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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Collection of Carson City Half Eagles, WPE Classic Commemoratives & Summer Coin Shows

News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #9

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds

I. Summer Topics

Today’s main discussions are about Carson City Half Eagles and commemorative silver coins. I admit that I am not a specialist in either area. I will not, however, limit my writings to my favorite topics, as other coins ‘make news’ and are important in a variety of ways. I aim to write for a wide audience. Plus, I have a fondness for most all rare coins and I learn when I prepare to write. I enjoy researching rare coins of almost every kind.

Typically, the coin business is relatively slow between the Spring Long Beach Expo and the Summer ANA Convention. Collectors and dealers often vacation, or are just less active, during this period.

The relatively new, Summer FUN Convention is moderately successful, though it makes far more sense to hold it in West Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale. It was in West Palm Beach for three years and I attended all three events, which seemed successful. The Summer FUN Convention was developing a following in Southern Florida. Was it a good idea to move it to Orlando?

Many wealthy coin collectors live in Southern Florida, which is much more densely populated in general than Central Florida. As people are not eager to travel to Florida in the middle of the summer, a Southern Florida location, for a coin show, makes more sense in the summer than does Orlando, which is a city that has evolved into a destination for travelers. Besides, people elsewhere are more likely to have relatives, friends or business ties in Southern Florida than in Orlando. Consider the populations, wealth and business activities in the metropolitan areas of Fort Lauderdale and Miami!

Boston seems to be a good choice for a Summer ANA Convention. Many (though not all) rare coin sales are exempt from sales tax in Massachusetts. There are thousands of serious coin collectors within driving distance of Boston and hundreds more who may fly to Boston. Certainly, it is a city with attractions for girlfriends, spouses or kids. Besides, in relation to the founding of the United States, and the pre-revolutionary period, Boston is of tremendous historical importance.

It has been a very long time since an ANA Convention has been held in New England. Further, there are no longer any regularly held, first tier coin conventions in Massachusetts or the State of New York. CoinFest is held, annually each autumn, in Stamford (CT). In my view, CoinFest has been very successful and may eventually become a first tier event. It would be better if the fourth CoinFest, in October, were not scheduled within a week of the Fall Baltimore Expo. Could its time frame be moved a week or two earlier?

In August, both pre-convention shows will attract collectors. While the “Boston 2010” show at the Park Plaza Hotel has received some recent attention, the Bay State Coin Show has been a tradition in Boston for decades. The special summer Bay State Coin Show will be at the Radisson Hotel, at Park Square, from Friday, Aug 6th to Sunday, Aug 8th.

As for how rarities will fare in the Boston auctions, or on the bourse floors, I will not put forth predictions. In my columns, I have already discussed some of the offerings in the upcoming Boston auctions and I will soon write more about this topic. In last week’s column, I discussed one-year type coins that will be offered in the Heritage ANA auction, especially including coppers of 1793. Two weeks ago, I focused upon three Great Rarities that will be auctioned in Boston in August. In my June 23rd column, I analyzed the upcoming offering of the Boyd-Cardinal 1794 silver dollar in the B&M Boston auction. (As always, clickable links are in blue.) Today, I am discussing collections that have recently traded privately.

II. Carson City Half Eagles

In May, Doug Winter acquired the McGregor collection of Carson City (Nevada) Mint Half Eagles ($5 gold coins). He purchased this 1870-CC to 1884-CC set “intact” from one of his collector-customers, who may or may not be really named ‘McGregor.’ According to Winter, McGregor chose Carson City coins largely because of “their history.”

As Carson City Mint coins are relics of the ‘Wild West,’ some collectors regard these as being more exciting than Philadelphia Mint products, though I (this writer) do not share this view. Winter finds that many collectors like “to think about where Carson City coins have been.” In the late 19th century, the West was a not-fully explored frontier and life for many Westerners was characterized by adventures. (Please see my two part series on 1876-CC Twenty Cent coins – Part 1, Part 2.) People living on the East Coast at the time tended to have typical jobs and their respective lives were largely characterized by routines.

McGregor started buying Carson City gold coins in 1999 because he felt that the B&M sales of the Harry Bass collection presented a special opportunity to acquire Carson City gold coins. This collector did not choose Double Eagles ($20 gold coins) because he did not wish to spend the amount of money required to obtain an 1870-CC. (Please click here to read my article on 1870-CC Double Eagles.) Moreover, McGregor then determined, Winter relates, that Carson City “fives were better values than the tens.” One reason that McGregor sold his Half Eagles in 2010 is to use the proceeds for “another collecting project.”

According to Winter, this 1870-CC to 1884-CC set was finished “three or four years ago.” Further, Winter reveals that McGregor decided not to acquire the Carson City Half Eagles of the 1890s because these are frequently available and do not present enough of a challenge, in McGregor’s opinion. He regards them as “mundane.” In my (this writer’s) view, it would have made logical and traditional sense to acquire the later date Carson City Half Eagles in order to have a truly complete set.

