Coin Rarities & Related Topics: The PCGS list of U.S. coins & patterns valued at more than $1 million each

News and Analysis of scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #42

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds

On Feb. 15, the Professional Coin Grading Service announced an update of the “Million Dollar Coin Club,” a group of U.S. coins, pre-Federal pieces, and patterns, that are said to each be worth more than one million dollars. The first such grouping, “club,” was introduced about a year earlier. Herein, I refer to many of the pieces in the ‘club,’ including the most famous privately owned gold pattern, 1804 silver dollars, 1913 Liberty Head Nickels, Large Cents, 1822 $5 gold coins, and more. Additionally, I raise some issues regarding PCGS valuations. Also, I point to two unique U.S. coins that I maintain should be included.

The “Million Dollar Coin Club” is an intriguing and educational project, and I am glad that it was undertaken by the PCGS. To understand rare or at least scarce U.S. coins in general, it is necessary to learn about the greatest rarities and the reasons why these are important. The traditions and cultural concepts pertaining to the coin collecting community are, in part, reflected in interpretations of the greatest of rarities. Further, traditions and cultural concepts are partly reflected in the collecting of certain, very inexpensive, scarce coins, too. Please see my recent column on advice for beginners. The topic here, though, is the PCGS “Million Dollar Coin Club.”

About a month ago, I wrote about the U.S. coins that have been auctioned, or sold privately, for more than $2 million each.  I believe that my discussion of $2 million coins was much more detailed than any previous discussion of two million dollar coins or even of one million dollar coins. The PCGS “Million Dollar Coin Club,” however, is intended to serve a much different purpose. It is not meant to feature discussions of pedigrees or transactions. This PCGS project is about identifying and ranking the most valuable U.S. coins and patterns.

I. The PCGS “Million Dollar Coin Club”

Put simply, this PCGS project involves a compilation of a list of U.S. coins and patterns that are each worth more than $1 million; this list or ‘club’ includes many coins that have never been sold for more than $1 million. Indeed, some of the ‘million dollar’ coins in this grouping may never actually sell again. Some have never been sold at all, particularly those that were transferred from the U.S. Mint to the national coin collection, which is now part of the Smithsonian.

“There are 101 [specific] coin issues and 235 individual coins that now make up the Million Dollar Coin Club,” according to the PCGS, “193 are privately held.” The other ‘forty-two’ are in museums, mostly in the Smithsonian.

Laura Sperber is a member of the panel of experts who supply information to the PCGS regarding valuations of million dollar coins. Sperber states that this list of valuations “is as accurate as possible for something printed. There will always be coins that will go for much more and some for less.”

II. The Most Valuable Coins & Patterns

Curiously, the six most valuable pieces in the PCGS “Million Dollar Coin Club” are six gold patterns, five of which are in the Smithsonian. These are estimated to be worth from $8.5 million to $20 million each.

The lone privately owned piece in the top half-dozen is the famous, unique $20 gold pattern that features an obverse (front) design that is similar to the obverse design of the “Wire Edge” 1907 $10 gold pieces. A major difference is that this pattern has the word ‘LIBERTY’ in large letters in the region where the numerals of a year (‘date’) would be found on 1907 Indian Head Eagles ($10 gold coins). The reverse (back) of this pattern is similar to that of the regular issue Saint Gaudens $20 gold coin. Curiously, the year of issue (‘date’), 1907, in Roman numerals, is on the sun, which is another reason why this pattern is extremely distinctive.

This pattern is valued at “$15 million” by the PCGS, which seems high to me. Sperber reveals, though, that “I [Laura] know of two people who would buy [this pattern] for $15 million.” The popularity of Saint Gaudens $20 coins and the coolness of this particular design heavily contribute to its value.

It does not make sense to discuss here the gold patterns in the Smithsonian. The significance of each requires a long explanation. Besides, it is easier to analyze the values of coins that are owned by collectors.

