By Charles Morgan and Chris Bulfinch for CoinWeek …..
As a collector advances in the hobby, they might find themself nose deep in one of the many beautiful catalogs produced by the hobby’s premier auction houses. These catalogs offer a unique blend of numismatic research, commentary, jargon, and marketing hype – all of which work to represent the interests of the consignor and help the catalog publisher instill excitement so that a given coin sells for the most money possible.
When it comes to the kinds of unique research that are published in auction catalogs, it is important to note that catalog writers often work in concert with the consignor, especially in the case of advanced and specialized collections, to present the backstory of the coin so that potential buyers will appreciate the richness and historic nature of an important or noteworthy piece. This collaboration is why the numismatic hobby has a fine tradition of researching provenance, studying the minute facets of a coin’s appearance, and comparing one piece against all others known.
But there are other facets of a lot description that are important to understand, as well. Not every coin is a winner, but it is the role of the auctioneer to find a buyer for the coin regardless. And not every collector can afford to buy coins in optimal conditions and with illustrious pedigrees (or rare die varieties, for that matter). In the balance is a need to sell while conveying accurate information in the best possible light, and do so in such a way that the process can be replicated throughout thousands of lot descriptions published on a regular basis over the course of many years.
To this end, catalogers usually have advantages that collectors don’t. Many if not most catalogers write with the coins in hand. They also have most of the germane and up-to-date reference works at hand, as well as many of the more obscure ones. Catalogers tend to have well-developed pattern recognition skills, long memories for certain coins, and a team of peers with which to bounce off ideas and double-check their work.
Some catalogers are also among the finest numismatic writers and researchers in the field. Indeed, the Numismatic Literary Guild awards prizes for auction catalogs, underscoring the importance and value of auction catalogs as numismatic literature.
And in the 70 years since John J. Ford and Walter Breen revolutionized the way catalogs were written for New Netherlands in the 1950s, auction catalogers have advanced the format to a high art. The lengthy John J. Ford series of catalogs produced by Stack’s are landmark publications for numismatic Americana. The Eric P. Newman and D. Brent Pogue catalogs, published by Heritage and Stack’s Bowers, respectively, are the two most significant catalogs published in recent memory for U.S. coins, just as Sotheby’s 1991 catalog for the collection of Nelson Bunker Hunt is one of the most significant catalogs for ancients.
Heritage Auctions Senior Numismatist Mark Borckhart explains the process of writing a catalog this way:
“In general, as the value [of the listed coin goes up], so does the information that is included. However, that is not always the case. An item can be low-valued, yet have an interesting story that needs to be told.
“The catalog for [a] collection will typically have high-quality photographs of the items being offered, scholarly descriptions of the individual items in the collection, and an attractive layout that is pleasing and permits ease of reading without confusing the text for different individual coins.
“Most or all catalog listings include the basic information necessary to describe [an] item and allow prospective bidders the ability to form a competitive bidding strategy. Higher-end listings are going to include information about the history of the coin, and can be extensive.
“Extensive” only begins to describe the level of detail included in some catalogs.
The 1933 double eagle’s entry in Sotheby’s catalog prepared for the recently finished sale, “Three Treasures – Collected by Stuart Weitzman”, features an extraordinary essay by David Tripp, author of Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, detailing the legendary coin’s history.
This 27-page essay/history tells a fascinating story about the notorious coin and includes 96 endnotes based on Tripp’s extensive original research with primary source documents relating to the double eagles. It may be one of the best coin lot descriptions ever written.
David Fanning, a partner at Kolbe & Fanning Numismatic Booksellers, says that specialized catalogs “give an auction firm and the catalogers the opportunity to explore a specific numismatic area in a depth that a typical consignment won’t provide.”
At a certain level, catalogs become reference works in their own right.
“A reference catalog is going to provide a level of information that is both cumulative and specific,” Fanning explains. “It can provide an extent of detail on individual coins that is greater than what one encounters elsewhere, and if this attention is given to a large, focused collection, the cumulative effect is to make the auction [catalog] a reference on the series.”
For specialized catalogs, auction firms will often solicit input from specialists, which can turn an auction catalog into an essential reference work.
John Kraljevich, owner of John Kraljevich Americana and author of the seven-volume catalog for the D. Brent Pogue Collection, agrees.
