A Blog About Rare Coins and Watches

A Century of the Cartier Tank

vintage cartier tank watchIn the world of watches, change comes frequently.  Part of the reason is competition; you have to keep making new things to stay ahead of everyone else.

Another part is wanting to offer something new to your customers.  People may be loyal to one brand, but if they’ve already purchased what you have to offer, they’re going to go buy something from someone else.  That’s why companies are always offering “new and improved” versions of their products.

In the world of watches, companies often just get rid of certain models altogether and replace them with new ones.  That way, they’ve always got something new to sell.

There are exceptions, though, and one of the more interesting exceptions comes from jeweler and watchmaker Cartier.  Their iconic “tank watch” is now 100 years old, and keeping anything in production for a century is pretty astonishing, and it’s even more so in the world of watches.

Louis Cartier designed the tank watch during World War I, and the design was said to be inspired by the shape of the Renault tanks that the French army used at the time.  The watch is fairly simple in design, shaped like a rectangle and offering Roman numerals on the face.

cartier tank watchWhat’s particularly interesting about the tank watch, however, is that it has never been marketed as either a men’s watch or a women’s watch.  It’s just a watch, and if you visit the Cartier Website, you’ll see Tank listed under both men’s watches and women’s watches – and both links go to the same page.

While the Tank watch has been sold for a century now, it isn’t without its innovation.  Obviously, all Tank watches sold 100 years ago were manually wound mechanical timepieces.  You can still buy those, but you can also buy automatic, self-winding versions of the Tank.  The least expensive versions of the watch have quartz movements.

Aside from that, there are still a wide variety to choose from.  There are currently 89 different versions of the Tank available, including simple, stainless steel cases and leather straps to diamond-studded models and limited edition models that feature a flying tourbillon.

They’ve got something for everyone, but it all fits into that rectangular form factor.  While the Tank watch has always been marketed as a gender-neutral watch, there are going to be some models that will appeal more to men than women and others that women will likely favor over men.  Most men tend to shy away from a small watch with diamonds, for example, and it’s likely that most of the diamond-covered versions of the Tank find their way to the wrists of women.

But many men have famously worn the Tank over the years, including Andy Warhol, Elton John, and actor Gary Cooper.  Angelina Jolie and the late Princess of Wales, Diana, were often seen in public wearing a Tank.   Jackie Kennedy’s own Tank watch recently sold for nearly $400,000 at auction.

While Cartier isn’t always the first name people think of when fine watches come to mind, the Tank is truly iconic.  Chances are good that you’ll still be able to buy one 100 years from now.



The Quarter Million Dollar Mistake

Collectors usually go for the unusual, and with coins, the more unusual, the better.  That’s why they flock to mispressed coins, off-center coins, coins with one date struck over another, coins struck using the wrong sized blanks, or any one of a number of other oddities.  Coin collectors like those oddities that can be seen.

That’s why it’s a bit odd that a collector recently paid $282,000 for a Lincoln penny that, to the casual observer, didn’t appear to be remarkable in any way.  It’s your standard-issue, copper Lincoln penny with the “wheat back” that was minted for 50 years by the billions.

1943 copper cent
The 1943 copper cent

It looks just like billions of others.  What makes it unique?  It’s not supposed to look like all of the others.

This particular Lincoln penny was minted in 1943.  That year is unique among all of the 109 years and counting that the Lincoln penny has been produced by the U.S. mint.  In that year, Congress declared that due to a shortage of copper, all pennies were going to be minted from zinc-plated steel instead.

These pennies, known as “steelies,” are pretty unusual in appearance.  When new, they were pretty shiny, with almost a mirrored surface.  Few are seen that way today, and after 70+ years of lying around, most of those steel pennies have taken on a dull, gray appearance.  Still, they’re unique, and collectors like them.

They’re also quite common.  The Mint made hundreds of millions of them and while you aren’t likely to find one in circulation today, they’re not overly expensive unless you’re trying to find one in exceptional condition.  For MS 65, or so, you might pay a few hundred dollars.  Otherwise, you can shop around and buy a roll of 50 of them for $10-$15 or so.

