News and Analysis on scarce coins, markets, and the coin collecting community #56
A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds
The topic this week is a selection of the coins sold in the Heritage auction at the June Long Beach Expo in Los Angeles County. Over the last half dozen years, Heritage has conducted a few of the greatest coin auctions of all time. This was not one of them. Even so, there were some special, interesting and/or otherwise important coins in this auction.
I. Lincoln Cents
This auction contained a rather impressive run of high quality, early Lincoln Cents. Indeed, the offering of Lincolns was the most interesting part of this auction.
Like most coin collecting kids, I sought to assemble a set of Lincoln Cents. Though some issues are scarcer in MS-65 and higher grades, the 1909-San Francisco Lincoln Cent, with the initials VDB, is the most famous issue and commands the highest prices in circulated grades.
Victor David Brenner designed the Lincoln Cent and his initials appeared quite noticeably at the base of the reverse (back of the coin) for only a few months in 1909, before being omitted on later strikings of Lincoln Cents during the same year. A very much smaller VDB was added to the design of the obverse (front) in 1918.
When I was kid, I and many of my friends very much wanted a 1909-S VDB. While I also very much wanted a 1913 Liberty Nickel and an 1894-S dime, the 1909-S VDB was the most talked about coin among my friends and acquaintances. (As always, clickable links are in blue.)
Before I was eleven years old, I may not have ever even seen a 1909-S VDB penny. It was tough then to find them at coin shows. When dealers offered them, 1909-S VDB Lincolns sold quickly. At a show then, a 1909-S VDB cent might be in a dealer’s display case for a couple of hours at most.
So, it captured my attention that Heritage offered twenty, yes twenty, 1909-S VDB Lincolns in the June 2011 Long Beach auction. Seventeen came on the block in a session where floor bidders were present and three in a non-physical session. I read the catalogue after I briefly viewed lots. I admit that I did not see any of the 1909-S VDB cents in this auction. I wish that I had.
An NGC graded Very Fine-25 1909-S VDB sold for $920, and an NGC graded Very Fine-30 coin brought $948.75. A PCGS graded Extremely Fine-40 1909-S VDB cent garnered $1159.20.
I am a little concerned that a series of six, uncirculated 1909-S VDB cents that were deemed ungradable by the NGC brought from $1150 to $2070. These were probably cleaned, artificially colored or otherwise chemically modified. My guess is that some of the bidders were thinking about doctoring, or further doctoring, these coins for the purpose of deceiving graders at the PCGS or the NGC into awarding numerical grades to ungradable coins. It is also true, however, that the grading services sometimes erroneously interpret natural color as being artificial.
An NGC certified MS-64 Brown 1909-S VDB sold for $2013.65, less than one of the 1909-S VDB pennies that the NGC found to ungradable. Indeed, this ungradable ‘improperly cleaned’ 1909-S VDB, lot #3101, sold for exactly the same price as another 1909-S VDB that the NGC certified ‘MS-64 Red & Brown,’ $2070. (Please see my recent column on Collecting Two Cent Pieces for a discussion of Brown, Red & Brown, and Red color designations for copper coins.)
Unsurprising, those 1909-S VDB cents that were certified as grading 65 or higher brought substantially more than other 1909-S VDB Cents. There were three in this auction, all PCGS certified, a ’65 Red & Brown’ 1909-S VDB sold for $4025, a ’65 Full Red’ for $4600, and a ’66 Full Red’ for $10,925. As I have not seen these, and I have not discussed them with any expert who has seen them, I will not comment further upon them here.
I suggest that collectors of high quality Lincolns buy a variety of less expensive coins, with all three color designations, before acquiring an uncirculated 1909-S VDB or one of the other relatively more expensive issues in the series. Interested collectors should acquaint themselves with the varying appearances of uncirculated Lincoln Cents.
In this same auction, a 1912-Denver Mint cent that is PCGS certified ‘MS-66 Full Red’ realized $9200. Though this point is not mentioned in the physical ‘print’ catalogue, it is stated on the Heritage website that this coin has a sticker of approval from the CAC. In the views of at least two experts at the CAC, the grade of this 1912-D cent is in middle or high end of the 66 range and it merits its ‘red’ designation from the PCGS. Another 1912-D, with the same PCGS certification and a CAC sticker, did not sell and was available, after the auction, for “$9775.”
Interestingly, in this auction, there were two 1915-S cents that are each NGC certified ‘MS-65 Red & Brown.’ Neither has a CAC sticker. The first, lot #3123, brought $3220 and the second, lot #3124, went for $1725. In general, two coins with the same exact certifications from the same service may be very different. This is especially true of uncirculated copper coins.
A particularly newsworthy result is $11,500 for a 1940 Lincoln Cent that is PCGS certified ‘MS-68 Red.’ This exact same coin realized $8050 in an auction that was held in December 2008. I was then startled when I learned of that result.
