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. http://www.HA.com/1143

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

Monday, June 14, 2010

Coin Monday: Flips and Trips

June 14, 2010
Written by John Dale

Error coin enthusiasts are one of the great traditions of U.S. numismatics, if a relatively recent phenomenon compared to, say, collectors of large cents. The two specialties are not completely separate, but intersect on occasion; after all, if 21st century Mint technology wasn’t enough to keep this proof Ohio Statehood quarter from looking like a saucer, what are the chances that things would be error-free in the late 18th century?

A pair of dramatic errors in the July 2010 Summer FUN Auction tell the tale. Error-free? Not even close.

Both of these errors are large cents dated 1796. The first, graded VG10 by NGC, shows the last two digits of the date three times, indicating three distinct strikes (at least!), and the date only appears on the obverse once. The other two appearances are on the back, or reverse, with one of them on the interior of the coin, not at the rim. The progression must have gone as follows: the first strike was off-center, the second strike centered, the coin flipped over, and finally a third strike on-target. The result is a terribly wrong yet oh-so-right coin, somewhere between an attractive curiosity and a beautiful trainwreck.

The second one, given an NGC Details grade of VF with a “Scratches” caveat, has an even more outrageous appearance. It too is a flip-over triple strike, though it isn’t listed as such. Evidence of the “missing strike” is visible on Liberty’s cap on the main (final) strike, in the form of the letters ST which don’t match where the word STATES would be on the presumed “other” strike; hence, there must have been a third impression of the dies.

While both coins have something clearly “off” about them on close inspection, this second example makes it obvious from the start with the left side of a wreath stretching down over the tip of Liberty’s bust on the obverse. The reverse, too, shows the error in all its flip-over glory as the top and right sides of a Liberty impression wrap themselves around the main wreath.

One place where the error and large cent specialties diverge is attitude. While errors give us valuable information about the minting process, much of their appeal comes from their inherent “freak factor” and their status as the Mint’s pratfalls. (An old-school way to refer to errors is “FIDOs,” or “Freaks, Imperfections, Defects, and Oddities.”) To a large cent collector, however, even an outrageous error like one of these two is not treated as a freak, but as an artifact to be treasured. In its early struggle-filled years, the Mint made many errors both on and off the coinage floor, but it persevered in the end. Because of that, collectors have more than 200 years of U.S. coinage history, a source of information and wonder—and yes, the occasional laugh.

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Coin Monday: Cents of Steel

June 7, 2010
Written by John Dale

While the Man of Steel dates to 1938, America’s “cents of steel” date to 1943—the vast majority of them, anyway. Comic book superheroes, Superman included, were influenced by World War II, and so too was America’s coinage. The steel cents of 1943, such as this 1943-D/D variety cent in the upcoming July Summer FUN Auction, came about this way, with bronze (and its scarce component copper) taken out and more plentiful steel substituted.

The switch didn’t work out so well; circulated steel cents became dull quickly and were easily confused with dimes. In 1944, the coinage metal for cents reverted to a copper-based alloy, not strictly bronze but similar.

The two transition periods, copper to steel and then the reverse, created two distinct classes of off-metal errors. The first type, the 1943-dated cent made out of bronze instead of steel, has been covered on this blog before. The flip side of the 1943 bronze cent is the steel cent struck in 1944, after the steel planchets should have been retired; hence “the vast majority” above, since there are a relative handful of error coins that serve as exceptions.

The 1944-dated steel cents show up only occasionally at Heritage, though Heritage will be auctioning a pair of them in back-to-back auctions. Lot 170 in the just-completed June Long Beach Auction was a 1944-D steel cent graded AU55 by NGC.

Bidders who missed out on that coin will get a second chance in July, when another 1944-D steel cent, this one graded AU53 by PCGS, will be a standout of Summer FUN. Incredibly, both coins are pedigreed to The Brenda John Collection, a fact which gave me a rare case of collector envy when I heard it. Just imagine me shaking my head and muttering to myself, “Two 1944-D steel cents? You have to be joking…”

The two coins are plenty serious, though, just as serious as the collectors who bid on the first and will chase after the second. If the 1944-D steel cent is a bit too much for your budget, the auction also has a number of 1943-D steel cents to go around, including this Superb Gem.

Happy bidding!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Coin (Friday and) Monday: World Cup Commemoration

May 28,2010

Written by John Dale

(With Memorial Day on Monday, next week's Coin Monday is appearing here early. -- The Heritage Blog)

It’s just about World Cup time, when the greatest footballers from around the globe put on the national uniforms to seek out glory. Like just about every other World Cup tournament, this go-round has had its controversies. The host country! The Thierry Henry handball incident! The anthem! (Though you’d never hear me complaining about the opportunity to see...I mean, listen to Shakira.)

All of these seem pretty trivial, though, compared to the controversy when the United States was chosen to host the World Cup in 1994. At the end of the 1980s, when the selection was made, there was no prominent professional “football” league (as the rest of the world understood it) in the United States, and the country hadn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1950.

