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Understanding the Auction Record For an 1894-S dime

by Greg Reynolds for CoinLink

1894-S Barber Dime Of the twenty-four dimes that were reportedly minted in San Francisco in 1894, only ten are believed to exist today. On Oct. 17, Stack’s auctioned a Proof-64 1894-S dime, for $1,552,500. The auction was held at the Parker Meridien Hotel in midtown Manhattan. The consignor wishes to remain completely anonymous. As the new owner of this 1894-S dime is a “new player” in the game of acquiring really great rare coins, I will refer to this dime as the “New Player’s” 1894-S.

An understanding of this auction record involves more than just a description of the bidding activity. It is necessary to discuss the two other 1894-S dimes that have sold at auction for more than $1 million each. Furthermore, there is the pertinent point that higher grade pieces are often worth multiples of lower grade coins. In addition, the demand for extremely rare coins has increased markedly over the past ten years, particularly since 2003. Moreover, 1894-S dimes are more highly demanded than several other Great Rarities. The aesthetic characteristics of this particular 1894-S dime are also an important factor

This ‘New Player’s’ 1894-S has a nice overall look. It is not very bright, but it is not dark. It is somewhat brilliant. The hair and headband of Miss Liberty, and much of the wreath, feature a cameo contrast. The white glow of these areas contrasts really well with the fields, which feature blends of blue and gray, with purplish overtones. There is a light blue tone about UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The fields on the obverse (front) are partly covered with a neat, pale orange overtone. The reverse fields are more gray than blue, though appear very purplish when the coin is tilted at certain angles.

This New Player’s 1894-S dime is very attractive. The surfaces exhibit full, strong mirrors, more so than the surfaces of the BRS 1894-S. It is true, though, that the BRS 1894-S has a great deal of attractive blue toning, with shades of green and touches of orange. The New Player’s 1894-S dime plus the Richmond-JAS and BRS 1894-S dimes all have natural toning.

Charles Browne is a grader and analyst for a leading wholesale firm. He is also an instructor at ANA grading seminars. In his view, this dime is a “premium quality Proof-64,” and it is “one of the nicest 1894-S dimes” that Browne “has ever seen in more than thirty years as a professional numismatist.” Browne makes clear, though, that “the Richmond [? James A. Stack] 1894-S dime is definitely superior to this one.” This New Player’s 1894-S dime “brought more than the $1,250,000 or so” that Browne “figured it would bring.”

DLRC 1894-S DimeThe Richmond-James A. Stack 1894-S dime is widely regarded as the finest known. It was PCGS certified Proof-66 in 1990, and was NGC graded PF-66 when it was auctioned for $1,322,500 in March 2005. When it sold privately during the summer, for $1.9 million, it was again PCGS graded 66. Proofs are manufactured differently from business strikes. As all 1894-S dimes were struck as Proofs, there is not a need to keep pointing out here that particular 1894-S dimes are Proofs.

The BRS 1894-S is probably the second finest known. It was PCGS graded 64 in 1992, PCGS graded 65 earlier than 2005, and NGC graded 66 in 2005 or ’06. It sold for $1,035,000 in Heritage’s January 2005 Platinum Night event at the Florida United Numismatist’s convention.

This just auctioned dime, the New Player’s 1894-S, is PCGS graded 64. It is at least the fifth finest known, and may possibly be the third finest.

What do these grading numbers mean? There is no way to completely explain coin grading. The state of preservation and aesthetic appeal of a coin are the central factors involved in determining its grade. Higher grade pieces are typically worth much more than lower grade coins of the same type and date. Indeed, a higher grade piece is often worth many multiples of a lower grade piece.

In May 2007, I wrote about a 67 grade 1893-S dime, which is much different from an 1894-S and it is not a Proof. It is PCGS graded, and it sold at a Heritage auction for $63,250. A Good-04 grade 1893-S dime is worth less than $15! A 64 grade 1893-S would be worth around $2000, maybe 3% of the value of the 67 grade ’93-S that sold in May.

