This is such a strange yet wonderful story that I might not believe it if I had not seen part of it with my own eyes. It all began in February of 2012 in a small French village, Les Riceys. The Lanson Champagne people were remodeling a long-vacant building in their village. As was told to me by Enguerrand Baijot, managing director of the company, "One of the worker was attacking an abandoned building's ceiling with a crowbar when gold coins started to rain down on him, followed by sacks of gold." He went on to tell me that the origin of the treasure was not known, but they know that the building, a former grape-drying facility, belonged to a wine producer who traded extensively with Great Britain and the UnIted States in the1930s, and it was thought that they were placed there by him sometime prior to World War II.
Grading the coins in Paris
Some of the coins I saw
The collection featured 497 gold U.S. double eagle coins minted between 1851 and 1928, with an approximate value of $1 million. The coins had been untouched for nearly a century and ranged in condition from Very Fine to Gem Mint State. Monsieur Baijot then went on to tell me the "Champagne Lanson Bonnet Vineyard Collection" had been viewed at Style et Elegance au Grand Palais at Bonhams Paris auction house, as well as in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles... which is where I saw them yesterday.
Philippe Baijot, President Directeur General of Lanson
Signing in for the auction
Inspecting the coins
Yes, I attended the much-heralded auction of the collection at Bonham's L.A. house on Sunset Boulevard, and it was a fascinating event, which is where I met Enguerrand and his father, Philippe Baijot, the President Directeur General of Champagne Lanson. I asked them about the workman who found the coins, and they told me that half of the auction proceeds will go to him (by French law, incidentally). They said that he will use his proceeds to build a brand-new home for his entire family: "We are delighted that these 497 double eagle coins went back on the marketplace today and now are in the hands of collectors for the first time in almost a century." They went onto tell me that none of the coins I inspected today were conserved or cleaned in any way. They were transported directly from the consignor to PCGS Paris, where they were graded and encapsulated on site with "Coll. Champagne Lanson" on the holder, attesting to their special provenance and authenticity.
Enguerrand Baijot, Managing Director of Lanson
The auctioneer at Bonhams
Phoning in bids from all over the world
Which is where I came in... to the auction house yesterday. It's a stately structure in Hollywood, and I immediately saw that these were serious collectors present, along with the Lanson people. The collectors signed in, attesting to their financial credentials, and received a paddle with a large number on it. All of the coins for the auction were on a guarded side table in numbered boxes, and some of the collectors -- watched with eagle eyes by an employee -- then turned on a bright table lamp and inspected each batch with magnifying glasses. These were serious people, going to spend serious money. But what really interested me was a table with several Bonham women on the phone, talking to collectors from all over the world. And Mon. Baijot told me that the website for Bonham carries the auction proceedings live, so I could watch it in person or on my iPad, both of which I proceeded to do.
The auction began promptly at 10 a.m., and I watched the energetic auctioneer call off each batch of coins, while a picture of the front and back of the coin was shown on a large screen behind him. It proceeded quickly, with more than half the coins bought online by call-in collectors... somewhere in th world. In about two hours, the auction was over... and Lanson had collected about a million dollars for this unexpected windfall. All I could think about was that lucky French farm worker whose life changed for the better when he poked a hole in the cottage roof. I went home and opened a bottle of Lanson Black Label, which I been saving for a special occasion. This certainly was it!
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