The U.S. national team qualified for the 1990 World Cup, however, starting a streak of World Cup appearances that will continue in South Africa. Major League Soccer, which had its roots in the 1994 World Cup bid, is going strong and expanding. And the 1994 World Cup left a numismatic legacy for U.S. collectors as well: a trio of commemoratives.

The middle coin of the set is a silver dollar, a proof example of which appears in the June Long Beach U.S. Coin Auction. On the obverse, two players are pursuing a ball; no word on whether the player wearing number 7 is going to flop and get the player wearing number 10 stuck with a spurious red card. The reverse is a shared reverse among all three coins, with the official logo of the 1994 World Cup squarely in the middle.

The silver dollar proved extremely popular, with more than half a million proofs sold. The less expensive clad half dollar did even better, with a slightly greater number of proofs and more than twice as many uncirculated-finish coins in the final tally. Even the gold half eagle, notable for showing the World Cup trophy almost alone on its obverse, sold better in proof format than any commemorative half eagle issue had in the previous four years.

While the Dallas experience has evolved from World Cup action in the Cotton Bowl to Major League Soccer in Pizza Hut Park, the 1994 World Cup commemorative coins offer reminders of how “the beautiful game” was reborn in the United States. If the World Cup ever returns to the United States (2018? 2022?), perhaps commemorative coins will come again; if so, I hope the designs are worthy of celebration.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Coin Monday: Pikes Peak Gold

May 24, 2010
Written by John Dale

The ANA Summer Seminar, held at the Colorado College in Colorado Springs, which was the site of some of my fondest Young Numismatist memories.

When a gathering of coin enthusiasts reaches critical mass, learning and silliness ensue, and this is especially true when said coin enthusiasts are in high school or college. By the end of the week, several (usually harmless) pranks have been sprung on various seminar-goers staying in the dorms.

One year, I was a designated target of the dress-as-a-ghost-and-jump-out-of-the-closet trick. Unfortunately for the pranksters, my voice hadn’t cracked yet.

BOO! EEK! ARRGH! as the “ghost” in front went down, clutching his hands to his ears.

Other moments were plenty serious, and plenty awesome, like the trip up Pikes Peak. (No apostrophe, no joke. Supposedly there’s even a law about it in Colorado.) I’d heard about Katharine Lee Bates writing America the Beautiful after visiting Pikes Peak, and after looking out at the same views, I could understand why.

Pikes Peak isn’t all that close to present-day Denver, but when gold was discovered in the area (and the earliest version of Denver founded), Pikes Peak was the most visible landmark in the region, and “Pikes Peak or Bust!” became a famous slogan for the Colorado gold rush.

The three most prominent issuers of Territorial gold coins in Colorado all referenced “Pikes Peak” on their coins. John Parsons & Company and J.J. Conway & Co. were short-term operations, and their coins are rarities today, but Clark, Gruber & Co. was better-established and struck numerous pieces in denominations that mirrored the Federal coinage. (All coins from the upcoming June Long Beach U.S. Coin Auction.)

Not only were the denominations the same, but the smaller coins looked suspiciously similar to U.S. quarter eagles and half eagles, too. The government eventually bought out the firm, and Clark, Gurber & Co. is actually the ancestor of the Denver Mint that still operates today.

While Clark, Gruber & Co. did its assaying work in present-day Colorado, the dies used to strike the firm’s coins were not made on-site, but rather shipped in. This is most obvious on the $10 coins, like lot 1978 or 1979.

Clearly the artist had never been to Colorado. Pikes Peak doesn’t look like that. Not even close. (Art directors of the world, you have a new case study!)

Today, however, the peak-that-is-not-Pikes is all part of the quaint charm of the ten dollar pieces. The Territorial coinage enthusiasts are sure to be out in force when the Clark, Gruber & Co. sequence sells. Why not join them for this golden opportunity?

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

-John Dale Beety

Monday, May 17, 2010

Coin Monday: 1916/1916

May 17, 2010
Posted by John Dale

Heritage has had at least one Featured Collection in each U.S. Coin auction since I started cataloging here, and the June Long Beach Auction is no exception. There are three Featured Collections this go-round, the most prominent of which is The Brenda John Collection. If you haven’t seen this collection already, it’s chock-full of top-quality Lincoln cents and Buffalo nickels.

Need some further convincing? Try this: there’s a 1916 Doubled Die Obverse nickel in MS64. No, you aren’t seeing double…the doubling is that strong! That huge spread between the two dates is completely real. It’s not hard to imagine production of a die being bungled this badly—accidents do happen, after all—but for such a die to then be put into use is rather baffling.

Also rather baffling is how doubling this blatant went basically undiscovered for two decades. Once you know where to look, the doubling is obvious and unforgettable, yet collectors seem to have missed the variety at the time of release. By the time it was discovered and publicized, an unknown number of examples had been lost forever to circulation, and many others were well-worn. A survivor in MS64 is a precious treasure indeed.

Also early on, collectors didn’t really understand what they were seeing. Overdates, where one date was punched over another, were familiar to them; so were repunched dates, where the same date was punched in twice, not perfectly in sync. So collectors of the time, seeing the obvious doubling on the date, naturally called it the “1916/1916,” to signal a repunched date, only it wasn’t a repunched date at all.

