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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Half Eagles ($5 gold coins) in March Rarities Night Auction

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #159 …..

On Thursday, March 14, Stacks Bowers (SBG) conducted their sixth Rarities Night event. The first was on Aug. 18, 2011 and the next to last was on Jan. 24, 2013, during which the Carter 1794 silver dollar sold for more than $10 million!  This latest sale offered an assortment of relatively expensive coins. It is not practical to cover even a substantial sample of all the coins in any one major auction. I focus herein on Half Eagles ($5 gold coins). There was an important, pleasant and interesting mix of these in this Rarities Night event, including rare dates and type coins.

Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a wide variety of coins and related items in Baltimore during sessions on Wed., Thursday and Friday. Before the auction, I covered the major collection of colonials that was offered on Wed. March 13, and I will further discuss some of those items soon. (Clickable links are in blue.)

I. Capped Bust Half Eagles

There were two Capped Bust Left Half Eagles ($5 gold coins) in this Rarities Night event. An 1808 Half Eagle is PCGS graded MS-62. It did not sell, though the auction firm should not be blamed for the fact that it did not sell. It seems that a commitment to pay more than $16,300, perhaps $17,000, would have been required to buy it.

grsb-08 This is not a ‘high end’ 62 grade coin and the reserve was significantly higher than a medium retail price for this coin. Indeed, Jim McGuigan refers to this 1808 as a “slider, AU-55+, a nice coin.”

McGuigan has been a leading expert in pre-1840 U.S. coins, especially those that grade from EF-40 to MS-63, for decades. His personal collection of half cents is one of the all-time greatest of that series.

It is not unusual for the PCGS and the NGC to grade coins that have apparent, moderate friction on the highpoints as MS-61 or MS-62. On such matters, McGuigan is a little stricter than most experts. If this 1808 really merits a 62 grade in the view of most experts, it barely does so.

The 1812 Half Eagle in the last year of the Bust Left Type. The PCGS CoinFacts site suggests that just “525” survive in all grades. My estimate is closer to one thousand, most of which are non-gradable. This is not a rare coin. It is true 1812 Half Eagles that are certified as grading MS-63 or higher are condition rarities, though not nearly to the same extent as choice uncirculated representatives of some other early U.S. gold issues are condition rarities.

Maybe there are seventy different 1812 Half Eagles that the PCGS or the NGC have graded MS-63 or higher. Even the CAC has approved twenty that grade MS-63 or higher, and the CAC was just founded in Oct. 2007.

The 1812 in this auction is NGC graded MS-63. I predict that it would fail to receive a sticker from the CAC if it was submitted and that the PCGS would not grade it as 63. Indeed, if it were removed from its holder and resubmitted to the NGC, would it be graded as high as MS-63 a second time?

The price realized of $28,200 is very strong. A $19,000 result would have been a moderate price.

II. Classic Head Half Eagles

The 1834 Classic Head Half Eagle in this sale was part of the “Bob and Sarah Ross” consignment, perhaps fresh! A coin that has not been offered openly in mainstream coin markets for more than five years is ‘fresh.’

grsb-36This 1834 Classic Head is of the variety with a “Plain 4” in the ‘date,’ year stated on the coin. This 1834 is NGC certified “MS-65*,” the star being for eye appeal. Despite, plenty of hairlines, it does have eye appeal, an attractive coin.

Jim McGuigan and I agree that this coin has been moderately dipped. He was not interested in it and Jim “did not grade it.” I point out that it is of the same quality, more or less, as others of this type that are also NGC graded MS-65.

The price realized of $44,063 is strong, significantly higher than the prices that similar coins have sold for at auction over the past eight years. This amount falls well within the current retail price range. McGuigan reports that “it went to a floor bidder.”

Though not noted in the current SBG catalog, this exact same coin was auctioned by Heritage on July 31, 2008, during an ANA Platinum Night event in Baltimore. It then sold for $40,250. It was perhaps during this exact night that markets for rare U.S. coins peaked, though prices for some rare coins have since risen.

The 1836 Classic Head Half Eagle in this sale was also part of the “Bob and Sarah Ross” consignment and it was also in the Heritage Platinum Night event of July 31, 2008. It later appeared in other Heritage events, in which it did not sell, including a sale in Jan. 2009. Therefore, this 1836 is not fresh.

