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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: an 1870-S Silver Dollar, an 1817/4 Half Dollar, and an 1854-O $20 gold coin

News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #7

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds

I. Today’s Theme

So far, I know of two Great Rarities that will be auctioned in Boston in August, and of a third coin that it is very likely to be a Great Rarity. It may be true that there are others of which I am not yet aware. B&M will offer an 1870-S silver dollar and an 1854-O Double Eagle ($20 gold coin). Heritage will put an 1817/4 overdate half dollar ‘on the block.’

For a coin issue to be a Great Rarity, there must be a maximum of twenty-five pieces known to exist in the present, including business strikes and Proofs. As Proofs of these three issues were never minted, there is no need to discuss the possibility of their existence.

Curiously, 1817/4 halves and 1870-S silver dollars seem to be equally rare. I am nearly certain that there are nine known 1870-S dollars. Specialists in Capped Bust Half Dollars have concluded that there are nine known 1817/4 halves. Seven have been known for many years, and two have, strangely in my view, somewhat recently surfaced, not long after the finest known 1817/4 sold for a then record $333,500 on Nov. 29, 2004.

The 1854-O Double Eagle is not as rare as either of these two silver coins. It is likely, though, that fewer than twenty-five exist. If there are thirty, than this issue is a ‘Near Great Rarity’!

Why are these Great Rarities and not 1794 silver dollars, which are more famous? In last week’s column, I discussed the Boyd-Cardinal 1794 dollar that will also be auctioned in Boston. While it is a very desirable coin that is of tremendous importance in the culture of coin collecting, it is not a Great Rarity. There are between 130 and 160 1794 silver dollars in existence. In 2004, Martin Logies, a leading expert on this issue, estimated that 140 survive.

Merely being popular does not make a coin a Great Rarity. In addition to the requirement that twenty-five or fewer be known to exist, each Great Rarity must be traditionally considered a component of an established series. Die varieties, particularly those that require a microscope to identify or are otherwise obscure, generally cannot be Great Rarities, though these are highly prized by some advanced collectors.

The meaning of a Great Rarity is not dependent upon emotions or opinions; there must be underlying facts that establish such a high level of rarity and the acceptance of the respective date. Some other Great Rarities are: the unique 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ Dime, 1894-S dimes, 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ Quarters, 1838-O half dollars, 1841 Quarter Eagles, 1854-S Quarter Eagles (and Half Eagles), 1815 Half Eagles, 1822 Half Eagles, 1875 Eagles and 1927-D Saints. There are more than ten others and I look forward to compiling a thorough list in the future. I just mentioned some famous and indisputable Great Rarities in order to illustrate the concept.

There are a few reasons as to why Great Rarities are important. Most have to do with the culture of coin collecting and cannot be simply explained. The most obvious reason, however, is that Great Rarities are needed to complete sets. Unlike the collecting of paintings or vintage automobiles, coin collecting often involves attempts to complete sets that are widely recognized.

For a collector, the hunt for a specific item is usually more enjoyable than a purchase that can be instantaneously completed after it is first considered. Though it is in some sense a key to a set of silver Roosevelt dimes, it would not take much time or effort to locate a 1949-S dime. Furthermore, I have attended several auctions that have each included more than a dozen 1893-S Morgan Dollars, which is the scarcest of all business strike Morgans. Finding a 1949-S dime or an 1893-S Morgan is not a challenge.

I am here ignoring the concept of a Condition Rarity, which refers to coin issues that are not rare in absolute terms, yet are extremely rare above a certain grade level. I have a strong affinity for both Condition Rarities and coins that are rare in absolute terms. Indeed, I have enthusiastically written large numbers of articles about rarities in both categories. The topic here, though, is Great Rarities that will be auctioned in Boston in August.

II. Richmond-Jack Lee 1870-S Dollar

The B&M pre-ANA Boston auction will feature an 1870-S silver dollar that is PCGS graded Extremely Fine-40. NINE ARE KNOWN TO EXIST. I emphasize the number nine because many published rosters include odd, unsubstantiated rumors of others or erroneous listings of additional 1870-S dollars. Of course, it is possible that there could be one or two more. Pedigrees for these nine, however, are well documented and cover substantial portions of time. There really is not significant evidence of another 1870-S dollar existing.

The 1870-S dollar coming ‘on the auction block’ was, somewhat recently, in the Richmond, Jack Lee, and “Joseph Thomas” collections. Please click here to see my Oct. 2007 article on 1870-S dollars and here to read additional paragraphs on 1870-S dollars in my preview of the April 2009 auction of the “Joseph Thomas” collection.

