The Greatest World Coin Auction of All Time (Part 6 of 6): The Event of the Millennia
by Greg Reynolds for CoinLink
This is Part 6 of my review and analysis of the auction of the Millennia collection of world coins.
The sale was conducted on May 26, Memorial Day, by the firm of Ira & Larry Goldberg. The coins in the collection span more than two thousand years of history, and many coin-producing societies are represented.
Why is the sale of the Millennia Collection the all-time greatest auction of world coins?
1) It is the best collection of world coins to be auctioned in a single event. Though it was auctioned in just one day, it would be fair to refer to a single auction event as linked sessions occurring at the same location during the course of less than one week.
2) The Millennia collection ranks very highly, among all-time collections, in terms of the quality and breadth of the coins that fit into a thematic plan. The quality of many individual coins is covered in the first three parts of my review, and the themes of the collection are covered in Part 4 and Part 5.
3) Overall, the coins in the collection have tremendous historical significance, especially those coins that served as international monetary units or world currencies during their respective time periods.
4) The number of Great Rarities, many of which are among the finest known of their respective dates or whole types, is amazingly high and includes Great Rarities that are deemed to be especially important by experts in the respective fields. Several Great Rarities and many other rarities are discussed in the first three parts of this review.
The auction experience transcends the contents of the collection that is auctioned.
5) The combination of the rarity, quality and popularity of the coins in the Millennia collection contributed greatly to the excitement of the auction. In earlier parts of this review, I discuss many popular coins of Great Britain, Europe and the Spanish Empire.
6) Bidding went wild for high quality, historically important ancient coins.
7) There was tremendous collector participation ‘in person,’ via telephone, and through dealer-agents. The dedicated, zealous collectors in attendance spurred the bidding and emotionally propelled the proceedings. While there were more than a thousand Internet bidders, Internet bids were rarely successful. When I was in the auction room, almost all the rarer and more interesting coins went to floor bidders or telephone bidders. The enthusiasm of the collectors in the room created a special aura that is rarely experienced in the Internet age.
Note that I am not asserting that the Millennia collection is the greatest world coin collection of all time. It is the greatest world coin collection to be auctioned in a single event, which must be less than one week. Indeed, the sale of this whole collection in one day had tremendous impact, though I wish it had been spread over two days.
The Virgil Brand, Norweb family, Garrett family, and F.C.C. Boyd collections were all auctioned over a period of years or even decades. In relation to these collections, there was no one auction event involving world coins that could possibly have been as comprehensive, as intense, as energetic and as concentrated in high quality, truly rare coins, as the Millennia sale.
Jim Elmen suggests that the Schulthess-Rechberg collection may have been superior to the Millennia collection, at least in important ways. Some coins held by the Schulthess-Rechberg family, however, were sold over decades, maybe even over more than a century. There were two epic Schulthess-Rechberg auctions, which were spread more than one year apart in 1868 and in 1869.
It is unlikely that the Schulthess-Rechberg family had a collection of British gold that rivaled that of the Millennia collection, which had an almost unbelievable run of high quality British gold coins from the 1300s to the 1600s. It would have been nearly impossible for an auction in the 1860s to contain a better collection of Latin American coins than that of the Millennia collection. Some of the rarer and more historically important coins in the Millennia collection were from shipwrecks or archaeological sites that were excavated after 1869.
Did the Schulthess-Rechberg sales of the 1860s attract the kind of attention and participation that the Millennia sale did? I doubt it.
Collectors and dealers traveled thousands of miles to attend the Millennia sale. Russians came from Moscow. At least two prominent Swiss numismatists were present. A collector from the Middle East was a leading bidder.
Prominent collectors and dealers did travel to Egypt for the auction of the coin collection of the deposed King Farouk. “If the Farouk sale in 1954,” wonders Freeman Craig, “had been catalogued using modern standards, it may have been superior” to the sale of the Millennia collection. King Farouk heavily cleaned and/or lacquered a substantial number of his silver coins. I am skeptical of the possibility that Farouk had one of the five all-time best collections of world coins. Even if he did, the auction was not handled well.