Though the 1836 issue may be the least scarce date of the short-lived Classic Head type, which lasted from 1834 to 1838, all choice Classic Head Half Eagles are important as type coins. This Ross piece is PCGS graded MS-63 and is CAC approved.

The thirty 1836 Half Eagles that the PCGS has graded MS-63 or higher probably amount to fewer than twenty different coins. The CAC has only approved two at the MS-63 level and one higher, a MS-64 grade coin.

This Ross 1836 sold for $16,450, a strong price. When this same coin was auctioned in 2008, it did not have a CAC sticker. It then sold for $12,650.00

III. Charlotte & Dahlonega Half Eagles

The Ross 1850 Charlotte Mint Half Eagle seemed familiar. It is PCGS graded MS-63 and the name “Ashland City” appears on the PCGS holder. The SBG cataloger notes that it is “ Earlier from Heritage’s sale of the Ashland City Collection, January 2003, lot 4773.” It sold for $14,950 on Jan. 11, 2003.

grsb-50cThe SBG cataloger did not mention that this same coin was also in Heritage’s Jan. 2008 FUN Convention auction, at which time it was part of the “Waxhaw Collection.” It then realized $17,250. Both the holder in 2008 and the present holder indicate a PCGS grade of MS-63 and explicitly note the name of “Ashland City.” The holder housing this coin in 2008 had a different serial number than that of the current holder.

In the pictures, at least, the scratches, gashes, and other contact marks, particularly one on the chin, seem much less apparent in 2013 than these did in 2008. When I viewed the actual coin this month, I noted some stuff covering these marks. About the nature of the ‘stuff,’ I am not sure. Films do naturally form on gold coins, sort of analogous to thick toning on silver coins. In other cases, material is deliberately added. It would be a good idea to pour distilled water on this coin or maybe use acetone to remove some matter on the surfaces.

I repeat that, in this case, the stuff on this coin could be the kind of substances that naturally form on coin when they are properly stored or accidentally mishandled in a minor manner. No one expects a 63 grade coin to be perfect. Indeed, many 63 grade coins have hairlines from cleanings that should not have been performed. Interpretations of such hairlines are factors in the determination of a grade. An important point is that collectors should be cautious when considering coins that have substances covering substantial scratches and contact marks.

In any case, I am not challenging the PCGS grade of this coin, nor am I questioning its importance. It is one of the finest known 1850-C Half Eagles. In auctions that took place on Jan. 11, 2003, Jan. 10, 2008 and Mar. 14, 2013, it had the same PCGS grade, MS-63.

Evidently, it did not sell on Mar. 15, 2013. A commitment of $16,450 or more would have been required to purchase it. In general, markets for rare coins were more heated at the Jan. 2008 FUN Convention than they were at the March 2013 convention in Baltimore. So, this reserve is a little steep, though within the realm of reason. I wonder, though, if any of the bidders had concerns about ‘stuff’ covering contact marks on this coin and about the marks themselves.

As for the NGC graded MS-64 1852-C in this sale, the reserve of $28,200 is reasonable. This level, though, is in the upper reach of the wholesale range. Frequently, a dealer will not wish to be the only one bidding on a coin. Had it been offered without a reserve, it might very well have realized a price in the range of $28,200 or significantly more.

Even if it is true that experts at the PCGS and the CAC would not also grade this 1852-C as MS-64, this coin does not have any serious problems and should be worth a substantial amount as one of the highest certified 1852-C Half Eagles. In 2004, a Heritage cataloger noted that there were then four 1852-C Half Eagles that were NGC graded MS-64 and none were graded higher by the NGC. Now, there are nine at this level and one higher.

Undoubtedly, the “nine” are not nine different coins. It is likely that some 1852-C Half Eagles that were previously graded MS-62 or MS-63 have, over time, risen to being NGC graded MS-64. PCGS population figures for this issue have probably increased as well. Even so, all 1852-C Half Eagles are rare and those that merit any grade above 61 are important condition rarities.

The 1861-D is the rarest Half Eagle produced at the Branch Mint that was located in Dahlonega, Georgia. The PCGS site suggests that just seventy-five survive and the SBG cataloger of the one in this auction says that “no more than 100 are known”!

