The recently-completed sale of the Dan Holmes early-date large cents (1793-1814) garnered so much attention, and set so many price records (including the highest price ever recorded for an American Large Cent, at $1.265 million, and the most valuable large cent collection ever sold at auction, $15.17 million) it might be hard to believe that anyone could find a bargain at this sale. Yet, believe it or not, some of the coins sold in this auction were legitimate bargains!
Prices overall for the Holmes early-date cents were very strong. In general, the headline rarities and coins in very high condition (strictly mint-state & high in the condition census) often exceeded pre-sale estimates by a wide margin. Meanwhile the NC (non-collectible) varieties and the scarce varieties in lower grades realized weak prices. However, there were many exceptions, so it is impossible to make sweeping statements with complete accuracy.
Below I will discuss about a dozen coins from the Holmes sale that I consider (with the benefit of my 20:20 hindsight) were great values for the winning bidders:
1. LOT 25 was the 2nd-finest of the two known 1793 NC-6 Liberty Cap cents. The winning bidder paid $35,000 (plus buyer's fee) to own this G4 coin. You might be asking: "How can a coin that cost $40K be considered a bargain?". Let me spell it out: R-A-R-I-T-Y! Consider that a few lots earlier, someone bid the 2nd-finest (of 3 known) strawberry leaf cents (LOT 8, 1793 NC-3) to $190,000! Sure, that was a strawberry leaf, and as a type, they are much scarcer than 1793 Liberty Caps. To tell the truth, $190,000 (plus buyer's fee) could easily turn out to be a bargain price for a strawberry leaf cent, given how legendary these rarities are. Still, since every serious collector needs a 1793 NC-6 to complete the 1793 NC's, and only two people at a time can do it, this coin looks like a good candidate to become more valuable!
2. LOT 75 was a 1794 S-46 (R3) in EAC MS60. This CC#2 coin (2nd finest known) was hammered for just $23,000. I know that is a lot of money for a cent - the point is that this is a MINT STATE 1794 cent! There are no more than a handful of MS 1794's around, period. There are probably more 1797 S-123's in mint-state known than ALL the 1794 varieties combined, and even an S-123 in MS condition will cost more than $10K (for example: LOT 222 in the Holmes sale). Is it a better investment to own the one CC#2 MS60 1794 S-46, or two MS60 1797 S-123's? The answer is left as an exercise for the reader.
3. LOT 117 was the finest-known 1795 S-73 (R5) by a wide margin, and a coin that once resided in Sheldon's collection. The winning bid for this VF35+ example was $28,500. Apparently circulated 1795 cents are the Rodney Dangerfields of the early copper world - they "can't get no respect". By contrast, the 3rd-finest 1794 S-36 cent (LOT 58, also a VF35 example of an R5 variety) hammered for $36,000. Of course, there are more people looking for 1794 large cents. Therefore, while this lot was not a screaming bargain, it should easily hold its value.
4. LOT 159 was another example of a rare, but circulated coin that failed to impress bidders. The finest-known 1796 NC-3 (R6+) in VF30 came with an impressive pedigree that went back to 1929. The coin was hammered for $21,000 vs. a pre-sale estimate of $20,000. This coin was a good buy at that level.
5. LOT 236 was the unique (R8+) 1797 NC-8 stemless wreath cent in VF20+. While the hammer price of $32,000 accurately reflects the current market value of the coin, I believe the future will be bright for this problem-free high quality RARE large cent, unless more examples are discovered.
6. LOT 295 was a high-grade 1798 S-161 (NGC MS63 / EAC 55, and CC#3 in Bland's census). Perhaps the low rarity of this variety (R2) led to lower bids, but in my view, the price of $12,500 (plus buyer's fee) is pretty reasonable for ANY 1798 in mint-state. After all, there have not been any hoards of mint-state 1798's found (such as the Nichols find cents from 1796 & 1797). This coin might not have been an obvious bargain, but it was still a good value.
7. LOT 302 was a 1798 S-164 (R4) in F12. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about the coin. I chose to highlight this coin because it was one of the few low-priced bargains in this sale. Most of the Holmes coins worth under $1000 got bid well beyond their book value; probably by people seeking the Holmes provenance for one of their coins. This coin sold for just $340 - far less than the value of $750 listed for the coin in CQR.
8. LOT 321 was another high-grade example of a common 1798 variety - S-174 (R2) in NGC MS62 / EAC 55 and CC#2. The hammer price of $9750 does not seem to reflect the true scarcity of mint-state (or near-MS) 1798 cents - in other words, a bargain.
9. LOT 329 was the rare (R5+) 1798 S-178 (style-2 hair with REV of 1796) in F15, and sharper than any other S-178 I have ever seen. The hammer price was $5250 vs. a pre-sale estimate of $5000. More remarkable is the fact that the very next lot (S-178 in VG8, but with a little better color) was hammered for $7000! For my money that first S-178 represents a nice bargain.
10. LOT 356 was the finest known 1800/1798 NC-6 (an R6+ variety). The hammer price was $8750 vs. a pre-sale estimate of $10K.
11. LOT 415 was the finest known 1801 NC-2 (R7). This problem-free F15 coin with a provenance that included Naftzger and Rasmussen brought a winning bid of only $14,500. Once again a choice "NC" was shunned by bidders.
12. LOT 535 was the finest known 1805 S268 - a choice AU50 coin once owned by Virgil Brand, C. Doug Smith, and Ted Naftzger. The winning bid for this beauty was just $14,500 (vs. pre-sale estimate of $15K). Maybe the bidders were exhausted at this point (or, out of money!).
That wraps up my bargain hunt for the Dan Holmes early date sale. I doubt that everyone who reads this will agree with all my choices of bargains. In many cases only time will tell if the coins were, in fact true bargains. Every winning bid made sense to at least one person at the time! Sadly, I was not the winning bidder for any of the coins I just described. I did, however, take home the 1797 Sheldon-130 from the sale (pictured below), and even though I would not call it a bargain, it has found an appreciative new home right here. THANKS a million, Dan!