It’s a curious situation when a set of coins is broken up.
On March 6, Morton & Eden Ltd., in association with Sotheby’s, offered in individual lots a set of 11 Proof 1859 U.S. coins donated in their year of issue by a Baltimore professor to the Royal Mint Museum.
While 10 of the Proof coins were purchased by a Tokyo firm, an American bidder purchased the 1859 Coronet gold $10 eagle for the U.S. equivalent of $308,636. Some rumbled that history was lost when the set was disassembled. However, the Royal Mint Museum kept 12 coins from the original 24-coin collection, so what appeared at auction was not necessarily even a “set” by traditional definitions.
Does numismatics lose, now that the Royal Mint Museum’s set is spread out in the marketplace?
Likely not. But not all sets are created equal.
Some sets deserve to remain intact. On Jan. 10, Heritage sold a complete 16-piece aluminum pattern Proof set featuring the Indian Head cent through the Coronet $20 double eagle with its original velvet-lined Morocco presentation case that housed the coins when they were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. The coins were offered as a single lot and the set was a cohesive whole.
Sometimes sets aren’t exactly whole, but that doesn’t take away from their historical importance.
Few sets are as legendary in American numismatics as the King of Siam Proof set. That set was originally a diplomatic gift on behalf of U.S. President Andrew Jackson to the King of Siam (now Thailand) in 1836. When the set resurfaced in 1962, two of the holder’s 11 openings were empty. Those two spots were eventually filled with a gold Andrew Jackson inaugural medalet and an 1834 Capped Bust half dime, with speculation that those examples had been part of the original set.
Few would think today of breaking that set up, yet it is common for objects meant to be displayed together — and imagined as a whole when created — to be disassembled and sold separately.
Sometimes, even the concept of what constitutes a set is debatable.
For example, last October in London, Sotheby’s sold a painting by German artist Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (809-4) from the collection of musician Eric Clapton, setting a record for a painting by a living artist when it realized the equivalent of $34.2 million. The 10-page catalog entry failed to mention that when the 1994 painting sold a decade ago, it was part of a group — one of three identically scaled paintings and that there’s also a fourth from the group.
Art market analyst Judd Tully wrote, “Basically, the situation sounds as if a Richter triptych was broken up to serve the market, erasing its triplet or quadruplet paternity along the way.”
Does the single work lose the context it had when it was part of a triptych? Does a coin that was once in a set lose its context when removed from that set?
Many historical illustrated manuscripts have been dismantled over time when a prior owner believed that the individual parts were valued more than the sum. This is particularly the case with Persian manuscripts such as The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, perhaps the most renowned work of Iranian literature ever created. It remained intact until 1970 when it was dismantled, and sold via dealers and through public auctions. As a recent Yale publication states: “The credit lines of the captions in this book testify to the extent to which the manuscript has been dispersed. Its folios will never be reunited, but at least they can meet again as pages in a modern book.”
Context matters for coins and nearly all collectible objects, and scholarship can preserve context for future generations.