By Mark Ferguson for PCGS ……
Seriously… If you have a substantial collection–or inventory, if you’re a dealer–chances may be high that you own a rare, valuable die variety! In my estimation, thousands of important die varieties have been overlooked and are sitting in collections and dealer inventories, just waiting to be discovered. I see room for growth in this area, giving people more fun in buying, selling, and collecting coins and in profits.
A prime example of a rare variety that recently sold for a substantial premium over the more common variety is the 1796 No Stars “BD-1” Quarter Eagle that Heritage Auctions sold in September 2022 from the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Core Collection. The late Bass was a well-known researcher and collector of all early U.S. gold coin die varieties who “re-discovered” this variety. He had read about this 1796 No Stars Quarter Eagle die variety in the personal notes of numismatist Edgar H. Adams who discovered it in the 1914 S.H. Chapman sale of the William F. Gable Collection.
The telltale diagnostic for this die variety, known today as BD-1 or Bass-Dannreuther-1, is the length of the arrows on the reverse that are held by the eagle’s talon. They extend nearly to the “I” in UNITED, whereas on the “more common” BD-2 variety, the arrows are shorter, extending only about to the second leg of the “N” in UNITED. The coin Heritage Auctions recently sold was the very piece that caused Bass to let out a loud yell when he first saw it in the early 1970s, “This is it! This is it!” Bass acquired the coin and, since then, it has been known in numismatics as the “Holy Grail” of early quarter eagles.
The BD-1 coin, graded AU55 by PCGS, sold at the end of September 2022 for $312,000 USD. Compare that price to the figure achieved with the sale of a PCGS-graded AU58 example of the more common BD-2 variety that brought $216,000 in a Stack’s Bowers Galleries auction held a month earlier. The BD-1 variety has a rarity ranking of R-7, which suggests there are just four to six examples known, whereas the BD-2 variety is classified as an R-4 and yields 100 to 125 examples. Clearly, the price realized for the BD-1 coin is a substantial premium over the sale price of the BD-2 coin that’s graded three points higher!
While major varieties like the the 1942/1 Mercury Dime, the 2004-D Wisconsin Quarter with High Leaf or Low Leaf, or the 1795 $10 Eagle with 9 or 13 Leaves have long been recognized by collectors, dealers, and price guides, many other die varieties have not. However, recognition of die varieties has steadily been expanding across the series as researchers develop new die variety classification systems and publish books about them.
But one big reason why important varieties haven’t been recognized, here-to-fore, is that the owners of these coins don’t bother to look up variety diagnostics and attribute them. What’s more, many submitters of coins to PCGS do not request the variety attribution service. Doing so will result in the variety classification printed on the holder’s label. My purpose in writing this is to help you discover rare and valuable varieties that you can enjoy and hopefully sell for higher prices when the time comes.
Using Die Variety Listings in the PCGS Population Report and Price Guide
I encourage you to explore the PCGS Population Report and the PCGS Price Guide relative to die varieties. Using the previously mentioned BD-1 1796 No Stars Quarter Eagle as an example, I suggest you look this coin issue up in the PCGS Population Report – it is PCGS coin number 7645. Once there, click on the plus (+) sign that appears immediately to the left of the coin’s 7645 PCGS number. You’ll then see a drop-down listing of the two die variety listings: BD-1 and BD-2, with their PCGS coin numbers as varieties: 45500 for BD-1 and 45501 for BD-2.
The total population of coins graded by PCGS for the 1796 No Stars Quarter Eagle “design type” is 78. The PCGS number for the type is the 7645 base number. For the graded population of the varieties, there is one coin listed for the rare BD-1. That would be the Bass coin that was sold last September. For the much more common BD-2 variety, there have been just two graded by PCGS – but please don’t use that population total as an indication of rarity! It’s merely the total number of coins for a variety that have been submitted for variety attribution.
Most importantly, until more varieties are attributed, populations for many varieties should not be used as an indication of rarity.
So, this brings me to the main point of this article.
Using the same 1796 No Stars Quarter Eagle example, of the 78 total coins listed in the PCGS Population Report for this type, just three of them have been attributed as to variety, leaving 75 that have not been attributed.
It’s possible that among those 75 coins are one or more of the rare, four to six known, BD-1 1796 No Stars Quarter Eagles! If you want to go on a treasure hunt for rare, valuable varieties, I encourage you to follow this same line of thinking for whatever coin varieties you want to check for in a particular series.
Resources for Treasure Hunting Varieties
Die varieties for some series, such as early copper coins minted from 1793 to 1857, have been the center of attention in that collecting specialty for well over a century. The Capped Bust Half Dollar series is another one in which collectors have long sought out die varieties.
Research on die varieties is ongoing, resulting in recently published reference books like A Register of Liberty Seated Half Dollar Varieties, Volume VI, Philadelphia Mint 1856 to 1873 No Arrows (2022) by Bill Bugert. Expanding on the existing research began by John W. McCloskey, who wrote a paper published in 1989 entitled A Study of Classic Half Eagles 1834-1838, Daryl Haynor wrote a 368-page reference book, United States Classic Gold Coins of 1834-1839 (2020). And while the series of auction sales of the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Core Collection is taking place through Heritage, PCGS founder John Dannreuther’s book comes to mind: Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties: A Study of Dies States, 1795-1834, which was published in 2006 and is based on the personal research notes of Harry W. Bass, Jr.
I encourage you to go online and explore the reference books and other resources that are available in your numismatic specialty. There are also clubs, such as the Colonial Coin Collectors Club (known in the hobby as “C4”), the Bust Half Nut Club, or the Liberty Seated Collectors Club. Additionally, the PCGS Price Guide, PCGS Population Report, PCGS CoinFacts, and PCGS Auction Prices Realized provide information and data on die varieties.
A Treasure-Hunting Payoff
Here’s an example of two comparable sales in which all things are equal, except that the two coins are of two different die varieties. Both are 1795 Small Eagle Half Eagles, graded MS61 by PCGS. Both coins were auctioned on the same day, September 29, 2022, from the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Core Collection.
The first PCGS MS61 1795 Small Eagle Half Eagle is a BD-1, which is a Rarity-5 with 40 to 50 examples known. The coin brought $198,000. The second MS61 1795 Small Eagle Half Eagle is a BD-3, which is a Rarity-3+ with 175 to 225 pieces known. It sold for $114,000. That’s about a 75 percent premium for the rarer variety, and it was definitely worth obtaining the attribution for this variety!
Some of the key identifiers for these two varieties are the obverse stars. The 11th star is separated from the “Y” in LIBERTY on BD-1, while the 11th star touches the “Y” on BD-3. Even though the largest auction companies note these varieties in their catalog descriptions, it makes sense to have the variety attribution noted on the grading label as reassurance to potential buyers.
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