Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Major Gold Rarities in Auction by Stamp Company
News and Analysis of scarce coins, markets, and the collecting community #97
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
I was astonished that a stamp auction company in San Francisco offered a very extensive collection of U.S. gold coins that contained two Great Rarities and numerous rare 19th century pieces. On Feb. 21st and 22nd, at a hotel in San Francisco, Schuyler-Rumsey Philatelic Auctions sold the “Broadus R. Littlejohn, Jr. Collection,” which contained a large number of classic U.S. gold coins. The two Great Rarities were an 1854-S Quarter Eagle ($2½ gold coin) and an 1856-O Double Eagle ($20 gold coin). An extremely rare Eagle ($10 coin), an 1870-CC, was also a feature attraction.
Littlejohn collected classic U.S. gold coins, of all denominations, ‘by date.’ He had copper and silver coins as well, though these are not especially newsworthy. Littlejohn’s collection contained more than one thousand classic U.S. coins, including hundreds of gold coins.
Littlejohn was born in 1925 in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and he died in the same area in 2010. He graduated from The Citadel, a military academy. Littlejohn also collected stamps, among other things. He donated his collections of manuscripts and postcards to Wofford College.
Unfortunately, I have not seen Littlejohn’s coins. As far as I know, the firm of Schuyler-Rumsey did not bring this collection to any major coin conventions or shows. They brought catalogues to a recent Long Beach Expo. It would have made sense to bring the coins to Orlando for the FUN Convention in January and to Long Beach, California, in February.
I. Dates & Completeness
In my lifetime, the term ‘date’ in coin collecting has referred not only to the year on a coin, and its type, but also to the location of the mint that struck the respective coin. I contend that the term ‘date’ is incorrectly employed in the PCGS set registry, where an 1854-D Quarter Eagle and an 1854-S Quarter Eagle would be considered representatives of the same ‘date.’ These are of the same type and year, not of the same ‘date.’
An 1854 Quarter Eagle without a mintmark, which was made in Philadelphia, an 1854-C (Charlotte, NC), an 1854-D (Dahlonega, GA), an 1854-O (New Orleans) and an 1854-S (San Francisco Mint) are all different ‘dates.’ There are thus five different dates of Quarter Eagles minted in the year 1854, which were struck at mints in five different cities. (A neat way for a collector to expand a type set is to include representatives of all the mints.)
Littlejohn had a not certified 1854 Quarter Eagle that realized $373.75 or so. Littlejohn’s 1854-C is PCGS graded AU-50 and brought $4887.50.
The Littlejohn 1854-D failed to receive a numerical grade from the PCGS, because it has serious problems, and is in a PCGS ‘Genuine’ holder. The cataloguer states that it has the ‘details’ of a Very Good grade coin. This 1854-D sold for $1667.50.
The Littlejohn 1854-O Quarter Eagle is not certified. The cataloguer seems to imply that he grades it as EF-45. It went for $575.
Littlejohn thus had all five different dates of Quarter Eagles that bear the year ‘1854.’ I discuss his 1854-S in its own section. For U.S. gold coins in general, particularly Liberty Head gold coins, Littlejohn was clearly seeking all dates of all denominations.
The relative completeness of Littlejohn’s collection is noteworthy and impressive. Unfortunately, it is just not practical to discuss here all the gold coins in this collection or to draw conclusions about the auction as a whole. Moreover, 19th century gold coins of the same type, date and numerical grade tend to vary considerably in terms of quality. If I had seen Littlejohn’s coins, I would write more about them.
The number of better-date Liberty Head Quarter Eagles, Half Eagles and Eagles in this collection is particularly significant. Littlejohn also had key date Liberty Head Double Eagles.
A PCGS graded AU-55 1866-S (No Motto) Double Eagle realized a strong price, $83,375. Matt Kleinsteuber “loved the coin. These usually come screwed up. This one was fresh and [very] original,” Matt says. Kleinsteuber is the lead grader and trader for NFC coins.
A PCGS graded AU-50 1861-O brought $43,125. Littlejohn also had an 1861-S Double Eagle with the famous reverse (back) that was designed by Anthony Paquet. It is PCGS graded Very Fine-35 and it sold for $51,750, a fair price.
Though this collection contained some quality coins with great surfaces, it is likely that Littlejohn was far more interested in completeness than in quality. It is also possible that he had no idea whatsoever as to how to grade coins and/or was not well advised. In any event, Littlejohn deserves much credit for the extensiveness of his collection, which required decades to assemble.