There may be a few more than one hundred survivors. Since 1997, Heritage has offered forty at auction. The PCGS has graded sixty-seven. The NGC has graded around thirty. I hypothesize that the PCGS and the NGC together have graded around fifty-three different 1861-D Half Eagles.

It is also true that the gold coins of the Charlotte and Dahlonega Mints have been a popular collecting specialty for more than sixty years. Some of these have yet to be certified and many are non-gradable, including the one in this auction. I suggest that there are at least fifty that are not gradable and at least another dozen gradable coins that have never been submitted to the PCGS or the NGC. An estimate of between 100 and 125 1861-D Half Eagles surviving should be considered.

While this 1861-D is not great, it is not bad for a non-gradable coin. I have seen many, far worse Southern gold coins that are not gradable. It could be a logical choice for a high grade set for a collector who does not wish to spend the funds for or does not have the patience to wait for one that grades AU-55 or higher. Indeed, 1861-D Half Eagles that grade AU-55 or higher rarely appear in auctions and would be likely to cost more than $40,000 each, perhaps much more. This non-gradable 1861-D sold for $25,850, a price that is difficult to interpret.

IV. P-Mint Liberty Head Half Eagles

The 1852 Philadelphia Mint Half Eagle from the “Bob and Sarah Ross” consignment is NGC graded MS-64. Collectors will not generally be bothered by the kinds of U.S. Mint caused imperfections that appear on this coin. There are some indentations, particularly in the lower part of the obverse (front of the coin), near 4:00.

grsb-52A more important issue is that this coin does not score highly in the category of originality. As microscopic particles in the air invariably fall onto coins, no coin is 100% original. Furthermore, no genuine coin may be zero percent original. So, in regard to coins, originality is relative, not absolute. The surfaces of this coin have been substantially treated in some way, perhaps a chemical cleaning.

This exact same 1852, in the same NGC holder, has a history of appearances in Heritage events. It failed to sell in Heritage Internet-only sales of April 29, July 22, and Aug. 24, 2008, according to the Heritage auction archives. Furthermore, it failed to sell in the Summer 2008 FUN auction in Palm Beach in June 2008. Curiously, before these four non-sales, it did sell in the Heritage Winter ANA auction in Phoenix, in March 2008, for $10,350.

On Mar. 14, 2013, it did not sell either. A commitment of $9165 or more would have been necessary. This is not a steep reserve. It is plausible that I am not the only one who is not enthusiastic about this coin.

Both this 1852 and the Philadelphia Mint 1858 in this auction are parts of the “Bob and Sarah Ross” consignment. The 1858 is NGC certified “MS-66*” and is the exact same coin that Heritage sold in Jan. 2008, in Orlando, for $63,250. I already mentioned that markets in rare coins were much more heated in Jan. 2008. This time, a commitment to pay at least $52,875 would have been required. This amount is a very aggressive reserve, though this 1858 is a very important coin.

All 1858 Philadelphia Mint Half Eagles are very rare, maybe even extremely rare. These are probably rarer than 1861-D Half Eagles, which I already mentioned.

In 2013, a larger percentage of buyers are likely to focus on the physical characteristics of the coins themselves rather than just accepting the certifications stated on PCGS or NGC holders. It is thus often misleading to compare auction results from 2006 to Aug. 2008 with those in the present, as the strategies of the buyers, on average,were different. A discussion of the characteristics of a coin is needed to attain an understanding of it.

grsb-66The next coin, an 1866 that is NGC graded MS-63 should be the topic of a discussion. To begin with, it is weird that price guides and certification services keep referring to this issue as “Motto.” Such listings wrongly imply that there exist regular issue, ‘No Motto’ Philadelphia Mint 1866 Half Eagles.

All Philadelphia Mint 1866 Half Eagles have the motto, IN GOD WE TRUST, on the reverse (back). There are San Francisco Mint 1866 Half Eagles of both types, ‘With Motto’ and ‘No Motto.’ The immediate point is that it is very misleading to identify coins of this issue as ‘With Motto’ when all regular issue, Philadelphia Mint 1866 Half Eagles are of the ‘With Motto’ Liberty Head Half Eagle type, which was minted from 1866 to 1908.

This 1866 did not sell during this Rarities Night session on March 14, 2013. It also failed to sell in two Heritage events, the Sept. 2008 Long Beach auction and the “Sunday Internet Coin Auction #68103” of Oct. 19, 2008.

