About this journal
Been adding quite a few rarities the last 12 months. I’ve acquired the finest known in a number of categories, however, this one I wanted to share as I picked it up at Heritage tonight at auction and it will go in the generational skip trust and will not be seen again by the public for three generations.
1884 $5 PR66 Ultra Cameo NGC. "Proofs are very rare and have appeared at auction less often than proofs of any other date after 1880." -- David Akers, United States Gold Coins Analysis of Auction Records, Volume IV (1979).
The 1884 proof half eagle has an unbroken century-long history of exceptional rarity, which is yet to be fully appreciated. Skewing the perceived availability of this issue are artificially inflated certification figures (20 submissions at PCGS and NGC combined (11/17) ), and an unrealistically high survival estimate by PCGS of 25 to 30 coins. In reality, there are likely only 12 to 15 pieces known, and most have not been seen at auction in more than a decade. With a reported mintage of 48 coins, this begs the question, as Walter Breen phrased it in his proof Encyclopedia, "What happened to the rest?"
The most plausible explanation is that most of the 48 gold proof sets minted in 1884 -- which were the sole mode of distribution for 1884 proof half eagles -- were never released to collectors, being either melted as unsold at the end of the year or possibly released into circulation and lost. As early as 1890, gold 1884 proof sets began appearing at auction in prominent collections that were assembled during the time when 1884 proofs could be purchased from the Mint. Original sets in the Cleneay (1890), Mougey (1910), David S. Wilson (1907), and James B. Wilson (1908) sales were offered intact, while those in Wolcott (1901) and Ten Eyck (1922) were sold as individual coins. The Clapp, Garrett, N.M. Kaufman, and Walter H. Childs Collections, formed during this period but held intact until recent years, contained the only other 1884 gold proof sets known or believed to have been acquired directly from the Mint. Including a set owned by J.P. Morgan that was later donated to the ANS, just 11 different original 1884 gold proof sets are definitively known to have been in the hands of collectors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, plus a 12th in the Mint Cabinet. This distribution estimate is strikingly similar to our current roster of proof 1884 half eagles, which lists 13 different specimens, including three housed in the Smithsonian (2) and the ANS (1) museums. Due to poor plate quality in some of the catalogs examined, one or two duplications may exist in our census. However, we are confident that there are likely no more than 12 to 15 proof 1884 half eagles known.
This piece surfaced in public auctions a decade ago with no accurately traceable pedigree. NGC lists a numerically equal non-Cameo proof, which has either never been offered at auction or is an upgrade from one of the lesser coins in our census, but this piece is without doubt the finest Ultra or Deep Cameo known. Deeply mirrored fields and sharp, frosty devices produce cameo contrast reminiscent of a freshly struck proof. Faint die polishing lines in the fields are visible at certain angles under a loupe, not to be confused with hairline scratches. Technically and visually the finest that the 1884 proof half eagle issue has to offer.
In his proof Encyclopedia, Breen called the 1884 proof five "one of the great sleepers of the decade." In our opinion, it remains highly underrated. Recent auction appearances are so few that no reliable pattern is discernible for how often an 1884 proof half eagle will come on the market.