What Killed the New Orleans Quarter Eagle Market?

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

1840-O $2.50 NGC 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

1843-O Small Date $2.50 PCGS 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

1852-O $2.50 NGC 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

1857-O $2.50 PCGS 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 dwn@ont.com.

1854-O $2.50 NGC MS61

Even though the population figures have increased over the years, the 1854-O quarter eagle is still a scarce and undervalued issue in Uncirculated. Of the few dozen accounted for in this range, most grade MS60 to MS61 and few show the rich luster and natural green-gold hues that this piece possesses. A few scuffs can be seen in the fields and the strike is slightly weak at the centers. In the last five years, only seven examples graded MS61 have appeared at auction.

1839-D $2.50 NGC EF45 CAC

Variety-1. The 1839-D is not the rarest Dahlonega quarter eagle (that honor belongs to the 1856-D) but it is clearly the most popular and certainly the most historically significant. It has the dual distinction of being a one-year type and a first-year-of-issue which gives it a very broad range of appeal. While not really a rare coin, it is very hard to find with original color and surfaces. The present example is one of the nicer collector grade 1839-D quarter eagles that I have owned in some time. It has good detail and choice surfaces with rich natural orange-gold pastel color. There is nice balance between the obverse and the reverse with more detail on the feathers than usual. The last EF45 1839-D quarter eagle to sell was a PCGS example in the Heritage 12/10 auction that brought $6,325.

CAC has approved two in this grade with six finer.

1851-D $2.50 NGC MS62 CAC

This fresh-to-the-market coin was discovered at the recent Philadelphia ANA show, sold to a wholesale dealer and was then sold to me. This is the first time it has ever been offered to collectors and it is one of the more important individual Dahlonega quarter eagles that I've handled all year. This is a date that is not generally seen with good eye appeal but there are a few higher quality pieces known that are attractive. This is clearly one of those. It is well struck and fully original with nice natural green-gold color and soft, satiny luster. There are no describable marks and if this coin were graded MS63 it would not look out of place in the holder. I know of approximately six Uncirculated 1851-D quarter eagles. The finest is the NGC MS65/PCGS MS64 Duke's Creek: 1508 coin that sold for $63,250 in April 2006. There are three coins graded MS62 by PCGS. One is in a Georgia collection and is ex Jasper Robertson: 1267 while another is a coin that I sold to a Kansas collector and it is from the Chestatee collection. The NGC population report shows an MS64 but I believe that this is the Duke's Creek coin mentioned above. There are no auction records for an MS62 since the aforementioned Chestatee coin that sold for $12,075 back in August 1999; the Robertson coin, then graded MS61, sold for a rousing $28,000 in the 1999 FUN auction. The present example is solidly in the Condition Census for the date and it is the best 1851-D quarter eagle that I've handled since the finest known Duke's Creek coin that I sold over six years ago. This is an extremely important coin for the serious Dahlonega collector.

This is the only 1851-D quarter eagle in MS62 to be approved by CAC with none finer.

1854-C $2.50 PCGS EF40 CAC

Attractive deep orange-gold color is contrasted by russet highlights on the portrait. This coin has the body of an EF45 to AU50 but it has been conservatively graded by PCGS on account of a weak strike on the reverse; curiously, the obverse is better detailed than usual for the date. The 1854-C is scarce in all grades with a mintage of just 7,295. I think this coin is an amazing value as a comparable 1847-C or 1858-C (dates that are three times more available in all grades) would sell for just a few hundred dollars less.

This is the only example of this date approved by CAC in this grade; six finer have been approved as well.

1847-C $2.50 PCGS EF40 CAC

The 1847-C is to Charlotte quarter eagles as the 1881-S is to Morgan dollars: an issue that is plentiful and well made. But unlike the San Francisco cartwheel, the 1847-C is not easy to find with great eye appeal. And this choice, totally original example is one of the more pleasing affordable Charlotte quarter eagles of any date that you are likely to find. It shows deep green-gold hues on both sides and there is a ton of dirt in the protected areas as you would expect on a coin of this era with original surfaces. Other than a few minor ticks on the obverse, there is essentially nothing "wrong" with this coin and I strongly recommend it to the beginning collector of Charlotte gold or branch mint gold in general.

1874 $2.50 PCGS MS63 CAC

Only 3,920 business strikes were made but this date is a bit more available in circulated grades than one might expect. It is rare in the lower Uncirculated grades, very rare in MS63 and extremely rare above this. A small number of really nice 1874 quarter eagles are known (in the MS63 to MS64 range) and since these pieces have basically similar looks, I would presume that a small hoard (four to six?) existed at one time. This is amongst the finest known with lovely rich yellow-gold color overlaid with light lemon splashes. There are a few faint copper spots on the obverse and more on the reverse (below the denomination and at the right wing tip). There are no APR's for PCGS MS63's of this date since February 2001 when an inferior example brought $5,290. In the last decade, there are four PCGS MS64 APR's, ranging from a low of $8,051 to a high of $9,258. This coin is a nice combination of high grade and low mintage.

This is the sole example in this grade approved by CAC with none finer.


1863-S $2.50 NGC EF45

After the extremely rare 1854-S, the next scarcest San Francisco quarter eagle is the unheralded 1863-S which narrowly eclipses the 1862-S. Only 10,800 were made and the survival rate is very low with probably no more than 1% still known. Auction records for EF45's are very scant over the last decade with just five seen from 2000 to the present. The most recent was Heritage 7/12: 4734 at $2,300 and the one right before this was Heritage 9/05: 4346 at $2,530; both were encapsulated by NGC. This example is light green-gold color with good detail but a bit of weakness on the reverse; the obverse is nicely detailed. There are a few small scuffs in the fields that do not detract. Trends is too low on this date as the last four APR's (dating back to 11/03) are for more than $2,000. A good coin for the savvy collector who appreciates undervalued Civil War issues.

1847-D $2.50 NGC AU55 CAC

Of the 200-250 known, only a dozen or so grade Uncirculated and most are in the EF40 to AU50 range. Nice AU55’s are regarded as scarce. This is a pleasing example with good color and surfaces. There is a considerable amount of luster on the obverse and reverse and the detail is above-average for the date and grade.

CAC has approved three in this grade with nine finer.