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Extreme Rarities Offered in Greatest Collection of U.S. Silver Coins Auctioned in Over a Decade

By Greg Reynolds for CoinWeek …..

On April 29 and 30, 2009, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Heritage will auction the collection of Joseph C. Thomas, which features U.S. copper, nickel, and silver coins from the 1790s to the mid-20th century. As far as I know, the Thomas Collection does not contain any gold coins.

In terms of depth and quality, it is the best collection of U.S. silver coins to be sold at public auction since John J. Pittman’s U.S. coins were auctioned in October 1997 and May 1998. Thomas’s copper and nickel coins are also exemplary. Although a large number of Thomas’ 19th-century coins are PCGS- or NGC-graded 66 to 68, the focus here will be on extremely rare coins, not super-grade coins. As the Thomas Collection will be sold without reserves, the results will provide much information regarding current markets for rare and/or high-quality, classic U.S. coins

If U.S. silver coins are analytically distinguished form entire collections, Joseph C. Thomas was certainly on his way towards assembling a collection that could have rivaled those of Eliasberg, Pittman, James A. Stack, and the Norweb family. Many (or all?) of his coins were acquired over the past six years. If Thomas had continued collecting for five to seven more years (in the same manner that he was acquiring coins during the period from 2004 to 2008), then his collection could have become one of the 15 finest of all time in terms of U.S. copper, nickel, and silver coins.

As it is, his collection will become a significant factor in the history of coin collecting in the United States.

I do not know why Thomas stopped, or why he chose April 2009 as a time to sell. Moreover, “Joseph C. Thomas” may not be his real name. But since it is the name that he has chosen for his coin collection, and because I never mention a collector’s unpublished name without his or her permission, then it is the name that I will use when referring to this epic collection.

The Joseph C. Thomas Collection will be best remembered for its silver coins. The focus here is on U.S. silver coins that are extremely rare. It is true, however, that most of the excellent silver coins in the Thomas Collection are not extremely rare.

Thomas has an incredibly large number of Gem-quality U.S. silver coins that are not rare, yet are among the top five known of their respective dates. In 2007, I wrote about an 1893-S dime that Thomas acquired for $63,250. It is PCGS-graded MS-67 and widely believed to be the finest known of this date. Moreover, the number of Capped Bust coins in the Thomas Collection that are PCGS-certified from MS-66 to 68 is mind boggling. It may be true that Thomas has many finest known Bust, Liberty Seated, and Barber coins. Plus, many of his nickel and copper coins, especially Liberty nickels, Buffalo nickels, and Indian Head cents, will strongly appeal to connoisseurs.

Such condition rarities should be the topic of another discussion. Most collectors will not have a chance to view the Gem-quality coins in the Thomas Collection, and I have not seen a majority of them. For several reasons, extreme rarities in this collection are a more suitable topic for a wide audience.

Unlike Superb Gems that are not very rare, most rarities can be meaningfully discussed without delving into the components of each coin’s grade. Besides, extreme rarities are traditionally favorite topics of collectors of U.S. coins.

A coin is an extreme rarity if fewer than one hundred exist, in all grades, including all varieties of the same date and type. For present purposes, the location of the Mint that produced the coin is incorporated into the term ‘date.’ An 1870-S dollar and an 1870-CC dollar are two different dates.

A coin is very rare if less than two hundred and 50 are known. For a coin to be a Great Rarity, fewer than 25 must be known to exist, in all grades, including Proofs, business strikes and all varieties.

Right away, I notice four Great Rarities in the Thomas Collection: an 1804 silver dollar, an 1870-S silver dollar, an 1817/4 half dollar, and an 1876-CC Twenty Cent piece. Just 15 1804 dollars exist, and Thomas’ 1804 is one of only seven Restrikes. While five so-called ‘Originals’ are in private collections, this is one of only three 1804 dollar Restrikes that are individually owned. The others are in museums.

While it is tempting to elaborate upon 1804 dollars here, this topic should be treated separately, given the tremendous fame and colorful history of 1804 silver dollars. Furthermore, commentary about the Carter-Flanagan-Thomas 1804 would deflect attention from the other rarities in, and the overall greatness of, the Thomas Collection. Consider that the 1870-S dollar is rarer than the 1804 dollar.