Take a closer look at the coin, and look away from the date. The feathers at the back of the portrait’s head are doubled, too. Also doubled are his neck and his profile, particularly the chin and lips. As collectors increased their knowledge of doubled dies, fueled by interest in the now-famous 1955 Doubled Die Obverse cent, earlier varieties were re-examined, and the more subtle signs of the 1916 Doubled Die Obverse nickel were recognized. The “Doubled Die” usage became much more prevalent after this.

Every once in a while, though, the “1916/1916” term pops up, often in old catalogs or coin albums. It may not be considered strictly right by most numismatists nowadays, but there’s still room for the old term. Then there’s a rule of collecting that I picked up from a member of my local coin club when I was still a boy: you own the coin, you can call it whatever you like! So, who wants the naming rights?

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

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Frank Frazetta (1928-2010): "Worldbeater."

May 11, 2010
Written by Don Mangus

(It is both a pleasure and a sad duty today to give the reins of the blog to Don Mangus, one of our comics and illustration art experts, and a fine gentleman who has graced these digital pages before. A pleasure because, well, Don is that good a writer, and a sad duty because of the task he has been asked to undertake: Eulogizing Frank Frazetta, who passed away yesterday at the age of 82. He was indeed the greatest living sci-fi and fantasy artist and one of the world's great talents, period. The forces of good are mourning the passing of a great talent. He is pictured there, to the right, scarce three weeks ago, holding The Frank Collection Catalog, of which his Warrior With Ball And Chain was the centerpiece. Surely we will never look on his like again. - Noah Fleisher)

Sadly, the passing of Frank Frazetta marks the end of a modern fantasy era.

Frazetta's iconic cover images for Lancer's paperback reissues of Robert E. Howard's immortal Conan series marked a sea-change for fantasy art. The athletic and movie-idol-handsome artist's work has inspired and influenced every fantasy artist since the 1960s, and spawned scores of bald-faced "art pirates," often dubbed "Faux-zettas" by fandom's sardonic wits.

Without doubt, Frazetta was a one-of-a-kind artistic prodigy. Though justly celebrated for his barbaric fantasy paintings, he was a master of every cartoon and illustration genre -- action-adventure, caricature, costumed hero, crime, funny animal, jungle, romance, horror, humor, satire, science fiction, Western, and everything in between.

To measure the scope of Frazetta's legacy, it's worth taking note of both the fickle nature and short memories of the publishing industry and the reading public. All too often "today's super-star" becomes tomorrow's forgotten creator. For most, "Glory days – well, they'll pass you by..."
It's sobering to ponder how close to this fate even the supremely talented Frazetta came.

In 1954, after creating a superb (and highly collectible) body of early comic book work for Standard, Eastern Color, DC, ME, Toby, ACG, and EC, Frazetta found himself in need of a steady paycheck, and began anonymously assisting Al Capp on the syndicated Li'l Abner comic strip. In 1961, after being refused a raise, Frazetta quit the Abner job, put together his latest and greatest portfolio, and hit the streets looking high and low for work from the few comic book companies that had survived the huge implosion following the industry-stifling 1954 U. S. Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency.

Despite a no-doubt superlative portfolio, the now-forgotten Frazetta came away with only a few comic book jobs, thanks almost entirely to the good graces of his old EC stable mate and friend, George Evans.

To the discerning eye, the Frazetta touch can be found submerged in the panels of Dell Comics' The Frogmen #1-3 (1962). These last-gasp comic book jobs helped keep Frazetta going during a turbulent transitional period.

The breakthrough in Frazetta's fortunes came thanks to another caring friend, fantasy legend Roy G. Krenkel, who had scored a series of Edgar Rice Burroughs illustration assignments from Ace books, and was largely carrying on a tradition pioneered by J. Allen St. John.

At first, Frazetta helped the perpetually procrastinating Krenkel fulfill a few of these assignments. Then because of the wildly enthusiastic Krenkel's urging, he struck out on his own. Not content to merely knock at the door of opportunity, Frazetta savagely kicked it off its hinges with his visceral Conan covers. A bunch of enchanting fantasy paperback cover assignments followed, as well as spine-tingling horror magazine covers for Warren Publishing, and other strikingly successful commercial art assignments -- all of which ended up crowning Frazetta the "king of living fantasy artists."

Always mindful of getting his originals back from the publishers, Frank and his wife Ellie purposefully built the Frazetta legacy. Starting in the mid-60s, the Frazetta legend grew and grew among creative art directors, fans, and collectors alike, thanks to a wealth of posters, fanzines, portfolios, calendars, record album covers and books.

Among the important career milestones were a series of five Frank Frazetta books from Bantam Books, the triumphant appearance of the Death Dealer on the cover of the May 1976 issue of American Artist, Ralph Bakshi's 1983 animated Fire and Ice movie, based on Frazetta's paintings and co-directed by Frazetta himself, the 2003 feature documentary Frank Frazetta: Painting with Fire, and perhaps most importantly – the opening of the Frank Frazetta Museum in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania in 2001.

As Jim Halperin, Co-Chairman of Heritage Auction Galleries, aptly notes, "Frazetta was, quite simply, the greatest comic book artist of the 20th Century. Amazingly, he was also a modest soul, and a true gentleman in every way. He will be missed, but never forgotten."