1943 steel cent
What it should have looked like

So what was so special about this particular penny that sold for so much money?  It was dated 1943, but made out of copper instead of steel.  This was a mint error, and was attributed to being one of a few copper dies that were left or stuck inside the machinery when the new steel blanks were put into it.  A few of them came out made from the wrong material.

Mint employees likely found most of them, but a few appear to have found their way out of the building and over the years, surprisingly few of them have turned up for sale.

So, in this case, the truly odd item is unusual in that it doesn’t look odd unless you are aware of the context.  If you know that all 1943 cents should look silver or gray, then a copper-colored one is going to attract attention.

And attract attention it did.  That’s a lot of money for a Lincoln cent.  While they’re widely collected, most of the dates in the series are relatively common and it’s not all that difficult to put together a set in better than average condition.  The exception, of course is the copper 1943 cent, and for that one, you might have to wait a good long while to find another one for sale.

Start saving your money.


Are Watches Going Away?

The watch has been around for a couple of hundred years.  Early versions weren’t wristwatches, but were pocket watches, attached to your pants by a chain so you could pull it out of your pocket to look at the time.

A fossil watch
A Fossil hybrid smartwatch

The wristwatch became popular after World War I, and for the next seven decades or so, became a fashion staple.  If you needed to know the time, you just looked at your wrist.  Or you could ask whomever was standing by, because for decades, pretty much everyone wore a wristwatch.

That started to change a few years ago when cell phones became popular.  Cell phones displayed the time as a matter of course, and if you were going to carry around a phone that had the time on it, why would you also need to wear a wristwatch?   A lot of people stopped wearing watches, and a lot of younger people simply never got in the habit of wearing one in the first place.

That’s changed a bit in the past three or four years, as the smartwatch has come along.  The smartwatch is worn like a wristwatch, and can offer the time, but it can also act as an interface between you and your smartphone, allowing you to receive notifications and text messages and also allowing you to track your stats during workouts.  Many of them have other features, as well.

A lot of people have started wearing smartwatches, and a few have started wearing one instead of a traditional watch, but watchmakers are a bit mystified at the fact that they’re not becoming a huge hit with the public.  Worse – for some manufacturers, sales of all watches are down.

The Fossil Group, which makes watches under that name but which also owns a number of other companies that make watches of all kinds, recently released a quarterly report that shows that sales were down 13% in the most recent quarter.  Keep in mind that this is a company that does sell smartwatches alongside their regular traditional models, so it’s not as though they’re selling old technology and hoping that people will buy it.

A very expensive Breguet watch
A very expensive Breguet watch

Odd thing, though – people are buying old technology.  Luxury brands of watches, that is, the companies that sell unusually expensive watches, rather than the several hundred dollars apiece models that Fossil offers, are actually doing OK.  Granted, when you’re selling to ultra-wealthy collectors, you don’t have to worry too much about economic instability.  You also know that the people to whom you’re selling aren’t people who are following trends.  If you’re buying a high end Breguet watch, it’s because you want one, and not because you weren’t aware that Fossil could sell you a smartwatch instead for $100,000 less.

Still, most of the market for wristwatches falls in the sub-$1000 range, and for those companies that sell watches exclusively in that market, they have to be worrying a bit.  There was a panic in the 1970s when quartz watches hit the market that they’d put all makers of mechanical watches out of business.  A few did go away, but luxury brands managed to stay afloat.

That was then, however.  There’s no guarantee that people will continue buying watches in the future.  On the other hand, there does still seem to be a market for quality wristwatches, and it’s possible that the Fossil Group is just having a rough year.

An Affordable Coin Set – The Susan B. Anthony Dollar

Susan B. Anthony Dollar
Susan B. Anthony Dollar

Historically, dollar coins have been quite collectible, but that mostly applies to the “silver dollar,” rather than the “clad dollar” that has been the variety issued since 1971.  Older Draped Bust, Trade, Morgan and Peace Dollars, for example, sell briskly in the marketplace, with some rare varieties selling for six figure sums.

Newer issues, such as the Eisenhower dollars and Susan B. Anthony dollars, on the other hand, sell for modest sums and draw relatively little collector interest.