Although cataloguers of several auctions have suggested that there may be 11 or 12, only nine 1870-S silver dollars are truly known to exist. Rumors regarding the existence of others are questionable.

Of the nine known 1870-S dollars, I have examined eight, including this one. The 1870-S that I have not seen is widely believed to grade in the Fine to Very Fine range and to be characterized by numerous scratches.

The Thomas 1870-S is fairly graded Extremely Fine-40 by PCGS. In my view, it is of higher overall quality than the King Farouk 1870-S that Bowers & Merena sold for more than $700,000 in Feb. 2008.

The Thomas 1870-S was formerly in the Ostheimer, Richmond, and Jack Lee collections. Although it has long, arc-like scratches and a few shorter hairlines, I am very fond of this coin. It has pleasant toning, which is mostly a rich, medium-gray color. Under five-times magnification, very few contact marks can be seen. It has the sharpness of a 45 or 50 grade coin, and an overall grade of 35 or 40 is accurate (the following grades may apply to circulated coins: Poor-01, Fair-02, AG-03, Good-04, 06, Very Good-08, 10, Fine-12, 15, Very Fine-20, 25, 30, 35, Extremely Fine-40, 45, AU-50, 53, 55 and AU-58. ‘Mint State’ coins grade from 60 to 70).

In my view, the Richmond-Lee-Thomas coin is the fourth finest known 1870-S silver dollar, behind the Norweb, Rudolph-JAS-Legend, and Eliasberg coins. The third finest, the Eliasberg 1870-S, is PCGS-graded AU-53. In January 2008, CAC privately acquired it for $1.3 million USD.

In April 2008, Heritage sold the Queller-Wolfson 1870-S for an astonishing $805,000. It is NGC-graded EF-40, though, in my opinion, the currently offered Ostheimer-Richmond-Lee-Thomas 1870-S is a better coin.

The 1876-CC Twenty Cent piece is not nearly as rare as the 1870-S dollar, but is very likely to be a Great Rarity. In September 2008, I estimated that there are 18 to 26 in existence. The estimate, of 16 to 18, in the Heritage catalogue, is probably a little low, unless some of those reported in past decades are not genuine.

The Thomas 1876-CC Twenty Cent piece is PCGS-graded MS-66. It has been in a PCGS or NGC holder, with a 66 grade, for a long time, at least since the mid-1990s. Though not mentioned as such in the Heritage catalogue, it is definitely the same coin that was auctioned by Superior in March 2001, at which time it was NGC-graded 66. The Superior cataloguer identifies it as the Emery-Nichols 1876-CC, and my research suggests that this is true. Coin dealer Jay Parrino owned it during the 1990s. In 1984, it was in the Emery-Nichols sale by Bowers & Merena, and then it was acquired by Andy Lustig. It was NGC-certified MS-65 in or before 1988 – as was the Norweb 1876-CC, which is also now PCGS-graded MS-66. I hypothesize that the Emery-Nichols-Lustig-Thomas 1876-CC is the second-finest-known, and the Norweb 1876-CC is the finest. Neither the Emery-Nichols 1876-CC nor the Norweb coin has been offered at auction since 2001.

The 1817/4 half dollar is certainly rarer than the 1876-CC Twenty-Cent piece. The 1817/4 overdate is easily visible to the naked eye and is usually regarded, or collected, as a separate date, rather than only as a die variety. As a distinct date, it is the rarest date of the half dollar denomination, except for the obscure and mysterious 1853-O Without Arrows or Rays half dollar.

There are fewer than 10 known, genuine 1817/4 halves. In contrast, there are probably more than a dozen 1838-O Capped Bust half dollars, yet there does not seem to be an 1838-O in the Thomas Collection. Why not, Thomas could have easily afforded one of the several that have been on the market in recent years.

It is curious that the Thomas 1817/4 is certified by ANACS, rather than by PCGS or NGC. If I have correctly interpreted the data on the Heritage website, then there are 1,326 coins in the Joseph Thomas Collection being auctioned, of which 863 (or 65%) are in PCGS holders. Almost 35% (461 coins) are in NGC holders. In the Thomas Collection, this 1817/4 is the only coin in an ANACS holder and one coin is in an NCS holder. In the field of U.S. coins, it is not unusual for 98% or more of the coins in a major collection to be in PCGS or NGC holders. Indeed, in my experience, at important auctions and at most major coin conventions, more than 98% of the choice and rare U.S. coins being offered are in PCGS or NGC holders.

