In the early part of 2003, an excellent book entitled "The 100 Greatest United States Coins" was published by H.E. Harris. The coins were selected by a panel of experts including myself. The 1854-S quarter eagle was only listed as #87 and was outranked by a number of more common gold issues including the 1915-S Octagonal and Round Pan-Pacific $50 gold pieces, the 1879 Flowing Hair Stella and the 1848 "CAL" quarter eagle. I recently had the pleasure of selling an 1854-S quarter eagle. As I researched this coin, I quickly realized that I was every bit as guilty as most numismatists of overlooking its rarity and historical importance.
The San Francisco mint officially opened in 1854. Its first year was exclusively dedicated to striking gold issues. It issued gold dollars, quarter eagles, half eagles, eagles and double eagles in 1854 and added three dollar gold pieces to its roster in 1855.
Tradition states that the mintage figure for the 1854-S quarter eagle (along with its half eagle counterpart) was extremely limited because of an absence of sufficient parting acids required to remove silver from the impure gold that California was receiving from its local sources. Only 246 1854-S quarter eagles were produced, giving this the lowest mintage figure of any regular issue produced at the San Francisco mint (the 1854-S half eagle, with an original mintage figure of 268 is a close second). Only two Liberty Head issues, the 1875 half eagle and eagle, have lower business strike mintage figures.
Curiously, the mintage figure for 1854-S eagles and double eagles was relatively high with 123,826 of the former and 141,468 of the latter produced. The real reason for the extremely limited mintage figures of the quarter eagle and the half eagle is much more likely due to the fact that the depositors of gold who requested coins in 1854 wanted large-sized denominations such as eagles and double eagles. The quarter eagle denomination was never popular in the West. None were made in 1855 and mintage figures remained small at San Francisco through the discontinuance of this denomination in 1879. The other western branch mint, at Carson City, never struck any quarter eagles.
Despite the very low mintage figure of the 1854-S quarter eagle, it has never achieved much popular acclaim. It is believed that between nine and twelve are known, making it the single rarest Liberty Head issue of this denomination and one of the two rarest quarter eagles of any type, along with the 1804 13 star variety. Unlike the two other great Liberty Head quarter eagles rarities, the 1841 and the 1863, the 1854-S is never seen in high grades. In fact, it is unique above Extremely Fine.
It is believed that the discovery specimen of the 1854-S quarter eagle was located in a western bank sometime around the beginning of the 20th century. It was sent to B. Max Mehl, the flamboyant Ft. Worth dealer who had advertised extensively to purchase individual rarities. Mehl sold it to H.O. Granberg, a prominent Wisconsin collector in the early 1900's. It is believed that Mehl sold it for $500, a fabulous sum at the time for a coin that was both relatively unknown and very low grade. It was then sold by a Massachusetts dealer named Elmer Sears to John H. Clapp for $395 and it became the property of Louis Eliasberg in 1942. It sold in the 1982 Eliasberg auction for $7,150 and was later offered as Lot 587 in Bowers and Merena May 1993 auction where it realized $20,900. It then resided in a Nevada collection until early 2003 when it was purchased by Douglas Winter Numismatics of Dallas.
The Eliasberg specimen, graded Good-6 by PCGS, is illustrated above and was recently sold by Douglas Winter Numismatics to a Pennsylvania collector for a mid five-figure sum.
In 1999, the Harry Bass example was offered for sale. It had been graded AU-50 by PCGS. It was purchased by a midwestern dealer for $135,700 and was later graded AU-55 by NGC. It is easily the finest 1854-S quarter eagle and it represents the high-water mark for this date in terms of its auction price. It is likely that if the Bass 1854-S quarter eagle were offered for sale today, it would bring considerably more.
Of the remaining pieces known, most are very low grade and at least three are damaged. For some reason, the 1854-S is nearly always found with surface impairments such as scratches or noticeable marks. The Eliasberg specimen, despite its extensive wear, is remarkable for its complete lack of detracting marks or damage.
Due to the rarity of this issue, it is likely that forgeries could be made by adding a mintmark to a common 1854 Philadelphia quarter eagle. However, the 1854-S has a noticeably different date position with the 1 placed very high and imbedded in the neck of Liberty. The other three digits slant downwards with the 4 far from the denticles. On the reverse, the right serif of the mintmark touches the arrow feathers while the left serif is nearly joined to the middle loop of the S. The mintmark is positioned to the left of the fraction line. All known examples show some weakness of strike at the curls at the center of the obverse. The reverse is much more weakly struck and appears to be a full grade lower. The wingtips and neck feathers are poorly defined and have a considerably different appearance than a Philadelphia quarter eagle of this era. Any 1854-S quarter eagle that is offered for sale should be certified for authenticity by third-party services such as PCGS or NGC.
As mentioned above, many experts feel that the 1854-S quarter eagle is an underappreciated and, consequently, undervalued issue. I believe that this is most definitely so. There are a number of reasons for this.
No 1854-S quarter eagle was offered at public auction until 1944 and only three have traded in the past decade. When specimens were offered during the Bass and Eliasberg sales, they were overshadowed by a host of other extremely rare issues and did not command the attention they would have in other less comprehensive "name" collections.
Another factor working against the 1854-S is that the survivors tend to be very low grade. The other great rarities of this series, the 1841 and 1863, are seen in higher grade when they are available. There are approximately fourteen to seventeen 1841 quarter eagles and this includes a number of Proofs. The 1863 is a Proof-only issue with an estimated fifteen known. Of these, at least half grade in the Proof-64 to Proof-65 range. The 1854-S has just nine to twelve pieces known and most of these are in the Good-6 to Very Fine-20 range. It is difficult for a low grade coin to sell for a high price, no matter how rare it is.
There are not many collectors who specialize in San Francisco gold coinage and this has also helped to hold down the price of the 1854-S quarter eagle. However, this issue could just as easily be collected along with Territorial and Pioneer issues as it is an important gold rush era relic.
For a number of years, I wondered if the population of the 1854-S quarter eagle and half eagle would increase from discoveries made on the S.S. Central America. With all of the gold coins on this ship, it seemed possible that at least a few would be dated 1854-S. There were no 1854-S quarter eagles or half eagles on this ship so these fears proved to be unfounded.
When one considers that only 246 of the quarter eagles were struck, a surviving population of just nine to twelve pieces is in line with other issues of this era. What remains very curious about the 1854-S quarter eagle is why these few remaining pieces are in such low grade. There are just three 1854-S half eagles known but two are in relatively high grades. How come there aren't a few more 1854-S quarter eagles that exist in the About Uncirculated-50 to Mint State-60 range as with other San Francisco gold issues of this era? This is a mystery that will probably never be solved.