Here is a listing of the McGregor collection of Half Eagles: 1870-CC PCGS graded AU-58, ’71-CC PCGS graded AU-55 with a CAC sticker of approval, ’72-CC NGC graded AU-58 with a CAC sticker, ’73-CC PCGS-50,’74-CC PCGS-58 CAC, ’75-CC PCGS-55, ’76-CC PCGS-58 CAC, ’77-CC PCGS-53, ’78-CC PCGS-58 CAC, ’79-CC PCGS-58 CAC, ’80-CC NGC-61, ’81-CC PCGS-55 CAC, ’82-CC NGC-58 CAC, ’83-CC PCGS-58 CAC, and ’84-CC NGC-58.

Winter emphasizes that the McGregor 1878-CC is “tied for the highest graded at PCGS and is one of the two finest [that Winter] has ever seen.” I (this writer) must admit that I became very curious when I investigated the rarity of the 1878-CC. Back in 1988, or even earlier as well, researcher Breen stated that this issue is ‘very rare.’ In 2008, Winter wrote that “there are an estimated seventy-five or so known in all grades with the majority in the Fine to Very Fine range.” In April 2010, however, Winter stated that he would “probably revise the total number known up to the area of 75 [to] 100.” I tentatively disagree. After reviewing auction records and other bits of information, I began to wonder if there are really as many as seventy-five! I believe that, over the last twenty years, many of the same gold rarities were repeatedly consigned to auctions, often in different PCGS or NGC holders.

Could the 1878-CC be rarer than the much more famous 1870-CC? Probably not, yet it is much rarer than PCGS and NGC data, or total numbers of auction appearances, may suggest.

The 1870-CC Half Eagle is a classic rarity, especially since 1870 is the first year of the Carson City Mint. The PCGS and NGC data for this issue include especially large numbers of resubmissions of many of the same coins. The combined PCGS and NGC population of one hundred and ten probably includes, at most, fifty different 1870-CC Half Eagles. There are also a significant number of 1870-CC Half Eagles that are not gradable because of serious problems. A few of these are avidly demanded by collectors. The McGregor 1870-CC is PCGS graded AU-58 and is certainly one of the highest graded.

Though not as rare as the 1870-CC or the 1878-CC, the 1872-CC may possibly be very rare as well. Note that in the first edition of their encyclopedia of gold coins (Whitman, 2006), Jeff Garrett & Ron Guth reveal that the leading certification services had “graded” sixty-two 1872-CC Half Eagles. Now, in 2010, this total is more than one hundred and thirty! Very few additional pieces have emerged in the interim. The totals are inflated by re-submissions of the same coins.

It occurred to me that the total of sixty-two in this Garrett-Guth encyclopedia may be a typographical error. So, I checked the Heritage auction archives, which provide data that is consistent. Consider that, in Oct. 2003, there were nine 1872-CC Half Eagles that were reportedly PCGS graded EF-45 and eight graded higher. Now, the PCGS reports eleven graded EF-45 and twenty graded higher. So, there is a 150% increase in the number PCGS graded above EF-45, from 2003 to 2010. Almost all of these 1872-CC Half Eagles, indisputably, are re-submissions of coins that were already PCGS or NGC graded. It is no secret that substantial grade-inflation occurred from the mid 1990s to 2007 or so.

There may not even be fifty 1872-CC Half Eagles that are truly gradable. Indeed, Garrett & Guth mention that they have seen many that are “damaged.”

Winter declares that the 1872-CC that he just sold, from the McGregor collection, is “outstanding”! Further, he points out that this issue is “unknown in uncirculated” grades. It is interesting that the CAC has approved two in AU-58 grade, including the McGregor coin.

In my view, Liberty Head Half Eagles in general, not just Carson City issues, have been somewhat overlooked during the boom in markets for U.S. gold coins from 2003 to early 2008. So far this year, as John Albanese has emphasized, there has been a large amount of trading activity in Eagles and especially in Double Eagles. Current demand for Double Eagles is an especially complex topic and has been affected by new investors during the last two years and by marketing programs over the past ten years or so.

One reason why 19th century Eagles are sometimes preferred to 19th century Half Eagles is that sets of Eagles are easier to complete than sets of Half Eagles. A complete set of Eagles from 1795 to 1933 is not that difficult. Indeed, the collector known as ‘Richmond’ completed a set of all business strike Eagles, with the exception of one major variety that he could have easily afforded. DLRC auctioned his gold coins in July 2004 in the Richmond I sale. If a collector were willing to forego two to four coins, a near-complete set of Eagles from 1795 to 1933 would be a rational objective for someone who has a budget that is suitable for collecting U.S. gold coins. A complete set, by date and Mint location, of any one type of Eagles would be less expensive and very much realistic.

