proof or ‘Special Striking’ of this type that has been publicly offered to collectors in a long time.

I have carefully examined the Garrett-Jacobson 1829 Half Eagle and I wish to discuss its physical characteristics, which I take to be very much related to its value. Supposing that this 1829 ‘Large Date’ Half Eagle was perceived to be a business strike, even a fully prooflike one, it would not have realized $1.38 million. Alternately, IF it was nearly identical to a Proof-64 Half Eagle from the mid 1840s, would it have realized significantly more than $1.38 Million?

John Albanese asserts that “a Proof is not worth multiples,” as a business strike 1829 ‘Large Date’ Half Eagle is “so rare anyway.” Only seven are known. This “Proof is worth about 100% more than a business strike, twice as much,” John figures. Albanese is the founder and president of the CAC.

The Reed-Jacobson 1828/7 Half Eagle in this auction is of similar rarity and is NGC graded MS-64. It is obviously a business strike. Both the Garrett-Jacobson 1829 ‘Large Date’ and the Reed-Jacobson 1828/7 have been approved by the CAC. This 1828/7 sold for $632,500.

If the Garrett-Jacobson 1829 was still in a PCGS holder with a label that said “MS-64” rather than “Proof-64,” then it would probably have realized around $850,000, in my view. It has much more pizazz than the Reed-Jacobson 1828/7. From Jan. 1996 or earlier until April 2011 or later, the Garrett-Jacobson 1829 was PCGS graded “MS-64.” Was the previous “MS” certification a mistake?

In addition to complete, reflective fields, this coin certainly has more detail and better defined design elements (devices) than ‘Large Date’ Capped Head Half Eagles in general. While the mirrors are full and impressive, these are not thick or deep. These are not the kind of mirrors that most experts associate with 19th century Proof U.S. gold coins.

A key question, in my view, is should Proof gold coins be held to a higher standard, or be defined with different criteria, than Proof silver or copper coins? Moreover, should experts expect a Proof gold coin from 1829 to have the glossiness and minimum depth of fields that characterize more than 90% of all PCGS or NGC certified Proof gold coins from the 19th century?

Though I have not personally seen them, others have boldly stated that there exist, in the Smithsonian, Proof Half Eagles from the 1820s that look like Proof gold coins from the mid 1840s or later. These are said to have powerful Proof characteristics.

I have seen two 1821 Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold coins) that are certified as Proofs. One is definitely a Proof. The status of the other is debatable. It may not be a business strike, yet it does not have the glossiness and depth of fields that brilliant Proof gold coins tend to possess.

I have seen several Proofs from the 1830s, including the Pittman-‘Gold Rush’ 1833 Half Eagle, which exhibit powerful Proof characteristics and have the Proof gold ‘look’ that experts often expect. PCGS or NGC certified Proof Half Dollars and Proof Large Cents from 1820s and 1830s, however, are often not expected to exhibit powerful Proof characteristics.

For large cents and half dollars, from the 1820s and 1830s, being struck twice and having full reflective fields, along with a couple of other factors, are often sufficient for a coin to be designated as a Proof. Even some weakly struck pieces are certified as being ‘Proofs.’ If the standards that are employed to judge the Proof status of large cents or half dollars are employed, the Garrett-Jacobson 1829 ‘Large Date’ Half Eagle is, indisputably, a Proof.

Proof quarter dollars from the 1820s and 1830s tend to have relatively more solid Proof characteristics than halves or large cents. On average, details are sharper, relative relief is higher, devices are more squared, and mirrors tend to be fuller, among other factors.

In terms of the criteria employed to determine the Proof status of a Capped Bust Quarter, this 1829 Capped Head Half Eagle is in range of being a Proof, and probably reaches Proof status. The Garrett-Jacobson 1829 Half Eagle is, though, far more convincing as a Proof than a substantial number of half dollars and large cents that have been PCGS certified as Proofs, and more convincing than quite a few certified 19th century “Proofs” of other denominations.

While the Garrett-Jacobson 1829 is sharply struck, its detail is not overwhelming. The reflective fields are complete, yet are not even moderately deep.

One of the key differences between a Proof and a business strike, perhaps the main difference, relates to the form of the design elements (devices), especially the relationships of the design elements to the fields (relatively flat areas). The Garrett-Jacobson 1829 ‘Large Date’ scores high in this category. Indeed, it was struck twice, though neither strike was ideal. The force applied and/or the ‘set up’ of the dies could have been handled better.

Even so, many of the dentils (toothlike structures at the borders) are squared or nearly so. The concept of a design element (device) being squared is hard to explain. The word ‘square’ in this context should not be taken literally. It especially concerns how the design elements meet the fields. On a Proof, many design elements seem to ‘rest’ on the fields, rather than flow into them, and some design elements, especially numerals, will be closer to forming right angles with the fields than they are on corresponding business strikes.

The number ‘5’ and outer letters on the reverse (back of the coin) are mostly squared or squared enough for the most part. The stars on the obverse (front) tend to ‘rest’ on the fields rather than slope into them. These are characteristics of a Proof, though the presence of relatively ‘squared’ design elements does not conclusively demonstrate that a coin is a Proof. Other factors must be considered.

The preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that this coin is a Proof or a ‘Specimen Striking.’ Though the term ‘Specimen’ has been used in this context for decades, I prefer the term ‘Special’ to ‘Specimen’ and I now see ‘Special,’ in place of ‘Specimen,’ on some pages of the PCGS website.

