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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Commentary on Liberty Seated Dimes in Rarities Night

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #140 …..

On Thursday, Nov. 15, during a ‘Rarities Night’ event at the Baltimore Convention Center, Stack’s-Bowers offered a small, though impressive, group of Liberty Seated Dimes, including important dates and condition rarities. I discuss a few of them herein.

Last week, I covered the Three Cent Silver coins that were offered in this same auction event. While the Liberty Seated Dimes included are not quite as exceptional as the run of Three Cent Silvers, these are especially newsworthy. Furthermore, I hope that this discussion of type coins and better dates will contribute to greater understanding of the series of Liberty Seated Dimes. Also, I ask those who cannot afford the Liberty Seated Dimes offered in this auction to bear with me and consider my points.

I aim for my comments and analyses here to contribute to additional understanding of relative prices, grading, scarcity and physical characteristics in the series of Liberty Seated Dimes, in particular, and also to shed light as how classic silver coins, in general, are understood and evaluated. Coin buyers cannot learn much about coins by reading various price guides and data published by the grading services.

Generally, I am convinced that learning about some coins that a collector cannot afford is necessary for an understanding of the classic coins that he or she can afford. I am, as usual, including points for beginners and for advanced collectors in my discussion. I expect some very knowledgeable collectors to skim through the beginning and focus on some of my analyses of individual coins that come later. Plus, John Albanese’s quoted remarks relating to 1878 dimes are interesting.

I hope that all collectors consider that several of my points about expensive coins relate to coins that are much less expensive. Attractive, naturally toned, coins can be found in all grade ranges. Each collector should think about how much additional increments in grades are worth to him or her, and why. My recent article on choosing grades relates to this point. (Clickable links are in blue.)

I. Dates & Types

Liberty Seated Dimes were minted from 1837 to 1891. As designs of these were modified along the way, additional types or subtypes came into existence. Those who collect such coins ‘by type’ seek one or more of each design type, rather than representatives of every date in the series. There are also collectors who acquire groups of rare dates without aiming to complete any kind of set.

The first type of Liberty Seated Dimes has no stars on the obverse (front) and the legend, United States of America, is on the reverse (back). There are just two years and three ‘dates’ of this first type, 1837 ‘Large Date,’ 1837 ‘Small Date,’ and 1838-O. The 1837 issues were minted in Philadelphia and 1838-O dimes were struck at the U.S. Branch Mint in New Orleans. For a collector of type coins, obtaining just one of the three is sufficient to represent the first design type of Liberty Seated Dimes.

For a collector of Liberty Seated Dimes ‘by date,’ two or three are required, depending upon whether the 1837 ‘Large Date’ and the 1937 ‘Small Date’ are considered to be two distinct ‘dates.’ Many experts in this series regard them as such. After all, the numerals in the year on a coin are the main indicator of the coin’s ‘date.’ Significant differences in the numerals that are readily apparent without magnification generally signify coins that are traditionally regarded as separate or distinct ‘dates.’

The term ‘date’ though, is sometimes defined as referring to just a design type and a year. In a situation where a date and a year are thought of as being the same, as in some PCGS and NGC set registry categories, just one 1837 Liberty Seated Dime would be needed for a ‘date’ set. I maintain that such a narrow definition of the term ‘date’ is confusing and counter-productive. It is best, in such circumstances, to refer to just a ‘year’ and to collecting ‘by year’ rather that ‘by date’! Dates frequently include mintmarks, overdates, and some major varieties.

From 1838 to 1840, Liberty Seated Dimes of the ‘No Drapery’ type were struck. Many people think that additional clothing hanging from Miss Liberty’s arm is the only difference between the ‘No Drapery’ type of 1838 to 1840 and the ‘Stars on Obverse’ type of 1840 to 1853, 1856 to 1859. In actuality, there are other, more substantial differences. Indeed, the portrait of Miss Liberty is quite different. She looks like a whole different woman. Also, the shield is shaped differently and sits at a different angle.

Liberty Seated Dimes of 1853 to 1855 have arrows on the obverse (front). In 1860, the legend, United States of America, was moved to the obverse. In 1873 and 1874, arrows were again added.

There are six types of Liberty Seated Dimes: No Stars (1837-38), No Drapery (1838-40), Stars-Obverse (1840-53, ’56-59), Stars & Arrows on the Obverse (1853-55), Legend-Obverse (1860-73, ’75-91), Legend & Arrows on the Obverse (1873-74).

II. Gem 1837 dime

No matter how the term ‘date’ is defined in relation to Liberty Seated Dimes, a gem quality 1837 is very important. These are scarce coins overall, regardless of whether they have small numerals or large numerals. Further, they are of the first year of a design type. Moreover, there are just three issues in the whole design type. There are always many collectors of type coins who insist upon gem quality (65 and higher grade) coins.

In this auction, there was an 1837 ‘Small Date’ dime that is NGC graded “MS-67.” I like the coin. It scores very highly in the category of originality. The toning is definitely natural with particularly appealing shades of green and some nice orange-russet hues. There are hardly any contact marks. In my view, while this coin is very attractive, it does not have the eye appeal of a 67 grade Liberty Seated Dime. My tentative belief is that experts at the PCGS or at the CAC would not grade it as 67.