“Certain American specialties lend themselves to more prose-oriented, historical descriptions: medals and tokens, pre-1836 coins with provenance, colonials, Territorials, etc.,” he says. “No matter how much the finest known 1981-D dime is worth, there is just no way to write three intelligent paragraphs about it.”
[Kraljevich’s comments ring true, but on the topic of the 1981-D dime, let’s just agree to disagree. —CoinWeek]
There are elements common to virtually all listings in a numismatic auction catalog. A listing for most coins over a certain price point will include some historical background, a description of the coin noting some or all of such qualities as the date, the mint, the mintage, how that mintage compares with other dates in the series, the variety if applicable, the die state, the strike quality, and the grade (and any other details from a third-party grading slab) – as well as the certified population for the issue at that grade at that company. Most detailed listings assess a coin’s surfaces, noting the toning (if present) and any imperfections like rim nicks, dents, bumps, bending, cleaning, polishing, or other damage.
Some less remarkable coins will just have the grade and certified populations listed. A coin’s provenance, if known, is often provided; most coins with a provenance worth including are pricier. Estimates are included with most lots.
Deciding which details to include in a catalog is often a matter of expediency.
“The single most difficult thing is the time pressure,” Fanning says. “In general, catalogs have to be written very quickly. Consignors want their coins sold quickly … and production issues add time to that sort of thing.”
When numismatic auctions moved online in the late 1990s and early 2000s, catalogs became more accessible.
“Extensive online sources are available today that were not available before the internet” Borckhart explains. Some large auction firms have searchable online archives of auctions and catalogs dating back decades that are free for users to access. Borckhart also “can’t recommend … highly enough” that collectors make use of the large collection of archived auction catalogs on the Newman Numismatic Portal.
Kenneth Bressett, the longtime editor of the Red Book, attested to the value of numismatic auction catalogs in The Numismatist’s December 1995 issue, writing, “The research that goes into producing a quality auction catalog is close to that involved in writing an entire book. The expertise and useful information in those catalogs is unavailable elsewhere.”
Learning to read auction catalogs is a critical skill for collectors. Being able to properly read a lot listing and interpret what is being said and extrapolate what isn’t being said can provide a useful advantage when you are trying to narrow down which specific example of a coin that they might want to add to your collection.
Not every lot description is created equally, as you will see when we break down the three listings from three different auctioneers featured below. But every word of every description has a meaning that can be analyzed.
An astute reader has the makings of a successful buyer. Nevertheless, not every word you read should be taken at face value.
“New collectors should just learn to parse what is salesmanship and what is research. ‘Rare’ is a meaningless term. Give me numbers,” says Kraljevich.
With that said, let’s learn how to read lot descriptions.
Stack’s Bowers | Lot 2050 | 1941 Walking Liberty Half Dollar. MS-68+ (PCGS) | Sold on June 11, 2021, for $50,400.
Nearly Flawless 1941 Walking Liberty Half Dollar
Finest Graded by PCGS
1941 Walking Liberty Half Dollar. MS-68+ (PCGS).
This absolutely magnificent 1941 half dollar combines superior eye appeal with world class surface preservation. Small circles of brilliance in the centers are framed by iridescent peripheral toning in gold, violet and lime-green. Intense satin to softly frosted luster remains fully undisturbed and the strike is sharp. This coin is truly impressive when examined at any angle, with or without magnification.
The 1941 Philadelphia Mint half dollar represents the first in the popular Walking Liberty half dollar “short set” that continues through the series’ end in 1947. This issue also marks the beginning of a massive increase in yearly mintages from all three operating coinage facilities as the nation transitioned from the Great Depression to the economy of the Second World War. With a sizable mintage of 24,192,000 pieces, the 1941 is one of the most available circulation strike issues in the entire Walking Liberty series. Indeed, Mint State coins are readily obtainable in all grades up to and including MS-66. Beginning in MS-67, however, this issue becomes scarce, and Ultra Gems at MS-68 are incredible condition rarities. The virtually flawless example offered here is a miraculous survivor that ranks as the single finest known to PCGS. It is a treasure that will appeal to Set Registry participants and other advanced specialists in this series.
