Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Prize silver dollars in the Hesselgesser Collection
News and Analysis on scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #55
A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds
Dr. Robert Hesselgesser assembled one of the all-time most complete collections of regular issue, bust silver dollars. On Monday, May 30th, the firm of the Goldbergs auctioned Hesselgesser’s set of bust silver dollars at the Beverly Hills Crowne Plaza Hotel.
Business strike bust dollars date from 1794 to 1803. A few Proofs, including 1804 dollars, were minted much later, though these are a different topic. Proof bust dollars could not have been produced before 1834. Starting in 1794, bust dollars were made for circulation. Indeed, 1794 silver dollars are among the most famous and sought after of all U.S. coins.
Hesselgesser’s 1794 dollar is tentatively reported to have realized $575,000, though this amount is not confirmed, as of my deadline for this column. Regardless of whether it sold for $575,000 or not, this coin is terrific looking, is traditionally famous, is historically important, and is ‘in the news.’
A $575,000 price would not be surprising for a PCGS graded AU-58 1794 dollar, with a CAC sticker of approval. It would be a fair price in the current market climate. The most surprising result in this auction was the sale of Dr. Hesselgesser’s AU-58 1798 Small Eagle dollar for an astonishing price of $356,500! I have confirmed this price with the buyer.
I. A Set of Bust Dollars
According to the PCGS Registry, Dr. Hesselgesser’s bust dollar “collection contains 107 of the known 118 varieties, many of which are the finest known.” Additionally, Dr. Hesselgesser’s collection is the second “All-Time Finest Basic Set” of bust dollars and, before May 30th, it was the first “current finest – Basic Set.” For the PCGS “Early Dollars with Major Varieties and Silver Plug” set, likewise, Dr. Hesselgesser’s set is the second “All-Time Finest,” behind the Cardinal Collection, and, until now, the first “Current Finest.” The bust dollar collection of the Cardinal Educational Foundation was auctioned by ANR on June 30, 2005, in New York City. I covered that event for Numismatic News, a weekly newspaper.
Martin Logies is the founder and curator of the Cardinal Educational Foundation, which attained nationwide fame about a year ago. This foundation acquired the Neil-Carter-Lustig-Knoxville-Contursi 1794 dollar for a reported price of “$7.85 million.”
In the PCGS Registry categories that pertain to comprehensive sets of die varieties of bust dollars, Hesselgesser is the only entrant. It is very difficult to collect bust dollars by die variety and I would not suggest even attempting to do so. A simple set of widely recognized issues is a sensible goal. I object to the PCGS usage of the term ‘Basic Set.’ A set of widely recognized varieties of bust dollars, those that are distinct dates or those that are collected ‘as if’ they are distinct dates, is an intermediate to advanced, not a ‘basic,’ undertaking, in my opinion.
Flowing Hair bust silver dollars were minted for only two years, 1794 and 1795. Some Draped Bust silver dollars also bear the ‘date’ 1795. There are four dates of Draped Bust obverse (front), Small Eagle (reverse) silver dollars, 1795, 1796, 1797, and 1798. From 1798 to 1803, Draped Bust silver dollars were produced with a Heraldic Eagle reverse (back design), which is also called the ‘Large Eagle’ reverse design.
Yes, silver dollars may have been produced in 1804. If so, these were dated 1803. The silver dollars that are dated “1804” could not have been minted before 1834 and really constitute a different topic. Please see my recent column on coins that are worth more than $2 million and my column last summer on a Proof 1804 Eagle. (As always, clickable links are in blue.)
As some die varieties of bust dollars are very rare overall, and many varieties are very rare in high grades, Hesselgesser’s set was amazing in that so many of his scarce-variety silver dollars grade from AU-50 to MS-64. Die varieties, however, are often complicated. A magnifying glass, and a significant amount of time, is needed to understand many particular die varieties.
Collectors considering a collection of bust dollars should keep in mind that only three coins are needed for a type set. A 1794 or ’95 Flowing Hair dollar, a (1795 to ’98) Draped Bust Dollar with a Small Eagle reverse (back), and a (1798 to 1803) Draped Bust Dollar with a Heraldic Eagle reverse. After obtaining representatives of these three types, a collector may feel the urge to complete a set of bust dollars.
