HomeAuctionsMillion Dollar Coins in ANA Auctions, part 2, with interpretation of Specimen...

Million Dollar Coins in ANA Auctions, part 2, with interpretation of Specimen designations

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #237

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds

milliondollarStack’s-Bowers and Heritage, separately, conducted successful auctions at the ANA Convention earlier this month in Rosemont, Illinois. In part 1, three, individual million dollar coins were covered: the Garrett family 1804 dollar, the Norweb 1792 Silver Center Copper Cent pattern and the ‘Dallas Bank Collection,’  Philadelphia Mint, 1861 Paquet style Double Eagle ($20 gold coin). Here in part 2, the Starr 1792 Half Disme, the Norweb 1797 half, and three coins that brought more than $800,000 each, are discussed. Curiously, all five date from before 1800.

Ever since I was a kid, I found the history, rarity and minting techniques relating to 18th century U.S. coins and patterns to be fascinating. I did not feel that it was necessary to afford such coins to enjoy reading about them. Certainly, all the people who enjoy learning about famous paintings cannot afford to buy such paintings. It is hoped that collectors who cannot afford to buy rare 18th century coins will find the discussions herein to be educational or at least entertaining.

I. Norweb 1797 Half Dollar 

As I recently devoted a discussion to the Norweb 1797 Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollar, remarks here are limited to the auction result for it, which was not strong. Andy Lustig figured that “it might bring 30% more than it did.” 1797halfdollar

The Norweb 1797 half is PCGS graded MS-65+ and has a CAC sticker of approval. From some time before March 2004 until around Aug. 2010, it was NGC graded MS-66. It is the second finest known 1797 half and is one of the four finest of the whole 1796-97 Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollar design type. In Nov. 1988, this specific half dollar was auctioned for $220,000. In the same Norweb III event, the Norweb 1792 Silver Center Copper Cent pattern sold for $143,000, as mentioned in part 1. So, the Norweb 1797 half then sold for around 50% more than the Norweb Silver Center Copper Cent pattern.

On Aug. 7, 2014, the ratio of the results was the opposite. This 1792 pattern reached a level of $1,997,500 and the Norweb 1797 half went for $1,292,500. This time, the Norweb Silver Center Copper Cent pattern seemed to be valued around 50% more than the Norweb 1797 half. The Norweb 1792 Silver Center Cent appears about the same as it did in 1988. The Norweb 1797 half dollar has further naturally toned and has become even more attractive.

In March 2004, the Norweb 1797 half realized $966,000 in the ANR auction of the Haig Koshkarian Collection, which was then a record price for a half dollar of any date. In the Stack’s pre-ANA auction in July 2008, this same 1797 half sold for $1,380,000, a result that remains an auction record for a half dollar. Yes, it is true that markets for rare coins were literally peaking at the end of July 2008. Even so, most interested collectors and dealers figured that the Norweb 1797 half might very well bring as much, six years later. The $1,292,500 result on Aug. 7, 2014, was moderate.

The fact that the Rogers-Foxfire-Pogue 1797 half dollar, the finest known, which is also of higher quality than any 1796 half, will probably be auctioned in the near future may have cast a shadow over the offering of the Norweb 1797. The Rogers-Pogue piece was graded MS-66 by NGC after Nov. 1995 though before Jan. 2002. After early 2003, it was ‘crossed’ into a PCGS holder. Among the collectors who are willing and able to pay a million dollar price for a Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollar, two of them may have decided to wait for a chance to acquire the Rogers-Pogue piece, rather than compete for the Norweb 1797 on Aug. 7, 2014.

This Norweb-Haig-Jung 1797 has been auctioned, publicly offered or privately traded a few times since it re-appeared in the ANR Koshkarian sale in 2004. It was thus not fresh in 2014. The Rogers-Foxfire-Pogue piece has been in only one auction during the last fifty years, the Stack’s session of the Numisma ’95 event in New York, which was conducted during late Nov. 1995.

II. Starr 1792 Half Disme 

The Floyd Starr 1792 half disme was catalogued as “Choice Uncirculated” before Stack’s auctioned it in Oct. 1992. At some point in 1993 before July, it was PCGS certified as “SP-66.” Later in 1993 or in 1994, it was PCGS certified as “SP-67.” In an article in Jan. 2013, I discuss the history of the Starr 1792 half disme in detail. 1792judd7halfdisme

It sold for $1,410,000 in Jan. 2013 and for $1,292,500 on Aug. 7, 2014. Reportedly, the underbidder in Jan. 2013 was a speculating dealer, not a collector. In 2006, it was auctioned for $1,322,500, more than it brought in Aug. 2014. The NGC graded MS-68 Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 Half Disme was auctioned for $1.145 million in Jan. 2013. Later, before it was put on public display at the summer 2013 ANA Convention, the Knoxville-Cardinal became PCGS graded MS-68, though it had failed ‘to cross’ at PCGS in earlier time periods. It never had a CAC sticker.

