A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #115
On Friday, June 29, the firm of Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an Ultra High Relief (UHR) Saint Gaudens $20 gold pattern for $2.76 million. In early August, Heritage will auction a different one, a sub-60 grade piece that was previously auctioned by Stack’s in March 2005 and in July 2008.
Steve Contursi was the successful bidder. Contursi reveals that he “was bidding on the phone from a restaurant two miles away.” Don Kagin is Steve’s partner in regards to this item.
In March 2005, in an article published in Numismatic News newspaper, “I conclude[d] that at least seventeen Ultra High Reliefs exist.” It now seems that at least eighteen are known, probably nineteen to twenty-one in existence. While there are four different edge varieties, I am not discussing the edge varieties here, as these are primarily of importance to researchers and to the one extremely focused collector who owns representatives of all four edge varieties.
It does not make sense for most coin collectors to be concerned about the edge varieties of Ultra High Relief Saints. It is the obverse (front) and reverse (back) of each that should be appreciated.
Indeed, Ultra High Relief (UHR) Saints are legends in the coin collecting community. Everyone should view one.
Locating an UHR Saint to see is not too difficult, as six are in museums in four different States. There are three in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. There is one in the American Numismatic Society (ANS) museum in New York. Many people do not realize that there is also one in the Connecticut State Library in Hartford. I believe that the Eliasberg-Bass UHR Saint is currently on display at the ANA Museum in Colorado Springs.
Additionally, there is a good chance that the buyers of the piece that sold on Friday night, Steve Contursi and Don Kagin, will bring it to major coin conventions, especially FUN and ANA Conventions. In the past, when Contursi has owned, or co-owned, famous rarities, he placed them on display for the benefit of thousands of collectors.
In general, Ultra High Relief (UHR) Saints are among the most famous of all gold pieces; these are certainly the most famous patterns. After mentioning the meaning and importance of Ultra High Relief Saint patterns, I analyze the $2.76 million result, along with past results, and I discuss a few Ultra High Relief Saints that I have personally examined.
I. What is an Ultra High Relief Saint?
In late 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt began to think seriously about asking Augustus Saint Gaudens to redesign the coinage of the United States. Roosevelt disliked the adopted coinage designs of the late 19th century. Augustus Saint Gaudens was not just the foremost sculptor of the era; he is the greatest sculptor in the history of the United States.
President Roosevelt suggested to Saint Gaudens that U.S. coins should be struck in very high relief. The ‘relief’ refers to the distances from the ‘highest’ points of raised design elements to the ‘lowest’ points of the fields, which are the parts of each coin that lack design elements. Fields are often plain and relatively smooth, though they are not required to be plain or smooth. Fields are the parts of each coin that are not occupied by design elements (devices) or border devices. (Yes, the edges of coins may have fields, too, though edges are as separate topic.) On most coins, fields are relatively, very flat, though on Saint Gaudens Double Eagles ($20 coins) and on Indian Head Eagles ($10 gold coins), fields slope considerably.
Generally, the relief on each side is thought of as the ‘height’ (loosely defined) the ‘tallest’ part of the central design element. A more precise definition may involve figuring an average of a series of the greatest distances from points on the central design elements (devices) to the nearest respective points where devices meet the fields. It would be difficult to measure the relief of a coin in an exact manner. Consider that Miss Liberty’s flexed knee on a Saint Gaudens $20 gold piece is a relatively great distance from the nearest point where the same leg meets the adjacent field.
For coins to be manufactured at a reasonable cost and to be stacked by merchants, the reliefs of the central design elements tend to be fairly shallow, in contrast to the reliefs of devices on medals or on relevant sculptures. Theodore Roosevelt, however, noted that many ancient Greek coins were struck in reliefs that are much greater than the reliefs on U.S. coinage. The President demanded that U.S. coins be made in much higher relief.
There were obstacles to Roosevelt’s plan of having Saint Gaudens commissioned to redesign all U.S. coinage. Most of these obstacles related to a relatively static bureaucracy, power struggles within the U.S. Mint, and the resistance of some high ranking officials to dramatic change in the nation’s coinage. Moreover, Saint Gaudens became ill and was to die in 1907. Roosevelt was thrilled by the models that Saint Gaudens’ assistant brought to the President in December 1906. President Roosevelt pressured U.S. Mint officials into manufacturing Ultra High Relief Saint patterns, even though each had to be struck many times on a special press, with 172 tons of pressure.
Such Ultra High Relief Saints were not practical. They are exciting patterns. All involved in their production must have been aware that many merchants and bankers would have objected to using Ultra High Relief Saints as $20 pieces in commerce. Furthermore, the relative costs of manufacturing each one must have been, on average, multiples of the costs of manufacturing one of the old Liberty Double Eagles ($20 gold coins). Ultra High Relief Saints are tremendous representatives of one of Saint Gaudens’ greatest artistic creations, though pieces struck in such a format could not then have become widely circulating coins.
