by Robert Lehmann
The dust has settled and the numismatic event of our lifetime has concluded. As I sit here in the airport waiting to catch a flight to my next destination, I am acutely aware of how physically tired and emotionally exhausted my 37-year-old body is. For the last 4 days, I have heard the names of Stickney, Clapp and Eliasberg used as if they were everyday household words. Listening to Julian Leidman compare this incredible group of coins to the once-thought insurmountable Garrett Collection, watching 75-year-old Art Kagin drop down in the middle of the auction room reception area and do 40 push-ups as well as sharing thoughts with Jay Parrino about his newly acquired 1885 gem proof Trade Dollar are only a few of the lasting memories that will stay with me for a lifetime. Yes, the last 4 days was much more than a sale or just another auction. To call it such would undermine the whole relevancy of an incredible feat that will never again be repeated. The only complete collection of United States coins has now been dispersed.
Three weeks ago I headed north on I-81 through Pennsylvania, destination Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Driving for me is solitude, an introspective time when I do some of my most productive thinking. I felt a sense of anticipation as I began to mentally plot my strategy. Larry and I had spent the last several weeks planting seeds with prospective buyers. We had both heard numerous opinions about the quality of the coins in this famed collection, as well as premature price projections. I sincerely hoped that the rumors would be well founded: In 6 hours, I would know.
My thoughts raced as I pulled into Wolfeboro, a small hamlet of 4000 nestled in beautiful south-central New Hampshire. Because of unforeseen circumstances, I had arrived too late for lot viewing that day. I would have to wait 12 hours to see the coins which only added to my anxiety.
Larry had been viewing coins all day. I expected that he would have seen a majority of the coins, and would have detailed descriptions to share with me. To my amazement, he had only viewed 7 boxes or a mere 175 coins throughout the entire day. “What happened?” I inquired. “Were there that many people waiting that you couldn’t get to the coins?” “No,” he assured me. “It was a very relaxed, pressure-free environment.” “Well then, why did you see so few coins in one hour period?” I responded. Larry thought for a second, looked at me and said, “Rob, once you see these coins you will understand. You simply can’t go through them quickly. They are remarkable. And, the dollars (a favorite area of interest for both of us), are truly amazing. You won’t be disappointed.”
The next morning we pulled into the bank building where lot viewing was to take place. As we entered the lot viewing room, it immediately dawned on me that this was no ordinary auction. The mood was relaxed and the Bowers and Merena staff was extremely accommodating. We were escorted to our private table where we were shown coins in an intimate, friendly atmosphere. I guess special coins deserve special treatment.
My first box, an early run of Morgan Dollars, created a mind set that stayed with me for the rest of my stay. Beginning with a remarkable gem 1878 8TF dollar in proof and concluding with an awe-inspiring 1883-S gem specimen piece, it quickly became apparent to me that this was no ordinary collection. As I continued to view coins and make notes, I became overwhelmed. I had to stop, take a breather, go back and look at the same coins for a second time. Surely, I had missed something. Morgan Dollars simply don’t come this nice. But, the second time only reinforced my initial impression. I found myself studying the 1883-S dollar for 20 minutes! The coin was incredible. How did this piece stay in such an impeccable state of preservation for over 100 years. Deep proof-like fields mirrored beautifully against frosted, mark-free devices like a mountain lake nestled in a virgin forest. It was virtually impossible to find a defect on this pristine piece. “How do you grade it?” asked Bill Spears, a Central Florida silver dollar specialist. “I guess I would call it a MS-68 proof-like,” I replied. “Yeah, me too,” responded Bill in a matter-of-fact tone. Like a car stuck in first gear, I continued to view and study the coins, one at a time, slowly, methodically. Eight hours went by like 20 minutes. Without warning, there was an announcement that we would have to conclude our lot viewing for the day in 15 minutes. I looked down at my tally sheet and realized that in 8 hours time I had seen a whopping 6 boxes or 150 coins. I now understood what Larry had realized 24 hours earlier.
I left Wolfeboro 2 days later. Numismatically, I felt privileged but, emotionally I was drained. The drive home was a long one. I needed to get to my office and start contacting my clients. How could I possibly convey to them what I had experienced for the last 3 days?
Ten hard, and often frustrating, days were spent on the phones, trying to convince my customers of the potential value in this sale. I must have come across a little like Jerry Lewis at a Telethon. But, as the zero hour approached my customers began to respond. Several of them decided that they wanted to participate. When I called Larry, he confirmed equal success. It was looking like we would go into the sale well capitalized. And, with a little luck and some aggressive bidding, we hoped some Eliasberg pedigreed coins would be our just reward.
