A Double Eagle Treasure: Collection Lanson Champagne Captures Nearly $1 Million

This 1861 Type I $20 Liberty (PCGS MS61) realized $8,190 in the “Collection Champagne Lanson” auction of 497 gold double eagle gold coins at Bonham’s Auction Gallery in Los Angles on June 3, 2013. The coins were found in the ceiling of an old grape-pressing and drying facility of a champagnery in France.

Normally when coin collectors think of lost gold treasures, especially when it pertains to the glorious Double Eagle or $20 gold piece, the more prestigious of the pedigrees would include the famous shipwrecks and the bounty of the SS Central America, the SS Republic or the SS Brother Jonathan.

However, on June 3, 2013, at Bonham’s Auction Gallery in Los Angeles, a rather unique treasure trove of U.S. Double Eagles—encompassing all three $20 Liberty types and the two varieties of the Saint-Gaudens $20 coin—appeared on the auction block. In total, 497 gold coins went to excited participants on the auction floor and via the Internet. Each of the coins was certified by Professional Coin Grading Service, emblazoned with a newer vintage pedigree.

Yet this historic cache wasn’t retrieved from the sea but rather on the grounds of a well-known French Champagnery. Each of the gold coins in this California sale bearing the name “Collection Champagne Lanson.”

Although nothing is conclusive as to the why, we know of the how this fascinating vintage of Double Eagles came to light.

In the Eastern French village of Les Riceys, an old structure—an old grape-pressing and drying facility on the champagne producer Alexandre Bonnet’s property—was undergoing extensive rehab. It was at this pastoral setting Feb. 14, 2012, workers struck gold in a most unlikely fashion. During renovation, as one of the work crew of the winery vigorously tackled the ceiling of the old building with a crowbar, a golden waterfall of U.S. Double Eagles came pouring down from the rafters on and around him. Once the torrent of gold stopped, a treasure trove of 497 U.S. Double Eagles had settled on the floor around the startled construction worker.

Why the gold was in the attic and who placed it there was not established. What is known is that the building was once owned by a wine producer who traded with Britain and the U.S. in the 1930s and, perhaps, with the great world depressions and gold recalls eminent, the thought of hiding a store of gold would be a wise bit of preservation and protection against future economic calamity. At this point, we can only surmise perhaps something happened during the Second World War that prevented the individual from ever coming back to reclaim his treasure.

Paul Song, director of Rare Coins & Banknote at Bonham’s, was gracious enough to speak with me about how this sale came about. “I saw the story in the press in February of last year and I thought it was pretty cool,” Mr. Song said. “I didn’t really think about it too much right after that though.”

Then, a month or so later, Paul started formulating a plan of negotiation.

“I decided to put together a flyer to Lanson Bonnet, both in English and French, offering our services,” said Song. “I thought it was a neat deal so I sent what I thought was a phenomenal proposal and they accepted”

Quite amazingly, this was all unsolicited by Bonnet. Song said the interaction between the U.S. and the Bonham’s new Paris office most probably cinched the deal. “We went in person and I am sure that made the difference.” 

This 1887-S Type III $20 Liberty (PCGS MS62) realized $6,435 at auction, a record price for the grade!

The coins literally left the champagnery and went straight to the PCGS Paris office for grading in March of this year.

“There was nothing done to these coins. In fact, they all have a really nice look. I wouldn’t say dirty, but it is dusky, and they are completely original,” said Song, who added that that some dealers might buy the coins and crack the PCGS slabs open to “dip” them and resubmit for a potentially higher grade. “These coins were all put away for nearly 90 years and I certainly didn’t want to do anything to infringe upon their originality.”

I agree wholeheartedly; this was certainly a great coup for collectors’ wanting truly original gold coins with an interesting pedigree and for the most part at collector friendly prices. As one collector informed me: whereas the sunken treasure coins have what is called the” saltwater effect,” the Champagne Lanson Double Eagles have the alluring and original “attic effect.”

The total proceeds from the Collection Champagne Lanson session was approximately $945,000. According to Song, “every lot did sell, and in total the coins brought approximately 41 percent over gold content (meltdown value). This is what we refer to as a white glove sale when every coin sells”

This, of course, was great news for the client generating this type of action and it was an opportunity for excited numismatists to bid on these wonderful pedigreed Double Eagles.

“I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the coins did sell to collectors,” Song said.

Also taking in the festivities in Los Angeles, an enthusiastic Mr. Philippe Baijot, president directeur general of Champagne Lanson, made an appearance at Bonham’s auction house for the sale. As for that lucky worker who made the find, per French law, half the proceeds of the sale will go to him. Though the delighted gentleman wishes to remain anonymous, he is planning on either buying or building a home for his family with the proceeds (which will be approximately $450,000) from this great sale.

The top price received was for the Type I $20 Liberty dated 1861 graded PCGS MS 61, which captured $8,190, a solid price for a coin within that grade designation. Although a plentiful date, this coin presented the fortunate buyer a truly original mint state specimen. Endowed by abundant soft luster, the surfaces were further enhanced by an attractive green gold patina.

A popular type coin in high grade, this 1924 $20 St. Gaudens (PCGS MS66) realized $2,925.

This 1907 $20 Saint Gaudens No Motto (PCGS MS64) realized $2,925. These coins are always in demand as it is the first year of issue.

Next was the 1887-S $20 Liberty PCGS MS 62, a somewhat unheralded issue, which is extremely difficult to locate above this grade level. It captured $6,435, which for assigned grade, appears to be a record price realized.

Other top performers of the Champagne Lanson session included:

• 1851 $20 Liberty Type I PCGS AU 55: $4,095
• 1860-S $20 Liberty Type I PCGS AU 53: $4,095
• 1870-S $20 Liberty Type II PCGS AU 58: $3,744
• 1888-S $20 Liberty Type III PCGS MS 62: $3,744
• 1900 $20 Liberty Type III PCGS MS 64: $3,744
• 1907 $20 Saint-Gaudens PCGS MS 64: $2,925
• 1916-S $20 Saint-Gaudens PCGS MS 62: $2,574
• 1924 $20 Saint-Gaudens PCGS MS 66: $2,925

The great thing about the sale was that the coins available were within virtually everyone’s budget, affording the average collector, the moderate investor and, of course, yes even the dealers, a great buying opportunity prior to the Long Beach Expo, which is running June 6-8.

Until next time, happy collecting!

Jim Bisognani has written extensively on U.S. coin market trends and values and was the market analyst and writer for a major pricing guide for many years. He currently resides in New England and frequently attends major coin shows and auctions. You can read more of Jim’s articles on the Numismatic Guarantee Corporation website.

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