The Orange County Register
BY JENNIFER MUIR
Thursday, November 17, 2005
SANTA ANA, Calif. - Steven L. Contursi dropped the $8.5 million check onto the counter last week before handing it over - just to make sure it wouldn't bounce.
It didn't. And just like that, Contursi became the owner of 10 gold, silver and copper coins - a gift to the King of Siam from President Andrew Jackson in 1836 and, he says, the most expensive coin set sold in U.S. history.
The face value of the coins: $20.
"I feel like it's a coup we own this thing," Contursi said, chuckling during a telephone interview from his Laguna Beach, Calif., home. "The last few times it became available, I didn't have the wherewithal to buy it. The historical significance of the coins - it's very exciting."
The 19th-century coins were purchased from an anonymous California collector, who bought the set in 2001 for more than $4 million, said Contursi, president of Rare Coin Wholesalers. A Beverly Hills, Calif., collectors firm brokered the deal.
The highlight of the collection is a U.S. silver dollar marked with the year 1804 - one of eight known "Class I" U.S. silver dollars. They were dated 1804 but actually made in 1834. Contursi values that one coin at $7 million.
"The history is so rich and the reason why the coin was made is so valuable that it definitely is the Holy Grail of coin collection," said Contursi, 53.
Rare-coin historian Kenneth E. Bressett knows its importance.
"Because of its pedigree, we can trace it back to the very day it was made. It's very unusual to trace back a coin. Most are sold and spent," said Bressett, 77.
The set also includes a copper half-cent, a $10 gold Eagle and an 1833 gold medal depicting Andrew Jackson.
The coins were made as a diplomatic gift for King Ph'ra Nang Klao (Rama III) and were presented in 1836 during a trade mission to Siam, now Thailand. The king's son, Rama IV, who was depicted in the Broadway musical "The King and I," was among those who inherited the coins.
They likely make up the first set of proof coins made in the United States, Contursi said.
The purchase Nov. 8 represents the largest single coin transaction in U.S. history, he said. The previous record was a 1933 $20 gold piece that sold for $7.6 million in 2002.
Contursi's collections haven't always been so pricey. He began collecting coins when he was about 10, filling up cardboard collectors' folders with coins he earned on his paper route in the Bronx. In high school, he discovered that he could buy coins from one New York coin broker and sell them at a profit to another across town.
He sold his childhood coin collection after graduating from college. He got about $8,000, which became half of a down payment on his first house. He then opened a coin kiosk in Columbia Heights, Minn., on Jan. 1, 1974.
"I never looked back," Contursi said.
His collection includes the first U.S. silver dollar, struck by the U.S. Mint in 1794, and the first gold coin made in the U.S. - the 1787 Brasher Doubloon.
So what compels Contursi to collect?
"The hunt. The chase. Always looking," Contursi said. "It's kind of like an Indiana Jones thing - always looking for something new you haven't seen yet and that you haven't been able to acquire."
You can check out Contursi's latest acquisition at its first public viewing at the Long Beach, Calif., Coin, Stamp & Collectibles Expo in February.
And after that?
"It will definitely be a money-making venture," he said.
Other valuable coins
1933 St. Gaudens: $20 gold piece sold for $7.6 million in 2002
1804 silver dollar: Sold for $4.14 million in 1999
1787 Brasher Doubloon: Gold coin sold for $2.99 million in 2005
1913 nickel: Sold for $4.15 million in 2005
Sources: Steven L. Contursi and numismatic Web sites