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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Fresh & Original Proof Gold Powers Platinum Night Auction

News and Analysis on scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #37

CoinWeek Exclusive: A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds

In yesterday’s feature article, I wrote about the business strike silver and gold coins in the Jan. 6th Platinum Night event. This auction, however, will be best remembered for the 19th century, Proof U.S. gold coins in the collection of the late Henry Miller, especially his Proof Liberty Double Eagles ($20 gold coins). These were phenomenal.

The Miller collection contained business strike gold coins as well, some of which were discussed yesterday. Moreover, on Dec. 22th, well before the auction, I devoted a column to the Henry Miller collection.  All of Miller’s coins have been ‘off the market’ for at least fifteen years. Quite a few were purchased in the 1970s and 1980s. Few of the bidders had ever seen any of Miller’s coins before. Although there were a large number of incredible rarities in this year’s FUN Platinum Night event, Proof gold propelled the proceedings.

I. Why Did Proof Gold Realize Strong Prices?

In my view, Miller’s Proofs, on average, brought very strong prices in this auction. Why does a coin realize a strong price at an auction? I have reviewed more than a hundred coin auctions, and, in yesterday’s article, for the first time, I listed pertinent criteria, which I have slightly revised.

Although there are exceptions, each coin that realizes a strong price in a major auction meets ONE OR MORE of the following criteria: (1) was fresh, (2) was from a non-dealer consignment, (3) was from a named excellent collection when consigned or was notably in a great collection farther in the past, (4) is CAC approved, (5) has natural toning and/or mostly to fully original surfaces, (6) was fairly graded or undergraded in the views of expert graders who were involved in serious bidding.

Yes, on occasion, a coin that fails to meet any of these criteria will realize a very high price. Generally, though, these factors determine why some coins fare better than others in the same auction.

The term ‘fresh’ does not refer to the quality of a coin. It indicates that a coin has been ‘off the market’ for five to seven years or more.

In addition to being obviously fresh (1), many of the Proof gold coins in the Henry Miller collection meet all of the other criteria as well. (2) The Henry Miller collection is just that, a true collection. It was not part of a dealer’s inventory. (3) The coins from the Henry Miller collection were clearly indicated as such in the print and online catalogues, and many were mentioned in my column of Dec. 22nd. I interviewed Eric Streiner who arranged for the Henry Miller collection to be certified by the NGC in the early 1990s. I also interviewed John Albanese who was the senior partner and lead finalizer at the NGC from 1987 to 1998 or so. (4) John Albanese founded the CAC in 2007. A large percentage of the coins in the Miller collection were approved by the CAC prior to the auction.

(5) An amazing percentage of the Proof gold coins in the Miller collection are characterized by natural toning (including clouds) and/or mostly to fully original surfaces. John Albanese agrees that “original coins did better than noticeably dipped coins on Platinum Night.”

(6) I telephoned several of the leading bidders, including but not limited to dealers who are mentioned herein. It is indisputable that grading experts involved in the bidding determined that, generally, the Miller collection Proof gold coins were either fairly graded by the NGC or undergraded.

These criteria relating to individual coins and collections need to be analyzed in the context of the overall auction event. Each FUN Platinum Night event includes a wide variety of very rare U.S. coins.

II. Importance of Platinum Night

Before discussing specific Proof gold coins from the Miller collection, it makes sense to provide some background regarding this auction, the Jan. 06, 2011th Platinum Night event. More information can be found in yesterday’s article, my column of Dec. 8th, and my review of last year’s FUN Platinum Night event.

Generally in regard to both Proofs and business strikes, I have been amazed by the FUN Convention Platinum Night events since 2005. A mind-boggling assortment of great coins and/or collections, every year, are packed into one night, with a very large percentage of them actually selling for strong prices. More than $31 million worth of rare coins sold during the Jan. 6, 2011 Platinum Night. A Satin Finish 1907 Eagle ($10 gold) sold for $2,185,000 and I will discuss that item next week.

“It is testimony to this market that so many coins are fluid and actually sell,” Scott Travers concludes. “In the art market, many items just do not sell at any [reasonable] price” at major auctions. Travers is a widely acknowledged author and market analyst.

