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20th Century Gold Club Holds Fascinating Meeting During FUN Convention

By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink

I. Introduction to the Club and this Meeting

On Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010, the 20th Century Gold Club conducted their fifth meeting at a hotel near the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando where the January FUN Convention was held. In the field of choice and rare U.S. coins, the annual Winter FUN Convention is one of the leading events of the year.

This club is private, small, exclusive, and sophisticated. I am honored to have been invited to attend. Moreover, I feel privileged to have the cooperation of the founders for the purpose of writing about the proceedings and communicating the educational and other purposes of this club to coin enthusiasts at large. Some of the presentations and discussions at the event were truly fascinating and the enthusiasm of the members for coins filled the atmosphere. The event was stimulating and fun.

The current president, Jay Brahin, directed the meeting. The speakers were David Hall, John Albanese and John Dannreuther. David Hall is the primary founder of the PCGS and he is currently the CEO of its parent company. Hall is an expert in early 20th century U.S. gold coins.

Hall spoke about the new PCGS program of identifying coins that each have a market value of $1 million or more, the “Million Dollar Club.” I asked if coins in museums are included, and I was surprised that they are with rather specific estimated values. I also asked why the two unique 1797 Half Eagles in the Smithsonian are not on the list. Reportedly, these two 1797s are the only known survivors of two different, readily apparent varieties. Additionally, Hall voiced intriguing comments regarding PCGS estimates of the values of 1933 Double Eagles.

In the second part of David Hall’s presentation, he introduced the results of research at the PCGS regarding the market values in 1970 of Saint Gaudens Double Eagles. The tricky part of such research is determining how specific coins in 1970 have or would be later graded by the PCGS, so price appreciation of specific dates in specific grades can be tracked and analyzed. Though David Akers voiced a critical remark or two regarding such values, most of the members of the club were impressed by the data and astonished by how low the prices were for such terrific coins in 1970. As an aside, note that Dr. Duckor has long argued that gem quality, better-date early 20th century gold coins were not really appreciated until the 1980s. One of the purposes of the club is to bring about a greater appreciation of early 20th century gold coins.

Albanese’s responses to questions regarding the CAC were very revealing. John Dannreuther’s presentation regarding Proofs was extraordinarily interesting. Before discussing details of these two presentations, it makes sense to provide background information about the club and its members.

Dr. Steven Duckor relates that “it was [his] idea to start the club.” From the beginning, the focus was on four series of U.S. coins, each of which was minted from 1907 or 1908 until 1933 at the latest. The most popular of the four series is Saint Gaudens Double Eagles ($20 gold coins). The other three all feature an Indian Head design on the obverse (front of the coin). Indian Head Eagles ($10 gold coins) were also designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, or at least based upon his designs. Saint-Gaudens is the most famous of all sculptors in the history of the United States. Indian Head Quarter Eagles ($2½ coins) and Half Eagles ($5 coins) were designed by Bela Lyon Pratt and are the only U.S. coins to be struck with designs that are sunk below the fields (flat areas) of the coins. The primary members of the club collect, or have collected, coins in at least one of these four series.

II. The Founding and Purpose of the Club

Dr. Duckor envisioned meetings as forums where members would discuss and learn about the “aesthetics” [artistic appearances, attractiveness, and visual effects of details], technical aspects and “historical significance” of these coins rather than the prices of coins. There is much to learn about coins besides prices.

A major purpose of the club is to educate collectors, and another major purpose is to foster cooperation and friendship among collectors. Moreover, Dr. Duckor has long contended that many collectors do not realize that many 20th century gold coins are extreme condition rarities in gem uncirculated grades, MS-65 and higher. Finding choice, better-date early 20th century gold coins with original surfaces is challenging.

In past meetings, there have been discussions of the rarity of certain issues in absolute terms, and especially the rarity of these in grades of 65 and higher, the gem quality range. Jay Brahin has devoted a good deal of time to researching how many coins are extant of certain issues in grades of 64, 65 and 66. In many cases, the data published by the two leading grading services, the PCGS and the NGC, is not very accurate in this regard. One of the topics discussed at the Jan. 6th meeting was encouraging dealers to return inserts to the grading services. It is not an unusual practice for dealers to ‘crack’ coins out of PCGS or NGC holders and then re-submit them in hopes of receiving a higher grade. When holder inserts are returned to the grading services that issued them, the respective grading services adjust their reports of the number of coins certified. Some dealers, however, hoard inserts. Jay Brahin has tried hard to encourage a few of these dealers to return such inserts, especially inserts that pertain to Saint Gaudens Double Eagles (Saints).

As for those dealers who are admitted as associate members, Dr. Duckor says the criteria are “knowledge and experience.” There is much emphasis on “longevity,” in Duckor’s view, as a few associate members have been dealers “for more than forty years.” Almost all of the dealer-associate members have been recognized as experts for more than a quarter-century. At the Jan.6th meeting, the primary members voted to admit Laura Sperber, of Legend Numismatics, and Mark Salzburg, chairman of the NGC, as associate members.

