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The Gold coins in the Mark Gordon Type Set: Auction News and Basic Discussions

By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink

On May 24th and 25th, Mark Gordon’s collection of U.S. type coins will be auctioned at the Crowne Plaza Beverly Hills hotel. It will be a highlight of the auction extravaganza conducted by the firm of Ira & Larry Goldberg, a few days prior to the Long Beach Coin, Stamp & Collectible Expo. Other highlights include the highest-graded certified 1797 ‘Small Eagle’ $10 gold coin, which I wrote about in 2007, one of the all-time best collections of Byzantine coins, and a stellar run of British gold dating from the 1300s to the 1800s.

Mark Gordon Gold Type SetLarry Goldberg reports that Mark Gordon telephoned him “about ten years ago and said he wanted to assemble a top quality US type set.” Since then, Larry has “advised Mark to buy certain coins [Larry] personally chose for him.” Larry relates that a majority of the coins in the Gordon type set were “purchased from Goldberg sales. Some of the others came from the other auction houses. We wanted especially nice, quality coins that were graded by PCGS or NGC.” Larry adds that it was never their objective to acquire the highest graded certified coins, but rather coins that were “accurately graded and nice looking.” Larry and Mark both “like attractive, naturally toned coins.”

After Mark Gordon made significant progress in assembling a high quality, type set of U.S. copper, nickel and silver coins, “we then started acquiring Colonials and Fractional California Gold pieces.” Later, Goldberg assisted Gordon in completing a type set of gold and silver U.S. commemoratives, which are also being sold in this auction. Gordon is selling his collection because he wishes to devote more funds to “helping people,” especially “children in Africa.”

I am limiting my discussion here to Mark Gordon’s gold type set as it is almost complete and features many rare and/or famous coin issues. A type set requires at least one representative of each design type, within designated boundaries.

Gordon’s gold type set is truly exceptional. While he has some excellent copper, nickel or silver type coins, his collections of these do not quite have the status of his gold type set. Also, as silver and copper type coins are usually not as scarce as corresponding or parallel gold type coins, their significance is more dependent on their respective grades, and I have not yet seen them.

The names of gold denominations can be confusing, as the word ‘eagle’ has more than one meaning in the field of rare U.S. coins. It often refers to the depiction of an eagle on the reverse (back) of a coin and it often refers to gold coin denominations. I am certain that it is best to capitalize the word Eagle in the context of denominations, as it has part of a name and its meaning is so different from standard dictionary definitions. An Eagle is a U.S. $10 gold coin and a Double Eagle is a $20 gold coin. Likewise, Half Eagle is a name for the $5 denomination, and the face value of a Quarter Eagle is $2.50. One Dollar gold coins and Three Dollar gold coins do not have fancy names.

According to the definition of a gold type set in the PCGS registry, the Mark Gordon Type Set is missing four coins. These are a Capped Head ‘large diameter’ Quarter Eagle, a Coiled Hair Stella ($4 coin), a ‘Type 1’ “Covered Ear” Liberty Head Eagle (1838-39), and a Rolled Rim 1907 Eagle.

The ‘large size,’ sometimes called ‘large diameter,’ Capped Head Quarter Eagle was minted from 1821 to 1827, though not continuously. The ‘reduced’ or ‘small diameter’ Capped Head Quarter Eagle was produced from 1829 to 1834. Although the difference in diameter is only one-eighth of an inch, the design of the head of Liberty is different as well. It is curious that one of these is missing from Mark Gordon’s set. The market for rare gold coins really boomed from 2003 to 2007, and it might have been hard then to find a naturally toned, high-grade ‘Large Size’ Capped Head Quarter Eagle for a non-exorbitant price. Really nice Quarter Eagles of this type, with minimal imperfections, do not appear often.

I maintain that a Rolled Rim Eagle should not be required for a complete type set. It exhibits an experimental finish that was never really adopted, and the meanings of the U.S. Mint records regarding this issue are ambiguous. The status of the ‘Wire Rim’ 1907 issue is also controversial, though it has a much stronger claim to being a regular issue. In any event, Gordon has a 1907 ‘Wire Rim’ Eagle that is PCGS graded MS-64. These tend to be highly demanded, especially since there are many collectors building sets of Indian Head Eagles.

