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Top Registry Set of $10 Gold Coins Sells on Platinum Night: Jim O’Neal Collection of Indian Head Eagles (Part 1)

by Greg Reynolds for CoinLink

Jim O’Neal’s collection of Indian Head Eagles was the opening feature of Heritage’s Platinum Night on Jan. 8, and his set of thirty two $10 gold coins totaled $3.25 million. U.S. coins amounting to more than $20 million were auctioned that night. In part 1, I provide an overview of the event and a discussion of the Philadelphia Mint Eagles in O’Neal’s set. In part 2, O’Neal’s San Francisco Mint Eagles will be analyzed. For some of these, O’Neal’s set will be forever remembered.

As for Platinum Night as a whole, Dr. Steven Duckor, a prominent collector and recognized grading expert, stated that prices “were 20% more than expected”! The “market is stronger” than he realized. “There were very few bargains” during Platinum night, according to Duckor, and “there are serious buyers out there for great material,” especially “coins with original surfaces, undipped, undoctored, and of unquestionable quality”!

Bob Green, of Park Avenue Numismatics, drew conclusions that are consistent with those of Dr. Duckor: “Attractive pre-1934 coinage with great eye appeal, accurately graded and relatively scarce, brought above” generally prevailing market levels, during Platinum Night, “while mediocre coins without eye appeal and/or overgraded by most dealers standards sold at sharply discounted levels.”

Green and Dr. Duckor agreed that some of O’Neal’s Eagles were much more desirable than others. They saw beyond the certified grades, and took other characteristics of coins into consideration.

“Regarding O’Neal’s $10 Indians,” Green reports “that there are a few Registry buyers out there that need certain dates and are willing to pay up” because many of O’Neal’s Eagles are among the highest PCGS graded of their respective dates. In “keeping with” current market conditions, Green found that the O’Neal Eagles that are “appealing” and “accurately graded brought nice money, while low end coins were off by at least 15% from the summer. In all, still better than Wall Street!”

In my view, prices realized at Platinum Night in general, and for O’Neal’s Eagles in particular, were very strong when interpreted in the context of weakened coin markets and a contracting U.S. economy as as whole. All three U.S. auto firms are just barely surviving. Major banks are in trouble and have been subject to unprecedented government interference and ownership. It is also possible that coin markets were due for a correction, anyway.

Markets for choice and scarce U.S. coins have slowed considerably since many highpoints were reached during the Summer 2008 ANA Convention. From August to January, prices for most pre-1934, choice and rare (or at least somewhat scarce) U.S. coins are probably down at least 12%, maybe 20% on average. Some rare coins, though, have not gone down in value at all.

“Overall, and given this Sale was taking place in the midst of worldwide financial crises, we were very satisfied with the results,” remarks Todd Imhof, a vice president at Heritage and an expert in early 20th century U.S. gold coins. Indeed, buyers flocked to Orlando to pay substantial sums for rare U.S. coins. Furthermore, many bidders had dealers represent them, or participated via the Internet. Coin buyers were willing and able to spend millions, and did so. As this O’Neal set was an especially newsworthy collector-consignment of a popular series, an analysis of the auction of this set sheds light upon the success of the FUN auctions and markets for high quality, better-date U.S. gold coins.

In various grades, Indian Head Eagles are collected by many thousands of people. Further, tens of thousands of collectors obtain two or more of them for type sets. Thousands of other collectors, especially people between the ages of eight and thirty, may acquire Indian Head Eagles in the future. Besides, people like to read about high quality and/or famous coins, especially those in series that interest them.

In a grander sense, there is a need to understand the evolved values, rules and grading criteria that relate to coins and collections in order to comprehend collecting pursuits. Please consider an especially relevant theorem of mine: In order for you to understand the rare coins that you own, you must learn about coins that you cannot afford.

Of course, I am not expecting most collectors to be able to afford many, if any, of O’Neal’s Eagles. O’Neal’s collection is the “Number One All-Time Finest” set of business strike Indian Eagles in the registry of the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). Sets that are no longer intact may continue to live in this registry, and thus are “retired” rather than “current.”

To be entered in the PCGS registry, coins must be PCGS graded and encapsulated. Uncirculated or “Mint State” coins are graded on a scale from 60 to 70. For better-date Indian Head Eagles, it is not unusual for a 66 to be worth multiples of the value of a 64 grade coin of the same date and subtype. Among complete sets, the ‘number one’ set has the highest weighted grade point average. A relatively rare date that grades 66 counts for more than a relatively common date that is also PCGS graded 66.

All of the O’Neal Indian Head Eagles are PCGS graded at least 65, except his 1911-D which is graded 63. A few O’Neal Eagles have been graded 67, and a couple have been graded “68.” Dr. Duckor declares “that the 1907 N.P. and the 1908-S deserved [their] PCGS 68 ratings.” Dr. Duckor is a former owner of the O’Neal 1908-S. (The 1907 ‘No Periods’ is just the regular issue 1907 Indian Head Eagle, which should not be confused with the 1907 Wire Rim or Rolled Rim issues.)

In grades of 65 or 66 and higher, some dates are much rarer than others. Todd Imhof separates such Indian Eagles into three categories of rarity. Regarding the O’Neal sale, Imhof concludes that the buyers who “got the best deals” are “people who bought” the relatively “more common issues such as some of O’Neal’s teen [Philadelphia] Mint [Eagles] in 66” grade and “the very rarest issues such as the 1913-S, 1920-S and 1933.” Further, “most of the mid-range rarities such as the 1907 Rolled-Edge, 1907 No Periods, 1908-D No Motto, 1910-S, 1912-S, 1915-S, [and] 1916-S, sold for seemingly stronger prices.”

