CONFESSIONS OF AN EAC ADDICT|
by John Pijewski
COLLECTING COIN AUCTION CATALOGUES, or LEARNING MORE THAN YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW
In my large cent world, buying the J.R. Frankenfield catalogue begat buying the Robbie Brown (I and II) catalogues, which begat buying the Jack Robinson catalogues, which begat buying the Lee Kuntz catalogue, which begat buying the Bob Matthews catalogue, which begat buying the Van Cleave catalogue, and so on.
I now have nearly 40 begats - I mean, catalogues - in my library to peruse at my pleasure, which I do frequently. If My Beloved Lizzie sees me walking up the stairs after dinner, she asks, "A date with Edna?"
I nod my head gravely and say, "Sinus infection. I'm going to try to cheer her up."
Sometimes I open a catalogue at random and look for the lowest grade cents which a collector included in his collection. For example, why did J.R. Frankenfield settle for an S-20 in Fair 2 condition? (I bought this coin at the 2002 EAC Sale just so I can say I have a coin from the Frankenfield collection.) And why did he settle for low-grade 1796's: an S-85 in AG3, an S-88 in G5, an S-100 in G4, and an S-101 in AG3? Surely he could've found better examples if he searched a bit longer and harder.
Other times I just look at the photographed cents in the Superior catalogues and try to determine the actual grade without looking at the text. When I do this, I find myself becoming a more critical and conservative grader. While I used to grade large cents with VG1O sharpness and light porosity as VG8, now that I've gotten in touch with my inner Bill Noyes, I grade them G5 or even G4 if I notice a dull nick or a rim bruise.
This, of course, makes it eminently more difficult for me when I search for large cents. There are dealers who grade their large cents strictly on sharpness, they deduct a couple points for scratches or corrosion. Dealers take their own grading very seriously. Questioning their grading is like talking to someone who has a perpetual case of prickly heat. If you want to discuss a cent's grade, better to do it through the price. If you think a large cent is worth $90 and the dealer thinks it's worth $125, then you may arrive at a compromise value, even if each of you has a different grade in mind. But if you think the cent is worth $100 and the dealer thinks it's worth $250, just thank him, say you'll think about it, and walk away. Save your anger for things that truly deserve it, like the fact that you never get enough poppies on a poppy bagel.
There are times I read the catalogue text for pedigrees, to see the famous names (Clapp, Sheldon, Paschal, etc.). who owned which coin for how long before it ended up in someone else's hands. This can provide fascinating background information. After a year of reading large cent pedigrees, I've learned that every single large cent in North America was owned, at one time or another, by Denis Loring.
Sometimes with ultra-rare cents - an S-79, for example - you'll see what a small and incestuous world EAC can be. Competition for the ultra-rare cent can be cutthroat, especially when it involves the completion of a Sheldon-numbered large cent set. According to Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of U.S. Large Cents 1793-1814, only 12 complete sets have been collected. It's the numismatic equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest. One collector will agree to put it up for auction so someone else can buy it and say they owned it, but promise to put it back on auction so the original collector/owner can get it back, or some other collector can own it, possibly being the next person to form a complete Sheldon variety set. On Wall Street this would be known as insider trading, but among EAC heavy hitters this is called sharing the wealth. To illustrate this point, here is a pedigree for the S-79 in the Frankenfield auction catalogue; Denis Loring (1976) to Robbie Brown (1986) to Jack Robinson (1989) to Lee Kuntz (1991) to J.R. Frankenfield (1995) to Dan Holmes (1995) to Robbie Brown (1996) to J.R. Frankenfield (2001).
When I get catalogues with price lists, I write the price the large cent earned in the catalogue by the lot number. This is, I understand, a no-no for serious catalogue collectors. Also, whenever I have the time and inclination, I'll annotate the prices paid in the pedigree section of a cent to show its progress in value over time. The prices paid for a cent aren't really interesting (unless, of course, you don't have that variety, in which case you now know what the real market can bear), except in a historical sense, where you see that the Chalkley S-42, which sold for $1150 in 1990, fetched $880 in the 2002 EAC Sale. This tells me something, but I don't know exactly what it is. Did the person who paid $1150 at the Chalkley auction overpay for the coin? Or did the person who bought the Chalkley S-42 in 2002 get a bargain? Who knows? Maybe the next time this cent sells at auction, the price paid at that time will illuminate the pricing situation. I hope Jack Robinson will have something to say about this in his next CQR.
As I acquire more catalogues, I find myself spending more time with them. It's an easy, enjoyable, educational and fabulous way to spend an evening with Edna. More than once My Beloved Lizzie has knocked on the door to my study only to find me with my head on top of a pile of catalogues, snoring quietly, or not so quietly. What goes through My Beloved Lizzie's mind at a time like this? Does she say to herself, "A boy playing with his toys?" or "Edna must've tired him out." In any case, My Beloved Lizzie wakes me up and leads me to our bed across the hall. Now that's true love.