II. Hesselgesser 1794 dollar
The silver dollars of 1794 have become legendary. This was the first year that the U.S. Mint produced silver dollars. Logies estimates that around one hundred and forty 1794 dollars survive. Other estimates have ranged from one hundred and twenty-five to one hundred and seventy-five. I doubt that there exist more than one hundred and fifty.
According to Logies, the Connecticut-Cardinal-Hesselgesser 1794 dollar is the ninth finest known 1794 dollar. From 1926 to 1983, it resided in the Connecticut Historical Society. It was then auctioned by the firm of Bowers & Merena. I believe that it was on display at the Superior Galleries table during the 2004 ANA Convention in Pittsburgh. By that time, it had been in the Cardinal Collection for a while. It was offered on Jan. 11 2005 in a Superior Galleries auction in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I then had the opportunity to carefully examine it. I was very impressed.
In 2005, I noted that this 1794 dollar has a very pleasing look with definitely natural, even toning. Brownish russet and tan shades are neatly balanced by soft gray hues, along with patches of green and greenish-blue colors. There are a few light hairlines, which are barely noticeable. Overall, this 1794 dollar is more than very attractive.
In Dec. 2005, the Connecticut-Cardinal 1794 was acquired by Robert Hesselgesser, M.D., who was then best known as a famous collector of British and Russian coins. Since 2008, Hesselgesser’s set of bust dollars has been on display at several major coin conventions.
I have seen seven of the nine 1794 dollars that grade AU-58 or higher. I have a clear recollection of six of them. I have never seen the Jimmy Hayes 1794, which has been graded MS-66 by both the NGC and the PCGS. I have heard a lot about it from experts who have seen it. Also, I have never seen the Willing 1794, which is, or was, NGC graded MS-60, according to Martin Logies.
I wonder if the Hesselgesser 1794 ranks higher than the ninth place that it is assigned by Logies in his condition ranking in 2004. It is certainly more attractive than the Earle-Atwater-Bass 1794, which is currently certified as grading “MS-61” or “MS-62” and may not be truly uncirculated. It was said to grade “AU-58 to MS-60” when offered by B&M in the Bass I sale in 1999.
Yes, the Hesselgesser piece has more U.S. Mint caused imperfections than the Earle-Bass and Willing 1794 dollars. When round blanks contained too much silver, that is exceeded specifications relating to weight and silver content, U.S. Mint employees ‘adjusted’ them by scraping metal off until the weight of the blanks was in compliance with the then prevailing standards. Evidently, the blank that was to become the Hesselgesser 1794 dollar weighed quite a bit more than it was supposed to weigh. So, there are numerous ‘adjustment marks’ as much metal was scraped off, with knifelike tools, prior to striking.
All 1794 dollars were struck with a coining press that was designed for smaller coins and did not fully strike the outer portions of each 1794 dollar. Therefore, adjustment marks near the borders are more likely to be pronounced on 1794 dollars than on other bust dollars. Adjustment marks became much less noticeable on silver dollars struck months or a few years later. Additional presses, which were better suited for dollar size coins, provided more forceful impressions of the design elements in the outer areas of bust dollars.
When I viewed the Hesselgesser 1794 dollar, the adjustment marks were not very bothersome to me. The attractiveness, blend and depth of this coin’s toning perhaps cannot be captured well with a camera and the adjustment marks are more noticeable in images than they are when the coin is seen in actuality.
Importantly, the Hesselgesser 1794 dollar does not exhibit any very apparent signs of ever having been dipped or ever having been moderately to heavily cleaned. Sure, there are a few hairlines. Almost all bust dollars have been at least lightly cleaned at one time or another. The surfaces of this coin are mostly original, though, and its toning is definitely natural. The Hesselgesser 1794 dollar probably has been properly stored for decades. It is a great coin.
III. 1798 Small Eagle
All 1798 silver dollars feature a Draped Bust obverse (front) design. There are 1798 dollars with the ‘Small Eagle’ reverse and 1798 dollars with the ‘Heraldic Eagle’ reverse. After the 1794, the 1798 ‘Small Eagle’ is the rarest ‘date’ in the series. In the field of coin collecting, the term ‘date’ is ambiguous. A coin’s ‘date’ does not only refer to a year; there may be two or more silver dollars of the same stated year that are collected as separate ‘dates’!