Provenance: From the Lulu Collection, the #1 all-time finest PCGS Walking Liberty Half Dollars Short Set. Earlier ex Kennyrph Collection.
PCGS Population: 1; 0 finer.
PCGS# 6611. NGC ID: 24S3.
This listing begins with a reference to the terms “eye appeal” and “surface preservation”. In the case of this particular coin, the coin’s eye appeal is described as being “superior” and its surfaces as being “world-class”. Leaving these particular superlatives aside, eye appeal and surfaces are important features of any coin, and coins at all grade levels can vary in the way they look to the holder of the coin.
A coin with beautiful eye appeal will instantly stand out. It can have vivid, colorful toning or pure blast white surfaces (usually with the aid of a non-abrasive coin dip).
Surface preservation is also an important factor as it relates to the state of the metal. Many classic coins have been preserved over the years and these treatments, while often necessary to preserve a coin as a collectible object, can dull or diminish the original luster that was imparted on the coin’s surface as part of the striking process. Clearly, as this is a coin at an ultra-high grade (nearly perfect for all practical purposes), these two factors will be key in determining whether the coin brings an average or high price for the grade.
From here, the cataloger explains the 1941 issue in the context of the series overall. This is not a rare issue in absolute terms as the coin was struck at the outset of a period of massive production for the denomination. This is important information to know as it indicates that the 1941 Walking Liberty half dollar issue is not one of the key issues for the series, but is a type coin, an issue that collectors looking to add one example of the series to their collections might affordable purchase for that goal. What sets this coin apart is the conditional rarity of this particular example at MS68+.
Wrapping up the description is the coin’s provenance. Historically, provenance ties coins to a particular collector, but in the modern hobby, the practice has evolved to also list the name of the Set Registry set – in this case, the Lulu Collection. According to PCGS and NGC data taken by the cataloger at the time of publication, this is a pop 1 coin with none finer.
That means, at the time this coin was offered, this was the finest known 1941 Walking Liberty half dollar.
One thing was left out of this description that a sophisticated collector would notice, and that is the absence of CAC certification. CAC was founded in 2007 to offer opinions on the accuracy of grades assigned by third-party grading services. If a coin conforms to the standards of a certain grade, CAC will apply a green sticker, colloquially referred to as a “green bean”. If a coin qualifies for a higher grade entirely (i.e., CAC considers the coin undergraded), a gold sticker is applied. The catalog notes that many of the coins in the Lulu Collection have CAC stickers.
Generally speaking, one must assume that valuable coins have been submitted to CAC for approval. A CAC sticker on an MS68+ would indicate that CAC believed that this coin was strong or superlative for the grade of MS68. They do not recognize the + grade in their determination and a way to read plus grades from the services is that they believe that + coins are strong for the assigned grade but not technically strong enough for the next grade up. In the instance of the Lulu Collection, some coins were CAC and others weren’t.
It is up to the collector to determine what that means on a coin-by-coin basis.
Perhaps the coins were recently reholdered and the CAC process had not yet taken place. Or perhaps while other coins in the set did CAC, this one simply did not. At the ultra-high level of condition rarity, a coin with CAC approval is very likely to bring a stronger price, and a savvy collector or dealer would notice the omission of CAC approval before they would even bother to read the lot description.
This listing situates the finest-known 1941 Walking Liberty in historical context, explaining that mintages were increasing as the United States recovered from the Great Depression. It mentions the coin’s strike quality and toning. From there, the listing describes the typical strike quality typical for the date and notes the distribution of grades and the PCGS population.
The Lulu Collection is a “short set”, noted in the catalog. The Walking Liberty half dollar short set refers to a run of coins dated 1941-1947. Given the length of the series, coin albums split the series into two volumes, 1916-1940 is the first volume and 1941-1947 being the second shorter volume. So not only does the set construction of a short set offers collectors an easier goal to accomplish in terms of availability of material, but the goal of completing a short set traces its roots back to the classic pursuit of filling coin albums.
Goldberg’s | Lot 36 | 1804 Draped Bust Half Cent C-11, R-2 Plain 4 with Stems. VF-25 | Sold on January 1, 2021, for $900.
