Rare Liberty Head Quarter Eagles in the Heritage October 2011 Sale: An Analysis

In their recent October 2011 Pittsburgh auction, Heritage Auctions sold a comprehensive collection of Liberty Head quarter eagles. This collection contained many of the rarities in this series and I'd like to take this time to analyze the coins themselves and the results that they garnered. One of the rarest collectible Liberty Head quarter eagles is the 1841. It has now been decided with near-certainty that this issue, formerly believed to have been Proof-only, was struck in both Proof and business strike formats.

I am of the opinion that the 1841 quarter eagle is still an undervalued coin. There are fewer than 20 known, and it is clearly among the rarest individual dates in this series. If the Liberty Head quarter eagle series were to become more collected by date, I could see a nice example in the PR50 to PR60 range range having a base value of $250,000+, given what other less rare U.S. gold coins are currently selling for.

It was hard to determine if the 1841 in the Heritage sale (graded PR55 by NGC) was a business strike or a Proof, as it had been fairly harshly cleaned at one time and most of the original surface had been stripped away. I actually thought the coin might have been a Proof but would need to see the coin out of its holder to be more certain.

This coin sold for $132,250 including the buyer's premium. I thought that this was a reasonably strong price, considering that the coin was really not attractive. The last example to sell was Heritage 7/09: 1230, graded NGC PR58, which was considerably nicer.

There were some interesting Dahlonega quarter eagles in the sale. The most interesting was a really nice 1854-D graded MS63 by PCGS. It is the second finest known of around five or so in Uncirculated, and this is a date that is scarce in all grades with an original mintage of just 1,760.

This exact coin had appeared in Heritage's June 2004 Long Beach sale (as Lot 6200, in a PCGS MS62 holder) where it brought $34,500. It then appeared as Bowers and Merena 3/10: 3623, in a PCGS MS63 holder, where it sold for $63,250.

I was bidding on this coin in the Heritage sale for a client and before the sale began, I estimated that it would bring around $50,000-55,000. Shortly before the sale began, I realized that this range was too low and I raised my bid accordingly.

I wound-up being the underbidder on the coin, and it sold for a record-setting $86,250. The previous high for this date was $80,500, set by the Duke's Creek: 1511 coin (which I purchased), graded MS64 by NGC and the finest known.

The Heritage sale showed me that the market for very high quality Dahlonega quarter eagles is quite strong. But the market is also very discerning and more sophisticated than in the past. An 1844-D quarter eagle in NGC MS63 was impressive if you look at the numeric grade assigned the coin, but it was softly struck and over-graded in my opinion. It sold for just $18,400; a far cry from the $30,800 it had brought back in May 1998 when it sold raw in the Pittman auction.

I also thought that the nicer New Orleans quarter eagles in the sale did well. A sharply struck 1840-O graded MS62 by PCGS realized $17,250, a softly struck but fresh-looking 1846-O in an NGC MS64 holder was bid to $23,500 and a decent quality but not especially choice 1847-O in PCGS MS63 brought $14,950.

Another major rarity in the collection was a PCGS VF35 1854-S. This coin has the distinction of being the rarest regular issue Liberty Head quarter eagle with an estimated 12-15 survivors. Unlike other very rare issues, the 1854-S is nearly always seen in low grades with only one known in AU (an NGC AU53 that is ex Bass II; 472) and two or three in EF.

I spoke with a number of knowledgeable dealers about the 1854-S in the sale and the reaction was mixed. Nearly everyone agreed that the coin wasn't attractive, and that if it weren't a rarity like an 1854-S quarter eagle it might not have been graded by PCGS. But I think they are missing an important point: very rare coins have always been given certainly allowances by collectors and dealers alike, and in the world of 1854-S quarter eagles, this coin was better than most.

The coin in the October 2011 Heritage sale brought $253,000. This is almost exactly what I expected it to bring.

A damaged "no grade" 1854-S in the Stack's Bowers 2011 ANA sale had just brought $201,250, which meant that the coin in the Heritage sale was a shoo-in to sell for more than this. The best comparable result for an 1854-S was the Heritage 2009 ANA: 224 coin, graded VF35* by NGC, which was sold for $253,000.

If the Heritage 10/11: 4692 coin had been a nicer piece for the grade and still in a PCGS holder holder, I think it would have sold for over $300,000. Its scratched surfaces and lack of overall eye appeal held back the final price realized but, as I said, above this is such a rare coin that eye appeal is not as big a factor as on more common issues.

That said, the NGC EF45 Lee coin (ANR 9/05: 1128) that I purchased six years ago for $253,000 is now looking like a very, very good value.

One final rarity in the sale that I though was interesting was Lot 4716: an 1864 graded AU58 by NGC. For years, the 1864 was perhaps the single major "sleeper" issue in the Liberty Head quarter eagle series. Only 2,824 were made, and business strikes are extremely rare with fewer than three dozen known.