As Coiled Hair Stellas ($4 coins) are definitely patterns, did not circulate, and were only distributed to a few influential people, it is ridiculous for the PCGS or any other entity to require that a complete type set include a Coiled Hair Stella. So, in my view, the gold portion of Gordon’s type set is missing just two coins, and these are not extremely rare. Naturally toned representatives, with few problems, of the 1838-39 Gobrecht Head Eagles, however, are extremely rare. A problematic representative of either of the two missing types is not very hard to find. Still, it is newsworthy and very impressive that Mark Gordon has many choice, attractive, high grade coins in a gold type set that is almost complete. Gordon did not wish to obtain problematic or even mediocre coins.

The rarest type coin is the 1808 Quarter Eagle ($2½ gold coin). Please see my March 2007 article about one of the finest known, the Oliver Jung 1808. I estimate that there are around 105 known 1808 Quarter Eagles. This issue is a one-year type. The quarter eagles of the 1796-1807 period and those that came later are of markedly different designs.

The Mark Gordon 1808 Quarter Eagle is NGC graded AU-58. No one should take seriously the NGC census of thirteen for this date in AU-58 grade, as the NGC has probably only graded two to five different 1808 Quarter Eagles as “AU-58,” and most of those may have since been upgraded to MS-60, 61 or 62. The PCGS and NGC data includes so many re-submissions for this date that such data should not be mentioned without some analysis. The ‘sixteen finer’ that the cataloguer mentions probably amount to no more than three to five coins, and it is questionable whether all these are truly “finer” than this one. If the grade of the Gordon 1808 is solidly in the middle of the 58 range, it could be one of the dozen finest known of this type.

The only NGC graded AU-58 1808 that has been auctioned since 2000 is the one that the Goldbergs sold in May 2006. I have tentatively concluded that the coin sold in May 2006 for $126,500 and this one are the exact same coin. I wonder if the NGC graded AU-58 1808 that was auctioned in 2000 is also this exact same coin, or one that has since been NGC graded MS-61 or -62?

Although I maintain that only 105 1808 Quarter Eagles are known, I theorize that the 1796 ‘No Stars’ Quarter Eagle is the rarest type coin. Mark Gordon’s 1796 ‘No Stars’ is PCGS graded EF-45. The ‘No Stars’ name refers to the absence of stars on the obverse (front of the coin). Later in 1796, stars were added to the obverse. So, there are two ‘Bust [facing] Right’ types of Quarter Eagles, the 1796 ‘No Stars’ and the ‘With Stars’ type that was first minted in 1796 and last minted in 1807. I estimate that seventy to ninety 1796 ‘No Stars’ Quarter Eagles survive. Years ago, I wrote a lengthy article about Bust Quarter Eagles for Numismatic News weekly.

For the Bust [facing] Right ‘With [Obverse] Stars’ type, Gordon has an 1805 that is PCGS graded AU-58. As a date, it is very rare in all grades, and could be extremely rare. Similarly, as a type coin, Bust Right ‘With Stars’ Quarter Eagles are very rare in grades of AU-58 and higher and could be extremely rare in such grades. Very rare means less than 250, and extremely rare indicates fewer than 100 are known.

The catalogue description and images of Mark Gordon’s 1830 Quarter Eagle grabbed my attention. For this whole ‘Small size’ type, finding choice uncirculated coins with pleasant color and mostly original surfaces is not easy. This may be such a coin.

I would also like to see Mark Gordon’s 1836 Classic Head Quarter Eagle. It is PCGS graded MS-64 and is vaguely noted by the cataloguer as formerly having been in the Harry Bass collection. There were a lot of Classic Head 1836 Quarter Eagles in the epic Harry Bass collection. I have identified this piece as having been lot #290 in the Bass II sale in New York in October 1999. It was also PCGS graded MS-64 at that time, which is noteworthy, as many coins in the Bass auctions have since received higher grades by the PCGS or the NGC.

Gordon’s 1843 Liberty Head Half Eagle ($5 gold coin) also captured my attention. It is the only coin of this date to be NGC graded MS-65 and the NGC had graded none higher. The catalogue pictures look terrific. ‘No Motto’ 1839 to 1866 Half Eagles are rare in grades of MS-64 and higher, and extremely rare in MS-65 grade. While 1843 is not one of the rarest dates, I wonder just how great Gordon’s 1843 Half Eagle is in actuality. If its grade is in the high end of the 65 grade range, it could be one of the most important type coins in this whole collection.

