HomeUS CoinsThe Greatest U.S. Coin Collections Ever Auctioned, Part 2: Parmelee

The Greatest U.S. Coin Collections Ever Auctioned, Part 2: Parmelee

Lorin G. Parmelee - Greatest U.S. Coin Collections Ever Auctioned

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #388

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds …..
This is the second discussion in a series about comprehensive collections of classic U.S coins (1793-1934) that were offered, at least in large part, in public auctions. Perhaps the greatest collection of classic U.S. coins to be auctioned in the 19th century was that of Lorin Parmelee, a bean baker in Boston.

“It was the most complete collection of its kind when sold in 1890,” reports Saul Teichman, who is one of the leading researchers of pedigrees of rare U.S. coins and patterns. “Not all of his coins were gems but the overall quality was very high,” Saul adds.

Teichman notes that there were many U.S. coins in the collection that were not included in the auction because they were not worth enough to justify the costs of auctioning them. These could have included both Proofs and business strikes from the 1870s and ’80s. Gem quality representatives of relatively common U.S. coins were not worth much in 1890.

I conclude that many of Parmelee’s coins would grade from 65 to 67 (in accordance with present grading criteria and standards), or have been so graded. Indeed, more than a few of Parmelee’s pre-1840 coins were later certified by PCGS or NGC as grading from 65 to 67. Examples are mentioned below.

One of the most famous is the Parmelee-Rogers-Madison 1796 ‘No Stars’ quarter eagle ($2½ gold coin), indisputably the finest known of a one-year only type. It has been PCGS-certified as ‘MS-65’ since late 1995 or early ’96.

I am curious about the Parmelee 1802/0 half cent, which is the key date of the series of Draped Bust half cents. Cataloging at the time was so loose and flippant that a coin called “Very Fine’ in a catalogue in 1890 could grade anywhere from VF-20 to MS-66 in the present, if gradable at all. The catalogers of the Parmelee sale seemed to have glanced just casually at the coins.

Fortunately, there was no evidence of hype and the quality was not over-stated. The term “perfect” in this context had a different meaning than it does in the present, and was not considered an exaggeration at the time. The glowing remarks in the catalogue about the 1802/0 half cent are noteworthy, as most coins are listed with extremely brief, almost empty, descriptions.

Parmelee Collection CatalogSessions of the auction of the Parmelee Collection were conducted at 853 Broadway in New York City on June 25, 26 and 27, at 2:00 PM each day. The project was directed and organized by David Proskey and Harlan P. Smith, proprietors of New York Coin & Stamp Co. In the 19th century, dealers in rare items or art contracted with a general auction firm to conduct sales.

The managers of the company that owned the auction hall typically knew little about the contents of an auction. Many firms selling expensive items contracted with the “Bangs” firm in New York to provide an environment for auctions.

The Critic (Vol. XIII, NY: The Critic Company), a noteworthy cultural journal of the era, devoted several paragraphs to the upcoming auction of the Parmelee collection on page 119 of its March 6, 1890 issue. Parmelee‘s “well-known collection” is “probably the finest in existence of American and Colonial coins. … Some of his coins are entirely unique,” it was reported. This journal suggests that Parmelee’s collection should have been donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

On June 16, 1890, The New York Times reported on the dates and location of the then upcoming sale of the Parmelee Collection and noted that, if Parmelee’s Collection had been used as the core of a newly founded museum instead of being auctioned, there “would be no other collection to envy.” This article reveals that Parmelee acquired recognized collections in their entirety, starting with “the Seavey Collection in 1863” and later “the Brevoort, Bushnell and Crosby Collections.” Parmelee incorporated these acquired collections “into the finest cabinet of American coins extant.”

After listing dozens of coins and patterns included, this New York Times article ends with the declaration that the “Parmelee sale is the most important event in American numismatics.” A “sale” in this context refers to an auction and a “cabinet” is a term for a collection of coins.

According to The Family Parmelee web site, Lorin Parmelee was born in 1827 and died in 1905. By 1849, he was well known in Boston as the owner or co-owner of a bean baking business. Q. David Bowers has noted that, for decades, Parmelee supplied restaurants and inns in Boston and nearby with baked beans.

During the 1850s, Parmelee was asked by local collectors to set aside scarcer Coppers for them. Parmelee became very interested himself.

In the October 1876 issue of the American Journal of Numismatics, an American Numismatic Society (ANS) publication, it was reported that from June 12 to the 17, 1876, the Leavitt firm handled the auction of “the collection formerly belonging to Mr. J. C. Brevoort of Brooklyn, and more recently to Mr. L. G. Parmelee of Boston,” who evidently selected a few pieces for his collection before the sale. Parmelee spent a substantial sum for a collection numbering thousands of coins, spanning much of the history of human civilization, for the purpose of obtaining a few items pertaining to the United States and the 13 colonies that later formed the U.S.