The glitz and glamour of Mid-town Manhattan served as an appropriate setting for the sale. I have to admit there was a momentary sense of disappointment as I pulled up to the front of the Saint Moritz and quickly realized that this was a far cry from The Plaza 3 doors down. However, once I made my way up to our room, opened the curtains and took in the view of the Park Avenue skyline backdropped against Central Park, all initial regrets were forgotten. Just as I was slipping into a sense of New York euphoria (that is a momentary lapse where you think you actually ARE a New Yorker), the phone rang. It was one of Larry’s customers, and I could tell from Larry’s end of the conversation that the gentleman wanted to go after some coins. After some brief dialog, I heard Larry review some bids with him and wish him good night. As I switched back into my Maryland coin dealer mode, I observed Larry was a little upset. “I don’t think these people understand,” he said. ”They’re sincere and they honestly believe they’re being aggressive, but they are going to get shut out.” “What were his bids?” I inquired, referring back to Larry’s caller. “Most of them were 40-50% over grey sheet levels,” replied Larry. I nodded at Larry affirming that I agreed with him. “No, you’re right, they just don’t understand,” I added.
Louis Eliasberg, Sr. was an affluent Baltimore businessman who undertook the seemingly impossible task of assembling a complete collection of United States coins. His adventure involved him with many legendary names in the hobby. Among them were the likes of Chapman, Mehl, Kagin, Stack and perhaps most importantly John Clapp. With the acquisition of the John H. Clapp collection in 1942, Louis’s dream neared attainability. In 1950, approximately 8 years after purchasing the Clapp collection, Louis acquired the unique 1873-CC No Arrows Liberty Seated Dime, the final coin needed to complete his collection of United States coins. The King of Coins, as Louis was affectionately known, had transformed the unthinkable into a reality.
Mixed emotions best described my feelings as I entered the auction room on Sunday, April 6th. Excitement and anxiety were playing an emotional tug-o-war in my mind. Larry and I had spent a combined total of 5 days in New Hampshire and 7 days in New York viewing this collection. The coins had become a part of me. I felt like I had been a temporary custodian of them, and now that was all going to end. To see them separated and dispersed was almost like saying goodbye to an old friend. However, the prospect of owning even a little piece of this memorable collection soon overcame that temporary sense of loss. “Focus, focus,” I kept telling myself. “And, don’t lose sight of why you’re here.” Larry and I had worked feverishly on our last minute preparations. We checked and double-checked our bids, as well as making our last minute phone calls. This was, as Larry put it, a high stakes poker game. Knowledge and hard work, at this point, needed to be our best allies.
I wished I had more sleep. My eating habits in the last 4 days had become erratic and suffered. My life had centered around the coins and compromise simply wasn’t an option. There would be no second chances. I shook my head vigorously hoping to clear the cobwebs. “Focus,” I reminded myself once again. The zero hour had approached and I just hoped I was physically ready for it.
“Are we all done at a thousand?” asked Dave Bowers as he prepared to hammer the first lot. But, as what would hold true for the balance of the sale, we were NOT all done. “Eleven hundred,” yelled another prospective owner. Not to let the 1875 20-cent piece go too cheap, another collector interrupted, “Bid.” Finally, at $2200.00 the coin was hammered down and awarded to a new owner. The Louis Eliasberg Sale was officially underway.
The CNN camera man scanned the room. Approximately 350 people packed the area, most dressed in business attire. This looked more like a banker convention than a coin auction. Present were the nation’s most prominent dealers as well as hundreds of serious collectors. With names like Leidman, Hanks, Kagin, Stack and Akers, the room was a virtual who’s-who of numismatics.
One at a time, the coins began to find new homes. Two and three thousand dollar coins were interspersed with 6 figure rarities. Each time a new lot was introduced, a certain air of unpredictability came with it. What is it worth? How badly will somebody want it and what are they willing to pay? Like a crescendo, the auction kept building on itself, one coin after another, one session after the next, closing in on the crowned jewel of the collection. The ultimate culmination of this numismatic concert, was, no doubt, The King of American Coins, The Stickney Specimen of the 1804 Silver Dollar. Along the path, were many noteworthy princes and princesses. Amongst them were: a gem 1876-CC 20-cent piece, a gem 1796 quarter dollar, a run of superb proof Bust Quarters, gem examples of all CC Seated Liberty Quarters, an incredible group of gem Barber Quarters with many finest known, a 1796 and ’97 Bust Half, a complete run of superb Capped Bust Halves with virtually all the rare Overton varieties represented, an equally impressive Barber Half Dollar collection and perhaps the most incredible 18th century Bust Dollars that have crossed an auction block in recent memory including a 1795 Draped Bust Dollar that was cataloged (and deservingly so) as a MS-67 PL! To call anyone of these rarities amazing is an understatement. To see them all offered in one sale was awe-inspiring!
