Eyes opened wide when many of the coins from the John Jay Pittman Collection brought astounding prices -- hundreds or even thousands of times what Pittman had paid for them originally. That, in fact, has been perhaps the single most memorable aspect of the Pittman Sale as it has unfolded under the auspices of longtime Florida dealer David W. Akers.
Pittman had few peers as he pursued the coins that brought such remarkable returns. He did have company, though. A New York City lawyer named Harold S. Bareford was chasing similar coins during the same period -- and his acquisitions scored equally remarkable gains when they finally hit the auction block decades later.
In 1947, Bareford bought an 1827 proof Bust dime for $20. In October 1981, the very same coin brought $29,000 when Bareford's collection of U.S. silver coins was sold at public auction by the Stack's family coin firm in New York. For those who don't have calculators handy, that 1981 selling price was 1,450 times greater than the purchase price a mere generation earlier.
Gains like this are highly unusual, to be sure. No one who invests in coins expects to turn a profit so astronomical. Still, Harold Bareford's coins did perform exceedingly well throughout the Stack's sale. The 626 lots realized a total of nearly $1.9 million -- more than 47 times the figure that Bareford had paid for the coins initially, mostly back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. His original investment: not much more than $40,000.
Bareford's story offers graphic evidence that coins are, indeed, a good investment. But it underscores a point that latter-day investors tend to overlook: that coins should be regarded as a long-term investment, not as a chance to get rich quick.
"You can't expect instant profits, as many people seem to be doing today," says Harvey Stack, one of the principals in the coin firm. "You shouldn't expect a return for a minimum of five to ten years. But those who do adopt a long-term approach, as Mr. Bareford did, have found coins to be a very secure investment."
Six decades ago, when Bareford started buying coins, prices were laughably low by current standards. Bareford, of course, didn't have the benefit of such hindsight -- but he did have the foresight to buy exceptional coins, and his vision paid off handsomely for him and for his heirs.
The October '81 auction was actually the second such sale. Not quite three years earlier, in December 1978, Bareford's U.S. gold coins had been sold by Stack's at a similar auction for $1.2 million -- more than 87 times the sum they had cost to begin with. Bareford's investment in that case: less than $14,000.
Harold Bareford bought his first coins in the period just before World War II. He made the bulk of his purchases, though, during the decade following the war -- a time when there were relatively few dealers and collectors, and bargains ... as judged by present market levels ... were everywhere. During the late 1940s and early '50s, he attended almost all the major auction sales in and around New York and patronized most of the major dealers.
In 1947, he summed up his philosophy in a note to one of those dealers. "I collect only the finest specimens," he wrote, "and am not interested in any coin which is not perfect." Those are standards widely held today, but few of his fellow-buyers were nearly as demanding at the time.
Bareford was equally meticulous concerning the records he kept, and this made it easy to track the performance of his coins. Here, too, he stood out from the crowd, for few of his contemporaries made a similar effort to log their transactions in detail. His records show, for instance, that in 1947 he paid just $310 for a 1933 $10 gold piece. At the Stack's sale in 1978, it went for an astonishing $92,500 -- nearly 300 times what he had paid. And the coin market hadn't yet peaked at the time of that sale.
Present-day buyers might very well question whether similar profits ever will be possible again. Prices, after all, are so much higher now that comparable gains in the future are hard to imagine. There's yet another lesson in the Bareford story, though -- a lesson on historical perspective. Harold Bareford all but discontinued any further purchases of U.S. coins in 1955 because, in his opinion, they had gotten too expensive. Needless to say, they were still enormous bargains when judged by the standards of today.
The single most expensive coin Bareford ever bought was the 1804 silver dollar. In 1950, he paid $10,000 for the Dexter specimen of that famous American rarity in a private transaction with dealer Abe Kosoff. The coin was the star of the Stack's sale in 1981, bringing a resounding $280,000. Significantly, the same coin brought nearly a million dollars -- $990,000, to be exact -- when it was offered for sale less than a decade later at Auction '89. It reigned for seven years as the highest-priced coin ever sold at auction.
Like virtually all of the coins Harold Bareford bought, the Dexter specimen of the 1804 dollar is a coin of exceptional quality. The Fantastic 1804 Dollar, the popular reference work by Eric P. Newman and Kenneth E. Bressett, describes it as a brilliant Proof and the "second or third finest preserved specimen."
The coin derives its name from the fact it once belonged to James V. Dexter, a man who made his fortune in the late 19th century as a Colorado banker. It is one of eight known "Class I" specimens of the famous silver dollar. According to hobby scholars, these were struck at the Philadelphia Mint in the mid-1830s for inclusion in special presentation sets.
Though his purchases proved to be exceptionally profitable, Bareford never considered himself an investor. He thought of himself first and foremost as a collector, and demonstrated that not only in the way he assembled his coins but also in the way he immersed himself in organized numismatics. He was a member of the American Numismatic Association and the British Numismatic Society, a fellow of the American Numismatic Society and the Royal Numismatic Society and a longtime officer of the Metropolitan New York Numismatic Convention. He also served as president of the New York Numismatic Club from 1959 to 1961.
About a dozen members of the Bareford family attended the Stack's auction in 1981. Among them was William J. Bareford, Harold Bareford's son, who shared his father's love for numismatics.
"Dad would have been pleased with the way the sale went -- with the size of the gallery and the level of the activity," Bareford said. "It was his desire that his coins should be sold at auction after his death; he wanted as many collectors as possible to enjoy the coins just as he had. If he were alive, this was the sort of sale he would have attended.
"But, of course," the younger Bareford added, "if he were still alive, he never would have sold his coins. He bought them to keep, not to sell."