Bowers Book Relates Tales of Hoards|
June 03, 2011
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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There are very few things more fun in numismatics than hoards. There is just something exciting about large numbers of coins previously unknown or thought to be lost suddenly turning up and being offered for sale. For the buyer it is a great opportunity and for the rest of us it is just great fun.
In his book, American Coin Treasures and Hoards Q. David Bowers does a great service for us all by basically putting in one book all the hoard stories ever told over the years. It seems that Bowers was a numismatic Google for hoard stories before there was a Google. Now the information on hoard after hoard is suddenly available.
The only problem with our information on hoards is that as Bowers suggests accurate information on hoards is sometimes more elusive than the coins themselves. It is frankly frustrating as Bowers and others have done their level best to supply us with the best information they have on hoards of the past but oftentimes that information is incomplete or not as certain as we would like. With some of the hoards dating back over 100 years, the trail to accurate information can be pretty cold.
In fact in at least some cases the grading services can help as their totals over the years may well tell us if there was a hoard and if so give us some indication of its size. Certainly the information is not perfect, but if a grading service shows unusual numbers of a coin suspected of being in a hoard then the basic story is probably accurate.
In the case of modern hoards our information tends to be pretty good and easily tracked. One of the best examples from the 1990s was the Wells Fargo Hoard of 1908 No Motto Saint-Gaudens double eagles. The hoard placed at 19,900 coins was extraordinary in terms of the quality of the coins, which appear to have been untouched since perhaps 1917 when they were set aside as a part of some international payment. Unlike most hoards found in bank vaults, apparently these coins simply sat. Normally speaking the bags would be moved around causing the coins to pick up small nicks and marks but this appears to have not been the case.
A hoard of that size especially of one date and allegedly in extraordinary condition would be certain to be noticed in the market even though the No Motto 1908 had a mintage of 4,271,551. In fact, in this case the grading services have made it very easy for us as they actually report numbers of 1908 No Motto Saint-Gaudens double eagles enabling us to see very clearly what the hoard has meant to our supplies today. In fact where the hoard makes the largest difference is in grades above MS-65. In MS-65 coins from the hoard represent a significant number but less than 50 percent of the total graded in MS-65.
In MS-66 at the Professional Coin Grading Service Wells Fargo Hoard 1908 No Motto Saint-Gaudens double eagles total 4,848 while coins not from the hoard total 1,167.
With Numismatic Guaranty Corp. in MS-66 showing Wells Fargo coins at 1,629 while coins not from the hoard are at 3,259. The impact is more clear in MS-67 where PCGS shows the Wells Fargo coins at 793 as opposed to 38 coins not from the hoard while NGC shows the Well Fargo total at 941 and the total for coins not from the hoard at 94.
In MS-68 which is the highest grade where a No Motto 1908 Saint-Gaudens double eagle can be found we find that PCGS reports 100 Wells Fargo coins and just a single example not from the hoard while NGC has 147 Wells Fargo coins and 10 not from the hoard.
The grading services may not continue to reports the Well Fargo coins separately but the fact that they have has given us a very solid idea as to the impact of the hoard in the marketplace, which was primarily in upper grades. For someone considering hoards decades from now, this information will make the story of the Wells Fargo hoard an easy one to research and evaluate.
Things get a lot less clear when you go back in time. The 1796 Draped Bust quarter is an enormously important coin as the first quarter of the United States. With a mintage of just 6,146 the 1796 quarter is not only important but rare and its price would be even higher than normal because it is the only year of the type as the next time a quarter was made was 1804 – by which time it featured a large as opposed to small eagle on the reverse.
When you combine historical importance, a mintage of 6,146 produced over 200 years ago and the fact that the 1796 is a one-year type you have a perfect recipe for high prices. In fact, the 1796 is expensive with current listing of $11,000 in G-4 and $82,500 in MS-60 with an MS-65 at $235,000.
It is in Mint State where the hoard story comes in as it has been widely reported primarily from Walter Breen that the eccentric Col. E.H.R. Green had an estimated 200 examples in uncirculated condition with over 100 being prooflike.
Trying to determine if that was or even could be true we have to consider a number of factors. Certainly Col. E.H.R. Green had the money and he also had the motivation. Not all of us would even want 200 examples of the same date but Green was not like most of us as he reportedly managed to acquire all 100 inverted “Jenny” stamps, which were a major error in stamps, so acquiring more than one of a good thing was hardly unusual for him.
We can debate indefinitely whether anyone back in 1796 would have saved as many as 200 Mint State 1796 quarters. After all that was a little before Col. Green’s time and frankly we have no other coins from the period where such saving is even suspected. It might be expected that a few extra 1793 cents or 1794 dollars would be saved as they were the first coins of the United States many people saw, but by 1796 when the first quarter appeared the novelty was gone. Moreover, no one in 1796 would have felt the 1796 was a low mintage quarter and a one year type which might be worth a small fortune to some collector in the 21st century. So it is possible to have some doubts about the idea of 200 uncirculated coins.