Even so, a “66+” grade would be appropriate. It is one of the best 1837 ‘Small Date’ dimes that I have ever seen. I have seen more pristine gem (66 and higher grade) 1837 ‘Large Date’ dimes than 1837 ‘Small Date’ dimes. Certainly, 1837 ‘Small Date’ coins are conditionally rarer than 1837 ‘Large Date’ dimes in the MS-66 and higher grade range, pristine gems.

In Sept. 2010, Heritage auctioned the Simpson coin for $25,300. The Simpson 1837 ‘Small Date’ is PCGS graded ‘MS-66+’ and CAC approved.

In Dec. 2009, when coin market levels in general were lower than they are now or were in 2010, a PCGS graded MS-66 1837 ‘Small Date,’ with a CAC sticker, was auctioned for $20,700. It is likely that this same coin would realize a little more if it was auctioned in Nov. 2012 or Jan. 2013.

As for the 1837 ‘Small Date’ in this auction, $29,900 is a fair market price for a MS-66+ grade 1837 dime in a holder that indicates “MS-67.” The buyer of this coin should be content with this $29,900 price, as should the consignor.

After all, this 1837 is not a fresh coin. This same coin did not sell in the Stack’s-Bowers auction of March 2011, though I do not recall the reserve at that time. Was it unreasonable?

III. 1840 ‘No Drapery’

Overall, ‘No Drapery’ type dimes are substantially different from the ‘Stars on Obverse’ 1840-53, 1856-59 type. To some extent, these two design types are the work of different artists. In Philadelphia, in 1840, dimes of both the ‘No Drapery’ and ‘Stars Obverse’ types were minted.

The 1840 ‘No Drapery’ dime in this auction is a great coin, one of my favorites in the whole sale. It exhibits wonderful natural toning. On the obverse (front), there are neat shades of blue in the outer fields and at the periphery. The tan and red colors about Miss Liberty are particularly memorable. Most of the reverse (back) exhibits light to medium tan shades, with much blue, which blended nicely.

This 1840 is PCGS graded MS-67 and is CAC approved. In my view, it qualifies for a 67+ grade. It scores very highly in the category of originality. Furthermore, it has just miniscule contact marks and very few of them. Plus, this 1840 is more than very attractive overall.

This coin sold for $14,950, a healthy price, which is probably an auction record for a business strike 1840 ‘No Drapery’ dime. Even so, I find this result to be weak to modest. I was expecting a higher price. This coin really reaches out and grabs the viewer. It is true, though, that the NGC certified “MS-68*” coin of this issue brought just $10,925 at auction in Oct. 2006, when markets for Liberty Seated coins were intensely active and price levels were rising.

IV. Famous 1860-O

The 1860-O dime is one of the most famous of all Liberty Seated coins. Just two to five truly grade above MS-60. Indeed, the 1860-O is probably rare in all grades. I estimate that only thirteen or so different 1860-O dimes grade higher than EF-45, thus in AU and MS grade ranges

The NGC graded AU-58 1860-O is extremely important. It was in this auction.

Yes, this coin has been around and not everyone is thrilled about it. Gerry Fortin remarks that the toning does “does not look right.” Fortin is a famous collector and a leading authority on Liberty Seated Dimes.

Heritage auctioned this same 1860-O in April for a reported price of “$7475.” Similarly, on Sept. 5, 2011, the Goldberg’s firm auctioned it for a reported price of “$7590.”

I understand why some coin buyers may be concerned about this 1860-O. I tend to prefer coins that score at least a little bit higher in the category of originality. In my view, however, the toning on this 1860-O dime is natural, though is sub-optimal because this coin was subject to an unfortunate liquid cleaning at some point decades ago.

The consequences of that cleaning are not really bad, though it did notably change the coloration of the surfaces, which have been recovering over time. After such a cleaning, natural re-toning is not the same as it would have been had the coin been cleaned in a standard manner.

Certainly, if this coin was never cleaned and never dipped, its appearance would be different and it would probably then be much more desirable than it is now. Even so, the retoning is natural and pleasant, in my view. A very large percentage of 19th century silver coins have been cleaned and/or dipped in the past. On the whole, this is a likable coin. On 19th century silver coins, it is not unusual to find evidence of such, moderately harmful, liquid cleanings.

Regarding this 1860-O, the other imperfections are minor. There are a fair number of contact marks, all of which are extremely small and minimally noticeable without magnification. Other Liberty Seated dimes with contact marks that are similar, in quantity and scope, have received AU-55 or AU-58 grades from the PCGS or the NGC.

In my view, this coin is definitely gradable and the “AU-58” grade is fair enough. Even if it was judged to grade AU-55, however, it would still be one of the finest known 1860-O dimes, certainly among the ten finest, possibly in the top six.

The $8050 result in this auction is a slightly strong price. It would be difficult to find an 1860-O dime that is superior to the one in this auction. From a logical perspective, this purchase was a good deal for the buyer.