For a ‘MS-68 Red’ 1940 cent, the PCGS price guide value is $6500 and the Numismedia.com value is $8940. I find these guide values to be unfortunate and the price realized for this coin to be illogical. John Albanese remarks “that $11,500 would be a reasonable price for a bag of five thousand gem 1940 pennies.”
Lincoln Cents of 1940 are very common. Literally, more than a half a billion were minted. On occasion, a 1940 Lincoln cent may be found in change. Just two weeks ago, I received a 1944-D Lincoln Cent in change, and 1944-D cents are almost as common as 1940 cents.
In 2010, Heritage auctioned a PCGS certified ‘MS-66 Red’ 1940 cent for $30. This price is justifiable by the cost of PCGS certification and is perhaps a fair deal. The PCGS has certified more than fifteen hundred 1940 cents as ‘MS-66 Red’ and nearly two hundred as ‘MS-67 Red.’ Moreover, there are hundreds of thousands of 1940 cents in existence. There probably exist original rolls of ‘red’ uncirculated 1940 cents. In my opinion, collectors should think carefully about paying more than twenty dollars for a 1940 cent. Please see my two part series on 1933/34 being the dividing line between classic and modern U.S coinage (part 1; part 2).
In this auction, a 1955 ‘Normal Dies’ cent, lot #3135, sold for $5220! According to Albanese, “this price doesn’t make sense from a value standpoint. I feel strongly that collectors may suffer horrific losses from this type of purchase,” John says.
A 1955 ‘Normal Dies’ Lincoln Cent is very common. In contrast, the 1955 Doubled Die variety is relatively very scarce and is often collected ‘as if’ it were a distinct date.
Collectors generally include both a ‘normal’ 1955 and a 1955 Doubled Die cent in sets of Wheat Cents or of post-1934 Lincoln Cents. The 1955 Doubled Die is famous and, traditionally, has a large following. In this auction, there were several of them, which ranged in price from $1552.50 for an ungradable one to $5175 for a 1955 Doubled Die that is PCGS certified ‘MS-64 Red & Brown’ and has a CAC sticker. An NGC graded AU-50 1955 Doubled Die cent realized $1840. I contend that $1840 is a much better value for that coin than $5220 is for any 1955 cent that was struck from normal dies. The 1955 Doubled Die issue has much more significance in the culture of coin collecting than any other wheat cent minted after 1944.
II. 1926-S Lincoln Cent
While the 1909-S VDB is the scarcest Lincoln Cent in circulated grades and the 1914-D may be the scarcest in grades of MS-60 and higher, the rarest in MS-64 and higher grades (with ‘Red’ designations), other than the 1922 plain variety, is probably the 1926-S. A 1926-S is not hard to find in lower grades. Finding one that is PCGS or NGC certified as ‘MS-64 Red’ is a whole different matter.
In ‘MS-64 Red,’ the PCGS has certified sixty-seven 1926-S Lincoln Cents, which probably amounts to twenty different coins. After all, the NGC has certified just ten. Dealers frequently ‘crack out’ coins and resubmit them in hopes of receiving higher grades. There would be a tremendous amount of profit to be gained by upgrading a 1926-S Lincoln Cent from ‘MS-64 Red’ to ‘MS-65 Red.’
While the NGC has certified two as ‘MS-65 Red,’ the PCGS has certified just one! Zero 1926-S cents have been certified as grading ‘MS-66′ or higher. The PCGS, though, has certified twelve as ’65 Red & Brown’ and one hundred and fifty as ‘MS-64 Red & Brown.’
I suggest that collectors of uncirculated Lincolns consider acquiring a 1926-S that is ‘Red & Brown’ or just ‘Brown,’ rather than one that is designated as full ‘Red.’ A nice mid range ‘MS-65 Red & Brown’ 1926-S could probably be acquired for a price below $6000. A MS-64 Red & Brown 1926-S that I would find appealing could be found for less than $3000.
Some collectors will only be satisfied with copper coins that are designated as being full red. So, the certified grade of this PCGS MS-64+ Red 1926-S is important. The PCGS price guide values it at $12,000. I was a little surprised that it sold for $46,000.
Heritage auctioned the one PCGS graded MS-65 Red 1926-S for $106,375 in Dec. 2008 and for even more, $149,500, in Jan. 2006. So, someone who is or was unable to obtain that 1926-S may have felt compelled to acquire the only one that is currently PCGS graded ’64+ Red.’
Stewart Blay informs that this PCGS graded “64+” 1926-S is the same as a 1926-S that Heritage auctioned in Boston in August 2010, which was then NGC graded ‘MS-64 Red.’ The sets of images on the Heritage website do seem to match. Blay is a recognized expert in small cents, and he has assembled the all-time greatest collection of Lincoln Cents.