Parmelee Plate IAmong the U.S. coins in the Brevoort-Parmelee consignment to this sale in 1876 were a 1794 dollar, 1796 and 1797 half dollars, an “1823” quarter and an 1804 dime, all famous rarities, then and now. Parmelee had superior representatives of these and the Brevoort pieces would have been duplicates if Parmelee had kept them.

Parmelee’s approach to the Bushnell Collection was similar. Bushnell, though, was a specialist in American numismatic items, while Brevoort was more interested in European coins. After cherry-picking the coins and patterns of interest to him, Parmelee consigned the balance of the Bushnell Collection to the Chapman Brothers for auction during June 1882.

Reportedly, Parmelee ‘bought back’ more than a few of the pieces in the Bushnell sale. Although Parmelee traded with Sylvester Crosby, I am not stating that Parmelee purchased Crosby’s collection, as was indicated in the already cited article in The New York Times.

At the 1890 sale, some coins were re-acquired by Parmelee. A few of the ‘buybacks’ were consigned to other auctions not long afterwards.

“Parmelee was offering pieces to Virgil Brand for years after the 1890 sale,” Teichman has found.

Parmelee was active in a local coin club in Boston. During a large number of meetings over a period of many years, he exhibited rarities from his collection so that the other members could examine them. Parmelee was never anonymous nor was he aloof. He traded coins with collectors, and became acquainted with many people who were interested in coins. Collectors often asked him to set aside particular kinds of coins that his business received in change, and to sell them coins from collections that Parmelee acquired privately.

Although Parmelee’s U.S. silver coins were likely to have been phenomenal overall, the identities of almost all the specific pieces are a mystery now. Generally, the pictures in the original Parmelee catalogues are not clear enough to match his silver coins to coins known in the present. Besides, most of Parmelee’s coins were not illustrated in the auction catalogue, though some are pictured in the Seavey, Bushnell, Mills and Earle catalogues. Generally, the whereabouts over the last 125 years of Parmelee Collection silver coins are unknown in the present.

1794 AU55 - Parmelee Dollar

The catalogue of the Joseph Thomas Collection, which was sold by Heritage in April 2009, listed the following rather awe-inspiring pedigree for an NGC-graded AU-55 1794 silver dollar:

Ex: John F. McCoy Collection (W. Elliot Woodward, 5/1864); Joseph Zanoni (Edward Cogan, 4/1867), lot 79; James Ten Eyck; Mortimer Livingston Mackenzie (Edward Cogan, 6/1869), lot 151; E. Harrison Sanford, Esq. (Edward Cogan, 11/1874), lot 96; Lorin G. Parmelee (New York Coin and Stamp, 6/1890), lot 681; H.O. Granberg; William H. Woodin; Waldo Newcomer; Col. E.H.R. Green; B.G. Johnson (1942); Jerome Kern (B. Max Mehl, 5/1950), lot 770; Clint Hester; W.G. Baldenhofer; Alfred J. Ostheimer; Cabinet of Lucien M. LaRiviere, Part II (Bowers and Merena, 3/2001), lot 324; Jack Lee Collection, Part III (Heritage, 11/2005), lot 2184.

This chain of ownership is quoted rather than analyzed here, as I am unsure as to its accuracy. I am not asserting that this is the Parmelee 1794 dollar.

McCoy was mentioned in part 1 of this series. Mackenzie was a shipping company executive in New York and a well-known collector during the 1850s.

Granberg, Newcomer and Col. Green assembled incredibly comprehensive collections of classic U.S. coins, with the idea of completeness. Their respective collections were not sold in any one auction or series of auctions. While Granberg consigned parts of his collection to auctions, the Newcomer and Green collections were sold quietly.

A listed owner of the above-mentioned 1794 dollar, W. G. Baldenhofer, was known as a collector if extremely rare coins. His phenomenal collection of rarities was auctioned by Stack’s (NY) in 1955. Path-breaking research by W. David Perkins has documented that Baldenhofer had a collection of silver dollars that was sold privately to Al Ostheimer and his wife.

There are other silver coins that have been attributed to Parmelee. The Earle-Norweb-Lovejoy Proof 1853 ‘With Arrows’ dime is believed to have been in earlier in the Mickley and Parmelee Collections. The NGC-certified ‘Proof-66’ 1854 quarter, which was in the Pittman Collection, is said in auction catalogs to have been earlier in the Parmelee and William Woodin Collections.

In the Parmelee catalogue, it was said that Parmelee’s “1823“ [1823/2] quarter “is excelled by only one specimen known to us; exceedingly rare.” All “1823“ quarters are overdates and this is definitely a major rarity.