I remember when O’Neal bought Kutasi’s 1908-Denver ‘No Motto’ Eagle. Here, ‘No Motto’ refers to the absence of the motto, “In God We Trust,” which was added later in 1908 to the design of the Indian Head Eagle. O’Neal seemed happy at the time, in Jan. 2007, when he paid $115,000 for this coin. On Jan. 8, 2009, almost exactly two years later, a telephone bidder captured it for $149,500, a 30% gain. No one could dispute Imhof’s assertion that $149,500 is a strong price for this coin. The PCGS price guide valued this date in 66 grade at $100,000 before the sale, and then the value was raised to $150,000 after the O’Neal auction. In my view, it realized an ‘above-market’ price, or the momentum of the auction pushed the pertinent market level higher.

The 1911-Denver issue is scarcer than the 1908-D ‘No Motto’ Eagle in general, and is an exceptional condition rarity. Indeed, O’Neal’s 1911-D was the lowest graded coin in his set, at 63. Dr. Duckor notes that “a 1911-D is almost impossible to find in true high grades.” The “nicest” 11-D that Duckor “has ever seen is [the] Norweb” coin. Dr. Duckor has personally attended numerous major auctions over the past thirty years.

The O’Neal 1911-D realized more than other PCGS graded 63 1911-D Eagles that Heritage recently auctioned. On Jan. 8, an Internet bidder bought the O’Neal 11-D for $21,850. In Oct. 2006 and in Feb. 2007, Heritage auctioned 1911-D Eagles, in this grade, for $18,400 each. It makes sense to cite Heritage auctions in this context, as I am here evaluating the Jan. 2009 price realized of the O’Neal 1911-D. While every coin is different, and every auction is different, past auction records provide substantial evidence, however circumstantial, that the price realized for the O’Neal 1911-D is strong.

In May 2007, when coin markets were booming, Heritage auctioned another PCGS graded 63 1911-D for $20,700. Although I have not spent a lot of time examining 1911-D Eagles, I doubt that the O’Neal piece stands far above these others. The $21,850 result for the O’Neal 1911-D ‘beat the market’ or pushed the market level higher for PCGS graded 63 1911-D Eagles.

As for O’Neal’s 1912 Philadelphia Mint Eagle, consider that Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded 66 1912 during Platinum Night at the Summer 2008 ANA Convention and another one, about a year earlier, at the 2007 ANA Platinum Night event. Each of these two brought $19,550. It is fascinating that the Kutasi 1912 brought this exact same $19,550 amount in Jan. 2007.

In my view, the grade of the O’Neal 1912 Eagle is in the middle of the 66 range, and it is particularly impressive from a technical perspective. Contact marks are minimal in depth and quantity, though uncirculated Indian Head Eagles tend to have substantial abrasions. Furthermore, its subdued luster is pleasing. The O’Neal 1912 is a very likable coin. I wonder if the other PCGS graded 66 1912 Eagles are as nice as this one. The $17,250 result is both a good buy and an almost strong price. It is a terrific coin, and it sold for only 12% less than the market level that seems to have prevailed in 2007 and early 2008, when demand for coins was greater.

The O’Neal 1913, also graded 66, is another coin that I believe ‘beat the market’ or pushed the market level higher. It has pleasing luster, nice orange and green overtones, and minimal imperfections. It is certainly very attractive. The PCGS has graded a dozen 1913s as 66. Even though this total may include some re-submissions of the same coins, it is fair to conclude that there are five to nine different that have been PCGS graded 66. Also, there is one that the PCGS has graded 67. The O’Neal 1913 was probably worth around $19,000 in July 2008 and it realized $18,400 in Jan. 2009, despite all that occurred in the interim.

Although the Philadelphia teens in the O’Neal set tended to be very attractive, these are not rare. More than one thousand of each exist, in all grades. In contrast, the 1913-S Eagle is almost rare in all grades, and is extremely rare in 63 or higher grade. Indeed, in the Indian Head Eagle series, maybe only the 1920-S and the 1933 are rarer in 63 or higher grades.

The 1933 is the rarest date in the Indian Head Eagle series. It seems that a number between eighteen and forty-three survive. No one has presented a more precise estimate that I find to be compelling. Some of the same 1933 Eagles have appeared in numerous auctions, often without mention of pedigree, Furthermore, illustrations in auction catalogues before 2003 are frequently not very clear. Regarding 1933 Eagles, I am very skeptical of the conclusions drawn by researchers in the past.

There are seven 1933 Eagles that the PCGS has graded “65,” though there is little available evidence regarding how many of these are truly different coins. There are others that could possibly qualify for a “65” grade in the present that have been graded 64 in the past or have never been submitted to the PCGS or the NGC. The O’Neal 1933, which was formerly in the Morse collection, is graded 65. Chris Napolitano likes this coin “a lot. It is a great looking coin.” According to Napolitano, the O’Neal 1933 is “fresh and original” in addition to being “very accurately graded” by the PCGS.

Though the Morse-O’Neal has more pizzazz, and I like it more, it is likely that many experts regard the Kutasi-Madison 1933 as being of higher quality. The Kutasi-Madison 1933 realized $552,00 in Jan. 2008 and $546,250 in Jan. 2007. The Morse-O’Neal 1933 realized $488,750 in Jan. 2009, and is thus the most valuable coin in Jim O’Neal’s set of Indian Head Eagles. This price is a little more than I expected, though less than it brought in 2005. At the auction, there was more enthusiasm for O’Neal’s San Francisco Mint Eagles, which are the subject of Part 2.

2009 Greg Reynolds

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