Because the Farouk collection was so poorly and strangely catalogued, many of Farouk’s coins, often oddly bundled together in large lots, brought much lower prices than they would have if they were properly catalogued and auctioned in the U.S. or Europe. Participants had to travel to Egypt, which was then becoming hostile to the U.S. and the nations of Western Europe. Also, regulations regarding bidding were burdensome.
Collector enthusiasm for coins in the Farouk collection was repressed by the circumstances. It was counter-productive and annoying that particularly rare coins were often tossed into large lots with many other coins that were of much less significance or appealed to different buyers.
For those collectors who managed to overcome the obstacles, attending the Farouk sale was frustrating. I just cannot believe that the atmosphere at the Farouk sale could compare to the exuberance and electricity that characterized the sale of the Millennia collection. It is true, however, that a few famous American collectors, including John Pittman, did manage to successfully participate in the Farouk sale.
F.C.C. Boyd took better care of his coins than Farouk did of his. Boyd acquired a large number of rare and important coins in the first half of the 20th century. He is one of the most dedicated, accomplished and sophisticated collectors of all time.
Superior Galleries, then owned by the Goldbergs, auctioned part of the F.C.C. Boyd collection in 1975, including some or all of Boyd’s Latin American coins. These are highly regarded by both Freeman Craig and the anonymous collector who sold the Goldbergs an incredible collection of Latin American coins that became part of the Millennia collection. They suggest that Boyd’s Crowns and large gold coins of Latin America are in the same league, in terms of quality and depth, as the Latin American section of the Millennia collection. Both Craig and this anonymous collector state, though, that the Millennia collection of Latin American coins is better overall.
The Norweb family, I am told, collected world coins ‘by date’ with the aim of completing a large number of series, while the Millennia collector and maybe F.C.C. Boyd were collecting more ‘by type’ and excluding several categories of coins. The Norweb family collection of world coins was more complete than the Millennia collection, and the Norwebs certainly had some very high quality world coins. It is hard to compare a collection of many thousands of coins to the Millennia collection as the organization and objectives are much different. The Eliasberg world gold collection was more limited in scope than the Norweb collection, and it was auctioned by ANR in one event in New York City in April 2005.
As I viewed most of the coins in the Eliasberg world gold coin collection, and discussed many of them with experts after the auction, I am certain that the quality of the truly rare coins in the Millennia collection, for the most part, is superior to the quality of the truly rare coins in the Eliasberg world collection. Besides, while the Millennia collection is defined by a set of connected historical themes, the Eliasberg collection was less organized and was more of ‘a work in progress’!
In 1942, Louis Eliasberg ‘ended up’ with an excellent world gold coin collection when he purchased the John Clapp collection in its entirety for the purpose of adding Clapp’s rare U.S. coins to the Eliasberg collection of U.S. coins. Eliasberg was never really, sharply focused upon the colonial coins, world gold coins, and U.S patterns that came with the Clapp collection of U.S. coins. While Eliasberg did continue to acquire world gold coins in the 1950s and 1960s, he did so casually and never really sought to build the all-time greatest collection of world coins.
Did the Brand, Boyd, Garrett or Norweb collections contain quality rarities that rival similar or analogous coins in the Millennia collection? Of course, they did. I am more than willing to concede that the Millennia collection may not be the best collection of all time.
Please remember that the thesis here is that the combination of the greatness of the Millennia collection and the greatness of the auction result in the greatest world coin auction of all time. The Millennia collection probably is the best world coin collection to be auctioned in one event, though it would not have to be in order for my thesis to be true, which addresses the combination of the collection and the presentation, excitement and proceedings of the auction.
Veteran world coin dealer Larry Hanks points out that, “coin by coin, the quality of the coins in the Mortimer Hammel collection,” sold in one event in 1982, “is generally higher than the quality of the coins in the Millennia collection.” Jim Elmen made the same point in a separate conversation.
Hammel, however, was focused on gold, while the Millennia collection features gold coins and Crowns (primary large silver coins) from throughout the world, including perhaps the finest all-time collection of the Crowns of Latin America. Moreover, the Hammel collection was too heavily concentrated in the coins of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Millennia collection literally spanned millennia of human civilization, and, as I discussed in Part 4 and in Part 5, it was organized along historical themes. While the Hammel collection ranks at or near the top in terms of quality, it falls short in almost all other categories. (No collection will ever rank first in all categories).