1804 C-11 R2 Plain 4 with Stems VF25. Attractive glossy chocolate brown with lighter brown toning in protected areas. Smooth and lightly worn with minor contact marks, none notable. Nicely struck EDS, scarce Manley state 1.0, with the wreath bow well defined. A nice mid-grade example of this popular “Redbook” variety. Estimated Value $150– UP
Ex Carvin Goodridge 4/1985-the RES Collection.
The title of this listing includes the coin’s date, its variety, and grade. C-11 is the coin’s “Cohen number”, from the standard reference on half cent die varieties written by Roger Cohen and first published in 1971. Cohen passed away in 1990, but his catalog on half cent varieties remains a standard reference for the series. “R2” refers to the coin’s rarity according to the Sheldon Rarity Scale. Sheldon’s scale breaks down a coin’s assumed rarity in nine distinct tiers, with R9 signifying that a coin is unique and R1 signifying that a coin is common. A coin with a designated rarity of R2 coin is believed to have between 501 and 1,250 surviving examples in all grades and is considered to be “uncommon”.
Based on that criteria, the reader can assume that the coin offered here, an 1804 Plain 4 with Stems half cent, Cohen-11 variety, is uncommon with between 501 and 1,250 surviving examples.
“Plain 4 with Stems” refers to the style of the number “4” in the date and two stems at the bottom of the wreath that protrude from both sides of the ribbon, characteristics of the Cohen-11 variety. The Plain 4 is distinctive in that it does not have a crosslet, or serif, at the termination of the crossbar. The term “stems” describes two plain stems that extrude from the base of the wreath, one on each side. These details differ on other varieties.
This listing describes the quality of the coin’s strike, its toning, and notes contact marks. Copper and bronze often exhibit a dark brown patina resembling chocolate, especially after years in circulation. Large cent collectors often use “chocolate” to describe a copper coin’s rich, dark brown coloration. “Protected areas” refer to raised parts of the coin’s surfaces, the coin’s devices, that can conceal hits; note the difference in coloration between the protected areas and the fields.
Collectors want consistent toning, wear, and marks on the coins in their sets which means that it is important for the cataloger to convey this information to potential buyers.
The listing also mentions the coin’s die state, using the Manley die state taxonomy. Ronald Manley, Ph.D., author of The Half Cent Die State Book, 1793-1857, developed the standard classification system for half cent die states, hence “Manley state 1.0”, which indicates that this coin was struck using a fresh set of dies free of blemishes or defects. This point is further reinforced by the cataloger referencing the acronym “EDS”. “EDS” stands for Early Die State, indicating that this coin was struck early in the lives of the two dies used to strike it.
Coins struck with fresh dies will usually have sharper detail and are typically free of cracks, cuds, and die clash images. This listing specifically mentions the wreath bow as a diagnostic criterion for determining die state. Die state is distinct from strike quality, which refers to how well the coins were struck, not the quality or intactness of the dies with which a coin was struck. The listing describes the coin as “nicely struck.”
Some collectors collect by die state, assembling sets of coins with the same date/variety struck at different stages of a die’s life. Others will seek out a set of different dates/varieties with consistent die states. Like variety collecting, die state collecting is a niche numismatic field but for those interested, the inclusion of the coin’s die state in the lot description was especially helpful.
This half cent is a major variety (see previous listing for an explanation of varieties) listed in R.S. Yeoman’s A Guide Book of United States Coins, referred to as the “Red Book”. While collecting coins by die state may be niche, collecting by Red Book variety is fairly common for series specialists. The Red Book is the most widely used numismatic guide book for United States coinage and only the most dramatic and widely collected varieties are included in their listings.
For a prospective buyer, knowing that a coin is a Red Book variety indicates that the variety is popularly collected and the variant features on the coin are significant.
The last major piece of information provided relates to provenance.
This coin sold from the “RES Collection”, a half cent collection assembled by Carvin Goodridge, in April 1985. Goodridge was a well-known, longtime collector of half cents, who assembled an “extensive collection of half cent die varieties,” with a “number of rarities and some very high-quality coins.” Including this pedigree information allows collectors the opportunity to do further research on the coins and oftentimes, track the ownership of an individual piece through numerous historic sales and collections. The “RES collection” may not be as auspicious a collection to be tied to as some others would be, but knowing this information could help a serious collector determine earlier instances where the coin was sold.