The grading services also add to those doubts. In fairness the 1796 has hundreds of known circulated examples and it also has a surprising number of uncirculated examples. Right now the combined total from PCGS and NGC of the 1796 in Mint State is around 60 pieces and that is an extremely large number for a coin from 1796 with its mintage. The total does suggest an unusual amount of saving, but it also does not suggest 200 pieces as has been suggested. We can discuss at length how much stock should be put in grading service totals and frankly it varies from coin to coin. In the case of the 1796 unless someone like Col. Green has a number salted away that have not been graded (which is possible) we have to assume that the grading services would have seen most of the nice examples. It is simply logical based on the importance and value of a 1796 quarter. Even if there were 20 more, which is a lot hidden somewhere, we would still be more than 100 examples away from the 200 estimated. That seems extremely unlikely.
There is actually a compromise of sorts possible between the grading service numbers and the old stories. In fact the 1796 is famous for being nice. In fact Bowers in his A Guide Book Of United States Type Coins may well hit the nail on the head when he observes, “Hundreds of high grade examples exist, nearly all of which are prooflike. Most are quite attractive.”
Suddenly we have a potential answer as Col. Green was not particularly highly regarded as a grader and since most of the stories about the hoard were from people who never actually saw the hoard the possibility especially in light of the Mint State numbers known today and the characteristics of the 1796 as suggested by Bowers who certainly knows the characteristics of the 1796 suggest that possibly the hoard existed and perhaps even in the numbers suggested, but that the coins in many cases were nice but simply not Mint State.
If you add the grading service AU totals to the Mint State totals and throw in a few XF-40 coins for good measure you suddenly are much closer to the alleged 200 coins. That does not fully account for the 200, but it makes it far more likely to suggest that, yes, Col. Green probably had a large hoard of 1796 quarters that were sold years later but that there were probably not 200 Mint State coins. Instead the Green hoard probably included some Mint State pieces but also a variety of upper grade circulated examples.
The famous Harmony Society Hoard of half dollars from the period up to 1836 is a more difficult hoard to track. In fact, there is plenty of evidence the hoard existed and unfortunately there is no real breakdown of most dates to be able to point to a specific impact. One date where we believe we have some actual numbers is the 1794 half dollar. Certainly the 1794 half dollar is desirable and tough with a mintage under 25,000. That said the 1794 is more available than might be expected.
The report from the hoard of the Harmony Society is that there were perhaps 150 examples of the 1794 half dollar. That number is possible based on the fact that PCGS has graded 274 examples of the 1794 while NGC has seen roughly 100. The 374 combined total from the grading services would seem awfully high for a coin with a mintage under 25,000 were there not a special source of examples and that source is almost certainly the hoard of the Harmony Society, which had been founded in Germany and moved to Pennsylvania.
One of the most famous and interesting hoards is the Randall Hoard, which involved large cents from 1816-1820. The story has always been a fascinating one with the allegation being that a keg of large cents was discovered under a railroad platform in Georgia prior to the fall of 1869. There are all sorts of questions regarding the Randall Hoard. For starters no one can really agree on the size of the keg. In fact, we have various accounts that a keg of large cents depending on whether it was a small or large keg could have ranged between 5,000 and 18,000 coins. Generally speaking the best guess is that if it was actually a keg it was of the smaller variety.
The railroad platform is also suspect as Q. David Bowers in his American Coin Treasures and Hoards has a letter from Randall himself defending the fact that the coins were not restrikes, which was alleged at the time. In fact, the coins were not restrikes and there would have been no reason to make large numbers of restrikes of what were generally available dates. As interesting in his letter is the fact that Randall suggests that the coins were in fact buried. There is no mention of a railroad platform.
Actually tracing the dates is also not a perfect science. The condition of the coins is part of the reason as descriptions of their condition have varied, and whether they were in a keg or buried, the fact is the preservation was not ideal. In fact, Randall in his letter suggested that some were corroded. It leaves us with no certain way of saying only Mint State coins were Randall Hoard coins.
The dates themselves have been debated over the years. Back in 1859 a decade prior to the hoard Dr. Montroville W. Dickeson in his American Numismatic Manual reviewed large cent availability and basically he had all dates from 1816-19 as being available. The 1820 was another matter as he wrote, “The slight milling of the edges of these coins render good specimens difficult to be obtained.”
Historically there has been general agreement that the Randall Hoard dates run from 1816-1820. There have been suggestions of other dates such as the 1825, but if a date like the 1825 was included the numbers were extremely small. In fact, the 1825 with a mintage of over 1.4 million is an excellent date for comparison. At PCGS and NGC the 1825 has been seen in Mint State 27 times by PCGS and 14 times by NGC. That makes a combined total of 41 while the 1822 a date not mentioned in terms of the hoard has a combined total of 27 despite a mintage of roughly 2 million pieces. The Randall Hoard dates had higher mintages between 2.6 and 4.4 million, but without the hoard the assumption would be that the Mint State totals should be similar to the 1822 and 1825. They might be a little higher but certainly not dramatically higher.