As so many issues of 19th century Half Eagles are very rare or prohibitively so, there is a more of a need for Half Eagle collectors to narrowly focus. Collecting 19th century Half Eagles is more difficult than collecting other 19th century gold denominations.

Even within a type or subtype, a narrowly defined set by ‘Mint’ or by time period makes logical and rational sense. Given the popularity of Carson City Mint coins in general and the rarity of Carson City Half Eagles in particular, I am surprised that more collectors are not attracted to them. While a challenge, a set of Carson City Half Eagles is feasible.

A suggestion in relation to collecting 19th century gold coins, and relating to many other areas, is to NOT focus on the coins with the highest certified grades. For each coin issue, a collector should NOT buy the highest certified grade that he can afford. Instead, a high priority should be to obtain coins with mostly original surfaces and attractive natural toning. (Please see my three part series on Collecting Naturally Toned Coinspart 1, part 2, part 3.)

III. Silver Commemoratives

As almost all silver commemoratives are not rare in uncirculated grades, and most were not subject to substantial bagmarks, toning is often a central factor relating to grade and value. Many collectors seek commemoratives with appealing natural toning. Other collectors seek commemoratives that have been artificially brightened with acid, ‘dipped.’

On July 1, Pinnacle Rarities purchased the WPE Collection, which is a complete 144 coin set of classic silver commemorative coins. These were minted from 1892 to 1954. The WPE collection contains many gem quality coins, including some that are high in the condition rankings for their respective issues.

One hundred and forty-two of the coins are half dollars. During the 1892 to 1954 era, the U.S. Mint produced only one commemorative quarter issue and just one commemorative silver dollar. The WPE Isabella Quarter and the WPE Lafayette Silver Dollar are each PCGS graded MS-67.

Typically, collectors of classic commemorative silver coins assemble “type” sets of fifty, which includes a representative of each design type. A set of 144 is more ambitious and includes additional dates for issues that were produced in more than one year and/or at more than one Mint, plus a few major varieties. For example, a fifty coin set requires only one 1921 Alabama half dollar, while a 144 piece set requires two, the second with the odd notation “2×2” in the right obverse (front) field.

In the PCGS registry, among 144 piece sets, the WPE collection was the third ‘current finest’ and is the fourth “All-Time Finest” with a weighted grade point average of 66.7. The current, highest possible, grade point average, for a complete 144 coin set, is “67.328.” For some classic commemorative coin issues, the PCGS has never graded a representative as MS-68 or higher.

For the best fifty coin “type” set conceptually extracted from the WPE 144 piece set, the WPE silver commemorative type set recently was the third ‘current finest’ and is the fifth “All-Time Finest.” In terms of PCGS grades and the weighting factors relating to commemoratives in the PCGS Registry, the WPE fifty coin set has a weighted grade point average of 66.98 out of a possible maximum of 67.47. The Bruce Scher collection, which was “retired” in January 2005, is the “All-Time Finest” with a weighted GPA of 67.22.

Honestly, I would prefer to discuss the characteristics of some of the individual coins in the WPE set, rather than talk about grade point averages. The truth, though, is that I have not seen the WPE set. I am aware that commemorative enthusiasts have raved about it.

The collector who formed the WPE set lives in Arizona. He began collecting coins as teenager and he is now a senior citizen. For most of life, he occasionally attended coin shows. He did collect other series.

According to Kathleen Duncan, Principal of Pinnacle Rarities, in addition to coins from the Bruce Scher collection, “there are quite a few pedigreed to the Troy Wiseman and JFS collections as well.” These are widely recognized in the coin collecting community. Listings of commemoratives and other coins from the JFS and Troy Wiseman collections can be found in the Heritage Auction Archives.

Ms. Duncan reveals that the following commemoratives in the WPE collection were purchased, in the past, by this Arizona collector from Pinnacle Rarities: “Lafayette MS67, Elgin MS68, Antietam MS68, Bay Bridge MS68, Pan Pac MS67, Hawaiian MS66, Delaware MS67, Lincoln MS67, Monroe MS66, 1937-D Oregon MS68, 1936-D Cincinnati MS67, 1920 Pilgrim MS67, 1934-D Oregon MS67, 1938-S Boone MS67, 1949-S BTW MS67 and 1938 Texas MS67.”

The most famous coin in the WPE collection is possibly the Albany half dollar that is PCGS graded MS-68. It was earlier in the Bruce Scher collection. Coins from the WPE collection that “are still available at that time,” Duncan says, will be displayed at the Boston ANA Convention in August. Many have already been sold.

There will be plenty of rarities in the Boston auctions. I am curious, though, as to the scope and magnitude of the rarities that will be offered on the bourse floor. Last year, I wrote about the offerings at the Summer 2009 ANA Convention in Los Angeles (part 1, part 2, Widening Gap).

©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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