II. 1854-S Quarter Eagle
The rarest Quarter Eagle ($2½ gold coin) is the 1854-S. For background about this issue and the surviving coins, please see my column of Sept. 28, 2011, in which I discuss the overall rarity of the issue and the quality of specific 1854-S Quarter Eagles. (As always, clickable links are in blue.) There are between eleven and sixteen 1854-S Quarter Eagles in existence.
The one in the Littlejohn Collection was previously in the epic collection of Samuel Wolfson. Stack’s auctioned Wolfson’s gold coins during October 1962 in New York. The Wolfson 1854-S later appeared in three auctions in the 1980s. It was recently certified as ‘Fine-12’ by the PCGS. Many of the gold coins in the Littlejohn Collection were sent to the PCGS not long before this auction. Doug Winter bought the Wolfson-Littlejohn 1854-S for $172,500.
Andy Lustig declares that the Wolfson-Littlejohn 1854-S is “solid for what it is. It probably was cleaned at some point. Unless you are the type of buyer that requires 100% originality, this past cleaning is not [bothersome]. At this grade, the scratches are not an issue; [normal] marks and scratches from circulation, for a Fine-12 coin, very presentable,” Andy concludes. Over the years, Lustig has owned many gold rarities, including the finest known 1876-CC Half Eagle that I discussed last week.
Matt Kleinsteuber states that “the Wolfson-Littlejohn 1854-S was very nice, problem-free, one of the more original coins in the sale.” If Winter has “a customer for it, whoever bought it should be very happy with their purchase,” Matt suggests.
The Norweb-Richmond 1854-S, which is NGC graded Very Fine-35, realized $253,000 in October 2011, at a Heritage auction in Pittsburgh. The Norweb-Richmond coin is appealing, though it has some issues, particularly moderate to serious scratches on the reverse. The obverse, though, is attractive and pleasant on its own. The $253,000 result was fair. If it did not have scratches on the reverse, it would be worth more than $285,000.
On August 18, 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned the Atwater 1854-S for $201,250. This coin is not gradable and its state of preservation does not place it near the borderline of being gradable. It is in a NGC ‘DETAILS’ holder, which is similar to a PCGS ‘GENUINE’ holder, though the NGC holders tend to supply more information.
Even so, the notations of “scratched” and “cleaned” on the NGC printed insert are misleading. The Atwater 1854-S Quarter is not severely scratched and it has much more serious problems than just having been cleaned, as the term ‘cleaned’ is generally employed in the field of coin collecting. Under magnification, it looks as though it has decayed. It may have been damaged in a fire and/or been exposed to some chemicals that are awful for coins. In August, someone paid $201,250 for a coin that really had a much lower market value.
So, the Wolfson-Littlejohn 1854-S brought almost 15% less than the severely problematic Atwater 1854-S brought in August. Another 1854-S, the one that is NGC graded ‘Fine-12,’ sold privately in 2011 for significantly more than $172,500. I have seen that one and my sources strongly suggest that the Wolfson-Littlejohn 1854-S is clearly superior to it.
The $172,500 result for the Wolfson-Littlejohn 1854-S is very weak. I tentatively suggest that a fair retail price for this coin would be in the range of $210,000 to $235,000. Even a wholesale price should be significantly higher than $172,500.
III. 1856-O Double Eagle
In September 2011, I wrote about the Rubic 1856-O that Heritage auctioned in October. I then covered the rarity and fame, or lack thereof, of this issue. Curiously, I have written much more about 1856-O Double Eagles than anyone else.
These have brought prices over the past six years that are dramatically higher than the same coins were worth in the 1990s. While prices of most rarities rose considerably from 2001 to 2008, 1856-O and 1854-O Double Eagles have increased in value to a much greater extant than most other extremely rare coins. Indeed, many of these are now worth four to seven times as much as the exact same coins were worth twenty years ago.
In 2007, I wrote about the Spectrum-B&M auction of the Bains 1856-O. In 2009, I wrote about the Heritage auction of the specially struck ‘SP-63’ 1856-O for $1,437,500.
One leading researcher has suggested that more than twenty-five 1856-O Double Eagles exist. I disagree. At least sixteen are known, perhaps nineteen, no more than twenty-two.
The Littlejohn 1856-O is PCGS graded EF-45 and it sold for $276,000. It has never been sent to the CAC. A California dealer acquired it.
The Rubic 1856-O is also PCGS graded EF-45 and it brought this exact same $276,000 price when it sold in Oct. 2011. Doug Winter finds these two coins to be “comparable.”
