Great Sales Of The Past

Posted on 10/23/2014

It is highly recommended to examine great sales when given the opportunity.

On November 14 and 15, the fifth installment of the famed collection belonging to Eric P. Newman will be sold in New York City. The sale features another incredible offering of United States coinage, with selections of Colonial coinage, large cents, United States gold, and a few pattern and territorial gold coins. The quality is amazing, as usual. Many of the coins have been off the market for over 50 years, with a large number having been acquired from the Colonel E.H.R. Green estate in the 1930s and 40s. Others trace pedigrees to even earlier collections, such as Matthew A. Stickney. Fortunately, for collectors of more modest means, there are several hundred lower price coins that give collectors a chance to purchase a coin from one of the greatest collections ever formed. Most of these will bring a substantial premium just because of the “Newman” pedigree.

Many may ask why such a pedigree is important in the first place. Pedigrees have been an important part of numismatics for a very long time. Copper collectors have long recognized the added appeal of owning a coin that was once part of a famous collection. Experts in the field of early copper coinage keep meticulous records of past pedigrees of important examples. Today, Registry Set collectors have also embraced the importance of pedigrees. Collectors cheerfully bid substantial premiums to purchase Morgan silver dollars that once belonged to the legendary dealer/collector, Jack Lee. The same can be said for many other series such as Saint-Gaudens coinage that once belonged to Steve Duckor. Many collectors probably feel that if an example was deemed worthy of purchasing by a famous collector, then it’s good enough for them.

I have been attending rare coin auctions since the late 1970s. For the purpose of this article, I would like to give a brief overview of some of the most famous collections that I have personally witnessed sold over the years. Sadly, for most of these early sales, my level of expertise was beginner, at best. My spending budget was beginner, as well. I can state that although I did not purchase a large number of coins, the experience of seeing these coins sold was extremely educational. When truly great collections are sold, that may be the only chance in your lifetime to examine them in person. For that reason, it is highly recommended to examine lots of great sales when given the opportunity.

The first truly great coin auction that I personally attended was the four sales by Bowers and Ruddy Galleries of the Garrett Collections starting in November, 1979. I have been asked many times if I was related to this branch of the Garrett family. I should have been so lucky! The Garrett family of Baltimore assembled one of the finest coin collections ever. It was completed by two generations over a 60 year period, starting in the 1870s, by T. Harrison Garrett, the founder of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. T. Harrison Garrett was killed in a boating accident, and the collection was then transferred to his sons, Robert and John Work Garrett. I seem to remember reading that the brothers worked out an arrangement that gave the coin collection to John Work Garrett in exchange for Robert receiving the obviously substantial library of their father. John Work Garrett continued to aggressively add to the collection until his death in 1942. The collection was bequeathed to the Johns Hopkins University, which sold the coins in four sales from 1979 to 1981. The rare coin market was extremely hot in 1979, the beneficiary of an explosion in bullion prices. The four sales netted over $25,000,000, a record for a single collection that was to stand for many years.

The following is a very brief overview of this incredible auction. Many of the prices realized were extremely high for the time. A great number of buyers in the sales were newly rich coin dealers having recently made a fortune in the metals market. By 1982, prices for rare coins had cratered, but that is another story that we will explore more fully in the future. One interesting observation is how seldom coins with the “Garrett” pedigree appear on the market today. These sales were huge, and you would think they would show up more often than they do. I believe it is a reflection of how highly desirable these coins are. The coins are now tightly held by serious collectors.

The first sale occurred November 28 and 29, 1979. The sale began with a smattering of early half cents and a virtually complete set of Proof half cents. The highest priced coin was an 1836 Original Half Cent that sold for $9,000. (Today’s value would be $25,000.) The selection of large cents was much more impressive. A 1793 Chain AMERICA Cent graded MS 63 sold for $115,000. (Today’s value would be $1,000,000.) A nearly Mint 1793 Liberty Cap Cent brought $36,000. (Today’s value would be $750,000.) Two different 1794 Large Cents in choice Mint condition sold for $17,000 and $16,000, respectively. (Today’s value would be over $200,000.) In all, the first sale featured around 200 lots of early copper. The first auction included a run of half dimes, highlighted by a high grade 1802 example that brought $45,000. (Today’s value would be $300,000.) An impressive run of half dollars began with two 1794 examples bringing $5,800 and $4,200, both of which were graded Extremely Fine (today $50,000). The highlight of the half dollars sold was an 1853-O Without Arrows in Very Fine condition. The coin sold for $40,000. (Today’s value would be $400,000.) Other important seated half dollars included a Gem 1866-S No Motto that hammered for $22,000. (One sold for $164,000 in 2013.) An 1872 Amazonian Pattern Half Dollar sold for $23,000. (It is probably worth $100,000 today.) Probably the greatest run of 1877 Pattern Half Dollars ever sold for $15,000 to $35,000. An 1868 Aluminum Proof set brought $40,000.

Gold coins began with a small run of gold dollars, the best being a Proof 1854 Type Two that sold for $90,000. (Today’s value would be about $350,000.) Three Dollar gold issues were represented by a nearly complete set of Proof examples, the highest price being for an 1874 that brought $42,000, worth $100,000 today. A Gem 1879 Coiled Hair Stella sold for $115,000, worth over $1,500,000 today. A magnificent selection of Early Half Eagles followed with so many highlights, it’s difficult to choose which ones to mention. The exceedingly rare 1798 Small Eagle sold for $110,000. It has been many years since one of these has sold at auction. Today’s cost would be $1,000,000 plus. An 1815 Half Eagle that had last sold in 1884 brought $150,000, and today it would be $1,000,000 plus. A Gem 1819 brought $85,000, and now is worth $500,000 or more. The superb 1829 Large Planchet sold for $165,000 and is easily $1,000,000 plus today. An extensive run of Proof liberty and Indian half eagles were also sold.

Following the Federal gold coinage, an impressive offering of Territorial gold coins were auctioned. The first truly great coin was the 1830 Templeton Reid $5 that brought an impressive $200,000 and would be worth $1,000,000 plus today. A magnificent 1860 Clark Gruber $20 sold for $40,000 and would now bring in $500,000. An 1861 John Parson & Co Quarter Eagle and Half Eagle that last sold in 1919 and 1922 brought $85,000 and $100,000; todays’ value would be anyone’s guess.

The sale concluded with an incomparable run of Colonial coinage, the highlights were an offering of 1783 Silver Nova Constellatio Patterns. The four coins sold for around $500,000 in total. I believe John Jay Ford purchased three of the coins. The highest price coin in the sale was the finest known example of the Brasher Doubloon in Mint State. The coin shattered auction records for the time, selling for $725,000. To put this in perspective, you could have purchased an 1804 Silver Dollar for around $250,000 in the 1980s. Looking over the sales catalogue is like stepping back in time. These and others like them are important historical events for numismatics. As stated earlier, even if you do not purchase coins in a great sale, you will benefit from looking at the coins and being a part of history!

Next time—Garrett, part two, three and four.

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Jeff Garrett bio

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