Great American Coin Collectors and Their Coins: Thomas Cleneay

By Ron Guth for PCGS ……

Thomas Cleneay was among the first and most ambitious coin collectors in America. He started collecting in the 1840s and, over the next four decades, built one of the finest and most complete collections of his time.

In each year from 1859 to 1888, Cleneay purchased Proof sets from the Philadelphia Mint, including complete sets of gold, silver, and minor coins. In addition, he pursued high-quality examples of earlier U.S. coins, including the rare Proof versions. When the Chapman brothers (S.H. and Henry) sold Cleneay’s collection in 1890, they described it as “…complete in all denominations with few … exceptions.”

However, “completion” had a different meaning in 1890. Cleneay’s collection was nearly complete as a date set, but not as a date and mintmark set. Cleneay collected coins during a time when little attention was paid to mintmarks. He acquired many mintmarked coins, but often only as a placeholder for a particular date.

Nonetheless, Cleneay accomplished more as a collector than virtually any of his contemporaries.

Thomas Cleneay was an attorney who lived in the Norwood enclave of Cincinnati, Ohio. By today’s standards, Cleneay would be considered both a vintage and a “modern” collector. His pursuit of high-grade coins of the vintage era (1793-1858) coincided with his annual purchases of “modern” Proof sets. During the time that Cleneay collected, premiums on Proof coins were relatively small, but few collectors could afford the gold Proofs because of their high intrinsic value. However, Cleneay was a treasure hunter by nature and he regularly sought out additional coins for his collection. His tastes were eclectic and included world coins, U.S. Colonial coins, medals, Indian artifacts, and Civil War tokens.

The Chapman brothers sold the Cleneay collection over a five-day period in December 1890. The sale consisted of 2,777 lots, of which 1,881 were American or U.S.-related. Premium versions of the sale catalog included 12 plates illustrating highlights from the sale. These plates have proven quite useful in matching reappearances of Cleneay coins in later sales and collections.

Unfortunately, many of his coins were not illustrated in the catalog, making it impossible to trace their pedigrees past the Cleneay sale. This is especially true of the gold Proof coins, many of which hide anonymously in modern collections without the benefit of the Cleneay association.

Highlights of the sale included the following:

1797 “Centered Head” Half Cent, sold for $40 in 1890 and $293,750 in 2016. PCGS MS66BN. Ex: Thomas Cleneay

1797 “Centered Head” Half Cent, sold for $40 in 1890 and $293,750 in 2016. PCGS MS66BN.

Of all Cleneay’s half cents, this 1797 half cent realized the highest price, easily beating out his Uncirculated 1793 half cents ($20 and $25, respectively), an Uncirculated 1794 (at $25), a “Proof” 1811 (at $23.50), and a separate Uncirculated 1797 (at $20). Later, this 1797 half cent went on to amass a lengthy pedigree, reappearing in the John Mills, Harold Bareford, Missouri Cabinet, and D. Brent Pogue collections, to name a few. In the sale of the Pogue Collection, this coin realized $402,500 (more than 10,000 times the 1890 price). It now resides in the High Desert Collection.

1793 Liberty Cap Cent, sold for $200 in 1890 and $319,000 in 1996. PCGS MS64+BN. Ex: Thomas Cleneay

1793 Liberty Cap Cent, sold for $200 in 1890 and $319,000 in 1996. PCGS MS64+BN.

This was the finest and most valuable of Cleneay’s large cents, which is remarkable considering he had three Mint State Chain cents. This 1793 Liberty Cap cent is easily the finest of the variety and it has appeared, like many of Cleneay’s coins, in a number of big-name collections since. Col. James Ellsworth owned it from 1916 to 1923. William Cutler Atwater owned it until 1946, then Louis Eliasberg, Sr. owned it until 1996. As of this writing, it is part of the High Desert Collection.

It’s interesting to note here how the Chapman brothers and many of their contemporaries laid out their catalogs in the 1890s.

The largest denomination coins usually came first, followed by small denomination coins in descending order. In the American section of Cleneay’s catalog, U.S. Colonial coins came first, followed by Washington medals, gold U.S. Proof sets, then $20 gold pieces, $10 gold pieces, and so on. Silver Proof sets separated gold dollars from silver dollars, and minor Proof sets came after half cents. This ordering was, to a great extent, the opposite of the way sale catalogs are ordered today, and there is a tendency nowadays to pluck out the rarest and most valuable coins and place them, in order, in their own separate section.

1846-O $10, the so-called Overdate, sold for $10.50 in 1890 and $48,300 in 2000. PCGS MS64. Ex: Thomas Cleneay

1846-O $10, the so-called Overdate, sold for $10.50 in 1890 and $48,300 in 2000. PCGS MS64.

