Revisiting The 1841 Quarter Eagle

A few years ago, I wrote a blog about 1841 quarter eagles that basically stated that the currently-accepted belief that all of the known examples were Proofs was wrong. After recently being able to examine no less than four 1841 quarter eagles at one time, I am now totally convinced that this issue exists in two distinct formats. Numismatic tradition states that the 1841 quarter eagle was struck only as a Proof. This has never made sense to me. With as many as 15-17 pieces known, why would the Mint have made so many Proofs in 1841 when virtually none were struck in any other year between 1842 and 1853? And why would most of the survivors be in such low grades (EF40 to AU50) when most of the Proof gold coins from the 1840's that still exist tend to be in reasonably high grades?

This enigma has become a semi-obsession of David Hall's and when you are the head of Collector's Universe/PCGS you can get things done. David was able to wrangle four different examples of the 1841 quarter eagle including a PR60 illustrated below. A few weeks ago, one of his security detail flew the four coins up to my office in Portland and I am now more convinced than ever that 1841 quarter eagles exist in two formats.

1841 $2.50 PCGS PR60

First, a few words about the Proofs. One of the main reasons that you can determine that a Proof 1841 quarter eagle actually is a Proof is that is “looks like one.” These coins are not weakly struck, nor is there any question about whether they have squared edges or incomplete reflectiveness to the fields. These coins look just like other Proof gold coins from the 1840's. They may have some mint-made flaws such as pits in the planchet or lintmarks but their appearance is not much different than Proofs from the latter part of the 19th century either.

There appear to be just three or four Proofs known. The finest is a PCGS PR64 owned by a prominent Texas collector that is ex Heritage 6/04: 6204 where it brought $253,000; it was earlier in the Eliasberg sale and it sold for $82,500 in October 1982. The second Proof is owned by a customer of mine and it is graded PR60 by PCGS. I purchased it out of Bass II in October 1999 and paid $110,000 for it. A third Proof is in the Smithsonian. I have not seen the coin in person but it has been confirmed by Jeff Garrett whose opinion I respect. A possible fourth Proof is the ex Davis-Graves coin that was last sold as Superior 2/91: 2664 at $66,000. This coin might be the piece that appears in the PCGS population report as a PR62.

When I recently examined the Eliasberg and Bass Proofs, I made the following observations about them. I’m certain they apply to the other one or two Proofs as well.

*Proof 1841 quarter eagles have fully reflective fields that look like Proofs should. They are not "semi-prooflike" or "mostly prooflike." They are Proofs, no ifs and or buts.

*On Proof 1841 quarter eagles, there is sharpness of strike on the curls below the ear of Liberty. This sharpness does not appear on business strikes.

*The texture on the face of Liberty is different on Proofs. This may be attributable to the fact that the luster pattern on the cheek has not yet been worn off as it has on circulated business strikes.

*The curls on the back of the neck have a bold, almost three-dimensional look on Proofs. On business strikes they are not as sharp.

*On the Proofs the edges are sharp and fully squared. They are not as sharp and clearly not fully squared on business strikes.

I can quickly summarize why I think the lower grade 1841 "proofs" are not proofs at all and were clearly produced as business strikes (but using the same dies as the Proofs).

First of all, logic dictates that there are just too many 1841 quarter eagles known for all these coins to be Proofs. The number of coins that I feel are real Proofs (three or four) is consistent with the number known for other Proof quarter eagles from the 1840's. It just doesn’t make sense that the Mint would have made 30 or so Proofs in 1841 but five or so (if that) in every other year during the 1840's. Could they have been struck for a special occasion? It's possible but I have always doubted this reason and until documentation is found that states that they were made to commemorate an event or to give to VIP's, I am skeptical at best.

Secondly, many of the surviving 1841 quarter eagles are very low grade; in the Fine to Extremely Fine range. I have never seen or heard of another Proof quarter eagle from the 1840's that was this impaired.

Thirdly—and I believe most importantly—the business strikes, while Prooflike, just don’t "look" like Proofs. The marks on them don't fall in the same pattern that you see on Impaired Proofs; i.e., they look like circulated business strikes. As I stated above, they are not as well struck as the unquestionable Proofs and lack the squared rims and bold central details that are found on the true Proofs. They just don’t look or "feel" like Proofs.

In my opinion, David Hall and PCGS are to be credited for bringing this issue out into the opinion. It will be interesting to see if PCGS starts categorizing 1841 quarter eagles as Proofs and circulation strikes/business strikes and it will be interesting to see if the market starts according a premium to the Proofs as there should be, given their greater rarity.