U.S. Mint records indicate that fewer than twenty-five Ultra High Relief Saints were made. Before discussing the rarity of Ultra High Relief Saints, it makes sense to mention REGULAR High Relief (RHR) Saints, which are not regular. These are very special coins, too. The relative relief overall of Regular High Relief (RHR) Saints, however, is not nearly as great as the relief of UHR Saints. If a UHR Saint is placed next to an RHR Saint, the UHR Saint appears to be of a superior species, something that has more pronounced features and characteristics.
If a RHR Saint is placed next to a typical Saint Gaudens Double Eagle ($20 gold coin), a business strike minted from 1907 to 1933, the additional relief and more pronounced features of the RHR Saint are readily apparent. Moreover, RHR Saints are considered to be coins, not patterns, though I theorize that most were kept as novelty items or as aesthetically appealing means for saving gold bullion. Some exhibit wear, though not a large percentage of the more than twelve thousand struck.
The wear on most worn RHS Saints probably came from mishandling or mistreatment, rather than from circulation in commerce. This is especially true of the two to four UHR Saints that grade below 60.
RHR Saints are not rare. If these are considered to be regular issue coins, and they usually are so considered, RHR Saints are one-year type coins that are needed for type sets of Double Eagles or of 20th century gold coins. In any event, the status of RHR Saints is a different topic. The point here is that UHR Saints are notably different from RHR Saints, and that RHR Saints are not rarities; they are somewhat common. A leading dealer, in common gold coins, could pick up the phone and easily acquire more than two dozen of them, without much difficulty, for prices that are relatively predictable. RHR Saints, however, are much less common than 1924 or 1928 business strikes.
Normal, business strike Saint Gaudens $20 gold coins (Double Eagles) were minted from 1907 to 1933. The ‘No Motto’ subtype was minted in 1907 and 1908. From 1908 to 1933, ‘With Motto’ Saints were produced, often in massive quantities. UHR Saints, which are patterns, are all Proofs, though they are a kind of Proofs that is different from the Sandblast ‘Proof’ Saints that were minted from 1908 to 1915 and marketed to the general public.
UHR Saints exhibit varying degrees of reflectivity. The one that was just auctioned has relatively strong mirrors, though this piece has to be tilted at certain angles for the mirrored fields to be appreciated or even seen in their entirety. On all UHR Saints, there are a large number of swirling, raised die finish lines, which are fascinating and entertaining. There are similar lines on ‘Wire Edge’ $10 piece of 1907.
The ways in which the outer fields meet the edges on UHR Saints are distinctive and hard to explain. The fields ‘bank up’ to the edges, which is a cool characteristic that distinguishes these from other gold pieces. Moreover, there are subtle characteristics relating to the design elements that also distinguish UHR Saints from RHR Saints and from other Saints, though such characteristics cannot be fully articulated. All interested collectors should find the time to view a UHR Saint in actuality.
II. The Trompeter-Morse UHR Saint
The UHR Saint that Stack’s-Bowers just auctioned for $2.76 million was formerly in the Philip Morse Collection, which Heritage auctioned in Nov. 2005. The Morse catalogue indicates that this UHR was earlier in the collection of Ed Trompeter. John Albanese agrees that the Morse and Trompeter UHR Saints are the same.
In 1992, Larry Goldberg showed me the Trompeter Ultra High Relief Saint. It was then PCGS certified Proof-67. During the same era, it was also graded “67” by the NGC. In late 1998 or 1999, however, the NGC regraded it as “Proof-69.”
A published report in a Feb. 2003 Goldbergs catalogue, in relation to the Norweb UHR Saint, refers to then current population data, as reported by the PCGS and the NGC respectively. These are the two leading grading services.
As of Dec. 2002 or Jan. 2003, The NGC had certified one as Proof-69, the Trompeter-Morse piece, and the PCGS had, as of late 2002, not certified an UHR Saint as Proof-69. When the Trompeter-Morse piece was auctioned by Heritage in November 2005, it was PCGS certified as Proof-69 and still is so certified. So, at some point, between Jan. 2003 and Nov. 2005, the NGC certified Proof-69 Trompeter-Morse UHR Saint ‘crossed’ into a PCGS holder with the same grade, even though the PCGS had previously certified this same coin as Proof-67, as had the NGC.
While I very much like the Trompeter-Morse UHR Saint, it grades 67, in my view. In private conversations, no expert has told me that it truly grades ’69.’ If it had never been certified, I would predict that the PCGS and the NGC would each grade it as “67+.”
Not only do other UHR Saints have better eye appeal, this one does not, in my view, even have the eye appeal of a 68 grade coin. Furthermore, all of the UHR Saints that I have seen exhibit notable imperfections. While the Bloomfield piece is the highest quality of the seven that I have examined, I would not grade it as 69 either. The Bloomfield UHR Saint was PCGS graded 68 before 2003 and deservedly so.
