Eliasberg’s 1982 US Gold Coin Collection Auction Reconsidered

After four decades, the value increases for Eliasberg’s Carson City gold coins warrant attention

 

By Rusty Goe …..

The Eliasberg Brand

As each decade passes, the significance of the Louis E. Eliasberg Sr. brand in numismatics escalates. Although many great collectors existed before Eliasberg burst onto the scene, many were contemporary with him, and many have postdated him, none have outranked him as the king of U.S. coins. No one will ever unseat him, even if someone’s coin collection supersedes his in breadth, comprehensiveness, completion, and relative value.

By November 1950, Eliasberg had accomplished something that had escaped all collectors who preceded him. He did that, even though some (like Virgil Brand and “Col.” E.H.R. Green) accumulated more coins than Eliasberg did and were doubtless wealthier than him. Eliasberg’s grand achievement of acquiring at least one of every known example of every date-denomination issued from the time the federal mint system started until Eliasberg’s triumphant finale, immortalized him.

And Eliasberg did it first. Even if someone eventually matches or surpasses his feat it will not have near the impact, considering the time, the cultural environment, and the staging during which Eliasberg stamped his mark on numismatics in the United States. Before the internet, with television in its infancy, and information not disseminated nearly as swiftly as in today’s media world, Eliasberg enlightened the nation about the serious side of coin collecting.

Life and Look magazines publicized him and his celebrated collection. Newspapers and other publications across the country did the same. In an April 27, 1953, Life magazine feature article, color images of “Gems from the greatest collection” allowed readers to view (probably for the first time for most) rarities like an 1804 silver dollar, an 1870-S $3 gold piece, and an 1873-CC Without Arrows dime. The publicity generated by Eliasberg’s coup provided a much-appreciated injection of enthusiasm for the coin collecting hobby.

Displaying and Sharing Eliasberg’s Collection

Eliasberg did not rest on his laurels. He did not stow his collection in a safe and secretive location and fade from the scene. He commissioned artisans to construct special large display cases for his coins so he could exhibit his collection publicly from time to time. He also collaborated with a numismatic team who created an impressive pamphlet titled “An Exhibition of the World’s Greatest Collection of United States Coins” for distribution at public viewings of his collection.

A few months before he died, Eliasberg presented a talk on November 7, 1975, in Baltimore, during which he shared, “Why, When and How I Assembled the Most Complete Collection of United States Coins.” He told the audience, “If you are a numismatist or coin collector, I hope you will derive the degree of pleasure and happiness I have in assembling my collection.” During his 25 or so years of carrying the torch as the world’s most recognized coin collector, he exemplified how numismatists can proclaim the rewards inherent in their hobby to the masses.

Within months after his death on February 20, 1976, the legacy of his famous collection still commanded much attention. His family exhibited it, in honor of their patriarch and to commemorate the Bicentennial year, at the Philadelphia Mint. The New York Times on July 18, 1976 (p. 73), stated, “The exhibit of the fabulous Louis E. Eliasberg coin collection is being given the lion’s share of credit for a fivefold rise in the daily flow of visitors to the main U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.” Elsewhere, The Times noted, “No individual or organization, public or private—not the U.S. Mint itself or even the marvelous Numismatic Division of the Smithsonian Institution—has a collection of such completeness. All the great rarities, as well as the most common coins, are included.”

Eliasberg’s Gold Coins Find New Owners

Years later, it came time to sell Eliasberg’s renowned collection. In the March 2010 issue of The Numismatist, I wrote about the first installment that featured the U.S. gold coins Eliasberg had assembled. I focused on the 57 Carson City Mint gold issues offered in the auction conducted by Bowers and Ruddy between October 27 and 29, 1982. Eliasberg owned complete 19-piece sets of the three gold denominations produced in Carson City: half eagles, eagles, and double eagles.

The heir to Eliasberg’s comprehensive U.S. gold coin collection, his son, Louis E. Eliasberg Jr., instructed Bowers and Ruddy to keep it a secret who had built the consignment they were offering. They called the sale “The United States Gold Coin Collection”, with no person’s name signifying the pedigree. The numismatic world knew the collection’s architect anyway. Who else could have constructed such a stupendous collection but the “King” himself?

