One of my all-time favorite “sleeper” issues is the 1864 quarter eagle. Although not well-known outside of the specialist community, the 1864 is not only among the rarest Liberty Head quarter eagles of any date, it is also one of the rarer Liberty Head issues of any denomination struck for general circulation. Production of gold coinage at all mints was extremely limited during the final years of the Civil War with the exception of double eagles. The Philadelphia mint all but eliminated the quarter eagle denomination from 1863 through 1865. In 1863, only 30 Proofs were struck (none were issued for circulation) while in 1864, a total of 2,824 pieces were struck for circulation. In 1865, the mintage dropped back down to a scant 1,520 and it would remain at well under 10,000 per year until 1873.
You would expect the 1864 quarter eagle to be a rare coin with an original mintage of just 2,824 but it has a very low survival rate. I estimate that no more than 15 or so exist including one or two which have been harshly cleaned. It is interesting to note that the 1865, with a mintage which is nearly 50% lower, is at least twice as available.
The moment you begin to study some numbers about the 1864 quarter eagle, the more impressive this date becomes. As an example, PCGS has graded just eight examples in all grades, giving it the second lowest population of any business strike Liberty Head quarter eagle (trailing only the extremely rare 1864). NGC has graded even fewer with just six coins recorded.
Studying auction records for the last fifteen years provides even more impressive results. There have only been twelve coins sold at auction since 1993. Perhaps the most remarkable fact about this date is that the Bass collection, which contained multiple examples of most very rare quarter eagles, had just a single low grade example: a cleaned piece with the sharpness of Extremely Fine.
I thought it would be interesting to create a Condition Census for this date which is something I’m not certain has ever been done before. Here are the finest 1864 quarter eagles of which I am aware.
1. Private collection, via Spectrum Numismatics, ex: Spink America 10/96: 57 ($132,000), Byron Reed collection. Graded MS67 by NGC. I think this is one of the most amazing United States gold coins in existence. It is among the two or three best pre-1880 quarter eagles I have ever seen and it is among my favorite United States gold coins of any date or denomination.
2. Kansas collection, ex: Doug Winter, Nevada collection, Bowers and Merena 1/96: 1848 ($27,500; as NGC MS60). Graded MS61 by PCGS.
3. Kansas collection, ex: Doug Winter. Graded MS61 by NGC. It is in a different collection than #2. I actually handled both of these coins simultaneously and I am almost certain that this was the only time in numismatic history that a coin dealer had two Uncirculated 1864 quarter eagles in stock at one time(!)
4. PCGS has graded one piece AU58. It is possible that it may be either coin #2 or one of the coins listed below.
5. Heritage 9/02: 8005 ($20,700), ex: Heritage 1/01: 8099 (unsold). Graded AU58 by NGC.
In addition to these five coins, there is a single piece graded AU55 by PCGS, two coins graded AU50 by NGC and a single coin graded AU50 by PCGS. Altogether, there are a total of two pieces known in Uncirculated, another six or so in AU and probably another half dozen that grade EF.
Every 1864 quarter eagle I have seen is very well struck. Both the obverse and the reverse tend to display full detail in the centers. A few are just a bit weak on the eagle’s right (or facing) leg. The surfaces are quite scuffy and show a number of marks and hairlines. As one might expect from an issue with such a low mintage figure, the surfaces on most of the survivors are quite reflective. I have seen a few lower grade pieces which appeared to be more frosty than reflective but this was probably the result of long, intense wear. The natural coloration is a medium to deep orange-gold hue. Most every piece I have seen has been cleaned or dipped at one time, although the Byron Reed and PCGS MS61 coins listed above were both quite original. The eye appeal for this issue is definitely below average. Most 1864 quarter eagles show a good deal of wear, have been cleaned and do not possess pleasing color.
The current Trends value for this date is $21,000 in EF40 and $27,500 in AU50 with no prices listed for grades higher than this. In my opinion, these figures are way too low, especially for AU50. This is a remarkably rare coin that appears for sale at a rate of less than once per year and if it were a part of a more popular series than Liberty Head quarter eagles, it would trade for at least $40,000-50,000 in AU grades.