A Fabled Coin Set Goes for the Record Price of $8.5 Million - The New York Times

Source: The New York Times
Monday, October 31, 2005

The King of Siam set has traveled from the hands of royalty to the descendants of a British governess to the world of rare-coin collecting. 

As a child in the 1960's, Steven L. Contursi sorted through the nickels and dimes he received on his paper route in the Bronx, picking out those he needed for his collection and saving them in inexpensive blue cardboard holders.

On Tuesday in Beverly Hills, Calif., Mr. Contursi and his company will pay $8.5 million in a private sale for one of the most famous coin sets in the world, the United States proof set known as the King of Siam set.

Mr. Contursi calls it "the Holy Grail of numismatics," and the price he is paying is a world record for a coin set.

The set, which includes one of the finest of the extremely rare 1804 United States silver dollars, was a gift from President Andrew Jackson to King Ph'ra Nang Klao of Siam, known as Rama III, in 1836.

Edmund Roberts, the American envoy charged with establishing relations with Asian nations at the time, sailed with the set on a diplomatic mission to Siam. The original ship's log is included in the sale.

Rama's son, Rama IV, learned English from a British governess, Anna Leonowens; their relationship was the basis for the book "Anna and the King of Siam" and the musical "The King and I."

In 1962, the set of coins came to light after being sold by descendants of Ms. Leonowens.  It was sold at auction several times over the years, most recently in 2001 for about $4 million to an anonymous West Coast collector.

Mr. Contursi sold the last of his childhood coin collection to a kiosk coin shop to pay for graduate school textbooks.  The shop owner was so impressed with the young man's knowledge of coins that he hired him to work at the store.

In 1975, Mr. Contursi decided that coin collecting, or numismatics, was his true calling.  He abandoned a career in physics to buy the coin store and has been a professional dealer ever since.

Kenneth E. Bressett, the former president of the American Numismatic Association and the author of a book about the King of Siam set, said few other coins could boast of such an illustrious pedigree or history.

The 1804 dollar, which was made especially for this set, as no dollar coins were being manufactured at the time, is one of just eight original dollar coins known with that date.  A few others were struck later from the original dies, and many fakes have surfaced over the years.

Steve Ivy, a former president of the Professional Numismatists Guild and a co-chairman of Heritage Galleries and Auctioneers in Dallas, estimates that the size of the high-end auction market for rare American coins this year will reach $400 million, and that the total American coin market, including private sales, online auctions and mint sales to collectors, will reach $3 billion.