Bidding opened at $1,550, hit $1,800 in two quick jumps -- and stopped. San Francisco coin dealer Donald Kagin had captured the 1658 Lord Baltimore sixpence.
"We love history, and Maryland and Baltimore have particular interest for me. Besides, my wife, Sara, is from here," said the 42-year-old dealer, who holds a doctorate in numismatics from the Union Institute of Cincinnati.
While her husband attended the auction at the Omni-Inner Harbor Hotel, bidding thousands of dollars to add new items to his stock, and possibly his private collection, the former Sara Goldiner visited relatives.
The silver coin, with a profile of Cecil Calvert, the Lord Baltimore, was the only certifiably Maryland item in the sale of 1,070 coins, mostly American and a few Canadian, some of which had been expected to fetch $500,000 or more.
Mr. Kagin said he will have the Lord Baltimore sixpence on sale this week at his table at the American Numismatic Association convention, "The World's Fair of Money," which opens at noon tomorrow at the Convention Center and continues to 3 p.m. Sunday.
Unfortunately, however, the anticipated "stars" of the auction, the so-called "Royal Flush" of five coins made extremely desirable by their scarcity or condition achieved only so-so results: only two of them were sold.
An 1898 Morgan silver dollar, considered the finest of all silver dollars, failed to meet its $150,000 reserve -- the minimum acceptable bid -- while an 1804 silver dollar, one of eight known specimens, did not reach the reserve price of $700,000 and a 1911 Canadian silver dollar, a pattern coin for the denomination, failed to sell at $550,000.
The two coins that did sell were a newly discovered 1795 silver dollar, in magnificent mint condition, which sold for $95,000, and an 1874 $10 gold pattern coin for a proposed issue for use in international trade which fetched $140,000.
Houston dealer Kenny Duncan, 36, said, "I think it's cheap at the price." Mr. Duncan said, too, "It's already been sold to a collector."
Auctioneer Larry Goldberg, a co-owner of Superior, attributed the failure of the featured pieces to sell to their owners "putting too high a reserve price on them."
Don Groves, a New York collector of Early American coinage, said he didn't bid on the sixpence "because I have a better one." He lost out on what was cataloged as the finest example extant of the 1792 half disme, the country's first silver coin -- by direct order of President George Washington -- and reportedly minted from Martha Washington's "every day" silver service.
Bidding on the half disme opened at $65,000, rose quickly to $87,500 and quit. Mr. Groves, who declined to say much about himself, said, "I would have gone higher than $65,000 but not that high. I have one in uncirculated condition and this would have represented a nice improvement, but I don't have to chase it."
A few minutes later, he said, "On reflection, it's not a bad price."
The sale, which the auctioneers, Superior Galleries, of Beverly Hills, expected to produce a total of between $5 million and $6 million, had a near-ritual quality. Auctioneer Ira Goldberg, Superior's president, moved through the lots briskly, but in tones that were clear to everyone; after all, he was selling tiny items at very large prices.
Most of the 100 or so people were dealers looking for new stock for the convention, or bidding for clients. A few collectors sat here and there. The atmosphere was a mixture of clubbiness, because most of them know each other, and cutthroat competition as they played the game close to their vests to try to get the best value for the least price.
The coins weren't even in the room. The auction was conducted NTC from the heavily illustrated catalog.
Many of the coins have been circulated through sales before, so a collection of 56 half dollars, many of them rare and all of them in the best condition, that had never been up before attracted great attention and many of them set world-record prices, Mr. Goldberg said. "All the bidders were vying for them and we were all pleased to see the new blood," the auctioneer said. "I didn't know the man before, and then he showed up in the back of the room and stood with his mouth agape. He had no idea how valuable his coins were."
Before the sale the dealers sat at long tables in the hotel's Schaefer and McKeldin Rooms, peering through their loupes at the coins sealed in plastic holders, which guarantee their authenticity and condition.
A minute new scratch on a coin can lower its value by thousands of dollars, dealers said.
"People do all their research before, even before they come, and they have all the numbers written down. They know just how much they will pay, and they don't want to pay too much," said John Jervasoni, a dealer from Princeton, N.J. "This is one of the best sales of the year and I do them all over the country."