I didn't like the coin in the Heritage sale. In fact, I thought it was an Impaired Proof that had been misidentified as a rarer business strike. The coin brought $40,250 which I thought was a pretty lackluster result, given that Heritage had sold another NGC AU58 for $46,000 as Lot 5333 in their April 2011 auction.

Their were a few other things I noticed about the sale. The first was that the CAC coins typically brought significant premiums over the non-CAC coins. The coins that had CAC stickers were generally nicer than their non-CAC counterparts, and assuming that Heritage sent all the coins to CAC, it wasn't hard to figure which coins were the "best." There were exceptions to this. The aforementioned 1854-D, which should have been stickered as it was really a nice coin, did fantastically and some of the rarities mentioned above (1841 and 1854-S) did just fine without them.

But there some examples of coins in this collection whose value was greatly improved by the presence of a CAC sticker. I'll give you a few examples. Lot 4714 was an 1862-S graded AU58 by PCGS and approved by PCGS. This coin sold for $8,625. In their October 2010 sale, Heritage sold the same date in the same grade but without a CAC sticker for $6,900.

Another strong CAC-generated price was realized by Lot 4715, an 1863-S graded AU58 by NGC. It sold for $9,775. Compare this to the $6,900 that Heritage 12/10: 4325 brought (it was non-CAC stickered) and you'll see the value of the "green bean" to certain buyers.

My overall take on the sale was it did well but was not a "run-away." There were some coins that flew under the radar but very few bargains were to be had. The coins that appeared to sell for low prices weren't very nice. What I found surprising what that some of the coins that were nice but which were "hard sells" seemed to do just fine, even though there are not all that many end-users for them.

Some Rare Coins That You (Almost) Never See Anymore

I was thinking the other day about the cycles of availability that run through the coin market. Around ten years ago, the market was flooded with rare date Proof gold; today you almost never see it. In the late 1990's, there were a number of wonderful collections of Charlotte and Dahlonega sold at auction; today you rarely see more than a few interesting pieces scattered here and there. What are some of the other rare, interesting coins that have gone from being formerly available to currently almost unavailable? 1. 1861-D Gold Dollars and Half Eagles: A quick check of my records shows that I handled four 1861-D gold dollars in 2008, three in 2009 and exactly one since then. After sighing in frustration, I couldn't bring myself to check the numbers on the 1861-D half eagle but I'm sure they are similar.

Neither of these issues are truly rare but they are immensely popular and have a collector base that extends out of the core group of Dahlonega cultists that you'd expect would want to own them. This means that once a collector buys a "dream coin" like an 1861-D gold dollar he isn't likely to sell it; even though values have risen appreciably on this coin (and the similarly dated half eagle) in the last three years.

2. Really Nice AU55 to AU58 Dahlonega Half Eagles. Where exactly have these all gone? In the not-so-distant past I might have three to five different crusty AU55 to AU58 Dahlonega half eagles in stock, especially after returning from a major show or big auction. Today, it seems like months can go by before I am able to buy one or two.

I have a few theories as to these coin's sudden disappearance. many of the formerly crusty AU55 and AU58 coins have been dipped-n-stripped and are now bright, unappealing MS60 to MS61 coins. Many of the very nice crusty pieces that I sold over the years are in tightly-held collections and aren't likely to be sold any time soon. Prices have been flat for a number of years on these coins and collectors who might have bought, say, an 1852-D half eagle in crusty AU58 back in 2004 have no real reason to sell from a financial standpoint. So, the supply of nice DWN-quality Dahlonega half eagles is currently at the lowest level I can remember in years.

3. Rare Date Fat Head Fives: I used to be an active buyer of the half eagles struck between 1813 and 1834, I still am except for the fact that nearly all of my activity in this area, of late, has been focused on a small group of dates: namely the 1813, 1814/3, 1818 and 1820. Virtually all the other dates of this type have become unavailable in recent years.

Not that they were ever flooding the market, but a decade ago you could count on one or two examples of dates like the 1824, 1826, or 1827 to become available every year. Now, they seem nearly unavailable. Four 1826 half eagles half eagles have appeared at auction since early 2006, only two 1826's since 2005 and no 1827 half eagles since the middle of 2008. That's frustrating for collectors and dealers alike!

4. Uncirculated No Motto New Orleans Eagles. If you discount the small groups of coins found on the S.S. Republic and S.S. New York shipwrecks, the number of nice Uncirculated No Motto New Orleans eagles available in the last five years or so has been very small.

Looking back at my records, I've handled no 1841-O or 1842-O in Uncirculated, two 1843-O, no 1844-O, one 1845-O, no 1846-O, three 1847-O, one 1848-O, no 1849-O and so forth and so on. Yes, these coins are all rare (with the exception of the 1847-O) but it seems like the pattern of availability has changed. I'd attribute this to the fact that the majority of the coins that did become available in the late 1990's and early 2000's (which I'm now beginning to realize was a once-in-a-generation period of rare date gold fertility) were generally snatched up by serious collectors who are not currently in a sell mode.