An 1823/2 that currently grades in the AU range would be among the five finest known. Could the Parmelee piece be the coin that appeared in the Harlan P. Smith sale in 1906?

Parmelee had an original Proof 1827/3/2 quarter and an 1827 dime that was probably a Proof. Although coin cataloging during the 19th century was careless and vague from a contemporary perspective, it is extremely likely that Parmelee had many Proof coins of all metals and all pertinent denominations from the 1820s and ’30s. He certainly had Proofs from the 1840s.

As Parmelee’s collection contained so many Proof gold coins and patterns that now merit grades of 65 or higher (including coins from the 1830s), it is very plausible that most of his Proof silver coins were gems, too. Also, Parmelee had the Proof 1844-O half eagle ($5 coin) and eagle ($10 coin), the only two known Branch Mint Proofs from the 1840s!

Last decade, I had the opportunity to examine the Parmelee-Woodin Proof 1844-O eagle on more than one occasion; it is certainly not a business strike. David Akers informed me that the Proof 1844-O half eagle is of much higher quality than the Proof 1844-O eagle.

As already stated, Parmelee and then Woodin owned both!

Parmelee had a complete run of Proof sets in all metals from 1858 to 1890. A Proof 1875 half eagle and an 1875 eagle are explicitly mentioned in the catalogue.

1793 Liberty Chain CentMany of Parmelee’s pre-1793 items and several of Parmelee’s large cents have been traced by researchers. Parmelee had 10 1793 cents.

He owned the finest-known Chain “Ameri.” (Sheldon-1 die pairing) – possibly the first formal U.S. coin. I have explained my reasons for concluding that 1792 half dismes are patterns. Chain cents were the first U.S. coins and it is believed that the “AMERI.” variety, with AMERICA abbreviated, was the first variety struck. The Parmelee-Brand-Naftzger-Parrino-Streiner S-1 is PCGS-certified as ‘Specimen-65’.

Of all varieties of Chain cents, this coin is ranked second among those that I have personally seen, as I mentioned in my article about the amazing Garrett-Pogue Chain cent. In the 1870s and ’80s, T. Harrison Garrett and Lorin Parmelee were competitors for quality rarities.

According to Q. David Bowers, Garrett died in a boating mishap in 1888. The Garrett Family Coin Collection was then placed in storage and probably was not expanded until the 20th century.

The third Chain cent in my ranking was also formerly in the Parmelee Collection. The Brand-Naftzger-Parrino-Jung ‘With Periods’ (S-4) Chain cent was PCGS-certified as ‘MS-65-Brown’ in 1992 and upgraded to ‘MS-66’ in 2014.

Quite a few choice uncirculated (“mint state”) 1793 Wreath Cents survive. Importantly, Parmelee owned the finest of just four known 1793 Strawberry Leaf cents, which is currently PCGS-graded as VG-10. The leaf on these is markedly different from that on other 1793 Wreath cents.

Many people who collect large cents ‘by date’ and not by variety often demand three 1794 cents: ‘Head of 1793’, Head of 1794 and ‘Head of 1795’, respectively. The designs of Miss Liberty on these are noticeably different. The ‘Head of 1793’ is like that of 1793 Liberty Cap cents.

Parmelee Plate 6The Parmelee-Pogue 1794 ‘Head of 1793’ cent has one of the most astonishing pedigrees of any U.S. coin. Indeed, the chain of ownership of this coin is long and illustrious. It is curious, if true, that collector John Adams obtained this coin privately from the Garrett Collection of Johns Hopkins University in March 1973, years before the public auction sales of the Garrett Collection began.

In recent times, Ted Naftzger owned the Parmelee-Pogue 1794 ‘Head of 1793’ cent and it was part of the Naftzger-Streiner-Parrino transactions in 1992 before it was sold to Jack Wadlington. When submitted to PCGS in 1992 by Eric Streiner, it was certified as ‘MS-64-Brown’. In 2012, it received a sticker of approval from CAC.

This 1794 ‘Head of 1793’ cent was a star of the Stack’s-Bowers auction of the Cardinal Collection of large cents. D. Brent Pogue was the successful bidder ‘in person’ in New York in January 2013. In March 2017, it was in the Pogue V Sale. I discuss it in reviews of these events.

This Parmelee-Pogue 1794 ‘Head of1793‘ cent was in the John McCoy Collection, which was cited in part 1, and later in the John G. Mills Collection, which has been largely forgotten. The Mills Collection was auctioned under the direction of the Chapman Brothers in April 1904. The Mills Collection, one of the all-time best, should receive the attention and accolades it deserves.

