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The Best and the Worst of 2008

As 2008 winds down, one of the medias favorite preoccupations is to compile “Best Of” lists for the past year and “Predictions” of what may come to pass for the next. Having precious little ability to foresee the future we have decided to just stick with a short Top 10 List of some of the Best and Worst things that happened in the numismatic community during 2008.

Our choices are presented in no particular order, but each covers a topic that made us think about coin collecting and/or the hobby and business of numismatics in a different way. No doubt each of you may have your own choices, so contact us and let us know what items you’d put on your list.

Best Auction:

Arguably the massive FUN auctions and the offerings at the Summer ANA Auctions are are the biggest and most active, however in 2008 one auction stood head and shoulders above the rest for scope, importance and historical significance, Ira and Larry Goldberg’s, Millennia Sale held on May 26th.

In fact we were so impressed by the sale that CoinLink hired numismatic writer Greg Reynolds to produce a series of six articles reviewing the sale. In fact we could have written another 6 articles and still not completely covered the material entirely.

Reynold wrote: “While the Millennia collection will be forever remembered for its breadth, and for showcasing historically important coins, its primary characteristic is quality. A substantial number of Millennia collection coins are in the condition rankings for their respective dates and, more importantly, for entire types!”

The collection brought in over $20 Million, but more importantly provided a contextual framework to those who may not have been overly familiar with great world coins and the rich and diverse history that accompanies them.

Best New Coin:

Actually it was just an announcement, the coin will not be available until 2009, but our choice is the New 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle Gold Coin, announced at a meeting of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee by US Mint Directory Ed Moy on March 13th.

Moy proposed to recreate what many have called the nation’s most beautiful coin ever minted-Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ original ultra-high relief Liberty $20 Gold Piece. A 27-millimeter diameter gold blank, more than 50% thicker than other United States Mint one-ounce 24-karat gold coins, will be used, because of its historical significance and the opportunity it provides to achieve the greater depth and relief to which Saint-Gaudens had aspired.

We applaud Director Moy on what we consider to be his legacy running the US Mint, however this choice does point up the soft underbelly of the US Mints operations, a total lack of artistic vision where it is necessary to recreate the classics from 100 years ago rather than create new classics of our own. I suppose that this is a blessing in disguise since the talent that flows from the Franklin Mint to the US Mint has been shall we say, uninspired.

Best Decision:

The Grading services, primarily PCGS and NGC, have had perhaps the greatest impact on the numismatic community over the last twenty two years. They brought with them the promise of standardization in coin grading and protection against “mistreated” coins. For the first time in any major collectibles arena, average collectors and investors could safely buy and sell coins on a more level playing field, with confidence as to both the authenticity of the coins they owned and the condition of those coins.

However like the market around us, those grading standards have fluctuated over time. Between “Crackouts”, “Coin Doctoring” and “Market Grading” the coin industry started 2008 with some unusually open arguments about the problems of systemic over-grading, gradeflation and the need to return to core grading standards in order to protect the hobby and collectors.

Despite the fact that few in the industry were willing to publicly take an outspoken stand on the issue, we believe that both the major grading services “got the message” and consciously made the decision to revisit the issues of gradflation. The result appears to be not only tighter grading standards, but also fewer upgrades and more buybacks.

We applaud those who championed the issue and for the response by both PCGS and NGC for addressing these concerns and taking positive action in attempting to correct past mistakes and reinstall confidence in the grading standards necessary for the industry to grow and prosper in the long term.

Best New Company:

CERTIFIED ACCEPTANCE CORPORATION (CAC) is our top pick for 2008. Although they actually got started in 2007, CAC really got their sea legs this past year. Brain child of John Albanese, one of the most respected numismatists of our generation, CAC was created as a response to and a service for collectors and investors to identify quality rare coins that had already been certified by PCGS or NGC.

