A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #101
Last week, I wrote a preview of the Stack’s-Bowers Rarities Night event that was conducted on Thurs., March 22, in Baltimore. It is now time to review some of the results. This week, I cover half dollars.
I. Flowing Hair Half Dollars
The most expensive early half dollar in this sale was a 1795 that is NGC graded “MS-63.” It went for $63,250 to a floor bidder. For this specific coin, this result is a very strong price.
In 2009, two other NGC graded “MS-63” 1795 halves were auctioned for $48,875 and $57,500, respectively. It is possible, though very unlikely, that this one is superior to both of those. I was not expecting this one to realize even $52,500.
U.S. Half Dollars were first minted in 1794, and there were three 1794 halves in this event. An NGC graded VF-20 1794 sold for $17,825. It was formerly in the “Joseph Thomas” Collection and Heritage auctioned it for $23,000 in April 2009. In my view, the amount of $17,825 is more than it should be worth. This coin has problems. This is another strong auction result.
The following 1794 half was a better value. It is in a PCGS Genuine holder that has the details of an Extremely Fine grade coin. “The surfaces were eaten,” Jim McGuigan finds, “not much original surface left; detail wise, a pretty sharp coin.”
For an early U.S. coin that is not gradable, it is very attractive. I like the russet tones. A gradable EF-40 1794 has a retail value of around $40,000 and would be likely to sell for at least $30,000 in a major auction.
This not gradable 1794 sold for $10,350, an amount that a gradable VG-10 or Fine-12 1794 half may bring at auction. Is this a good deal? It is very hard to gauge the value of a non-gradable coin, though I believe that many collectors would be very happy to buy this one for $10,350.
Jim McGuigan thinks otherwise. “More knowledgeable collectors want basically problem-free, gradable coins. Ungradable coins are becoming less and less desirable,” McGuigan asserts. Jim is a long-time specialist in pre-1840 U.S. coins.
The third 1794 half in this sale is NGC graded AU-53. Its value has been dropping in recent years.
In Feb. 2009, the firm of Ira & Larry Goldberg auctioned this exact same coin for $49,450. In March 2011, Heritage sold it for $48,875. Last week, it brought $46,000.
Two likely reasons for the drop come to mind. First, it has become stale. For a coin to be ‘fresh,’ it must have been ‘off the market’ for at least five years. On average, fresh coins fare better at auction.
Secondly, since the overall macro-economic downturn of mid to late 2008 and early 2009, which was accompanied by only a mild downturn in rare coin markets, buyers have focused more on the characteristics of coins and have placed relatively less weight on each coin’s certified grade. Certainly, four to ten years ago, there were more buyers who blindly accepted certified grades. Now, many more buyers seek opinions in addition to those already indicated by the PCGS or the NGC.
Jim McGuigan remarks that this 1794 half has “been [moderately] cleaned at some point. It is on its second toning and [is] gradable.” Jim is particularly concerned about the many adjustment marks on this coin, which were present before the coin left the Philadelphia Mint.
I find the NGC grade of AU-53 for this 1794 half to be acceptable, more or less. Yes, it has numerous adjustment marks and other U.S. Mint caused imperfections. It has been lightly to moderate cleaned and moderately dipped in the past. Repeating Jim’s point, “it is on its second toning.” In my view, it seems to be naturally and normally re-toning. It is just not an attractive representative of this issue. If it had better eye appeal and surface quality (which is distinct from details and wear), it would have sold for more than $52,500 during at least one of its three relatively recent auction appearances.
There were four 1795 Flowing Hair Half Dollars in this event. Flowing Hair Half Dollars were minted in 1794 and 1795, a two-year type.
A PCGS graded Extremely Fine-45 1795 failed to sell. The reserve placed the minimum bid in the retail price range, $10,350. Had this coin been offered unreserved or with a reserve of $7,000 or so, it may have sold for $10,350 or more. It just did not make sense to start bidding at $10,350.
A 1795 that is NGC graded MS-61 did sell, for $25,875. Evidently, it is one of the finest known of its die variety, among those struck from the same pair of obverse (front) and reverse (back) dies. Collectors of die varieties, however, usually focus on circulated coins. Those who buy early U.S. coins that grade above MS-60 tend to be collecting ‘by date’ or ‘by type,’ rather than by die variety. There are, of course, exceptions to such rules.