I (this writer) have attended other coin auctions, especially some that occurred years ago, where a substantial proportion of the rarities offered did not actually sell. Todd Imhof, Executive Vice President of Heritage, reveals that the “sell-through” rate for the Jan. 6, 2011 Platinum Night was “92%”!

When I asked Imhof how he found the prices realized for Proof Gold in this auction, Todd replied, “overall, it’s about the strongest [Todd’s] seen in recent memory. But, that is probably more a testament to the quality and freshness of so many of the items offered in this particular auction.” In another words, Imhof is not asserting that the markets for Proof U.S. gold coins have recently risen or are rising, he is referring to the enthusiasm of bidders for the Proof gold coins in this auction, especially those from the Henry Miller collection.

“Fresh, high end Proofs brought strong prices on Platinum Night,” John Albanese states. “The Miller Proof gold coins were very special,” John adds. Matt Kleinsteuber, the lead grader and an active trader for NFC coins, declares that “the Proof gold in the sale out of that fresh [Miller] collection is the best I [Matt] have ever seen at auction, and was beautiful.”

III. Proof $20 Gold Coins

The core of the Miller collection was Miller’s Proof Liberty Head Double Eagles ($20 gold coins), especially his group of these dating from the 1860s. Both Proof Type One (1850-65) and Proof Type Two (1866-76) Double Eagles are extremely rare, Type One Proofs more so than Type Two Proofs. Miller had an astonishing number of such Proofs.

I like the Miller 1860 Double Eagle, which is NGC certified Proof-64 and is CAC approved. Matt Kleinsteuber asserts that $230,000 for this coin “was one of the best deals in the auction. It was the first Proof Double Eagle to be auctioned that night and people were a little gun-shy!”

Adam Crum of Monaco Financial later informed me that he was the successful bidder, though, from my vantage point at the auction, I could not tell for sure who was bidding when this lot was hammered by the auctioneer. Adam is probably the nation’s leading dealer in Type One Double Eagles.

In August 2006, when coin markets were much more heated, B&M sold a different 1860 Double Eagle, which is NGC certified ‘Proof-64 Cameo,’ for $189,750. It is certainly plausible that the Miller piece is vastly superior to that one.

I was even more impressed with the Miller 1863. It is just incredibly original and exhibits mesmerizing, full strong mirrors. While $212,750 is a substantial amount, I thought earlier that this coin could be subject to runaway bidding to a higher level. In addition to being a Civil War era Proof Liberty Head Double, it is an extremely rare issue and this specific coin is awesome. A few years ago, the PCGS or the NGC would probably have graded it as 65, if it had been then submitted. It may still merit a 65 grade. Its originality, though, impressed me more than its grade. I hope that no one tampers with it.

Kleinsteuber remarks that the Miller 1863 Double Eagle is “really amazing and beautiful, should upgrade, has everything going for it. Prices were not insane for the 1860 and 1863 Proofs,” Matt suggests. “These were decent deals [considering] the quality of the coins.” I agree with Matt that the 1863 was a very good deal at $212,750. It is a coin that I will never forget.

The Miller 1864 Double Eagle is NGC certified ‘Proof-65 Ultra Cameo’ and does not have a CAC sticker. Steve Contursi “loved that coin” though was not successful at obtaining it.

Kleinsteuber finds the $359,375 result to be “a fair value, deserving of a true gem. Try to find another one,” Matt declares. I disagree with Matt. In my (this writer’s) view, the result for the Miller 1864, $359,375, was beyond strong; it was very high.

The $359,375 price for this 1864 is a result that I would have expected when coin markets were booming, more or less, from 2005 to the middle of 2008. In a Jan. 2011 auction, this price for this coin is startling. Yes, I agree with Matt in that it is extremely difficult to find a Civil War era Proof Double Eagle that is certifed as grading “65,” especially one with a marked cameo contrast. Even so, this sum could be used to purchase a famous rarity. Besides, the Miller Proof 1864 did not overwhelm me.

Unlike the result for the Miller 1864, $264,500 for the Miller 1865 is definitely worth it, in my view. Among the coins in this auction that I examined, this is one of my favorites. It has amazing mirrors and original skin. The toning on this coin is entirely natural. The russet-tan devices contrast wonderfully with the deep fields that are mostly their original black color with some even and neat natural green tone. The few hairlines are not distracting.