When I wrote my article on 1870-S dollars, I had seen six of the nine known. I have since examined two more, the Queller coin that Heritage auctioned in April 2008 and the worst known Boyd piece that has twice appeared at auction in recent years. I am now publicly requesting the cooperation of the owner of the Eureka 1870-S. I will sleep better if I have carefully evaluated all known 1870-S silver dollars.

This 1870-S is currently PCGS graded EF-40 and was NGC graded EF-40 when DLRC auctioned it on Nov. 29, 2004 in the Richmond II sale. It was the property of an Indiana collector and the Richmond collection is one of the fifteen all-time best collections of classic (pre-1934) U.S. coins. The Richmond collection featured many Great Rarities, including a very choice 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ Quarter and the finest known 1894-S dime, plus an 1841 Quarter Eagle, an 1854-S Quarter Eagle, an 1875 Eagle and an 1856-O Double Eagle. Certainly, it is one of very few collections to include both 1884 and 1885 Trade Dollars.

On Nov. 29, 2004, the late Jack Lee was the successful bidder for the Richmond 1870-S dollar, and he placed it in his personal collection. He then paid $414,000. Sadly, Lee died not long afterwards.

At some point, this 1870-S was sold to the collector known as “Joseph Thomas,” which is not his real name. When Heritage auctioned the “Joseph Thomas” collection in April 2009, this 1870-S realized $503,125. Coin markets were then bottoming out and this 1870-S is expected to realize more in August 2010.

I declare that this 1870-S, the Ostheimer-Richmond-Lee coin, is of higher quality than the Stickney-Wolfson-Queller 1870-S Dollar. Heritage auctioned the Stickney-Queller 1870-S in April 2008, when coin market levels were dramatically higher than in April 2009. The Stickney-Queller 1870-S realized $805,000, which I thought was a high price.

It is true that the Ostheimer-Richmond-Lee 1870-S is characterized by several long scratches and a more than a few shorter ones. Even so, these are barely noticeable when the coin is viewed and are not very distracting. I could understand how some collectors might find these to be problematic, and, if this coin were a common date, then the assigned EF-40 grade might be challenged. There is a good chance, however, that graders at the PCGS and the NGC, determined that this coin has the sharpness of an EF-45 to AU-50 grade Liberty Seated Dollar and downgraded it to 40 because of the scratches, which are not very bothersome to me. The Stickney-Queller 1870-S is more problematic.

The Richmond-Lee 1870-S should be seen ‘in person’ to be fully appreciated. Its pleasant toning is mostly a rich, medium-gray color, with some blue tints. It has even wear and well-balanced natural toning. It is especially attractive for its grade

This is the fourth finest known 1870-S silver dollar. The PCGS graded AU-53 Eliasberg 1870-S is the third finest. The CAC purchased the Eliasberg 1870-S privately in January 2008 for $1.3 million.

III. A Fresh 1817/4 Half Dollar

Of all ‘dates’ of the U.S. half dollar denomination, the 1817/4 is, by far, the rarest. Yes, it is an overdate rather than a whole date of its own. There also exist 1817/3 and 1817 “normal date” half dollars. Even so, readily apparent overdates are often listed as separate dates in standard coin references and are collected as such. In the traditions of coin collecting, the 1817/4 overdate is a distinct ‘date’!

A set of Buffalo Nickels is not complete without a 1918/7-D and a set of Standing Liberty Quarters is not complete without a 1918/7-S. A complete set of Proof Three Cent Nickels requires an 1887/6 overdate. Likewise, those who collect early large cents ‘by date’ (and not by die variety) demand an 1807/6 cent. Some overdates that are traditionally recognized, and can be identified without magnification, have the status of distinct ‘dates’!

The PCGS graded VF-20 1817/4 that will be auctioned by Heritage in August has not been publicly offered in a long time. As I have not seen this specific coin and I know little about it, I am not prepared to discuss it in detail.