The Ten Rarest Liberty Head Quarter Eagles

The response to the article that I wrote last month on the ten rarest Liberty Head eagles was so overwhelmingly positive that I’ve decided to extend this format to other denominations of Liberty Head gold. This month’s topic: quarter eagles. The Liberty Head quarter eagle series was produced from 1840 through 1907. Unlike the larger denomination issues of this type, quarter eagles were never produced at the Carson City or Denver mints. Thus, these coins were produced at five facilities: Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans, Charlotte and Dahlonega.

There are numerous ways in which to collect Liberty Head quarter eagles. Most specialists focus on the issues from a specific mint. The most popular individual mint is Dahlonega, followed by Charlotte and New Orleans.

A small but dedicated cadre of collectors attempts to put together a complete set of Liberty Head quarter eagles. Such a set can be completed although at least two or three issues are very rare and quite expensive. This set is impossible to complete in Uncirculated due to the unavailability of at least one issue (the 1854-S) in Mint State. Every other issue, however, is known in Uncirculated although a number of these are extremely rare.

Some of the collectors who are attempting to assemble a complete set of Liberty Head quarter eagles also include significant varieties. These are generally limited to the ones that are recognized by PCGS and/or NGC.

One interesting way to collect this series would be to focus on the major rarities or key issues. But in the case of the Liberty Head quarter eagles, the most famous coins are not necessarily the rarest. Most readers of this article will be surprised that I have not included the famous 1848 CAL in the list of the ten rarest issues of this type. Even though this is clearly one of the ten most popular (and most desirable) issues, it is less scarce than generally acknowledged and it does not make the Top Ten list.

Without further ado, here are the ten rarest Liberty Head quarter eagles along with pertinent information about each issue:

1. 1854-S

2. 1841

3. 1863

4. 1864

5. 1865

6. 1856-D

7. 1855-D

8. 1875

9. 1866

10. 1842

1. 1854-S: The 1854-S is the rarest Liberty Head quarter eagle by a fairly large margin. There are around a dozen examples known from the original mintage of just 246 coins. Something that I have always found interesting about this date is the fact that most of the survivors are extremely well worn. At least five or six of the dozen known either grade VF20 or less or show damage. In fact, I am aware of just two examples that grade EF (by my standards) and a single coin that grades AU. For many years, the 1854-S was overlooked and, in comparison to other great U.S. gold rarities, it was greatly undervalued. The first example of this date to sell for a six-figure price was Bass II: 472 (now graded AU53 by NGC) that brought $135,700 in October 1999. In September 2005, I purchased an NGC EF45 example that was previously unknown to the collecting community out of an ANR auction for $253,000. This record was broken in February 2007 when a PCGS EF45 brought $345,000 in a Heritage sale. My best guess is that prices will continue to rise for this issue and the next comparatively choice example that is made available to collectors will set another price record.

2. 1841: This is probably the most famous date in this series and, for many years, it was the issue that traditionally sold for the highest price when it appeared at auction. Known as “The Little Princess,” it has been stated that “20 pieces” were struck. For many years, numismatic tradition has stated that these were produced only as Proofs. It is my opinion that some (if not most) were also struck in a business strike format. It is also my opinion that the reported mintage is too low and that as many as 50 or so were made. To the best of my knowledge, the current auction record for this issue is $253,000 which was set in June 2004 when Heritage sold an NGC PR65; this broke the previous record set by Bass III: 105 (graded PR64 by PCGS) back in 2000. I believe that a Gem 1841 quarter eagle, if available today, would sell for considerably more than this.

Note: For more information on this issue, please click here.

3. 1864: Placing this date as #3 on my Top Ten list may be a surprise to many collectors who probably expected the 1863 to make the #3 spot. But I feel the 1864 is clearly rarer than the 1863 and that it is one of the most overlooked and undervalued 19th century American issues. Only 2,824 were struck but, as with most gold coins from this era, the survival rate was very low due to significant meltings. I believe that around 15-20 examples are known. This includes an amazing NGC MS67 (ex: Byron Reed collection) that sold for $132,000 back in 1996 as well as two other Uncirculated coins, an NGC MS61 and a PCGS MS61, that are owned by two different collectors in Kansas. There are another six or seven that grade AU and the rest are in the VF-XF range. Despite this coin’s rarity, it is still affordable (especially in comparison to #1, #2 and #4 on this list).

Note: For more information on this issue please click here.