One long light shallow scratch on the reverse (back) probably kept this coin from grading 65. It is very attractive plus. It may still be certified as grading 65. Regardless of its grade, I was delighted to examine it. Besides, the 1865 issue is one of the rarer Proof Type One Double Eagles. Perhaps only eight survive.

The Miller 1867 is the first of Miller’s Proof Type Two Double Eagles, which were minted from 1866 to 1876. Generally, Proof Type One Double are rarer, as a type, than Proof Type Two Double Eagles. The Miller 1867, with a certified grade of “65+,” did not completely thrill me, though it is a really cool coin. The price realized of $276,000 was more than strong. Matt thinks otherwise. Kleinsteuber insists that this was “a bargain, an astute purchase, and a very good value.”

I would imagine that $276,000 is an auction record for a Proof 1867 Double Eagle. As I am traveling at the moment, I do not have access to all my auction related research materials. It should be noted, though, that the Eliasberg-Trompeter 1867, NGC certified ‘PF-65 Cameo,’ sold for $195,500 at a June 2004 Platinum Night event in Long Beach, California.

Proof 1870 Double Eagles are rarer than Proof 1867 Double Eagles. The NGC certified ‘Proof-64 Cameo ‘1870 in this auction is not noted as being in the Miller collection in the print catalogue, but it is so noted in the online catalogue, which is correct in this regard. This Miller 1870 sold for $184,000. I expected it to bring around $165,000, if that much. This is another strong auction result.

It is extraordinariy difficult for a collector to find a choice Proof 1874 Double Eagle. I doubt that there are even three other ones owned by collectors that are as desirable as the Milller 1874. Indeed, there might not be any. In my view, its grade is in the middle of the 64 range. It is attractive overall. The contrast could be fairly termed ‘Deep’ or ‘Ultra Cameo’ rather than just ‘Cameo.’ The realized price of $172,500 is reasonable, perhaps a little strong.

In August 2006, B&M (now merging into Stack’s-Bowers) auctioned a different 1874 Double Eagle, which is (or was) NGC cerified ‘PF-64* Ultra Cameo.’ That coin sold for $161,000.

Type Three Proof Double Eagles are not that rare as a series, though some dates are extremely rare in Proof format or even in any format. The Philadelphia Mint Double Eagles from 1881 to 1887 really require a separate discussion, due to the rarity of the issues and the fact that collectors of business strikes often demand Proofs of these dates. If the number of Proof 1885 Double Eagles is added to the number of surviving 1885 business strikes, the total would not be large, perhaps less than one hundred.

The Miller collection Proof 1885 is NGC certified ‘Proof-66 Cameo’ and it has a CAC sticker. This is a terrific coin. There is no doubt about it truly grading 66. It could be the finest known. “This coin is a monster, absolutely incredible,” Kleinsteuber exclaims. In the field of rare U.S. coins, the term ‘monster’ has an extremely positive connotation. Considering the importance of the date and the quality of the Miller 1885, the price realized of $207,000 is certainly fair

Even rarer than the 1885 overall, Double Eagles of 1883, 1884 and 1887 are Proof-only dates in that no business strikes are known to exist. The Miller 1887 was one of the most talked about coins in the whole auction. It has its original skin and it has a magical texture that cannot be described in words. It is NGC graded 67+ with an NGC awarded star for eye appeal.

Steve Contursi declares that this 1887 “was amazing, a phenomenal example of this Proof-only date, something really special.” Joe O’Connor says that it is fantastic. Kleinsteuber asserts that “it is the best Proof Twenty Lib that I [Matt] have ever seen; it deserves a grade of 68!”

I (this writer) tentatively grade it as a low 67. While it might have ‘a look’ of a 68 grade Proof Double Eagle, it has technical imperfections that prevent it from truly grading 68, in my view. In terms of aesthetics, it is awestriking.

Even given the magical texture of this 1887, the $402,500 result startled me. It is quite a price for a Proof Liberty Head Double Eagle of any date. In August 2006, however, an 1861 Double Eagle was auctioned by ANR for $483,000! That 1861 is NGC certified ‘Proof-67 Ultra Cameo.’ I have not seen it.