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

-Don Mangus

Monday, May 10, 2010

Coin Monday: 1873, Open and Close

May 10, 2001
Written by John Dale

It’s not uncommon to have guests in the cataloging department, important customers or potential customers who visit our humble wing as part of a grand tour of Heritage world headquarters. Last week was one such occasion, and I had the opportunity to show off a coin I was cataloging.

“Do you like gold?” I asked.

They did.

“Ever seen a three dollar gold coin before?”

They hadn’t. I passed one to them.

The usual ooh-ing and ahh-ing ensued. Then one gentleman turned it over.

“When was this made? 1878?” He asked.

The question struck me as odd. I didn’t remember which three dollar gold coin I’d handed to the tour, but none of the threes on my desk had been dated 1878.

“Hmm, did you check the label?”

He turned the coin over. “Oh, it’s 1873.”

Then I understood why he’d been confused. He passed the coin back to me with a comment about needing to get his eyes checked. I reassured him that his eyes weren’t the problem, and he was far from the first to make the same mistake.

At the start of 1873, the U.S. Mint used a four-digit date punch, or logotype, that had the two ends of the 3 in 1873 nearly touching the center. The 3 looked like an 8 at first glance, and it didn’t take long for this to come to the attention of the then-Chief Coiner of the Mint.

A new logotype, this time with the ends of the "3" well apart, went into service and was used for most of the year. Two dimes in the upcoming June Long Beach U.S. Coin Auction show the difference between the two logotypes: the last digit goes from ambiguous on the Closed "3" coin to obvious on the Open "3" piece.

Now there’s a funny wrinkle to that 1873 three dollar coin I showed to the tour. According to official Mint records, it shouldn’t exist. There are no records of three dollar gold coins being struck for circulation in 1873. So what gives? There are multiple possibilities, none conclusively proven.

The coins could have been struck in 1874 but from dies dated 1873. For example, when demand for $3 gold coins spiked in 1874, Mint workers may have just used the dies that were on-hand, which has historical precedent.

Or the Mint records could simply be in error, a theory used to explain any number of other rarities.

Parts of both could be correct, or both could be completely off-the-mark. Regardless, the 1873 $3 is a coin to keep an eye on.

Happy bidding!

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

-John Dale Beety

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Coin Monday on a Tuesday: Collecting the Atlanta Commemoratives

May 4, 2010
Written by John Dale

The Central States auction is in the books, though Post Auction Buys are still available for a limited time. The catalogers’ attention has been focused on the next auction, coming up in June at Long Beach.

One of the most interesting and unusual lots I have handled for Long Beach is of recent vintage: a complete set of U.S. commemorative coins struck for the Atlanta Olympics. (There aren’t any pictures yet for the set, but an example of the design—offered as a different lot in the same auction—illustrates this post.)

The Summer Olympics of 1996, held in Atlanta, Georgia, were the site of many personal and team successes, but from a numismatic perspective, they were also the inspiration for one of the most ambitious failures in recent U.S. Mint history: the Games’ commemorative coin program.

The modern era of commemorative coinage had begun in 1982. Before the 1980s, two separate eras had caused scandals that led to a suspension of commemorative coins. First, the 1930s saw some commemoratives struck on flimsy pretenses, and other designs were struck for several years, changing only the date. A change in law put a temporary stop to the latter abuse.

There were no commemoratives made from 1940 to 1945. From 1946 to 1954, a new sequence of commemorative issues came out. One, honoring the centennial of Iowa’s statehood, was a well-run success, but the other major program dragged out from 1946 to 1954, honoring first Booker T. Washington alone and then alongside George Washington Carver. That experience led to a 28-year moratorium on new issues.

U.S. commemoratives designed to honor the Olympic Games had tempted fate before: the Los Angeles Olympics were honored with three different designs in 13 different date, mintmark, and proof/Mint State combinations, and this profusion was puny compared to at least one of the original proposals! The Seoul and Barcelona Games were honored with more basic programs, but for Atlanta, the authorizing legislation pulled out all the stops.

Coins were struck in two years, 1995 and 1996; for each year, there were eight different designs, two of them in gold; and for each design, there were two different formats, proof and Mint State. Multiplied out, that makes 32 distinct coins to collect, and eight of them were gold!

Credit is due for ambition if nothing else, but the organizers’ sales projections were wildly off-target. Two coins—the 1996-W Flag Bearer and Cauldron five dollar gold coins in Mint State—had net mintages in the four-figure range, and other coins also had embarrassingly low mintages. What’s worse, the Atlanta Olympics coins affected collector purchases of other commemorative coins in 1995 and 1996, so that none of the campaigns was particularly successful.

In the wake of the Atlanta commemoratives, new rules were laid down to limit the number of commemorative programs and design types that could be struck in any one year, and the post-1996 commemoratives have been much easier to collect on a year-to-year basis.

For collectors looking to the past, the Atlanta coins offer an interesting challenge if collected one at a time. Then again, Long Beach will offer the opportunity to just buy the whole set at once. For potential bidders with deep pockets, it’s all a matter of ambition.

