I think that every coin collector has fantasized about going back in time...
I think that every coin collector, let me rephrase that, I know that every coin collector has fantasized about going back in time to a specific year or decade and purchasing coins at the prevailing rate or freshly minted coins and place the yet to be discovered rarities in their collection. Then magically whisk their bounty forward through time to enjoy them in the present. Whether that ultimate destination is 1793, 1856 or even 1921, everyone would like to go back in time and procure the finest coins that were available. Well in essence this has happened!
The saga begins when a particular young lad was introduced to the numismatic hobby around the age of 10 by his father. Perhaps as a reward or just a special gift, dad took his son to the Philadelphia Mint in 1883 and bought him a proof set that included the Indian Head Cent through the Morgan and Trade Dollars. This would be the foundation for a lifelong admiration for the hobby.
Through his adolescence the boy added various filler coins to his collection. Some scruffy old large cents, sundry Indian Head Cents and the like which could have been procured at the time for $.25 and a dollar as allowance money permitted. When the boy graduated high school and joined the work force, he returned to the Philadelphia Mint and purchased a 1892 Proof set. He returned to the Mint every year to make his annual purchase until 1916. (I assume that this pilgrimage would have continued if not for the hiatus of proof strikings at the Mint.) What is so unusual and exciting is that when the young man bought a new proof set, he left the coins wrapped in the original tissue paper and envelope from the Mint. He fastidiously wrote each year of the proof set, sealed the envelopes and stored them in a small oak box where they rested undisturbed until the time capsule was fast forwarded to 2011. Now for the rest of the story.
Steve Schofield and Deidre Byers, principal owners of Centennial Auctions, based in the scenic community of North Conway, New Hampshire, have been well respected auctioneers of real estate, numismatic items and other collectibles since 1981. In March of this year Steve was approached to do an appraisal on a collection of coins. The owners said it was for an estate, “There’s a lot of proof sets, early proof sets and other coins which were passed down for two generations. You never know" said Steve. Many times you get a call like this. To some people a group of proof sets dated 1968 are considered old. Many times a call like this will yield more generic stuff, common date Morgan and Peace Dollars and 90% silver.
Regardless, business called and Steve and Deidre were scheduled to meet with the client. As the heirs wish to remain anonymous, I can only say that the coins were in a safe deposit box at a bank somewhere on the East Coast. Steve and Deidre met the family outside of the bank shortly before 9:00 a.m. on the morning of March 21, 2011. Both parties patiently waited for the bank to open its doors and proceeded to the conference room. Steve and Deidre were on one side of the conference table and on the other side sat two direct heirs and two brothers-in-law. There were two boxes in front of Steve on the table. One was an oak box approximately standard letter size and five or six inches in height. In essence a glorified looking file box. This unpretentious box housed most of the older material and envelopes. The owner of this collection began his association with numismatics back in 1883. When he died in 1955, the collections passed to his daughter whom maintained the sanctity of her father’s numismatic treasures. With her passing, at the grand old age of 100 in early 2011, the collection passed to her daughter who sat on one side of the conference room table. The other box was a non-descript carton with items that mom had bought over the years. Obviously the collecting bug, at least to some degree, was passed down from father to daughter.
With introductions out of the way, Steve got down to business and pulled the first sealed envelope dated 1895 from the small wooden box. The handwriting was superb and it looked like a quill pen had been used to skillfully write the notation 1895 proof set. Steve pulled a small penknife from his pocket and was preparing to carefully open the envelope when one of the heirs across the table shouted, "What are you doing"!? Steve explained that he had to open the envelope to examine the contents to do the appraisal The heir responded, “Well it says 1895 proof set on the envelope.” If it is indeed an 1895 proof set, it could include gold as well as the minor coins and it could potentially be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The owner capitulated and understood that each envelope had to be opened. Quite amazingly, the family had absolutely no clue what was in the oak box. They were told not to open the envelopes per her father’s implicit instructions.