It is noted on the ANACS holder that this 1817/4 half dollar is “corroded”. In 2005, it was found in the ground in upstate New York. In January 2006, Heritage auctioned this same 1817/4 half for $253,000, a result that startled me. I have not seen this coin.

The 1817/4 half dollar is much rarer than the 1802 half dime, which is perhaps more famous. Since the 19th century, collectors have been frequently talking about 1802 half dimes. Even people who have no interest in owning any other half dimes desire an 1802.

As it is generally believed, without much evidence, that 30 to 45 1802 half dimes survive, the 1802 half dime may not be a Great Rarity. My guess is that the number extant is closer to 30, possibly even less. Moreover, as the appearance of several specific 1802 half dimes has changed over time, researchers may have over-stated the number of distinct 1802 half dimes. Besides, before 2000, images in most all auction catalogues tended to be of very low quality, and the same 1802 half dime could look like a different coin in different auctions. Uncertainty about rosters and pedigrees notwithstanding, the 1802 half dime is extremely rare and highly demanded.

Long before I knew of the existence of the Thomas Collection, I pointed out that this same 1802 half dime sold for a record $299,000 in April 2006. This record was eclipsed in March 2008 when the firm of David Lawrence Rare Coins (DLRC) sold the Pittman-Price 1802 for $345,000. It is NGC-graded AU-50, though I believe it deserves a lower grade. This sale occurred in one of DLRC’s internet-only auctions.

In 2006, the Heritage catalogue refers to the Thomas 1802 half dime as being from the Steve Glenn collection. John Feigenbaum, president of DLRC, told me in 2007 that he is “absolutely positive” that he sold this “same coin in 1999” to Jonathan Kern.

In 1999 or earlier, Feigenbaum and Jim McGuigan jointly acquired a Virginia collector’s holding of Bust coins, which included this 1802 half dime. When Feigenbaum sold this Virginia 1802, it was PCGS-graded VF-35, and Feigenbaum then thought that it might be “undergraded”. By 2006, it was PCGS-graded EF-45, and still is.

Stephen Crain, a leading half dime specialist, reports that he remembers seeing a high-grade 1802 half dime at “Jonathan Kern’s table” during a January FUN convention. At the time, Crain thought it “was in the EF45/AU-50 grade range,” and “had not been previously recorded.” He and a New Jersey collector concluded that it “was the long missing Dr. Daniel W. Valentine example.” In 1931, Valentine published a framework for identifying and labeling die varieties of half dimes. Separately, Kern told me that he handled “the Valentine Plate coin.”

So, my tentative theory is that the Valentine, Virginia collection, Glenn, and Thomas 1802 half dimes are all the same coin. It may not be the finest known, as there are at least two others that have been reported as being the finest–including the Garrett 1802 half dime, which I have never seen. Nevertheless, this Valentine-Virginia-Glenn-Thomas coin seems to be one of the top five.

Although 1804 dimes and 1804 quarters are not as rare as 1802 half dimes, they have been famous rarities for a very long time. They are of a species different from 1804 dollars, as they are business strikes that were struck in or around 1804, for circulation as money.

Dimes of 1804 are very rare, but maybe not extremely rare. McGuigan emphasizes, though, that “there are a lot of 1804 dimes that are damaged or heavily porous, and would not receive grades from PCGS or NGC. There are probably less than one hundred 1804 dimes that are gradable.”

Jim McGuigan has been a specialist in pre-1840 U.S. coins for decades. He suggests that 1804 dimes that qualify for numerical grades are extremely rare. The others have serious problems. Thomas has two 1804 dimes, one that is PCGS-graded VF-30 and another that is NGC-graded AU-55, which is a phenomenal grade for an 1804 dime. There are probably not as many as 20 1804 dimes that grade EF-40 are higher. The existence of an uncirculated 1804 dime is debatable.

The 1804 quarters are probably rare, but certainly not nearly as rare as 1804 dimes. McGuigan casually suggests that “there are 350 to 500 1804 quarters. Many are in very low grades.” Thomas has two 1804 quarters, both are PCGS-graded, VF-25 and VF-35, respectively.