UPGRADING MY SHELDON VARIETIES, or OH BOY! ANOTHER REASON TO SPEND MORE MONEY
When one dealer doesn't have any Sheldons I can add to my collection, he asks, "Have any varieties that need upgrading?"
At first I think he's pulling my leg, or else he's being terribly extravagant. Say I have, for example, a 1797 S-138 in G5+ that I bought for $60. When I bought it I thought it was good enough for my collection - a very nice dark tan with a bold full date and Liberty, a strong portrait, two minor rim bruises at 12:30 and 9:30, and a touch of light porosity here and there. There's a bit more porosity on the reverse with one tiny rim nick at 2:00, and two substantial areas of die sinking that obliterates the upper left half of the wreath and STATES and OF AM with the upper right leaves. Everything else is readable.
This is one of those lower-grade large cents that has a lot of character, particularly the boldness of the obverse (despite the G5+ grade) and the late die state (LDS) with considerable swelling on the reverse. This coin is major reason why early date large cents are so collectable - it provides a clear picture of the failure of minting technology in the late 1790's. But it's also a beautiful coin, a worn and damaged veteran of early American commerce. (and this is where I respectfully disagree with Jack Robinson's comments that early large cents are like Rembrandts. They're not technically beautiful, but they're beautiful because of their flaws and their patina of wear. Like My Beloved Lizzie says, they're war veterans that we respect and cherish.)
It just so happens that I haven't added a Sheldon variety to my collection in nearly a month. It just so happens, also, that dealer has an S-148 in F15 for $350. It's a lovely coin, slightly off-center toward 8:00 with very wide dentils between 1:00 and 4:00. All the details are bold and the coin has clean rims. It's a warm walnut steel brown with a few circulation marks. The reverse is similarly off-center with a clean surface and a slightly earlier die state of die sinking than my lower-grade coin. You can see the swollen area at the upper half of the left wreath, though all the leaves and STATES are visible. The other area of swelling is more advanced; the second S in STATES is gone along with the lower halves of OF and the left foot of the first A in AMERICA. The tips of the upper leaves on the upper right wreath are gone too. It's a very attractive cent.
I ask for a discount, and the dealer counters with $325. This is more than I paid for many of my 1796 Sheldons, but the desire to upgrade, or, more specifically, to spend more money when I don't need to, becomes terribly enticing. I write my check for $325. Upgrading a large cent, I'm finding out, is just as good as adding a new Sheldon number to my collection.
SELLING DUPLICATES, or RECYCLING COINS TO FEED THE COPPER HABIT
As soon as I've upgraded enough large cents, I have a pile of about 20 duplicates. Some of these I want to keep because they're a different die state from the upgraded cent. From reading the Jack Robinson catalogue I've learned the joys of documenting the progression of die cracks and failure. It's the same impulse that prompts parents to put up framed photos of their children as they are growing older, or mark their height along the door frame of the pantry.
Like every other coin collector, I've tried selling coins I no longer wanted and was disappointed by the prices dealers offered. I thought the same would be true of large cents. Luckily, as I made a point of telling Rod Burress that I was upgrading when I was purchasing an S-222 in F15+ from his price list, he asked whether I had any duplicates to sell. You bet I did.
So I made a list of 20 large cents and included my best estimation of their grade and price, and sent them as a consignment to Rod. Using EAC grading, Rod assessed my cents for condition, sometimes adjusting the grade a point higher or lower, and then repricing the coins as necessary. I was gratified that Rod agreed with the majority of the grades I'd assigned my large cents.
Three months later Rod had sold all of my large cents and owed me $1200 minus his 10% commission. During those three months, however, I'd been buying large cents from Rod's price lists and charging them against the proceeds of my consignment. When it came time to settle the account, rather than receiving a check from Rod, I ended up sending him a check for about $600. But the process, buying large cents I needed for my collection against the proceeds of my consignment, was very satisfying. So now I'm much more willing to upgrade knowing that I won't lose much, if any, money in the process.
Let me take the time here to say how incredibly knowledgeable and helpful Rod Burress is about large cents and copper coins, how devoted he is to the success of EAC as an organization, and how scrupulously fair and honest he is as an EAC grader and dealer. Rod is one of the people who've made EAC the great organization it is. Kudos to you, Rod, for your high sense of personal and professional ethics. May you collect copper and help other people collect copper for many years to come.
There are other EAC dealers who are generous in buying early American copper, particularly if you bought it from them originally. The very amiable Col. Steven K. Ellsworth, whose coin business goes by the name Butternut, will buy back coins he's sold to you for 90% of their original price if you buy and upgrade from him. And Jim Long of J.E.L. Coins and Rod Burress both offer 100% back if you buy an upgrade from them. I'm sure there are other dealers out there who give generous buyback terms, but I've never dealt with them; I mention only those dealers I've had personal dealings with.