Of course, for the novice collector, the “little collector interest” can be a good thing, as collecting things that few other people collect means that you can often buy them at affordable prices. Plus, you never know when something is going to take off, and the collection that you put together today for a modest price may turn out to be something of value tomorrow.

The Susan B. Anthony dollar is a great example of a way that you can put together a complete collection of coins in uncirculated and poof condition at a modest price.

Introduced in 1979, the Susan B. Anthony dollar was a short-lived coin, and is viewed by most people as a failure.  The coin was produced from 1979-1981, with a few more struck in 1999 for technical reasons.  The coin was never popular with the public, as the size and color made it easy to confuse them with a 25¢ piece.  Retailers didn’t have room for them in their cash register drawers, and vending machines didn’t take them.  The public also didn’t care too much for the design itself.

The end result was a coin that largely sat in bank vaults, rather than being used as a circulating coin.  Often derided as the “Carter quarter,” the Susan B. Anthony was quickly forgotten and was eventually replaced by the Sacagawea dollar in 2000.

Susan B. Anthony Dollar proof
Proof Susan B. Anthony Dollar

All of that is bad for the government, but good for collectors.  An entire collection of Susan B. Anthony dollars consists of only 18 coins – 12 business strikes and 6 proofs.  Seventeen of those 18 coins were produced in the millions, and the rarest of the bunch, the 1999-P proof, at 750,000 struck, isn’t particularly rare, with examples often selling for as little as $30 or so.

Yes, some PCGS certified examples of some of the dates can sell for $3000 or so, if you’re the type of collector who must have the best example out there.  For the majority of us, for whom a simple uncirculated example is good enough, there are many examples of all 18 of those dates and mint marks out there.  That means that it’s relatively easy to put together a complete uncirculated set, and you can do it for only a few hundred dollars.

You can often find complete sets for sale, but building one from scratch might be a bit more work.  Not because the coins are rare, but because so few dealers bother to stock them due to lack of demand.  That means that you will still get the thrill of the hunt as you track down some of the harder to find dates, such as the 1981-S, which was struck only for collectors.

Coin collectors who aren’t millionaires rarely have an opportunity to put together a complete set of any coin in uncirculated condition.  If you want to do that and declare victory at least once, the Susan B. Anthony dollar presents a great opportunity to do so.

Where Coins and Watches Meet – The Corum Coin Watch

$20 gold coin watchCoins and watches might seem like two completely separate hobbies, and two hobbies that would not likely intersect with one another.  For the most part, that’s true, but there is at least one place where the two hobbies do meet – the coin watch.

First produced by Swiss watchmaker Corum in 1965, the coin watch is a rather unique piece of horology.

The watchmaker developed a patented process in 1964 for slicing a $20 U.S. gold coin in half.  The resulting watch was made with an ultra-thin automatic mechanical movement.

The reverse of the coin became the face of the watch, with the obverse being visible on the back side of the watch case.  As an added touch, the edge of the watch case was given a reeded edge in order to further simulate the appearance of a coin.

The 34 mm size of that particular coin made it well suited to being used for a watch, though an American law in place at the time made it illegal to “deface” U.S. currency.  Nevertheless, the watch was issued, and Corum continues to make them to this day, though most current issues use more modern currency (including denominations from other countries.)

Current examples of the watch use quartz movements, which are far easier to build to the requirements of the watch, as the coin itself adds quite a bit of thickness to the watch.  By using a quartz movement, rather than a mechanical one, Corum is able to prevent the watch from becoming either overly thick or overly heavy, though it’s pretty heavy anyway, due to the presence of nearly an ounce of gold.

I’m not sure how much the watches sold for in 1965, but original examples are frequently seen for sale in the $10,000-$15,000 range.  It’s also worth noting that Corum used this format for a pocket watch, as well, though the coin pocket watches are quite rare.

Corum isn’t the only company to make a coin watch, though they appear to have been the first.  Shinola, a company based in Detroit, Michigan, has also started to make them, as well.  These mainly use a U.S. 25¢ piece that is inset in a square case.  The watches are built in the United States using Swiss-made parts, and are far more affordable than the Corum models, as they do not have an ounce of gold in them.  The Shinola models are priced at roughly $1200, though prices vary slightly by model.