I have carefully examined the finest known Eliasberg 1817/4 on a few occasions. Curiously, it has been auctioned five times since 1997. It realized $209,000 in the April 1997 Eliasberg sale. Superior auctioned it in 1999 for $187,000. Ironically, DLRC sold it during the exact same night as the Richmond 1870-S that is discussed above, yet it was not part of the Richmond collection, which lacked an 1817/4 half. It was part of a separate consignment of a collection of Capped Bust Half Dollars. A collector, George Byers, successfully bid on the Eliasberg 1817/4 on Nov 29. 2005. When Stack’s auctioned the Byers collection of half dollars in Oct. 2006, this coin brought $310,500. A collector-dealer from New Jersey was then the buyer. Soon afterwards, he sold it to a collector in the Midwest. Later, it was consigned, through a dealer, to the Stack’s pre-ANA Los Angeles auction on July 30, 2009. The Eliasberg 1817/4 half then sold for a record $356,500. (Please see my three articles relating to market conditions during the Summer of 2009: Part 1, Part 2 and The Widening Gap.)

Five of the last eight auction appearances of 1817/4 halves involve the finest known Eliasberg 1817/4, which is PCGS graded AU-50. The other three appearances are of the two relatively new discoveries, neither of which has received a numerical grade from the PCGS or the NGC, as far as I know. It is possible, though, that one of these two could have been graded Good-06 by the PCGS. I wonder how this PCGS graded Very Fine-20 1817/4 will fare in August.

IV. An 1854-O Double Eagle

In Boston, B&M will auction an 1854-O Double Eagle that is PCGS graded “AU-55.” In my fourth column, I reported that Park Avenue Numismatics sold an NGC graded “AU-55” 1854-O for a price that was well above $500,000.

Neither the PCGS nor the NGC list an 1854-O as grading MS-60 or higher. In 2007, I discussed some of the highest quality 1854-O Double Eagles.

Although I spent considerable time researching pedigrees for my August 2007 article on 1854-O Double Eagles, I just have not had a chance to update my research on this topic. I then suggested that there exist twelve to seventeen different 1854-O Double Eagles that have been graded by the PCGS or the NGC, plus five to seven others. My estimate then of seventeen to twenty-four is in line with David Akers’ past estimate of twenty to twenty-five. Since 2007, more than a few have traded, and I am not as confident now in my estimate as I was.

Even so, the past grade-inflation of 1854-O Double Eagles is largely responsible for an illusion that there are more than truly exist. “There is considerable pressure to inflate the grading for this issue as much as possible,” wrote Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth (Whitman, 2006). They add that 1854-O Double Eagles “offered years ago as Very Fine are now considered Extremely Fine.” Plus, in their encyclopedia, Garrett & Guth mention a specific 1854-O that is certified as grading “AU-53,” yet truly grades just “AU-50.”

Although Garrett & Guth, and also Doug Winter, estimate that there exist substantially more than twenty-five, I am maintaining my hypothesis that there are fewer than twenty-five, and thus this issue is a Great Rarity. The PCGS and the NGC have together certified a total of twenty-nine, which is the same as the respective total in the middle of 2007.

Yes, it is puzzling that as many as twenty percent or more, by my count, of the total number of 1854-O Double Eagles have been ‘on the market’ in recent years. There are, though, understandable reasons for this phenomenon.

First, some (though not nearly all) of the newcomers who bought 1854-O Double Eagles lost interest in coins soon afterwards. Over the last decade, the marketing of early Double Eagles, especially those found in shipwrecks, has stimulated a lot of interest in early Double Eagles among people who were not previously buyers of rare coins. Inevitably, some buyers, who never were coin enthusiasts, do not stay excited and sold their coins after a few years or even in a matter of months.

Secondly, rare-date Double Eagles have been aggressively marketed to investors and speculators, some of whom feed on ‘action’ and sell coins often. Indeed, after the financial crisis of 2008, particularly in 2010, there has been substantial trading in rare-date Double Eagles. Third, the incredible rise in prices, from 2002 to 2008, for these, and the fact that 1854-O Double Eagles have held their values since 2008 more so than most rare coins, drew 1854-O Double Eagles ‘onto the market’ from those who wished to profit by selling, including collectors who shifted their attention to other types of coins.

In my columns, I have alluded to collectors who are each assembling a set of Liberty Head Double Eagles. Markets for rare date Double Eagles are not dominated by speculators. I wonder, though, about the extent of collector activity in Liberty Head Double Eagles and the influence that investors and telemarketers are having in this area. Given the unprecedented market activity regarding rare date Liberty Head Double Eagles in recent years, it will be fascinating to see how markets for 1854-O, 1856-O and 1870-CC Double Eagles fare in the near future. It may make sense for collectors to focus on other series, like Quarter Eagles, Half Eagles and Liberty Seated coins.

©2010 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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