Important Superb Gem 1931 Double Eagle
1931 $20 MS67 PCGS. The 1931 is one of the foremost rarities
in the Saint-Gaudens double eagle series, and one of the most
important gold issues of the 20th century. The coin offered here is
considered the finest known specimen, without a serious challenger.
This Superb Gem example is the only coin certified in MS67 by PCGS,
and NGC has not graded any piece at this level (6/10). The coin was
actually graded MS67 as far back as 1980, before the advent of
third party grading services. The present coin has been off the
market since its appearance in the Phillip H. Morse Collection
(Heritage, 11/2005), lot 6710, where it realized a record price of
$264,500. The opportunity to acquire this extraordinary prize may
not recur for many years.
Second Rarest Late-Date Saint
Finest Known, Ex: Morse
Experts are somewhat divided in their estimates of the 1931's rarity. In A Handbook of 20th Century United States Gold Coins, David Akers estimates the surviving population in Mint State grades as 65-85 pieces. Q. David Bowers is a bit more liberal in his series reference on double eagles, with an estimate of 80-120 coins surviving in Mint State. Current population data reveals PCGS and NGC combined have recorded 113 submission events, but these figures undoubtedly contain some duplicate submissions and crossovers. The authors of The Coinage of Augustus Saint-Gaudens as Illustrated by the Phillip H. Morse Collection settled on an estimate of 100 total pieces, which seems most reasonable in light of the available data. About one-half of the survivors are in the MS64 grade level, with MS65 being the next most common grade.
Historically, another controversial topic has been the place the 1931 occupies in the series rarity rankings. In the catalog of the Thaine B. Price Collection (Akers, 5/1998), lot 120, David Akers mused:
"For many years, the 1931 was considered to be the second most common of the rare late date issues of the Saint-Gaudens series, i.e. those issues from 1929-1932. It was considered to be more rare than the 1929, but less rare than the other three, in particular, the 1932.-- That misconception has been corrected now, and today the 1931 is appropriately regarded as the second rarest of the late date issues with respect to population rarity after only the 1930-S."
Akers' assessment of the comparative rarity of the late-date double eagle issues is supported by recent population data from the grading services. To date, PCGS and NGC combined have certified only 64 examples of the 1930-S, followed by 113 specimens of the 1931, 136 pieces of the 1931-D issue, and 141 coins dated 1932 (6/10).
The first auction appearance of a 1931 double eagle probably occurred in the Needham, Herrick and Other Collections (Thomas Elder, 9/1937), lot 1393. Elder's description stated, "1931. $20. Of the U.S. St. Gaudens type. A very rare year. First ever offered at auction sale! Value $350. Brilliant Uncirculated. Of greatest rarity." We have been unable to discover the price realized, but Elder's estimate is an indication of how great the demand was for this date in 1937. While Elder's estimate certainly seems high, it is small compared to the $1,250 Col. James Flanagan paid for the 1933 double eagle he purchased from B. Max Mehl just two months later. Clearly, the late-date double eagles were exciting coins in the late 1930s.
In the next decade, the prestige of the 1931 continued to rise. The issue appeared in many of the great gold collections of the 1940s, as collecting large denomination gold coins became popular for the first time. A typical appearance was as lot 2079 of the Frederick Giess Collection (B. Max Mehl, 2/1947):
"1931 Uncirculated with full mint luster. Just the slightest evidence of a few light hardly noticeable nicks due from having been handled with other coins. These do not affect the appearance or value of the coin. Very rare, far more so than is generally known. Although a goodly number were struck, but I have some very authentic information that an infinitesimal number were put out to collectors or for circulation."'
Mehl's emphasis on the small number of coins "put out" by the Mint in 1931 is consistent with the research of Dr. Charles W. Green, who determined only 45 specimens of the 1931 double eagle were released through official channels. Mehl knew Green well and auctioned his collection in 1949, so he may have had access to his research. Of course, many more specimens are known today, so some examples must have been saved through unofficial channels. The popularity of the 1931 continues unabated today. Some of the better-grade specimens that have appeared at auction in recent years are listed below. In the FUN Signature Auction (Heritage, 1/2007), lot 3308, a Premium Gem specimen was offered with a sharp strike and pleasing luster. The lot realized $132,250. Another significant offering took place in our Houston Signature Auction (Heritage, 11/2007), lot 62018, where another MS66 coin realized $126,500. Of course, the appearance of the present Superb Gem coin in the Phillip H. Morse Collection still takes top honors.
The surfaces of this piece display excellent mint frost, which is characteristic of this issue. An attractive light to medium yellow-gold color, with subtle greenish undertones, enhances the considerable eye appeal. The design elements are sharply struck and include strong definition on the central devices, as well as on the Capitol building and most of the stars. The surfaces on both sides are immaculately preserved; a handful of trivial marks on the reverse are unworthy of individual mention. While copper stains are common on this issue, the present example reveals just one very light spot between the eagle's breast and the O in GOD. The frequently seen fine vertical die break is noted through the eagle's beak, and some light grease spots in the area between the eagle's left leg and wing serve to identify the coin.
We expect this specimen to generate spirited bidding from the most advanced collectors when the lot is called. This piece will certainly be an improvement to any collection of Saint-Gaudens double eagles, and the pride of ownership cannot be equaled by acquiring any other example. One can only speculate when this coin, the finest known, will come onto the market again. Population: 1 in 67, 0 finer (6/10).
Ex: Auction '80 (Rarcoa, 8/1980), lot 1998, realized $57,500; Auction '84 (Paramount, 7/1984), lot 1000, realized $38,500; Phillip H. Morse Collection (Heritage, 11/2005), lot 6710, realized $264,500; ANA Signature Auction (Heritage, 8/2010), lot 3650, realized $322,000.
From The Dr. Brandon Smith Collection.(Registry values: N1) (NGC ID# 26GN, PCGS# 9192)
View all of [The Dr. Brandon Smith Collection ]
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Revised Edition by James L. Halperin, Mark R. Borckardt, Mark Van Winkle, Jon Amato, and Gregory J. Rohan, with special contributor David W. Akers
The Coinage of Augustus Saint-Gaudens is an issue-by-issue examination of these two artistically inspired series of gold coins.
Each date and mintmark is reviewed with up-to-date information, much of which has never been previously published. The book is based on
two extraordinary collections: The Phillip H. Morse collection and the Dr. and Mrs. Steven L. Duckor collection.
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