Thomas also has two 1823/2 quarters. One is PCGS-graded VG-10 and the other, which is NGC-graded VF-30, was formerly in the epic Garrett family collection. There are no 1823 ‘normal date’ quarters and no other 1823 overdates. Therefore, the 1823/2 overdate must be considered a distinct date.

In his comprehensive encyclopedia of 1988, Walter Breen states that 18 to 20 are “known.”

In a recent book, Steve Tompkins provides a list of more than 30 1823/2 quarters. McGuigan remarks that an estimate of “30 is in the ballpark.” I am not convinced that there are as many as 30 different 1823/2 quarters. I acknowledge, though, that it might not be a Great Rarity.

The 1823/2 quarter is definitely an extreme rarity and is probably under-appreciated. Discussions of 1823/2 quarters are infrequent. Further, 1823/2 quarters never seem to ‘make news.’ Relatively less rare 1804 quarters and 1804 dimes are more famous. I remember an NGC-graded MS-62 1804 quarter being on the front page of Numismatic News weekly. At least one other probably has been so honored. Even though as many as five hundred may exist, the auction record for an 1804 quarter is $310,500, for the Speir-Colonel Green 1804 about a year ago. In July 2008, an 1804 dime from the Ed Price Collection sold for $632,500. Half dimes of 1802 are also more famous than 1823/2 quarters. Has an 1823/2 quarter ever been auctioned for as much as $100,000?

The 1878-S half dollar is, too, more famous than the 1823/2 quarter. It is amazingly rare for a late-19th-century, business strike, San Francisco Mint coin (all 1894-S dimes were probably struck as Proofs). Indeed, the 1878-S half is very likely to be an extreme rarity. PCGS and NGC have graded only 20 to 30 different 1878-S halves. If ANACS, ICGS, and NCS have certified eight to 10 1878-S halves that have never been graded by either PCGS or NGC, and another 10 to 20 have never been certified, the total would be less than 38 to 60! The Thomas Collection contains the Pryor 1878-S, which is PCGS-graded MS-64, and could be among the five finest known of this date.

Yes, there are Great Rarities missing from the Thomas Collection, in addition to the 1838-O half mentioned earlier. The 1894-S dime and the 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ quarter come to mind, as do 1884 and 1885 trade dollars. This collection was a ‘work in progress’. As great as it is, it is sad that the Thomas Collection will not become much more complete.

The bidders will be happy. In addition to the Great Rarities and other extreme rarities discussed here, there are hundreds of Gem-quality 19th-century and early 20th-century U.S. coins, plus many choice key or scarce dates of most types of U.S. copper, nickel and silver coins minted before 1934. Thomas’ collections of Liberty Seated coins are not as fully developed as his collections of Bust half dimes, dimes, quarters and halves. Other than his amazing set of Indian cents, Thomas’ collection seems to be phenomenal in pre-1840 and 1892-1934 classic U.S. silver and copper coins, and much less complete in coin types that began during the period from the 1830s to the 1860s. Indeed, in the online listing of the Thomas Collection, I found only one two cent piece and zero three cent nickels or silvers.

It is not one of the all-time best collections of silver dollars, but maybe Thomas had a preference for other denominations, or he had not yet intensely pursued silver dollars. Certain Bust, Gobrecht, Liberty Seated, and Peace dollars are noteworthy. I would particularly like to examine the two Proof Peace dollars. Plus, Thomas has two 1794 dollars. Both of these are NGC-certified, one as “AU-55”. The “MS-61” grade Thomas 1794 was formerly in the Murdoch, Atwater, and Bass collections, and ranks highly in Logies’ roster of 1794 dollars.

The Thomas Collection contains amazing runs of Barber dimes, quarters, and halves, plus strong assemblages of Mercury dimes and Walking Liberty halves. Even though Liberty Seated coins and early copper coins are among the weakest areas of the collection, quite a few scarce and important coins are included. The depth of the offering of Thomas’ half cents from the 1790s is particularly impressive. Moreover, an astonishing number of Thomas’ Indian cents are PCGS- or NGC-graded from 66 to 68, with ‘Full Red’ designations, including the scarcest dates. Further, numerous Gem-quality Buffalo nickels will command attention. My guess is that the quality and depth of the selections and the absence of reserves will contribute to a very exciting auction.

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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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