Duckor enlisted Brahin and a Dallas area collector to found the club in early 2008. The first meeting was in May 2008 at a hotel in the Dallas area. In Oct. 2008, Jeff Garrett arranged for the members of the club to visit the Smithsonian to view coins in the National Numismatic Collection. It was later decided that the club would meet twice a year, once in January near the location of the FUN Convention, and once during the summer near the location of the Summer ANA Convention. So, a Jan. 2009 meeting occurred in Orlando and an August 2009 meeting was held in Los Angeles County at the home of Kevin Lipton, an associate member.

III. The Primary Members are Collectors

Only the collectors (primary members) can vote and all club officers are collectors. Dealers may be associate members if invited or admitted by the primary members.

Currently, Jay Brahin is the president, and Dale Friend is the treasurer. A collector, who is an investment portfolio manager in New York, is the club’s secretary. I will only mention the name of a collector if that collector has explicitly granted permission for his or her name to be mentioned.

Rollo Fox “is very impressed with the club. It has given [him] an opportunity to meet some sincere collectors and to meet some of the most knowledgeable experts. There is learning that you just can’t buy.” Fox adds that “it would probably have saved [him] a lot of money if [he] had gotten to know these collectors and dealers earlier.”

Fox has assembled a nearly complete set of Saints, which is listed in the PCGS registry. According to the criteria of this registry, Fox’s set is the third “current finest” set of business strike Saints, and the seventh “all-time finest.” Fox has been upgrading some of the coins. Sometimes he seeks coins with higher PCGS grades and, other times, Fox upgrades “laterally.” Rollo has been influenced by Jay Brahin. Please click here to see an explanation of Brahin’s approach to lateral upgrading in my article on Brahin’s Saints.

Fox emphasizes that “Steve Duckor has been like a tutor to me, Jay as well.” Rollo declares that he has “the utmost respect for their advice. Steve is ahead of the curve. He has such a wonderful body of knowledge. [Duckor] has probably seen almost every one of the rare and high grade Saints.”

Fox explains that he collects “Saints as a hobby. [He does] not buy any coins with the idea of making money. I will feel fortunate if I make money, but my main goal is to enjoy coins and to appreciate their historical value,” Rollo relates.

Fox began collecting coins when he was a kid. He “started with pennies, nickels and dimes.” Young Rollo would “go to the bank every Friday and get a $50 bag of pennies.” He would “then sit in front of the TV and sort through them.” Each following Monday, he would return the bag, with common dates substituted for the better-dates that he kept.

“Later in life,” he became interested in coins again. Fox “started collecting Saints in 2005 [as he] was buying bullion. There was then such a small premium for lightly circulated and uncirculated Saint Gaudens” Double Eagles. So, he collected them. In Fox’s view, “the Saint Gaudens $20 gold coin is one of the most attractive coins that was ever minted in the history of the world.” In addition to Saints, Fox collects Standing Liberty Quarters, partly because he collected them as a kid and partly because he finds the design to be very attractive.

Fellow primary member Don Kutz also collected Standing Liberty Quarters as a kid. In 1959, Kutz’s father gave him some coin albums. Don focused on Buffalo Nickels and Standing Liberty Quarters. As a kid, Kutz “decided [to] enlist the help of others, so [Don] went to the Currency Exchange in [his] Chicago neighborhood and convinced the clerk to let [Kutz] ‘peruse’ the coins they took in daily.” In addition, Kutz arranged “to pay the local news stand operators six cents for every dated Buffalo nickel they gave” him. Kutz became “overloaded with nickels” and he “still” has “forty or so rolls from those days.”

In 1975, Kutz attended a “local coin show” and became “hooked” again. He returned to Buffalo Nickels and built a leading PCGS registry set, which is listed as the ninth all-time finest ‘Basic Set.’ It was retired on Dec. 1, 2002.

Kutz continues, “An aunt had given me several circulated gold coins, which I treasured.” Don goes on to say that, “After I sold my Buffalo set, I then studied the $2½ Indian and Liberty gold coins my aunt gave me. I started to buy different types [of gold coins], but then settled on the $2½ Indian series. I collect key dates in other series as well,” Kutz reveals.

Kutz “joined the [20th Century] Gold Club, at its inception, and find[s] it to be a very helpful forum to exchange ideas and share with the other collectors.” Don would like to build a “famous collection” and “someday become recognized in the numismatic community.”

Don Kutz “found” the presentations and discussions at the Jan. 6 meeting “to be very informative.” Fox states it was an “excellent” meeting and Rollo notes that “the speakers brought some very interesting information to the group.”

IV. Dannreuther’s Presentation at the Jan. 6th Meeting

John Dannreuther spoke about Proofs. He presented two, seemingly original and radical theories. First, he declared that pre-1936 Proof U.S. coins were typically struck only once. Indeed, Dannreuther boldly asserts that “small Proof coins were almost always struck only once, while larger coins sometimes were struck twice, although most of them were struck once.”

Dannreuther’s theory is dramatically in conflict with Walter Breen’s definition of a Proof and of Breen’s explanation of the process by which Proofs were manufactured. Moreover, I am not aware of any other pertinent coin expert taking a position on this issue that is consistent with Dannreuther’s theory.

