Classic Head Gold Coinage, 1834-1838 Part One

For the first quarter of the 19th century, production of gold coinage was sporadic. Quarter eagles were produced intermittently and in very small numbers during this era. Half eagles saw the bulk of production but they were primarily storehouses of value and traveled from bank to bank. The eagle denomination was discontinued in 1804 and would not be resurrected until 1838. Many of the reasons for this lack of gold coin production were economically related. After the War of 1812, the economy of the United States was in shambles. Things became so bad by 1815 that, for the first and only year in the history of the U.S. mint, production of the Cent was suspended. In addition, the price of gold was very low in relation to silver and demand for high denomination gold coinage was non-existent.

A number of events converged to change this scenario. The Industrial Revolution, which overtook Western Europe during the early 1820's, was quickly transported to America, where it, too, revolutionized the economy and means of production. The discovery of large amounts of gold in Western North Carolina and North Georgia in the late 1820's and the early 1830's made gold more plentiful and made its price rise on the open market. By the middle part of the 1830's, there was clearly a need for circulating gold coins in the United States.

Chief Engraver William Kneass was ordered to produce a new design for the quarter eagle and half eagle. His design, known to collectors as the Classic Head, was to last until 1839 when it was replaced by the more familiar Liberty Head design of Christian Gobrecht.

Classic Head gold coinage represents an interesting transition between the old and the new types of United States gold coinage. These were the first United States gold coins to be produced in large quantities using technological breakthroughs such as the steam press and they were the first gold coins to be struck at the new branch mints which were authorized in 1835 and opened in 1838.

Despite the inherent collectability of these coins, they tend to be overshadowed by their earlier and later counterparts. It is my opinion that the Classic Head gold coins offer the collector an excellent value and a very fertile area in which to specialize.

A number of very interesting varieties exist for many of these dates. These are not currently popular with collectors but the affordability of most Classic Head issues (especially those produced at the Philadelphia mint) make them a good candidate to develop a strong die variety collector following in the future.

Classic Head Quarter Eagles

1834: More quarter eagles were struck in this year (112,234) using the Classic Head design than in the previous twenty years combined. The 1834 is, along with the 1836, the most common issue of this denomination and it is plentiful in all circulated grades. In Uncirculated, it is relatively available in the Mint State-60 to Mint State-63 range and is even available, from time to time, in Mint State-64. Gems are very scarce but are seen more often than any other Classic Head quarter eagle. The strike is usually sharp except for the hair curl around the ear of Liberty and on the corresponding reverse. The surfaces are often semi-prooflike or even fully prooflike and the natural color is often a very pleasing deep green-gold hue. Many show mint-made planchet problems. A small number of Proofs exist including the Pittman II: 1718 coin that realized $176,000 in May 1998.

A number of varieties exist. The most important are the Small Head (identifiable by the curl below star seven being somewhat distant and the curls at the back of the head being in a straight line) and the Large Head (identifiable by the curl below star seven being close, a much larger 4 in the date than on the Small Head and uneven curls at the back of Liberty's head).

1835: Despite a mintage similar to the 1834, this is a much scarcer date. It is typically seen in Very Fine to About Uncirculated grades. When available in Uncirculated, specimens tend to grade Mint State-60 to Mint State-62 and coins grading Mint State-63 and above are rare. I have only seen one or two real gems. The strike is not as sharp as on the 1834 with most showing considerable weakness at the central obverse. The luster ranges from frosty to semi-prooflike and the natural color is most often a medium to deep green-gold. The only Proof to be sold in recent memory was the Pittman II: 1719 coin that realized $176,000 in May 1998.

There are three minor die varieties with one obverse and three reverses employed.

1836: An incredible 547,986 quarter eagles were produced in 1836; a mintage figure that would not be exceeded in the quarter eagle denomination until 1851. This date is comparable to the 1834 in terms of its overall rarity and is also readily available in the lower Uncirculated grades. It is considerably scarcer than the 1834 in Mint State-63 and Mint State-64 and it is extremely rare in Gem condition. The strike is better than on the 1834-35 issues although most show weakness at the central obverse. The luster is typically a blend between satiny frost and prooflike reflectiveness while the coloration ranges from medium orange-gold to green-gold. A Proof was sold as Lot 1720 in the Pittman II sale and it brought $110,000.

A number of interesting varieties exist. This includes two distinct styles of 8 in the date: the Script or "Fancy" 8 and the Block 8. In addition, varieties exist with the Head of 1834 (the second curl on the top of Liberty's head lies directly the seventh star), the Head of 1835 (the second curl lies below the far left side of the seventh star) and the Head of 1837 (the second curl lies below the far right side of the seventh star). There are currently eight die varieties known and this is a very fertile issue for the die variety collector.

1837: The mintage figure for quarter eagles dropped to 45,080 in 1837. This issue is far more rare than the 1834-1836 and is exceeded in rarity only by the 1839 among the Philadelphia Classic Head quarter eagles. The 1837 is usually seen in Very Fine to extremely Fine grades and it is scarce in About Uncirculated. It is rare in any Uncirculated grade and very rare above Mint State-62. The only gem I have ever seen was the Bass II: 305 coin which was graded MS-65 by PCGS and which sold for $37,950 in 1999. This date is always found weak at the centers but usually has nice satiny luster and medium to deep green-gold color. In my opinion, it is a substantially undervalued issue.