Sources indicate that the Frank Hein piece and the Simpson piece are the same. I briefly viewed the Hein piece, while it was in a display case, in 2003. I carefully examined the Simpson piece before Heritage auctioned it in January 2007, without mention of pedigree, for $1,840,000. It is PCGS certified Proof-68.
While the Hein-Simpson piece is not as dynamic as the Trompeter-Morse piece, I grade it a fraction of a point higher. It is technically stronger and the rich, soothing, completely original color is especially appealing, in my view. I grade the Hein-Simpson piece as 67.8, give or take a few tenths.
As for the $1,840,000 auction result, this realization was regarded as a little weak in Jan. 2007. Bruce Morelan bid over the Internet, on behalf of Simpson. An objective then was to prevent others from knowing that Simpson was bidding. In some other auctions, Laura Sperber waves a bidder card with Simpson’s number. Simpson has built the all-time greatest collection of U.S. patterns.
In Nov. 2005, the Trompeter-Morse UHR Saint sold for $2.99 million, though the coin was available soon after the auction. “Every coin in the Morse sale, including the UHR, was sold unconditionally and without reserve,” maintains Todd Imhof, now Executive Vice President of Heritage Auctions. “After it sold in Morse it was placed back on consignment with Heritage for resale at a profit by private treaty,” Imhof continues. “I recall a few people thinking it odd that it was offered by Heritage right after the auction. But it re-sold very quickly to a prominent collector known as The Madison Collector,” Todd adds.
“Prior to Heritage selling the bulk of The Madison Collection [at auction] in January 2008, we sold the UHR via private treaty on behalf of The Madison Collector,” Imhof confirms. The Trompeter-Morse Heritage was sold, or arranged to be sold, by Heritage at the Summer 2007 ANA Convention in Milwaukee. The core of the “Madison Collection” was a truly phenomenal type set, in my view.
My sources strongly suggest that the Trompeter-Morse Ultra High Relief Saint was arranged to be sold for $3.1 million in Milwaukee during the summer of 2007. This price has not been confirmed by the buyer or by anyone at Heritage.
This $3.1 million price, if true, is high, from my perspective. While the $1.84 million price for the Hein-Simpson piece in Jan. 2007 was a little weak, the $2.99 million result for the Trompeter-Morse piece in Nov. 2005 was extremely strong. Before the Nov. 2005 sale, I was predicting a price of $2.1 million or so.
As for the $2.76 million realization on Friday, this price is exactly right; it is neither strong nor weak. Two factors are especially relevant. First, ‘plastic premiums’ have fallen since 2009. Second, other than this same coin in 2005, an Ultra High Relief Saint has never sold for more than $1.85 million at auction. At least two have sold for more than $2 million each, privately, though private prices are different from public auction prices.
In several recent articles, especially in one that I wrote during the winter on grading issues, I have emphasized that there has been a growing trend since 2009 for bidders to look past the certified grades and adjust their bids based on an interpretation of the underlying grade of the coin, even when the ‘true’ grade is less than the certified grade. So, a coin that is PCGS or NGC certified as grading 66, for example, will now often bring an amount of money associated with a 65 grade for the respective coin, especially if several leading experts regard the true grade as 65.
Of course, it is not always true that an auction result will be determined by an underlying true grade. Even if a 65 grade coin is PCGS certified as grading 67, perhaps after being PCGS graded 65 on twenty previous occasions, there will often be bidders who believe the 67 grade or accept it for other reasons, sometimes for registry sets or investment purposes. The ‘so called’ plastic premiums, the extra funds for coins that are overgraded or controversially graded, have gone down dramatically since 2009, on average. In another words, the ‘plastic premiums’ are much less, on average (though not always), in 2012 than such premiums were from 2003 to 2008.
Although coin prices are higher, on average, in 2012 than they were in Nov. 2005, I did not expect this coin to realize the same $2.99 million price that it realized in Nov. 2005, mostly because the ‘plastic premium’ has fallen and because the $2.99 million result was extremely strong. Even if it really merited a ’69’ grade, the $2.99 million result would have been very strong in 2005. In the Morse sale, this certified ’69’ grade UHR Saint turned out to be worth $1.5 million more than a certified ’68’ grade UHR Saint, twice as much, in my analysis.
I hypothesize that, in 2012, the plastic premium was $510,000, more or less. This UHR Saint, if it was graded 68, would realize $2.25 million and the 69 grade, ‘the plastic,’ added another $510,000. Most experts think of it as grading ’68,’ though just barely. As it has been PCGS and NGC graded ’69,’ most experts would not dare to think of it as grading ’67.’A ‘low end’ to mid range’ 68 grade UHR Saint is currently worth $2.25 million, in my estimation.