The Garrett-Jacobson 1829 ‘Large Date’ Half Eagle could be fairly termed Proof-64 or SP-64. It would be wrong, in my view, to refer to it as a business strike. I am accepting of a Proof designation, providing that it is understood that this coin is not really a member of the same species as most Proof U.S. gold coins of the 19th century. While it has convincing Proof characteristics, these are not as powerful, or not as extensive, as the Proof characteristics found on a large percentage of Proof gold coins, even on most of those from the 1830s and on almost all of those from the 1840s.

III. The $1.38 Million Result

I was more surprised by the Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung Chain Cent realizing $1.38 million than I was by the Garrett-Jacobson 1829 realizing this same price. The 1829 ‘Large Date’ Half Eagle is fairly designated as a Proof and is a Great Rarity.

This Half Eagle scores higher in the category of originality than the Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung 1793 Chain Cent. The Garrett-Jacobson 1829 ‘Large Date’ has wonderful natural toning. While there are a few abrasions from mishandling, it seems that this coin has never been cleaned or dipped.

Tim Carroll asserts that “it is terrific Great Rarity” and “a wonderful buy” for $1.38 million. Tim is the president and principal of NFC coins. John Albanese remarks that “the price is about right.”

Larry Hanks indicates that he expected a price between “$1 million and $1.2 million.” For decades, Hanks has been an expert in bust and Capped Head Half Eagles. Larry feels that the results at this auction show that Capped Head Half Eagles “are finally bringing prices closer to what they should be worth, [given] their importance and rarity. Many Half Eagles are rarer than 1804 [silver] dollars,” Hanks exclaims. There are fifteen surviving 1804 silver dollars.

In contrast, John Hamrick “would have expected a price of a million dollars; 1.38 is a big number for this coin.” Hamrick has been a coin dealer for forty-eight years and has handled many rarities including a 1913 Liberty Nickel and an 1804 dollar.

IV. Duckor 1920-S Saint

There are probably between 135 and 165 1920-S Saint Gaudens Double Eagles ($20 gold coins) known to the coin collecting community. Only two have been certified as grading MS-66 and none have ever been awarded a higher grade by the PCGS or the NGC. Dr. Duckor has owned both of the two. He sold the Eliasberg 1920-S to Jay Parrino in 2000 and he acquired this one during the winter of 2006. It had then not been seen by coin experts for decades.The Duckor 1920-S was one of the most important coins in his set.

Dr. Duckor’s set of Saint Gaudens Double Eagles was sold on the night of Jan. 5, before the group of Jacobson Half Eagles that included the Garrett-Jacobson 1829 ‘Large Date.’ For information about Dr. Duckor’s collecting quests, please read my piece on his Dazzling Collecting Journey. A month ago, I wrote a separate preview of this auction of his set of Saint Gaudens Double Eagles. (As usual, clickable links are in blue.)

I am enthusiastic about the Duckor 1920-S. It is more than very attractive and is cool overall. The Duckor 1920-S Saint has very few contact marks, and I found that I was so overwhelmed by the coin that I did not think about the contact marks until I viewed this coin with a magnifying glass. I grade the Duckor 1920-S as 66.6.

The Duckor 1920-S is mostly a rich orange color, with terrific satiny luster in the obverse inner fields. It has neat blue natural toning on the center of Miss Liberty and on the center of the eagle. The golden-orange color on the reverse is even more appealing than the orange hues on the obverse. It is just a fabulous coin.

Bob Green, of Park Avenue Numismatics, predicted that the Duckor 1920-S would “sell for $450,000.” Matt Kleinsteuber, of NFC coins, expected a price of “$450,000 to $500,000” and notes that the $575,000 result is “strong.” David McCarthy, of the Kagin’s firm, agrees. “The $575,000 price for the Duckor 1920-S is strong, one of the strongest prices for rare date Saints in the Duckor collection,” McCarthy says.

I believe that this result is the strongest for any truly rare Saint in Dr. Duckor’s set. Please see my piece on ‘What are Auction Prices’ for a discussion of the notion of a “strong” auction price.

Some market participants point to the fact that the Eliasberg-Duckor-Parrino-Morse 1920-S sold for $517,500 in Nov. 2005, more than six years ago. This is the other 1920-S that is PCGS graded MS-66 and is the first one to be so graded. Indeed, market participants now do not realize that, in Nov. 2005, there was only one 1920-S that was graded MS-66.

The current Duckor 1920-S did not re-appear until Jan. 2006, and had then never been certified. So, the $517,500 price for the Morse 1920-S was realized when bidders were figuring that there was only one 1920-S that was graded MS-66. My impression is that they did not know, in Nov. 2005, that a fresh ‘MS-66’ grade 1920-S would appear in just a matter of weeks.

Therefore, now that there are two PCGS graded MS-66 1920-S Double Eagles, a price of $517,500 would be stronger in 2012 than it was in 2005. In the category of rare date Saints, there is a tremendous difference between two coins being tied for finest known honors and one coin standing alone at the top. Besides, while I cannot find my notes, if I have any, regarding the Eliasberg-Morse 1920-S, I would be surprised if it is as attractive as the Duckor 1920-S that just sold.

It is curious that the Duckor 1920-S has not received more attention, as 1921 Saints are not much rarer overall than 1920-S Saints. Furthermore, among rare date Saints, the Duckor 1920-S is the star of the auction of Dr. Duckor’s set. Moreover, almost all sophisticated collectors of 20th century gold coins can very much appreciate the Duckor 1920-S and most U.S. gold coin collectors would be very enthusiastic about owning it. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to carefully examine it.

©2012 Greg Reynolds

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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