Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #188
A Weekly Column for CoinWeek by Greg Reynolds
The emergence of an original gold Proof set from 1912 is a major event, as all “Matte Proof” gold issues are rare and a majority of the survivors are not very original. Many collectors, researchers and other coin enthusiasts are or will be excited to learn that such a set was auctioned at the autumn Long Beach Expo.
This third Long Beach Expo of the year was held at the Long Beach Convention Center in the county of Los Angeles. This event was open to the public from Sept. 26th to Sept. 28th. Heritage conducted the official auction while this expo was in progress, though some non-live sessions remained open for bids after the Expo closed. Although Heritage auctioned thousands of coins and other numismatic items, the focus here is on a a set of gold coins that probably has been held by members of the same family since this set was acquired directly from the Philadelphia Mint in 1912.
Sandblast “Proof” U.S. gold coins, with original surfaces, are extremely rare. Further, these represent a fascinating and path breaking period in the history of the Philadelphia Mint. With very few exceptions, all sandblast “Proof” U.S. gold coins were minted from 1911 to 1915, and in 1908. Sandblast finish coins are now typically termed “Matte Proofs” and these gold coins were termed “Proofs” when distributed by officials at the Philadelphia Mint.
A gold “Proof” Set of 1912 consists of four coins: Quarter Eagle ($2½ gold coin), Half Eagle ($5 gold coin), Eagle ($10) and Double Eagle ($20). The Half Eagle and the Eagle are PCGS certified as “Proof-66.” The Quarter Eagle and the Double Eagle are PCGS certified “Proof-66+.” All four coins have stickers of approval from the CAC.
Experts at the CAC ignore the plus aspects of plus grades assigned by the graders at the PCGS or the NGC. Therefore, all four are approved at the MS-66 level and experts at the CAC are not revealing which of the four, if any, they find to merit grades in the ‘high end’ of the 66 range.
John Albanese is the founder and president of the CAC. Views of Albanese, Richard Burdick and Andy Lustig are included in this discussion.
I. When Were “Matte Proofs” Made?
For series of copper, ‘nickel’ and gold coins that started, though not necessarily ended, between 1907 and 1930, Proofs were not struck with brilliant, mirrorlike surfaces. Instead, different forms of special strikings were produced. From 1907 to 1916, specially struck coins were sold (or otherwise distributed) to collectors and non-collectors as “Proofs,” even though they are much different from coins that were termed Proofs in earlier eras.
There were sandblast finish, Roman Finish and satin finish special strikings from 1907 to the 1920s, and maybe in the 1930s as well. I am not convinced of the authenticity of the special aspects of commemorative half dollars from 1930s that have been catalogued as and/or certified as sandblast “Matte Proofs,” though I recollect having only seen a very small number of them.
Sandblast finish, Roman Finish and satin finish special strikings are much different indeed in fabric and texture from Proof U.S. coins of the 19th century. The terms matte, Roman, satin and sandblast have never been carefully defined. Generally, gold coins dating 1908 and dating from 1911 to 1915 that were then (and are now) termed ‘Proofs’ have a sandblast finish. Although I regard the term ‘Sandblast Finish’ as accurate and most appropriate, I follow the lead of most experts over the last few decades in that they refer to each such sandblast finish coin as a “Matte Proof.’
As for the Roman Finish gold coins and patterns of 1907, 1909 and 1910, these are a different topic, which I will discuss in the future. In the current discussion, the term “Matte Proof” refers to sandblast finish gold coins of 1908, of 1911 to 1915, and perhaps a very small number with other dates. “Matte Proof” Lincoln Cents, Buffalo Nickels and Peace Dollars are also a different topic.
Sandblast Finish (“Matte Proof”) gold coins were sprayed with pellets, presumably of sand, while the metal was still hot. Coins with a similar finish were struck in some European nations during the late 19th century and/or early 20th century. To a significant extent, U.S. Mint officials followed the lead of Europeans, in regard to producing “Matte Proofs,” though European “Matte Proof” coins tend to differ from U.S. “Matte Proof” coins. The methods of manufacture were not entirely the same.
As most major coin auctions include at least a couple of sandblast finish “Matte Proof” U.S gold coins, why are the 1912 “Matte Proof” gold coins that Heritage sold on Sept. 27th very newsworthy? A truly original set of “Matte Proof” U.S. gold coins is of tremendous importance.
II. Few Originals Survive
For more than twenty years, I have been examining Sandblast Finish (“Matte Proof”) gold coins that appear in major auctions, including those in epic sales and many in minor auctions. The number of very much original pieces has dwindled at a shocking rate. The vast majority have been dipped in acid solutions, torched, subjected to additives or chemically altered. Quite a few have been resurfaced (‘rematted’) by coin doctors. Only a minor percentage of the PCGS or NGC certified Sandblast Finish, “Matte Proof” U.S. gold coins are close to being fully original.
