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HomeAuctionsThe Greatest U.S. Coin Collections Ever Auctioned, Part 1: Rarity Over Quality

The Greatest U.S. Coin Collections Ever Auctioned, Part 1: Rarity Over Quality

The Greatest U.S. Coin Collections Ever Auctioned, Part 1: Rarity Over Quality

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #387

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds …..
This series is about comprehensive collections of classic U.S coins (1793-1934) that were offered, at least in large part, in public auctions. World coins, ancient coins, paper money, and medals are all different topics, although U.S. coin collectors in the past often included these in their respective collections. Before discussing collections in detail, it makes sense to discuss the criteria for judging the greatest collections of classic U.S. coins.

In regard to coins included in major collections that have been auctioned, I am weighing rarity far more than quality, but quality is an important factor – as is popularity. There has always been more interest in bust half dollars than in Three Cent Silvers.

It is impossible now to analyze the respective quality of each coin included in the greatest collections of the past. To even analyze the quality of extremely rare coins in these collections would be very difficult, and often could not be done with a very high degree of accuracy. The quality of a large number of rarities that were auctioned before 1990 is largely a mystery.

In contrast, we do not need to know the precise physical characteristics of a coin to analyze its rarity, assuming it is genuine. It is practical to use rarity as a lead measure in the evaluation of coins auctioned long ago. Depth, completeness, pedigrees, and complements, etc., are factors as well.

Before the late 1970s, few collectors building great, comprehensive collections of classic U.S. coins would have been very concerned or very interested in condition rarities of common coins. These were sought by collectors who were not intending to build a massive collection of classic U.S. coins, dating back to the 18th century. Condition rarities of common coins are beside the present theme. But suffice it to say, it was unusual before the ’70s for condition rarities of common coins to even be consigned to major auctions as single coin lots. Dealers placed superb Mercury dimes or Walking Liberty half dollars in display cases at coin shows. They then waited for connoisseurs of common coins who were willing to pay large premiums for superb examples.

1916-D Mercury DimeIn the context of rare coins, it will be demonstrated that some of the all-time greatest U.S. collections contained many amazing coins that would now be fairly referred to as gem quality. Indeed, there were a significant number of rare or very scarce gem quality coins in the auctions of the Thomas Cleneay (1890), Lorin Parmelee (1890), Matthew Stickney (1907) and George Earle (1912) collections (year of auction in parentheses). There are, however, many coins in these collections for which their respective pedigrees have been lost.

No one now knows what happened to all of them after the respective auctions. So, in regard to analyzing and evaluating collections that were auctioned before 1955, there is no choice other than to weigh rarity far more than quality. A relatively low-grade 1802 half dime, 1894-S dime, 1876-CC Twenty cent piece, 1827 quarter, 1834 Capped Head quarter eagle, 1854-S quarter eagle, 1815 half eagle, 1875 eagle, or 1870-CC double eagle is weighted heavily in the framework of determining which are the all-time best collections of classic U.S. coins to have been auctioned.

To qualify for consideration, a past collection must have had several Great Rarities and many classic U.S. coins that are very rare in addition to innumerable coins that are “merely” rare or very scarce. Such a collection should contain copper, silver and gold coins. Other than the 1913 Liberty Head piece, nickels are not very rare.

1913 "V" Nickel

A greatest collection should contain many sets, not just of one metal, one denomination, or one time period. Various series must be featured. Coins cannot all be from the same time period, like series that started before 1834. Within the span from 1793 to the early 1930s, several time periods must be covered for a collection to be comprehensive.

The sale of the Amon Carter Collection by Stack’s in January 1984 consisted almost entirely of gold coins and silver dollars. Although there were some extremely important gold coins in the collection, his series were generally incomplete and many rare dates were missing.

The Amon Carter silver dollar collection was phenomenal. Numerous rarities notwithstanding, the Amon Carter Collection does not have the scope of those on the list of the greatest, most comprehensive U.S. coin collections to have ever been auctioned. It did contain numerous rarities and, under alternative criteria, could possibly be considered one of the most important coin collections of all time.

What is Meant by Rarity?