“Do understand, this coin is spectacular, if it were raw it would still command over $2 million easy,” Laura Sperber declared in her recent market report. By “raw,” she means not encapsulated and not independently graded. In a conceptual sense, she is discussing how much it would be worth if it is imagined that it was never PCGS or NGC graded.
She is probably correct, though I wish to add an explanation. If the Trompeter-Morse UHR Saint had never been certified, few experts would think that it would be likely to be graded ’69.’ Experts would wonder whether the PCGS would certify it as 67+ or 68. As a high end 67 grade or a low end 68 grade UHR Saint, it would be worth an amount in the range of $1.99 to $2.4 million.
As I said, my conclusion is that this UHR on its own realized $2.25 million and the holder added $510,000 more. Moreover, a UHR Saint that truly grades a mid range to high end 68 would be worth $2.5 million or more. I tentatively estimate the current value of the PCGS certified Proof-68 Bloomfield piece at around $2.55 million and value of the Hein-Simpson piece at around $2.15 million. Market conditions, however, change, and the current demand will change as well.
I understand why some experts believe that UHR Saints should be worth more than their current market values. Coincidentally, I happened to talk to Steve Contursi on the phone shortly after an Alberto Giacometti sculpture was auctioned for the equivalent of US$104.3 million in Feb. 2010. Steve then wondered, “If a Giacometti sculpture is worth more than $100 million, why can’t an Ultra High Relief be worth $10 million?” This is a fair question. I will not attempt to answer it.
III. The Finest Ultra High Reliefs
The finest UHR Saint that I have ever seen is the Bloomfield piece. It was auctioned by Sotheby’s on Dec. 16, 1996 for $825,000. I was there. Dwight Manley was the successful bidder. He was there, too. It was later PCGS and NGC certified as Proof-68. In 2003, while still owned by Manley, the Bloomfield piece and the Frank Hein piece were at the Goldbergs table at the Summer 2003 ANA Convention. Both pieces then sold.
The Bloomfield piece was acquired by the Southern Collector who sold his collection of patterns to Simpson in 2007, in a deal negotiated by Laura Sperber. As Simpson already owned the Hein piece, he declined to acquire the Bloomfield piece. Sperber arranged for John Albanese to buy the Bloomfield piece, and Albanese sold it to a collector in the Midwest for more than $2 million. Albanese and Manley also regard the Bloomfield UHR Saint as the finest known of any UHR that they, respectively, have seen.
The Bloomfield UHR Saint has beautiful, bright yellow, glittery surfaces. The second finest that I have seen, and I believe John agrees, is the “Wall Street” piece. A collector who earned a fortune in the bond business owned this UHR Saint for ten or more years. Albanese graded this coin as ’68’ in 1990, well before the wave of grade-inflation that rocked the coin collecting community from 1997 to 2006 or so.
I saw the “Wall Street” UHR Saint in Jan. 2007 when Contursi showed it to me. I was so enthralled that I could not put it down. Subconsciously, I almost walked away with it. Steve had to yell at me to hand it back. It exhibits a terrific, rich orange color. In my opinion, it is much more appealing than the one that sold on Friday night. Indeed, it is extremely cool. It is now owned by a collector in Florida. The already mentioned Hein-Simpson piece is the third finest UHR Saint that I have ever seen.
The Trompeter-Morse piece is the fourth finest. The Jeff Browning – ‘Dallas Bank’ piece is the fifth finest UHR Saint that I have examined. It is somewhat generously certified as “Proof-67” by the PCGS. Albanese likes it more than I do. His view of the coin may be fairer. John is the leading grading expert for U.S. gold coins. Also, I admit that I have not seen it for a very long time and my notes about it are not detailed.
Sotheby’s, in partnership with Stack’s, auctioned the ‘Dallas Bank’ Collection in New York at the end of the October 2001. This collection had been formed by the late Jeff Browning.
A West Coast firm bought the ‘Dallas Bank’ Ultra High Relief at this auction and, a short time later, sold it to Albanese. John, in turn, sold it to a collector who lives in a State that borders Canada. That collector paid less than $800,000 for the ‘Dallas Bank’ Ultra High Relief Saint and still has it. He also owns several other gold rarities, though he does not collect Saints in particular.
The sub-60 grade UHR Saint that Heritage will auction in August has never sold for as much as $1 million and may be a good value. Indeed, it brought $690,000 in a July 2008 Stack’s auction. I will write more about it in the future.
Though these are patterns, not coins, UHR Saints are among the most coveted of all items, by coin collectors. It will be fun to follow future sales of UHR Saints, as the demand and supply in the ‘marketplace’ change over time. As I said at the beginning, UHR Saints may be viewed in four different museums and, sometimes, at major coin conventions. I look forward to examining more of them.
©2012 Greg Reynolds