There are a total of three die varieties but, unlike the 1836, none are significant.

1838: The 1838 has a mintage figure that is similar to the 1837 (47,030 were produced) but it is much more readily available. It is typically seen in slightly higher grades than the 1837 and locating a piece in any circulated grade is not hard. In high grades, the 1838 is moderately scarce in Mint State-60 to Mint State-62, rare in Mint State-63 and very rare above this. A few really superb pieces exist with the finest of these the incredible PCGS MS-67 that sold for $69,000 in the Bass II auction conducted by Bowers and Merena in October 1999. The 1838 is usually better struck than other Classic Head issues and has nice frosty luster, medium to deep orange-gold color and a very distinctive thick border on the obverse.

Only one die variety is known.

1838-C: This is the first branch mint quarter eagle and, obviously, the first Charlotte quarter eagle. Only 7,880 were struck and around 100-125 exist. Circulated examples tend to be well worn with most in the Very Fine to Extremely Fine range. While fairly hard to locate in the middle About Uncirculated grades, choice AU and Uncirculated 1838-C quarter eagles are actually a bit more easily located than generally believed; this is probably due to a small number being saved as souvenirs. There are as many as ten-twelve known in Uncirculated with the nicest of these being the North Georgia collection/Melish coin that sold for $40,250 in the 1999 FUN sale conducted by Heritage. Most show weak strikes at the centers, heavily abraded surfaces and low quality satiny luster. The original coloration tends to be a deep coppery-gold or green-gold.

Only one die variety is known. There are a number of Die States in which varying cracks are seen on the reverse.

1839: While almost never viewed as an important issue, the 1839 is actually the single scarcest Classic Head quarter eagle. I have personally owned more Uncirculated examples of the 1838-C, 1839-C and 1839-O than I have of this supposedly common date. The 1839 is most often seen in Extremely Fine and lower end About Uncirculated grades. It is very scarce in the higher AU grades and it is very rare in Uncirculated with fewer than ten known. The best I've personally seen are a pair of MS-62's including the Bass II: 309 coin that sold for $10,925. This is generally a well struck date that shows numerous surface abrasions and inferior luster. The natural coloration seen most often is light to medium greenish-yellow gold.

The 1839 is often described as an overdate but, in my opinion, it is a repunched date. There is only a single die variety known.

1839-C: The 1839-C is a much more available issue than the 1838-C. There are as many as 200-250 known and it is not hard to locate an example in Very Fine to Extremely Fine. There are more known in About Uncirculated than generally realized but many of these are enthusiastically graded. Uncirculated 1839-C quarter eagles are extremely rare and I have seen fewer than I have of the 1838-C. The finest known is the Miller/Bareford/Boyd coin, currently in an NGC MS-63 holder, that was last offered as Lot 6137 in Heritage's February 1999 sale. Most 1839-C quarter eagles are better struck than the 1838-C but tend to show weakness at the centers. The luster is usually not especially good and the natural color ranges from orange-gold to a medium green-gold hue.

There are three varieties known. An 1839-C recut date exists as does an 1839/8-C overdate. The overdate is found with two reverse varieties (one uses the reverse of 1838-C while the other is a reverse seen only on 1839-C quarter eagles).

1839-D: The 1839-D is the first quarter eagle produced at the Dahlonega mint and the only issue that has the Classic Head design. It is, in addition, the only quarter eagle from this mint with the mintmark on the obverse. It is quite comparable to the 1839-C in terms of its overall rarity and, like its Charlotte counterpart, it can be located in the lower to middle About Uncirculated grades without a great deal of effort. In Uncirculated it is more comparable in rarity to the 1838-C and less rare than the 1839-C but far rarer than the 1839-O. Some examples are very softly struck at the centers although a few exist that are reasonably well detailed. The surfaces are often abraded and the luster is better than average with a frosty texture most often seen. The natural color is a medium to deep orange-gold. The best piece I have ever seen is the James Stack coin, sold by Stack's in October 1994 for $55,000. It is now in a PCGS MS-64 holder.

1839-O: The 1839-O is the first gold coin produced at the New Orleans mint, the only quarter eagle that employs the Classic Head design and the only New Orleans gold coin with the mintmark on the obverse. These factors combine to make it extremely popular. More survive than the original mintage figure of 17,781 suggests and this is actually not a hard coin to locate in any grade up to and including About Uncirculated-58. There are a few dozen Uncirculated pieces known including a number in the Mint State-63 to Mint State-64 range. I have seen three or four accurately graded MS-64's and one that I consider a Gem by today's standards. Some show a good strike while others are weak at the centers; the luster is typically frosty and the natural coloration is often a pleasing orange-gold or deep green-gold hue. Many have been cleaned or dipped and original, problem-free pieces are desirable.

There are two varieties known. The more common has a high date with the 3 lower than the 89 and a widely spaced fraction; the scarcer has a lower date with the 839 more closely in line and a closely spaced fraction. These varieties are significant enough that I believe they will be collected side-by-side some day.

NOTE: Part Two will feature an analysis of Classic Head half eagles and will appear next month.