Regarding the Littlejohn 1856-O, Winter states that it is “pleasing for the grade,[with] no serious problems, nice even wear.” I asked Winter to describe its color, Doug replies, “green-gold with a somewhat two-tone appearance … original and appealing.”
Kleinsteuber likewise asserts that the Littlejohn 1856-O has “nice even wear, no distracting marks, good skin, good color. My technical grade was 46; not really AU, maybe 45+,” Matt reveals. Kleinsteuber notes that the two Great Rarities, this and the 1854-S Quarter Eagle, “were two of the nicer coins in the sale.” Many of the coins in the Littlejohn Collection had serious problems.
As it seems to be roughly equivalent to the Rubic 1856-O, it is unsurprising that the Littlejohn 1856-O realized the exact same price, $276,000. The Rubic 1856-O sold at auction, however, three times during a period of less than three years. The Littlejohn 1856-O is very fresh. It has been the ‘off the market’ since the 1980s, or even earlier.
As I reported in August, a PCGS graded VF-20 1856-O sold for $184,000 in the Aug. 18, 2011 Rarities Night event in Illinois. Although it has a CAC sticker, I am not enthusiastic about this coin. Mark Feld liked it. He was a full time NGC grader during most of the 1990s. In my view, the $184,000 auction result was strong.
In Sept. 2010, Heritage auctioned a newly discovered 1856-O. It was then NGC graded ‘EF-45+.’ It sold for $345,000. Reportedly, a New York wholesaler bought it, possibly with a partner or two. Later, it was PCGS graded AU-50. This coin has an interesting, musky green-gold appearance. Unlike almost all surviving 1856-O Double Eagles, it has very few contact marks. It was never dipped. Overall, it has a very distinctive and entertaining appearance.
John Albanese points out that “two or more of the 1856-O twenties that are now graded AU are coins that used to be graded XF [Extremely Fine] and were dipped.” The Rubic, Littlejohn and newly discovered 1856-O Double Eagles may all be superior, in my view, to some of the 1856-O Double Eagles that are PCGS or NGC certified as grading AU-50 to -58. Indeed, these three are preferable, from my perspective, to the the NGC graded AU-58 1856-O that was auctioned in 2009.
IV. 1870-CC Eagle
The 1870 Carson City, Nevada Mint Eagle issue ($10 gold coin) is extremely rare. Published estimated of the number that exist have ranged from forty-five to eighty.
I emphasize that the grading counts published by the PCGS and the NGC include multiple submissions of some of the same coins and this is particularly true in regard to 1870-CC Eagles, where a small jump in a coin’s certified grade may result in a large jump in market value. It is probably feasible to pedigree most 1870-CC Eagles that are known, and it would be a good idea to do so. While a coin’s certified grade may change, its past history of ownership and auction appearances can serve to identify it over time.
David Akers remarks that a “strictly uncirculated” 1870-CC may not exist. The highest graded by the PCGS are two certified AU-55 1870-CC Eagles. The NGC likewise does not list an 1870-CC Eagle as grading above AU-55.
The Littlejohn 1870-CC is PCGS graded EF-45 and Doug Winter contends that it is undergraded. Kleinsteuber grades it as “AU-53+. It was really well struck, small issue on the back, great luster, light maybe from an old dipping, nice coin as a whole,” Matt states. According to Andy Lustig, the Littlejohn 1870-CC “is a beautiful, [relatively] original and solid coin.”
On Aug. 18, 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned the William Porter 1870-CC, which is NGC graded AU-50. While it seems very likely that the Littlejohn 1870-CC is superior to the Porter 1870-CC, I like the Porter 1870-CC, which is nice for a high grade Carson City Eagle from the 1870s. It is, though, questionably graded. It realized $57,500 in August.
The PCGS graded EF-45, Littlejohn 1870-CC went for $97,750, a startling price. The Numismedia.com retail value is $47,405 and the PCGS price guide value is $47,500, for this coin.
Kleinsteuber was willing to pay $75,000 and Matt thought that he “had a strong bid. Even if it upgrades to AU-53 or AU-53+, the [$97,750 result] was very, very strong,” Kleinsteuber declares.
It could be that the surface quality of this 1870-CC contributes to it being worth more than other 1870-CC Eagles that have been certified as grading from EF-45 to AU-53. It may score higher in the category of originality than at least one of the 1870-CC Eagles that has been certified as grading AU-55.
Although the 1854-S Quarter Eagle, the 1870-CC Eagle and the 1856-O Double Eagle were the most newsworthy, the Littlejohn Collection contained a large number of rarities of all gold denominations. This collection merits a place in the history of coin collecting.
©2012 Greg Reynolds