Coin collectors likely (and rightly, I might add) frown on defacing gold coins to use them as watches, and that’s easy to understand, since most American gold coins were melted down in the mid-1930s as the United States had gone off of the gold standard and had revoked the legal tender status of gold coins by that time.  Citizens were required to turn over their gold coins for other forms of currency, though collectors were allowed to keep them.

Since millions of gold coins were melted down, nice examples are rare and expensive today and those that have been turned into wristwatches have only contributed to their rarity.  Still, a $20 gold coin does make for an interesting watch.

Ugly Pocket Watch sells for $85,000

al capone watchSometimes, when something sells for a lot of money at an auction, you look at it and say, “Yeah – I get it.  That’s a lot of money, but the item is pretty cool.”

A good example of that would be the recent sale of Babe Ruth’s 1927 World Series ring, which sold for $2.1 million in a recent auction.  Granted, the 1927 New York Yankees are regarded as one of the greatest and best-known baseball teams of all time and the ring was also being sold by actor Charlie Sheen, who is himself famous.

That’s a lot of provenance, and the ring itself is a nice looking piece of jewelry.  So when someone paid $2.1 million for it, most people probably saw that value in that, even though it was a tremendous amount of money.

On the other hand, the recent sale of a pocket watch that belonged to legendary gangster Al Capone sort of falls into another category.  Sure, Al Capone is one of the most famous criminals of all time, and he’s famous for his years of crime, his incredibly lavish lifestyle, and the fact that he managed to avoid being jailed for his crimes for years before finally being imprisoned for tax evasion.

The watch sold for $84,375 at an auction of crime and police-related memorabilia called the Gangsters, Outlaws and Lawmen, held recently in Massachusetts.

To read the description, the watch certainly sounds impressive.  It has an odd triangular shape and a platinum case, accompanied by a platinum chain.  The watch was made by the Illinois Watch Company, which certainly isn’t a household name, but one which apparently had a solid reputation back in the day (the company’s remains are now owned by the Swatch Group.)

The bezel of the watch was set with 72 cut diamonds and a platinum dial with gold-toned numerals and watch hands.

23 cut diamonds were used on the back to form the initials “AC”, and those were surrounded by an additional 26 diamonds.

So the watch is platinum and gold and it has a lot of diamonds on it, and it was owned by one of the most famous, if not the most famous gangster in the era of well-known gangsters.

It’s still an ugly watch.

Now perhaps the watch hasn’t been cleaned up and was being sold “as is.”  It’s possible that it might, as they say, “clean up nicely” and make an attractive presentation piece if given some TLC by a reputable jeweler.

It’s also possible that Al Capone had lousy taste and just asked the Illinois Watch Company to build a tacky-looking watch for him.  It’s really hard to say.

It doesn’t really matter, anyway.  The watch was undoubtedly purchased by someone who was interested in the item as an example of something owned by a major crime figure.  It almost certainly was not purchased by someone who is a collector of watches.

The watch was offered for sale by a grandson of Capone, and accompanied by a letter of provenance, which said:

“Shortly after the passing of Albert Francis ‘Sonny’ Capone, his daughter, Barbara Prince, nee Capone, a resident of California, delivered the watch described below to me, along with other personal property that at one time was the personal property of my great grandfather, Alphonse G. Capone.”

An interesting piece, to be sure, but not necessarily one that will appeal to everyone’s taste.



Everybody’s in the Watch Biz Now

There was a time when wristwatches were relatively rare and expensive things that could be purchased only through a watchmaker.  Of course, these days, there are lots of companies making watches,.

That’s not a bad thing.  More competition means more improvements and newer gadgets and a better product overall.  It can also help to bring prices down.

But now, it seems like everybody is getting into the watch business, including companies that you would think wouldn’t have any interest n watches at all.  Even stranger, it seems as though a bunch of companies that wouldn’t have any interest in watches are suddenly interested in smart watches, of all things.