Steve, carefully opened the ancient envelope to examine the contents. He noted that the tissue wrapped coins had obviously not been disturbed as the fragile wrap was still crisp and had not been resealed or otherwise disturbed. He then carefully unfolded the first sheet and on the top layer before him was an 1895 Morgan Dollar in rapturous pristine condition, accentuated by lovely rainbow toning. At the sight of this majestic Morgan Steve quietly uttered, "Oh my g..” to which the heirs rose quietly in unison and asked what Steve had discovered. He replied that the 1895 Morgan Dollar could be worth $60K-$70K or more in this condition.
Proof set after proof set were opened–all absolutely stunning. The 1897 and 1902 sets also contained the original Mint pamphlet listing the purchase price for each of the coins. Some basic values of some of the coins were quoted as Steve was busily unwrapping this historic horde. Realizing that the appraisal process can be quite tedious and mundane, he wanted to get the heirs involved in the treasure hunt. As one coin after another appeared, he announced what the next coin should be, its significance and the coin that should follow. At the conclusion of the meeting the heirs, now feeling quite comfortable with the service provided by Centennial Auctions, asked if Steve’s company was interested in auctioning the collection. Although flattered, this wasn’t something Schofield had anticipated as the initial contact requested only an appraisal of the estate. Steve told his clients that Centennial Auctions would be honored. The heirs were pleased and advised that they would consult other firms and a decision would be made within a week or so.
After two weeks Centennial Auctions assumed they were out of the running. However, at the end of the following week Steve received a phone call from the family wanting to retain his services to auction the estate. Auction dates were carefully assessed and Steve and Deidre felt that a fortuitous time would be right on the heels of the country’s largest coin show, the ANA convention in Chicago. However, the family felt that an auction so close to Labor Day was not the best time. Ultimately the heirs accepted Centennial’s recommendation. Now, the marketing strategy session began in earnest.
Since all of the coins were raw, the collection needed to be encapsulated. Steve relayed to me that it was instilled in him by his father the importance of proper care and handling of coins and other collectibles. In essence you are the custodian of these items and when the time comes that you want to trade or sell your collection, it behooves you to have the coins protected properly and in the best possible condition. “Obviously you wouldn’t want to have someone go to the Louvre and spray Windex directly on the Mona Lisa to remove something on her face," he quipped.
In early April 2011, for protective purposes as well as for posterity, immediate arrangements were made to have the proof coins as well as other valuable numismatic items professionally graded. NGC was selected for the task because of their prestigious status within the numismatic community and the best choice to grade this remarkable collection. The first coin shipped out was the 1895 Morgan Dollar. This marvelous proof icon was promptly graded and shipped back to Steve. The pride of the Proof Morgan contingent was now encapsulated boasting a PF 67. Next a veritable barrage of proof coins were sent to NGC. Schofield said, “I am sure that whoever graded the 1895 Morgan couldn’t have known what was coming in right behind it.” As this unprecedented submission became known in the NGC grading room there was quite a stir at the scope, originality and superb condition of the coins. A quick tally of coins included in the proof sets: 11 coins achieved PF 68, 34 graded PF 67, 44 were awarded PF 66, 19 were deemed PF 65 and 19 coins graded PF 64. Certainly these numeric grades are exciting. Yet consider this, four from this collection boast the finest known status and eight are tied for the finest known!
With the coins graded by NGC and the catalog nearly complete, the strategy was to take select coins to major shows such as the Whitman, important regional venues and ultimately the ANA so dealers and perspective collectors could see tantalizing examples from this collection and make arrangements to either bid or attend the auction in person.
The buzz within the numismatic community had been significant ever since the enticing selection of time capsule coins made their first public appearances at the Baltimore Whitman show in June. Those that weren’t aware of the upcoming sale, scheduled for August 22, quickly became so when Centennial Auctions made an appearance at the ANA in Chicago for one day on August 18. All of the proof sets and other key coins were available for viewing throughout the day. A continuous flow of numismatic notables, industry experts, dealers, collectors and admirers took time to view the lots. According to Steve, "This is certainly the nicest collection and undoubtedly the most prestigious collection we have ever sold as an auction company, certainly the finest I’ve seen in 25 years. Will I see another collection the likes of this within the next 25 years? I don’t know. Probably not because I don’t think I will be around then.”
