Small coins with high grades and low populations are big-ticket items these days. As recently as the late 1990s, a coin selling for $1 million was considered a big deal. Today, $1 million for a rare coin is becoming commonplace, and transactions for coins commanding several million dollars apiece are frequently seen.
HIGH-VALUE COINS HAVE A TARGET AUDIENCE
If you own one of those rare and valuable multi-million-dollar coins, you can’t simply take it to any of a thousand willing dealers, all of whom have several million dollars in the bank and can wire you the funds. In general, the more valuable the coin, the fewer the number of buyers. A coin worth many millions of dollars might indeed be sold instantly because if someone with the wherewithal wants it, the chances are that the funds will be instantly available.
However, a common coin such as an 1881-S Morgan silver dollar graded Mint State-65 or 66 has thousands of active potential buyers because it has a value of only a couple of hundred dollars, has a population of many thousands and is a staple of a popular series. Move on to a high-grade and exceptionally rare 1794 Flowing Hair silver dollar worth several million dollars, and there might only be a couple dozen or fewer qualified buyers at any moment in time.
You might be able to sell that coin almost instantaneously; maybe you’ll get lucky. In most cases, though, especially in instances where the coin is of an exceptionally high value, the process of selling is a much longer one and may be best suited for public auction where those couple of people at the top of that buyer pyramid won’t leave a single scrap of meat, or gold, on the table.
SELLING & GRADING RARE COINS
Heritage Auctions HA.com now boasts sales approaching $2 billion annually, according to its co-chairmen, James L. Halperin and Steve Ivy. The Dallas-based rare coin and collectibles conglomerate has offices in 11 cities worldwide. Heritage’s four sales of the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Core Collection included many rare U.S. gold and pattern coins and hammered at public auction for $83.7 million in total, with the final sale concluding in August 2023.
As a sign of the times, the only legal-to-own 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle gold piece was auctioned by Sotheby’s for $18,872,250 in June 2021. At least one leading price guide pegs its value at $23.5 million today. The coin was graded Mint State-65, the benchmark grade for “Gem” on the one through-70 coin grading scale used by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) that certified and authenticated the coin.
The Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC) put its green holographic sticker of approval on the holder. CAC now also grades and encapsulates coins—another sign of an evolving market.
Financial service professionals regard stocks as being “continuously liquid.” At any given time, you can take a share of stock and sell it for the current trading price of that stock—and for every share you sell, you’ll receive a uniform price. At any given time when the market is open, and sometimes after hours, that stock is salable.
To a certain extent, some coins which are not great rarities enjoy this same advantage. We often see $1,000 coins and $500 coins and $100 coins which, for all practical purposes, are continuously liquid.
But when we start talking about large groups of these coins, or coins that have high values, these coins lack continuity of liquidity.
For a coin to sell for its maximum fair market value, the right buyer would have to be someone who meets the following three criteria. Unless all three of these factors are involved, there won’t be any sale.
1. Needs the Coin – A dealer who needs it to sell to a collector; a collector who needs it to complete a collection; or a collector-investor who needs it for a specific diversification purpose.
2. Appreciates the Coin – Someone who appreciates its cultural, artistic or historical significance; rarity; high grade; likes the design and finds the toning unusually attractive.
3. Has the Money to Pay for the Coin – Someone who can pay for it within a reasonable time.
EIGHT MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR COIN RARITIES
These are some of the most valuable and celebrated coin rarities of all time and were sold at auction by Heritage Auctions. These capsule descriptions do not do justice to these grand Hall of Fame milestone rarities. Readers who want to learn about these coins in greater depth are invited to visit: https://coins. ha.com/heritage-auctions-hall-of-fame-best-pricesrealized.s
1. 1885 TRADE DOLLAR
NUMISMATIC GUARANTY COMPANY (NGC), PROOF66, FINEST OF FIVE EXAMPLES KNOWN
PRICE REALIZED: $3,960,000
SOLD: January 14, 2019
In 1873, Congress passed far-reaching legislation that, among other things, authorized a new silver coin slightly heavier than the standard silver dollar and containing slightly more precious metal. This coin, called the Trade dollar, was meant to give U.S. businesspersons an advantage in their dealings with merchants in the Orient, especially the Chinese.
Besides producing this coin in a business-strike version for use in overseas trade, the U.S. Mint also made small quantities of proofs every year for sale to the nation’s collectors. These sales were quite modest, since few Americans collected coins in earnest at that time.
In the 13-year history of the Trade dollar, the number of proofs exceeded 1,000 in only four different years.
This unusual silver coin never achieved its objective as a vehicle for international trade, and after just six years its production for that purpose was suspended. The Mint continued to issue proof specimens, though, from 1879 to 1885 before retiring the coin altogether. In the final two years, the numbers it made were minuscule – 10 in 1884 and a mere five in 1885.
The example here was acquired before 1923 by William Cutler Atwater, one of the greatest collectors of his era. Later, legendary collector Louis Eliasberg acquired the piece. This coin, Eliasberg’s, sold for $907,500 in the April 1997 Eliasberg Collection, Part II Sale (Bowers & Merena), where it was described as “the finest by far of five known” and “a landmark American rarity.” Any coin selling for a price approaching a million dollars was an awe-inspiring price realized for that time.
