Liberty Head quarter eagles were issued from 1840 from 1907 at the Philadelphia, New Orleans, Charlotte, Dahlonega and San Francisco mints. Including major varieties, there are over 150 different issues which range from very common to very rare.
This series, while very long-lived, is completable with just three very expensive issues; one of which is Proof-only and another of which (the 1841) is considered by some researchers to be struck only as a Proof as well. In other words, with patience, this set can be finished; unlike gold dollars, half eagles, eagles and double eagles.
There are around a dozen challenging issues which can be conveniently slotted as follows:
- Tier One (Very Rare): 1841, 1848 CAL, 1854-S, 1863
- Tier Two (Rare): 1840-D, 1855-D, 1856-D, 1864, 1865 and 1875
- Tier Three (Scarce): 1841-D, 1842-D, 1843-C Small Date
For most collectors, the Tier One and Tier Two issues will most likely be purchased in Extremely Fine to lower About Uncirculated grades while the Tier Three issues will most likely be added in the lower to middle AU grades. The other 140+ issues will be added in AU and Uncirculated grades.
Let’s take a look at various ways by which to collect Liberty Head quarter eagles.
1. A Complete Set of Business Strikes
You will note that I said business strikes. This gives the collector the option of not adding the 1841 and the 1863 issues to the set; a savings of $300,000++ off the top. Making the further decision to skip the 1854-S (a savings of another $200,000+) means an advanced collector now has a very realistic shot at completing a set with all of the coins in at least EF-AU grades.
Here are a few pointers for complete set builders.
- Don’t overspend on common dates. Nice MS63 and MS64 examples of the run of common dates at the end of the series (namely 1897-1907) need not be represented by ultra-high grade pieces.
- Conversely, don’t under-buy the keys. Certain very popular dates (such as the 1845-O) should be represented by the best grade you are comfortable with as these are issues which form the “backbone” of your set
- Some dates are going to prove very difficult to find with CAC stickers. The collector will have to make coin-by-coin choices about what is “best” for his set. As an example, is a PCGS/CAC EF45 1854-D a “better” fit than a nice but not stickered example of this date in PCGS AU53?
- Learn about the coins you are buying. Read all you can about quarter eagles (I’ve written extensively on this denomination) and study images or—even better—actual coins. Which dates come poorly-struck? Which are found on inferior quality planchets? What is the right color for a specific issue? Remember: in this complex series, knowledge is power.
- Try to maintain some degree of consistency with your grades (see points #1 and #2, above). A set with consistent EF40-AU50 grades makes more sense aesthetically than a “roller coaster” set with grades ranging from VF to Uncirculated.
2. Collecting By Mint
Assembling set(s) of Liberty Head quarter eagles by mint is a popular pursuit. I would rank the five mints in the following order based on the number of collectors I am personally aware of:
- New Orleans
- San Francisco
Let’s take a brief look at each of these five mints:
There are 20 issues from Dahlonega (this includes a single Classic Head issue—the 1839-D—which is typically collected alongside the Liberty Heads). None of these 20 dates is unobtainable but virtually every Dahlonega quarter eagle is scarce in properly graded AU and rare in Uncirculated. Many of the dates suffer from poor eye appeal as a result of poor planchet preparation and subsequent irregular strikes. The key issues include the 1840-D through 1842-D and the 1854-D through 1856-D.
A complete set of Charlotte quarter eagles includes two Classic Heads (1838-C and 1839-C) and 18 Liberty Heads (there are two varieties from 1843). This set used to be as popular with collectors as the Dahlonega set (and was often collected hand-in-hand) but today it isn’t as popular. It is reasonably easy to complete in collector grades and even a nice AU set is within reason. The key issues are the 1842-C, 1843-C Small Date, 1844-C, 1846-C, and 1855-C.