Why did the Starr 1792 half disme not sell for much more than $1,292,500? Markets for rare coins are faring well. There has not been a significant decrease in market prices for rarities. Two reasons are apparent.

First, the certified 67 grade, while within the realm of reason, is certainly debatable. The Starr 1792 is very attractive, though not extremely so. Further, it is not that flashy. The surfaces are semi-prooflike to prooflike. It does not have the dynamic mirrors of a deep mirror prooflike Morgan Dollar or even the very glossy reflective surfaces of many 1796 quarters. The Carter 1794 silver dollar is far more dynamic, as are some other 18th century pieces with reflective surfaces.

On the Starr 1792 half disme, a mellow gray tone dominates. The other colors become more apparent when this coin is tilted at angles. The Starr 1792 half disme barely has the level of eye appeal that is associated with a 67 grade. The vertical scratch in the left obverse field, near the mouth of the portrait, is of medium depth at least and is annoying. The reverse, though, clearly grades MS-67. The overall grade, for the whole piece is near the borderline of 66 and 67 grades.

Second, this piece is not a special striking; it is not a ‘Specimen,’ I theorize. There are other explanations for the fact that it has more detail than other surviving 1792 half dismes, the vast majority of which exhibit substantial wear. The PCGS graded “MS-64” 1792 half disme that Stack’s-Bowers auctioned in March 2013 is nearly as sharply struck and is considerably prooflike. Other 1792 half dismes are at least semi-prooflike. At least several of them were struck with polished dies.

I theorize that, before the Starr 1792 half disme was struck, the dies were polished to remove and/or minimize imperfections. The cataloguers at Heritage draw attention to raised lines stemming from die cracks on the Starr 1792 half disme. “Earlier-die state examples are known without the die cracks, proving that this example is a later die state and was among the final examples produced in July 1792.” It should be emphasized that, on most or all surviving high grade 1792 half dismes, there is much evidence that the dies were rough.

In response to my inquiry on die characteristics of 1792 half dismes, Martin Logies seems to agree to a substantial extent, “due to the polishing the relief of the dies was lessened, and the die rust and roughness had been removed from the flat surfaces of the die” before the Starr piece was struck. By “flat surfaces,” Martin is referring to fields rather than design elements. Logies is the director and curator of the Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation, which formerly owned the Carter 1794 dollar and the Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 half disme.

1792halfdismecardinalThere may have been other imperfections in addition to rough areas and die cracks. The people producing 1792 half dismes had minimal coin-related experience and were working with sub-par equipment in a workshop or “basement,” a makeshift environment. The Philadelphia Mint was not operational until 1793.

The heavy polishing, including grinding, wire-brushing and/or lapping of the metal, reduced the relief (‘height’) of the devices on the dies. The fields on the dies were ground down. So, after the newly polished dies were placed in the mechanical press and set properly, it would be unsurprising that the next few pieces struck would have reflective surfaces and much more detail than usual. After such ‘polishing,’ hot metal has less distance to travel to reach the deep recesses of the dies and bring about detail in the struck 1792 half disme.

As the dies move around in their sockets and as the die surfaces further wear, subsequent strikings would be less reflective and would be likely to have less detail. Many parts of machines tend to gradually become loose and relatively loose dies will not, on average, strike coins or patterns as sharply as well-anchored dies. In another words, when moving parts on a machine are regrinded, polished or filed and then re-inserted, they may work wonderfully at first and then start to microscopically loosen and wear down, as do many parts on a car. Every time a car hits a bump, parts are loosening and wearing down to a microscopic extent.

So, the Starr 1792 half disme ‘looks cool,’ probably by accident. It was struck once in very low relief.