2. 1907 ULTRA HIGH RELIEF SAINT-GAUDENS DOUBLE EAGLE, INVERTED EDGE LETTERING
PCGS PROOF69, TIED FOR FINEST KNOWN
PRICE REALIZED: $4,320,000
SOLD: August 10, 2023
“Saints” – as these $20 gold pieces minted from 1907 through 1933 are known throughout the hobby – have much to offer. Their portraits are widely regarded as the most aesthetically stunning ever to appear on U.S. coinage, with a striding figure of Liberty on the obverse and a soaring American eagle on the reverse.
President Theodore Roosevelt personally pursued the talents of the great sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create an exceptional design for the double eagle gold piece.
This nearly flawless Ultra High Relief Saint is worthy of being showcased in a museum. Truly, these were the apex of U.S. coinage artistry. Each Saint-Gaudens double eagle contains nearly an ounce of gold, reinforcing their numismatic appeal and a solid underpinning of high intrinsic value.
The coin shown here, auctioned as part of the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Collection, is a perfection’s- threshold three-dimensional masterpiece of stunning visual appeal. Please note: Do not confuse this inverted edge lettering coin with normal edge lettering or the wire edge. This example has a double-deep edge.
3. 1927-D SAINT-GAUDENS DOUBLE EAGLE
PCGS MS66, RAREST 20TH CENTURY GOLD COIN OF ANY DENOMINATION, HERITAGE AUCTIONS TRACES ONLY 14 EXAMPLES, EX: DALLAS BANK-SIMPSON
PRICE REALIZED: $4,440,000
SOLD: August 28, 2022
Research by Heritage Auctions shows that only seven examples of the 1927-D are extant or “commercially available today.” This coin was secured in a private transaction around 2005 by Bob Simpson.
The Dallas Bank Collection catalog describes this remarkable specimen as one that is “GEM Brilliant Uncirculated…. Unequivocally one of the finest known…. Both the obverse and reverse of this extremely rare piece are beautifully toned in a rich, medium-yellow shade of gold. The fields are satiny smooth and the complete, original mint lustre creates perfectly unbroken cartwheels on both sides….”
4. 1821 CAPPED HEAD LEFT FIVE
PCGS/CAC PROOF-65 CAMEO, ONLY PROOF PRIVATELY HELD
PRICE REALIZED: $4,620,000
SOLD: September 29, 2022
The 1821 $5 gold piece is a historic proof rarity, as only two are known: the present example and the other specimen which is part of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution. This example, sold in September 2022, is the only proof 1821 Capped Head Left half eagle privately held.
5. 1804 PLAIN 4 EAGLE
PCGS/CAC PR65+ DEEP CAMEO, FINEST OF THE THREE KNOWN, EX: SIMPSON
PRICE REALIZED: $5,280,000
SOLD: January 24, 2021
The 1804 Plain 4 proof eagle is a monumental milestone and historic rarity. 1804 Plain 4 eagles were struck to be part of diplomatic presentation proof sets, as were the dollars from 1804 which received more attention. Four pieces were minted, but just three are known today. One of the three known examples is included in the Harry Bass Core Collection, on display at the American Numismatic Association Money Museum and unavailable indefinitely.
6. 1870-S THREE DOLLAR GOLD
PCGS SPECIMEN-50, ONLY AVAILABLE EXAMPLE
PRICE REALIZED: $5,520,000
SOLD: January 5, 2023
The 1870-S three dollar gold piece is essentially unique. This specimen strike resided in the Harry W. Bass, Jr. collection. Heritage describes it as “among the rarest and most enigmatic coins in the U.S. federal series.”
Researchers say that a second specimen was placed under the cornerstone of the Second San Francisco Mint in 1870. Since that example is essentially unavailable, this Specimen-50 piece is, for all practical purposes, unique. Numismatic dealer and scholar Q. David Bowers compared owning the 1870-S $3 gold piece to owning the Mona Lisa, as both are one of a kind and so precious that their values are incalculable.
7. 1794 FLOWING HAIR SILVER DOLLAR
PCGS/CAC MS66+, EX: ST. OSWALD-OSTHEIMER-HAYES-POGUE-SIMPSON,
WORLD-FAMOUS LEGENDARY GEM
PRICE REALIZED: $6,600,000
SOLD: August 22, 2021
This masterpiece first dollar of the United States is pristine and original. How it managed to fortuitously escape injury is one of the greatest miracles in numismatics. This specimen is the finest example of the famed Lord St. Oswald coins. The 1794 silver dollar has a mintage of 1,758, but no more than 150 are believed to survive. Perhaps five or so exist in high grades.
8. 1787 NEW YORK-STYLE BRASHER DOUBLOON
EB ON WING, W-5840, NGC/CAC MS65*, FINEST KNOWN
PRICE REALIZED: $9,360,000
SOLD: January 24, 2021
Could this coin be the world’s most famous numismatic rarity? This is the Stickney-Ellsworth-Garrett-Partrick specimen and the finest of the seven known specimens.
The second time it was offered, it realized a staggering $725,000, making it the world’s most valuable U.S. coin. That was in 1979 when it was sold as part of the Garrett Collection by Bowers & Ruddy Galleries.
This article by Scott A. Travers previously appeared in COINage magazine. To subscribe click here. All images courtesy Heritage Auctions HA.com.