With only four days before the sale, final arrangements and preparations were made. Perhaps a surprise to some in our industry, there was never any serious consideration to changing the venue from Centennial's usual auction stomping grounds in Nashua, New Hampshire. “We always hold our auctions on Monday, so it was going to be an auction date as usual,” said Steve.
If you mention New Hampshire, images of the White Mountains, scenic seacoast, autumnal splendor and quaint New England charm are most certainly conjured up. Currently, perhaps more attention is being paid to the Granite State on the politic front, as presidential hopefuls traverse the state looking for supporters. It is not normally associated with a stunning rare coin auction that would attract renowned dealers from throughout the country. A sale of this magnitude is usually associated with an auction house either in Texas, California or New York. However, on the night of August 22, at the Holiday Inn Ballroom in Nashua, New Hampshire, a historic numismatic event took place.
Bidding commenced about 5:05 p.m. The ballroom, which usually holds a small local coin show every month, was full of dealers, collectors as well as a few curiosity seekers. Although there were many choice and desirable coins throughout the sale, anticipation was building in the room. As Lot 250 met the hammer, I heard one dealer in the crowd whisper to an associate, “It’s almost showtime.” Everyone was waiting for lots 261 through 286, the glamorous and exciting Time Capsule Proof Set Collection. Just before lot 261 was announced a five minute intermission was allocated by the auctioneer. After the brief respite, Steve made an announcement that each of the proof coins would be offered individually, cent through dollar, to the high bidder. The individual prices of the coins would be tallied and if a buyer wanted to purchase the entire set, bidding would commence with a 10% premium over the cumulative individual hammer prices. This was something that the consignors requested as they knew grandpa would have wanted the sets to stay together if possible. Ultimately, all but a handful met his request.
The 1883 Proof set, including both the Morgan and Trade Dollar realized $21,390. The lovely 1893 Proof set including the 1893 Morgan Dollar graded NGC PF 67 captured $36,225. Since there was no 1894 set, all eyes were on the prestigious 1895 Proof set. Bidding was strong for individual coins. The 1895 Barber Dime NGC PF 68 Cameo brought $15,000, the superb 1895 Morgan Dollar NGC PF 67 realized $95,000. When the hammer fell and the total price to commence on the proof set was announced at $134,000, bidding continued feverishly for several minutes before the set realized $258,750. Respective applause was heard on the floor and the 1896 issue commanded everyone’s attention. This set including the Morgan Dollar graded NGC PF 68 raced home at $67,275. The fabulous 1897 collection powered to $68,425. The 1907 set sold piecemeal. The glorious 1907 Barber Quarter graded NGC PF 68 Cameo, tied for the finest known, realized $28,750. On and on it went with tremendous prices being generated for this exquisite accumulation. The small but exciting 1913 Proof set contained the Lincoln Cent, Buffalo Nickel and Barber Dime. Yet all eyes were on the 1913 Type II Buffalo Nickel as it was graded NGC PF 68, the finest known of either type of Buffalo Nickel with none graded higher by either grading service. The Time Capsule Collection was history. In total, the proof sets realized nearly $1.3 million! On average each of the 25 proof sets reeled in $51,500. Amazing prices for amazing quality never seen the likes of before.
I was proud to be in attendance at the historic Time Capsule Collection sale and although I attempted to bid on several of the proof sets, they were all just beyond my budget. Nevertheless, it was exciting to see an auction of this caliber take place in the state that I called my home for over 45 years. It is highly unlikely that we will happen on another collection, at least another original collection, sealed in a time capsule for posterity to appear and be unveiled in our lifetimes. At least for a fleeting moment dealers and collectors will no longer have to decry there are no more fresh coins. The Time Capsule is my answer to those queries as the freshest of the fresh now reside in new hands. Majestic and beautiful reflecting on the light of day for the first time in over 100 years. To those that puchased the coins treat them well, enjoy them and remember that these coins were silent symbols of the treasured bygone numismatic era that we all wish we could visit.
Jim Bisognani has written extensively on US coin market trends and values and was the market analyst and writer for a major pricing guide for many years. He currently resides in Southern California and frequently attends major coin shows and auctions.