Jim Bisognani: Keeping an Eye on Auction Prices Realized

Posted on 10/6/2022

While the seasons change, the coin market remains steadfast with increasing coin values and bidder interest.

Colorful leaves are falling from the trees by the bushelful, while the days are crisper and nights are chilled. You guessed it, it’s October in New England. Meanwhile, the scene and atmosphere in the numismatic world remains steadfast and virtually impervious to all seasons and rancor. Despite world tensions, inflation and rising interest rates, the market for rare coins remains rock solid. As prime rarities make their way to market for the first time in many decades, competition from dealers and collectors is, shall we say, spirited.

The busy month of September wound down with a roar as high-grade US gold coins led the way, as they always seem to do.

This phenomenal 1864 Liberty Head $20 graded NGC PF 65 Ultra Cameo claimed an astounding $613,125 as a part of GreatCollections auction, which ended September 25th. This rare Civil War Double Eagle is tied for the finest-known example in the NGC Census, sharing the spot with two others. This record price eclipses the previous price realized for this date in like grade by a massive 75 percent.

1864 Liberty Head $20 graded NGC PF 65 Ultra Cameo
Click images to enlarge.

We concluded September with a resounding salvo as Heritage’s first installment of the legendary Harry Bass Jr. Collection reeled in just shy of $20.5 million on September 29. I can hear some of my fellow coindexters mutter “only $20 million?” Perhaps some have become jaded with totals in the double-digit millions realized at prime numismatic auctions. Yet, consider that figure was generated with only a mere 106 coins in this sale. This equates to an average price realized at just under $200,000 per coin! Included in that total, three more coins catapulted into the million-dollars-plus category!

Being a data nut, I was compelled to dig deeper. The following information struck me in the chops. Consider this, my fellow coindexters: There was a total of 188 registered bidders vying for the trio of coins that eclipsed the million-dollar threshold. Now, even if some of the bidders were active for each coin, I would assume that at least 100 separate perspective buyers were all willing to pay over a million dollars for any of that trio! And while these coins were definitely new, fresh and exciting to the market, they were not established million-dollar icons prior to this sale. 

As an example, the last two 1804 Dollars, which appeared in Heritage Auctions (you can’t get much more iconic than that), garnered an average of 35 registered phone bidders. Meanwhile, the 1913 Liberty Nickel (the “Hawaii Five-O” coin) fielded only 27 registered bidders when that coin last appeared at public auction.

1913 Liberty Head Nickel from NGC Coin Explorer
Click images to enlarge.

A well-known East Coast dealer concurs with my findings: “It used to be maybe two, three — a handful at most — would chase after the ultra-elite coins, but not anymore. The playing field has changed and is not so exclusive anymore.”

Another West Coast dealer mainstay chimed in: “Not so long ago, the big time dealers would be seated in the auction hall in person. Well, that has gone out the door — most dealers are now bidding on phone lines or merely sitting in their respective offices monitoring the live auction and executing bids online. It used to be fun to watch the back-and-forth bidding in the hall. But now, more often than not, I have no idea who my competition is, and that is alarming. Are they reaching for the moon? Do they have the proverbial “more money than brains?”

Yes, the market for rarities is unparalleled.

As we go to press, the in-name-only Long Beach Signature sale is underway at Heritage’s home office in Dallas (October 6-10). In total, there are 1,529 lots up for bid. Billboarding the pre-auction bidding is a quartet of NGC-certified Double Eagles, led by the jaw-dropping 1887 Liberty Head $20 graded NGC PF 67+★ Cameo, pedigreed to the Henry Miller Collection. This coin is hands down the finest known of the date. It last appeared at auction a decade ago and is already at $432,000 — well poised to tender a record price for the grade and designation.

1887 Liberty Head $20 graded NGC PF67+★ Cameo
Click images to enlarge.

So given the market conditions, I decided to try to find a trio of more affordable potentially “great buys.”

This 1915-S Panama Pacific Quarter Eagle graded NGC MS 66 is currently bid at $3,720. Within the classic US gold commemorative series, this has always been one of my favorite coins. Sporting a low original mintage of 6,749, this coin features what I like to call a double play. That is, both the obverse and reverse are interesting, exciting and well executed. It is also the first commemorative Gold Quarter Eagle struck — in this instance, for the opening of the Panama-Pacific Expo.

1915-S-Panama-Pacific Quarter Eagle graded NGC MS 66
Click images to enlarge.

For the record, these coins are still priced well below their historic highs. Yet, it bears to mention that just three years ago, coins of like quality were realizing around $3,600 at public auction. Conversely, the last three that sold in 2022 have realized an average $5,500 — still a far, far cry from where coins of this quality should be trading.

This 1871 Two Cent Piece graded NGC PF 66 RD is quite attractive and is infrequently encountered with full Red designation. A meager mintage of 960 coins were struck in Proof format for collectors in the post-Civil War era. I always admired this coin. The two-cent piece appeared in commerce for a very short period, making its first appearance during the height of the Civil War in 1864 and concluding with the Proof-only 1873 installment.

1871 Two Cent Piece graded NGC PF 66 RD
Click images to enlarge.

This brief series is historic as the first coin to use the motto “In God We Trust.” At present, the coin is bid at $2,660 with buyer’s premium. I personally think that the two cent piece series is underrated as a whole, and finding coins in full Red with even modest Cameo-like contrast are very difficult to find.

This 1885 Seated Liberty Half Dollar graded NGC PF 67 Cameo definitely commands your attention. Considering the regular business strikes of this date numbered only 5,200, mid-to-high-grade uncirculated examples are eagerly sought by collectors of the series. Given the demand for the date in Mint State, this also levied considerable demand on the 930 Proof strikes of this date. This coin is truly magnificent in appearance, strike and the overall stark Cameo “wow” factor.

1885 Seated Liberty Half Dollar graded NGC PF 67 Cameo
Click images to enlarge.

Hopefully, you will all have time to take part in this or any one of the numerous online auctions, which are available virtually every day. Do take time to research and bid wisely.

Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!

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