Bags in the Basement: Quantity Over Quality
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By Victor Bozarth for PCGS ……
 

Some coin deals are more memorable than others. Most deals are “one and done”, and you go on to the next deal.

But when you buy a collection or hoard, the timeline might involve a decade. Come on Vic, really? What kind of coin deal is still unresolved after 10 years? Personally, I can site several deals I was personally involved with that took more than a decade to resolve. The story about bags of Brilliant Uncirculated (BU) coins in the basement is one of the most unusual I’ve ever been involved with.

Sit back and relax… have I got a good one for you!

Every coin person loves a good hoard story. When it involves rolls or bags of original BU coinage from decades past, the story gets even juicier. I’ve handled my fair share of bags and especially BU rolls, but the largest bag deal I was involved with numbered roughly 1,500 total original bags of U.S. coins in one deal.

When it comes to original bags of U.S. coinage most first think of $1,000 face value bags of silver dollars produced prior to 1936. Of course, most U.S. coinage is bagged after production. U.S. coins are usually bagged in the following quantities, depending on the denomination. Although this deal had no silver dollars, all the other denominations were well represented.

Cents $50 – 5,000 coins
Nickels $200 – 4,000 coins
Dimes $500 – 5,000 coins
Quarters $1,000 – 4,000 coins
Halves $1,000 – 2,000 coins

Weights vary. But for argument’s sake, let’s call the average bag weight 40 pounds. That means 1,500 bags at 40 pounds per bag is a load – 60,000 pounds, more or less.

Many numismatists are familiar with the BU roll craze that dominated the U.S. coin market in the early 1960s. Original BU rolls of all denominations were run up for promotional purposes. Most of these BU roll coins were produced after World War II in very substantial quantities. At the height of the market, these BU rolls brought incredible premiums over face value. Many of the price levels these BU rolls reached have never been reached again, especially most Lincoln Cent and Jefferson Nickel rolls.

My dad had BU rolls. Recently I found an envelope with his personal coin inventory from 1964. It wasn’t pretty. BU Jefferson Nickels, ugh! Don’t get me wrong, I like the Jefferson Nickel issue. The BU Roll fad of the early ‘60s was one of the first promotions to plague our business. Early telemarketers found BU rolls perfect for promotion. Have you ever heard the saying “the secret to a good promotion is an endless supply”? I think you get the picture.

Although the silver issue price for the dimes, quarters, and halves from 1964 and before has risen and fallen because of bullion prices over the years, the cent and especially the nickel issues from World War II to 1964 have never recovered the prices they enjoyed in 1964!

Sometime before Y2K, in the late 1990s, I was working for a major East Coast dealer in South Jersey near the Delaware Bay. We had Yellow Page ads to buy rare coins in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Atlantic City at that time. Our office was roughly an hour’s drive from all three cities. There were four numismatists in the office and sometimes we would have a deal to look at in a couple of locations on the same day.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of deciphering coin questions over the phone, you can’t imagine how entertaining (if you have a sense of humor) these calls can truly be! No kidding, the most often-used opening line I’ve heard over 40 years is, “I have this coin…”

It’s a dance. You learn to ask a few specific questions to get an idea of what the caller has. The bottom line is to determine whether there is any value there. If there’s something worth pursuing, you set up an appointment. On a side note, I learned to ask very specifically that “there wasn’t ‘COPY,’ ‘FAKE,’ ‘FACSIMILE,’ or the like on a coin. Despite asking, I’ve been handed supposed $50 gold slug territorials made from pot metal that had COPY clearly stamped on the FAKE on two different occasions after driving for an hour or more. This was before image texting, of course.

Regardless, hope is eternal and sometimes you hear a magic word or two. Gold, silver dollar rolls, and original coin sets almost always ring a bell, so to speak. Other numismatic items are desirable, but you’re always looking for the rare stuff first.