If the 1795 Flowing Hair Dollar, with two leaves rather than three leaves under the eagle’s wings, is collected as a separate date, it could be argued that it is relatively scarcer than the 1798 ‘Small Eagle’ dollar, in some grade ranges. There are, though, two different obverse (front) sub-designs of 1798 dollars with the ‘Small Eagle’ reverse, one with fifteen stars and one with thirteen stars.
If a collector chooses to acquire two leaves and three leaves varieties of 1795 Flowing Hair dollars, then the same collector would be logically compelled to seek at least two different varieties of 1798 ‘Small Eagle’ dollars as well, thirteen stars and fifteen stars obverses. The point here is that the 1798 ‘Small Eagle’ is very scarce, and relatively scarcer than all the other recognized ‘dates’ in the regular bust dollar series, except the 1794.
In Fine-12 grade, a 1798 ‘Small Eagle’ can be found for less than $5000. A nice AU-50 grade piece, however, may cost more than $25,000. In AU-58 and higher grades, only a few are known.
Dr. Hesselgesser had one of the best 1798 ‘Small Eagle’ dollars. Actually, he had more than one. I am referring here to the one, with thirteen stars, that is PCGS graded AU-58, and has a CAC sticker. It has great natural toning and pleasant surfaces.
Martin Logies is a widely recognized expert in die varieties and individual histories of bust dollars. Regarding the Hesselgesser 1798 with ‘Small Eagle’ reverse and thirteen stars obverse, Logies states:
“The level of quality of this coin is superb. In all likelihood, the coin never actually circulated. However, the combination of the high-point strike weakness (due to the heavily cracked, late state of the reverse die) and ‘cabinet friction’ gives the suggestion of wear. Nonetheless, the coin is far superior to those few other specimens of the variety that were also graded AU-58. I have closely examined the PCGS MS-61 specimen, and I do consider that coin to be somewhat finer than the Cardinal-Hesselgesser PCGS AU-58 coin. That particular coin realized $230,000 at auction a few years ago, while still in a PCGS AU-58 holder.”
A PCGS graded AU-58 1798 Small Eagle, thirteen stars dollar was auctioned by Heritage for this amount in August 2007. It must be the one to which Logies is referring.
Martin adds that the PCGS graded MS-61 1798 Small Eagle is firmly held in a private collection in the Southwest. I have additional reasons to believe that this is true.
In May 2011, the PCGS price guide values the “MS-61” 1798 ‘Small Eagle’ at “$140,000” and an AU-58 grade coin at a lower level. At Numismedia.com, Hesselgesser’s 1798 Small Eagle, with thirteen stars, is estimated to be worth “$169,000.”
Are the editors of the price guides aware that Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded AU-58 for $230,000 in 2007? Do they believe that demand for these has fallen considerably since 2007 or that this $230,000 result was an anomaly? I guessed that the AU-58, CAC approved, Cardinal-Hesselgesser 1798 Small Eagle, thirteen stars, would realize around $190,000 this week, $225,000 at most.
It is relevant that the Cardinal Educational Foundation, under Logies’ direction, also formerly owned the PCGS graded MS-62 1798 Small Eagle with fifteen stars. A collector bought it in 2005. “In early August 2010, the coin was re-submitted to PCGS and was re-graded as MS62+.” Martin adds that “the MS62 listing in the PCGS population report is a duplicate,” meaning the “MS-62” and “MS-62+” listings for the same coin.
Logies concludes that “there are only two PCGS certified ‘mint state’ 1798 Small Eagle dollars, and both are impounded in long-term collections. So, to the current collectors” participating in the auction of Hesselgesser’s dollars, “this AU-58 coin represented the single best 1798 Small Eagle dollar that would ever be available to them,” Martin declares.
Personally, I was stunned by the result, $356,500! Even Logies acknowledges that “$356,500 is a very substantial sum for such a coin”! Martin maintains, though, that, after this sale, “an offer of even $500,000 might not acquire a 1798 Small Eagle dollar of equal quality.”
The buyer of the Hesselgesser 1798 Small Eagle, thirteen stars, PCGS graded AU-58 bust dollar was not physically present at the auction. He is a sophisticated collector. I discussed his purchase with the buyer. This collector indicates that he is assembling a set of bust dollars. He does not wish for additional information about his purchases to be revealed at this time.
