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Highest Certified 1901-S Barber Quarter Breaks Coin Auction Records and Becomes the Star of a Coin Convention

by Greg Reynolds for CoinLink

On March 4, in Baltimore, B&M auctioned a 1901 San Francisco Mint quarter dollar, which was then PCGS certified “MS-68,” for $327,750, an auction record for a Barber quarter and for any business strike Barber coin. John Brush, acting on behalf of DLRC, was the successful bidder. While bidding, he was talking to John Feigenbaum, the President of DLRC, on the phone.

On March 25, this quarter was featured at the PCGS announcement of the SecurePlusTM program in Fort Worth, and had been regraded “MS-68+.” On March 26, Bill Shamhart negotiated with Feigenbaum to buy this quarter. During the following week, it was CAC approved, and Shamhart placed it in a private collection. Other than the Olsen-Hawn 1913 Liberty Nickel that sold during the FUN Platinum Night event, this is the most ‘talked about’ coin in 2010, so far.

I. This 1901-S sells at Auction and then Privately

Early in 2010, this 1901-S quarter remained in an NGC holder, with an MS-68 grade, and was submitted by B&M to PCGS for consideration as a ‘crossover.’ It did, in fact, ‘cross,’ meaning here that the PCGS also graded it as MS-68.

John Feigenbaum explains that, soon after this 1901-S was auctioned on March 4, the “PCGS was looking for a trophy coin to display during their announcement; so they contacted me to inquire if I would be willing to put this coin in their new holder. I was happy to oblige.” Technically, there is a new SecureShield insert in the same type of holder. This quarter became the first coin to be PCGS graded “MS-68+,” under the new system that allows for ‘+’ grades. On March 25, David Hall included this coin in his presentation, in Fort Worth, at the formal announcement of the SecurePlusTM program.

When PCGS officials contacted Feigenbaum about arranging for this coin to be a showpiece, “there was no discussion of the ‘+’ designation,” Feigenbaum reports, “that was a complete surprise. Frankly, I didn’t even know it was an option.”

On Friday, March 26, at the ANA Convention in Fort Worth, Bill Shamhart, [] a New Jersey dealer and CAC consultant, arranged for one of his clients to purchase this 1901-S quarter from Feigenbaum, subject to verification of its grade by the CAC. During the following week, the CAC placed a sticker on the holder, and this quarter thus traded again. The CAC approved the MS-68 grade; the CAC will not accept or reject ‘plus’ grades. Shamhart’s client is a “lifelong collector” who desires American coins of “amazing quality.”

At auction on March 4, the firm of David Lawrence (DLRC) acquired this 1901-S quarter for inventory largely because the firm has specialized in Barber Coinage for more than a quarter century. Barber coins were minted from 1892 to 1916. John Feigenbaum’s deceased father, David Lawrence Feigenbaum, founded DLRC in 1979. David authored three books on Barber coinage, one book on each denomination, dimes, quarters and half dollars. In the late 1990s, father and son co-authored a fourth book that focused on Mint State and Proof Barber coins that were certified by the PCGS and the NGC. DLRC sells Proof, Mint State, AU and circulated Barber coins.

John and his Dad were offered this coin in 1990, “but we could not justify the acquisition in financial terms,” John reveals. His Dad “lost sleep at night” as a result of not arranging a deal for this coin. In 1990, the seller was asking a substantial amount, considerably more than the March 2010 auction price.

The purchase of this coin at auction in March 2010 established a link to his father and the strengthening of a tradition. John Feigenbaum is “proud” that his firm owned this coin, even for a brief period.

II. The Quality of this 1901-S Quarter

Matt Kleinsteuber asserts that “the coin is outstanding and as close to perfect as you are going to find [for a 1901-S quarter]. It is a monster, a high end 68 that definitely deserved the plus.” Matt adds, “You do not really see the contact marks in person. They are much more visible in the photos.” Further, Kleinsteuber does “not remember any contact marks on the reverse. The reverse is pretty much perfect.” Matt is lead grader and a trader for NFC coins, and he is an instructor of grading classes at ANA Summer Seminars.

Kleinsteuber and a partner bid $230,000 for the coin at the B&M auction, which would have amounted to $264,500 with the 15% buyer’s premium that is standard at all major coin auctions. Via telephone, Jay Parrino bid a higher amount, “at least $300,000.” Parrino is a legendary dealer of famous rarities in coins, stamps, paper money, comic books, and vintage photographs.