Sometimes you’re involved in buying a great deal. In the late ‘90s, we were contacted regarding an estate including coins, banknotes, and a hoard of U.S. coin bags. Is your mouth watering? Juicy indeed. Early on, we knew this was the kind of deal you advertise for in the first place. Personally, I was tasked with inventorying much of the U.S., all the world coins, and all the banknotes. There were two original rolls of BU $5 Indian gold coins! In addition, up to this point in time, it was the nicest collection of currency I’d personally handled – including many early U.S. type notes. But there was one small 60,000-pound problem.

The customer was originally an undertaker in New York City. He owned a funeral parlor there, but he also owned property on the Jersey Shore, including a couple of stores and restaurants on the boardwalk. For those of you who don’t know the area, because of the geographic proximity on any given weekend, the Jersey Shore has as many visitors from New York and Pennsylvania as from Jersey itself. It’s beautiful, really! Many consider having a place in the city (New York City or Philly) and a place at the shore to be the best of both worlds.

While the value of this collection was mostly in the rare coins and banknotes, the BU bags involved a substantial amount of money, too – mostly because of the volume, which was roughly 1,500 mint-sealed BU bags.

I hadn’t seen the bag deal. I was told where it was and approximately how many bags were involved. We didn’t know the exact quantity (nor contents) because of the way they were stored or piled, I was told. Of course, my imagination was off and running. One thousand five hundred BU bags! This was going to be fun…

Be careful what you wish for. Over several days I put together a plan to move the bags from New York City to South Jersey. Logistically, I think I was the only one there who truly understood the implications of moving 60,000 pounds. Oh, and by the way, all 1,500 bags were in a crawl space under the actual funeral parlor with a five-foot ceiling. The only access was through a trapdoor directly under the coffin stand. Oh yeah, there was a 10-foot-wide alley we had to back down to access the back door and crawl space.

No kidding, it was freaky.

We rented a five-ton straight truck, which is the largest box truck we could get under a tractor-trailer. I still had a commercial driver’s license and was legal for this truck. Regardless, it was the largest truck we could rent. The truck had a legal load weight capacity of roughly 50,000 pounds. Would it all fit in one trip? I remember having a couple of bad dreams prior. Seriously, this was going to be shaky. Had anyone considered what we were going to do if we had a breakdown?

The East Coast dealer had some laborers we could use. I was in the truck with two other guys. Both of the owners followed us with two other laborers. We had about a three-and-a-half-hour trip to New York City and left early. Empty trucks are a piece of cake while overloaded trucks are not. Our drive to the city was uneventful and we were in a position to start loading the truck mid-morning.

Having moved furniture for a van line, I’d brought a couple of two-wheel dollies as well as a four-wheel dolly. The crawl space was roughly 500 square feet with bags piled mostly two to three high along the walls, with a couple of narrow paths between them. No one could stand erect in the space. The floor beams at our head were just under five feet. You had to walk bent over. I cracked my head several times that day.

After a couple of false starts, we were able to get into a pretty good rhythm. One of the issues was going to be loading the truck properly – especially because I expected it to be overweight. The issue was to spread the bags as evenly on the floor of the truck bed from front to back for weight distribution. In addition, ending up with too many bags toward the back was dangerous because of the balance of the vehicle.

We had a guy bringing me bags in the hole where I lifted them up through the hole to another guy who would put the bag on one of two dollies up top, shuttling the bags to the truck where the last guy would walk the bags to the front. I’d put some chalk lines on the floor of the truck as a guide, but every 100 bags or so I’d climb out of the hole and check the load. The truck was overloaded by two and we weren’t done.

We probably had about 200 bags left to load (later that afternoon when my bosses and I made the decision to go for it). I warned them that we might be babysitting the bags on the side of the highway all night if we had issues. Although I had experience with overweight loads, I, too, had the confidence of youth. I remember us all laughing and saying ‘let’s go for it’ almost simultaneously.

