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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Discovering Treasures

In my role as editor of Coin World, I continue to be amazed at the treasures that still lurk in attics and storerooms, still waiting to be discovered.  As appraisers, each project provides us the chance to uncover something amazing.

It seems that nearly every month, a rare coin comes out of the woodwork and is introduced to the coin collecting community.  Sometimes it is an example of a rare variety – more in the realm of the expert numismatist than the average person.  Take the case of an 1817/4 Capped Bust half dollar that was unearthed by a New York contractor in 2005 while he was raking fill dirt. When raking the soil he heard a “clink” and after consulting with experts, he learned that it was a rare overdate variety. His rare half dollar sold at a 2006 auction for $253,000 (and later resold at auction in 2009 for $109,250).

Last week in Philadelphia in conjunction with the American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money – the world’s biggest coin show – rare coin auctioneer Stack’s Bowers offered original plasters and bronze casts for Hermon MacNeil’s 1916 Standing Liberty quarter dollar.

Artist models like this are reminders that seeing a glimpse of the process of creating a coin’s design can help one better understand the finished product. Yet, amazingly, these plasters were almost disposed of at one time. After MacNeil died, the contents of his studio were reportedly hauled to the dump and some items were saved by a neighbor. The casts were purchased at a garage sale as a curiosity in 2001, with the purchaser thinking that they might somehow be related to a coin.

While to today’s coin collectors it sounds impossible that historically important — and economically valuable — items would be discarded so carelessly, many artist studios of the past century have suffered undignified fates.

In MacNeil’s time, sculptors rarely preserved their process work — work that supported the creation of a finished product for a commissioned piece. The competition to design new coins in 1916 where the U.S. Mint invited outside artists was no exception. Researcher Roger Burdette wrote in 2006, “Time has not been kind to either the visual or written record of the 1916 design competition.”

Some of these numismatic treasures surely remain waiting to be discovered — in bookstores, garage sales, and estate sales.

The rewards for finding these are great, as they are expensive today. In 2009 three plaster models by Chester Beach for the 1921 Peace dollar competition (he lost to Anthony De Francisci and the Peace dollar was produced from 1921 to 1935) sold at auction for nearly $20,000.

The coin collector premium for the numismatic work of sculptors is substantial. For comparison, more typical plasters by Beach of profile portraits from the 1920s and 1930s sold at auction in 2009 at the $100 to $200 level. The Beach studio was left relatively untouched after his death and its treasures were revealed only after the Beach family home was put on the market several years ago.

That is one of the wonderful things about working with fine art, rare coins, antiques and collectibles: there are always new things that are waiting to be discovered.  It certainly keeps things fun for us appraisers!

Steve Roach, ISA AM
Treasurer, International Society of Appraisers

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