I (this writer) have devoted much time to studying the intricacies of 19th century Proofs. Despite some questionable pieces that officials at the U.S. Mint may have regarded as Proofs, or listed as such in Mint records, I strongly maintain that true 19th century Proofs were struck two or more times. Yes, there is a category of possible exceptions that are difficult to understand, including single-struck pieces that have been accepted as Proofs or were among supposed Proof-only issues. Walter Breen regarded these as “Mint Errors.”

Members of the 20th century gold club, however, are more interested in Matte Proofs than in Brilliant Proofs. The gold series mentioned above were struck in Proof formats that were new to the U.S. Mint in the early 20th century.

In regard to 20th century gold, Dannreuther voiced another newly minted theory, the likes of which have probably never been heard before. For decades, the general belief has been that the U.S. Mint began striking Proof coins in Matte format circa 1907 solely because a few European countries had adopted the practice, for at least some coins, shortly before. The Matte Proof format was a new fashion for Proof coinage. Dannreuther, in contrast, suggested that a central reason relates to the dies for the ‘incuse’ (sunken device) Indian Head Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles.

As the design elements (devices) are below the fields on the coins, the design elements must have been raised on the dies used to strike Indian Head Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles. Dannreuther argues that there was probably no way for U.S. Mint personnel to effectively polish these dies. So, Brilliant Proof Indian Head Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles were not feasible, according to Dannreuther. At the meeting, Akers seemed to imply that the main reason for Matte Proof U.S. coinage stemmed from “aesthetics.” In response to a later inquiry of mine, Dannreuther modified his position and explained, “The change to Matte Proof gold [may have been] originally aesthetic, as David Akers pointed out, but my [JD’s] point was that, even if it was aesthetic, the Quarter and Half Eagles would have been nearly impossible to produce with Brilliant Proof fields.”

I have several questions about Dannreuther’s second theory. Did jewelers of the early 20th century polish very small areas on gold pendants and rings to bring about smooth, shiny and reflective surfaces? Were the fields on Indian Head Quarter Eagle dies really too small to effectively polish without touching the devices? This is, though, an ingenious theory that may lead to some intriguing discussions in the future.

V. Q&A with Albanese Regarding the CAC

John Albanese was the final speaker at the Jan. 6th meeting. He answered questions about the CAC, which Albanese founded in 2007. The CAC accepts submissions of coins that are already certified by the PCGS or the NGC.

The CAC will approve a submitted coin, and attach a sticker to its holder, if the CAC finds its grade to be in the mid range to high end of its PCGS or NGC assigned grade. (For definitions of ‘low end’ and ‘high end,’ please click here to see my article on the Widening Gap. For some relevant, recent comments about the CAC, including remarks by Dr. Duckor, click here to read my article on Jay Brahin’s Saints.)

In an exchange with Joe O’Connor, Albanese and O’Connor agreed that coins that are ‘high end’ have traditionally brought higher prices even before the CAC was founded and many coins without CAC stickers bring strong premiums at auction, well above the prices that corresponding ‘low end’ coins of the same type and date would bring if offered in the same respective auctions. I then pointed out that many collectors do not know which coins are ‘high end’ or special in some other way. Not all collectors are advised by honest and sophisticated experts. One of the collector-members stated that he does not know which coins are high end. An important point to keep in mind, in my view, is that people who buy many CAC stickered coins will on average, though not always, end up with a significantly higher quality group of coins than they would if they bought similar certified coins without CAC stickers.

In my exchange with Albanese at the meeting, I directed attention to coins with controversial CAC stickers and I pointed out that all CAC stickered coins tend to realize higher prices at auction than similar certified coins without CAC stickers. This is not solely because CAC stickered coins tend to be of higher quality. Often, I discuss auction lots with expert dealers. There are CAC stickered coins, albeit a small number, that, in the opinions of relevant experts, maybe should not have been CAC approved. I am certain that these usually bring higher prices at auction than the same coins would if they did not have CAC stickers. Kevin Lipton seemed to agree with this point of mine and found it to be analogous to the fact that certified coins tend to be worth more than very similar raw coins, even if such raw coins are of higher quality than corresponding certified coins. Collectors feel more comfortable acquiring coins that are accompanied by expert opinions. Collectors know that no service and no individual expert will ever be close to perfect.

Most collectors should not attempt to become advanced grading experts themselves. Such an attempt will often be futile and/or painful. Collectors should learn some of the basics of grading and should know to whom to direct questions. Further, collectors should seek opinions and advice from coin enthusiasts. One of the great aspects of the 20th Century Gold Club is that collectors have the opportunity to ask questions of people, dealers and non-dealers, who have very advanced knowledge of these 20th century gold series. Moreover, there is much more to learn about each important coin than its numerical grade. Collecting coins can be very enjoyable and extremely interesting. Meeting collectors with similar interests and asking questions of experts adds tremendously to one’s collecting experience. This meeting of the 20th Gold Club was fascinating.

©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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  1. Steven Duckor | Feb 17, 2010 | Reply

    Greg has done a fantastic job in his review of the 20th Century Gold Club! He has captured the importance of the meeting as well as the lively discussions that took place. sd

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