If Blay is correct, and I believe he is in this regard, this same coin realized $13,800 in August 2010 and $46,000 in June 2011. Plus grades were introduced by the PGCS in March 2010 and began to be employed by the NGC in May 2010.
Some collector are under the impression that, if a PCGS or NGC certified coin with a plus grade has a CAC sticker, the CAC is agreeing with the respective plus grade. This is not true; the topic of CAC and ‘high end’ coins requires an explanation.
The CAC does not approve or reject plus grades. Instead, CAC experts focus only upon the whole numerical grade and then reach a decision as to whether each submitted coin is in the middle OR high end of the range of the already certified grade. If CAC experts find that the grade of a submitted coin is the in the low end of the range of the grade that is already assigned by the PCGS or the NGC, or if CAC experts believe that the coin has been doctored, then the submitted coin is not CAC approved.
The CAC has approved five of those 1926-S Lincolns that have been certified ‘MS-64 Red’ by the PCGS or the NGC. This 1926-S that is PCGS certified MS-64+ is one of those five. The CAC is NOT openly distinguishing a grade in the high end of the 64 range from a grade in the middle of the 64 range.
There is no doubt that $46,000 is a high price for this PCGS certified ‘MS-64+ Red’ 1926-S. The lone PCGS certified ‘MS-65 Red’ 1926-S may not, however, be available for a long time and/or may rise in price. It is likely, though, that at least two more certified MS-64 Red 1926-S cents will eventually upgrade to 64+.
III. 1880 Nickel
In a recent column on Three Cent Nickels, I pointed out that, for some dates in the Three Cent Nickel series and for some five cent nickels, business strikes are worth significantly more than Proofs that have been assigned the same respective numerical grades. I then provided arguments as to why collectors should think carefully about paying much more for a business strike over a Proof. I will not repeat those points here. A nickel in this Heritage auction, however, relates directly to my approach to this topic.
According to the PCGS price guide, a Proof-64+ 1880 Shield Nickel is worth $475 and a Proof-64+ Cameo is worth $535. A business strike, PCGS graded MS-64+ 1880 Shield Nickel is worth much more. Indeed, the one in this Long Beach auction realized $51,750, around one hundred times the value of a corresponding Proof of the same date and grade.
As the Heritage cataloguer makes clear, this coin is definitely not a Proof. There are, though, a few 1880 Shield Nickels that are certified as being Proofs yet are not much different, in sharpness, surface characteristics and texture, than this coin.
Q. David Bowers enlisted “consultants” to contribute to the section on 1880 Shield Nickels in his book on “Shield and Liberty Head Nickels” (Whitman, 2006). “Most consultants agree that some Proofs have been certified as circulation strikes,” QDB says, “but the quantity cannot be large” (page 121).
In my view, the opposite is true. A significant number of business strikes have been certified as Proof 1880 Shield Nickels. Consider that QDB points out that many, or is he saying all (?), 1878 Shield Nickels do not meet widely accepted criteria for being Proofs (p. 116). I, this writer, suggest that there are more than a few 1880 Shield Nickels that do not fulfill such criteria either. Quite a few high grade 1880 nickels have frosty luster, incomplete or non-existent mirrors, devices that slope into the fields, and not particularly impressive strikes.
“Only two obverse dies were produced for 1880, and both were used intermittently,” state QDB and his consultants, for business strikes and Proofs. Therefore, a Proof and a business strike may be of virtually the same die state and an analysis of die characteristics will not determine whether a coin is a Proof or business strike.
A true Proof, in my view, has to possess strong characteristics of a Proof. It cannot just have reflective surfaces or mirrored edges. Consider reading my articles on a Proof 1876-CC Dime and a Proof 1907-D Double Eagle. (As before, clickable links are in blue.) My immediate point here is that, although the MS-64+ 1880 Shield Nickel in this sale is definitely not a Proof, it just does not make logical sense for it to valued at some one hundred times as much as otherwise equivalent coins that are certified as Proofs. Much more research and analytical reasoning is needed to enable coin enthusiasts to consistently distinguish Proof from business strike Three Cent Nickels and Shield Nickels.
Also, I have seen this nickel. I am very accepting of the MS-64+ grade. I would not be surprised if the NGC graded it as ’65.’ Moreover, it is an attractive coin that is cool in some ways. This coin has a little natural toning. For the most part, it features lustrous, unusual surfaces that are of a natural, soothing texture. It is an interesting coin that is well worth inspecting with a magnifying glass. Yes, some other 1880 Shield Nickels are very similar to this one. Overall, there is something unusually distinctive about the surface features of a significant number of Shield Nickels from this time period, especially including this one.