I (this writer) admit that, unfortunately, I have not examined this coin. Jeff Ambio, who catalogued this coin for B&M, is very enthusiastic about it. Ambio is the author of three books, including one on Barber dimes. Jeff remarks that the Feigenbaum-Shamhart 1901-S quarter grades “a [strong] MS-68 with a bit of light rim toning to otherwise creamy white surfaces.” Ambio agrees that it deserves the plus sign to which it was awarded by the PCGS. When I asked him if he would grade it 68.7 or higher, Jeff said, “Absolutely!”

Later, Bill Shamhart and John Albanese both employed the exact same phrase, “a solid MS-68,” when I asked them, in separate conversations, about the grade of this 1901-S quarter. In Albanese’s view, it did “not just miss” a 69 grade. The awarding of a plus, by the PCGS, in contrast, suggests that PCGS graders determined that it is rather close to grading MS-69, within three tenths of a point according to the PCGS system.

Albanese was a co-founder of the Professional Coin Grading Service in 1986, and he was the sole founder of the Numismatic Guaranty Corp (NGC) in 1987. He is no longer a shareholder of either leading grading service. In 2007, Albanese founded the CAC, which verifies (or rejects) grades already assigned by the PCGS and the NGC regarding encapsulated coins that are submitted to the CAC.

Shamhart acknowledges that there are “two or three minute marks” on the face “that are virtually impossible to see with the naked eye. The coin just glows. It is amazing.”

Shamhart teaches an ‘Advanced Coin Grading Course’ at ANA Summer Seminars. Typically, he examines coins for the CAC two days a week. Bill is also very interested in medals, unusual numismatic items, and historical documents. He is the proprietor of Numismatic Americana, Inc.

III. Other Superb 1901-S Quarters

The highest quality 1901-S quarter that I (this writer) have ever seen is the Hugon coin that Heritage auctioned in January 2005, during a FUN Platinum Night event. It looks much better in actuality than it appears in the pictures in the auction catalogue of the Hugon collection. It is more than very attractive, exhibits almost no contact marks even under five times magnification, has considerable luster, and quite a bit of definitely natural toning. When I saw it, I immediately noted that it probably has never been dipped or cleaned. In April 2010, I learned that Stewart Blay and Dr. Steven Duckor drew similar conclusions about the Hugon coin.

The Hugon 1901-S is PCGS graded MS-67, and, in my opinion, its grade is in the middle of the 67 range. It could be fairly argued that its grade is in the high end of the range, though Stewart Blay does not regard it as a high end 67. Stewart emphasizes, though, that “the 01-S quarter from the Hugon sale was from an original 1901-S mint set. The coin is totally original.”

Dr. Duckor remarks that “the Hugon 1901-S Barber Quarter at FUN 2005 had color [and other characteristics] that made it a true PCGS 67” grade coin. Duckor attended this auction and he “really liked the coin, its strike, and especially its original skin!”

Circumstantial evidence suggests that the James A. Stack 1901-S quarter has its original skin as well. I have never seen it, nor has Dr. Duckor. It was auctioned in New York, by Stack’s, in 1975. It is currently owned by a Pennsylvania collector and is listed in the NGC registry, under the name “YeOldOne.” James A. Stack, Sr. died more than a half-century ago. He had one of the ten all-time best collections of U.S. coins.

The James A. Stack – “YeOldOne” 1901-S quarter is PCGS graded MS-67, and pictures suggest to me that it may have wonderful, natural toning. Stewart Blay certainly concludes that the toning is natural and he finds the James A. Stack 1901-S to be exceptionally attractive. Overall, Stewart grades it as a “high end MS 67.”

Blay also refers to his 1901-S quarter as “a high end MS 67.” Like the Hugon and YeOldOne coins, the Blay 1901-S quarter is PCGS graded MS-67. Stewart reports that he purchased it in the early 1990s, from “a Christie’s auction in New York.” According to Stewart, it has never been dipped and has very attractive toning. Sadly, I have not seen it either.