In my March 2010 Numismatist article, I provided prices realized for all 57 “CC” gold coins in the momentous 1982 sale, as well as my estimates of values of the same coins as of the date of my writing. Many advancements have occurred in values for “CC” gold coins over the past dozen years. In this article, I will reconsider values for these coins according to current (late 2021) pricing. This seems fitting as we approach the 40th anniversary (October 2022) of the 1982 Eliasberg gold coin auction.

Excitement on the Auction Floor

A row of extremely interested auction attendees sat anxiously side by side at a narrow, rectangular banquet table draped with an ochre-colored tablecloth at the St. Moritz Hotel in New York City in late October 1982. Tabletop incandescent lamps provided optimal lighting so the auction participants could view some of the most attractive and well-preserved U.S. gold coins imaginable.

During the viewing process, these keen numismatists scribbled cryptic, shorthand notes next to the coins’ descriptions in the catalogs to remind them of their assessments of the coins. Throughout the lot-viewing, observant auction staff members and security guards monitored activities with watchful (and custodial) eyes.

On the opening night (Wednesday, October 27, 1982) of the three-day auction extravaganza, orchestrated with festive flair by Bowers and Ruddy, the unique 1870-S $3 gold piece rocketed to $687,500 USD. On that note, a break in the action allowed the press corps to gather reports that would circulate to news outlets across the nation. That price established a record for a coin issued by the U.S. Mint (though a Brasher gold Doubloon—a non-federal issue—fetched $725,000 in the November 1979 Bowers and Ruddy Garrett Part 1 auction). When a price record for a rare coin is set, journalists of all stripes savor broadcasting the story.

Carson City Gold Coins – Session 2

1822 $5 PCGS AU50
The Brand-Eliasberg-Pogue 1822 Half Eagle, graded PCGS Secure AU50. (Photo credit: PCGS.)

Carson City gold coins waited until the next night (Thursday, October 28) to make their entrance on the main stage. The auctioneers scheduled that night to offer only half eagles. The 322 lots represented examples of every date from all U.S. federal branch mints beginning with the first coins issued in 1795 and ending with 1929. Before any Carson City half eagles crossed the auction block, an About Uncirculated 1822 half eagle matched the recording-setting price of $687,500 realized by the 1870-S $3 gold piece the night before. This 1822 half eagle is the only one of three known survivors of this date-denomination available to collectors. (The other two reside in the National Collection at the Smithsonian Institution.)

When the auctioneer, William D. Hawfield, introduced Lot 540, the 1876-CC half eagle, he observed that it was an “unusual piece, a lovely, lovely piece from a special year at the Carson City Mint.” Bidding opened at $8,000 and after lively activity, Hawfield hammered it at $24,000. A 10% buyer’s premium added resulted in a total price realized of $26,400. That was the highest price any Carson City coin brought during the entire auction sessions. Immediately after the bidding ended, whistles and light applause came from the audience. That response, for such a relatively low realization compared with the lofty six-figure prices reached by other lots, evinced the respect for the 1876-CC half eagle expressed by members of the audience. Upon hearing the crowd noise, Hawfield declared, “This piece deserves it; it’s gorgeous,” adding, “m’m! m’m!” echoing a phrase from the old Campbell’s soup commercial, “M’m! M’m! good.”

The ex: Eliasberg 1876-CC half eagle eventually received ratings of MS-64, MS-65, and MS-66 (current status) from Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). It spent 10 years in the world-class Battle Born Collection of Carson City coins, before bringing $477,250 in the August 2012 Stack’s Bowers Battle Born auction.

Eliasberg’s 1892-CC half eagle, described in the auction catalog as “Choice Brilliant Uncirculated … MS-65,” realized $4,400. That price exceeded the typical average cost for Mint State 1892-CC half eagles at the time by 10 to 20 times. Years later, after receiving a PCGS rating of MS-65, this coin, when last seen, was encased in an NGC MS-66 holder. Its present value (late 2021) could reach the $100,000 level.