IV. 1795s with a Silver Plug
Dr. Hesselgesser had four 1795 Flowing Hair dollars that each contain a silver plug. As already discussed, when a blank was overweight, it was scraped, leaving ‘adjustment marks.’ Usually, underweight blanks were melted. In some instances, though, when a blank was underweight, a silver plug was added so that it reached an acceptable weight.
These four with a silver plug are of different die varieties. It seems that all (or almost all) of Dr. Hesselgesser’s bust dollars are in PCGS Secure holders. Please click to read my columns on the SecurePlus program (part 1: part 2).
An “AU-53” coin, lot #868 and variety BB-13, realized $74,750. The dollars in the next two lots also contained silver plugs. A ‘two leaves’ reverse variety (BB-13) is graded “AU-55” and has a CAC sticker of approval. It is reported to have brought $46,000. Again, I point out that all the current auction results cited in this column, except the $356,500 price, cannot be verified by time of publication and are subject to change. An “EF-40” grade 1795 dollar with a silver plug, offered as lot #870, is listed as having sold for $21,850.
The most newsworthy of the four with a silver plug is graded “AU-58” and has a CAC sticker. This coin, of variety BB-18, was formerly in the Cardinal Collection. I first saw it when it was auctioned in 2005. There is no reason to be confused by BB varieties. Even those who collect bust dollars by ‘BB’ variety usually have to ‘look up’ the varieties in a reference guide. I have not memorized any BB varieties, though I am sure that Logies has done so.
On May 30th, this “AU-58” graded 1795 Flowing Hair dollar with a silver plug was offered as lot #872. It has even medium gray and light brownish-russet tones, with blue areas, and exhibits minimal contact marks. The plug is prominent.
While I found the silver plug to be curious, and the coin to be likable overall, I was surprised when it brought $66,700 in 2005. The Goldbergs staff estimated that it would bring from $80,000 to $90,000 this time. I am startled by the reported result of $138,000!
Logies has some insights relating to this coin. Of the 1795 Flowing Hair dollars that each have a silver plug, Martin has “personally examined” all that have been PCGS or NGC graded AU-53 or higher. He points out that, in relation to those that grade AU-58 or higher, there are multiple counts of some of the same coins in the data published by the PCGS and the NGC. For example, “the two PCGS MS-64 listings represent the same coin. That coin was submitted for grading several times, first grading MS-63, and then MS-64, twice,” Logies reveals. Also, “the PCGS MS-65 coin is one and the same as the NGC MS-66PL.”
The topic, at this moment, is the Hesselgesser 1795, with a silver plug, that is PCGS graded AU-58. Logies asserts that it “and the NGC AU-58 coin are also one and the same. I purchased this coin for the Cardinal Collection in 2001, in the NGC AU-58 holder, and I had it crossed to PCGS,” Martin recounts.
In sum, Logies holds that this Cardinal-Hesselgesser coin “is untied as the third finest known 1795 Flowing Hair dollar with a silver plug.” Martin emphasizes that the NGC graded MS-61 1795 Flowing Hair Dollar with a silver plug is “NOT superior to” this coin. “I was offered the NGC MS-61 coin for the Cardinal Collection as a possible upgrade to the PCGS AU-58 piece, and I rejected it,” Logies remembers.
In Logies’ view, the $138,000 price for this coin is explained in part by the fact that the two higher quality, pertinent 1795 Flowing Hair Dollars, each with a silver plug, are in a collection that will not be sold in the near future. I admit that I was not aware of this fact and I have not been able to confirm it. I still maintain that $138,000 is a very strong price for this AU-58 grade 1795 Flowing Hair dollar, even with a silver plug.
V. Other Bust Dollars
There are just too many important dollars in the Hesselgesser collection to list here. Each did not realize a fortune. An attractively toned 1800 silver dollar brought $3220. It is PCGS graded Very Fine-35, is in a relatively new ‘Secure’ holder, and is one of the highest quality coins of its particular die variety (BB-188). The coins mentioned in this column are special and unusual. There are many, pleasant, naturally toned bust dollars available for much lower prices.
©2011 Greg Reynolds