While it seems that these four are the finest known 1901-S quarters, another probably should be mentioned here. There is an NGC graded MS-67 1901-S quarter that DLRC has handled a few times. It has minimal contact marks. I have never seen this one, at least not in a holder with an MS-67 grade. Pictures, and other sources, suggest that it has been rather heavily dipped and maybe ‘conserved’ as well. It seems very likely that it is of lower quality than the four above-mentioned 1901-S quarters. Then again, as the Feigenbaum-Shamhart coin toned considerably during its nineteen or so years in an NGC holder, this NGC graded MS-67 1901-S quarter may tone nicely as well. It would not be fair to prejudge it before examining it.

IV. Past History of this 1901-S Quarter

In the late 1980s, this 1901-S quarter, which is now PCGS graded “MS-68+,” suddenly appeared along with at least one other 1901-S quarter from a mysterious private source. In 1989 or so, it was PCGS certified. Rumors suggest that it was then very deeply toned. A dealer, who now lives on the West Coast, acquired it, cracked it out of its PCGS holder, dipped it such that it became extremely white, and, at some point soon afterwards, submitted it to the NGC, which graded it as “MS-68.” Albanese was then a finalizer and one of two managing partners at the NGC.

This 1901-S quarter, after it was NGC graded MS-68, was consigned to an auction in the Spring of 1990, where some believe it realized a fanciful price. I strongly suggest that it did not sell. It was a common practice at the time, in auctions conducted by more than one leading firm, for dealer-consignors to arrange for dealer-friends to bid on consigned lots, thus frequently resulting in ‘buybacks.’ As auction firms had fewer expenses during that era, commissions tended to then be lower, than they are now, for dealer-consignors of very valuable coins. I believe that the respective terms of sale of most auction firms active at the time clearly indicated that such buybacks occurred, and a prominent note to that effect, often in sizable letters, was printed on the prices realized issued by at least two auction firms. Besides, in the coin business, the rules that governed auctions twenty years ago are different from the rules that prevail in 2010.

So, the amount of $327,750 realized in March 2010 is, in my view, an auction record for any Barber quarter, and for a business strike Barber coin of any denomination. I have carefully examined the four different 1894-S dimes that have each realized more than $327,750 at auction, and these are all Proofs.

Returning to this 1901-S quarter, Steve Deeds reports that it was consigned to B&M by “the estate” of a deceased coin buyer. Deeds is the president of Bowers & Merena auctions. Further, Deeds reveals that this “estate” consigned “two other coins” to this same auction, though Steve is “not a liberty” to reveal them. Deeds has information from the consignor that indicates that this coin was purchased by this now deceased coin buyer in 1990 from a dealer who is still active today, though this dealer is someone who mostly sells items other than coins and would “not be seen” at major “coin shows.”

So, this 1901-S quarter was in an NGC holder for around nineteen years. In 1990, it was extremely white. It now has a substantial amount of toning, which is apparently brownish-russet with some blue and greenish-blue highlights. Evidently, all of this quarter’s toning came about while it was in its NGC holder.

Matt Kleinsteuber is unsurprised. In “old first generation NGC plastic, some silver coins, that were certified when snow white, toned beautifully. The toning starts on the rims and moves inward. I [Matt] have seen very attractive [natural] toning on tons of silver coins in old NGC holders. Barber dimes and quarters come to mind. This [MS-68+] ’01-S quarter is gorgeous.”

The notion of coins toning in NGC holders warrants discussion. Clearly, such toning is likely to be natural, as innumerable collectors, including some very advanced collectors, have kept their coins in NGC holders and will do so in the future. At first, I (this writer) thought that the coins might be interacting with substances in the soft, white plastic material that literally surrounds each coin in an NGC holder. Albanese refers to this piece as “the core” and he maintains that it cannot have contributed to any toning.

Albanese reveals that “the core” is made of a material that was extensively “tested by DuPont,” a leading chemical company, and determined to be “totally inert.” Albanese further explains that the holders are “not airtight” and were “never meant to be.” He acknowledges, though, that later NGC holders are “sealed tighter” than earlier ones. Either way, however, “air penetrates the holder.” (PCGS holders are not airtight either.)

In regard to toning, John has often consulted the founder of Intercept Shield, who is a leading expert in the toning and corrosion of metal, and in the conservation of metal historical objects. Albanese asserts that “coins are changing in [PCGS and NGC] holders every day, it is just happening so slowly that we don’t notice it.” Sometimes, toning takes decades to develop. Many ancient coins toned very gradually over a period of centuries.