Though I just glanced at this coin, I did not find any serious problems with this coin. McGuigan did not either. Though Jim declares that it should grade below 60, I am accepting of the 61 grade. Moreover, it is dull. It has been moderately dipped and is somewhat awkwardly, naturally retoning. Furthermore, it has plenty of adjustment marks, which are scrapes made by U.S. Mint employees before the coin was struck. Adjustment marks are very common on pre-1808 coins.
This exact same NGC graded MS-61 half was offered in July 2008 in a summer ANA auction by Heritage. It did not sell, though I would need to know the reserve then to form an opinion as to why it did not sell in July 2008. According to a cataloguer at Heritage, this same coin was in an auction by Superior Galleries in May 2005. Therefore, it is not fresh. It has been publicly offered three times in seven years, twice in three and a half years.
My hunch is that the NGC graded MS-61 1795 that Heritage auctioned in April 2009 is a more appealing coin, or at least was perceived to be more appealing than the presently discussed coin by leading bidders for this kind of coin. While that 1795 half is of a different variety, each is in the ‘Two Leaves’ category and each is among the finest known for its respective die variety. In April 2009, that one sold for $31,050.
The $25,875 price for this NGC graded MS-61 1795, on March 22, 2012, is moderate, neither strong nor weak. I would not have expected it to sell for more, unless die variety specialists fervently bid well beyond the levels that date and type collectors would be willing to pay.
As for the NGC graded AU-55 1795 half that did not sell, it is very difficult to form a hypothesis regarding its value. It is of a rare die variety and only three obverse dies, among many, for 1795 halves feature the so called ‘Small Head.’ Collectors often collect a ‘Small Head’ 1795 half as if it is a distinct ‘date’ or subtype. Was the reserve of $28,750 for this ‘Small Head’ 1795 reasonable? More research is needed regarding the rarity and collector demand for ‘Small Head’ 1795 Flowing Hair Half Dollars.
II. Capped Bust Half Dollars
There were no Draped Bust Half Dollars offered during this Rarities Night event. There were several Capped Bust Half Dollars.
The 1808/7 overdate in this auction is NGC graded MS-64. Matt Kleinsteuber likes this coin, “nice coin, original, fairly graded, over-reserved.” Jim agrees with Matt’s point about this coin’s originality. McGuigan finds that this coin “is on its first toning,” and thus has never been dipped.
Kleinsteuber “bid $12,650. It was reserved too high,” Matt says. A commitment of at least $14,375 would have been required to buy it. Most market participants would agree that this reserve was unreasonable.
In August 2011, Heritage auctioned an 1808/7 half that some relevant dealers regard as being better than this one, for $12,650. That 1808/7 is PCGS graded MS-64 and has a CAC sticker.
There were two 1809 Capped Bust halves in this sale. These are extreme condition rarities in grades of MS-65 and higher.
The first is PCGS graded MS-65 and has a sticker of approval from the CAC. The price realized of $24,725 is very strong. I was expecting a price in the range of $16,000 to $18,500.
While this 1809 is not the most eye appealing, certified MS-65 Capped Bust Half Dollar that I have ever seen, its surface quality is impressive. This coin’s toning is natural and pleasant.
The NGC certified MS-66* 1809 brought substantially less than the PCGS graded and CAC approved MS-65 1809, $19,550 versus $24,725. This NGC graded 1809 has an NGC awarded star for extra eye appeal and it is pedigreed, on the holder, to [Phil] “Kaufman,” a famous and accomplished collector. Actually, $19,550 is a strong price for this coin, as it does not really merit a grade of MS-66, in my view.
After this NGC certified MS-66* 1809 was in the collection of Phil Kaufman, it was owned by the collector known as “Joseph Thomas.” When Heritage auctioned the bulk of the Thomas collection in April 2009, this coin realized $14,950, a fair price at the time. I expected it to sell for around $16,750 in 2012.
The 1815/2 overdate is a key date in the series of Capped Bust Half Dollars. The NGC graded AU-58 1815/2 in this sale went for $13,225. McGuigan “bought it.”
