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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Coin Monday: To Be Continued?

Aug. 10, 2010
Written by John Dale

(As you will read below, which I will let JDB explain in more detail, the Heritage blog is going to be taking a sabbatical. It is only fitting that John be the one to sign off, for the time being at least, as he's held down the majority of the writing for the better part of the last year. For that, and for his continuing good work and insight in all the aspects of his work, he has my thanks, as do those of you who have read this blog over the last two years. Best, Noah.)

This will be the last time you see me in this space for a while.

The Heritage Auctions blog is going into mothballs, to be re-evaluated in a year. I’d love to see it come back, but since there are no guarantees and I’ll be waiting a year in the best case, I want to send this incarnation of the blog out in style.

One of my regrets is that in a year and a half of blogging for Heritage, I haven’t been able to make a decent Viking reference. Thus, today’s topic is this Norse-American Centennial medal, part of the Dr. and Mrs. Claude Davis Collection in Heritage’s ready-to-launch August 2010 Official ANA Auction in Boston.

The Norse medal, as it is usually abbreviated, has an unusual place in U.S. numismatics. Unlike many medals of its time, it is fairly well-established as an object for mainstream coin collecting. I have described it as an “honorary commemorative” in Heritage catalogs, and the history of the Norse medal is closely knotted with the silver commemoratives of the same era.

In fact, those other commemoratives are the reason the Norse medal is a medal and not a coin.
Several different commemorative coin issues were being struck or authorized in 1925; coins dated 1925 include the Lexington-Concord, the Stone Mountain (Georgia), the California Diamond Jubilee, and the Fort Vancouver (Washington) Centennial, and the 1927 Vermont (or Battle of Bennington) commemorative was authorized the same year. Many more commemorative bills were filed, only to die in committee.

The 1925 Minnesota State Fair featured the Norse-American Centennial, a celebration of early Norwegian immigrants’ arrival to the U.S. in 1825 and subsequent Norwegian contributions to American life and culture. The sponsor of the bill that created the Norse medal was Ole Juulson Kvale, a U.S. Representative from Minnesota of Norwegian descent, who was elected to the House in 1923.

Kvale was well-placed to influence the business of commemorative coinage bills, as he served on the responsible House committee. Through his service, however, he must have been aware of the logjam of commemorative coin bills. To win passage, he made the Norse commemorative a medal instead of a coin. Kvale’s bill passed out of the House and eventually became law.

Norse medals are eight-sided with a Leif-Eriksson-before-longboat motif on the obverse and a longboat on the reverse. The design was by James Earle Fraser, who is better known as the creator of the Buffalo nickel. Medals were made on thin and thick planchets, the vast majority in silver like the present piece, but also 100 struck in gold, like this September 2002 offering.

To be continued...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Coin Tuesday: The Mule

Aug. 3, 2010
Written by John Dale

The Mule, or, A Mildly Embellished Slice of Life:

"Coin question.”

I looked up. It was one of the photographers. Young guy.

“Coin question? What’s up?” I asked.

“What’s a mule?”

I filed my first response — too much Captain Obvious — away for later. He did say “coin question,” after all. I owed him a Serious Professional answer.

“It’s a coin with two sides that don’t match. Like if a Washington quarter obverse was put together with a Sacagawea dollar reverse.”

I wondered to myself: which coin brought this on?

I started checking through the coins in the Boston ANA Auction in my head. Mules, mules… there was that one pattern with the three dollar gold obverse and the Shield five cent obverse on the same nickel planchet, Judd-531A, by the numbers, and unique by the book… that thing was cool, but weird - seriously weird even by pattern coin standards. New nickname for the Judd-531A: the Lady Gaga.

Maybe it was something else. Another Shield nickel pattern, perhaps?

There was the one dated 1865 with a reverse that has no rays between the stars, the Judd-418. Shield nickels weren’t made for circulation until 1866, and the No Rays reverse didn’t come out to play until 1867, so the two sides didn’t go together. Was there a little Mint hanky-panky at work? Almost certainly, just like with the Lady Gaga.

