Banner & Ash, the auction house selected by Stein, was located on a quiet side street between Park and Madison Avenues. The three-story townhouse, once the home of a railroad magnate who’d lost his entire fortune in the ’29 crash, looked like an Italian palazzo. Frescoed walls and carved ceilings still graced the entrance hall, and the spacious rooms on the lower floors overlooked a terraced courtyard with a marble fountain in the center. Only the top floor had changed, the former servants’ quarters replaced by a warren of offices.
The oversized closet that served as an office for the head of Banner & Ash’s numismatic department was just to the left of the wide oak staircase. Books overflowed the crammed bookshelves onto the floor where they leaned against each other in unsteady stacks.
Carter Holland, Ph.D., looked like a caricature of an absent-minded professor. His tweed jacket was too baggy for his lanky frame and he emanated a slight air of bewilderment. But while looking at the coin, he became a changed man.
After giving Mrs. O’Malley and Stein a cordial if somewhat distracted greeting, he’d removed some papers and books from the two chairs by his desk and then appeared to forget them. As he studied the coin beneath the strong light of his desk lamp, his movements were sure and deft. Flashes of color erupted from the coin and his excitement visibly mounted as he examined it through ever stronger magnification. When he finally spoke, however, his words revealed nothing.
“Will you excuse me for a moment?” he asked.
Mrs. O’Malley looked at Stein, and at his nod, stammered, “Yes, of course.”
She was still trying to recover from the experience of going to Banner & Ash, and to distract herself she studied the note again, the one they’d discovered lying on the bottom of the box. The business card had yellowed with age and the bold copperplate handwriting was of another time, the black ink slightly faded in parts.
To my good friend Adam Sloan.
In grateful appreciation of all his help.
August 29, 1873
“That would be the Adam Sloan who founded the company,” commented Stein. “Young Adam was named for him, you know.”
“I wonder what the help was,” said Mrs. O’Malley.
“Transportation perhaps.” Stein was equally baffled. “That’s where the Sloan fortune began.”
Dr. Holland ambled back into the room, his expression thoughtful. “This is a very unusual coin you have, Mrs. O’Malley. So unusual, in fact, I’d like to get a second opinion. Can you come back tomorrow?”
Again Mrs. O’Malley looked at Stein for guidance, who responded, “That’s no problem for me.”
“Or me,” she shrugged. It seemed a waste, but if the coin was worth something, she’d rather have the money. Even a little bit would help.
When they returned the following afternoon, Holland was almost quivering with glee but Mrs. O’Malley remained unimpressed. Convinced the outcome would be disappointing, she had told no one of her visit to the auction house.
Holland shook her hand vigorously. “Mrs. O’Malley, I’m delighted to tell you that your coin is indeed genuine. Two colleagues, considered the best in the business I might add, have also seen it and their opinion concurs with mine.” From his pocket he produced the now-familiar leather box and took out the coin, carefully placing it on a velvet pad.
“As I said yesterday, your coin is very unusual. This Liberty Seated design was used on most silver coins minted from around 1837 through 1891, in the case of quarters and half dollars. Dollars, however, were only minted until 1873.”
“Is that why this coin’s so rare?” asked Stein. “Because it was the last year of this particular series?”
“Not really. Although the 1873 Mint Record shows that 300,000 dollars were issued, far fewer were produced in other years. It was a simple case of supply and demand. No, what makes this coin so special is that tiny letter on the reverse. It’s called a mintmark. Four mints produced Liberty Seated dollars during their thirty-four years of issuance. Philadelphia and San Francisco are still in operation but the other two, New Orleans and Carson City, are long since closed. This S, which denotes the coin comes from San Francisco, is what separates your coin from all the others.”
“That makes it unusual,” commented Mrs. O’Malley, barely able to make out the minute letter he indicated.
“Extremely. According to San Francisco’s mint records, 700 pieces were struck but none has ever turned up, either in circulation or in a collection. Mint records notwithstanding, the coin simply didn’t exist. Until today.”
“How can you be so sure it’s real?” she asked.
“Just the overall appearance is enough to tell me a coin’s origin. There are also certain identifiable characteristics, like the sharpness of strike. In addition, this figure of Liberty here and the eagle on the reverse are extremely well defined, undeniable evidence that not many coins were actually produced from the mint’s dies.” He paused to tilt the coin before adding reverently, “And just look at the mirror-like surfaces of the fields, the flat areas of the coin. They’re so smooth they really give the appearance of a mirror.”
As he indicated the various details Mrs. O’Malley nodded knowingly, although she found it hard to believe such points could be important.
“What about the color?” Stein asked. “How did that happen?”
“Age,” answered Holland. “It happens naturally as a result of the pollutants in the air, even though the coin itself was kept in a box. The velvet covers a piece of cardboard, which was rather high in sulphur during the nineteenth century. That accounts for the magnificent blue toning.”
“I still can’t see how anyone would be interested in buying it,” said Mrs. O’Malley.
“That’s because you don’t have the soul of a collector,” Holland smiled. “There’s a variety of ways to collect coins but one of the most popular is by date and mintmark. Lincoln cents, the pennies we use daily, are a great example. They’re part of a series that started in 1909 and the three mints have been making them almost every year since.”
“I guess some people find it fun to try and spot those tiny letters every time new ones are minted,” Stein commented.
“And enjoy the challenge,” said Holland. “Now you can see how an avid collector would react to the news of the 1873¬¬-S dollar. I know of several who held onto the belief that one would show up some day.”
“So you think someone might pay a good price?” asked Mrs. O’Malley.
“I think more than a few people would be interested,” stated Holland definitely.
“How much do you think it’s worth?” asked Stein.
“I can only go by what similar rarities have brought at public auction in the past, like the 1933 double eagle. That $20 gold piece sold a few years ago for almost eight million dollars. It was always thought to be unique, but after the sale several people revealed that they also owned one. Nor was it ever unique,” scoffed Holland. “Anytime I wanted to see one, I’d go to the Smithsonian where they actually have two on display. And then there’s the 1794 Flowing Hair silver dollar, touted as the most expensive coin. It sold through private treaty for $7.85 million, but unlike yours it isn’t unique. 150 pieces still remain, although this one is probably the earliest stuck,” Holland grudgingly allowed. “Your coin, however, is different. It has a pedigree. It’s as close to perfect as I’ve seen. And it truly is unique.”
For a moment, Mrs. O’Malley was silent as she felt the first stirring of hope. “So you’re trying to say . . . ” Her voice trailed away as the enormity of Holland’s words began to dawn on her.
Holland shrugged his shoulders. “These things are impossible to put an exact dollar figure on, but going on past experience I don’t think an estimate of around eight million dollars would be out of line.”
For the first time in her life, Mary Frances O’Malley fainted.