Carson City Gold Coins – Session 3

During the final night of the momentous three-day Bowers and Ruddy auctions (Friday, October 29), eagles and double eagles took the spotlight. Eliasberg’s collection contained several Carson City eagles of superior quality, considering their dates. However, none of the rarest dates in the series displayed characteristics that earned them condition-census status. Most (if not all) of the rarest-date specimens merited Extremely Fine ratings or lower at the time. A couple might perhaps qualify for a lower About Uncirculated grade today (late 2021). Eliasberg’s “CC” double eagles, except for the rarest issue and one of the more common issues, lacked grades that would even begin to earn them positions near the condition census for their respective dates.

“CC” Eagles

Although other dates are much scarcer (when each is considered as a group in all grades), three of Eliasberg’s “CC” eagles (not counted among the rarest dates) stood out during the auction and continue to impress today. The 1874-CC eagle’s price realized of $17,600 in the October 1982 auction outperformed all other Carson City eagles. The consummate numismatist Harry W. Bass Jr. placed the winning bid. PCGS eventually certified it as MS-63. After Bass’s death, it fetched $66,700 in the November 2000 Bowers and Merena installment of the Bass Collection. This lovely specimen, easily ranked as one of the two finest known 1874-CC eagles, wound up in the Battle Born collection. When Stack’s Bowers offered it as a part of the Battle Born Collection in August 2012, it soared to $195,500. In the 21st century’s third decade, it would doubtless command $250,000 or more.

Eliasberg’s 1881-CC eagle realized $3,850 in the 1982 auction. Even though this is considered a comparatively common date from the Carson City Mint’s eagle output during the 1880s, this specific piece exudes about as much charm, character, and exquisite eye appeal as any other surviving “CC” eagle, regardless of the date. When it appeared in its NGC MS-64 slab (CAC-approved) as a part of the Battle Born Collection in the August 2012 Stack’s Bowers auction, it launched to $97,750. That outcome thoroughly placed it in a different universe than all other examples of the same date.

The 1892-CC eagle pedigreed to Eliasberg brought $9,900 in the October 1982 event. That realization was surpassed only by the 1874-CC eagle’s price in the Carson City eagle category. When last seen, Eliasberg’s 1892-CC eagle appeared in an NGC MS-64 slab in a January 2007 Heritage auction, in which it realized $46,000. This piece is clearly identifiable by the copper spots speckling its obverse. If and when it reemerges (possibly in a new slab with a new grade?), it will doubtless blast high above the price it achieved in early 2007.

“CC” Double Eagles

As a group, Eliasberg’s “CC” double eagles probably did not impress 1982 auction participants as much as the “CC” half eagles and eagles did. The one exception was the 1870-CC double eagle. Graded conservatively by the cataloger as “Very Fine-20 obverse; Very Fine-30 reverse,” it realized $22,000, the second-highest price for any Carson City gold coin in the auctions. Not only that, but only Eliasberg’s 1854-O and 1856-O double eagles (both cataloged as About Uncirculated) realized higher prices in the business strike Liberty Head (Coronet) double eagle series. In recent years, 1870-CC double eagles, as a group, have consistently scored higher prices than the two rare New Orleans dates. This is especially true when considering that there are more higher-grade specimens of the New Orleans issues than there are of the 1870-CC double eagles. It is important to note that the populations (in all grades) of the two rare New Orleans issues are noticeably sparser than the supply of 1870-CC double eagles.

Regarding the ex: Eliasberg 1870-CC double eagle, its current grade of XF-45—assigned by PCGS—might currently (late 2021) elevate its value above any of the 1854-O and 1856-O specimens in the same grade or even those in lower About Uncirculated divisions. This speculation hinges on comparing the ex: Eliasberg piece’s current XF-45 rating, point for point, with the two New Orleans’ issues grades. It is a purely subjective exercise.