Two possibilities. I had to ask:

“So which coin is it?”

“This Gobrecht dollar. I was working on the video and it was in the script.”

Gobrecht dollar? I checked the script. Oh, right. Lot 3284, the Judd-65. It pairs the no-stars obverse used on Judd-60 Gobrecht dollars with the no-stars reverse used on Judd-84 Gobrechts. Subtle, but definitely a mule.

I explained what made the Gobrecht dollar a mule. He got the general idea, if not the terminology.

“All right. I still don’t get why they call it a mule, though.”

City kid. It was time to break out the Captain Obvious. I smirked a bit as I slipped into the voice I usually reserve for non-precocious three-year-olds.

“Well, you see, when a horse and a donkey love each other very much…” […and the horse is a male and the donkey is a female, you get a hinny. – Noah]

“Oh, I gotcha.” He cracked up. Point for me.

He got in a parting shot, though. As he walked away, he muttered under his breath, just loud enough for me to hear, in true non-collector fashion:

“Coin weenies," he said. "What’ll they think of next?”

Monday, July 26, 2010

Coin Monday: The Quantum Pedigree

July 26, 2010
Written by John Dale

Schrödinger’s cat is dead. Schrödinger’s cat is not dead. Schrödinger’s cat is replaced by Schrödinger himself whenever I consider his thought experiment, because I could never do that to a kitty. (I skipped the AP Biology course in high school because I would have had to dissect a cat. To do that and then go home to Bootsie, Callie, and Tribble... it wasn’t happening.)

Quantum states, probability and uncertainty, the idea that the top card of a shuffled deck is 1/52 an ace of spades and just as much a deuce of clubs until the moment you turn it over… it’s rare that such concepts can be applied to numismatics. Most coin information is either treated as established fact or considered unknowable, lost in myriad possibilities. We know whether Schrödinger is dead or not dead… or we will never be able to open the box.

Yet I came across an instance recently with two well-defined and discrete possibilities, served up with a large side of uncertainty. There were two Plain Edge, Wire Rim Saint-Gaudens ten dollar pattern coins made in 1907. Heritage has one of them, the only one known to have survived, in its upcoming Official ANA U.S. Coin auction in Boston.

The known history of this particular coin goes back only a few years. Yet recent numismatic research has revealed what happened to the two Plain Edge, Wire Rim tens immediately after they were struck:

In mid-July 1907, one was sent to then-Secretary of the Treasury George B. Cortelyou, who forwarded the coin to President Theodore Roosevelt. The other was sent to the coins’ designer, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

One coin, two possible destinations… Roosevelt or Saint-Gaudens, president or artist… a quantum pedigree.

If the coin went to President Roosevelt, then it was seen by the man who made coin design reform his “pet crime,” whose drive and determination had brought the project this far and would see it through after the death of Saint-Gaudens. Impressive history, and yet this coin could be even more important.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens died on August 3, 1907. He did not live to see his designs on circulating coinage. In fact, he only ever saw his work in coin form once, just weeks before his death, when he was sent the Plain Edge, Wire Rim ten in mid-July. If this is the Saint-Gaudens coin, then it is the only Saint-Gaudens gold coin that the artist himself ever saw. The possibility is historically important and emotionally resonant.

Little is known about either coin in the time after distribution. The Saint-Gaudens coin fell completely off the radar, while archived Mint materials indicate that the Roosevelt specimen was sent back to the Mint. Just as there is no record of the Saint-Gaudens piece in the artist’s estate, there is no record of the Roosevelt piece in the National Numismatic Collection, successor to the Mint cabinet.

Assuming only one of the Plain Edge, Wire Rim tens survived, which environment would be more likely to produce a single coin in private hands: the Mint, where many patterns were saved for the Mint cabinet but many more were melted; or the estate of Saint-Gaudens, where family members and relations-in-art were grieving over his death?

