From October 31 through November 2, Heritage Auctions will hold a Signature Auction of U.S. coinage at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. In this preview article we’ll take a look at some of the highlights of the sale. All lots discussed in this article, as well as all lots from the entire auction, can be viewed on the Heritage website.
For our first lot we go back to the earliest days of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. Lot 5111 is an Uncirculated example of one of just two denominations struck at that facility in 1793, the Liberty Cap half cent. Graded MS-62BN by PCGS, this coin is one of only 35,334 examples of this small denomination struck that year. At the time, Americans saw a wide mix of coin issues in circulation, as there was little uniformity, and this issue (and the various Large Cents struck that same year) was the very first step to a uniform American currency system of cents and dollars. It would take until 1857, however, before foreign issues were no longer accepted in circulation, despite the wide range of U.S. Mint-issued coin denominations ranging from half cents to (eventually) $20 gold pieces. (For more information, see A Guide Book of Half Cents and Large Cents, by Q. David Bowers.)
We move on to a slightly larger denomination, and a type that many Americans probably still remember from circulation: the Buffalo nickel. Lot 5169 is one of the rarest dates of this type, the 1926-S; this particular example was graded MS-65 by NGC, and is almost unimprovable in quality thanks to the rarity of the date. In 1926 the San Francisco Mint produced 970,000 nickels, virtually all of which were released into circulation. Well-circulated examples are scarce but can still be found relatively easily; in Uncirculated condition, however, this is considered to be one of the key dates of the series. This date and mintmark very infrequently appear on the marketplace, especially in gem Uncirculated condition, where it ranks as the rarest Buffalo nickel (except for certain varieties). (See A Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels, by Q. David Bowers, for more information.)
The next lot we will take a look at is arguably one of the rarest quarters from the 20th century. Lot 5244 is a 1901-S Barber quarter certified MS-65 by PCGS. It is considered to be one of three classic key dates in the series (the other two being the 1896-S and 1913-S). The San Francisco Mint produced just 72,664 quarters that year, and virtually all spent considerable time in circulation. Most survivors grade Good at best, and thanks to the low mintage it remains a valuable coin even in that condition. In circulated conditions it is very scarce, and it becomes particularly rare in Uncirculated condition. Perhaps a few were accidentally saved, but as coin collectors didn’t care about mintmarks at the time (and in many cases rather settled for Proofs from the Philadelphia Mint), the survival of any example of this date in Uncirculated condition is a true miracle. (See A Guide Book of Barber Silver Coins, by Q. David Bowers, for further information.)
The highlight of the sale for many people would be Lot 5345, an 1870-S Liberty Seated dollar graded EF-40 by NGC. While examples of this date do occasionally turn up at auction, one should not forget that there are just nine confirmed examples in existence in all grades, of which just a single example grades Uncirculated. (A 10th example is rumored to exist but has not been seen since the early 1990s, and even that sighting can’t be confirmed.) It is unclear how many examples were produced, as the Mint records indicate that none were made. The general consensus is that perhaps 15 pieces were struck (although estimates have ranged from 10 to 200 pieces). The reason for their existence is known, however: They were considered souvenirs to the groundbreaking of what would the second San Francisco Mint, a grand building (now known as the “Granite Lady”) in which was placed a time capsule containing a complete date set of 1870 coinage struck at the first San Francisco Mint. The example offered by Heritage in Baltimore falls in the middle of the condition census for this issue and has a pedigree that goes back to the 1950s. (For more information, see A Guide Book of Liberty Seated Silver Coins, by Q. David Bowers.)
The final coin we will discuss is the highly collectable $20 gold piece. While most collectors know of the 1933 double eagle and its story, most collectors of the Saint-Gaudens series can only hope to end their collection with the 1932 issue, which is a rarity itself. Lot 5648 in the Heritage sale is an example of this rarity, graded MS-66 by PCGS. It is one of 10 examples graded at that level (no doubt including several resubmissions), with just a single example graded higher (graded MS66+). The Philadelphia Mint produced 1,101,750 examples of this denomination that year, but virtually all were kept in storage, and when all gold coinage was recalled the following year most were melted without having ever spent a single day in circulation. Those collectors who could afford them soon prized those few examples of this date that did make it out, and it is now estimated that there are perhaps 125 to 150 examples known to exist (although estimates have ranged as low as 40 to 50 pieces), with virtually all of these in Uncirculated condition. (Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth provide further information on this rarity in the Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins, 1795-1933.)