4. 1863: The 1863 is the single Proof-only quarter eagle of this type (although the 1841 has traditionally assumed to be as well; see above for my refutation of this belief). There were a total of 50 pieces struck of which I would estimate that around 20 or so exist. I place this coin as #4 on my Top Ten list based on the fact that I have seen far more 1863 quarter eagles available for sale in the last ten years than 1864 quarter eagles. Nonetheless, this is a very rare coin and it has always been a stopper for date collectors of this denomination. As recently as the middle of this decade, prices for this issue were relatively modest, considering this date’s rarity and significance. Nice PR63 to PR64 examples were selling for $35,000-50,000+ until a few years ago when prices began to jump; as they did for all Classic Rarities. The all-time auction record for this issue was set in January 2007 when Heritage sold an NGC PR66 Deep Cameo for $149,500. I have handled three examples of this date in the last four years. The 1863 quarter eagle is generally found with light hairlines but excellent contrast and very deep mirrors. It is a date whose importance is only now being fully realized and I believe that it is an issue whose price levels will continue to soar as this series becomes more popular.

5. 1865: Due to the fact that it has a mintage of just 1,520, some people have assumed that the 1865 is a rarer date than the 1864. This is not the case as the 1865 appears to have a slightly higher survival rate. My best estimate is that there are 25-35 examples known. According to the PCGS Population Report, there is an example graded MS63. I am not aware of this piece but assuming that it exists, it is by far the finest known and it is the only Uncirculated 1865 quarter eagle that exists. Both PCGS and NGC show an abnormally high number of coins graded AU58 and this is as a result of multiple resubmissions. I believe that there are around six or seven properly graded AU’s known as well as another ten or so in EF. When available, this date tends to have below average eye appeal due to very scuffy surfaces. I haven’t seen more than a handful of 1865 quarter eagles that were totally original and choice. At current price levels, I think this coin is excellent value as it is a major rarity that can be purchased in a Condition Census-level grade for less than $20,000.

6. 1856-D: There may actually be one or two quarter eagles that I placed lower on this list that are scarcer than the 1856-D. But these don’t have the little “D” mintmark placed on the reverse; a feature that makes this coin so endearing to specialists. Oh—and they don’t have an original mintage of just 874 coins either. The 1856-D is the rarest Dahlonega gold coin of any denomination with an estimated 45-55 pieces known. It is generally seen in EF grades with many advanced collectors holding out for a nice AU coin for their collection. As I have mentioned in past writings, this is probably the single hardest United States gold coin to properly grade due to the fact that it was poorly struck from improperly prepared dies and many examples have the luster and surfaces of one grade but the detail of another, far lower grade. The current auction record for an 1856-D was set by yours truly when I purchased the Heritage 4/06: 1513 coin for $71,875. This piece graded MS61 by NGC and it is certainly among the finest known.

Note: For more information on this issue please click here.

7. 1855-D: The 1855-D is the second rarest Dahlonega quarter eagle. For a number of years, I believed that it was the rarest but this is mistaken as the 1856-D (see above) is clearly rarer. Only 1,123 1855-D quarter eagles were struck and an estimated 50-60 are believed to exist. This issue tends to be a bit better struck than the 1856-D but it is another issue that the eye appeal tends to be negative. Any 1855-D that is well struck and which shows original color is very rare and worth a significant premium over the typical example. Most are seen in the VF to EF range and properly graded AU’s are very rare. I have only seen one or two that I regard as Uncirculated. The finest known is the example in the Smithsonian that is said to grade MS62 or thereabouts. The all-time auction record is Heritage 4/06: 1512 (graded MS61 by NGC) that realized $54,625.

Note: For more information on this issue please click here.

8. 1875:If this article had been written a few decades ago, it is likely that the 1875 would have ranked much higher up the list. With an original mintage of just 400 business strikes, it is easy to see why this date was once believed to be an extreme rarity. It appears that the 1875 is actually a bit more available than one would assume (this is also the case with the ultra-low mintage gold dollar of this year) with as many as 50-60+ pieces known. That said, the 1875 quarter eagle is still extremely popular and I love the fact that the collector of average means can still purchase a decent EF example, given the fact that these still trade in the $4,000-5,000 range. The 1875 becomes rare in properly graded AU55 and it is very rare in Uncirculated with four to six known. The finest I have seen is Goldberg 5/99: 666 (graded MS64 by PCGS; it sold for $25,300) while the second best is probably the Bass II: 587 coin (graded MS62 by PCGS; it brought $17,250 back in 1999). The 1875 quarter eagle is nearly always found with fully prooflike surfaces but it is easy to distinguish from a Proof due to an entirely different date position.