Armed with this knowledge, bidding was fierce for this coin, with the $900 hammer price being six times Goldberg’s estimate.
Heritage Auctions | Lot 91282 | 1915-S Panama-Pacific Commemorative Half Dollar. MS-66 (PCGS CAC) | Sold on June 8, 2021, for $3,000.
1915-S Panama-Pacific Half Dollar, MS66
CAC, Old Green Holder
1915-S 50C Panama-Pacific, FS-502, MS66 PCGS. CAC. The mintmark is lightly repunched north of the primary S. The Pan-Pac half dollar is elusive this fine, particularly with CAC endorsement. The present coin displays brilliant satin luster and pristine surfaces, with boldly rendered design elements. Housed in an old green label holder.
Coin Index Numbers: (Variety PCGS# 511601, Base PCGS# 9357)
Weight: 12.50 grams
Metal: 90% Silver, 10% Copper
Third-party grading slabs are the focus of the Heritage auction “U.S. Coin in Early Holders”, which included this listing. In recent years, the numismatic truism about “buy[ing] the coin, not the holder” has exceptions. Coins graded in old holders in the pre-plus grade, pre-star, pre-“gradeflation” era are one such exception. In reality, collectors should expect that premium quality material in any era’s slab will have been closely scrutinized for potential upgrade by dealers and auction houses, and it is worth noting that Heritage Auctions has on staff some of the most talented coin graders in the industry. Still, the possibility and intrigue of the potential upgrade makes old holders a speculator’s delight.
This listing for a 1915-S Panama Pacific commemorative half dollar (Pan-Pac half dollar) is succinct but says a great deal about the coin.
For starters, we see that the coin graded MS66 is in an “Old Green Holder” and is CAC-approved. Mint State coins are often broken down into four tiers when dealing with classic U.S. material. Just plain Mint State describes coins in the MS60 to MS62 grade band. Choice Mint State for coins graded MS63 and MS64. Gem Mint State for coins graded MS65 and MS66. And Superb Gem for coins graded MS67 and higher. I’m sure you could add Perfect Mint State for coins at the MS70 level, but for coins intended for circulation of any period before the current one, the closest a coin might come is the exceptionally infrequent grade of MS69.
The Pan-Pac half dollar, a coin struck without great care but for collectors and souvenir hunters, survives in Mint State in large numbers with a grade distribution “bell curve” that encompasses the Mint State grades of MS62 to MS67 with MS64 being the most frequently encountered grade.
At the MS66 level, the Pan-Pac half dollar is a collector-grade coin. Nice enough to potentially come attractive but not scarce enough to be investment quality. In the right circumstance, a high-quality MS66 coin might be a good value buy for an astute collector.
To date, NGC and PCGS have combined to record 575 grading instances of the Pan-Pac at the MS66 level with 235 grading events at the grades MS66+ or higher. In absolute terms, only coins at the MS68 level are rare, with just five grading events reported by the two firms.
Not one of the five has CAC’ed, and only 67 coins at the MS67 level have done so. In MS66, CAC has given its blessing to 123 coins. This is roughly 21% of the total number of coins holdered at this level.
The typical collector may not be privy to the CAC pass-fail rate for the issue at this level, but we asked the company to provide it and have been told that out of 294 coins in MS66 submitted for CAC certification, 134, or 45.6% received a green bean. Suffice it to say that a collector in the market for a CAC-approved 1915-S Pan-Pac at MS66 should have numerous opportunities to secure one.
The cataloguers claim that the coin is “elusive this fine” is more rooted in an attempt to represent the coin and the client in the best light. A studious buyer would be able to ascertain that this claim is window dressing and a close inspection of the coin on the merits of its eye appeal and expected price is warranted.
Reading further into the description, we see that a distinguishing feature of this half dollar is its eye appeal, described by the cataloger with the terms “brilliant satin luster” and “pristine surfaces.”
Pan-Pac half dollars often have a slick oily appearance and mottled toning, two features that are unattractive to many collectors, making a conventionally attractive, problem-free example desirable, the kind of detail a cataloger would note.
Two pairs of images are included, one pair showing the coin in the slab, the other more tightly focused on the coin, the slab cropped out. The coin presents slightly differently in the two sets of images, so a collector interested in the coin might consider attending a lot viewing session to see the coin in hand before making a decision about bidding.