Fashion watches aren’t new.  Lots of companies that primarily sell clothes are aware that people buy watches to go with their clothes and so they’d like to offer them as fashion accessories.  Most of these companies just buy watches from other companies, put their own name on them, and sell them as their product.

armani smart watchPeople who are serious about watches don’t take these fashion watches very seriously, except in the rare cases of high end fashion companies that actually do design and market their own watches.  That’s pretty rare, though.  Most companies just slap new names on them.

The latest company to do this, and with a smart watch, no less, is Armani.  Yes, Armani, as in, “the company from whom you’d buy a suit.”  Apparently, Armani is worried that somebody might buy a suit, decide they want a watch to go with it, and then go elsewhere to buy that watch.

So they’re now marketing their own watch.  Or at least, they’ve announced one.

No, of course, Armani isn’t making the watch.  It’s being made by Fossil, who apparently make a lot of watches for a lot of companies.  I did not know that.  It’s called the Emporio Armani Connected, and it’s going to be based on the Android Wear 2.0 operating system.

The Connected will come with 8 different configurable watch faces and will have a traditional round face, so at least it will mostly look like a real watch.

The watch will use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 2100 processor, which seems to be a pretty common one in current Android smartwatches.  Armani hasn’t yet announced a retail price, but given that it’s being attached to a luxury fashion brand, chances are that it’s going to be a bit pricey as Android smartwatches go.

It would be nice if fashion companies would just stick to fashion and leave the watches to the watch companies.  That’s just my 2¢.


Finally – An Attractive Tourbillon

greubel forsey tourbillon 24 secondsA tourbillon isn’t a new invention; the first patent for it was issued in 1801.  Back then, there were problems building watches that kept accurate time, and the tourbillon was invented to help offset the effects of gravity on the escapement and balance wheel.

While long used as a means of keeping better time, the tourbillon today is best known as a “me, too!” addon that’s frequently found on high end watches.  They might help keep accurate time, but high quality watch movements have been pretty accurate for decades now, with or without a tourbillon.

Still, they do look interesting, and that’s where the problem comes in.  As a tourbillon adds thousands of dollars to the price of a watch, watchmaking companies feel that they must be seen.  That’s OK, except that they’re really not all that attractive.  Nevertheless, if you’re paying for that amazing, gravity-defying gadget, then the watchmaker is likely to put it where you can see it.

That may be on the back of the case, visible through a transparent case back, but most of the time, they put them in the case where you can see them from the front.  More often than not, the tourbillon appears at roughly 6 o’clock on the watch face and is visible through a part of the face that’s transparent.

All of that is fine, but most watches with a tourbillon simply don’t look that good.  They tend to have this “look at me!” vibe to them, and the complication is usually prominently placed on the watch, perhaps with other complications, as well, and the whole thing ends up looking rather busy.

Busy is not what most people want in a watch.  It’s certainly not something they want in a watch that’s really expensive.  When you’re spending a lot of money, it’s OK to have a watch that attracts attention.  It’s not OK to have one that attracts attention because it looks like a pile of wreckage in a junkyard.

That’s where the new Greubel Forsey Tourbillon 24 Secondes comes in.  Admittedly, at $325,000, this watch is jaw-droppingly expensive.  It’s also one of the most handsome watches I’ve ever seen that had a tourbillon as part of the movement.  It’s there, at 9 0’clock, and you can stare at it all you like.

But you won’t be staring at it because it’s some sort of monstrosity.  You’ll be staring at it because it’s an attractive and surprisingly understated watch.

The Tourbillon 24 Secondes has a yellow (or red, blue or chocolate) gold case with a leather strap, and the case measures 43.5 mm across.  The mechanical movement features a 72 hour power reserve, which is fairly generous for a mechanical watch.

The price is steep, and availability will be problematic.   The company intends to produce only about 100 examples of this magnificent timepiece.  They will be sold through their own network of authorized sellers, so if you’re looking for one, now is the time to track down a dealer.

Two Heads Are Better Than One

2 headed nickelIn some hobbies, production mistakes are regarded as just that – errors, and they’re disregarded or at least not held in particularly high regard.   A record by the Beatles with the same label on each side might be regarded as an oddity, but it isn’t a record that collectors will pay a lot of money to own.