The latter environment, with its reverence for all things Saint-Gaudens, seems far more likely to have preserved its Plain Edge, Wire Rim ten; thus, it gets the nod from Heritage’s perspective as the pattern’s more likely origin.

For now, uncertainty reigns… though not only uncertainty, but also probability and hope. Beyond the known lies the possible, and someday, a future researcher poring through Mint correspondence or the Saint-Gaudens archives may find the answer, the one key clue that opens the box and reveals the truth, attaching a single story to this singular pattern.

Until then, we can savor the possibilities.

To leave a comment, click on the title of the post.

-John Dale Beety

Monday, July 19, 2010

Coin Monday (Written on a Friday): Two Minus One

July 19, 2010
Written by John Dale

Writing this on a Friday, because I’m going to have a busy Monday, and today’s topic is one of the reasons…

Boys lie. So do statistics.” – anonymous math student

I’m not that student; I’m more “Numbers don’t lie; people do.”

I don’t know if that makes me an idealist about numbers or a cynic about humans.

Maybe numbers don’t lie, but they can be wrong. In the case of certified coin populations, such as the NGC Census Report, there are a couple of ways the numbers can be wrong. Clerical errors are easily corrected, but another source is more insidious: the re-submission.

Imagine a coin in an AU55 NGC holder.

For whatever reason, the owner thinks it’s undergraded. A relatively common practice (best left to professionals) is to remove the coin from its sealed holder, voiding the service’s guarantee (also known as a “break-out” or a “crack-out”), and then submit the coin to NGC again. Resubmissions can be costly, but when a difference of one grade point can mean tens of thousands of dollars in added value, there is plenty of incentive to try.

A negative to re-submissions is that each one is logged in the grading service’s records, and one AU55 coin, for example, could be resubmitted a dozen or more times in the hopes of getting that better grade. The result? One coin, one person, but a dozen extra AU55-graded coins in the Census. Bad times.

The antidote is a system wherein the paper labels (or tags) from inside the holders can be sent to NGC later. A label without a holder means that the holder must be broken. The coin may still exist, but the whole package — that is, the NGC-certified coin in that particular holder with that particular serial number on the label — no longer does.

The system works most of the time, but even it has its glitches…which brings me to one of the most beautiful coins of the upcoming August 2010 Official ANA U.S. Coin Auction in Boston. It is an 1883 half eagle, graded MS67 by NGC with the Star designation for exceptional eye appeal.

We had offered the coin before, in November 2004. It was in a different holder then, the finest example of the issue by two points with a Star designation on top, absolutely a killer coin, the best imaginable. How could any other 1883 half eagle match it?

It came around again for Boston, with a new owner…and a new holder. The coin had been re-submitted, and there were two MS67 Star coins in the Census. The two coins were the same; the cataloger was sure of it. Everything matched, from the color to the small flaw below the eagle’s left wing. The Census, couldn’t be ignored, though. There’s a world of difference between one coin and two. He had to acknowledge the two entries.

I got good news today, though. The second entry in the Census was still in there by mistake, and it’s going to be removed. The change should show up when the Census updates on Monday. I’m hoping that when I get in on Monday, the update will be in place, and I can change how the description looks online.

It’ll be yet another task on a busy Monday morning, but I’ll be happy to do it.

Sole finest, royalty among coins restored to its throne…that’s something to celebrate.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post.

