If you had asked me a decade ago which series of New Orleans gold coin had the most upside potential I would have replied, “quarter eagles.” This was a series which has everything going for it. It is short-lived (a total of 14 issues were struck from 1839 through 1857), affordable (at the present time, nearly every issue can be found in nice AU grades for less than $3,000), interesting from a historic and numismatic perspective, and much easier to complete than the half eagle, eagle, and double eagle series from this mint.
A decade ago, interest was soaring in the New Orleans quarter eagle series and prices appeared to be rising as well. But something went terribly wrong and this series, in many cases, is worth less than it was ten years ago; at the same time when many other New Orleans gold coins have shown excellent price appreciation. What killed the New Orleans quarter eagle market?
To answer this question, I am going to look at some theories of mine. I am also going to randomly choose four different issues in four different grades and compare prices from a decade ago to today.
1. Grading Standards Were Not Upheld by Both Services
A decade ago, standards for New Orleans quarter eagles were fairly tight. As an example, if you were offered an AU55 1852-O quarter eagle in 2003, the chances were good that this was a decent to choice coin with some luster present. Today, many of the 1851-O quarter eagles that I see in AU55 holders are, in my opinion, not much better than EF45 in terms of sharpness and overall quality. While this inflating of grades has occurred in many dated gold series, for some reason it has always seemed more obvious in the New Orleans quarter eagle series. Coupled with the fact that certain New Orleans quarter eagles have strike and manufacturing problems, this gradeflating has made the series fairly unappealing to new collectors and purists alike.
2. Populations Are Hugely Inflated
I don’t have immediate access to population figures from 2003, but it seems to me that both NGC and PCGS have hugely inflated numbers for coins like the 1851-O in AU55 that I mentioned above. A quick look at this month’s online figures show that PCGS has graded 20 in this grade while NGC has graded 102. I can live with the PCGS figure, although I think the actual number of accurately graded coins in this grade is fewer than ten. But the NGC figure of 102? Not only is this grossly inflated, it gives the impression that an AU55 1851-0 quarter eagle is a relatively common coin. Interestingly, CAC has only approved three AU55 examples of this date. One would think that a coin with an NGC/PCGS population of 122 coins would have more than three approved by CAC…unless not many of these “122” coins are CAC quality.
3. Small Coins Lose Popularity
Clearly, small coins like gold dollars and quarter eagles have lost some popularity in the last decade as collectors get older and little coins grow harder and harder to see. Just as New Orleans double eagles have taken on an unprecedented degree of popularity in the last decade, small coins like New Orleans quarter eagles (and gold dollars) have ebbed in demand. Not that this is not true across the board: popularity levels for Dahlonega small-sized coins are at an all-time high, and Charlotte gold is becoming more popular after years of neglect. But in the New Orleans arena, it is clear that the focus is on big coins and small coins, at least for now, are the losers.
4. Quarter Eagles Never Had a Promotion
You can make a strong case that the New Orleans double eagle market got jump-started by a promotion a decade+ ago and has since become a fully functioning, collector-based market. The New Orleans eagle market has been promoted to the extent of the double eagle market but it has found a solid collector base. The same can be said, although to a lesser extent, for the half eagles from this mint. This just hasn’t been the case for the quarter eagles. No one has gone out and bought 50 or 100 nice AU to Mint State quarter eagles, written a compelling script and sold them on TV (don’t snicker; it could and probably should be done…) This lack of promotion, combined with a general market malaise towards quarter eagles has made this the softest single series of gold coins from this mint (with the exception of two dates which we will discuss later in this article).
Now that I’ve dispensed with my theories, let’s take a look at some specific dates/grades in this series and see how they have performed in the last decade. Be aware that the sample size I am using is very small, but the prices are based on average quality coins trading at public auction; all are coins which I have viewed in person.
1840-O Quarter Eagle, AU55
The 1840-O has some degree of numismatic significance as it is the first Liberty Head issue from this mint. It is relatively scarce in AU55 and this is a popular grade as this date becomes very expensive in Uncirculated.
- NGC AU55: $2,070; Heritage 2/11: 4377
- PCGS AU55: $2,760; Heritage 1/10: 3818
- NGC AU55: $2,588; Heritage 3/04: 6093
- PCGS AU55: $2,875; Heritage 11/03: 7143
The price performance of this date in AU55 has been mediocre at best. An NGC coin is probably not an easy sale at just a touch over $2,000, and part of this has to do with the current population of 20 in this grade with a whopping 41 finer. A PCGS coin at $2,500 would probably be an easier coin to sell as the population in this grade is just eight (with 18 finer). It is interesting to note that CAC has approved just one in AU55, and my guess is that a choice, original piece with a CAC sticker might be worth as much as $2,750-3,000, regardless of whether it was graded by NGC or PCGS.
1843-O Small Date Quarter Eagle, MS62
The 1843-O Small Date is the most common New Orleans quarter eagle, and the second most available in Uncirculated. In MS62, it is fairly scarce and I have always felt it was undervalued. What makes this coin interesting, to me at least, is that it is the only affordable O mint quarter eagle from the 1840’s in MS62, and I’ve always felt that this should expand its desirability beyond specialists.