For a coin to be a Proof or a Specimen, the method of manufacture must at least be slightly different. A well struck, semi-prooflike (or even fully prooflike) coin or pattern is usually not a Specimen Striking. If the Floyd Starr 1792 Half Disme was truly a Specimen Striking, then it would have brought more than $1.5 million at some point, maybe much more. The prices realized for both the Starr 1792 half disme and the Eliasberg 1796 quarter were ‘in line’ with the market values for business strikes. When the Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 brought $1.145 million in Jan. 2013, interested experts were then under the impression that PCGS would grade it as 67, not as MS-68. Besides, aesthetics and personal preferences play a particular role in the market values of the Knoxville-Cardinal and Starr 1792 half dismes, which have markedly different appearances, though both are especially attractive.

 III. Eliasberg 1796 quarter 

Many market participants figured that the PCGS holder housing the Eliasberg 1796 quarter would be worth more than $1 million, regardless of the physical characteristics of the coin. There are speculators, some of whom are ignorant, who rely entirely upon the certifications of coins.

1796eliasberg25cIndeed, a true Specimen Striking of a 1796 quarter would be worth more than $1.35 million, in my estimation. A holder that ‘says so’ could be worth at least $1 million.The $881,250 result suggests that willing and able, prospective buyers concluded or were told that this is not a Specimen Striking.

Although very strong prices characterized the Eliasberg ’97 sale, the Eliasberg 1796 quarter sold for just $176,000, not much more than the LA type set 1796 quarter had realized in Oct. 1990, when markets for rare coins were deep in the doldrums. Also, prior to 1997, at least one, probably two 1796 quarters had sold privately for far more than $176,000.

In the same Eliasberg ’97 sale, an 1807 quarter, not an extreme rarity nor a one-year type coin, sold for $165,000. An 1870-CC quarter brought $187,000. A Proof 1832 half sold for $225,500. These were all then considered much more exciting than the Eliasberg 1796 quarter.

Experts who have seen several uncirculated 1796 quarters know that almost all of these are at least semi-prooflike; they typically have very reflective surfaces. The PCGS graded MS-66, LA type set 1796, which Stack’s auctioned in 1990, has deeper mirrors than the Eliasberg coin, though that is not a Specimen either. A coin needs to fulfill criteria in addition to having mirrored surfaces in order to qualify as a Proof or as a Specimen. Indeed, there are other factors that must be taken into consideration. Any coin that is struck from recently polished dies will often be prooflike to a significant degree.

The assigned 66 grade is perplexing, too. There are many, medium hairlines in the obverse inner fields, some of which are long and somewhat deep, and quite a few on the reverse. Many of these hairlines are not immediately apparent, though are evident when the coin is titled under a lamp at various angles. To an extent, these are obscured by creamy toning in the fields. Although the obverse is more mirrored than the reverse, the reverse is of much higher quality. The reverse is characterized by pretty shades of russet with some blue tones in the outer fields and at the periphery. The mottled russet and blue tones on the obverse are attractive, though the obverse does not have the level of attractiveness that most experts would associate with a 66 grade. The hairlines are more ‘in line’ with a 64 grade. The obverse grades 64+ or 65-minus and the grade of the reverse is in the low to middle of the 66 range. The overall grade is in the low end to the middle, probably the middle, of the MS-65 range.

Although the $881,250 result is not consistent with a Specimen designation, it does suggest that at least two leading bidders are accepting of the assigned 66 grade. The $881,250 result is a moderate to strong price for a “MS-66” grade 1796 quarter.

 IV. 1795 Flowing Hair Dollar 

In the Stack’s-Bowers auction, an NGC certified ‘Specimen-64’ 1795 Flowing Hair Silver Dollar sold for $822,500, a very strong price. This same coin was auctioned by Heritage in Jan. 2007. It was then NGC certified as ‘MS-64 Prooflike,’ not as a Specimen Striking. It then realized $161,000, during a time period when coin markets were very intense. The revealed fact that a change in designation by the same service of the exact same coin can possibly result in such a difference in value is itself newsworthy.

As there is a little friction on the eagle’s breast on the reverse and some deep contact marks in the field near Miss Liberty’s face on the obverse, the assigned 64 grade will always be controversial, though not nearly as controversial as the Specimen designation. Although I am shocked that the already mentioned Eliasberg 1796 quarter received a Specimen designation and that some knowledgeable coin professionals think that PCGS graded MS-67  the Hayes-Gardner 1796 dime deserves such a designation, the Specimen designation for this coin is relatively more defensible. The mirror surfaces are unusually thick and glossy, different in texture from a typical prooflike surface. The crispness and relief of many of the design elements are noteworthy. Moreover, many of the dentils are formed in such a way that they can be distinguished from typical dentils on 1795 Flowing Hair Dollars. Interesting circumstantial evidence notwithstanding, this coin is not a Specimen Striking, in my view.