There was another Proof 1887 Double Eagle in this same Jan. 6th Platinum Night event, though this second 1887 was not part of the Miller collection. It was consigned by the collector known as ‘LV.’ It is PCGS certified ‘Proof-64 Deep Cameo’ and brought $115,000. In Sept. 2008, the Goldbergs auctioned the Loewinger-Ohringer 1887 Double Eagle, which is PCGS certified ‘Proof-65 Cameo,’ for a reported price of $161,000. It is true, though, that these other 1887 Double Eagles do not have the super-cool look of the Miller 1887.

IV. Proof $2½ Gold Coins

I found the Miller Proof Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold coins) to be very appealing. Indeed, the Miller 1864 was wonderful. The ‘Proof-65 Cameo’ NGC certification does not reveal anything about the greatness of this coin. Matt Kleinsteuber raves that this “was the best Proof Quarter Eagle in the sale; it was amazing. I [Matt] love the coin.” Kleinsteuber would have bid [$80,500] to win the coin but [a Midwestern dealer] bid that first.”

While $80,500 sounds like a fortune for a Proof 1864 Quarter Eagle, experts who viewed the coin probably found this price to be understandable. Moreover, as I emphasized in my column of Dec. 22nd, the combined total of known Proof and business strike 1864 Quarter Eagles is less than forty-six, perhaps in the range of thirty-five to forty-three.

Though not nearly as rare as an 1864 Quarter Eagle, Miller’s 1887 Quarter Eagle was an important item in Henry Milller’s collection as it was a component of his complete 1887 Proof Set, copper, nickel, silver and gold! I like Miller’s 1887 Quarter Eagle, especially the tan devices and naturally greenish fields. It is very attractive.

Bidding opened at $27,600 and I believe that I witnessed Laura Sperber as the successful bidder, for $40,250. I would have expected a price of maybe $35,000. Some of the pieces in Miller’s 1887 Proof Set were more impressive than others. As a whole, the set was really neat.

V. Proof $3 Gold Coins

The Miller 1887 $3 gold coin, NGC certified PF-66 Cameo and CAC approved, sold for $43,125. This was not one of the stronger prices in the auction.

Generally, Henry Miller’s Proof Three Dollar Gold coins were very impressive. He had Proofs of the following dates, with NGC certifications in parentheses: 1858 (64 Cameo), 1861 (64 Cameo), 1863 (64 Cameo), 1864 (64 Cameo), 1868 (65 Cameo), 1870 (65+ Cameo) , 1876 (64 Cameo), 1881(64 Cameo) and 1887 (66 Cameo). I believe that all these just listed each have a sticker of approval from the CAC.

I very much like the Miller 1863. It is ‘high end,’ is more than very attractive, and really grabbed my attention. It sold for $40,250, a strong price, though I expected a higher auction result.

VI. Proof $5 Gold Coins

The 1873, Close 3, Proof Half Eagle ($5 gold coin) is rarer and harder to find in 64 or higher grade than most collectors realize. Indeed, there are few auction records for certified Proof-64 representatives of this issue. The Miller piece, NGC certified Proof-64 Cameo, with CAC approval, realized $43,125, a strong price, though worth it. This is an excellent coin.

Though I just glanced at it for a moment, I seemed to really like the Miller 1881 Half Eagle. It exudes originality. This coin has hardly been bothered since it was minted. It is NGC certified PF-65 Cameo, and, like most of the Miller Proofs, has been approved by the CAC. This 1881 went for $37,375, which seems fair enough.

Like the 1887 Double Eagle, the 1887 Half Eagle is a Proof-only date, though it is the only such Half Eagle date to be Proof-only. There are thus zero business strike 1887 Half Eagles. There are probably fewer than forty Proofs in existence.

The Miller 1887 Half Eagle is NGC certified Proof-65 Cameo. Though it exhibits quite a few hairlines, it seems to make the 65 grade, though just barely. The Miller 1887 Half Eagle is very attractive and it scores high in the category of originality. It brought $126,500, which is strong in terms of market levels. This issue in general, however, seems undervalued from a logical perspective. There are thousands of people who collect Liberty Head Half Eagles and just a small number of 1887s in existence. The Proof 1887s should be subject to more demand from those who collect business strike Half Eagles. Consider the demand by business strike collectors for Proof 1875 Quarter Eagles, Half Eagles and Eagles.

Yes, there were other Proofs in the Miller collection, including some Eagles ($10 gold coins). It is just not practical to cover them all here. The Miller collection of Proof gold will be fondly referenced for decades.

©2011 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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