Two points worth emphasizing are 1) the PCGS XF-45 ex: Eliasberg 1870-CC double eagle presently resides in the preeminent Dell Loy Hansen Collection, where it will probably remain indefinitely; 2) Because of the evolving nature of coin grading it is conceivable that this specimen might someday receive a bump up to a lower berth in the About Uncirculated grouping. Rumors were afloat in the past that this had happened at some point, but they were never verified.

Another double eagle once owned by Eliasberg deserves mention. Bowers and Ruddy assigned this 1890-CC double eagle an MS-63 rating in the October 1982 catalog. The firm did not assign any other “CC” double eagle in the auction a Mint State rating of any kind. It realized $2,970 in the sale. That result nearly tied it as the second-highest price fetched by an Eliasberg “CC” double eagle, below the 1870-CC specimen’s realization. Only the rarer date 1885-CC double eagle, rated About Uncirculated, slightly outperformed the 1890-CC double eagle, as it brought $3,080.

Until only recently I could never trace the ex: Eliasberg 1890-CC double eagle’s journey to the present. Then I discovered something that surprised and delighted me.

Not knowing its pedigree, I bought it in a PCGS MS-63 slab for $32,200 in a May 2005 Heritage auction. PCGS did not reference the Eliasberg pedigree on the label, and there was no mention of it in the catalog description. I placed this coin in the Battle Born Collection. When Stack’s Bowers auctioned it in August 2012 as a part of the Battle Born Collection, it realized $35,937.50. I matched the ex: Eliasberg 1890-CC double eagle with the ex: Battle Born specimen by discovering similar characteristics on both while comparing the coin’s low-resolution image in the 1982 Bowers and Ruddy catalog with the image in the August 2012 Stack’s Bowers Battle Born catalog. I cannot validate my discovery unequivocally, but (because of identifiable diagnostics) I am reasonably certain of my finding’s credibility.

Preserving Provenance

The narrative above about the 1890-CC double eagle clearly demonstrates the rewards of preserving provenances for rare coins, especially if the coins are linked to significant collectors. One cannot imagine a more significant collector to whom to link coins than Louis E. Eliasberg Sr.

Regarding Carson City coins, provenances have fortunately been preserved for some of Eliasberg’s most noteworthy pieces. These include the most special coin of all, the unique 1873-CC Without Arrows dime, as well as his 1876-CC twenty-cent piece, and his legendary run of incredibly rare (and high-grade) quarter dollars from 1870 to 1873. These are all silver issues. In fact, pedigrees for “CC” silver coins linked to Eliasberg are seemingly more numerous than those for the gold coins from his collection.

It would serve passionate Carson City coin enthusiasts well if all the ex: Eliasberg “CC” coins bore his name on their certification labels (this is assuming that all are in PCGS and NGC slabs).

Among Eliasberg’s gold coins, pedigree information is clearly marked for several key representatives. These include the 1876-CC half eagle, the 1874-CC eagle, and the 1881-CC eagle. Others, sadly, do not bear the Eliasberg brand. They should – and hopefully, they will someday. The 1870-CC double eagle tops the list.
Louis E. Eliasberg Sr.’s son, Lou Jr., apparently bought some of the “CC” gold coins (and those from other mints) in the October 1982 auction. Because he did, these coins’ links to his father’s pedigree are preserved.

An online source reports that Lou Eliasberg Jr. died on July 15, 2009, at the age of 80. Stack’s auctioned many items owned by Lou Jr. in March 2010. Included in this consignment were “CC” gold coins from the October 1982 auction. These coins provide valuable information, not only regarding Lou Jr.’s father’s pedigree but also about price histories and changed perceptions in grading.

In the half eagle category, the following table displays the 1982 price realized, the 1982 catalog grade, the 2010 grade, the March 2010 price realized, and Louis E. Eliasberg Sr.’s cost (if available).