Numismatic advisor Maurice Rosen published a lengthy interview with John Albanese in June, and this should be required reading for anyone wanting to know more about this services and the reasons it came into existence.

Rosen Wrote “You’ve heard about CAC [CERTIFIED ACCEPTANCE CORPORATION]. They’re the ones affixing labels or stickers to already slabbed coins attesting to the “premium quality” of the encased going – a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. We all know that the variance in quality among slabbed coins of the same issue and grade can be substantial. If the grading services properly anticipated – and provided for – the growing problem of “C” and “D-quality” coins, there would be no need for CAC. For sure, no two coins are alike and grading is an art not a science. Unfortunately, after 22-years of grading, and after tens of millions of coins have entered the marketplace, the advertised solutions that the grading services promised to us have yet to be fully delivered.”

To say that CAC has both supporters and detractors would be an understatement, and an enormous amount of mis-information surrounded the launching of this service, however clearly CAC has made a difference, evidenced by the premiums some collectors are willing to pay for CAC sticker-ed coins and the acceptance within the dealer community supporting CAC.

In our opinion, the impact of CAC on the marketplace is just beginning, and the added trust and confidence many find in owning CAC coins will do nothing but expand the market and help stabilize prices for properly graded coins in the future.

Worst Decision:

The Norweb 1893-S Morgan dollar had always been regarded as not only the Finest Known example of this key date in the Morgan Dollar series, but one of the classic rarities in US Numismatics. Any coin that caries the NORWEB pedigree is special in and of itself. Combine that with Key Date status within the most popular collected series of US coins, and you have a coin unequalled in both appearance and desirability. Unfortunately, some can’t leave well enough alone.

According to conversations noted by CoinLink writer Greg Reynolds in his November 17th article on Record Price for a Morgan Dollar, “The Norweb 1893-S HAD neat rich, milky russet and gray natural toning. (Published photographs never even approximated the true colors of the Norweb 1893-S, as it was.) It HAD never been cleaned or dipped. The toning, which was thick in some parts, covered a large percentage of the coin” However the coins owner either decided on his/her own or was convinced that the coin could be “improved upon” and had the coin “conserved”.

Reynolds continued, “It now looks like it has been dipped and/or otherwise changed, the Norweb 1893-S will never again have the original look and terrific toning that it used to possess.” Laura Sperber explains, “after it was treated, the coin exhibited some loss of luster” and “all the beautiful toning” was “stripped off”!”

The Norweb 93-S is not longer considered by many knowledgeable dealers to be the finest known, and all we can say to the coins owner is ” What were you thinking about ????”

Best New Coin Hoard:

This one is a no-brain-er, the 1846 Gulf of Mexico shipwreck of the SS New York has revealed some of the finest known Southern branch mint gold coins and a nearly complete set of Bust half dollars.

The New York was a side-wheel steamer that foundered during a hurricane about 60 miles off the coast of Cameron, Louisiana in 1846. Four New Iberia, Louisiana area residents found the 365-ton wooden hull ship in about 60 feet of water two years ago.

Prominent numismatic researcher and author Q. David Bowers, co-chairman of Stack’s Rare Coins in New York City and Wolfeboro, New Hampshire stated that “This is the most important group of Southern gold coins ever found on a treasure ship. There are some of the finest known Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles struck in Charlotte and Dahlonega, as well as examples of gold coins struck at the New Orleans Mint.

Numismatic Conservation Services (NCS) has been selected to conserve the coins recovered from the SS New York shipwreck.

Doug Winter, noted US Gold expert commented “What is especially interesting about these coins is that they represent one of the most eclectic, diverse cross-sections of coins in circulation during the first part of the 19th century that has ever been found. Unlike the S.S. Republic and S.S. Central America, the coins in this group tend to be smaller denomination and much of the gold was produced in Dahlonega and the local New Orleans mint.(Even more interesting is the fact that only two Charlotte issues were included. This should tell us something about the geographic distribution of Charlotte coins).”