- NGC MS62: $2,585; Heritage 4/13: 5494
- PCGS MS62: $2,291 and $2,585; Heritage 6/13: 2585, and Heritage 10/12: 5546
- NGC MS62: $2,185; Heritage 1/03: 4667
- PCGS MS62: $2,530; Heritage 1/03: 8447
These auction prices are a bit misleading as they don’t show that for a few years between 2006 and 2009, a nice MS62 example of this variety was worth in the $3,000-3,250 range. Prices have stayed flat over the past decade and I don’t attribute this to gradeflation as the PCGS population has stayed at a reasonably low 14 coins in MS62, while NGC has graded 26. I’ve owned most of the PCGS MS62’s and the quality is usually pretty presentable; certainly nice enough to be appealing to a non-specialist who wants a cool, higher quality branch mint quarter eagle from the 1840’s for not a lot of money. I’m kind of at a loss as to why this isn’t a $3,500-4,000+ coin.
1852-O Quarter Eagle, EF45
To avoid being pegged as an elitist, I thought it would be interesting to take a quick look at prices for an inexpensive yet reasonably interesting coin like an 1852-O quarter eagle in EF45. This is one of the more common quarter eagles from this mint in a lower than normal grade, but at less than $1,000 it provides a good amount of bang for the buck.
- NGC EF45: $446; Heritage 3/12: 8726
- PCGS EF45: $403; Goldberg 2/12: 1202
- NGC EF45: $604; Heritage 7/04: 8026
- PCGS EF45: $633; Heritage 11/03: 7196
I’m not totally surprised by this price drop over the last decade. Even though gold has increased from a range of $363-409 in 2003-2004 to four times this amount today, many gold coins like an EF45 1852-O quarter eagle have performed poorly. It all boils down to supply and demand, and there are a lot more 1852-O quarter eagles in EF45 than there are collectors who wants one; even at the bargain price of $425.
1857-O Quarter Eagle, MS62
As our final example, let’s look at a coin that I think perfectly defines the term “condition rarity.” The 1857-O is the final year of issue for New Orleans quarter eagles. A total of 34,000 were struck and survivors are pretty common in circulated grades. But in Uncirculated, the 1857-O is very scarce with just two dozen or so known; mostly in the MS60 to MS61 range. I believe that there are around six to eight properly graded MS62 to MS63 coins accounted for; PCGS has graded 14(!) in MS62 with four finer while NGC has graded seven in MS62 with nine (!) finer. CAC has approved four coins in MS62, suggesting that the typical quality of at least some of these higher grade 1857-O quarter eagles is above-average.
- NGC MS62: $6,038; Heritage 10/11: 4702
- NGC MS62: $8,338; Heritage 2004 ANA: 7152
The population of this date in MS62 was much lower than its current 21 coins, which makes the 1857-O appear to be a somewhat available date in this grade. I would strongly disagree with this statement, however, as in my experience a properly graded MS62 1857-O quarter eagle is very rare and collectors are being misled by the combined NGC/PCGS figures.
I’ve stated throughout this article that the New Orleans quarter eagle market is “dead.” This isn’t wholly true as there are two issues, the 1839-O and the 1845-O, which have increased in popularity and, I would presume, price. Why is this?
The 1839-O is a first-year-of-issue and a one year type so it has multiple levels of demand. This is clearly why other Classic Head coins like the 1838-C half eagle and the 1838-D half eagle have soared in value in recent years.
The 1845-O is a key issue with a low mintage figure of 4,000. It used to be very undervalued but it has become popular in recent years and it now has demand outside of the specialist community; primarily among collectors who like coins that are “cool.”
Let’s quickly look at price levels on these dates for now and around seven-eight years ago.
1839-O Quarter Eagle, AU55
- NGC AU55: $5,581; Heritage 4/13: 5480
- PCGS AU55: $5,581; Heritage 9/12: 4775
- NGC AU55: $2,530; Heritage 5/05: 8427
- PCGS AU55: $4,370; Heritage 91/05: 8767
I think the price increase for this date in AU55 is actually even more dramatic as a CAC/PCGS AU55 would actually sell for $6,500-7,000 today, and a coin of this quality would have only been worth around $3,000-3,500 in 2004-2005. And the increases in price for this date are even more dramatic in AU58 and the lower Uncirculated grades.
1845-O Quarter Eagle, AU50
- NGC AU50: $6,325; Heritage 4/11: 6317
- NGC AU50: $4,025; Heritage 7/03: 10126
Again, this is a coin whose limited auction records for AU50 examples in the time period which we are exploring is misleading. The 1845-O has shown good price appreciation in grades from VF to AU58 and I believe it will continue to do so as a result of its multiple levels of demand.
And what’s the fate for the typical run-of-the-mill New Orleans quarter eagle? It’s probably not a rosy future. I don’t see collectors caring much about coins like 1851-O quarter eagles in AU55, or 1854-O quarter eagles in AU58. Unless there is a sudden influx of collectors wanting to do complete sets, the price appreciation for this series is likely to be limited to those coins with multiple levels of demand, Finest Known, or high Condition Census examples of not-so-interesting dates or specific individual coins with great eye appeal.
If you’d like to learn more about New Orleans quarter eagles or rare gold coins in general, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.