Here are two updates on the 1854-S $5 as of early 2016:
1. In an unusual diversion from their focus on pre-1840 U.S. gold coins, the Pogue family purchased the Boyd example at the Eliasberg sale for $187,000. It now resides in a PCGS AU58+ holder and will be coming up for sale in the near future.
2. Researcher Saul Teichman alerted us to a blurb in the January 1968 issue of The Numismatist which listed several coins stolen during an armed robbery at the home of Willis H. DuPont. Included in the list is an "E.F." 1854-S $5. Since the whereabouts of the other two examples are known, it is presumed that this was the Wolfson coin. When Akers wrote about the 1854-S $5 in 1975, he claimed to have personally examined the Wolfson specimen when it was in the collection of a "famous private collector." Presumably, he meant Dupont and the examination took place before the 1967 robbery.
The Wolfson-DuPont coin remains missing today.
One of the great gold rarities, but not one of the better known. There are only three known examples, one of which has been in the Smithsonian since 1970. Consequently, the 1854-S $5 seldom is offered for sale, and perhaps this is the reason it doesn't get the publicity that other, more frequently traded, ultra-rarities receive. In fact, the last public auction appearance of an 1854-S half eagle was at the October, 1982 Eliasberg sale.
The finest known is the Eliasberg coin, which I thought graded AU58 when I first saw it at the Eliasberg sale in 1982. In around 1998, John Dannreuther and I had the opportunity to view an incredible collection which included this coin. At the time we both felt that PCGS would grade the coin AU58. Louis Eliasberg purchased his coin from the F.C.C. Boyd sale in January, 1946. The Colonel Green-Wolfson-Norweb coin is estimated to be EF45. The Newcomer-Colonel Green-King Farouk-Lilly coin donated to the Smithsonian is estimated to be EF40ish.
Here is David Bowers' catalog description from the 1982 Eliasberg sale:
"The 1854-S is one of the greatest of all American gold rarities. Only 268 pieces were minted, of which all have disappeared except for just three survivors, one of which is permanently impounded in the Smithsonian Institution.
Information concerning the three specimens is given herewith (as enumerated by David Akers and Walter Breen):
1. The Boyd coin. This piece first surfaced in the hands of F.C.C. Boyd, one of the most prominent collectors of the two decades culminating in 1945. Boyd, owner of the Union News Company (which maintained newstands and sales facilities in railroad stations), was one of the most prominent collectors of this era. He also dabbled in coin dealing, running advertisements in The Numismatist and elsewhere. In 1945 and 1946 his coins were offered at auction by Numismatic Gallery (Abe Kosoff and Abner Kreisberg). The offering was billed as 'The World's Greatest Collection.' Appearing as Lot 543 in the event held in January 1946, the coin sold for a record price to the former owner of the collection now offered [Eliasberg]. David Akers notes 'it was conservatively graded Extremely Fine when catalogued for The World's Greatest Collection, but most dealers would call it at least Choice AU.' David Akers goes on to say that the coin offered here is 'considerably the better of the other two.'
2. The Wolfson coin. This coin was aquired by B. Max Mehl, the famous Fort Worth, Texas dealer, reputedly from a private party. It is said that a lady visited Mehl in person, bringing with her a small chamois bag of gold coins which had been secreted in a bank vault for many years. Mehl identified the 1854-S as a rarity and aquired it for his stock. Sometime later it went to Col. E.H.R. Green, who together with Virgil Brand, is remembered today as one of the great numismatic 'accumulators' of the early twentieth century. In both instances the 'accumulators' often represented in depth quality. Walter Breen reports that from that point the coin changed hands several times, ending in the collection of Samuel W. Wolfson. When the Wolfson holdings were sold by Stack's, the piece was purchased by a private collector. The coin grades Extremely Fine.
3. The Newcomer coin. This piece came to light in New York City in 1919 and was subsequently sold to Waldo C. Newcomer, the prominent Baltimore numismatist who was a competitor and friend of John Work Garrett. The Newcomer holdings were consigned to B. Max Mehl , who parcelled them out during the early 1930s. It was reported that Newcomer had his assets in two main areas, securities and coins, but after the onset of the Depression, the securities represented a great loss, whereas the coins, previously insignificant in their worth, were salable and represented one of his major assets. Mehl sold the coin to Col. E.H.R. Green, who then possessed two examples. In the early 1940s the coin went to King Farouk of Egypt. Later, it was aquired by the Hon. and Mrs. Henry Norweb. From there it went to the Josiah K. Lilly Collection, Indianapolis, and then shortly before 1970, together with other gold coins from the Lilly estate, it was given to the Smithsonian Institution, where it reposes today. Walter Breen notes that the coin is 'Extremely Fine,' while David Akers observes that the piece has 'several prominent rim nicks and scrapes.'
The reason for the low mintage of just 268 pieces has never been satisfactorily explained. It has been suggested that acid needed to part or refine gold was in short supply in San Francisco in 1854, as indeed it was, and this may have been the cause, but on the other hand, large numbers were struck of the gold dollar, eagle, and double eagle of the same metal.
In 1854, when the issue was struck, virtually the entire production of San Francisco coins was exported as soon as it reached the channels of commerce. The situation prevailed for a number of years thereafter. As there was absolutely no interest in collecting branch mint coins at the time, no numismatic attention was paid to the 1854-S half eagle for many decades. It was not until well into the twentieth century that enumerations were made of the rarity of the various mintmarked gold coins, by which time nearly all 1854-S half eagles had long since disappeared.
Certain low mintages exist among other Coronet Head gold coins, but more often than not, the lowest mintages are confined to Philadelphia issues of which a number of Proofs reached collectors' hands. Examples include the 1875 gold dollar, 1863 and 1865 quarter eagles, 1875 and 1876 $3 pieces, half eagles of 1875 and 1887, and others. While mintages of these Philadelphia coins were low, many of the pieces were acquired directly by collectors who saved them. Not so with the 1854-S. No one was interested at the time and, so far as is known, not a single specimen was preserved at the time of issue."
Sometime early in 2018, a 4th example was reported as being discovered by the news media. The owner of the coin chose to remain anonymous but he is said to be from New England. According to the news reports, the owner of the coin had shown it to several dealers and collectors who all deemed it fake. The coin was graded XF45 and was consigned to Heritage Auctions where it realized $2,160,000. on August 2018.