The Philadelphia set is long and challenging. As mentioned above, it contains two major rarities (the 1841 and the 1863) as well as some other challenging issues. Some collectors find the long duration of this series (1840-1907) to be frustrating and instead focus on specific decades or subsets (i.e. Civil War), antebellum era (1840’s and 1850’s), or late dates (1890’s and 1900’s).
The New Orleans set is only 14 coins (including the one-year Classic Head 1839-O) and it contains just one scarce issue, the 1845-O. This set has been victimized by over-grading, and a number of the dates are far scarcer in high grades than their certified populations suggest. This is the easiest mintmarked quarter eagle set to complete and even the collector on a budget can swim in the deeper end of the pool.
The overlooked San Francisco series consists of 22 coins. This includes the extremely rare 1854-S which is represented by approximately a dozen known. If you exclude this date from the set, all of the other dates can be bought in nice AU or even Uncirculated for $7,500 and lower. I feel this is a set which should be more popular than it currently is. The four Civil War issues are in demand but other scarce, interesting issues are lagging the other mintmarked quarter eagles both in terms of price and demand.
3. Collecting Undervalued Issues
Another way to collect Liberty Head quarter eagles is to focus on those issues which appear to be undervalued. There are numerous dates which appear to be undervalued; here is a list of 10 with a quick comment or two:
- 1840: Low priced first year of issue
- 1842: A very tough early Philadelphia issue
- 1844: Not as tough as the 1842 but affordable and undervalued
- 1849-C: Very hard to find with natural surfaces
- 1853-D: If any D mint issue is undervalued it’s the 53-D
- 1859 Old Reverse: A bit esoteric but hard to find
- 1862-S: The scarcest collectible SF quarter eagle
- 1867: Perhaps the most undervalued date in the whole series
- 1877: Only 1,632 struck yet still affordable
- 1883: Harder to find than the 1881 yet lower priced
4. Collecting Low Mintage Issues
Low mintage doesn’t always mean rare but there are numerous Liberty Head quarter eagles with low mintages.
- Mintages Below 1,000: 1841, 1854-S, 1856-D, 1863 (Proofs only), 1875, 1881, 1885
- Mintages Below 2,500: 1848 CAL, 1854-D, 1855-D, 1857-D, 1859-D, 1865, 1877, 1883, 1884
What’s especially interesting about the second group is that many of these lower mintage issues are comparatively affordable. The 1857-D and the 1859-D can be found in AU grades for less than $5,000 while Uncirculated examples of the 1877, 1883, and 1884 are available for less than $5,000 as well.
A third tier—coins with mintages lower than 5,000—would include a large number of interesting issues; nearly all of which are affordable.
5. Collecting High-End Condition Census Issues
If your budget is in the $10,000-50,000 range, you can compete for finest known or Condition Census Liberty Head quarter eagles. But you will have competition, especially in the Charlotte and Dahlonega series. I have noticed a real uptick in the number of serious quarter eagle collectors in the last few years. I have had the good fortune to build the single finest set of Liberty Head quarter eagles ever assembled (the Kansas Collection) and have also built numerous high-grade complete sets by mint.
Where does the best value in high-grade quarter eagles lie? I’d have to say the best values are currently in the San Francisco and Philadelphia series; if only due to the fact that they lag the southern issues. As an example, I recently sold what is likely the second or third finest known low mintage 1874 (graded PCGS/CAC MS64) to a Midwestern specialist for less than $10,000.
What if your budget is under $10,000…can you still purchase impressive Liberty Head quarter eagles? The answer is a resounding yes. You might not be able to purchase Condition Census Charlotte or Dahlonega issues but $5,000-7,500 will go a long way in such interesting areas as 1840’s and 1850’s Philadelphia and New Orleans, and 1860’s and 1870’s San Francisco. Your coin dollars will, in fact, go further in the Liberty Head quarter eagle series than nearly any other denomination of 19th century American gold coins.
Would you like to begin a collection of Liberty Head quarter eagles? How would you like to work with the world’s leading expert, Doug Winter? If the answers is yes, you can contact Doug by email at firstname.lastname@example.org