9th National Silver Dollar Convention
St. Louis, Missouri
November 10 – 13, 1988
Liberty Seated Dollars & Trade Dollars
Pedigrees, Prices, & Potential
By Bruce Amspacher
“Writing about Babe Ruth,” Arthur Daley once said, “is like trying to paint a landscape on a postage stamp.”
Writing about Liberty Seated silver dollars is similarly overwhelming. The series was a long lived one of 34 years, spanning the terms of eleven presidents, the Mexican War, Manifest Destiny, the Pony Express, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.
The design was (and is) stark simplicity; Christian Gobrecht’s inspired rendition of the eagle and “Miss Liberty” was modified into mediocrity between 1836 (when the first patterns were dated) and 1840 when the first coins were issued for circulation.
As for a complete series, Liberty Seated dollars are uncollectible. The 1873-S is the total stopper; none is known to exist. In addition, the date and mintmark run of 47 coins includes many other great rarities, proof-only issues, a transitional “pattern” that is arguably part of the set, and enough “you never see ’em” coins to deter even the most patient, dedicated, and financially able collector.
Fortunately, “deter” means “discourage” more than it means “stop,” so the challenge of the “complete” set is tackled now and then, usually with bewildered reactions from the collector as more and more coins prove elusive, unobtainable, or outrageously priced in relation to “book.”
Six years ago I wrote a two-part article about this series in “Coin Dealer Newsletter,” with a date-by-date analysis of the coins in mint state. This article was intended as an update, a look at MS-65 or better examples that exist or have appeared since the ’82 articles.
The problem with this approach is that there is little new to report. Almost every Liberty Seated dollar that has been graded by PCGS as MS-65 (or better) is an old friend; a coin remembered from the wild and happy dates of 1980, or the lean and happy days of the mid-1970’s, or even the late 1960’s – when an “expensive” coin was one that cost $200.
There is something else about an “analysis” of a giant – be it an animate one or an inanimate one. Somehow, there is diminishment, both of the subject and the biographer. Do you want to read about the psychological motivations of Babe Ruth in a heavy-handed retrospective or hear about the ’27 Yankees, the 60 homers, and the night that…yeah, me, too.
Do you want to hear why excessive die-polishing of the 1854 dollar makes it appear cleaned when it really isn’t, or do you want to hear about the 1854 dollar that nearly caused a fight at the 1972 ANA in Atlanta because so many dealers wanted “first shot” at the coin?
To hell with analysis. Let’s talk about coins.
To me, Gem condition is the factor that can make “just another coin” into a Great Coin, in the same way that Barbra Streisand can make “just another song” into a Great Song. There are a few exceptions to my equation of condition and greatness, and one of those is when great rarity is involved.
The Winner Delp Sale in 1972 – a Stack’s auction – included an 1866 No Motto dollar. It was one of two known, and possibly one of one known, since the other coin had been stolen from the Dupont Collection and had never reappeared.
Robert Hughes of A-Mark Coin Company bought the coin for $32,000 – a lot of money in 1972 (or today, for that matter) – but it seemed like a great buy, even a “rip” in coin dealer parlance. Even though the coin was offered extensively for the next few years, it somehow remained unsold.
In 1975, at the NASC show in Los Angeles, Jim Halperin asked me, “At what price would you have to buy the 1866 No Motto dollar?”
“At $50,000, I guess,” I answered.
“I can buy it for a little less,” Jim said. He was breathing like a man who had just run thirty flights of stairs.
Jim bought the coin, and the excitement was infectious. I wrote a full page ad about the coin for Coin World, mentioning that the 1866 No Motto dollar was missing from all major collections, including Eliasberg.
A few days later a letter arrived from Louis Eliasberg himself. He had never purchased the coin for his set of complete U.S. coins, he said, because the coin was considered a pattern.
While it is true that the coin is listed in Judd (J540), the pattern status had never made any sense to me. Since when does a pattern come at the end of a series? If the coin were in copper or some other off-metal, then a pattern or die-trial label could be understood. But regular obverse and reverse dies in the metal of issue of a coin that had been struck for a quarter of a century? A pattern?
As I looked at the coin, I saw a choice proof Seated dollar of near gem quality, a coin that was now possibly unique, a coin that was at least seven times rarer than an 1804 dollar, a coin that was even less a pattern than a 1913 Liberty nickel or an 1885 Trade dollar, a coin that was possibly worth $500,000 yet carried a price tag of a little more than 10% of that.