One coin that is not required for completion of a type set is an 1848 ‘California’ Quarter Eagle. Of course, there was not a U.S. Mint in California in 1848. Some gold that was mined in California was shipped to the primary U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. In 1848, fewer than 1500 Quarter Eagles were stamped at the Philadelphia Mint, on the reverse (back), with the letters “CAL.,” to indicate that these were minted from California gold. Half Eagles and Eagles were not so stamped. This issue is unique in the history of U.S. coinage. No such stamping occurred before or afterwards. The Mark Gordon type set includes an 1848 “CAL.” Quarter Eagle that is NGC graded AU-55. Undoubtedly, less than five hundred of this issue exist now.

Liberty Head Quarter Eagles, of one design type, were minted from 1840 to 1907. The distinctive “CAL.” piece is a complement to a type set. As this issue is sometimes viewed as a commemorative, it is also a complement to his set of commemoratives.

Gordon also has another Liberty Head Quarter Eagle to represent the type, a 1902 that is PCGS graded MS-66. While it is not a rare coin, the pictures of it look wonderful. It should be emphasized, though, that no one should grade or otherwise evaluate a coin solely from viewing images, no matter how superb the photography might be. Collector-bidders should discuss auction lots with experts who have actually seen them. The catalogue images of Mark Gordon’s 1929 Quarter Eagle are also very appealing.

According to the cataloguer, this 1929 Quarter Eagle was earlier in the Benson collection, as was the just mentioned 1902 Quarter Eagle. The Benson collection was ‘off the market’ for decades before it was auctioned by the Goldbergs in 2001 and 2002. One great aspect of coins that have been ‘off the market’ for decades is that, for a long time, sophisticated coin ‘doctors’ (unethical surgeons) did not have the opportunity to tamper with them.

Unlike 1902 and 1929 Quarter Eagles, the 1880 Three Dollar gold piece is rare in all grades. There are almost certainly less than five hundred in existence. Mark Gordon has one that is PCGS graded MS-65. There is only one type of Three Dollar gold coins.

Gordon’s Four Dollar gold coin (Stella) is an 1879 with Flowing Hair, which is the least rare variety of the $4 denomination. The cataloguer clearly adheres to the theory that there are twenty-five originals and four hundred restrikes. I, along with some revisionists, believe that more than five hundred were struck.

There are dozens of damaged or otherwise seriously mistreated 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas that do not qualify for numerical grades from the PCGS or the NGC. So, there are a substantial number of 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas that will probably never be included in the PCGS and NGC population reports.

Are all $4 gold coins, Flowing Hair and Coiled Hair Stellas, patterns, not coins? As far as I know, there are no government records that suggest that these are not patterns. Plus, I am not aware of any evidence that any were spent, or were treated as a new regular issue by the coin collectors of the period. There is some logic to the theory that the Flowing Hair $4 gold coins are more than just patterns, or have a different status than typical patterns, as they were widely distributed in the Washington DC area (and maybe elsewhere), and it is plausible that some circulated as money. Coiled Hair Stellas are clearly just patterns.

While not the rarest or the most curious, the most famous gold type coins are the Bust Right obverse (front), ‘Small Eagle’ reverse (back), Half Eagles ($5) and Eagles ($10) coins of 1795. These were the first U.S. gold coins struck after the U.S. Mint was established. It is fascinating that these 1795 Half Eagles are not very rare and there could possibly be more than five hundred in total, including those in all states of preservation. The 1795 ‘large’ or ‘Heraldic Eagle’ Half Eagles were minted later than 1795 and have never been as popular as 1795 ‘Small Eagle’ Half Eagles.

In addition to being famous as first year of issue coins and being strongly demanded as type coins, 1795 ‘Small Eagle’ reverse Half Eagles are demanded by collectors who seek each date of the Bust ‘Small Eagle’ $5 type, and by people who correctly regard them as important historical artifacts. This issue is also very popular with speculators. Mark Gordon has one that is PCGS graded AU-55. The PCGS price guide values it as $55,000.

His 1795 Eagle is PCGS graded AU-58. In 2006 and 2007, prices realized for 1795 Eagles that are PCGS graded AU-58 ranged from $69,000 to $86,250. The Numismedia guide currently values this coin at more than $100,000.

The overwhelming majority of the type coins in the Mark Gordon collection will sell for less than $100,000 each, and many will sell for less than $10,000. In other settings, it is not unusual for type coin collectors to spend less than $200 per coin, though these collectors will probably not be bidding on Mark Gordon’s type coins. Moreover, most type coin collectors limit their objectives to one metal, one time period, or just one to three denominations. Almost all collectors of scarce U.S. coins can afford to build some kind of logical and meaningful type set. Within the traditions of coin collecting in the U.S., there are a variety of choices relating to building type sets.

©2009 Greg Reynolds

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