In addition to the Eliasberg 1822 Half Eagle ($5 gold coin), the Carter-Contursi PCGS certified ‘Specimen-66’ 1794 dollar, the Childs 1804 dollar and the 1804 dollar in the ‘King of Siam’ Proof set round out the list of the ‘top ten’ in the PCGS “Million Dollar Coin Club.” I mention these three silver dollars in my column on Feb. 2nd. I refer to the Eliasberg 1822 Half Eagle again herein.

As the Childs 1804 dollar was auctioned for $4.14 million in 1999, it is certainly not far fetched to value it at “$7,500,000” now. After all, it is the finest known 1804 dollar. Besides, 1804 dollars are rarer and more famous than 1794 dollars. The Carter-Neil-Lustig-Contursi 1794 sold for the reported amount of ‘$7.85 million’ in May 2010. Though silver coins are well represented, most of the ‘members’ of the PCGS “Million Dollar Coin Club” are gold coins, including many Capped Head Half Eagles.

III. Two Unique 1797 Half Eagles

I first heard about the PCGS “Million Dollar Coin Club” at the Jan. 6, 2010 meeting of the 20th century gold club, which is a club comprised of people, not coins. David Hall, the primary founder of the PCGS, then discussed this project, which was new at the time. I then asked why the two unique 1797 Half Eagles ($5 gold coins) in the Smithsonian are not on the list. These were not added.

It is widely believed that these two coins are the only known survivors of two very different varieties of 1797 Half Eagles, each featuring the ‘heraldic eagle’ reverse design. These are not obscure or ambiguous varieties. It could be very fairly argued that at least one, probably both, should be granted the status of being a distinct ‘date,’ as the term ‘date’ is defined in the realm of coin collecting. (Regarding these two unique 1797 Half Eagles, see the Garrett-Guth or BD reference books on U.S. gold coins.)

Both of these 1797 Half Eagles have a normal date (and thus not an overdate) and a large or ‘heraldic’ eagle on the reverse (back). One has fifteen stars on the obverse (front). The fifteen stars, the heraldic eagle and the normal numerals are readily apparent. It is not a die variety that requires a magnifying glass to identify. Close inspection is required for the identification of most die varieties of U.S. coins, though not for this one.

The other unique 1797 Half Eagle in the Smithsonian is of the same design except that it has sixteen stars on the obverse (front).  The stars on the obverse are not obscure design details. These are readily apparent. This is a higher quality coin than the just mentioned unique 1797 with fifteen stars. Though I have never seen this coin, I have read and heard positive remarks about it. If it is imagined that this coin were offered at public auction in 2011, even though it certainly will NOT be so offered, there is no doubt in my mind that it would sell for more than $1 million. It is clearly an error for the PCGS to not include it as a member of the “Million Dollar Coin Club.”

It is very important that both of these two 1797 Half Eagles are unique. There exist three 1822 Half Eagles, and the PCGS values each of these at $5 million or more, values which are a little hard to believe. There are not a large number of collectors who seek to complete sets of Capped Head Half Eagles, which were minted from 1813 to 1834. Of all types of U.S. coins, the series of Capped Head Half Eagles is the most difficult to even 80% complete. Far more collectors demand Half Eagles dating from 1795 to 1807, or even Half Eagles of the Bust Left type that dates from 1807 to 1812. Even greater numbers of people collect silver coins and nickels.

IV. 1913 Liberty Nickels

The silver dollars of 1804, 1894-S dimes, and, course, 1913 Liberty Head Nickels are the most famous U.S. coins. All are represented in the PCGS “Million Dollar Coin Club.”

Of the five existing 1913 Liberty Nickels, two are owned by collectors, two are impounded in museums, and one is on a long-term loan to the ANA museum by a family, the Waltons, who inherited it. These five are valued, by the PCGS as follows, with PCGS grades or PCGS “estimated” grades in parentheses, Eliasberg (66) $4.5 million, Olsen-Hawn (64) $3.75 million, Walton (63) $3 million, Norweb-Smithsonian (62) $2.5 million, and Bebee-ANA Museum (55) $2.0 million.