We got the last of the bags loaded in the early evening. We knew there was no point trying to leave before six in the evening with New York City traffic. In addition, with the condition of our load, I fully expected our return drive to take well over five hours. It took six.

I remember looking down at my hands at one point. White knuckling it – you can’t imagine! I was squeezing the steering wheel for dear life. There is a feel to driving a big truck. I had driven this truck empty and now it was a completely different vehicle. Fortunately, I had experience. Any slight hill was a major issue. I felt like the little train engine. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…

About 200 yards from the apex of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, in one of the middle lanes of traffic (there were no shoulders or pull-offs) we inched along in granny gear praying we just make it to the top! It felt like the weight of the load in the back was pulling the front wheels of the truck off the ground. While they never came off the ground, steering was certainly compromised. Once we were able to get to the top of the bridge, we were fine, but our highway speed never topped 35 for the remainder of the 150-mile drive back to our office.

We didn’t try to unload the truck at midnight. Early the next morning, we set up pallets in an unused area of our office and began to unload the truck. We set up an unloading line and proceeded to attempt to sort the bags, as we moved them, by denomination. Many of the bags were mint-sewn sealed date bags. These were labeled, but many bags were not.

During the loading process, I had lifted every bag from the basement up through the hole to ground level, so I had a very good idea of what we were looking at. There were some bags from the late ‘40s and ‘50s, but nothing really juicy. We didn’t have any early bags of Buffalo Nickels, Mercury Dimes, or Walking Liberty Halves.

The bags of silver coins were sold almost immediately. Although we had considered searching some of the Franklin bags, we concluded they were just TOO baggy – heavily bag marked, that is. Heavily bag-marked BU coins usually fall within the MS60-63 grade range. These bags had been handled several times. None of the bags we spot-checked had anything we considered “gem” (MS65 quality).

Remember my comments about the BU roll craze in the early ‘60s? I always believed these bags had been purchased mostly during that period because of the date range present. There were no bags from 1965 or after, but there was a tremendous amount of Lincoln Cent and Jefferson Nickel bags from 1960 to 1964.

There were nearly 200 mint-sealed bags of 1960 Lincoln Cents alone. Of course, we speculated for weeks over their worth if we had any 1960 Small Date Cents. We opened several bags, but these all turned out to be Large Dates. There were several hundred bags of Jefferson Nickels from this same period, but interestingly during this time period, there was a very little premium over face value. The banks we contacted didn’t want them either unless it was as a deposit.

Both the BU roll craze and the silver dollar bag rush were perfect promotions. Marketing BU rolls allowed dealers to get their customers into an item at a lower price point. After all, most customers don’t have the budget to buy bags of coins, but rolls are affordable. Our customer probably had a relationship with his bank. Especially during the BU roll craze of the early ‘60s, buying bags near face value would have been very attractive.

Experience is a great teacher if you listen. Of course, we would all like to find a gigantic hoard of old coins, but at this point in my life, I prefer a gourmet meal to a buffet. I want the nicest coin in the roll or bag. Don’t you?

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for this entertaining account. I am in the process of doing the final clean out of a family member’s home before the new owner takes possession the first of Feb. I cannot imagine trying to deal with what you have as just what I have to do seems quite daunting!

    And it is unfortunate that Jefferson nickels of the late 1950’s into the 1960’s still sell only a little above their face value in average circulating condition but, then again, production of these coins and other denominations ramped up from about 1956 onward. Only some denominations in the past 10 or 15 years has the US Mint reduced a little their production due to the increasing use of debit cards and online commerce. But still not as low as it was early in the 20th century. I will say though that due to quality issues nickels from the very late 1960’s through early early 1980’s found in good shape and nice strike are hard to find for quite a few years and worth searching in rolls. I think that if someone had a horde of BU bags from those years — not as large as the one you had to go though but a bit smaller – it would be worth searching them for true gems from the 1970’s and 1980’s.

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