I felt much like a turn-of-the-century art dealer must have when offering a Van Gogh to a client: “Yes Sir, I know $800 is a lot for a painting, but look at the substance of what is there. Who knows, his work may sell for $10,000 someday.”
The 1866 No Motto dollar remained in dealers’ hands for a decade, finally selling in 1982 to a collector for “an undisclosed six-figure price.” A chapter of numismatic history was finished, but we wait to turn to an epilogue on what Stack’s once called “perhaps the rarest United States silver coin.”
* * * * *
Twelve coins. In the two year that PCGS has existed, out of the 500,000+ coins that have been graded, there have been twelve Liberty seated dollars in MS-65 or better. Not twelve of each date, but twelve total coins from a series that covered over a third of the Nineteenth century.
The total cumulative value is still less than the price record for a wooden duck.
Why? Because the coins don’t disappear from the market. Gem BU Seated dollars are “dealer coins” – coins that sometimes trade between dealers for years on end. Dealers love them because they’re rare, and, in gem condition, beautiful. They are ridiculously inexpensive for what they are.
One dealer summed up what is an industry-wide consensus: “I don’t mind owning them. In fact, I’d like to own them all.”
The collector has, for the most part, stayed away from the series because there are no common dates. There is no MS-65 1881-S Seated dollar (or its equivalent) to get the collector started. The “hoard” dates – 1859-O, 1960-O (and to the lesser extent 1871-P and 1872-P) – are available in Mint State, but hardly ever in MS-65. Any Gem BU Seated dollar carries a five figure price tag.
It’s a catch-22 situation. Without collector interest, there’s always a supply on the market (albeit a tiny one). With collector interest, there is no product to sell them after the first customer or two has jumped in.
“It’s not price resistance,” dealer Tom Noe said, “It’s seemingly a lack of interest – a lack that is the direct result of not properly educating the public in what is the right coin to buy. A customer with $15,000 to spend should consider buying a gem Seated dollar, and not always $15,000 worth of $500 coins. Our focus is misdirected. Price resistance is self-imposed – a state of mind, so to speak.”
Tom is exactly right, of course. There is no “number” where price resistance sets in. A Stella in Proof 65 is quickly sold at $45,000 and again at $55,000 and again until it is no longer a good value. The “barrier” depends on the coin, and the market, not on the price level per se.
The argument that the “type coin” collector will deplete the supply (and, therefore, the date collector is not a necessary force in driving up prices) makes sense….except that, apparently, that isn’t what actually happens. The coins remain on the market.
Marty Haber, a Florida dealer who had handled most of the Gem BU Seated dollars graded by PCGS (usually before the “slab” era), had the answer I was struggling to find.
“The MS-65 Seated dollars that are in dealer’s hands are usually not on the market. The coins are owned by the dealer/collector, of whom I am one of many. Seated dollars are a dealer favorite because they are so rare.”
Mr. Haber also addressed the “price resistance” issue: “Most of the ‘big money’ coins are gold. The collector or investor feels more comfortable with gold coins when he or she pays $20,000 or more for a single coin. That is tradition. Regardless, a lot of dealers are trying to educate their clients about the great silver rarities – their value and potential.
“The Seated dollar market,” Haber continued, “is not like the Walking Liberty half dollar, Morgan dollar, Commem, or Mercury dime markets. There are no wild fluctuations, no manipulation, and no promotions. Like fine art, the best, they are a long-term hold item with great rewards.”
Here’s a little history of some of those “great rewards.”
At the TNA Convention in 1976, Mike Brownlee sold an 1849 Seated dollar to Ken Goldman. Kevin Litpon, Tom Noe and I bought the coin and sold it to Paul Nugget of MTB. He sold the coin into the Fairfield Collection, which was later auctioned by Bowers and Ruddy. Although the coin has been available to the public several times since then, it has remained in dealers’ hands. Currently it is in a PCGS MS-66 holder, valued at more than ten times what it traded for 12 years ago.
IN 1972, Julian Leidman purchased an 1866 with Motto dollar from another dealer at a Washington, D.C. show. The coin was of “your-mouth-drops-open” quality. One dealer looked at the coin, pronounced the grade to be “mint state one million,” and was immediately admonished by another dealer for being too brutal.