Unlike Mills, Byron Reed was a collector during the same era who is famous in the present. Collectors frequently refer to coins as having a Byron Reed pedigree. Reed traveled from Nebraska to New York to participate in the Parmelee sale in 1890.

Reed bequeathed his collections of coins, books and other items to the City of Omaha. A large part of the Byron Reed Collection was auctioned by Christie’s in New York in 1996. I viewed the lots and attended that sale. Some rarities, however, were retained by the City of Omaha, including the 1804 silver dollar that Reed bought at the Parmelee sale in 1890. The Parmelee-Reed 1804 silver dollar, along with the remaining parts of Reed’s coin collection, reside at the Durham Western Heritage Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.

“Probably the most important missed Parmelee pedigree revolves around lot 737, the unique 1797 BD-4 [die pairing] half eagle,” asserts Saul Teichman. This $5 gold coin is of a die pairing that was likely to have been discovered by Robert Hilt in the early 1970s. The Parmelee-Reed-Bass coin is the only one currently known to have been struck from a particular pair of dies (BD-4).

There are still more pedigrees that can be identified and more information to be unearthed by analyzing major auctions from the Cleneay and Parmelee sales in 1890 until the Jenks sale in 1921. The major collections offered during this period were characterized by varying though extremely impressive degrees of rarity, quality and completeness. Deluxe editions of catalogs often included photographic plates.

1839 Elasberg-Parmelee LL $10The Parmelee Collection Proof 1839 eagle ($10 gold coin) was later in the John Story Jenks Collection, which the firm of Henry Chapman auctioned in 1921, Henry’s last great sale. In a review of the January 2007 FUN auction for Numismatic News newspaper, I covered the sale of this Parmelee-Jenks-Clapp-Eliasberg 1839 eagle, which was then NGC-certified as “Proof-67 Ultra Cameo.”

Although the assigned 67 grade is controversial, most pertinent experts would certainly refer to this coin a gem. This 1839 eagle, which is not an overdate, has a good deal of pizzazz and really glows.

The Parmelee Collection had a Proof 1838 eagle, too, which was later owned by William Woodin, a leading industrialist who served as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. These Proof eagles are extremely important coins. Eagles of the type that were minted only in 1838 and 1839 are significantly different from the Liberty Head eagles that were minted from 1839 to 1907. These should properly be termed ‘Gobrecht Eagles’, though are often called “Head of 1838” or “Covered Ear”!

Of all Proof Eagles ($10 gold coins) with Gobrecht’s Liberty Head design on the obverse (front of the coin), three dated 1838 and three dated 1839 are known to exist, merely six in total. Two of the six are in the Smithsonian Collection. There is considerable disagreement among researchers as to whether the Parmelee-Woodin and Farouk-Pittman Proof 1838 eagles are the same coin.

It is nearly certain that the Parmelee Proof 1839 eagle was later in the Mills, Clapp and Eliasberg Collections, and it is not the only coin with such a pedigree. In 2013, I devoted an article to the Parmelee-Mills-Earle-Clapp-Eliasberg-Madison 1794 ‘Head of 1794’ cent.

Several Parmelee Collection gold coins were later in the Pogue Family Coin Collection. D. Brent Pogue owns an original Parmelee catalogue.

The Parmelee-Pittman-Pogue 1833 Proof half eagle ($5 gold coin) was also owned by Waldo Newcomer, Col. Green, King Farouk of Egypt, and the collector who formed the famous gold type set that was auctioned at the 2005 FUN Convention. At the Pittman I sale in October 1997, I recommended this coin to Jay Parrino. He opted, however, to pursue rare business strikes instead of Proof gold coins in that sale.

The Parmelee-Pogue Proof 1835 Classic Head half eagle has a chain of ownership that is amazingly similar to that of the Parmelee-Proof 1833. It was in the Newcomer, Col. Green, King Farouk, and Pittman Collections, plus that gold type set that was auctioned at the January 2005 FUN Convention in Fort Lauderdale. It is PCGS-certified as Proof-67+ Deep Cameo.

Also, the Parmelee-Clapp-Eliasberg-Pogue business strike 1831 half eagle was also earlier in the John Story Jenks Collection. It is PCGS-graded as MS-67.

In terms of completeness, Parmelee had almost all the Philadelphia Mint rarities that were known to exist and recognized as being important in 1890. He did not own a genuine 1822 half eagle.

Parmelee thought he had an 1822 half eagle, but his 1822 was determined to be a forgery. A different 1822 was placed in the Parmelee auction, probably from the personal collection of Harlan P. Smith, which may have not been intended to sell.

Altogether, in terms of quality and completeness, the Parmelee Collection was ranked first in the 19th century. Did it merit this ranking?

© 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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