The 1831 half in this sale is PCGS graded MS-65. It was offered without reserve and realized $9775. Mark Feld likes this coin, which he found to be “accurately graded and appealing.” Further, Feld “felt that its quality was mid to high end for the assigned grade.” In my view, its grade is closer to the ‘low end’ of the MS-65 range, though Mark has more experience grading coins than I have. Feld was a full time grader for the NGC for many years, and, before returning to self-employment, he worked as a grader for some leading coin dealers.
After the event, I determined that this exact same 1831 half was auctioned by Heritage in March 2010 for $5750. It was then NGC graded MS-65. Some dealers profit by buying coins in NGC holders and then ‘crossing’ them into PCGS holders. It is also true that dealers often lose money by failing to ‘cross’ coins into PCGS holders. In this case, someone profited.
Regardless of whether this coin is in a PCGS or an NGC holder, $9775 is a strong price for it. Certified MS-65 1831 halves are not that hard to find. In Sept. 2009, Stack’s auctioned a different PCGS graded MS-65 1831 for $6325. In June 2010, Heritage sold another one for $8912.
There are 1834 ‘Large Date’ and ‘Small Date’ issues, where the term ‘date’ refers in this context to the numerals in the year 1834. The 1834 ‘Large Date’ issue may be subdivided into two varieties, ‘Large Letters’ and ‘Small Letters’ reverses. I suggest that such differences in the sizes of the letters on the reverses are not ‘major’ and are ignored by most collectors.
There was an 1834 ‘Small Date’ in this auction, which is NGC graded MS-67. While it has some pleasant natural toning, it is overgraded. A true MS-67 grade 1834 half would have a wholesale value of at least $27,000 and a retail value somewhere between $32,500 and $45,000.
This 1834 sold for $19,550. When Heritage auctioned the exact same coin in April 2009, as part of the “Joseph Thomas Collection,” it brought this exact same price. In April 2005, this same coin sold for $18,400, in a B&M auction. Several coins that were in the April 2009 “Joseph Thomas Collection” Heritage sale were offered in this Stack’s-Bowers Rarities Night event on March 22, 2012
III. Reeded Edge, “Bust” Halves
There are three “Capped Bust” Reeded Edge Half Dollars in this Rarities Night event. Although the design of these does feature a ‘Capped Bust’ of Miss Liberty, coins of this type should not be called Capped Bust Half Dollars, as they are not part of the generation of ‘Capped Bust’ coins that includes half dimes, dimes, quarters and halves.
Frequently, the Capped Bust Half Dollars of 1807 to 1836 are distinguished from those of 1836 to 1839 by referring to the former as ‘Lettered Edge’ halves and the latter as ‘Reeded Edge’ halves. While it is true that the former have lettered edges and the latter have reeded edges, these are really two different design types. There are many other differences. Even, imaginatively, if the half dollars of 1807 to ’36 and those of 1836 to’39 had the same kind of edges, these two series would still be different design types. A distinctive name is needed for the type of 1836 to 1839.
The 1837 half in this sale is NGC graded MS-65. Bidding did not reach its reserve. A commitment of $12,075 was required.
For coins that are scarce or moderately rare, auction prices are expected to fall around the borderline between the upper part of the applicable wholesale price range and the lower part of the retail price range. For this 1837 half, $12,075 would be close to such a borderline, which is impossible to precisely pinpoint.
Dealer-bidders, and some collectors, are repelled when bidding starts at a level in the middle of the range that they would expect bidding to reach. They feel that they are denied the opportunity to buy some coins at weak prices or to see if respective market prices have fallen. A bidder may also feel more comfortable when others show their willingness to pay similar amounts for the item on which he or she is bidding.
The 1838 half in this sale is also NGC graded MS-65. There was no reserve. It sold for $10,350, which may be the amount that the 1837 would have realized had it been allowed to sell. My guess is that the PCGS would not grade either this or the just mentioned 1837 as MS-65. Furthermore, I do not believe that this certified MS-65 1838 would be approved by the CAC. The $10,350 result may well have been strong.
In last week’s column, I devoted a section to the NGC certified ‘Proof-63’ 1839-O Reeded Edge Half Dollar in this auction. It sold for $92,000 on March 22nd. This is a weak to moderate price. It is a really neat item, yet there are a small number of collectors who would truly appreciate its special characteristics, some of which are subtle.