The bad news was that the coin carried a price tag of $750. Experts that we all were, we kept our mouths open and our checkbooks shut. The coin was purchased a week later by a Louisiana Collector.
“He didn’t like the price,” Julian said, “but when he saw the coin he bought it.”
The coin was displayed many times over the next ten years as part of an outstanding “first-year-of-type” collection. The collection was sold at auction several years after the 1980 peak, but the price was hardly depressed. Although I couldn’t locate the exact price realized for the coin, it was reported as being “over $30,000.”
The Seated dollar stories continue for as long as the ink holds out and memory prevails: The 1870-S “Eureka” dollar auctioned by Steve Ivy, the 1873-CC dollar purchased by Fred Sweeney a the 1973 Boston ANA that had been found in the cornerstone of a Carson City building, the superb 1868 specimen that traded for $50,000 in 1980, the amazing partial set assembled by Ron Gillio in 1972-73, and on and on.
But there is more to this article; it is hoped, than just a tale of what could have happened to you if you had had the foresight and the luck to be in the right place at the right time.
What about now? Are the prices prohibitive, or just the beginning? I bounced those questions off of Bob Koppelman, another Florida dealer who, along with Marty Haber, has handled (or knows about) all the MS-65 Sealed dollars that PCGS has graded.
“If the type coin market develops as anticipated,” Koppelman said, “Then the $75,000-$100,000 Seated dollar is a real possibility. They are undervalued; in fact, almost totally overlooked. The Gem Seated dollar is much rarer than Gem Proof gold, and, if the market follows real realize rarity, the coins should be higher in price than Proof gold. “There have been less than 20 coins to appear in the last dozen years or so. It’s ridiculous.”
Yes, there are other overlooked, underpriced series too, so why all the fuss about Seated dollars? Because they are so memorable.
As though to prove that “memorable” is not just a term that applies to my personal preference for the series, Mr. Koppelman proceeded to rattle off – without pause – the pedigree of all 12 PCGS MS-65 or better coins, plus add a few others.
Not memorable? Try this with any other series of 47 or more different dates and/or mintmarks.
1849, MS-66 – As mentioned above, Fairfield, 1853, MS-66 – From Auction ’79, 1854, MS-65 – A “fuzzy” pedigree, around since 1976 or so, 1860, MS-65 – The Bob Rose, Silvano Di Genova coin, 1863, MS-65 – Currently in a Florida dealer’s collection, 1863, MS-66 – The University of Rochester Sale (1980, B & R), now in the collection of a famous celebrity, 1866 w/m, MS-65 – From the NERCG April ’80 Sale, now in a Florida collection, 1868, MS-65 – A coin that traded five times in ten minutes at the 1983 NASC show – Martin Paul, Kevin Lipton, Bruce Amspacher, Mike Hinkle, Fred Weinberg. Now in a private collection, 1869, MS-65 – The University of Rochester sale, 1871, MS-65 – Jay Miller Collection to a Florida Collection, 1872, MS-65 – Inventory of a Pennsylvania dealer (at last report), 1872, MS-65 – A toned coin purchased privately from a collector in 1980.
Here are some “non-slabbed” Seated dollars of note:
1847 – A gem reportedly in a Florida dealer’s collection, 1848 – The Fairfield coin, last seen in a Massachusetts dealer’s collection, 1854 – A “wonder coin” from the 1972 ANA, Fred Sweeney to Julian Leidman, 1857 – A gem in the same collection as the 1847, 1861 – A ‘Super Gem” from the April, 1977 Fenn sale by Stack’s, 1864 – Collection of a Pennsylvania dealer, 1864 – Inventory of Bob Rose/Ron Iskowitz (too long ago), 1866 w/m – the “mint state one million” coin mentioned above, 1868 – The $50,000 con from 1980, now believed to be in a Michigan dealer’s collection.
There are, of course, a few others. They fall into two categories:
1) The coin I forgot to mention that someone will immediately point out to me after this article appears (and I’ll wonder how I could have forgotten it), and
2) The coin(s) I have never seen or heard about (“You mean you left out the Whittier-Bateman coin that B. Max Mehl sold to Abner Kreisberg in 1942 that Adolphe Menjou presented to Mary Pickford? What a coin!”)