As the Smithsonian 1913 has some issues, it could be fairly argued that the Bebee-ANA 1913 is more desirable despite the fact that it grades less than 60. The condition rankings of the Eliasberg, Olsen-Hawn and Walton coins are not controversial, though the precise numerical grades of these could be fairly debated. As long as the condition ranking is correct, however, it would not make sense to challenge the specific grades of any of the leading three 1913 Liberty Nickels, in my view.

In Jan. 2010, I covered the public auction of the Olsen-Hawn 1913 Liberty Nickel for $3,737,500. (Please click to read my report and analysis.) This price realized was higher than most all market participants and other experts expected.

In March 2007, Laura Sperber sold the Eliasberg 1913 Liberty Nickel to a collector for $5 million. Ron Gillio represented the collector-buyer. This transaction occurred well before markets for rare coins peaked in 2008. I am startled that the PCGS values the Eliasberg 1913 Liberty Nickel at only $4.5 million now, especially since the PCGS panel of experts is interpreting the $3,737,500 auction result for the Olsen-Hawn 1913 as a true market price, not an anomaly.

The Eliasberg 1913 Liberty Nickel is worth more than $5 million, if the other relevant values in the PCGS “Million Dollar Coin Club” are assumed to be true. Consider that the Eliasberg 1822 Half Eagle is valued at “$6 million”! For every collector who has even heard of the Eliasberg 1822 Half Eagle, there are more than a thousand who have dreamed of owning a 1913 Liberty Nickel. Also, estimates would be revealing, even in vague terms, of the number of people who have ever collected Liberty Head Nickels and the number of people who have collected Capped Head Half Eagles.

V. Half Cent and Cents

While 1804 dollars and 1913 Liberty Nickels are extremely famous, collectors may be surprised to find that there are nine copper coins in the PCGS “Million Dollar Coin Club.” In my column of Sept. 29th, I wrote about the 1943-D Lincoln Cent that sold privately for $1.7 million. Furthermore, I found its sale to be one of the Ten Leading Topics of 2010. All 1943 cents were supposed to have been struck in zinc coated steel as copper was then conserved for purposes relating to fighting in World War II. Only one copper 1943 Denver Mint cent is known to exist. Also, this 1943-D is the only Mint Error among the copper member of the “Million Dollar Coin Club.”

The Eliasberg 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent is overvalued at $1.75 million. A reliable source suggests to me that another gem quality coin of this issue is in a private collection. When I analyzed the auction of the Rouse 1796 ‘No Pole’ Half Cent for $345,000 in 2008, I estimated the value of the Eliasberg ‘No Pole’ at $1.2 to $1.4 million.

The other copper coins in the PCGS “Million Dollar Coin Club” are large cents from the 1790s. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to have seen all the copper coins on this list except perhaps the PCGS graded AU-58 1799/8 cent, which may not really be worth $1 million anyway. It is curious that the PCGS estimates of the values of most of the copper coins in the “Million Dollar Coin Club” have been substantially increased since last year.

The Mickley-Atwater-Naftzger 1793 Chain Cent is an absolutely incredible coin. It is just awesome. It is curious, though, that PCGS experts concluded that it was worth $2.2 million in Feb. 2010 and $3 million in Feb. 2011. It seems that a PCGS panel contends that this is the most valuable copper coin and that its value just increased by 36%! As much as I like this coin, I really wonder about these estimates.

Over the last twelve months or so, the highest certified 1793 Liberty Cap Cent is said to have increased in value from $1,250,000 to $1,450,000, an increase of 16%. During the same period, the CU-PCGS ‘key dates and rarities’ index went down, and, in my view, prices for very rare U.S. coins in general did not increase by much, if at all.

©2011 Greg Reynolds

About the Author:

Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a vast majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than two hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least fifty articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. For three years in a row, he has been the winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award of the NLG. Greg has also won NLG awards for individual articles, for a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site. Reynolds is available for private consultations: insightful10{a}gmail.com

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