Coin Rarities & Related Topics: The Dazzling Collecting Journey of Dr. Steven Duckor
News and Analysis on scarce coins, markets, and the collecting community #85
A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds for CoinWeek
If Dr. Steven Duckor currently owned a 1927-D Saint, he may have the all-time best set of business strike Saint Gaudens Double Eagles (U.S. $20 gold coins). His set will be auctioned by Heritage on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2012, during the FUN Convention, at the convention center in Orlando. On Monday, I will discuss specific Saints in his collection. The topic here is the collecting journey of Dr. Steven Duckor. I hope that many collectors learn from his experiences or at least find them interesting.
Dr. Duckor has been actively collecting for about forty years. He built the all-time best collection of Barber Half Dollars, and amazing collections of several other series. He has also been involved in counseling other collectors. Further, he has provided expert commentary regarding specific coins and issues of interest to the coin collecting community. Among living collectors who publicly reveal themselves, Dr. Duckor is one of the most accomplished and is probably the most sophisticated.
Steven Duckor started collecting coins when he was eight years old. He could not afford to buy gem quality pre-1934 coins until 1971 when Steve was actually earning a living as a medical doctor. He began collecting Saint Gaudens Double Eagles ($20 gold coins), which are commonly known as ‘Saints,’ in 1977.
In the early 1970s, Dr. Duckor acquired “Walkers, Buffalo Nickels, Mercury Dimes, Morgan Dollars, and Standing Liberty Quarters. I never collected copper,” Steve remembers. Further, he always collected business strikes, never Proofs. In 1972 or 1973, under the tutelage of a dealer from Massachusetts, Dr. Duckor began buying gem quality Buffalo Nickels and Walking Liberty Half Dollars. Duckor became an enthusiast for 20th century condition rarities; coins that are not rare overall, yet are rare in MS-65 and higher grades.
In Dr. Duckor’s mind, the ultimate condition rarities are gem quality, better-date 20th century U.S. gold coins. He “started 20th century gold in 1975 with $2½ and $5 Indians, followed by ten Indians in 1976. So, it was a natural move to start Saints in ’77,” Duckor recalls.
In 1980, Dr. Duckor met David Akers, “briefly at an auction in Cincinnati.” Duckor then knew that Akers had been “the underbidder for the 1920-S ten that [Duckor] bought at a Stack’s auction in New York in 1979. Akers was representing Kruthoffer from Kentucky. The 20-S Indian was the only nice one in the whole set of ten Indians [that Stack's was then auctioning]. The original receipt was given to Laura [Sperber] in 2007,” Duckor adds. Laura Sperber’s firm was the successful bidder for this finest known 1920-S Eagle in March 2007, on behalf of Simpson.
By 1980, Duckor was not entirely satisfied with the dealer who had been representing him at auction in the 1970s. One morning in October 1982, just prior to the Eliasberg gold sale, Akers and Duckor had breakfast at the same hotel in New York City. Duckor then asked Akers if Akers would represent Duckor at the Bowers & Ruddy auction of Louis Eliasberg’s U.S. gold coins. Akers agreed. Akers was the foremost expert in U.S. gold coins. Louis Eliasberg formed the all-time best collection of U.S. coins.
“For nearly thirty years, Dave Akers has been a great teacher. Now that Akers is semi-retired, Todd Imhof has been a trusted dealer for the last seven or eight years,” Duckor reveals. “If I did not meet Dave Akers, I would not have continued collecting coins.”
Although he was spending thousands of dollars annually on coins by the mid 1970s, Dr. Duckor “never thought of coins as an investment. Collecting coins is a hobby. It grew into a passion when I started collecting gold. It turned out to be a tremendous investment. I never had the intention of making money from coins. From the beginning, I bought coins that I liked. I sought to complete sets of the [series] that I like,” Duckor explains.
“My ten Indians were the original coins I bought it in the 1970s and 1980s. I did not upgrade them along the way. Even 75% of my Barber Halves were the original ones that I bought,” Duckor states. Please see the two part series on Dr. Duckor’s collection of Barber Half Dollars, which Heritage auctioned in August 2010 (part 1; part 2), and a discussion of a few Duckor Halves in my weekly column of Aug. 4, 2010. (As always, clickable links are in blue.) Many of Duckor’s halves exhibit spectacular natural toning.
In the 1980s, Dr. Duckor was concerned about being able to afford a 1927-D Saint. This is the most expensive business strike in the set. “Early in 1984, I got a phone call from David Akers. He told me that there would be a [high quality] 1927-D in Auction ’84” during the summer.