By the third day of the auction, I had built up a certain callousness. I had become oblivious to the high prices that were both routine, and by now mundane. Five and six figure coins were so abundant in this sale, that they were the rule rather than the exception. Bids were rattled off in thousand dollar increments much like a blackjack dealer would deal cards across a table.
A murmur filled the room on Tuesday night as the sale closed in on lot #2199. Larry and I had negotiated a possible partnership deal on this coin over lunch earlier in the day. After all, is there any sexier United States coin to own than a Class 1 1804 Silver Dollar? But, as the floor bids quickly exceeded our figure, it was obvious that our dreams of owning a piece of this treasure had been dashed. At a million dollars, there were still several paddles in the air. Then, in one of the lighter moments of the night, Dave Bowers, who had been calling out the bids in $25,000.00 increments, hesitated at a million, twenty five thousand and erroneously called for a million and a quarter. The tension of the moment subsided temporarily as virtually all the bidders became silent. Dave realizing that what he meant versus what he said were $225,000.00 apart, humbly admitted, “Even I’m not very experienced at doing this,” which was answered by a round of laughter. As the bidding resumed, it became a battle of two, each potentially costing the other $50,000.00 more every time they nodded their heads to acknowledge another bid. “Watch the two fellows sitting with Akers,” I whispered to Larry. I had heard earlier in the day that David Akers would be bidding on the 1804 dollar, and it was obvious that the two well dressed gentlemen sitting with him had come to play.
” Do I have a million, five hundred thousand?” inquired an obviously excited Dave Bowers. “A million, five hundred thousand,” replied the younger of the two gentlemen. Once again, the bidding, although only momentarily, stopped. Whispers and low volume voices could be heard throughout the auction room. It was if hundreds of people had all simultaneously asked each other, “Who are those guys?” After a brief pause, which seemed like an eternity, the bidding resumed. “One million, five fifty?” inquired Dave Bowers. Greg Roberts of Spectrum Numismatics acknowledged. “Do I have one million, six hundred thousand?” Hesitantly, Jay Parrino, owner of The Mint nodded, yes. “I have one million, six hundred. Now I’m looking for one million, six hundred and fifty thousand,” replied Dave. Nervously, Greg Roberts acknowledged the bid. It was obvious to me at this point (and probably most other observers in the room) that the bidding for the new World’s Most Valuable Coin had concluded.
“Are we all done at a million six fifty? One million, six fifty going once; One million, six fifty going twice – SOLD, One million six hundred and fifty thousand dollars to Greg Roberts of Spectrum Numismatics,” answered a visibly jubilant Dave Bowers. The room erupted in applause, as Greg Roberts quickly exited the room, undoubtedly to share the exciting news with his company’s principles. I felt excited and a bit drained. Even though I hadn’t been part of the bidding on this wonderful coin, I had certainly been part of the process. A twenty minute recess ensued. Mark Borckhardt, his face beaming with an ear to ear smile, was obviously ecstatic with the results. “Congratulations Mark,” I said. “You did a first rate job cataloging this sale. It must really be something to see your efforts come to fruition.” In a look that said, You don’t know the half of it, Mark replied, “Thanks Rob. It’s been exciting.”
To say the rest of the sale was anticlimactic was both unfair and true. There was a clearing out effect after the sale of the 1804 Dollar and scattered vacancies were visible throughout the room. Many more astounding rarities, including the world class Morgan Dollar set, would cross the podium before the night was out. Jack Lee bought the incredible gem 1889-CC Morgan Dollar for his set at a cost of $462,000.00, a virtually perfect 1891-CC Morgan (a relatively common CC Morgan Dollar) sold for $121,000.00 and a superb 1895-0 gem Morgan fetched $253,000.00. The Trade Dollar set, equally remarkable in it’s own right, was highlighted by the fabulous gem 1 885 example, purchased by Jay Parrino for about a hundred thousand dollars less than my pre-sale guess of a million dollars (a bargain !).
Ultimately, Larry and I would like to have purchased many more of these treasures. And it was neither from lack of effort or desire that we didn’t. We had committed to ourselves before the sale that we were not going to get caught up in the excitement of the moment, and exceed our thoughtfully calculated bids. Consequently, we ended up being the under bidders on many of the dollar rarities. We did manage, however, to buy our 1883-S gem Morgan Dollar for $137,500.00.
The first question I was asked after the sale was, “Did you get a lot of good deals?” It’s hard to conclude if we profited from the sale monetarily. The coins have only recently been submitted to the grading services for attribution and grades, so the jury is still out on that question. But, as far as the experience itself, this was a numismatic event of epic proportion. What I remember about this sale cannot be quantified into dollars and cents. Furthermore, these memories will always be with me as long as I’m associated with this hobby we know as numismatics. And, from that standpoint, this sale was priceless!