John Albanese is extremely knowledgeable about these: “A lot of Matte Proof coins have been dipped. When a 19th century Proof gold coin is dipped, there is usually more contrast between the design and the fields, afterwards. On a dipped, [sandblast] Matte Proof gold coin, there is less contrast than there was before it was dipped. The dipping removes much of the contrast. Some Matte Proof coins are placed in solutions that are harsher than typical dips. Jewel Luster is a typical dip. The harsher solutions usually [bring about] an unnatural color much lighter than the original color,” John emphasizes.
Andy Lustig asserts that “less than 20% of the sandblast Matte Proof gold coins seen in the marketplace have their original surfaces and color. Each year [of mintage] has a very distinctive color, a very distinctive look. If you saw a series of Matte Proof gold coins put away at the time of issue, that would be obvious, and you would quickly learn what to expect in an original coin. Today, given the scarcity of original coins, it is far more difficult to learn the lessons. Recognizing originality in Matte Proof gold coins is becoming a lost art.”
Richard Burdick declares that “the colors of the sandblast finish not only vary from year to year, the colors sometimes vary within a year. They vary from deep hues of yellowish gold to brown, orange-brown and green-brown. It is impossible to totally describe the original colors,” Burdick insists. David Akers also made clear, in his published writings, that original colors sometimes vary for sandblast Matte Proofs of the same date (year).
I note that that original Matte Proof gold coins are often of a mustard color, in many instances like the color of Gulden’s Spicy Brown mustard and, in other cases, similar to the color of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard. Matte Proof gold coins may also be of a brown-green color or sort of a blend of brown and olive. Other original colors are a medium mellow yellow color or a dark orange-green. Mellow or dark orange colors may stem from natural, coppery areas on a “Matte Proof” coin. Rich orange or light blonde colors that are often seen on Matte Proof gold coins have been artificially induced.
As Richard indicates, such original colors are hard to explain. Unfortunately, photographs and other images of Matte Proof gold coins do not accurately portray their actual colors, in most cases.
It is sad that there are only a few of us left who can (usually) identify original colors. Nobody has even a near-perfect record when determining the originality of Matte Proof gold coins. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to do so and leading experts often fail.
Albanese is the foremost expert in U.S. gold coins. Andy Lustig has been carefully studying Matte Proofs for around thirty years. Richard Burdick is very familiar with the original colors as well.
“I started to study Matte Proof gold coins in 1969,” Richard recollects. “I got very deeply involved with them in 1973 when I viewed the Matte Proof gold coins in the Garrett Collection at Evergreen House in Baltimore. They were, for the most part, unmolested. When they were lined up in a tray, I got to notice the different colors.” Burdick agrees that “original, unmolested Matte Proof gold coins are getting scarcer as time goes by, because of dipping, cleaning, so called conservation practices, and abuse in a multitude of ways by coin doctors.”
Andy Lustig “started buying and selling Matte Proof gold coins in the early to mid 1980s, before the PCGS was founded. When I saw many original Matte Proof gold coins more than twenty years ago, I noticed that most of them had shiny contact marks or breaks in the matte finish. This was the primary focus in grading the coins. Coin doctors came to address these grade limiting ‘shiny spots’ by stripping and/or resurfacing the coins. This was at the cost of ‘originality and, especially, the correct color of the coin, but the coins tended to grade higher that way.”
Albanese has “seen rematted Proof gold coins. They are difficult to identify.” Like Andy, John emphasizes that “original Matte Proof coins tend to have more inconsistencies in color and may have shiny spots.”
Lustig states that “shiny spots and orange [coppery] spots are encouraging signs when determining the originality of Matte Proof gold coins.” I agree.
I recommend that collectors tend towards “Matte Proof” gold coins that have inconsistencies in color, dark spots, shiny spots and/or coppery areas. Of course, original coins may be overgraded or may have other problems. It is important to consult experts, though, sadly, some experts will gladly sell, without explanation, certified Matte Proof gold coins with very much unnatural color and/or extensively modified surfaces.
III. Original 1912 Set
Evidently, this set of 1912 “Matte Proof” Gold coins had hardly been touched since being acquired from the Philadelphia Mint in 1912. Indeed, sources suggest that it may very well have been owned by the same family from 1912 to 2013, for more than a century!
“During the winter, this guy calls me out of nowhere,” John Albanese recollects, “from somewhere in upstate New York, and tells me that he has a 1912 Proof set of gold coins. He said that the coins had been in his family for decades. I was skeptical. I was concerned that they may be Chinese-made forgeries or severely cleaned, genuine coins.” Albanese did not buy this set and did not handle its placement as an auction consignment.
Eventually, this set of four 1912 “Matte Proof” coins was consigned to Heritage. Albanese did not see them until they were later submitted to the CAC, after they were PCGS certified. John was “pleasantly surprised” when he saw these coins.