From 1979 to 1990, four auction firms banded together to hold a mega-auction every summer, with many excellent coins, prior to the annual summer ANA Convention. These were called ‘apostrophe auctions.’
Dr. Duckor was determined to acquire this 1927-D Saint. “I put my Walkers and Buffalo Nickels in Auction ’84 to pay for the 1927-D Saint,” Duckor states. “The Buffalo Nickels were phenomenal. I bought a lot of them from Ed Hipps and from [a Massachusetts dealer] from 1972 to 1984. My 1926-S was fully struck and [naturally] toned. I bought it from Ed Hipps,” Duckor remembers. Hipps was a noted specialist in nickels.
Dr. Duckor successfully acquired that 1927-D Saint. In 1989, when he first had his Saints graded by the PCGS, this 1927-D graded “MS-65.” Many years later, I examined this 1927-D. I honestly believe that the PCGS undergraded it during its first grading experience. Much later, it was, in fact, PCGS graded “MS-66,” and deservedly so. It is a terrific coin.
In August 1990, Dr. Duckor’s Indian Head Half Eagles ($5 gold coins) were offered in David Akers’ session of Auction ’90, the last apostrophe auction. Jay Parrino purchased several of them. Soon afterwards, Parrino persuaded Dr. Duckor to sell two of his prized Saints, for sums that were nearly unbelievable at the time, the Eliasberg 1921, which was PCGS graded “MS-65,” and a 1926-D, which was PCGS graded “MS-63.”
As his collections of Indian Head Eagles ($10 coins) and Saints were progressing slowly, Dr. Duckor looked for another series to collect. In the early 1990s, at the suggestion of David Akers, Dr. Duckor decided to collect gem quality Barber Half Dollars. Duckor bought many of the Barber Half Dollars that were in Akers’ personal collection.
Also in the 1990s, Dr. Thaine Price collected some of the same series that Dr. Duckor was collecting or had collected, all four series of 20th century gold and Barber Half Dollars, though Price collected Proof Barber Halves as well as business strikes. Dr. Duckor had met Dr. Price in 1988. At some point, Duckor introduced Price to Akers.
When Dr. Price decided to sell his collection in 1998, Dr. Duckor knew that Dr. Price had a tremendous collection of Barber Halves, including many that Dr. Duckor wanted. In order to pay for all the Barber Halves that Dr. Duckor wanted to buy from the auction of Dr. Price’s collection, Duckor suggested to Price that Duckor’s 1927-D Saint be placed in the auction of Dr. Price’s collection. After all, Price had a complete (or very nearly complete) set of business strike Saints, except a 1927-D. The inclusion of a 1927-D in the sale made this auction even more of an epic event.
With the proceeds from his 1927-D, for which Jay Parrino was the successful bidder, Dr. Duckor purchased more than thirty of Dr. Price’s Barber Halves on the night of May 19, 1998. The firm of David Akers auctioned Dr. Price’s collection during the same week that this same firm auctioned the second part of John Pittman’s collection, in Baltimore.
Of business strike 20th century gold and Barber Halves, Price’s sets are among the finest ever assembled. John Pittman had one of the twenty all-time greatest collections of U.S. coins in general, including one of the five all-time best collections of pre-1860 Proof U.S. coins.
Parrino was the leading trader of rarities during the 1990s. Saints were one of his specialties and he was eager to buy Dr. Duckor’s gems. In 2000, Parrino contacted Duckor and made incredible offers for a few of the Saints in Dr. Duckor’s collection.
“Jay Parrino made offers that I could not refuse. My family was growing. I was thinking about paying for my kids to go to college.” So, Dr. Duckor sold the following Saints to Parrino, here listed with PCGS grades in parentheses: 1908-D with motto (MS-67), ’09-D (MS-67), ’10 (66), ’12 (65), ’14 (65), ’20-S (66), ’22 (66), ’23 (66), and ’24-D (66). It seems that Parrino sold all of these to Philip Morse through an intermediary. In the 1990s, Parrino had sold rare date Saints to several different buyers.
At some point in early 2002, Dr. Duckor started buying Barber Halves again. David Akers then saw a phenomenal 1904 half and Akers arranged for Dr. Duckor to acquire it from the collector who owned it.
“In Oct. 2002, I flew to New York to get one coin, the Queller ’01-S [half]. It was the last date I needed for my Barber Half Collection. I bought it at the Stack’s Queller sale” of half dollars, Dr. Duckor relates. Also, “I met Stewart Blay for the first time at the Queller collection sale.” Blay and Duckor each assembled amazing sets of Barber Dimes. Stewart still has his set. Blay dabbles in Barber Quarters and Barber Half Dollars as well. Stewart recently sold a 1901-S quarter that is PCGS graded “MS-67+.”