V. Cool 1864 dime

The 1864 dime in this auction has really cool toning. Indeed, the layers of colors are fascinating. It is not easy to interpret this coin. I am not commenting here on the NGC grade of “MS-66+.” This is definitely a tricky coin to grade. I would like to see it again.

This 1864 dime is a delight to view. It has blue, green, tan, russet, red and apricot tones, though it is not dark. It was difficult to put it down.

Importantly, the 1864 dime is not just a better date; it is a truly rare date. It is rare in all grades. Indeed, there must be fewer than five hundred 1864 dimes in existence, including those that do not qualify for numerical grades because of serious problems. There are, though, thirty to forty business strikes that grade above MS-60. The data published by the PCGS and the NGC includes multiple counts of some of the same coins. Probably fifteen DIFFERENT 1864 dimes have been certified by the PCGS or the NGC as grading MS-64 or higher.

This 1864 sold for $20,092 at the auction. Gerry Fortin finds this to be “a strong price.”

The PCGS retail guide value for a PCGS graded ‘MS-66+’ 1864 dime, if there was one, is listed as “$15,000.” At the moment, I do not recall another, business strike 1864 dime selling for more than $20,000 at auction. For the lone PCGS graded MS-67 1864, which is in the High Desert Collection, the PCGS price guide value is “$22,500.”

In June 2011, Heritage sold an NGC graded MS-65 1864 for $2760. In May 2007, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded MS-65 1864 for $3737.50. An 1864 that is certified as grading MS-66 or higher had not sold at auction in a very long time before this one sold for $20,092 on Nov. 15, 2012.

VI. “MS-68” 1878 dime

The 1878 dime in this auction is the only 1878 dime that is PCGS graded MS-68. The PCGS has not graded any higher and none as “67+.” Just three are PCGS graded MS-67. The NGC has graded just one 1878 dime as MS-67 and none as MS-67+ or as MS-68. This coin stands alone as the most highly certified of any business strike 1878 dime.

The PCGS grade of this coin is CAC approved. The CAC has stickered this 1878 as MS-68, just one in MS-67 grade, only two in MS-66 grade, and a mere six 1878 business strikes in all grades, in total.

This 1878 has fabulous, dynamic greenish blue toning, along with appealing touches of russet. There are a few contact marks that are readily visible, even without magnification. With a five-times magnifying glass, I saw more than a few marks.

Last week, I said that, “for a Three Cent Silver to truly grade 68, it needs to have pizzazz or at least be vibrant.” The same concept applies to most classic U.S. silver coins. This 1878 dime certainly is vibrant and it has pizzazz.

Presumably, the stunning appearance and overall pizzazz of this coin is thought by many grading experts to vault it well over the MS-68 threshold. Admittedly, by not being convinced that it merits a 68 grade, I am in the minority.

It may be true that most experts would be too overwhelmed by its captivating appearance to even think about the contact marks. The emotions of coin experts and the realities of coin markets, perhaps, push its grade into the middle of the 68 range, with a force that cannot be offset by dissenting opinions.

Undoubtedly, when this coin is tilted under a lamp, it is extremely exciting. Almost every connoisseur of silver coinage could spend a lot of time viewing this coin without being bored.

This 1878 dime sold for $23,000. John Albanese asserts that this result “is a very strong price.” John is the founder of the CAC and of the NCA, which helps people who have been harmed by sellers who seem to have unfairly represented coins.

In Sept. 2010, Heritage auctioned the Simpson 1878, which is PCGS graded MS-67, for $8337.50. It is likely that an NGC graded MS-66 1878 would sell at auction, if so offered in the near future, for less than $2500 and a PCGS graded MS-66 1878 for less than $3250. I would recommend selecting an 1878 that is certified as MS-67 or MS-66 rather than paying more than $20,000 for the PCGS graded MS-68 coin.

It is important to keep in mind that an 1878 dime is not a typical type coin. It is a better date. Indeed, it may be scarce, or nearly scarce, in all grades. There are less than two thousand of them in existence, probably less than fifteen hundred, in all grades.

Albanese points out that “1878 dimes do not come nice. They were not made well to begin with. Luster tends to be lacking and parts of Miss Liberty are usually weakly struck. 1879 and 1880 dimes looked much better when they came off the [coining] press. Finding a superb one of those is less difficult than finding a superb 1878.”

Albanese does not remember this specific 1878 dime. He often evaluates more than five hundred coins a day. John says, though, that, “if a [19th century] silver coin is original and spectacular looking, players in the market may honestly grade it as 68 even if it has a few [apparent] contact marks or is weakly struck. There is much demand for spectacular coins. This is part of the reality of the market place.”

VII. Concluding Remarks

This was an excellent run of Liberty Seated Dimes. Regarding almost any group of important silver coins in a major auction, there will be disagreements among experts regarding specific grades and about the naturalness of some toning. Indeed, there will never be unanimous agreement among experts regarding the grades of many classic coins. Such disagreements should not deflect too much attention from the greatness or importance of particular coins.

Excellent, classic coins are to be appreciated, cherished and enjoyed. I really enjoyed viewing the Liberty Seated Dimes in this Rarities Night event.

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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