AFTER SEVEN DECADES, OIL COMPANY EXECUTIVE REVEALED AS LONGTIME OWNER OF RARE 1927-D SAINT-GAUDENS DOUBLE EAGLE
By David Stone
The 1927-D Saint-Gaudens double eagle is a landmark rarity in the series, the rarest collectible U.S. gold coin of the 20th century. Only 13 examples have been reliably reported over the years, and four of those are forever sequestered in institutional collections at the Smithsonian Institution and the Connecticut State Library. Another two specimens appeared in auctions long ago, but have not been seen in more than 45 years, leaving only seven 1927-D double eagles available to present-day collectors.
Heritage Auctions is offering one of the most famous examples of this sought-after rarity at the Florida United Numismatists (FUN) convention, set for Jan. 8-13, 2020, in Orlando, Fla.
The coin in the Heritage auction is from the Fox Collection, currently the second-ranked Saint-Gaudens $20 Gold with Major Varieties, Circulation Strikes (1907-1933) PCGS Registry Set. In earlier times, this MS65+ PCGS, CAC example was a highlight of some equally fine numismatic gatherings, including the magnificent set of Saint-Gaudens double eagles compiled by Dr. Steven Duckor. We can trace the history of this coin back to the 1940s, a time when the coin was less than 20 years old, but one of the earliest owners of this celebrated coin has remained a baffling mystery to curious collectors, until now.
The enigmatic “Mr. Lima” purchased this coin from prominent Dayton, Ohio, coin dealer James Kelly for $2,000 in a private transaction in 1947. Called “Mr. Lima” because of his Ohio hometown, he chose to keep his collecting activities under the radar, buying from dealers like Kelly, Stack’s and B. Max Mehl in private transactions throughout the 1940s and ’50s. He never attended auctions or joined numismatic organizations, so he remained largely unknown to the numismatic community of those times, outside of his few dealer contacts. He quietly assembled remarkable collections of the four U.S. gold denominations issued in the 20th century; he was born in 1899 and wanted to acquire an example of each gold coin issued during his lifetime. He retained his ultra-rare 1927-D double eagle for almost 40 years before consigning it to the Paramount segment of Auction ’84.
Jim Kelly, who sold the coin to Mr. Lima in 1947, was one of the founders of the Paramount International Coin Corporation. Kelly died in 1968, but his history with Mr. Lima and the firm’s convenient Ohio location may have influenced his decision to sell the coin through them. When the auction was held in Dearborn, Mich., on July 25, 1984, Mr. Lima attended his first coin auction to see his celebrated 1927-D cross the auction block. The coin realized $198,000, bettering the price brought by the famous Eliasberg specimen, sold two years earlier, by $22,000.
Mr. Lima congratulated the new owner, Duckor, on his purchase, and sent him a letter detailing the history of the coin a few months later.
Duckor, who remains active in the numismatic community, was a consummate collector who valued his coins for their beauty and historical importance, as well as their value. He carefully preserved the letter from Mr. Lima, along with the original flip from Jim Kelly and the flip from Auction ’84, and arranged them in a custom 15-by13-inch Capital Plastics frame to ensure the early history of the coin was not lost.
Although the information in the frame has never been published, it has followed the coin from one owner to the next, down to the present day.
Duckor retained the main body of his double eagle collection until he sold it through Heritage in a blockbuster auction in January 2012. However, unbeknownst to the numismatic community at large, he consigned his 1927-D double eagle to David Akers’ sale of the Thaine B. Price Collection in May 1998. Akers, who had also been a principal of the Paramount firm and knew the history of the coin, gave the anonymous early owner his famous “Mr. Lima” sobriquet in his lot description for the Price catalog, but declined to identify him by name, even though he had been deceased for seven years by then. Students of the series have puzzled over his identity ever since.
Mr. Lima’s 1927-D has been offered publicly a few more times in the intervening years, including its appearance in the January 2014 FUN Signature® Auction, where it realized a record price of $1.99 million. Thankfully, the present consignor, Rollo Fox, preserved the important frame with the historical information, making it possible for us to finally reveal the identity of Mr. Lima.
As revealed in his letter to Duckor, Mr. Lima was actually James (Jim) Alfred MacDonell. A diligent search of internet records reveals he was a prominent citizen of Lima, a philanthropist, humanitarian and oil company executive who served as president of the Allen County Historical Society from 1938 to 1989. Among his many charities, he bequeathed his family home to the Allen County Museum and gave a tree to every first grader in the Lima and area public schools, to be used by the Lima Planning Commission to beautify the town.
The proceeds of the sale of his 1927-D double eagle were donated to the Allen County Museum, which was closely affiliated with the Historical Society. He died on June 23, 1991, at the age of 91. Thanks to all the owners who preserved this remarkable piece of numismatic history, we can finally solve this long-standing numismatic mystery. Be sure to look for “Mr. Lima’s” 1927-D in the upcoming FUN sale.
DAVID STONE is a numismatic cataloger at Heritage Auctions who has written for The Numismatist and Coin World.
This article appears in the Winter 2019-2020 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.