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

-John Dale Beety

Monday, May 3, 2010

Heritage Auctions' Illustration art in Beverly Hills? Ready, set, Go!

May 3, 2010
Posted by Noah

Before I get into today's post - and letting you know that Coin Monday with JDB will be Coin Tuesday this week - I implore you to take a look at these gorgeous images of the set-up this Thursday's (May 6) Illustration Art Auction in our Beverly Hills Office.

So many amazing paintings, and me so far away here in Dallas. I don't mind telling you that I wish I was there...

Done? Good. Now that you've had a little taste of what awaits you in Beverly Hills - and if you are in L.A., and you can get to our showroom at 3478 West. Olympic Boulevard in the next couple of days, then I do indeed implore you to go check it out! - I want those of you who tuned in for John Dale's regular Coin Monday post to read on today and to check back tomorrow for JDB's weekly insight into the mind of the coin cataloger...

This Thursday's Illustration Art auction, which I wrote about here a week or two ago, is indeed going to be stellar, and is our first bit of Martignette to happen outside the elegant confines of our Slocum Street Annex here in Dallas.

I feel a little like a parent separated from their child for the first time when their kid heads to Summer Camp - okay, so I tend to personalize things a bit too much. That's a good thing, right? - so closely have I followed Martignette, and so much do I love this art.

The good thing is, though, with this art there is very little worry in my heart. Unlike with my own kid (and so it must be with most parents) I don't worry that no one will take as good a care of the artwork as I would. In fact, I would daresay - and pray - that those good Heritage folks overseeing the auction in Beverly Hills would take ten times the care that I could. For that, I am grateful.

Check out the Illustration Art catalog online, mark your favorites, and check back with Heritage Live! on Thursday, starting around 1 p.m. Central, to see where these paintings end up. The prices up until this point have been nothing short of spectacular. There seems to be no reason to believe it will slow.

We're at about the halfway point of Martignette, give or take a few hundred paintings, and as everyone thought when this amazing journey started, the world of Illustration Art collecting will never be the same again.

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

-Noah Fleisher

Monday, April 26, 2010

Coin Monday: A Day in the Life of John Dale Beety, Hand Model

Monday, April 26
Written by John Dale

“The job description doesn’t tell you half of what you’re going to do.”

It was just one of many sage pieces of job advice I received in college that I had to learn the hard way.

“Numismatic cataloger” sounds nice and tidy: write about coins and get paid for it! So simple! Eh-heh-heh… The business cards remain the same, but nowadays I’m a coin cataloger, editor, over-the-phone coin describer, blogger, implementer of consignor promises and a half-dozen other roles I’ve performed in the past few weeks and now forgotten.

Oh, I’ve also been a hand model.

If you’ve ever seen a picture of me or my hands, you just had a needlescratch moment in your brain. Hand model?!

Perhaps it wasn’t hand modeling in the traditional sense, but I was pressed into service for a nifty new HA.com feature: the “360 Degree View” for coins, videos taken to show off high-end coins in all their lustrous glory. I was part of a few dozen videos, and on coins like lot 2272 in the upcoming Central States auction in Milwaukee, those are my cuticles and half-moons framing the coin as it swirls around in the light.

The first time I tackled an Indian half eagle like the 1911-S in lot 2272, I actually had a bit of a panic, because the Indian half eagles (and the quarter eagles like them) are “built” nothing like a typical U.S. coin. Most U.S. coins have low “recessed” fields that are protected by a raised rim around the coin. The central device (a portrait, an eagle, a monument, or what-have-you) is also raised, but no higher than the rim, so the coins can stack.

The Indian half eagles and quarter eagles, designed by a now semi-obscure early 20th century artist named Bela Lyon Pratt, by contrast, turn the relationship on its head. There is no rim to speak of; the fields are raised instead of lowered; and the devices, rather than being sculpted in relief, are defined by lines sunk into the field.

The goal was to keep the coin’s devices legible as the surfaces wore down—all well and good, except that the Indian half eagles really didn’t circulate! On the other hand, with the fields exposed, they attracted all manner of marks and abrasions, which makes finding high-end examples challenging today. Even a near-Gem like lot 2272 is ahead of the curve.

I am unlikely to reprise my hand-modeling role anytime soon, unless the company calls. Still, it was enjoyable to get to review the Platinum Night session of the Central States auction, one coin and one 30-second video shoot at a time.

Who knows… maybe if they have me act as a hand model for the next auction, they might even pay for a manicure!

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

-John Dale Beety

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Elvgren's 'Bear Facts,' Martignette's favorite, on the block in about two weeks at Heritage Beverly Hills

April 21, 2010
Posted by Noah

The smile on the bear says it all...

Gil Elvgren's essential , magnificent 1962 pin-up, Bear Facts (A Modest Look; Bearback Rider), is going to find a new home in about two weeks when it occupies the centerpiece position of the May 7 Pin-Up & Glamour Art Auction taking place at Heritage Auctions Beverly Hills. It is estimated (quite conservatively, in my humble opinion) at $50,000-$75,000. It's already at $65,000, and we have a ways to go. 'Nuff said.