-John Dale Beety

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Harvey Pekar – a Splendid American

July 14, 2010
Written by David Tosh

(It is with a heavy heart that the Heritage blog is posted today, some three days after the demise of Harvey Pekar, he of American Splendor fame. The post below is more than ably written by my fellow Heritage employee David Tosh, well known to any one that knows comics... David writes eloquently and movingly about Pekar's passing earlier this week. Needless to say, it is a bitter pill to swallow. Pekar was a singular talent, a man of peculiar brilliance and refracted insight, whose brilliant writing made the everyday epic. American Splendor was one of my favorite comics through my 20s, and I can remember being barely 12 when he was on Letterman, and watching his appearances, not knowing how much of an inspriation he would be to me in my own attempt at a writing career so many years later. Believe it or not, I used to write plays and have them produced in New York City, and I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that Harvey's terse, scathingly funny dialogue didn't influence my own attempts at drama. Harvey, btw, did it much much better... - Noah Fleisher)

In the middle of scrambling through the business of the day, I got stopped in my tracks by a bit of news this morning. The message made its way to me by email: “Harvey Pekar (PEE’-kahr), whose American Splendor was made into a 2003 film starring Paul Giamatti, has been found dead in his Cleveland, Ohio home.

Wow. I knew this guy.
In fact, I’ve known of him for many, many years.

I first became aware of this most unusual name back in the early 1970s. It was in the pages of an underground comic book that I read one of Pekar’s first published comic strips, which was about his love of junk food like Hostess Fruit Pies and corn chips, and how everyone gave him a hard time for not eating more healthy fare. Harvey didn’t care – he liked what he liked, and that was good enough for him. Later, he started publishing his own comic, American Splendor, with artistic help from his old Cleveland buddy, Robert Crumb.

The comic was entirely self-published, as a professionally produced magazine with a slick, four-color cover and crisply printed black and white interior pages, featuring artwork by Crumb and others. Harvey himself didn’t draw beyond the “stick figure” layouts he provided his artists.

What Harvey did do was write – not about superheroes, or exaggerated fantasies, but about what happened at work last week (he was a file clerk for many years), breaking up with a wife or girlfriend, dealing with a car that wouldn’t run, or even about the best place to grab a good cheap taco. It was “slice of life” all the way, and often the stories seemed pretty mundane, but they tended to stick in your mind. His stories were about ordinary people doing things we could all identify with, told in a matter-of-fact style, and he wasn’t afraid to tell it like it really was, even if it meant exposing his own personal flaws.

His “slice of life” stories greatly inspired me, back when I wanted to be a comic book artist myself, so much so that I named my first little home-made comics company Slice O’ Life Press. Pekar managed to publish about one issue of American Splendor a year back in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and I kept up with most of them (whenever I could find them). A couple of years later, I got the chance to see R. Crumb at a rare comic book convention appearance. I attended Crumb’s panel, and talk turned to Pekar and Crumb’s work illustrating stories for American Splendor.

It quickly became apparent that the majority of the people in attendance that day knew little or nothing about Harvey or his comics. That would soon change.
While Harvey’s fans may have been few and far between in those days, his work made it all the way to David Letterman, who was impressed enough to invite him on his “Late Night” show. That was quite an accomplishment for Harvey, but rather than seeing this as the opportunity to turn on millions to his comics, he preferred to turn the table on his host by being deliberately obstinate, obnoxious, unruly, and downright ugly. It was all a game to Harvey, but the novelty quickly wore thin with Letterman, who banned Pekar after only a few appearances.

Harvey knew what he was doing, though. There’s something about being banned that made people sit up and take notice. Soon, American Splendor started selling, and in time Harvey himself was a guest at one of the Dallas Fantasy Fair comic book conventions that I attended regularly. It was at this first Dallas appearance that I got to meet and hang out with Harvey and his new wife, Joyce. Knowing what a voracious reader he was, I would up taking Harvey to a big Half Price Books store, and we spent several hours digging through musty old tomes. Harvey walked out with a big stack of books, and I made a new friend.

American Splendor continued to make a bigger and bigger splash, and back issues were soon reprinted in trade paperback anthologies. Other publishers rushed in to finance Pekar’s comics, and a small but dedicated cult audience followed every issue. Eventually Hollywood called, and a well-received feature film was the result. It was a little strange to sit and watch this movie, especially the scenes with Paul Giamatti as Harvey and James Urbaniak as Crumb, having lunch together.

“I know these guys in real life!” I would say to whoever was within earshot.