If we check the Randall Hoard dates we find the 1816 has been seen in Mint State 108 times by PCGS and 84 by NGC. In the case of the 1817 the Mint State totals are 121 at PCGS and 74 at NGC. The 1818 is one of the two dates historically seen as most numerous in the Randall Hoard and there the Mint State totals are 296 at PCGS and 288 at NGC. The 1819 is lower but still well above the comparison dates with 81 appearances at both PCGS and NGS. The 1820 which Dr. Dickeson had as difficult a decade before the hoard in 1859 has become a lot less difficult since 1859 with Mint State totals of 267 at PCGS and 391 at NGC.
The totals are compelling especially remembering that the 1820 was tough in 1859 and remembering the low totals of the 1822 and 1825. The numbers simply do not lie as the Randall hoard no matter where it was buried or how has had an enormous impact on the availability of the dates involved. In fact when you remember that some of the Randall Hoard coins might well not measure up to today’s standards for Mint State you realize that assuming a small keg of 5,000 coins a fairly significant percentage of that total can be traced today in the current market.
Some other smaller hoards have also left a very real footprint that can be traced to today's available supplies. It was back in 1918 when Thomas Elder auctioned the Robert Hewitt and B.C. Bartlett collections. In that auction there were a number of lots of uncirculated 1862 Indian Head cents. Bowers concluded, “It is probable that the Elder hoard consisted of about 1,000 specimens of this date.” The importance of that group can be seen today as PCGS had graded roughly 675 1862 Indian Cents as Mint State while the NGC total is roughly 850. The totals are enough to make the 1862 one of the more available copper-nickel Indian Head cents in Mint State but without the hoard that might not be the case. The hoard is also interesting as a footnote as during the Civil War it was reported that people were hoarding cents. Some could not believe it but in fact it appears to be the case based on this hoard as certainly this was not a collection as no one collects 1,000 coins of the same type and date.
Sometimes hoards can provide surprising numbers of what would otherwise be tough dates. We can see that in the 1879, 1880 and 1881 gold dollars. The three dates are from a period when it was apparently fashionable for some collectors and dealers of the day to hoard coins and especially gold coins they thought might be low mintage and potentially valuable. The story has existed for a long time that the 1879 (mintage 3,030), 1880 (mintage 1,636) and 1881 (mintage 7,707) gold dollars each were hoarded with the numbers being perhaps a few hundred pieces of each. The hoards were allegedly broken up years ago but their impact has seen the three dates being perilously close to common date prices.
Based on the evidence it would appear that the hoards did exist and that the dates are relatively available with the grading services combining to report over 300 Mint State 1879 gold dollars with the 1880 total being over 475 and the 1881 topping 550. Such totals in Mint State when you consider the mintages are clear indication of hoards and those hoards make these dates almost everyone can afford today even in top grades.
One of the more interesting small hoards Bowers reports is from an unexpected place. While not knowing the source of the coins Bowers reports that hundreds of 1877-CC Seated Liberty quarters appeared on the market in the 1950s and 1960s. He observed, “All were frosty, lustrous examples of great aesthetic appeal.” Bowers is about as good a source as there is so certainly there were hundreds of the coins. The grading services support his observation with PCGS alone reports about 275 examples of the 1877-CC in Mint state, far more than the similar mintage 1876-CC. While we can confirm the hoard and that the coins are still around today the fascinating question remains why so many were saved.
After all, historically Carson City had seen very little saving of new coins with the bulk of the Mint State Carson City coins being Morgans found in government vaults yet just prior to the Morgan dollar someone apparently took it upon himself to start a significant hoard of 1877-CC quarters. It is just typical of a hoard. The reason such a group was originally assembled is virtually impossible to explain today.
Ironically there was another Carson City hoard, although a much smaller one from the year before. It has had an enormous impact.
According to Bowers, Baltimore dealer Tom Warfield found a hoard of 7-9 Mint State 1876-CC 20-cent pieces in Baltimore. Bowers suggests, “It is my opinion that these may have come from someone who once served on the Assay Commission, which in 1877 reviewed the prior year's coinage.”
Bowers reports that he bought four examples. The importance of the hoard is simple in that it represents perhaps 50 percent of the known examples of the 1876-CC 20-cent piece known today. Moreover, who ever saved the coins apparently had an appreciation for Carson City issues as did the person who hoarded the 1877-CC the following year at a time when very few American collectors cared about collecting coins from the various mints.
Certainly when it comes to hoards there are far more questions than there are answers. That is one thing that makes many of the historic hoards of the past so interesting to study as in many cases they have a very important influence on the coin market today, making some of the already very interesting coins even more fascinating as their existence as part of hoards conjures mental images of secret wealth.
More Coin Collecting Resources:
• A Guide Book of United States Type Coins
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• Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition
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