9. 1866: As you can tell from this list, the Philadelphia quarter eagles from 1863 to 1866 include many of the rarest individual issues in this entire series. The 1866 is not quite in the same league as the 1864 or 1865 but it is another rarity with an original mintage of just 3,080. There are around 55-65 known with most in the EF40 to AU50 range. The 1866 is extremely scarce in the middle AU grades and rare in properly graded AU58. There are around five or six known in Uncirculated. Interestingly, this date was unknown in Uncirculated at the time Akers wrote his seminal guide to quarter eagles. I am aware of at least two Gems and another coin that grades MS64. The all-time auction record is held by Heritage 5/07: 2239 (graded MS65 by PCGS; it sold for $40,250). All 1866 quarter eagles have satiny luster and surfaces that show pronounced horizontal die striations.

10. 1842: This is probably the least well-known date in my Top Ten list and, honestly, I think I am slighting it by ranking it as “only” #10. The 1842 quarter eagle is very scarce in all grades and around 50-60 are known from the original mintage of just 2,823. Unlike the 1866 and 1875, this issue is generally seen in very low grades and it becomes extremely rare in AU. I doubt if more than five to seven properly graded AU’s exist and in Mint State the 1842 is unique. I sold a PCGS MS62 a number of years ago to a Kansas collector who owns the finest set of Liberty Head quarter eagles ever assembled. I had earlier bought the coin from the Superior 9/99 auction where, as Lot 1863, it sold for $31,050. Despite this issue’s unassailable rarity, it is still very reasonably priced. I have seen examples in EF grades bring between $3,000 and $5,000 at auction which seems downright cheap for a coin that is many times rarer than its better-known (and more expensive) branch mint counterparts from this era.

There are a number of other Liberty Head quarter eagles that I think are worthy of Honorable Mention status. These include the 1844, 1845-O (if the Top Ten list featured bonus points for popularity, I would have certainly included this date instead of the far less popular 1866 or the more obscure 1842), 1862/1, 1863-S, 1867 (possibly the most underrated date in the entire series) and the 1872.

1841 Quarter Eagle Observations

I recently studied an 1841 quarter eagle graded PR53 by PCGS which was offered by Heritage in their February 2007 Long Beach auction. Numismatic tradition states that around 20 1841 quarter eagles were struck, all as Proofs. Numismatic tradition, in this case, is wrong.

The 1841 in the Heritage sale was unquestionably produced as a business strike. I’ve seen at least three other examples which I believe were produced for circulation as well.

Here are a few observations about the 1841 quarter eagle which I’d like to share:

1. Given the fact that around fifteen 1841 quarter eagles exist, let’s assume that the actual original mintage figure is more like 25-30 instead of the presumed 20 (I actually think it could be as high as 50). Then, let’s look at one other important fact: the mintage figure for Proof quarter eagles during the 1840’s is, with the exception of the 1841, less than ten coins per year. In some cases (i.e., 1847 and 1849) Proofs from this decade do not even exist. Why is the Proof mintage figure so high? Especially given the fact there is nothing “special” about this year; nothing, that is, which would cause so many Proofs to be struck.

2. Proof gold coins from the 1840’s look like Proofs, even when they are well-circulated. The 1841 in the Heritage sale did not look remotely like a Proof. It had absolutely no reflectiveness in the protected areas, the rims were not squared and the overall “look” of the coins did not suggest that it had been made for presentation purposes.

3. There are 1841 quarter eagles that exist in grades as low as Very Good to Fine. No other Proof gold coins from the 1840’s are known in very low grades so why should 1841 “Proofs” be found with this degree of circulation?

4. Despite having its own nickname (the “Little Princess”) the 1841 quarter eagle is a coin whose status as a Classic American Rarity seems to have diminished in recent years. My guess is that this is because specialists feel that since it is considered to be a “Proof-only” issue it isn’t necessarily an integral member of a business strike set of Liberty Head quarter eagles. It is curious that the 1854-S quarter eagle, an issue that was traditionally valued at lower levels than the 1841, is now regarded as a “better” coin and is bringing higher prices.

David Akers, who I regard to be the most knowledgeable expert of all-time on the subject of United States gold coinage has stated in his seminal work on quarter eagles that he believes that the 1841 quarter eagle was struck in two formats: as Proofs and as circulation strikes. However, in their 2006 book “Encyclopedia of United States Gold Coins,” Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth state that “only Proof quarter eagles were produced in 1841; circulated examples are said to exist, but these are actually mishandled Proofs that entered circulation.” I am clearly in the Akers camp in this debate and the 1841 quarter eagle I just viewed at Long Beach makes me feel more strongly than ever that business strike 1841 quarter eagles DO exist.