“Big deal! Shut up and watch the movie!” I can hear them say in return.
It’s been many years now since I last talked to Pekar, way before the movie made him better known. Back when I did know him, he seemed upbeat, not a curmudgeon as he’s usually described. I remember asking him to write an introduction to a book of my comic strips that I was trying to get published. I gave him a copy of the prototype, and figured if I was lucky, he’d send me a few words. In pretty short order, he called me, reading off what he had written. It was a wonderful introduction – too bad the book was never published.

I’ve heard Harvey was depressed a lot in later years, and dealt with a variety of health problems, including prostate cancer. It seems obtaining something one strives for all their life, like the fame and recognition Pekar finally got for his work after many long, lean years, can mean little when your health starts slipping.

Maybe Harvey should have listened to his mother and well-meaning pals back when they tried to get him to eat right. Nah – that just wouldn’t be Harvey. He was his own man, and he insisted on playing the game as best he could on his own terms.
Now Harvey has passed away. I’m floored by learning this, and my first instinct was to pick up the phone and call Crumb, whom I’ve managed to get to know pretty well in the past few years (I can’t help but think it was because my first contact with Crumb was to talk about Pekar – that must have made an impression). We spent a few moments reflecting on our fallen friend.

At least now the rest of the world managed to catch up with this fascinating, creative man, who did something many others have tried to do without success: make ordinary, day-to-day life seem much more interesting. In that regard, Harvey Pekar did a splendid job. He will be missed.
To leave a comment, click on the title of this post.
-David Tosh

Monday, July 12, 2010

Coin Monday: A Shield Her Only Armor

July 12, 2010

Written by John Dale

The Boston ANA U.S. Coin Auction is complete, at least on the cataloging end.

The work was a bit rough — worked three consecutive weekends, and the catalogs themselves are going to be workout-gear heavy — but we pulled through. Cataloging isn’t all I’ll be doing for the auction, though. There will be proofreading and a trip out to the printer before the auction is truly over for me. I’d like to give myself a pat on the back, but I don’t want to get overconfident.

About the time I get up and shout “I am invincible!” like Boris Grishenko is about the time the vats of liquid nitrogen rupture and freeze me in my victory pose. I’ve had that happen to me plenty of times... part of growing up, I guess, like the moment when I saw a picture of the latest teen starlet and, instead of thinking “She’s cute,” it was “Honey, who DRESSED you? Put some clothes on!”

Plenty of collectors have had similar thoughts about one of my favorite U.S. coinage designs, the “Type One” Standing Liberty quarter, struck in 1916 and earlier in 1917. (A gorgeous 1917-D Type One is part of the Boston auction’s Platinum Night.) Hermon MacNeil might not win any praise from abstract art fanatics, but as an academic and public-art sculptor he was more than capable.

MacNeil’s semi-nude concept of Liberty standing with an invincible shield of the Republic was one of the winners of a closed competition. (More on this point later.) A majority of 1917 Standing Liberty quarters are not the Type One, however, but Type Two.

The most immediately visible modification on the Type Two coins is a chainmail cover-up on Liberty. Personally, I think it looks rather ridiculous compared to the Type One. Whenever I think of chainmail gowns, I think of Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and the train of thought gets more ridiculous from there, usually ending with a spotlight on Miss Liberty as she trades her shield for a microphone and delivers a stirring rendition of “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”

Why the change? The classic story, told and retold, is that certain segments of society were scandalized by Miss Liberty’s partial nudity. It was easy to believe in the 1960s, perhaps even more so in this post-Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction era. It might be a good story, but as Roger W. Burdette lays out in his Renaissance of American Coinage 1916 - 1921 (unsolicited book recommendation alert!), the “scandal” was a work of fiction. There was no widespread outrage in newspapers or letters sent to the Treasury Department; instead, it was MacNeil himself who wanted the change.

