Jim Bisognani: FUN by the Numbers

Posted on 1/23/2020

At this year's FUN Show, the Proof was in the pudding.

The first few weeks of 2020 have already showcased major venues, allowing us to make a quick assessment of what the future holds for various numismatic markets. Out of the gate, the 65th annual FUN Show drew an ardent throng of fellow Coindexters and dealers. This yearly migration to the Sunshine State was a welcome respite for many nearly frostbitten numismatic brethren who reside in the northern tier. A change in climate coupled with an ultra-active metals market obviously helped to get the blood pumping and increase interest.

Everything was in sync for an active event. Frenzied floor traffic and the powerful buzz emanating from the bourse only served to amplify the excitement among attendees. Most dealers proclaimed their sales were energetic, with no real let up throughout the show.

Of course, when not buying or trading, dealers and collectors were busy viewing lots and participating in the Heritage Auctions FUN Signature sale. That bellwether sale is now in the books, with an impressive $41.8 million result. Based on the past three FUN Signature Auctions, this was about on par with the sales of preceding years. Yet, as you will read, there was a changing dynamic.

A quick review of the five live floor sessions and the single internet-only session confirm that rare and high-grade US gold coins are still inciting heated competition and very strong bids. Many high-grade US coins also curried phenomenal interest, with several claiming record prices.

A $90,000 bargain

One such coin was this superlative 1887 Morgan Dollar graded NGC PF 68 Ultra Cameo, which rocketed to $90,000! Aside from the king of the Proof Morgan Dollars — 1895 — this appears to be a record auction price for any Proof Ultra Cameo Morgan Dollar. Nonetheless, when you look at all the factors, $90,000 is a bargain. This coin is not only the finest known example for this date, it also lays claim to being one of the most exquisite Proof Morgan Dollars. Indeed, 1887 Morgans are virtually unknown in Ultra Cameo.

1887 $1 graded NGC PF 68 Ultra Cameo that realized $90,000
Click images to enlarge.

The winning bidder, well-known coin dealer Rick Tomaska of R&I Coins, was happy to share his philosophy about the purchase.

When asked if he had already planned to bid on the coin, Rick said: “Not until I was reviewing the Heritage catalog, as I usually do. I always look through certain sections. I was looking at Proofs, and I saw that piece… Well, that was the coin! I didn’t expect to see a Proof Morgan of that caliber. I hadn’t seen one in years in a major auction. Proof Ultra Cameo Morgans at this level seem to be really undervalued.”

Tomaska said that he was bidding online and that he was actually willing to bid a little bit higher if necessary.

Per Rick: “It’s just a phenomenal 1887. I’ve never seen one like it. I always like exceptional early Proof US coins. I had wished that I could get the ’87 for less, but I was still happy with the price, knowing the quality of the coin for the date. I mean, 1896 and 1898 Morgans can be Ultra Cameo, but you look at this coin and say geez, it’s absolutely irreplaceable. What kind of future value could it have?

“That’s how collectors really need to look at this. I mean, I can get an 1893-S Morgan Dollar in AU or better any day of the week. Those coins are out there, and they can be high six-figure coins, yet you wouldn’t find another 1887 like this one. It doesn’t make sense.”

Show me the proofs

Rick also shared his opinion and fondness for other Proof type coins: “US Proof type in general — just exceptional proofs — there are still a lot of really tough coins out there that are undervalued. You can get some of the finest Proof type coins in existence, and they are very inexpensive when you compare them to some similar US coins.”  

I concur. Virtually any US Proof type — Seated, Barber, Morgans, etc. — is still going for a fraction of its respective all-time high. Many coins, especially in PF 64 and PF 65, are also readily available in an average collector’s price point. Below are just a few of the bargains at the FUN Show.

Here is a wonderful 1877 Seated Dime graded NGC PF 64 Cameo. Featuring clean and brilliant surfaces, this coin is one of a mere 510 struck in Proof format. It realized $630.

1877 10 Cents graded NGC PF 64 Cameo
Click images to enlarge.

This superb gem Proof Cameo 1904 Barber Dime is one of only 670 struck in Proof (a low Proof mintage within the series). Graded NGC PF 65 Cameo, it claimed $750.

1904 10 Cents graded NGC PF 65 Cameo
Click images to enlarge.

Both dimes, by the way, sold at below wholesale levels, so keep your eyes peeled for bargains, even in major sales, as many dealers and collectors spend more time strategizing on the elite, rare and often very price-prohibitive coins.

In the middle of the spectrum, for the tad more affluent, this wonderful, eye appealing 1799 Draped Bust Dollar graded NGC MS 63 realized a “modest” $34,800.

A close-up of the 1799 Draped Bust Dollar graded NGC MS 63 that realized $34,800
Click images to enlarge.

Interestingly, this silver cartwheel coin has appeared twice before this just-concluded sale. First at the 2009 FUN Show auction, realizing a similar $32,200, and then she reappeared in a newer-style NGC slab as part of the 2013 Heritage Rosemont Signature sale. There, she claimed $64,625! Certainly at the current price point, this gorgeous coin is a superb value and a tremendous type coin, too.

Just the FUN facts, Ma’am

In total, the average price realized per lot at the 2020 FUN Show sale was nearly $11,000. This fantastic average shows that the market for rare and high-grade US (and world) coins is continuing to cater to an enthusiastic and an even more well-heeled audience.

Take a look at the four-year trend for the FUN Show Signature sales presented by Heritage Auctions:

Average price per lot realized Total lots in sale
2017 =$5,240 8,079
2018 =$5,935 6,879
2019 =$7,660 5,640
2020 =$10,832 3,859

Between the 2017 and 2020 FUN Show sales, the average price per lot realized has slightly more than doubled (107%), and during the same duration, the total number of lots per sale has been cut by more than half (52.2%). With prices realized overwhelmingly leaning toward the well-to-do numismatist/investor, there is clearly a disconnect between the price point of the average collector.

Even taking into the equation the 2015 Heritage Signature FUN Show sale, which realized a massive $70.1 million, it still underperformed the 2020 sale. The lot average was $8,566, and considering that average was inflated by the record seven coins that captured over a $1 million each, totaling $13,395,000, the 2020 result is all the more impressive. If I were to subtract those seven monster coins from the mix, the average per lot would be $6,937, giving 2020 an average increase of 56% above that sale.

Within these averages, the good news is that there are definitely many bargains — whether that bargain is $90,000 or $900. For the average collector, the opportunity to acquire key coins in the $500 to $1,500 price point is ripe indeed.

Until next time, happy collecting!

Jim Bisognani is an NGC Price Guide Analyst. He has written extensively on US coin market trends and values.

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