For a coin to be a Specimen, the method of manufacture has to have been different. Does the die preparation for the striking of this coin and the particular set-up of the dies constitute a different method of manufacture? Possibly, I am not convinced. The physical characteristics of this coin are not sufficiently distinct from that of prooflike business strike silver coins from the same time period. Admittedly, though, this coin is very interesting. I would like to see it again.

The Carter-Lustig-Morelan 1794 dollar and a specific 1795 Half Eagle, which has been offered in more than one Heritage auction over the last eight years, are true Specimen Strikings. The Knoxville 1796 half dollar might be. The NGC certified “SP-65” 1800 Eagle probably is a true Specimen as well, though I wish to find my notes about it before commenting further.

   V. 1795 Eagle ($10 gold) 

In the Heritage ANA auction, there was a PCGS graded MS-65 1795 Eagle ($10 gold coin) from an unnamed consignment, which also included the already mentioned Eliasberg 1796 quarter. This coins nets out to about the same fraction of a grade as the NGC graded MS-65, Eliasberg 1795 Eagle that Heritage auctioned last year in Rosemont, Illinois. That coin sold for $675,625, while this one brought $881,250. In my estimation, neither would qualify for a CAC sticker if submitted to CAC in holders with “MS-65” grades. Even so, each coin is very close to truly grading MS-65 and many relevant experts are accepting of the assigned MS-65 grades.

1795eagleBoth coins have a lot of hairlines, more so than most experts would associate with a MS-65 grade early Eagle. To an extent, however, the eye appeal of the entire coins offsets the negative visual effect of these hairlines. The NGC graded MS-65 Eliasberg coin has a couple of bothersome scratches on Miss Liberty’s neck. The criscrossing hairlines in the left obverse (front) field of the PCGS graded MS-65 are extremely plentiful and dense. Some such cleaning in a lower reverse field is mildly serious as well. This PCGS graded MS-65 1795, though, scores higher in the category of originality than the NGC graded MS-65, Eliasberg 1795 that sold about twelve months earlier.

While the Eliasberg piece has very apparently been lightly dipped, this PCGS graded MS-65 piece is more original. The green tinted original luster on the reverse of this coin is wonderful.

The PCGS graded MS-65 coin might be a tenth of a point or two finer than the Eliasberg 1795. The PCGS price guide value for this coin had been $1,000,000 for a long time, though was reduced to $950,000 after the summer 2014 ANA auctions. The Numismedia retail price for a PCGS or NGC graded MS-65 1795 remains $1,040,000. A 1795 Eagle that clearly grades MS-65 would probably sell for at least $950,000 at auction, maybe much more. Gem, early gold coins are intensely demanded by collectors who assemble pertinent type sets and by those who buy ‘trophy coins’! U.S. gold coins were first minted in 1795 and the Eagle was then the highest denomination ($10).

The $881,250 price for this coin is moderate to strong, fair retail for a MS-64+ grade coin in a ‘MS-65 holder.’  Obtaining a better 1795 Eagle might be very difficult. Its grade is very close to MS-65. The PCGS price guide retail value for a ‘MS-64+’ 1795 Eagle is or was ‘$700,000.’ This coin is a little better than a typical Eagle that is or should be graded MS-64+. Besides, there is no doubt that it is a very attractive coin.

 VI. Concluding Remarks

Generally, the prices realized for U.S. rarities in the ANA auctions were moderate to slightly strong. There is a continuing, logical trend of bidders, usually through their respective advisors, thinking beyond the certified grades; many bidders are reflecting upon how relevant dealer-experts or sophisticated collectors would grade the coins offered.

Although Andy Lustig disagrees with some of the views expressed in this discussion, he agrees that many serious buyers have been learning about coins and not just relying upon grading services and auction catalogues. “Collectors now, on average, are more sophisticated than they were ten to twenty years ago,” Lustig finds. “The Internet has leveled the playing field.” Collectors can find experts and easily send them e-mails, Andy notes. Phone numbers can often be found on web sites, too.

Lustig and I emphasize that collectors can find sources of information that enables them to think beyond the certifications on holders and learn about varying views regarding specific coins. In my view, it is especially relevant that graders at PCGS and NGC tend to spend an extremely small amount of time on each coin, often just a few seconds. It is important for buyers of expensive coins to seek additional sources of information.

©2014 Greg Reynolds

Those who have questions about Specimen Strikings may wish to send an email, insightful10{{at}}gmail.com


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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