I have a feeling – a strong one – that the point of this is not lost on anyone. People – dealers and collectors and numismatic historians – remember these coins because they care so much; the coins are so significant within their realm.
* * * * *
Trade dollars are perhaps more of a mystery than seated dollars – at least when it comes to price. The series included two classic rarities (1884 and 1885), many dates of the never-seen-in-gem category, and a baffling current price range that stretches the limits of credibility…they can’t be that cheap, can they?
Only 17 coins have been graded MS-65 or better by PCGS, encompassing seven of the 18 date/mintmark combinations. As is also true with the Seated dollar series, no Carson City issue of any date has been graded MS-65 or better.
There are two very famous rare coins from this series – the collective rarity of the five 1885 Trade dollars, and the singular condition rarity on one certain 1875-P business strike.
At the 1974 ANA in Miami, an 1884 Trade dollar and an 1885 Trade dollar sold as a pair three times, ending up in the inventory of Jim Halperin. The final purchase price, around $200,000 for the two coins, seemed super-reasonable. Unlike the 1866 No Motto dollar, though, the coins didn’t prove to be winners.
Two “small profits” were turned down at the show, but it wasn’t until 1977 that the 1885 Trade dollar was finally sold – at a substantial loss.
The next 1885 Trade dollar, the Amon Carter coin, was purchased by a Texas dealer and a California dealer in partnership. Unsold, the coin was auctioned – again at a loss. Oddly, two 1885 Trade dollar appeared at the same auction – 40% of the total mintage – and each coin realized less than $100,000 in 1984.
The 1885 Trade dollar has been, for dealers, the Hope diamond of Numismatics for the last 14 years.
Therein lies the mystery. In the same time period, the 1913 Liberty nickel (same rarity, same mintage) has been a heroic performer, with a recent auction record approaching $400,000. Speculation as to the reason – the Liberty nickel series is more popular, more collectable; the Trade dollar had a questionable legal tender status – is still, in the final analysis, only speculation. If the prices were reversed (the 1885 Trade dollar $400,000 and the 1913 Liberty nickel $100,000) then “rational” explanations would still exist – such as, big coins are more desirable than small coins, investors prefer silver over nickel, etc.
What is an obvious conclusion, in my opinion, is that the 1885 Trade dollar is underpriced by at least 75% on today’s market.
In February of 1975, an 1875-P Trade dollar appeared at the Long Beach Show. A magnificent business strike, the coin traded several times, ending up with Maurice Rosen of FCI. The coin was auctioned months later, then sold into the Fairfield Collection for $4100. Two years later, at the Fairfield Auction, the coin sold for nearly twice that, then traded among several dealers for the next decade. When the coin was graded MS-68 by PCGS about one year ago, the coin began to trade again at a rapid pace. The most recent price was reportedly in the $40,000 range.
There are many parallels between the stories – the price histories – of the 1875 Trade dollar and the 1849 Seated dollar, or many of the other coins mentioned in this article.
1) The “wonder coins” of today are nothing more than the great coins of yesterday with a new holder and a new owner. The “new supply” is nothing more than the old supply at new price levels.
2) The tremendous profits made on these coins have usually gone to coin dealers, not because of big mark-ups but because the coins wouldn’t sell to the public. The result? The coins remained in inventory and grew.
3) The dealer/collector is much more of a force in the market than previously thought. The theory that the coins must eventually get out of the dealers’ hands in order for the “system” to work is not always correct – the dealer is often the “end user” by choice.
4) Even though “non-revenue producing” tangible investments are scorned by many in the financial fraternity, the results – the bottom line – show that the focus of the “experts” has been badly misdirected.
Is it trite to say that coin prices are still in their infancy? It is irresponsible hype to say that coins can once again increase by ten to forty times in the next fifteen years?
If you are one who says it can’t happen, then answer this question honestly: If you had been told in 1972 that the 1866 With Motto dollar being offered at $750 would trade for over $30,000 in the next 14 years, would you have believed it?
The total insured value of all the cons graded by PCGS – nearly 600,000 coins – is less than one percent of the money lost in a single day on Wall Street (October 19, 1987).
In an economy based on supply and demand, we have seen what even slight demand can do to an even slighter supply. With greater demand an historical certainty, there are no limits.