Perhaps of equal importance to the awesomeness of the piece itself is its enduring fame and its place in Charles Martignette's personal pantheon of Elvgren masterworks. In fact, Bear Facts was Martignette's favorite Elvgren of all. Period. It appeared as the dust jacket cover, and figure 414 of Martignette and Lou Meisel's book Gil Elvgren All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups and also as Figure 82 of The Great American Pin-up, again by the same pair.

I'll sum it up again: The single greatest Illustration Art Collector of all time, Charles Martignette, who assembled the single greatest collection of Illustration Art ever assembled, had a single favorite painting by Gil Elvgren, himself the greatest pin-up artist to ever live, and it was the one you see here, offered for the first time at public auction on May 7.

This painting is going to go big, obviously, and only the very most advanced collectors are going to be vying for this, though every single collector of the form, at every level, is going to be watching and wishing. If I had half a chance I'd buy it myself. I don't, however, have even a quarter of a chance, or an eighth. Or a sixteenth... I would, however, be more than willing to mow your lawn for a year if you buy this for me...

The truth is that, like every Illustration Art Auction here at Heritage in the last year that has featured Martignette's amazing (did I say amazing? I meant AMAZING!) collection, there is much to love and classics of the form all over the sale. There are many that I love, and many I would love to own, none of which I will be able to afford for a long time - but I will someday, and on that day the world will be mine!

Do yourself a favor and take a look through the Illustration Art catalog. Linger a little longer over the Elvgrens, the Vargas, the Armstrongs and the Morans, among the many. Choose one for yourself, one for your best friend, and one for your favorite regular Heritage Blogger whose initials are not JDB (Whoever that may be...).

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

-Noah Fleisher

Monday, April 19, 2010

Coin Monday: One Cent, Two Cent, One Cent Planchet

April 19, 2010
Written by John Dale

Before I get to the coin part of today’s post, a bit of timely fantasy artwork that caught my eye, Real Musgrave’s The Audit. Don’t let the glasses and the so-cute-it-hurts expression fool you; that little whelp of an auditor probably has a big, bad dragon for backup. I could imagine The Audit adding a touch of whimsy to an IRS agent’s office when it sells in May, but now that I think about it, a whimsical IRS agent might be even scarier than a giant red dragon!

From giant scaly winged monsters to other wrong things, Coin Monday is going back to errors. It’s a category that never lacks for variety at Heritage, and in the upcoming Central States U.S. Coin auction there are 77 different pieces in the Errors category. The coin that immediately caught my eye was lot 1585.

First things first: it’s a two cent coin dated 1864. Odd denominations are always a favorite of mine, and the two cent coin had a practical application when it was first struck in 1864, supplementing the new bronze cent as small change in the difficult Civil War economy. In the postwar period, though, it didn’t have much reason to go on. Along with several other coinage denominations, the two cent piece was abolished in a major “housekeeping” bill passed in 1873.

A two cent coin, in and of itself, is certainly interesting but not necessarily expensive. A two cent coin on a one cent planchet, though? That’s a lulu. Error coins from the 19th century are extraordinarily popular with collectors, since far fewer of them have survived compared to 20th century errors, and this wrong-denomination coin is a beauty. It has light wear, possibly from being kept as a pocket-piece, or else passing through a few hands before somebody looked at it closely and saved it as a curiosity.

The one cent planchet it’s struck on is compelling in its own right, since the bronze alloy was introduced in 1864, the same year this error was struck. One cent coinage had gone through several rapid transitions, from the bulky copper large cents to smaller copper-nickel small cents with two different designs. The bronze alloy stuck, however, and aside from a brief period in World War II, one cent coins were struck in bronze until 1962.

Two important firsts came together in 1864, and the result was this important error. Collectors of the category, especially pre-20th century specialists, will want to give it serious thought. As for the auditor or quality control types who prefer their two cent pieces non-erroneous, well, Heritage just might have you covered, too…

-John Dale Beety

Monday, April 12, 2010

Coin Monday: If you’re a nut for Bust Halves, has Heritage got something for you

April 12, 2010
Written by John Dale

Coin collecting humor isn’t likely to tear up the comedy club circuit anytime soon. Most of it consists of terrible puns, though there have been a handful of exceptions. (The best coin humor I’ve ever read is “Pearlman’s People,” written by public relations maestro Donn Pearlman, which used to grace the back page of The Numismatist.) [I can indeed vouch that Pearlmann is a virtuoso of PR, as I have had the chance to study at the feet of the master these last two years… - Noah Fleisher]

Even more disturbing than the generally poor quality of coin collecting humor is the number of people who repeat it, not because they know it’s bad, but because they believe it’s good. Self-awareness isn’t the most common trait among coin collectors. Then again, we do have the capacity for rare flashes of insight and self-understanding, as evidenced by the best coin club name of all time: the Bust Half Nut Club.

There has never been greater truth in numismatic advertising. Bust Half nutters are obsessed with Bust half dollars; they know they’re obsessed, and they’re at peace with it.

“To be considered as a candidate for BHNC membership, and individual must own a minimum of 100 different Bust die marriages by Overton attribution,” etc. That means 100 distinctly different matchups of obverse and reverse dies… and the documentation to prove it. Like I said, self-awareness.