Greatest Loss

The passing of Jack Lee was a sad day for numismatics. ANA President Larry Shepard perhaps said it best in an email he sent, “Jack Lee was an iconic figure to many , and a fixture on the bourse floor for a generation of collectors and dealers. His renowned eye and judgement for selecting beautiful coins coupled with his friendly demeanor made any encounter with the man both enjoyable and educational.”

“Jack Lee’s first great collection contained Morgan dollars (business strikes and proofs), Peace dollars, and Walkers and was assembled in the 1980’s and early 90’s. It was considered one of the all time best collections at the time, and the standard by which all subsequent collections were judged. Jack sold the collection in the 1990’s”

Jim Halperin, CEO of Heritage commented, “Regardless of whether a coin is pedigreed to Lee I, II, III – or any combination there are few pedigrees in American numismatics that mean as much to the collecting community as “Ex: Jack Lee.” Those words convey volumes about the quality of the coin, its eye-appeal, and its status as one of the premier examples of the issue. That in itself is a tremendous tribute to this friendly, unassuming collector/dealer.”

Under-Achiever Award

There we so many possibilities we had to think long and hard, but in the end this years under-achiver (and possibly a perennial winner) has to go to the Hispanic Society of America and in part to the American Numismatic Society (ANS).

In April CoinLink reported on an Article written by David Ganz that the Hispanic Society was suing the ANS seeking the return of 38,000 coins the ANS has been cataloging since the death of Arthur Milton Huntington in 1955.

It is hard to believe that it could take 58 years to catalog a collection, but we have not been able to find any information on what the ANS has done with the collection since it has been in its possession. One just begins to wonder how many other collections donated to museums and institutions remain in locked vaults and suffer the same fate.

We then followed up with an Article by The Inner City Press that stated “On August 6, Sotheby’s began cataloguing for immanent auction a collection of 38,000 coins which Huntington lent to the American Numismatic Society. The HSA’s board of trustees have assumed unfettered discretion to under-promote, under-protect and ultimately sell off Huntington’s collection”

So it seems obvious that the Hispanic Societie’s only interest in the Huntington Coin Collection, abandoned years ago to the ANS is deacquisition and the funds that might come from any Sotheby’s sale of the material. Hopefully the collections next owners will prove to be better stewards of these coins that the present owner.

Related Pet Pieve:

Usually we try not to be too cynical when it comes to collections controlled by museums and institutions. Most make the material available to not just scholars but to the general public via exhibitions. But one has to wonder if the curators of these collections are not at times more interested in the number of coins “under their control” than what they do with the coins.

In today’s world and with the advent of the Internet and High Resolution Photography, it is almost criminal that every major collection has not been imaged and made available via the Internet. This is especially true for organizations whose stated purpose and mission statement is to try to promote both the education and interest in Numismatics.

How many people have ever seen the coins in the National Collection? The National Museum of American History contains over 1.6 million numismatic related items, including more than 450,000 coins, medals, and decorations and 1.1 million pieces of paper money. The core of the U.S. collection, consisting of more than 18,000 items, including coins of great rarity, such as the Brasher half doubloon, the 1849 double eagle (first of the gold 20 dollar pieces), and two 1877 fifty dollar patterns. A gold 20 Excelentes coin of Ferdinand & Isabella of Spain, 1474-1504, 1913 Liberty head nickel as well as all three types of the 1804 dollar, and two of three known examples of the 1933 double eagle.

Recent donations are the unprecedented Josiah K. Lilly holdings, consisting of 6,150 gold coins, including an almost complete US gold coin collection, a very rich Latin American gold section, and many of the great rarities of European gold coins, such as a 20 excelentes de la Granada of Ferdinand and Isabella, and two large and heavy 100 ducats of Austria and Poland, Willis H. duPont collection of more than 12,000 Russian coins in all metals, including platinum, The ancient Greek section of Capt. B. Bennett, and much more.