It was a question of art, not prurience. Mr. Burdette has plenty of documentary evidence to back up his position. The common-sense short version: semi-nudes had appeared on American currency before (see the 1896 $5 Educational note with Electricity vignette), and several months’ worth of oversight and artistic back-and-forth went on before the design was released.

If a semi-nude Liberty was going to be a problem, why didn’t any of a number of strongly opinionated people (Chief Engraver Charles Barber, Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo) speak up about it? In the end, there was no real public scandal, no broad outcry for the change.

So how did the story about “covering up” Liberty take root? Maybe it was the most convenient explanation in the absence of research, and thus easy to believe; maybe we wanted to believe it.
Liberty, however, is not some starlet who needs better advice on how to dress; she is the personification of one of our noblest ideals, and she has rarely been so beautiful as when she stood before the world on the eve of the Great War, a shield her only armor.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post.
-John Dale Beety

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Coin Monday on a Tuesday: Finding the Willow Tree

July 6, 2010
Written by John Dale

(Thanks to the long weekend, Tuesday is this week’s Monday at Heritage. Enjoy! – Noah)

Before talking coins, I have to share something that caught my wandering eye: Bruce Lee’s jumpsuit from Game of Death. Yes, that jumpsuit, the one Quentin Tarantino cribbed from to outfit the Bride in Kill Bill; the one that’s had so many imitators in arcade-style fighting games; the one that has its own section on Game of Death’s Wikipedia page. Yes, it’s that awesome. Look. Drool. If you have Tarantino-level money, bid.

Today’s coin feature is of a much older vintage than Bruce Lee’s jumpsuit…more than three centuries older. The piece was scheduled to go in the July Summer FUN Auction (friendly reminder: bidding ends this week!), but it was moved back to the Boston ANA Auction. Believe me, it’s worth the wait.

I had the coin on my desk. Massachusetts silver. The holder said “Oak Tree Shilling, Good Details.” It wasn’t much to look at, or rather, there wasn’t much to look at on it, as worn as it was. Even so, I figured I would be able to match it to a die pair and give it an attribution.

I couldn’t attribute it. Nothing matched. It showed parts of designs from at least two strikes, so I was expecting the attribution to be complicated, but still…

Two runs through reference books later and about thirty seconds after I went from frustrated to flat-out vexed with the coin, I admitted defeat and showed it to Senior Cataloger Mark Borckardt.

He went through the same stages I did, until he had a brain-wave: what if this “Oak Tree Shilling” wasn’t an Oak Tree at all?

“Maybe it’s a Willow Tree.”

I murmured something noncommittal. Willow Tree shillings are very rare, regardless of condition. Could his suggestion possibly be correct?

Then, in a flawless who’s-your-sensei moment, he showed me exactly how the remaining detail on the coin synced up with the 1-A variety in the Crosby and Noe systems. The multiple strikes that had annoyed me earlier suddenly took on new meaning; most Willow Tree shillings show multiple strikes, so that was one more piece of proof.

The coin came out of the Summer FUN auction and took a direct line back to NGC for re-attribution. It came back with two sweet words on the holder: “Willow Tree.”

With those words, the coin got a massive catalog upgrade, from a short text-only entry in the Summer FUN auction to a plush half-page hangout between the purple covers of the Platinum Night catalog for Boston. Massachusetts silver going home…what could be finer?

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post.

-John Dale Beety

Monday, June 28, 2010

Coin Monday: 1922 -- Into the Downtime

June 28, 2010
Written by John Dale

Downtime is just a dream for me right now; the cataloging staff spent the weekend working on the upcoming Boston ANA Auction, and it looks like two more working weekends are on the way. As appealing as the thought of downtime might be, though, there’s always the potential for too much of a good thing. In 1922, the U.S. Mint saw plenty of downtime, and as a result, only a few types of coins were struck that year.

In the wake of World War I, the United States went through a recession that lasted about half a year. The start of 1920 saw another economic downturn that lasted for 18months. During the downturn, the Mint struck a variety of denominations, but with less commerce came less demand for the instruments of commerce, coins among them.