Before the auction, most market participants were really not sure how to value this 64 grade 1894-S dime. There was an aura of excitement in the room when the opening bid, adjusted for the buyer’s commission, was announced to be more than $1.1 million! About a half dozen bidders were in the running before a Virginia dealer indicated $1,380,000. It then became clear that the old auction record for a dime was broken.

Next, Laura Sperber bid $1,437,500 ($1.25m+15% buyer’s commission). David Schweitz immediately joined the contest with a bid of $1,495,000. Sperber hesitated, talked on her cell phone, and then raised her paddle.

Kevin Lipton, who was also talking on a cell phone, asked the auctioneer for permission to “cut the bid.” He was told that the next bid must be $1,610,000, which amounted to an extremely reasonable increment of 3.7%. Bidding increments in coin auctions often range from 5% to 10%. Lipton declined to raise his bid to that level, and Sperber became the winning bidder.

Sperber informed me that her firm, Legend Numismatics, is the buyer of record. My interpretation of her remarks is that she was buying this dime on behalf of an individual, and it has now been formally sold to him (or her).

She declined to identify or discuss the buyer other than to say that he (or she) “is not one of the usual suspects.” He (or she) is not one of Sperber’s established collector-clients nor is he the collector who calls himself ‘TradeDollarNut,’ a longtime Sperber associate. As Sperber used the term “new player” in response to my questions, I chose to name this dime the New Player’s 1894-S.

Discussions of coins are much clearer, and more precise, when individual coins have names. Besides, it is a long established tradition in the coin collecting community for Great Rarities to have names.

Prices for Great Rarities have been trending upwards for several years. In the mid 1990s, Jay Parrino was buying numerous Great Rarities and boldly expressing his opinion that Great Rarities were undervalued. Back then, there were few people who would pay more than $200,000 for a coin. Many extremely rare coins are now worth three to five times as much as they were worth in the mid 1990s.

Consider the first coin to ever sell for more than a million at auction, the Eliasberg-Parrino 1913 Liberty Nickel, the finest of five that exist. It realized $1,485,000 in May 1996. Earlier in 2007, Sperber and her partners sold it privately for $5 million.

In January 1990, the finest known 1894-S dime sold for $275,000 in the Stack’s auction of the James A. Stack, Sr. collection of dimes, the all-time finest collection of that denomination. The late James A. Stack is not related to the family that founded the Stack’s auction firm. Fifteen years later, in DLRC’s Richmond III sale, this same dime was auctioned for nearly five times as much.

Consider the value of the one 1792 half dime that has been PCGS certified as a special “Specimen” striking. In July 1993, it was then PCGS certified SP-66, and it was auctioned for $96,250. At some point over the years, the PCGS upgraded it to SP-67. In April 2006, Heritage auctioned this same half dime for $1,322,500, more than thirteen times the amount that it realized in 1993. A 1792 half dime is not even a Great Rarity!

For a coin to be a Great Rarity, there must be fewer than twenty-five coins of the same type and date (year and Mint location) known to exist in the present, including both business strikes and Proofs, and including all die varieties. Amazingly, in this same Stack’s October auction event, four coins sold are Great Rarities, three U.S. coins and one privately issued gold coin. Please look for articles about these, on CoinLink, very soon.

1894-S Barber Dime - 2005 Fun SaleWhile it is widely believed that ten 1894-S dimes exist, only six have been seen by the coin collecting community since 1990. I have examined five of these six. The one of these six that I did not see is NGC graded AG-03 (the third lowest possible grade), and is said to have a prominent arc-shaped cut on the obverse (front). Its place in the condition rankings is obvious enough. Curiously, Laura Sperber sold this AG-03 1894-S in 1990, and she was the successful bidder for the BRS 1894-S in Jan. 2005. She has thus been involved in transactions of three different 1894-S dimes.