In Oct. 2002, Dr. Duckor’s Barber Half set was complete and his set of Saints had been sharply reduced by the sales to Jay Parrino in 2000. Duckor was then planning to abstain from collecting for a while. On Aug. 13, 2003, however, Duckor’s collecting odyssey was changed by an e-mail, from Jay Brahin.
Dr. Duckor received an e-mail that said ‘from an admirer’ in the subject line. Duckor asked his wife whether he should ‘open’ this e-mail. She said, “go ahead, open it.” It was from Jay Brahin, who indicated that he was extremely impressed by Dr. Duckor’s PCGS registry sets and Brahin sought advice. “I started talking with Brahin. Within a month, I decided I would put my Saint Collection back together,” Duckor recalls. “I credit Jay Brahin for rekindling my interest.”
Jay Brahin remarks that he “still” has “a copy of our exchange. It was very meaningful to me. It became a watershed connection for Steve, too. We had a pretty amazing partnership that made us the best informed collectors of Saints in the country. We missed nothing!”
Brahin continues, “Steve Duckor went from mentor to good friend to best friend. He started going to shows again after we met.” Further, “I was all over the coin world hunting down stuff,” Brahin fondly remembers, “we shared information” and thoughts about coins. “I found coins for him and we consulted each other on everything. I would have a coin sent to me and I would photograph it and send it to him right away. I knew if I liked it or not, but his reaction was always important to me,” Brahin declares.
Soon afterwards, in 2004, Dr. Duckor also decided to start a set of Barber Quarters. So, he was working on sets of all three Barber denominations and Saints at the same time. For reasons unrelated to coins, he chose to sell his Barber Quarters in 2009, though the set was far from being complete. These were consigned to the Heritage pre-ANA Platinum Night event in Los Angeles.
Another landmark event in Duckor’s collecting odyssey occurred in late 2005. He was offered a gem quality 1921 Saint. He had sold the Eliasberg 1921 to Jay Parrino in 1990. “I never thought I would see another gem 1921 that I could afford. I had to have it,” Duckor exclaims. “I sold my Barber Dime Collection and I sold several ten Indians to come up with the finances.”
As I mentioned already, I wrote about Dr. Duckor’s Barber Half Dollar set, which was auctioned by Heritage at the August 2010 ANA Convention auction in Boston. His set was complete and he felt it was time for other collectors to have the opportunity to own his halves.
In early 2008, Dr. Duckor enlisted Jay Brahin and a Dallas area collector to found the 20th Century Gold Club. Meetings are held where experts give presentations and collectors discuss rare gold coins. I covered and analyzed the meeting that was held near the Jan. 2010 FUN Convention. The name and scope of the club has since changed though the ‘spirit lives on.’
In May 2011, Dr. Duckor “got an e-mail from John Albanese. He said that he was going to be in Los Angeles and would like to see my collection. John was very impressed with my coins. It was humbling,” Duckor relates. Steve realized that his set of Saints had been sitting in a bank vault for a long time. “Up until July when I handed it to Heritage, only ten people had ever seen my set.” So, Dr. Duckor decided that the set was as complete as it was ever going to be. He figured that it others should have the opportunity to see it and that collectors should be able to add some of his coins to their own respective sets.
“I am glad that I put it up for at auction at a time when Dave [Akers] was available to contribute to the catalogue,” Duckor emphasizes. While it was time to sell, “Akers’ contributions mean a great deal to me. The Norweb ’08-S is his favorite coin [in my set], his second is the ’27-S.”
Akers played a large role in Duckor’s collecting experiences. “Akers was Steve’s mentor and Steve was my mentor,” Jay Brahin emphasizes. A common thread in the Akers-Duckor-Brahin axis is a belief that rare or scarce U.S. coins should not be dipped, conserved, or otherwise modified. They stress the importance of originality. “When I saw Duckor’s set of Saints,” John Albanese states, “I was excited by the originality of many of the coins, neat copper spots, fiery luster, and [true] colorful toning.”
I wish to refer readers to my three part series on collecting naturally toned coins (part 1; part 3). Jay Brahin, Stewart Blay and Dr. Duckor all then contributed to my efforts to explain the inherent benefits of natural toning.
In a special edition of my column on Monday, specific coins in Dr. Duckor’s set will be discussed. As for Dr. Duckor’s collecting odyssey, it is not over.
©2011 Greg Reynolds