Many of us kept coin collections as kids, tucking nickels and dimes into the designated slots in cardboard holders, hoping for something worth a little more than face value. On May 24, when the D. Brent Pogue Collection Part IV goes off at New York's Sotheby's, it will outpace any young collector's wildest dream: an 1822 Half Eagle, estimated to sell for up to $7 million, and an 1804 dollar pegged at $7 million to $10 million. If they come close, their return on investment will be staggering. (The former coin was last purchased in 1982 for a mere $687,500.)
It may seem that absolutely no relationship exists between a youngster's hoarding of coins and the sale of these magnificent specimens of numismatics. But John Pack, executive director of consignments for Stack's Bowers Galleries, which is curating the sale, says the same sort of passion ignites both. Coins are durable pieces of history that have a visceral connection to "where they have been and who may have handled something like this."
While monetary value is implicit in coins, the lure for collectors is often very different±and personal. Pack points out that some seek coins that have a connection to coins of their youth, maybe thinking: "Gee, I remember I used to handle those coins on my paper route. Now, I can afford to collect them." Some have collections that center on anything and everything arising from one specific date. Others specialize in very individual specimens like coins that are toned, or colored, in specific ways.
Condition is not the be-all-and-end-all. Many collectors only want coins that have been circulated as "those are the ones that made the country run," says Pack. However, while the 1804 dollar slated for the upcoming sale never was circulated, it has an interesting backstory. Despite its date, it was struck circa 1834 for President Andrew Jackson as a diplomatic gift to the Sultan of Muscat. As dollar coins weren't made at that time, the Philadelphia Mint traced back to the last time they were produced and struck new copies.
While rarity contributes to value, it is balanced against how famous an item is. There are pieces that are much rarer than the aforementioned two, but don't approach them in notoriety and so are not as valuable. Provenance too is important, so collectors track very carefully who may have once owned a coin. And they crave the ones that have a story attached, says Pack. Part of his job is to track that down.
An "Antiques Roadshow" phenomenon also exists, and Pack welcomes inquiries from people who have coins that were dug up or found hidden in furniture. Most don't pan out, but it is not inconceivable that something "quite magnificent" may be discovered.
D. Brent Pogue pursued every U.S. coin ever struck, but Pack advises collectors to examine their own interests and focus on a period, a denomination or even a motif. Books on collecting are your first source of information—then go to dealers and auctioneers. The Smithsonian Institute also has a wealth of coins on display. However you get there, you're in good company. As Pack observes, it is the "hobby of kings," or at least people who can afford to own money with no intention of ever spending it.