This consignment did not include any other rarities, though did include a few modern coins. The name of the family that owned the set has not been publicly revealed.
IV. 1912 $2½ Gold Coin
The PCGS certified “Proof-66+” 1912 Quarter Eagle in this set sold for $41,125. As already mentioned, all four coins in this set are CAC approved. I have not seen them. This a moderate price, maybe slightly strong.
In Jan. 2012, Heritage auctioned a PCGS certified “Proof-66” 1912 Quarter Eagle, which, like this one, has a CAC sticker. That 1912 sold for $29,900. This 1912, though, in addition to being extremely fresh and original, is the only 1912 Quarter Eagle that is PCGS certified “Proof-66+.” Seven are certified as “Proof-66” and three are PCGS certified as “Proof-67.”
Certified Proof 1911 Quarter Eagles are worth almost as much as certified Proof 1912 Quarter Eagles. Over the last five years, five PCGS certified “Proof-66” 1911 Quarter Eagles have been auctioned for less than $30,000 each. Certified Proof 1913 Quarter Eagles are worth a little more than equivalent certified Proof 1912 Quarter Eagles. In Nov. 2010, Spectrum-B&M auctioned a PCGS certified Proof-66 1913, with a CAC sticker, for $34,500.
Because this 1912 has a ‘plus grade’ and so few certified Matte Proof gold coins are graded 66+, it is particularly difficult to figure a market price level for this coin, especially since its originality and freshness should be worth a substantial premium. (Please see a past article, What Are Auction Prices.) For $41,125, this 1912 is a very good deal, in comparison to prices for other sandblast “Matte Proof” Quarter Eagles.
V. 1912 $5 Gold Coin
The PCGS certified and CAC approved “Proof-66” 1912 Half Eagle sold for $58,750. This auction result is somewhat strong, a price in the low end to middle of the retail price range. The PCGS price guide retail value of “$75,000” is a little high, an over-estimate.
Heritage auctioned another PCGS certified and CAC approved “Proof-66” 1912 Half Eagle, in Oct. 2012. That one sold for $49,937.50, though I am not sure that it scores as high as this one in the category of originality.
“Matte Proof” Half Eagles of 1911 and of 1913 are worth about the same as corresponding Half Eagles of 1912. In Aug. 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned the Eliasberg 1911 Half Eagle, which is also PCGS certified and CAC stickered, “Proof-66.” I saw it. My notes in 2011 regarding this coin consist of four words, “fabulous, just indescribably cool!” The Eliasberg 1911 brought $46,000 in Aug. 2011.
Even if market levels for these are a little higher now, the $46,000 price then was slightly weak and the current price of $58,750 for a different coin, with the same certification and CAC approval, is somewhat strong. Both coins were fresh and from non-dealer consignments.
VI. 1912 $10 Gold Coin
The PCGS certified and CAC approved “Proof-66” 1912 Eagle in this set sold for $94,000. In Oct. 2012, Heritage auctioned a PCGS certified “Proof-66” 1913, without a CAC sticker, for $82,250. The 1912 and 1913 “Matte Proof” issues of Eagles are worth about the same.
In Nov. 2010, Stack’s auctioned a PCGS certified and CAC approved “Proof-66” 1913 Eagle for $80,500. It, too, came from a non-dealer consignment, the “W. L. Carson Collection,” which had been ‘off the market’ for many years.
As for the 1912 that is part of the set being discussed, $94,000 seems to be a strong price for it. I wish I had seen this coin.
VII. 1912 $20 Gold Coin
The PCGS certified “Proof-66+” 1912 Double Eagle in this set sold for $164,500. These are rare. Although the PCGS CoinFacts site estimates that there are forty-nine, I suggest that not more than forty survive. Some of the same coins have been resubmitted multiple times to the PCGS for grading.
The PCGS certified“Proof-66” 1912 that Stack’s-Bowers sold in March 2013 for $117,500 is the same as the the PCGS certified “Proof-67” 1912 that Heritage sold on Aug. 9, 2013 for $211,500. I saw it in March 2013. I was not thrilled about the coin; the color just seemed too uniform and it had more of a beige tint than I would expect on “Matte Proof” 1912 Double Eagles. Further, the relief of the devices is far from optimal. I was not sure about that coin. I am a little surprised that it was upgraded from 66 to 67 by the PCGS.
There are high resolution images of both coins and the other PCGS certified “Proof-66+” 1912 Double Eagle on the PCGS CoinFacts site. My hunch is that this one is more desirable than the other that is PCGS certified “Proof-66+.” Moreover, this one is likely to be preferable to the just mentioned piece that is PCGS certified as “Proof-67” and was recently in a holder with a PCGS “Proof-66“ certification. It is probably true that this $164,500 auction result, for the “66+” coin from an original set, is both a fair price and a good deal for the buyer.
©2013 Greg Reynolds