A prominent Bust Half nut was the late Donald R. Frederick, whose collection of early U.S. coinage, alias “Bayside Part II,”is an important Featured Collection in the upcoming April 2010 Central States auction. Mr. Frederick’s collection went far beyond the 100-variety minimum; in fact, Heritage is auctioning 443 separate varieties from his collection!

The varieties range from relatively common to scarce and even very rare. Picking out a single half dollar highlight is difficult, but the 1827 Overton-148 (that is, the 48th die marriage identified and listed in the Overton reference) is a safe pick. It is one of just 14 to 15 pieces believed known—and one of just 12 coins accounted for in our census—with a grade of VF35 awarded by PCGS.

While there will be a great deal of interest in Mr. Frederick’s coins, I am particularly interested in how a certain non-coin lot turns out. Lot 3370 contains two copies of the Overton die variety reference, one a First Edition signed by the author to Mr. Frederick, the other a Revised Edition with extensive annotations in Mr. Frederick’s hand. The latter was Mr. Frederick’s “working copy” of Overton, his personal and well-traveled guide to Bust half dollars that can now pass into another’s hands. For the devoted student of Bust halves, this well-worn book of Mr. Frederick’s may prove more valuable than any piece of silver.

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-John Dale Beety

Thursday, April 8, 2010

It's still going! - Original Energizer Bunny readies for auction Saturday at Heritage Beverly Hills

April 8, 2010
Posted by Noah

While I don't have a ton of time for writing today, I thought it might be fun to post this little video I took this morning at Heritage Auctions Beverly Hills.

The consignor of the original Energizer Bunny readying for auction here on Saturday has the thing up and running and had enough hands - in the way of friends, not actually on him - to get the running.

Now, it's a cool thing in the first place, an amazing piece of pop culture, to be sure, but it's actually even cooler when you see it working and running live.

The video is not too long, but you get the point, and that is indeed the bunny. His nickname is Clint, and his business associates refer to him as EB, but that's Mr. EB to you...

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

-Noah Fleisher

Monday, April 5, 2010

Coin Monday: Personal Treasures from the "S.S. Central America"

April 5, 2010
Written by John Dale

There are certain stories that will be told and retold for as long as there are collectors of U.S. coinage. The sinking of the S.S. Central America, with its lost gold and lost lives, has enough financial and personal tragedy to endure for centuries. Yet for decades the disaster faded from memory, not quickly but with the slow erosion of waves on a rock, as ships such as the Titanic and the Lusitania took on more meaning.

When the Central America’s gold was re-discovered, so too was its story, and the long-forgotten details seemed fresh and exciting. The “Ship of Gold,” as it is now often called, gave historians new insight into California Gold Rush assayers’ ingots and collectors a remarkable opportunity to own like-new 1857-S double eagles, such as this Gem in the upcoming April-May Central States U.S. Coin Auction.

The assayers’ ingots and gleaming double eagles, stacked up and packaged up in the hold of the Central America, are of great historical and collector importance. When I think about the wreck, though, I find myself drawn to other numismatic treasures. In addition to the ingots and double eagles, headed for the banks of New York City before they met a different fate, there was more gold onboard the ship: the personal fortunes of passengers, which often took the form of double eagles but also eagles and half eagles, gold dust and nuggets.

There were also a number of oddities, reminders of the strange and often dysfunctional monetary system that Californians cobbled together in less than a decade. Two Territorial gold coins in the Central States auction, both moderately worn from five years of use in West Coast commerce, were recovered from the bottom of the ocean floor. One is an 1852 ten dollar Augustus Humbert/United States Assay Office coin, graded VF30 by PCGS; the other, also dated 1852 and graded VF30 by PCGS, was issued by Moffat & Co.

As the San Francisco Mint became established, many of the old Territorial gold coins that stayed in California were melted, and few survivors remain. Both coins are of varieties rated as R.6, or “very rare,” with a couple dozen examples known at most. While fewer Territorial gold coins were recovered from the Central America than assayers’ ingots or 1857-S double eagles, the few Territorial pieces salvaged do offer valuable clues to how various issues were used or not used in California at the time.

One of the great paradoxes of the Central America is that for all the value its gold holds for us today, there was a time when it was all but worthless. Survivors’ accounts tell of people throwing away their golden fortunes, like the coins and nuggets were leaden weights instead of wealth—and why not, for what is the value of gold against one’s life? We, however, are not in danger of drowning. We can study. We can acquire. We can collect.

We must remember.

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-John Dale Beety

Thursday, April 1, 2010

An education in high-end coin collecting: A Heritage Auctions Account Executive’s story

April 1, 2010
Written by Heather Harvey

(This is no April Fool’s joke. I have the pleasure today to welcome Heather Harvey to the Heritage Blog. Heather is an Account Executive for the Coin category, and – as anyone reading this probably knows – that’s a pretty big matzo ball [Happy Passover Ma!] here at Heritage. The biggest in fact. Thing is, when Heather came into her job, taking over from a very well-liked predecessor, she had big shoes to fill not only in getting to know everyone – and reveal her strong work ethic and positive disposition – but also in her knowledge of coins. As you can read below, that knowledge equaled exactly Zero. Fortunately for her, and all of us, there are about a million experts here at Heritage, give or take 999,950 or less, and an education was soon underway. Remember Heather, Cardinal Rule #1: It’s called a cent, not a penny! – Noah Fleisher)

Two years ago, on her fourth birthday, my niece received a large, silver-like coin from an older family member. She was told it was to go toward her colleges expenses.