Yes, that’s right, this coin sold for 50 cents over its face value in 1890, after Cleneay owned it for who knows how many years. This author has written before about how easy it was for collectors of means during the 1800s and early 1900s to amass collections of amazing quality coins at inconceivably low prices that encourage the invention of a time machine. Many of Cleneay’s gold Proof sets, with a face value of $41.50, sold for anywhere from $45 to $50 a set. It is hard to conceive that an 1888 gold Proof set, containing a gold dollar, quarter eagle, three dollar gold piece, half eagle, eagle, and double eagle could sell for $45, but that’s what the set was worth in 1890.

This 1846-O eagle is the finest example known today. It has no price records beyond the year 2000, but suffice it to say that it is worth considerably more than its face value.

1802 $1 Proof, sold in $12.50 in 1890 and $329,000 in 2015. PCGS PR64. Ex: Thomas Cleneay

1802 $1 Proof, sold in $12.50 in 1890 and $329,000 in 2015. PCGS PR64.

Cleneay owned Proof examples of the 1801, 1802, and 1803 silver dollars. Inexplicably, he never owned an 1804, though they were being restruck around the same time as the earlier dollars. These coins would be show-stopping highlights in an auction today, but they were not recognized for that in 1890. Cleneay’s 1801 sold for $18.50. His 1802 sold for $12.50, and his 1803 sold for $12.25.

Compare this to $70 for his “Fine” 1794 silver dollar, $65 for an 1838 Gobrecht dollar, and $43.50 for an Uncirculated 1797 10×6 Stars dollar.

Cleneay had a nice run of silver dollars from 1794 to 1886. It appears that he obtained many of the later dates from circulation, as the condition ranged from Fine to Uncirculated. Once again, collector demand for such coins was low, with some silver dollars selling for face value and some Trade dollars selling for as little as 80 cents each. Included among his silver dollars are three intriguing items that may or may not live up to today’s standards: 1882-CC Proof; 1883-O Proof; and 1884-O Proof.

1821 25C Proof, sold for $24 in 1890 and $235,000 in 2015. PCGS PR67. Ex: Thomas Cleneay

1821 25C Proof, sold for $24 in 1890 and $235,000 in 2015. PCGS PR67.

Among his quarter dollars, Cleneay had several outstanding pieces. First was a Mint State 1796 with Proof surfaces. His 1805 in Uncirculated condition sold for $90, the highest price recorded for any of his quarter dollars. His 1804 in Mint State sold for $71. Among the 1815-1837 quarter dollars, Cleneay owned 10 that the Chapman brothers called “Proofs”, including the remarkable PCGS PR67 1821 quarter illustrated above.

1829 $5 Small Size, sold for $72.50 in 1890 and $881,250 in 2016. PCGS MS65+. Ex: Thomas Cleneay

1829 $5 Small Size, sold for $72.50 in 1890 and $881,250 in 2016. PCGS MS65+.

This is an extremely rare coin, of which perhaps six or seven business strikes are known, as well as two Proofs. Cleneay’s was (and is) the finest known of the business strikes and second only to the Gem Proof in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution. This was easily the most valuable of all of Cleneay’s half eagles. Byron Reed snapped it up and added it to his collection in Omaha, Nebraska, where it remained until 1996. It passed through the D. Brent Pogue Collection in 2016 and now resides in the D.L. Hansen Collection.

Once again, it is a delight to scroll through Cleneay’s half eagles and to contemplate how nice it might have been to pick up circulated Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles at face value.

1798 $1 Small Eagle, 13 Stars, sold for $32.50 in 1890 and $258,500 in 2013. PCGS MS63. Ex: Thomas Cleneay

1798 $1 Small Eagle, 13 Stars, sold for $32.50 in 1890 and $258,500 in 2013. PCGS MS63.

As a type, the 1798 Small Eagle, 13 Stars silver dollar is fairly common, but Cleneay’s example is the best of the bunch. It was recognized as a condition-rarity even back in 1890 when it was among the price leaders in the sale. After spending nearly 125 years in the collections of Peter Mougey, Col. E.H.R. Green, and Eric Newman, it joined Bruce Morelan’s fabulous collection of Mint State Flowing Hair and Draped Bust dollars in 2013.

Bruce, who is justifiably proud of his Bust dollars, said this about the Cleneay 1798 Dollar in a 2016 interview: “…it is the only 1798 Small Eagle [Dollar] that I’ve seen that actually has luster.”

Bruce would know.

Of the 2,777 lots in the Cleneay Collection, the author has positively identified only 46, though there are undoubtedly many more out there that could be linked to this remarkable collection. As others are revealed, the breadth, scope, and quality of the Cleneay collection will be uncovered. In the meantime, the author recommends a stroll through the collection as it appears on the Newman Numismatic Portal, where the Cleneay sale catalog has been scanned and made available free of charge to all.

Have fun!

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This article is from the July/August 2019 issue of Rare Coin Market Report. All current PCGS Collectors Club members will have free access to the Rare Coin Market Report. To purchase a single issue or one-year subscription, please visit the RCMR Homepage.

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