Only one denomination was struck at all three of the active mints: the silver dollar. The 1922 silver dollars bore the then-novel Peace design; though first struck in 1921, the Peace dollars were not released for distribution until 1922. The Boston auction will have examples from Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco.

While double eagles effectively did not circulate in the U.S. by 1922, there was still demand for them in international trade, demand that was increasing as Europe recovered. The gold coins were struck on the two coasts: Philadelphia (represented in the upcoming July Summer FUN Auction) and San Francisco (in Boston). Most of today’s survivors were shipped overseas and spent upwards of 50 years in Europe; they were later repatriated in the 1970s and beyond, after restrictions on American citizens’ private ownership of gold were relaxed.

Across most of the U.S. there was little demand for small change, so no nickels, dimes, quarters, or halves were made. There was unexpected demand for one-cent coins, though, and the Denver Mint pushed through a batch of slightly more than 7 million pieces. While it was Denver alone that struck cents in 1922, certain pieces show no mintmark due to production errors, and these have become more famous than their regular 1922-D counterparts.

Beyond the regular U.S. coinage, the Philadelphia Mint also worked on a handful of other small-scale projects. For the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ulysses S. Grant, the famous Civil War general and later president, the Mint made commemorative coins in two denominations, a half dollar and a gold dollar. Philadelphia also kept up its trade in making coins for foreign countries. In 1922, it struck pieces for circulation in Colombia; Costa Rica; French Indochina (which covered modern-day Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and a small part of China); Nicaragua; and Venezuela.

It would be nice to contemplate downtime some more, but the Boston catalog calls. Back to it!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Coin Monday: The Business of the 1882 Double Eagle

June 21, 2010
Written by John Dale

One of the most important coins in the upcoming July Summer FUN U.S. Coin auction is an 1882 double eagle graded AU53 by PCGS. The issue has a mintage of just 571 business strikes, the lowest for any regular-issue double eagle with the James B. Longacre-designed reverse. (The Paquet reverse is another story, as there are just two Philadelphia 1861 Paquet coins. Heritage has sold one of them.)

Beyond the obvious rarity-by-mintage, there is another twist to just how elusive the 1882 double eagle business strikes are: the Smithsonian Institution doesn’t have one. The reason the Smithsonian lacks an example actually ties in to why the coins are so rare overall.

Now, it certainly seems like the Smithsonian, more specifically the National Numismatic Collection in the National Museum of American History, has one of everything, including a number of unique items. (If you dream of owning a Class II 1804 dollar or an 1849 pattern double eagle, well, dreams are all you’ll ever have.)

The NNC began with the United States Mint’s official cabinet, built up through its transfer to the Smithsonian in 1923, and it was later built up through private donations and transfers; the most famous of these, the gold coin cabinet of Josiah K. Lilly, Jr., arrived in 1973.

(Deeply personal aside: a love of coins is not the only connection I have to Mr. Lilly. Along with his father and brother, he established the Lilly Endowment, a philanthropic foundation that focuses on my home state of Indiana. Thanks to its Community Scholarship Program, I was able to attend my college of choice. I am eternally grateful.)

The Mint and Lilly collections shared an important trait: neither of them collected both proofs and business strikes when proofs were available. The two were seen as part of the same issue, with proofs preferable to the “ordinary” coins. Thus, the NNC has two proof 1882 double eagles (mintage 59 specimens) but no business strike examples.

Collector perspectives today are generally different, however, and proofs and business strikes are treated as two distinct issues. This is highlighted in the great Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins by Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth, which used the NNC for images and research. (Unsolicited book recommendation: it’s one of the few that never leaves my cataloging desk.) On the entry for the 1882 business strikes, the caption that usually lists the condition of the best NNC specimen says instead, “No specimen in Smithsonian Institution.”

The 1882 business strike double eagle is an important enough coin on its own, but the idea of owning a coin that the Smithsonian doesn’t have is quite the bonus. Happy bidding!

-John Dale Beety