One realistic possibility is that this 1901-S quarter, when it was in an NGC holder, was placed in an envelope, maybe a 5” by 8” manila envelope. Given the color and overall nature of the toning, it is likely that this coin was stored properly. Substances interacted with it that are the same, or very similar, to those substances found in envelopes and albums that mainstream collectors of coins have used for many decades. Albanese suggests that substances reached the coin by traveling by way of “moisture in the air.”

V. Recovery from Dipping

I am concerned that this quarter was dipped in the past. Albanese, Shamhart and Kleinsteuber all assure me, however, that the past dipping is not readily detectable and would not be apparent during a normal grading process. “If we did not know the story,” Albanese states, “it would look like an original coin.”

Would an expert analysis with a good, easily obtainable stereo microscope, clearly demonstrate that this coin had been dipped in the past? I do not know.

Years ago, Anthony Swiatek published ‘before and after’ pictures of a half dollar that had been dipped. These pictures were subsequently re-published in a book by Scott Travers. These were taken via an extremely powerful microscope in an advanced laboratory that was then operated by a ‘Fortune 500’ company. The photos indicate that a dipping caused a tremendous difference, at some level, in the surfaces of a half dollar. Hills and rugged terrain were wiped out and replaced by streaks of relatively flat shapes. These particular kinds of effects of dipping, however, are typically not visible to the naked eye.

Regardless of whether such differences are immediately visible, two very prominent collectors, Stewart Blay and Dr. Steven Duckor, are both upset that this 1901-S quarter was dipped more than twenty years ago. A fascinating topic has been raised, which has implications that extend far beyond this one coin: If a past dipping of a coin is not discernible by graders, even under five times magnification, is such a past dipping an issue? Blay, Duckor and some other leading collectors believe so.

There is not a simple answer to such a question, and there are sharply conflicting opinions regarding dipping among leading experts. There are many obviously dipped silver coins that have been graded “MS-68” by the PCGS or the NGC. Furthermore, many leading dealer-graders regard dipping as not being harmful. In contrast, Dr. Duckor emphasizes the importance of a coin’s “original skin.” It contains part of the meaning and history of the coin. For more information about this topic, please see my three part series on natural toning, which include discussions of dipping. (Click for Part 1, Part 2 or Part 3).

In my view, if all other factors are equal, then a coin that has its ‘original skin’ is much more desirable than a coin that has been dipped. In reality, though, all other factors are never equal, and all coins have imperfections. I do not believe that there exist any pre-1934 coins that truly grade 70, and I, along with many others, find some of the 69 grades that have been awarded to be unconvincing.

Many of the foremost grading experts in the nation seem certain that this Feigenbaum-Shamhart 1901-S quarter merits a MS-68 grade. (The new PCGS system that allows for ‘+’ grades has not yet been digested by most coin experts.) The expert collectors who grade it less than 68 are really in disagreement with the criteria employed by the PCGS and the NGC, rather than questioning how this specific coin has been graded.

In accordance with the grading criteria currently being employed by experts at the PCGS, this 1901-S quarter fairly grades “68+.” Indeed, there was wide scale agreement among PCGS experts about awarding the first PCGS “68+” grade, to this coin!

VI. Conclusion

It sounds like this 1901-S quarter is an extraordinarily appealing coin, regardless of its precise numerical grade. I hope, someday, to have the opportunity to carefully examine it and to then publicly express an opinion about it.

Undoubtedly, it has become the most famous Barber quarter. The offering of the PCGS graded “MS-68,” Eliasberg 1892 Micro ‘O’ Barber half dollar in January 2009 did not receive even a fraction of the attention that this quarter has garnered. The Eliasberg Micro-O is often regarded as the most valuable Barber half. Feigenbaum muses that he “might have to buy” this half “someday,” as he has now handled a large portion of the most famous Barber coins, including the finest known 1894-S dime.

Also, it will be interesting to gauge the reaction of collectors when one of the above-mentioned, certified MS-67 grade 1901-S quarters next re-enters the marketplace. The PCGS graded MS-67 1901-S quarters have not been publicly seen in a long time. Indeed, Stewart Blay has had his 1901-S quarter for around twenty years.

In any event, the collector who bought the Feigenbaum-Shamhart “MS-68+” 1901-S quarter should be delighted with his acquisition. Like many adult coin enthusiasts, I collected Barber quarters when I was a kid. Any 1901-S quarter is desirable. Surely, this year, coin collectors of all ages dreamed about this particular 1901-S quarter.

©2010 Greg Reynolds

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