College expenses? Huh?

She wasn’t alone in her look of bewilderment, because who honestly thinks a coin will contribute to the hefty fees associated with higher education these days? Maybe he forgot to take his medicine that morning…

Fast forwarding to my interview at Heritage six months ago. I was asked: “Do you know anything about numismatics?”


Coming from the person I was to replace I thought for sure I needed to know this to get the job (or at least know what the word meant). Timidly answering with a “no,” he assured me that it wasn’t necessary in order to organize the advertising for those particular venues. Although I didn’t know the first thing about numismatics, I knew enough about marketing to get the job as the Marketing Account Executive for coins and currency, and I began my advertising duties a week later.

That same week a whole new intricate world of numismatists and a hidden underground numismatic community was brought to light. The amazement on my face could not have been more apparent. People collect these things? These coins are worth what? This coin is how old? Someone spent that much on one coin? I can’t call it a penny anymore? Are these people OK? Don’t they know it’s only a quarter?

It seemed as if I would never run out of questions, and maybe I never will, because I’m still increasingly intrigued by not only the coins themselves, but the people who collect these tiny rarities.

Recently my involvement with numismatic advertising, in addition to my fervent curiosity of the collecting community, led me to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the ANA National Money Show ™ in Fort Worth, TX.

I’ve learned by seeing firsthand that, to the collector, it is so much more than just a quarter. They truly have a sincere love of… well, money. From the intaglio printing and secrecy surrounding the new $100 bill at the B.E.P, to the rows of gleaming showcases and wizened faces hunched into their magnifiers at the show, it was all most remarkable. These people are so passionate and knowledgeable about something I never gave a second thought to unless it involved my trip to the ATM because some store didn’t accept credit or debit.

After learning more than I ever thought to learn about numismatics, I’m finding this love/passion/obsession – whatever you want to call it – admirable. For someone to have such a unique understanding of a niche so detailed and so specific is absolutely fascinating.

Even so, I’m not sure I’ll ever summon this “collecting gene” and start my own private collection of fancy money no one else has. I’ll just secretly hope that my dear old relative will generously bestow whatever other college funding coins he may have laying around to my cause so I can sell them. I may not be a collector, but I can still relate to their love of… well, money. It’s just that, for now, I’d rather spend it!

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-Heather Harvey

Monday, March 29, 2010

Coin Monday: Period of Adjustment

March 29, 2010
Written by John Dale

[Image uploading doesn't seem to be working at the moment. Consider it extra incentive to click on the link for now. I'll try to upload it again later. -- JDB]

The Fort Worth auction is in the books (though the Post-Auction Buys will still be available for a limited time), so it’s time to move on.

The next U.S. Coin auction, the official auction of the Central States Numismatic Society convention, will bridge the end of April and the beginning of May. It’ll be held in Milwaukee, a city that holds plenty of fond memories for me, mostly involving coin conventions, chess matches, and eating with my family at some of my father’s favorite German restaurants. (His favorite two, in no particular order: Mader’s and Karl Ratzsch’s.)

Actually, my mind has been on Central States for a while, since cataloging for each auction happens up until about four weeks before the coins are hammered down. I’ve already seen most of the coins that are going to be in the auction, and while there isn’t an 1804 dollar this time (ending the streak at two), there’s plenty to be excited about.

For example, there’s this 1975 Mint set. Just an ordinary Mint set, right? Of course not! This is Heritage. It couldn’t be that easy. Follow the link and take a closer look at that quarter. Looks kind of funny, doesn’t it? And not just because it’s a Bicentennial quarter, either. It’s ... not all there.

The Bicentennial quarter in the set is actually a die adjustment strike, a special kind of “error coin,” and in many ways not an error at all. In fact, die adjustment strikes are made on purpose! When a coinage press is being set up, a few test strikes are done on coinage blanks to make sure that the dies are properly aligned.

These test strikes aren’t done at full power at first, to keep the equipment from being damaged if something is wrong, but the power is enough to make a shallow, partial impression on the planchet. On this quarter, most of the broad details are visible, but the drummer doesn’t have much detail, and the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA are illegible. (They’re supposed to be around the top. You’ll have to trust me on that.)

While die adjustment strikes are a vital part of mint operations, they’re not supposed to leave the grounds. Usually they’re destroyed, but this quarter not only wasn’t destroyed, it was packaged into a Philadelphia Mint set by accident and shipped out to an unsuspecting buyer! Fortunately for the set, the quarter was recognized as special, and rather than being “broken out” of the set, it was certified with the other coins in its packaging. It would’ve been a cool coin on its own, but now, it’s a cool coin with a great story. It's hard to argue with that!

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-- John Dale Beety