David Schweitz, the underbidder for the New Player’s 1894-S dime, was previously part owner of the BRS 1894-S dime, long before it was called the BRS 1894-S. In October 2002, he and John Feigenbaum bought it and later sold it to the collector who consigned it to Heritage’s January 2005 Platinum Night event. Furthermore, Schweitz advised the collector D. Rosenthal who bought the finest known 1894-S in DLRC’s Richmond III sale, on March 7, 2005.

In Schweitz’s view, the New Player’s 1894-S has “the most eye appeal of any 1894-S dime” that he “has seen.” Further, Schweitz declares that it “definitely grades Proof-65”!

Although it is deeply toned, I personally believe that the Richmond-JAS 1894-S dime has the best look of any 1894-S dime. The New Player’s 1894-S does have a lot of eye appeal, and very few imperfections. I believe that it could merit a low 65 grade.

Unlike others who are or were convinced that the Eliasberg 1894-S deserves a 65 grade, I strongly thought the Eliasberg 1894-S grades just 64. In advance of the Jan. 2005 FUN auction, Heritage cataloguers sharply argued that the BRS 1894-S, which was not yet called BRS, is of higher quality than the Eliasberg 1894-S dime. I have no reason to challenge this point.

I suggest that the New Player’s 64 grade 1894-S, which Stack’s just auctioned, is of higher quality than the Eliasberg 1894-S dime. I admit, though, that I have not seen the Eliasberg 1894-S in a long time.

The Heritage cataloguers also asserted that the BRS 1894-S is superior to the Richmond-James A. Stack 1894-S. A very prominent collector, and recognized grading expert, put forth a similar remark in an Internet forum. Most experts in 19th century silver coins, however, hold that the Richmond-James A. Stack 1894-S is the finest known, and that is my opinion as well.

Quality is one factor that determines the demand for coins. Rarity and popularity are also central factors. All 1894-S dimes are intensely demanded, including the two lowest grade ones, which grade AG-03 and Good-06, respectively. A major reason is that Barber Dimes are very popular.

The 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ dime is rarer than the 1894-S. There is only one known, the Eliasberg piece, and it sold for $891,250 at a B&M auction in July 2004. It, however, is a Liberty Seated Dime. There is more demand for Barber Dimes than for Liberty Seated Dimes.

Like many of my friends, I collected Barber dimes when I was a kid. At coin shows, I also saw adults buying them. Many dates in the Barber dime series were then available for around $1 each. For less than $5 each, several somewhat scarcer dates could be easily purchased.

Even now, the least scarce dates can be obtained for less than $2 each, and many better dates for under $15. Indeed, a large percentage of the dates in the Barber dime series are obtainable in Good condition, at modest prices, usually less than $30 each. Only the 1894-S, the 1895-O and the 1893/2 overdate would necessarily cost more than $100 each.

So, numerous collectors, rich and poor, beginning and advanced, have collected Barber dimes ‘by date,’ and dreamed, at one time or another, about owning an 1894-S dime. As there are thousands extant of every other date in the series, it is the 1894-S date that stands out. Often, wealthy adult collectors seek the rarities that they dreamed about when they were kids. It does not surprise me that 1894-S dimes are each worth a fortune.

I was very surprised that the New Player’s 1894-S realized more than $1½ million on Oct. 17. I was only a little surprised, in Jan. 2005, when the 65 grade BRS 1894-S brought $1,035,000. Before 2005, the auction record for an 1894-S dime had been the $451,000 paid for the Eliasberg coin in May 1996, and prices at the Eliasberg sales tended to be above the market levels that then prevailed. Even given the increasing demand for Great Rarities, I expected this one to sell for less than it did.

I very much like this 1894-S dime. It was a pleasure to view it, and fun to see a half dozen bidders energetically vie for it. In all the years that I have covered coin auctions, the selling of this 1894-S dime was certainly one of the more exciting moments.

©2007 Greg Reynolds

About the Author

Greg Reynolds is a numismatic writer, researcher and analyst. Greg has examined almost all of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest type coins and patterns, He has extensively researched the pedigrees of important numismatic properties, and he has written about and analyzed numerous auctions, private sales and collections.

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