It’s different in the coin world, where production standards are very high and where the U.S. Mint takes tremendous care to ensure that no mistakes occur.  Mistakes do occur, however, and that’s not surprising, given that the Mint produces billions of coins every year.

Still, they’re better at it than they were in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, where date overstrikes, mint mark overstrikes, and off-center strikes were far more common than they are today.

One particular oddity that has never been common, however, is a coin bearing the same artwork on each face.  Either a two-headed or a two-tailed coin are both quite rare, with only a handful of examples in existence dating to the first days of U.S. coinage.

How rare are such coins?  To date, there are only four known examples:

  • Two Washington Quarters with tails on both sides (undated, obviously)
  • A Roosevelt Dime with tails on both sides (undated)
  • A Jefferson Nickel with heads on both sides (2000-P)

That’s it.  Part of the reason for the relative rarity of double-anything coins is that there are two dies used to strike a coin.  One is known as the “hammer” die and one is known as the “anvil” die.  They’re made with shafts of different lengths, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to accidentally confuse the two, making it almost impossible to pair them up incorrectly…unless you’re doing it on purpose.

That is the speculation on the double-headed Jefferson Nickel, according to a recent article in Coin World.   The coin has been PGCS certified as MS 65, but few people believe that the coin is an actual Mint mistake, especially since there is only one known example.  Not only that, but the coin has been weakly struck, with Jefferson’s image being poorly defined on each side.

Despite the coins lack of perfection, it is unique in that it is the only currently known example of a U.S. coin pressed with heads (and a date) on both sides.  That, regardless of condition, makes it a Pretty Big Deal in collecting circles.

The nice thing about a double headed coin is that it does have a date.  The dates of the other three known same-sided coins can only be guessed, since the dates are on the obverse and these coins don’t have one.

Of course, not everyone collects error coins, but those who do largely collect nothing else, and if you’re looking for a truly odd example of an error coin, along with one that is almost guaranteed to let you win any coin toss, then you might want to look at this one.

According to the article, the coin is now in the possession of Mike Byers of Las Vegas, and it’s being offered for sale for $100,000.




Want This Porsche Watch? Buy a Car!

porsche 911 turbo s watchThere are lots of nice watches on the market, and lots of new ones that come to market every month.  Many, especially in the $10,000+ price range, are also limited in production.

Depending on how “limited” these models are, they might be available on a first-come, first-serve basis, or they might be sold only to regular customers, or they might be distributed through some other unusual mechanism determined by the manufacturer.

Usually, the people who buy such watches are already people who have a large collection of really expensive watches.

In the case of the new Porsche 911 Turbo S chronograph, however, the company has decided to determine who gets to buy one of these stylish new timepieces through an entirely different mechanism – you only get to buy the watch if you have already purchased the matching Porsche automobile.

porsche 911 turbo s carThat’s pretty amazing, given that the car itself is a limited production model, with just 500 of them being produced.  At a price of roughly $250,000, the number of buyers is likely to be somewhat limited, though the car can reportedly has a 205 MPH top speed and power in the 600+ horsepower range.

Porsche Design, who created the car, also designed the watch, which carries a price tag of $12,650.  The case is made from titanium, and has a black PVD coating.  It comes with a black titanium bracelet, but is also accompanied by two leather straps.

The movement is a Werk 01.200, and the watch is a certified chronometer.  The timepiece has a 48 hour power reserve, 25 jewels in the movement, and a flyback module.

The center strip on the watch, which is shown as orange in the photo, will also be available in Golden Yellow Metallic, Carrera White Metallic, Agate Grey Metallic, Black, Guards Red, and Graphite Blue Metallic, so you can order one to match the color of your car.

You can order both the car and the watch at your neighboring Porche dealer.  Each is limited to 500 pieces, so be sure to order quickly.  No word on whether the glove compartment includes storage for the watch.

I also have no idea if this is the beginning of a trend from Porsche Design.  Will future watch models also be limited in production and offered only to people who buy the cars?  It will be interesting to see if any of the car owners part with the watches, and it’s pretty likely that if they do, the price on the secondary market is going to be a lot more than the original retail price, given that only car buyers will be permitted to buy the watch at all.