1834 Fat Head Quarter Eagle

When you list the great rarities in the quarter eagle denomination, there are issues that everyone knows about. The 1796 No Stars and With Stars, the 1804 13 Stars, the 1841, the 1854-S and the 1863 are famous coins that are well-regarded outside of the specialist community. But there is one issue that is every bit as rare as the ones that I mentioned above although its fame is not as widespread. This is the 1834 With Motto and it’s the subject of a brief look in today’s blog. (NOTE: throughout this article the terms With Motto and Capped Head are used interchangeably for this variety. Both terms are numismatically correct). The background of this issue is very interesting. As the Mint was preparing to strike gold coins in 1834, the price of this metal was rising quickly. By the time the quarter eagles were ready to be released into circulation, they had an intrinsic value of $2.66. This, obviously, meant that any pieces that were released would be melted by speculators or bullion dealers. As a remedy, the Mint passed the Act of June 28, 1834 which lowered the weight of this denomination by nineteen grams as well as the quality of the gold used from .916 fine to .899 fine.

Of the 4,000 quarter eagles struck in 1834 with the old Capped Head design, only a small number escaped the melting pot. Estimates of survivors range from a low of twelve to fifteen (Breen and Akers) to a high of twenty to twenty-four (Dannreuther). Given the (un)availability of this issue over the past decade, my personal feeling is that Dannreuther’s estimate is too high and that the total known is somewhere in the area of fifteen to eighteen. This includes at least two that are impounded in museum collections (Smithsonian and ANA/Bass) plus two that are impaired or damaged.

Breen has suggested that all 1834 With Motto quarter eagles may have begun life as Proofs. I believe that this is incorrect. All of the other Capped Head quarter eagles do exist in Proof but in extremely limited numbers. There is no reason that the quantity of Proofs produced in 1834 should have escalated dramatically and I think that there are only two or three true Proofs known (Smithsonian and Eliasberg: 100 are unquestionable Proofs while the ANA/Bass Foundation piece is possibly a Proof). The other higher grade pieces are prooflike business strikes and they lack the depth of strike, squaring of the rims and reflectiveness that are found on true Proofs of this era.

One thing that is certain about this issue is that it is exceedingly rare in higher grades. PCGS has graded a total of eight including four in Uncirculated (63-62 and two in 61) while NGC has graded a total of nine including two in Uncirculated (63-61). I am not certain where the coin graded MS63 is currently but assume that the PCGS and NGC listings are the same piece. The PCGS MS62 coin is ex: Superior 10/95: 929 (at $50,600) while the NGC MS61 is ex: Heritage 3/97: 6323 where it sold for $36,800. I have never personally seen an Uncirculated 1834 With Motto quarter eagle.

Since 1997, there have been a total of eleven auction records for the 1834 Capped Head quarter eagle. This probably represents four to six separate coins. A remarkable “mini-hoard” was sold in 1997 when the Archdiocese of Buffalo collection was dispersed. Heritage sold two in their June 1997 Long Beach auction (an NGC AU50 and an NGC AU58) and then two more (another NGC AU50 and an NGC AU55) at their 1997 ANA sale. Since then, the number that have appeared for sale have been sparse, to say the least.

I think that one of the best ways for me to gauge the rarity of the 1834 With Motto quarter eagle is to look back at my records to see how many I have handled in the past decade. After racking my brain for all of three seconds I can give you the answer: just one example; a piece graded AU53 by NGC. During this same time period I have handled three different 1841 quarter eagles, three different 1854-S and four 1863 quarter eagles.

Now that I’ve (hopefully) shown you that this is a genuinely rare coin, you are probably wondering why it is so overlooked and why it is never mentioned in the same breath as other Classic Rarities in the United States gold series. I have a few suggestions as to why this is the case:

1. The 1834 Capped Head quarter eagle has never received much publicity because it is so rare. It doesn’t have a cute nickname like the “Little Princess” (1841 quarter eagle) and it didn’t become a numismatic flavor of the month as the 1854-S has in recent years. With virtually no pieces having appeared at auction in the last decade, the lack of publicity for the 1834 has been remarkable.

2. Neophyte collectors are probably confused by the fact that there are two distinct types of 1834 quarter eagle: the extremely rare No Motto and the extremely common With Motto. Given the availability of the common Classic Head type, it takes some explaining to the new collector that not all 1834 quarter eagles are available by the boatload.

3. Few people collect Capped Head quarter eagles by date, so the 1834 is not given the attention of a coin in a more popular series. This is a little bit surprising, given the fact that other early gold issues that are not necessarily from “popular” series (Fat Head half eagles come to mind...) command strong prices and considerable respect from non-specialists. If the Capped Head series became even a fraction as popular as, say the Indian Head quarter eagles series, just imagine what this would do to prices...