IV. Liberty Seated & Barber Coins
This sale contained notable selections of Liberty Seated and Barber coins. Unfortunately, I only had a chance to view a few of these coins and no one of them is all that newsworthy at the moment.
An NGC graded “MS-67” 1897-O dime sold for $10,350. It did not bring a strong price, possibly because the assigned “67” grade is highly debatable and/or because it has been very apparently dipped. A PCGS graded “MS-65+” 1897-O, with a CAC sticker, brought $4312.50, which is a moderately strong price. The price guide values for this issue are a little above market realities.
One of the most curious varieties of Liberty Seated coins is the 1854-‘Huge O’ quarter. A very large mintmark was ‘cut by hand’ in a die. This ‘Huge O’ does not look like any other ‘O’ mintmark on U.S. coinage. This variety is very scarce. One that is NGC graded Very Fine-30 and has a CAC sticker realized $3881.25.
One of the finest known 1875-CC quarters fared well in this auction. It is one of three that are PCGS graded MS-65. Further, it has been approved by the CAC. Its toning is definitely natural and is appealing. In my view, the price realized of $43,125 is strong.
Yes, ANR auctioned this same coin for $32,200 in 2005. Markets for Liberty Seated coins were more dynamic in 2005 than they are now. Markets for scarce or rare silver coins continue to be healthy and stable, while being relatively quiet. Over the last year, prices have increased for rare gold coins. Please see my column on price changes so far in 2011.
I saw only a few of the large number of gold coins in this auction. I had seen some of the others before. An NGC certified “Proof-62 Cameo” One Dollar gold piece is significant. Very few Type Two gold dollars have been certified as Proofs. It brought $126,500, a healthy price.
Quarter Eagles ($2½ coins) of 1808 are very important as these are rare one-year type coins. An 1808 that is NGC graded “AU-58” sold for $92,000. While I am not completely comfortable with the assigned 58 grade for this coin, this coin is attractive in its own way. It may be difficult to find one that is much better. Certainly, I have seen many other 1808 Quarter Eagles that have worse imperfections than this coin has.
A 1795 Half Eagle ($5 coin) that is NGC graded “MS-64” went for $184,000. I saw it. The consignor of this coin should be happy with the result.
In this auction, one of the most impressive gold coins that I did see is an 1841 Dahlonega (Georgia) Mint Half Eagle. It is NGC graded MS-63 and has a CAC sticker. It is extremely difficult to find a choice uncirculated 1841-D Half Eagle and here is one. It is has only been lightly cleaned. Most Dahlonega Mint gold coins have been moderately to heavily cleaned or have been subject to worse treatments. This coin was sharply struck on a nice planchet (prepared blank). Original coppery areas remain and add to the charm of the coin. It is exceptional for the 1841-D issue and for a certified MS-63 Dahlonega Mint Half Eagle of any date. This coin is well worth its selling price of $27,600.
There were three scarce 1881-O Eagles in this auction. If I ever saw any of the three, I do not remember at the moment. This issue is very popular with collectors.
An NGC graded AU-58 1881-O sold for $5462.50, a strong price. A PCGS graded MS-60 coin, with a CAC sticker, went for $8625, another strong price. An NGC graded MS-61 1881-O Eagle was formerly owned by Louis Eliasberg who formed the all-time greatest collection of U.S. coins. It realized $17,250, a very strong price, possibly due to the Eliasberg pedigree. In a column earlier this year, I discuss the reasons why some coins realize strong prices at auction. (Please click to read it.)
There were other desirable Eagles in this auction, including a few better date Indian Head Eagles. Though there was a wide selection of Liberty Head Double Eagles, this auction will not be remembered for Liberty Head or Saint Gaudens Double Eagles.
There are many 19th century gold coins that are not rare in circulated grades, yet are rare in grades in the 55 to 62 range. An example is the 1858-S Double Eagle. There were three in this auction. A PCGS graded “AU-55” 1858-S sold for $3220 and an NGC graded “AU-58” coin brought $4887.50.
A PCGS graded “MS-61” 1858-S is more valuable than the other two. The PCGS has assigned a higher grade to just one 1858-S Double Eagle. This coin realized $11,500.
There were significant groups of patterns and territorials. An 1855 Wass Molitor $20 coin is fairly said by the NGC to be ungradable. It is still a collectible coin that is historically important. It went for $12,075, which is a strong price for an ungradable Wass Molitor twenty.
This auction also contained a Wass Molitor $50 gold coin. It is NGC graded “AU-50” and had fewer problems than I expected it to have. It is more desirable than many of the other surviving Wass Molitor fifties. The price realized of $48,075 is fair.
Given that this auction consisted mostly of coins from anonymous consignors, many of whom were dealers, and contained few coins with stated pedigrees, the results were strong overall. Though not exciting, this auction was successfully conducted.
©2011 Greg Reynolds