Ultimately, what these buyback programs and generous resale terms show, besides the inherent value of early American copper, is the genuine fraternity that exist among EAC collectors and dealers of copper coins from America's early history. We're not just collectors and dealers, but historians, scholars, and custodians of our national heritage.
A DAMAGED RARE CENT, or MY PANTS ARE COOLING OFF
In the NTL/Scotsman auction catalogue scheduled for April 19, 2002, there are some large cent varieties on my want list. One variety that intrigues me the most is S-68 with the bisecting die break on the obverse. The catalogue copy reveals plenty of pitting on the obverse.
The next day, on a friend's computer, I see the S-68 - a fairly nasty obverse with a much better reverse. It must be an earlier state die break as the die crack is visible only on the coin's left field. The obverse has suffered extensive pitting/denting in both fields, the hair, chin, and profile. It's such a shame for this to have happened to an R5 cent. The detail is close to VG8, but the damage brings the net grade down to AG3 or even lower.
I consider whether I want to own this cent. It is, after all, a very rare variety with no more than 60 known to exist. The date and LIBERTY are intact and quite bold. What would I bid on this cent? $200? $250? The G5 value is $750; AG3 is $250. Is there anyone out there willing to spend $250 for this cent? I could make a lowball offer of $190 and hope I get it. But would I be happy if I got the coin? It does fill a hole on my Sheldon want list, but will I be happy showing this cent to another collector?
And this is where I realize I wouldn't be happy with this cent. I think I should wait for a better S-68 to come along, even though it will be far more expensive than this one. I find I'm becoming more selective about the large cents I acquire. I do not mail in a bid on this cent.
A few days after the auction I call NTL/Scotsman and learn that the winning bid for the S-68 was $180 plus 12% commission.
VISITING EDNA, or AN ALL-NIGHTER
After dinner, when My Beloved Lizzie has a good novel to read, or wants to catch up on reading manuscripts for her job as editor-in-chief for a childrens book publisher, I'll tell her, "I think I'll go upstairs and visit Edna."
Edna is, of course, my euphemism for large cents. Perhaps I'll take out editions 16 and 17 of CQR and see how much certain Sheldon varieties have increased, or decreased, in price in just 2 1/2 years between editions. Then I might take out an earlier edition of CQR and see how much prices have risen between 1990 and 2001, while also noticing that the price for S-210 was much higher in 1990 (G5 = $1500) than in 2001 (G5 = $600). Or I could simply reread the introduction by Jack Robinson in the most recent editions of CQR and then read the introduction to edition 4. No matter how many times I read these introductions, I'm always delighted by Jack Robinson's tone, sensibility, humor, and point of view. On the printed page he seems so personable, logical, sensible, yet also a bit feisty and curmudgeonly. It's as if he's become my favorite uncle whose stories and opinions I love to hear over and over.
Or I could take out Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of U.S. Large Cents 1793-1814 and reread certain chapters, or just read through all the varieties for one year; 1797, for example. One of the absolutely great things about this book is that it provides specific die states for each variety. For example, I can read about the nine die states for S-140 as a narrative and see how its dies progressively fail. Or I can read the extended Condition Census and see what cents were owned by Dorothy Paschal. Did she sell her collection privately, or did she dispose of it through auction? (Jim Long will reveal to me later that he bought her S-48 in great VF20 detail, though it was porous, for $8000 in 1990 from a list that was being carried around by Bill Noyes.) She seems to be one of the great collectors of large cents in the mid to late 20th century, but I've never seen anything written about her.
Or I could take out any one of my more than 40 auction catalogues and peruse the large cents listed there. If it's a pre-1980 catalogue I can marvel at how inexpensively the large cents sold for (a cheap and easy thrill). Or I can look through the two great Robbie Brown collections until I get a nosebleed from looking at so many high grade large cents. Then I may look at the more modest Phil Van Cleave or Bob Matthews catalogues and become grounded again. Since I have many of the great large cents catalogues of the last 30 years, I can always cross-annotate them so I know that J.R. Frankenfield sold his S-125 for $1725 in 2001, which he originally bought from the Jack Robinson sale in 1989 for $2200.
Or I can look through my own collection of large cents and take a closer look at all my varieties of 1798, for example, to see whether I'd like to upgrade any of them. Sometimes I'll notice that I gave up trying to find the die state of a certain variety, and I'll take it up again with fresh eyes to see what I can come up with now. Or I can simply look at a sequence of cents and try to understand why I gave a certain variety a grade of F12, when today I'm leaning more toward F12+.
The possibilities are endless. Of course there are days when I don't see Edna at all. Then I'll spend two or three hours with her for five consecutive days. She's always there when I want her. And she never asks me to take out the garbage.