The Goldbergs auctioned 228 half cents from the Missouri Cabinet in Los Angeles on Sunday Jan. 26, 2014. I was lucky enough to attend the sale, as I live about an hour's drive from the Luxe Hotel, where the sale was conducted.
This collection, easily the finest and also the first complete set of U.S. half cents ever sold at auction, was over 70 years in the making! There were two important collectors involved in building the Missouri Cabinet. First was Eric P. Newman, a renowned collector of many types of U.S. coins from the St. Louis area. Second was R. Tettenhorst, a well-known connoisseur of U.S. half cents who also resides near St. Louis. A large number of important coins in the collection were acquired directly from the estate of famed collector Colonel E.H.R. Green in the 1940's. The collaborators then meticulously added to this base set throughout the years, as opportunities arose to add new varieties, or upgrade existing coins in the set. The result of this effort was a collection whose magnitude may not be equaled again. In terms of breadth, the set was 100% complete (all known varieties of both proof and regular issue half cents). For quality, nearly every coin in the set belongs in the condition census (the census consists of the best 6 coins known for the variety). The overall quality of the Missouri Cabinet has never been rivaled.
The Goldbergs anticipated a large event, and they wisely chose a large ballroom to conduct the auction. Their efforts paid off, as more than 100 people crowded in for this sale, but there was room for everyone, and the accommodations were very comfortable. This proved to be lucky, as the sale stretched out for more than 5 hours!
The auction started in typical fashion, and the 1793 half cents (the first 6 lots) were hammered for prices that were high, but not alarmingly high. The 1793 C-4 in PCGS MS66 (Lot 6) was hammered for $800K (vs. its pre-sale estimate of $300K). Some at the sale had expected this coin to be the first U.S. half cent to cross the $1 Million threshold, so there was a little uncertainty about the direction the sale would take when this coin fell just short of the mark. We did not have long to wait, as Lot 20 (a 1794 C-7 in PCGS MS67 R/B, and the finest-known 1794 half cent, regardless of variety) made it to a $1 Million hammer price (there was a 15% buyer's premium for all lots, making this coin worth $1.15 Million). History had been made, and we were just getting started!
As the 1794 and 1795 half cents were sold, a trend began to emerge: The highest quality coins were bringing strong prices, while the coins with any problems were being sold at prices close to the (conservative) pre-sale estimates.
The 1796 half cents in the Missouri Cabinet (Lots 36 & 37) were a magnificent pair of rare coins. The 1796 C-1 (no-pole) was a gem graded MS65 BN by PCGS. The 1796 C-2 (with pole) was an equally impressive coin, with a PCGS grade of MS65 R/B. To be honest, I considered it worth my trip to the auction, just for the chance to hold these two pieces in my own hand! It surprised a number of people when both of these coins were hammered for prices that were strong, but short of the $1 Million level. The 1796 C-1 hammered for $775K and the 1796 C-2 hammered for $625K. The new owners of these coins can feel pretty good about the value of their new additions.
As the 1797 half cents were sold, a trend emerged that lasted through all the remaining lots in the sale. Lot 41, a 1797 C-1 (1-above-1) in PCGS MS66 BN garnered a hammer price of $260K vs. the estimate of $70K. Two lots later, Lot 43, a fantastic 1797 C-2 also PCGS MS66 BN was hammered for $350K vs. the estimate of just $50K. It became clear that QUALITY was going to rule the day. Quality trumped rarity by a wide margin. One spectacular example was Lot 57; an 1803 C-3 (a rarity-2 variety) graded MS66 R/B by PCGS: This lot was estimated at $25K, but soared to a hammer price of $250K, followed by applause from the appreciative audience.
As the Missouri Cabinet draped bust coins (1800-1808) were sold, and the sale moved to the 1809 Classic Head half cents, the mood in the room shifted subtly, as those bidders who really wanted something from this world-famous collection, but had been frustrated thus far began to assert themselves. Lot 94 seemed to signal the shift. This fairly common variety (1809 C-3 / R1) was in extremely high grade (PCGS MS66 BN, with a CAC sticker of approval). The pre-sale estimate for this coin was $5000, but there were a number of bidders still vying for this coin at the $25K level, and it ultimately was hammered for $55K (11 times the estimate)! The message seemed clear: if you wanted to own a nice coin from this collection, you would have to pay dearly for it from this point forward. A short time later, Lot 102, an 1811 C-1 (a scarce variety, at R4) was bid up furiously until it was hammered down for $975K ($1.12 Million, with buyer's premium). A second half cent had crossed the $1 Million barrier, and this coin must be considered a "sleeper", since the pre-sale estimate was just $200K! The classic head half cents and the braided hair half cents brought prices that were beyond strong, in general, with those coins that earned the coveted PCGS MS66 grade finding the most interest from the bidders. It was interesting to note that bidding for the proof half cents was muted, when compared to the business-strike coins. I thought the prices paid for the proofs were strong, but they seemed consistent with the beauty, grade, and provenance of these coins. As the sale wound down to its conclusion, one lot even managed to sell for a hammer price under $1000. This was Lot 200, an 1850 C-1 that had AU details and was cleaned (according to PCGS).
In summary, this was the top collection of its type, and the Goldbergs showcased it with a magnificent catalogue and a perfectly executed auction. The hammer price total was $15.8 Million (I was told). The consignors crafted a collection of enduring beauty, and the bidders responded enthusiastically. Everyone had a most excellent adventure!