In my series on rare gold coins for less than $5,000 each and in other articles over the years, I have discussed the concept of rarity being employed. I have also addressed the topic that many classic U.S. coins are common, especially 20th-century nickel issues and many silver issues from 1918 to 1933.

Although my definitions of rarity are logically related to the Sheldon-Judd scale and to a framework put forth by Edgar Adams and William Woodin in their U.S. pattern book (NY: ANS, 1913), my definitions are my own and I have used them consistently in hundreds of published articles. The terminology (including the Sheldon-Judd scale) that is typically used in relation to the rarity of patterns or die varieties should not be literally applied to classic U.S. coins in general.

Also, it is important to distinguish absolute rarity from condition rarity.

1933 $20 NGC MS66A coin is absolutely rare if less than 500 exist in all states of preservation, including all varieties of the same date, denomination and type. A coin is Very Rare if fewer than 250 are known, and Extremely Rare if there are fewer than 100. A coin is a Great Rarity if less than 25 are known to exist. Die varieties are a different topic.

An additional concept of rarity is needed for experienced collectors who focus on scarce coins. Although there are some knowledgeable collectors who seek coins that grade from Fair-02 to VG-10, I have found such collectors to be exceptions.

More importantly, there are many coins for which hundreds or even thousands survive that grade below Fine-12 or are non-gradable, while only a small number above the grade of Fine survive. A ‘Reynolds Rarity’ is a coin for which fewer than 250 are known in grades above Fine-15, meaning VF-20 to MS-69!

Examples will be provided in this series. In terms of criteria, a collection is greater that has some of the finest known representatives of Reynolds Rarities, rather than pieces that grade VG-10 or Fine-12. If an AU-50 piece is the finest known, an EF-45 or EF-40 grade piece is very important, even if thousands of Good-04 to -06 specimens of the same date and type are still extant.

Provisional List (Subject to Ongoing Research)

Eliasberg’s quest for completeness and that of Waldo Newcomer were unusual. From the 1860s to the 1980s, most of the epic collections of U.S. coins that were assembled were not intended or planned to be entirely complete in any relevant sense.

Pedigrees contribute to pedigrees, as those who owned the greatest collections often bought coins at the sales of previous greatest collections or contracted with an agent to do so. In an article in 2013 about the best 1794 large cent in Eliasberg’s Collection, its pedigree was emphasized: Parmelee (1890), Mills (1904), Earle (1912), Clapp and Madison (2008).

1821 Quarter Dollar - Pogue CollectionThe Eliasberg-Pogue Proof 1821 and 1822 quarters are pertinent. They are both Clapp-Eliasberg coins and were both earlier in the Chapman Brothers auction of the John G. Mills Collection in 1904. According to the Pogue I catalogue, the 1821 was in the sale of the George Earle Collection by the firm of Henry Chapman in 1912, while the 1822 was not in the Earle Collection.

In my view, a collection that has many coins with illustrious pedigrees should receive credits for those pedigrees. The greatness of a collection can be increased by adding coins that were previously sold in great collections, unless the respective coins have serious problems.

Also, collections should receive extra credits or points for historically or aesthetically important patterns. The adding of a substantial number of patterns, including obscure prices and fantasies, to a collection of classic U.S. coins should not necessarily boost the collection in terms of rankings with other collections of classic U.S. coins. The importance of particular patterns and the ways in which patterns logically fit into or complement the respective collection should be evaluated.

So, in chronological order, here is a list of the all-time best, comprehensive collections of classic U.S. coins to have been auctioned. The years in which the respective auctions were held are in parentheses. For now, sales by B. Max Mehl are excluded, as these were not real auctions, per se.

John J. Pittman 1850

McCoy (1864); Mickley (1867); Cleneay (1890); Parmelee (1890); Mills (1904); Stickney (1907); Mougey (1910); Earle (1912); Jenks (1921); Boyd (1940s); Baldenhofer (1955); JAS (1975, 1989, 1990, 1994-95); Garrett (1976, 1979-81); Eliasberg (1982, 1996-97); Norweb (1987-88); Pittman (1997-98); Newman (2012-present); Pogue (2015-17).