The Millennia collection outranks the Hammel collection in terms of breadth, depth, artistic and cultural characteristics, and overall historical importance. There is no doubt that the Hammel collection needed something more than high quality, relatively recent gold coins in order to be one of the five all-time greatest collections of world coins. There is, or should be, much more to a collection than the grade point average of the coins.
In the earlier parts of this series, especially in Part 4 and in Part 5, I discussed several factors, of which quality is only one, which define the greatness of the Millennia collection. The above-mentioned seven points loosely incorporate these factors and add others that relate to the auction itself. This final part of my review is devoted to the auction event, and is not a summary of the greatness of the collection.
The auction event was thrilling. Freeman Craig is a leading collector of world coins, and a foremost expert in the coins of the independent nations of Latin America. “Having attended coin auctions for over fifty years at this point,” Craig declares that “it is no exaggeration to say that this Millennia sale had” a better selection of “important Crowns” and rare large gold coins of the world “than any other single sale” during the last half-century. Lance Tchor asserts that “the Millennia collection has the best Latin American collection of all time, certainly better than [those of] the Norwebs and Virgil Brand!”
David McCarthy is a dealer devoted to trading and researching coins of historical significance, especially those ‘that have stories to tell.’ McCarthy relates that the Millennia collection “is the most impressive collection of world coins” that he “has ever seen.” Further, “the auction was very exciting and fascinating.” McCarthy declared that special coins tended “to bring from fifty percent more to three times” the prices he had “expected”!
Lance Tchor is primarily a dealer in U.S. coins, and an avid collector of Latin American coins. Tchor did not hesitate in concluding that that the Millennia collection “is the best foreign coin collection” that he “has ever seen.” Tchor is certain that it was “the most exciting auction that [he] ever attended.” Lance has participated in “over three hundred live auctions since the 1970s.”
Charles Browne is an expert grader and has been a leading participant in U.S. coin auctions for more a quarter of a century. He states that the Millennia collection “contained many beautiful coins of high quality. Coins that were catalogued as Mint State were definitively so.” Moreover, most of the coins “were naturally toned with their original skin. It was extremely exciting just to look at the coins in this wonderfully formed collection.”
Browne observed that the collectors in attendance “were passionate about coins. They bid as if they had thrown the price guides out the window, and previous auction records meant nothing to them. Many times, collectors were willing to pay whatever it took” to own special rarities.
Freeman Craig attended the Virgil “Brand sales around 1964, the Norweb sales in 1985 to 1988,” the Eliasberg gold sale in 2005, the sale of an “elite” part of the F.C.C. Boyd collection in 1975, “plus lesser sales like Garrett, Hammel [in 1982], Herz, Sellschopp [in 1988], and Pittman” in 1999. “Sales like this make one proud, and excited to be an active collector,” exclaims Craig. “The blood runs hot, the sweat glands open, the mouth becomes dry, pretty girls are unnoticed, and the auctioneer’s voice is but a trumpet call preparing one to battle for the prizes.”
Craig reveals that he was ready to pay “world record prices” for “twenty-five coins” yet, more than once at the auction, Craig “dejectedly conceded to a higher bid at twice the level of the expected peak.” He bought only three coins. Craig found that the “magic” of the event “cascaded coins to double or quadruple their previous evaluation levels.” Craig concludes, “the Millennia collection redefined, more than any other in the past quarter century, what is important for today’s world coin collectors, in terms of history, quality and significance.”
Amazingly, the Millennia collection was built in just five years, from June 2002 to June 2007. It cost less than $12 million to assemble the Millennia collection, and the collection realized more than $21 million at auction. This Memorial Day 2008 auction is the most important single event, so far, in the history of world coin collecting.
The Millennia collection of world coins Series of Articles
Part 1 – Overview and Famous Pieces
Part 2 – European Coins
Part 3 – Latin American coins
Part 4 – The structure of the Millennia collection
Part 5 - Gold Coins as World Currencies
Part 6 – The Event of the Millennia
©2008 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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