Yet the History of Money and Medals exhibition has been closed since 2004 and the NMAH website makes only 223 items available. It certainly make one wonder if these museums and institutions are indeed the best custodians of our numismatic heritage and if they even remotely have a clue about what to do with the materials they have. A sad story indeed!

Best New Reference Book

Early United States Quarters 1796 1838 by Steve Tompkins In this monumental new hardbound work, printed and bound in the U.S.A., you will find 448 pages covering each year and the known die marriages for those years, along with background of the early mint.

Included are quick finding charts and pictorials, as well as, over-sized color photos of every die marriage. Along with new rarity ratings and a new condition census, as an added bonus there are in-depth studies on the rare 1823s and 1827s.

The appendixes are chock full of interesting information on among other things, patterns, private re-strikes, error coins, and the mysterious E & L counter-marks, along with several useful charts, die re-marriage listings, and much, much more!!

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RSS Feed for This Post3 Comment(s)

  1. investing in gold coins | Jan 2, 2009 | Reply

    Glad to see the St. Gaudens coming back! Should be pretty exciting for the gold coin market.

  2. Peter van Alfen | Apr 24, 2009 | Reply

    I’m afraid that your author is rather under-informed concerning the under-achiever award, at least in respect to the ANS. The ANS received the Huntington collection with no catalog, and in no particular order. George Miles was subsequently hired to begin the enormous task of sorting and cataloging the 38,000 coins. In the process of doing so he published four books in the ANS’ Hispanic Numismatic Series and dozens of articles based on his work on Huntington’s collection. The cataloging task was finished under Miles and was digitized in the late 1980s. When the ANS went online in the early 1990s, the complete catalog of the coins went into the ANS’ online database where it could be studied by anyone with a computer for the better part of 15 years (these were the 1001.1.XXXX accessions, which now, of course, have been removed). Sotheby’s is merely using this catalog to check off the coins as they receive them. Also, for most of the time that the ANS had the coins, we were not allowed, per HSA directives, to either exhibit or provide photos of them, although visitors and students had access to them. These directives changed with the ANS’ move to Fulton street, when, for a brief two years, we were finally allowed to exhibit the coins, several of which were featured in the Natural History Museum’s “Gold” exhibit, and in other exhibits.

    Under-achieving? Hardly. Do your homework!

  3. CoinLink | Apr 24, 2009 | Reply

    CoinLink stands corrected, at least with respect to the ANS.

    Mr van Alfen (who is the Margaret Thompson Associate Curator of Greek Coins at the ANS) correctly points out that George Miles published a number of articles based on his work with the collection along with three monographs (according to the ANS Library Catalog), all during the early 1950’s.

    Unfortunately, as is often the case, this material is not available on-line, so unless you happen to be in NYC on a weekday, or are willing and able to pay the “Reference Fees” necessary to obtain photocopies, this material is all but inaccessible to the general collecting community.

    Likewise the ANS on-line ANS database, where the Huntington Collection used to be available was of limited value, not because the basic information was not there, but rather due to the small size of the thumbnail images presented with no ability to enlarge to photos to really see any detail on the coins. You can, of course, order photos for a fee, but it seems the link to order photos is not currently working.

    The point is not to be critical of the ANS, they are a great organization. But with a small membership base, limited resources, a large volume of accumulated material and overworked staff, it is virtually impossible for them to make all of this material freely available.

    They suffer from the same issues that plague the National Collection, The ANA and many other museums and organizations that have been entrusted with artifacts from our past and the associated research that was done many years ago, but remains inaccessible today. But that is a topic for another day.

    The “Under Achiever Award” given to the HSA, in our opinion, is still well deserved, and perhaps we were over zealous in mentioning the ANS in the same sentence. The two organizations are nothing alike, and it is our sincere hope that the ANS continues to be a leading organization in the numismatic community.

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