 

Later Estimated Prices and Annual Appreciation Rate

The price estimates I provided in my March 2010 Numismatist article reflected values I compiled as of 2009 and my use of the grades assigned in the 1982 auction catalog. Regarding the latter, for coins where I knew the actual current certified grades, I adjusted price estimates accordingly. In some instances, for coins for which I was unaware of their current grades, I interpreted the catalog grades to render a clearer perception of the grades. This especially pertained to the cataloger’s use of split grades (e.g., “Choice Very Fine-30 obverse; Choice Extremely Fine-45 reverse”).

My March 2010 article presented a 27-year perspective of price appreciation. For all fifty-seven “CC” gold coins from the 1982 Eliasberg sessions, the annual appreciation rate (AAR) hovered around 8.50%. The AAR has not continued at this same pace during the past dozen years. Currently (late 2021), with 39 years in focus, the AAR registers at approximately 7.13%. This is reflective of the slackened increase—averaging about 4.14%—achieved during the past 12 years.

The half eagles (as a group) have experienced the lowest decrease in AAR when viewed from a 39-year span. In 2010 I calculated this group’s AAR at around 8.40%. Presently (late 2021), it is roughly 7.51%. This group’s lower decrease in AAR is mostly attributable to the 1876-CC half eagle’s (PCGS MS-66) chartbusting performance in the August 2012 Battle Born auction. Additionally, the ex: Eliasberg 1892-CC half eagle’s value has increased substantially, even though it has not recorded a public sale in many years.

Eliasberg’s double eagles’ AAR has declined from 8.78% in 2010 to 7%. His eagles’ AAR currently hovers around 6.9%, compared with approximately 8.33% in 2010.
The following tables list all ex: Eliasberg Carson City gold coins from the October 1982 Bowers and Ruddy auctions. Grades are listed as per the ones assigned by the cataloger. In other columns, I have listed the 1982 prices realized and my value estimates from 2009 and late 2021.

 

Note: Price estimates are for Eliasberg specimens only. Other Carson City Mint gold coins in similar grades might vary greatly in value.

Compelling Observations

As of my March 2010 article, Eliasberg’s “CC” coins’ AAR outperformed the Standard and Poor’s 500 during the same 27-year timeframe starting in late 1982. That occurred in large part because the U.S. stock market suffered catastrophic losses heading into the early months of 2009 in the wake of the Great Recession. I compiled values for the coins and calculated AARs for both the coins and the Standard and Poor’s 500 in 2009.

During the past 12 years (as of late 2021), a practically unstoppable bull run in the U.S. stock market has thrust securities’ indexes to record-setting levels. Many categories of U.S. rare coins have seen significant price gains during this period, but the stock market has clearly triumphed among mostly all asset classes.

Carson City coins (except the Morgan silver dollar series) have, as a group, advanced favorably in value since 2010. Still, the overall value increases have not come close to matching the stock market’s phenomenal success during this stretch.

It is also worth emphasizing that the complete Carson City coin catalog encompasses a broad and diversified range of pieces. When analyzing values, a date-denomination by date-denomination and piece by piece evaluation is imperative (this discussion is exclusive of “CC” Morgan silver dollars, which require a totally different set of criteria for evaluation). This is because many of the rarest “CC” date-denominations in the highest grades are in classes of their own.

The unique pieces and those in utterly limited supply are further elevated to even loftier classes. It is often pointless to attempt to compare such coins’ value and desirability with other examples of the same date-denominations, even if the grades are the same or in proximity.

Some ex: Eliasberg “CC” gold coins fall into the “other-class” zone. We have mentioned, for example, the 1876-CC half eagle, the 1892-CC half eagle, the 1874-CC eagle, and the 1881-CC eagle. Such specimens will always outperform other “CC” gold coins from the Eliasberg collection.

For most of the rest of Eliasberg’s “CC” gold coins, their pedestrian 4.14% AAR pace since 2010 is somewhat due to two factors. First, many of the coins’ grades do not separate them (if at all) from other “CC” gold coins of the same dates and denominations. In other words, there is nothing inherently enticing about them to warrant paying premium prices.