A collection can be on the list if sold in parts, provided that not many coins were added to the later parts after one or more of the earlier parts were sold. Someone who consigns sets, one or two at a time, of specific series and then uses the proceeds to build sets of other series to be auctioned later, cannot count all such sets as being part of one comprehensive collection.

If later parts are built after earlier parts were auctioned as major collections, then the collection in question never really was intact as a unit. If revenues from an auction of part of a collection are used to buy a small number of coins that are added to a part that is auctioned at a later time, that is not a critical problem in the framework of criteria for judging the all-time best.

The immediate point is that this series is about comprehensive collections that were intact or almost entirely intact as units before all or any named parts were auctioned as a major collection.

McCoy & Mickley

Though their inclusion may be counter-intuitive to some collectors in the present, two auctions from the 1860s are included.

The John McCoy Collection in 1864 and the Joseph Mickley Collection in 1867 were both sold in New York under the direction of the firm of W. Elliot Woodward, who was the consignor on both occasions. Given time limitations and the resources available to them, their respective collections are comprehensive and amazing, in terms of rarity, quality, and completeness.

Before the U.S. Civil War, there weren’t many serious coin dealers and there was not much knowledge available to even the best-informed dealers and collectors. Besides, if McCoy or Mickley had continued to collect in the same respective ways until the late 1880s, they could have easily acquired most of the rarities from 1865 to 1884.

Woodward made clear that he had recently purchased these two collections before he had them auctioned, and it is believed that they were purchased and auctioned intact except that there were no regular-issue U.S. gold coins from Mickley in the auction of the Mickley Collection in 1867. W. Elliot Woodward had purchased the vast majority of the Mickley Collection intact, but Mickley’s U.S. gold coins were sold privately to William Sumner Appleton.

Mickley 1804 DollarThe copper and silver in Mickley’s collection are incredible and comprehensive. His 1804 silver dollar was last publicly offered in 2013. It is generally believed that Mickley’s U.S. gold coins were exceptional, too, in terms of rarity, quality and completeness.

There could be additional collections that were auctioned in the 19th century that should be on the list. I thank Saul Teichman for sharing his vast knowledge of the history of coin collecting in the U.S. and for putting forth suggestions.

When McCoy, Stickney, and Mickley were actively collecting before the U.S Civil War (1861-65), knowledge about rare U.S. coins was uncommon. There were hardly any books written about coins during the 19th century. In regard to U.S. coins, only two notable books were published before 1864. One was written by Montroville Dickeson and first published in 1859. Though very interesting and path-breaking in some ways, it is full of misinformation and was of very limited use to those building excellent coin collections. Also, there were then no telephones and communications were difficult.

As time passed, the American Numismatic Society (ANS) and other organizations contributed heavily to the spread and growth of knowledge about rare U.S. coins. Even so, the collecting of relatively high-quality U.S. coins during the second half of the 19th century was governed largely by evolving traditions among coin collectors, logic, and the instincts of those involved. There are parallels, however, between coin collecting in the British Isles and coin collecting in the U.S, including building sets ‘by year’ or ‘by date’ including mintmarks. There were subtle influences.

The culture of coin collecting in the U.S. that sprang up and matured during the second half of the 19th century provided a framework that has persisted ever since, though it has changed along the way. Many of the same coins that were of interest to the pertinent collectors of the late 19th century are or were considered to be extremely important by leading collectors of the present era including the Pogue Family, the late Gene Gardner, “Greensboro” and the collector who has often identified himself as “Link”. There are other such collectors.

There is a tremendous amount of continuity among the greatest U.S. coin collections to ever have been auctioned, as some of the same coins were parts of two to six of these collections. Details regarding several of the collections on the list will be analyzed in future installments of this series. General points are emphasized here.

In order to be one of the greatest, a collection need not be nearly complete and need not have been auctioned all at once or within three years. Further, coins from all three metals must have been included. The rarity, quality, and popularity of coins are important factors. Pedigrees are important, too. The criteria are intertwined. Rarity is paramount.

© 2017 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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