On March 14, 2013, the reserve was more than $35,000. A later report of a price of $34,075 suggests that it might have sold, after the Rarities Night session, for a price that was less than the initial reserve level.

If most relevant experts really determined that this coin truly grades MS-63, it would easily one of the top three known of a very rare date, which is also the first issue of a popular design type, and it would easily have sold for far more than $35,000. I have been frequently pointing out that, in markets for rare U.S. coins, the number of serious buyers who uncritically accept the grades on the holders has gone down since the middle of 2009, and now relatively more buyers seek other sources of information to reach determinations regarding the grades of coins.

The grades on NGC or PCGS holders of coins being publicly offered are often not accepted by potential buyers. Even so, I strongly recommend that buyers of expensive U.S. coins buy only those that have been certified by the PCGS or the NGC, as the purchases of coins certified by these two services involve much less risk than the purchases of coins that are not certified by either of these two services.

In most cases, expensive, scarce U.S. coins that are not PCGS or NGC certified have been rejected by both the PCGS and the NGC. Certainly, all U.S. coins valued at over $500 each, and most of those valued at over $250 each, should be PCGS or NGC certified. Also, on average, PCGS or NGC certified coins with a CAC sticker will be of higher quality than those without a CAC sticker, all other factors being roughly equal.

The next Half Eagle in this Rarities Night event, an 1891, is NGC graded MS-65 and has a CAC sticker. Like the 1852, the 1858 and the 1866 just mentioned, it is from the “Bob and Sarah Ross” consignment. The $11,162 result is a MS-65 level price.

In 2005, only one 1891 Half Eagle had been NGC graded MS-65. None are graded higher. Now, three are NGC graded MS-65. A different one was auctioned by Heritage in Oct. 2010, at CoinFest, for $9775. A MS-64 grade 1891 is worth less than $5000.

The next coin in this auction realized the exact same price, $11,162, though the results being the same are a coincidence. This is a 1903-S that is NGC graded MS-67. While 1891 is a better date and is a condition rarity in MS-64 and higher grades, the 1903-S is a common coin. More than ten thousand exist in all grades and it becomes a condition rarity in MS-66 and higher grades.

The $11,162 result could be interpreted as a wholesale price for a ‘low end,’ certified “MS-67” 1903-S or a retail level for a MS-66+ 1903-S. Many experts would not grade this 1903-S as MS-67, though perhaps some would.

At a glance, this 1903-S may appear to some to be a MS-67 grade coin. Upon close inspection, however, it is evident that more than a few contact marks on Miss Liberty’s jaw and chin are covered by substances. Overall, there are just too many contact marks on her face and neck for this coin to grade MS-67, in the views of most experts. This 1903-S has other imperfections as well. It is, though, a really neat coin.

V. Indian Head Half Eagles

Indian Head Half Eagles were minted from 1908 to 1929, though not in every year in between. There were two in this Rarities Night event.

grsb-1910A 1910 Denver Mint coin is PCGS graded MS-64 and is CAC approved. The 1910-D is not at all rare in circulated grades and is a better date in ‘MS’ grades. Those that grade MS-64 or higher are important condition rarities. This 1910-D is an attractive and very original coin. The $10,575 result is strong, though unsurprising. This coin is certainly one of the best 1910-D Half Eagles that I have ever seen.

The 1911-S is scarcer than the 1910-D overall and is even more of a condition rarity in MS-64 and higher grades. This 1911-S is NGC graded MS-65. It did not sell and the reserve was more than $35,000.

Although this 1911-S does not a CAC sticker, the CAC has only approved three that grade MS-64 or higher, two at the MS-64 level and the Duckor-O’Neal 1911-S, which is PCGS graded MS-65+. The Duckor-O’Neal pieces sold for $57,500 in the Jan. 2011 Platinum Night event. While this 1911-S is inferior to that one, this is one of the better 1911-S Half Eagles in existence. It is a likable coin. Though $35,000 may be too much to pay for it, how should it be valued?

Some buyers tend to take price guides too seriously. All coins of the same type, date and certified grade are not equal. Even all coins with the same certification by the same grading service may not be close to being equal. It is really important for collectors to discuss the physical characteristics of coins with experts and to gain at least some of idea of the issues involved in evaluating coins.

©2013 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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