CC-Mint double eagles from the Fairmont Collection. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

Second, A massive hoard of U.S. gold coins, reportedly coming from a Canadian source beginning around 2017/2018, showered many “CC” half eagles, eagles, and double eagles onto the rare coin market during the past several years. Many date-denominations suffered from declining prices, especially in the double eagle series. If this unexpected hoard had not increased supplies, chances are that price levels for the impacted “CC” date-denominations (especially double eagles) would have maintained the momentum achieved through 2017 carrying forward into the early 2020s.

This speculation is irrelevant, of course, because what happened is irreversible. One thing worth noting is that price levels for most of the “CC” gold date-denominations affected by the supply increases began rising in 2021. Can anyone predict the future with any certainty? No. However, indicators are pointing toward higher costs for Carson City gold coins heading into the 2030s and beyond.

Regardless of what estimated values look like on paper, it is entirely possible that many would increase substantially in the present if all current grades were known for Eliasberg’s “CC” gold coins. We have already seen that one of the most significant pieces, the 1870-CC double eagle, is rated much higher today than the grade assigned by the cataloger in 1982. The difference between Very Fine and Extremely Fine-45 (maybe AU-50?) for such a rarity cannot be overstated. Even if some of the much less scarce coins are graded noticeably higher today than their assigned 1982 ratings, significant increases in value estimates could result.

For example, in my March 2010 Numismatist article, I listed an estimate for Eliasberg’s 1874-CC half eagle based on the Extremely Fine rating from the 1982 catalog. After that, Eliasberg’s specimen of this date appeared in a PCGS AU-55 slab in the abovementioned March 2010 Stack’s auction and brought $13,800 (I had estimated its value at $8,000 in my article, using the Extremely Fine rating).

Another example illustrates similar contrast. In the 1982 catalog, Bowers and Ruddy graded Eliasberg’s 1872-CC eagle Very Fine; it realized $935. When the coin surfaced in the March 2010 Stack’s sale, it fetched $20,700 in its PCGS XF-45 holder.

Suppose that similar grade inflation elevated many of Eliasberg’s other “CC” gold coins to higher ratings than recorded in the 1982 catalog. This could substantially lift the aggregate value for all 57 Eliasberg pieces.

Something else worth considering is the prospect of combing the country and gathering all 57 ex: Eliasberg “CC” gold coins, getting them holdered in PCGS (or NGC) slabs with the pedigree emblazoned on the labels and offering the group in an auction. The sheer weight of such an event would doubtless raise prices for such a special assortment of coins. The whole would certainly be greater than the sum of its parts; this would be true even if several pieces (e.g., maybe the 1880-CC eagle) were offered in “Genuine” or “Details” slabs because they were deemed unworthy of numeric grades.

In the meantime, perhaps we should seal this article in a time capsule. Then, hopefully, a numismatic researcher/writer will discover it in, say, 2062 and compare values for Eliasberg’s “CC” gold coins with the values in the article’s tables. Taking such an exercise a bit further, the researcher/writer in 2062 might have the diligence and references required to list Eliasberg’s costs for all his “CC” gold coins. That would provide an interesting 122-or-so-year perspective of the AAR for this amazing assemblage of 57 coins.

Eliasberg’s kingly legacy offers many stimulating avenues to explore. The Carson City gold coins from his collection positively make for a fascinating study.

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About Rusty Goe

Rusty Goe is a coin dealer, numismatic researcher, and writer. He is the co-owner of Southgate Coins in Reno, Nevada.

Goe is the author of The Mint on Carson Street (2003). The NLG and PNG awarded Goe with Book of the Year honors in 2004. In 2007, Goe published the biography, James Crawford: Master of the Mint at Carson City.

Goe’s newest three-volume book (2020), The Confident Carson City Coin Collector, received double honors from the NLG in 2021. It won the NLG’s Best Specialized Book award in the United States or Early American Coins category, and the NLG’s Book of the Year award.

For more information about Rusty Goe please visit www.southgatecoins.com

1 COMMENT

  1. Amazing to see these beautiful coins. It’s a collection of art and history all rolled up as 1.
    How can you not love his dedication collecting those coins.

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