IV. Liberty Seated and Barbers
This Rarities Night event contained one Liberty Seated Half Dollar, an 1882 that is PCGS certified Proof-67. It sold for $8050. In Proof, it is one of the more common issues of the ‘With Motto’ type. Business strikes of 1882 are slightly better dates, though not scarce. Nonetheless, a mid range to high end Proof ‘With Motto’ half would sell for more than $8050.
In my view, this coin’s grade is a ‘low end’ 67 and the $8050 result is strong. I drew this conclusion before I realized that this is the “Malibu Collection” coin, which Stack’s-Bowers auctioned in Tampa in Jan. 2011 for $7475.
In Aug. 2011, Heritage auctioned the Stokeley-Haynor 1882, which is also PCGS certified Proof -67 for this same price, $8050. I did not see that one, though it is a more famous coin than the Malibu 1882.
There were three Barber Half Dollars offered during Rarities Night, two Proofs and one business strike. An 1895 is PCGS certified ‘Proof-68 Cameo’ and has a sticker of approval from the CAC. I was not overwhelmed by it. Most experts, though, would probably accept the assigned grade of 68. Plus, it almost qualifies for a Deep Cameo designation. It has only been very light dipped. Further, it definitely grabs the attention of the viewer. I have seen so many Superb Proof Barbers, however, that I am not as thrilled about them as I used to be
The reserve was at the $23,000 level, a price well into the retail range. A reserve of such height deters bidders. If there had been no reserve, this coin would have had a fair chance of selling for $23,000. The SBG website suggests that, after the auction, it sold for $22,425. If so, the consignor agreed to lower his reserve. It is not unusual for coins to sell after a ‘live’ session ends, sometimes two or three days later.
The 1899 in this sale was a much better value at $7762 than the 1895 at more than $22,000. This 1899 is NGC certified ‘Proof-67 Cameo’ and is CAC approved.
I like this 1899. It is a true and cool, ‘black & white’ Proof that perhaps has never been dipped. The $7762 result would be a good value for a collector.
The 1901-S half did not sell. A bid of more than $40,000 would have been required to buy it. In essence, the auction house did not fail to sell it. A grading service mistakenly overgraded it. Graders missed marks on the face and neck of Miss Liberty, and contact marks near the fourth star. Indentations on her cap should be noted as well. It just did not make sense to grade this coin as “MS-67.” This is a significant condition rarity. If this 1901-S really did grade MS-67, then it would have sold for more than $50,000.
V. A Walker and a Franklin Half
The lone Walking Liberty Half Dollar in this event did not sell either. It is a 1919-D half that is PCGS graded MS-64. I like the fact that it has nice natural toning. Most uncirculated Walkers have been dipped to the point that they have a standard white appearance, with very unnatural brightness. This 1919-D scores very high in the category of originality. As is typical for this issue, portions of Miss Liberty are weakly struck. The reserve of $25,300 was not much too high, though it was aggressive.
In Nov. 2005, B&M auctioned a different PCGS graded MS-64 1919-D Walker for $29,900. This exact same coin, however, was sold by B&M in the August 2006 ANA Auction in Denver, for $18,400.
Regarding very choice to gem quality, 20th century U.S. coins, there were many more collectors building sets during the 2005 to early 2008 period than there are in 2012. I am referring to conditionally rare, very Choice to gem Walkers, Lincoln Cents, Buffalo Nickels, Standing Liberty Quarters and Washington Quarters. Many of these were valued at higher price levels during the late 2005 to early 2008 period than in 2012, so far.
As I indicated in last week’s column, I like the PCGS certified ‘Proof-67 Cameo’ 1950 Franklin Half Dollar in this auction. It is likely that I am not the only one who likes it. It realized $12,075, a strong price. It would be an excellent addition to a type set or a date set.
Overall, the run of half dollars in this sale was not fabulous. There were, though, some excellent coins. Furthermore, regarding several coins, consignors set reserves that were too high. Next week, I will discuss other silver coins, probably dimes or quarters, and some copper coins in this sale.
©2012 Greg Reynolds