The cataloger next notes the variety being offered, FS-502. These characters refer to the Fivaz-Stanton variety catalog number describing a 1915-S/S variety; the listing’s text makes note of the position of its repunched mint mark, “north of the primary S.”
Numismatic authors Bill Fivaz and Jeffrey Thomas Stanton first published their guide to major die varieties, The Cherrypicker’s Guide to Rare Die Varieties of United States Coins, in 1990. Its Sixth Edition was released last year. Die varieties are coins struck from dies with recognizable shared characteristics, like the repunched mint mark on this Pan-Pac half dollar; the varieties listed in Fivaz and Stanton’s book are called Cherrypicker varieties. Other series have their own lists of varieties designated by letters and number derived from the standard references.
Repunched mint marks result when punches used to impart the mint mark leave secondary impressions during the creation of working dies. The cataloger notes the telltale smaller, fainter version of the mint mark above the primary one.
Variety collecting is a niche collecting field that has been losing prominence in recent years as the number of identified varieties and the cost of sought-after varieties increase. Many collectors with a broad focus on collecting U.S. coins may pursue varieties published in the Red Book, series specialists of popular U.S. coin series like early coppers or early silver coins may collect by variety based on specialist literature written for each series. For 20th-century material, the Cherrypicker’s Guide provides the most comprehensive overview of collectible varieties for a wide range of coinage. Naked-eye visible Doubled Dies are among the most popularly collected class of varieties. Repunched Mint Marks, commonly referred to as RPMs, are seen as less interesting to most collectors.
Cherrypicker’s Guide varieties for the Classic Commemorative series are few and far between. Because of this, the two known RPMs on the 1915-S Pan-Pac are worthy of note.
The coin’s weight and composition are included.
Doubling back a minute to the holder itself, third-party holders have evolved since their introduction in the 1980s and the term “old green label holders” (often called “old green holders” or “OGH”) encompasses several generations of holders from PCGS, the first of which was introduced in the late 1980s; the old green holder was phased out in 1998. This coin is in a Generation 3.0 holder, which was used from January 1990 to February 1993, according to PCGS’ Museum of Coin Holders. To be housed in this holder style, this 1915-S Panama Pacific commemorative half dollar would have had to have been certified at some point during this period. The CAC sticker suggests that the PCGS grader assessed the coin accurately in the early 1990s. That it has not already been cracked out in the 25+ years since suggests that dealers, collectors, and auction houses, possibly having had several opportunities to review the coin, didn’t see obvious upgrade potential and didn’t crack it out.
A table below the listing on Heritage’s site shows recent auction results for other Pan-Pac half dollars graded MS-66 with CAC certification. These prices vary dramatically. All the more reason why an astute collector should learn how to read the coin and read the catalog!
Not all auction listings are created equal. For some of the reasons mentioned above, like time constraints and printing costs, dedicated experts do not have time to bring their skills to bear analyzing coins on their way to the auction block, be that block physical or digital. Fanning estimates that 90 percent of lot descriptions “are not of any real reference value.”
This holds especially true for world coin listings in American catalogs, where a lot description of a $50 coin is more or less the same for one that might cost $50,000. But auction companies are savvy and understand that great collections and specialized material perform best when catalogs are written with great care.
For a beginner, numismatic auction catalogs typically present coins that are beyond their grasp economically. The average lot value can range from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars in the case of a collection as high-end as the D. Brent Pogue or the recently offered Bob R. Simpson collection.
Still, learning to read descriptions of these vaunted coins will make you a better collector. If approached systematically, reading numismatic auction catalogs will help you formulate a basis with which to better collect material in your price point and reveal new paths to take your collecting interests.
So the next time you get a chance to crack open an auction catalog, even one from a past sale, pick a section that interests you and truly read what is being presented. You might be surprised that you will pick up more details about a coin than you ever expected.
In reading tens of thousands of auction descriptions, the primary factor in the verbiage length is the estimated final price. I have seen lengthy auction descriptions for expensive but actually very ordinary coins worth very inflated prices, and it’s primarily due to the TPG label.
There is also a clear difference between US auction catalogs and those from elsewhere.