UPS & DOWNS OF AUCTION RESULTS FOR GREAT RARITIES
Curious and Entertaining Fluctuations
Great rarities capture the attention of collectors, dealers, scholarly numismatists, and the news media in coin realms. Moreover, the general public hears about them. When 1913 Liberty Nickels or 1804 silver dollars sell at auction, news coverage is often wide scale.
Curiously, though, the prices realized at auction for great rarities vary tremendously. Auction sale prices for the same great rarity may go up or down in a curious and entertaining manner, though the trend from around 1948 to 2008 was clearly upward. A coin is a great rarity if fewer than twenty-five are currently known, in all grades, including coins that have problems. A condition rarity is a whole different matter. A coin could be rare in MS-65 and higher grades yet be very common in grades below MS-64. The topic here is auction prices for Great Rarities. Condition rarities are not being covered.
As popularity and rarity are the primary factors employed to rank great rarities, the 1913 Liberty Head nickel is clearly the leader. Just five exist, and only three of those are available to collectors. It is easy to complete the rest of the set of Liberty Head nickels, and circulated common dates are very inexpensive. Before I was ten years old, I
collected Liberty Head nickels as did several of my friends. Even if a collector seeks just Proof Liberty Head nickels, not one of the Proofs dating from 1883 to 1912 is particularly rare. Indeed, they are all available for modest amounts in the context of pre-1917 Proof U.S. coins. The finest known 1913 Liberty Head nickel is the Eliasberg coin. Louis Eliasberg, Sr. formed the all-time best collection of classic U.S. coins, and no one coin is more closely associated with the Eliasberg collection than his 1913 Liberty Head nickel. In May 1996, the Eliasberg 1913 Liberty Head nickel, became the first U.S. coin to be auctioned for more than one million dollars, in a sale by Bowers & Merena (New Hampshire) at the St. Moritz Hotel in New York. Jay Parrino bought it for $1,485,000, a price that was exactly 50% higher than the previous auction record for a coin. In July 1989, Rarcoa auctioned the DexterDunham-Bareford 1804 silver dollar for $990,000. Reportedly, Superior Galleries auctioned this same nickel for $1,840,000 in March 2001 in Salt Lake City, Utah. While I attended the auctions of this nickel in 1996 and in 2018, I missed the 2001 event and was thus not an eyewitness. In some cases, dealer-consignors buy coins back. Reliable sources indicate that the Eliasberg 1913 Liberty Head nickel sold privately during the winter of 2007 for around $5,000,000. In August 2018, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned the Eliasberg 1913 Liberty Nickel for $4,560,000, which was a retail price in the current market environment. For this same coin, a price of $4,560,000 in August 2018 was much higher than a price of $5,000,000 in February or March 2007. The values of extremely rare coins were much lower in 2018 than they were in 2007.
The second finest known 1913 Liberty nickel is the Olsen-Buss-Hawn coin, which has been certified by both NGC and PCGS as Proof-64. Moreover, the Olsen-Buss-Hawn 1913 has received a sticker of approval from CAC while graded 64. The Eliasberg 1913 likewise has been certified by both NGC and PCGS as Proof-66 and has also received a sticker of approval from CAC. It is my belief, though, that 1913 Liberty nickels are graded more liberally than Proofs of other dates in the series of Liberty Head nickels.
One reason is that they were not made as well, and the circumstances surrounding their minting were unusual. According to an article in the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, which was partially republished on the Newman Numismatic Portal and said to date from 1971, Fred Olsen bought a 1913 Liberty nickel from dealer Jim Kelly for $900 during the late 1930s. It was later sold via a B. Max Mehl Mail Bid Sale in November 1944 for $3,750. While the chain of ownership of this coin is outlined in several publications, the sale prices between 1944 and 1985 are unclear to me. Somehow, sports magnate, scientist, and entrepreneur Jerry Buss ended up with this coin and with an 1804 silver dollar.
In January 1985, Superior Galleries, which was then owned by the Goldberg family, auctioned Buss’s collection. The Olsen-Buss-Hawn 1913 Liberty Head nickel was purchased by Reed Hawn for $385,000. In October 1993, Stack’s (NY), auctioned one of Reed Hawn’s collections, and this coin sold for $962,500. Dwight Manley was the top bidder, and Jay Parrino was probably the underbidder. Although I was there, it was hard to tell exactly how much each participant bid.
The Olsen-Buss-Hawn 1913 was auctioned by Heritage in January 2010 for $3,737,500. Through Heritage, the collector known as “Greensboro” acquired it and later consigned it to the January 2014 FUN auction, during which it brought $3,290,000.
When the sale of the Eliasberg 1913 Liberty nickel broke the one million dollar barrier in May 1996, the Dexter-Dunham-Bareford 1804 was often mentioned, as it had been auctioned for $990,000 by Rarcoa in July 1989. This 1804 dollar was sold by B. Max Mehl in 1941 for $4,250. As there are so many unanswered questions regarding Mehl’s Mail Bid Sales and evidence that he personally owned some of the items that he attributed to famous collections, it is best to not refer to Mehl’s sales as ‘auctions.’
In the early 1950s, Harold Bareford acquired the Dexter-Dunham 1804 dollar. In October 1981, Stack’s (NY) auctioned this 1804 dollar for $280,000. Although this auction was before my time, it has often been stated or at least implied