5. Major Rarities. If you own truly rare United States gold coins, pat yourself on the back. You own something that many new collectors and investors would give (almost) anything to add to their collections.

Let's look at a few examples. The rare 1854-S quarter eagle suddenly became reasonably available in 2005 and three examples (out of around 12-13 known) were sold at auction. But since then, only three other appearances at auction have occurred with the last of these being in July 2009.

Another rarity in the quarter eagle series is the 1841 with around fifteen or so known in total. In 2004, there were three auction appearances and another two sold in 2005. Since then, only two have been offered at auction with the last record in July 2009.

The list could go on and on and, by now, I'm assuming you get the point: really neat coins that we had become fairly accustomed to seeing during the late 1990's and up to the middle of the 2000's have become rarer than I would have imagined. With the demand for these really neat coins seemingly at its strongest point in a number of years, it will be interesting to see what, if any, important single coins or collections come to the market in the next year or two.

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.

State of the Market Report: San Francisco Gold

In the third part of my State of the Market, I kick it West Coast style and take a look at what’s happening with the gold coins from the San Francisco mint. Are these coins still as dead as the proverbial doorknob or has some breath been jumpstarted into this long-overlooked part of the market? Looking at the market for San Francisco gold coins from a macro perspective, I’d have to say that the overall health of these coins is pretty weak. However, this blanket statement most certainly can not be applied across the board. There are segments of this market that are unquestionably strong and that will, I feel, continue to show strong growth in popularity.

The strongest area in the San Francisco market is rarities and essential one-year type coins. As an example, price levels on 1854-S quarter eagles have increased dramatically over the past few years. In 1999, the finest known example from the Bass Collection sold for just a shade over $135,000. In an auction earlier this year, Heritage sold an example that was clearly not as nice as the Bass coin to a knowledgeable dealer for $345,000. Two other key dates that have seen strong price appreciation in the past few years are the 1864-S half eagles and eagles.

One San Francisco coin that, were it to become available, would almost certainly become one of the most expensive coins ever sold would be the 1854-S half eagle. Only two or three examples are known and just a single piece is in private hands. If this coin were to come up for sale while the market for ultra-rarities remains strong, it could bring as much as $4-6 million.

There are a few other segments in the San Francisco gold coin market that I see strength in. One of these is gold dollars. In the past few years, every time I’ve owned an affordable, nice quality example of a date like the 1857-S or 1858-S, it has sold very quickly. Collectors looking for San Francisco gold dollars tend to be interested in coins in the AU50 to MS61 grades and priced in the $1,750-5,000 range. In my experience, higher grade San Francisco gold dollars are not as easy to sell.

Another group of coins from San Francisco that maintain an active level of collector interest are Three Dollar gold pieces. This is interesting because of the fact that, viewed as a whole, this series is currently not in favor. Pleasing Extremely Fine and About Uncirculated examples of the 1855-S, 1857-S and 1860-S have remained very desirable and have not declined in price like the majority of the Philadelphia Three Dollar gold pieces from this era. The one San Francisco Three Dollar gold piece that has declined in popularity is the 1856-S. This is the result of a very large number being available for sale in the last year or two.

The market for San Francisco double eagles has shown some ups and downs in the past year. High grade examples of the scarcer Type One issues remain in demand and the 1861-S Paquet and 1866-S No Motto have experienced greater price increases in the past two or three years than nearly any Liberty Head gold coins. I have noticed some price resistance on average quality Type Two double eagles from San Francisco and the market for most Type Threes from this mint is down significantly from the high levels of a year or two ago.

There are at least two areas of the San Francisco gold coin market that remain very weak: the rare date half eagles and eagles from the 1850’s through the mid-1870’s and the semi-scarce issues from the 1880’s through the early 1900’s. The reason for the weakness in these two areas is the same: lack of collector interest.

The half eagles and eagles struck in San Francisco between 1854 and 1877 are, for the most part, very rare. But they have never had the collector support that characterizes the southern branch mints or Carson City. As I’ve mentioned before, the lack of a standard reference work on these coins has certainly not helped. But I think there is another factor that keeps collector level down.

A coin like an 1861-S half eagle in AU55 or an 1860-S eagle in AU53 is unquestionably rare. But both of these are already quite expensive; $10,000 or so in the case of the half eagle and $20,000 or so in the case of the eagle. This is a lot of money for a series with virtually no collector interest. If prices were adjusted downwards to reflect these coins as sleepers or potential rarities and not established rarities, perhaps more pioneers would enter the market.

Another factor that hurts these coins is that most are very ugly. There is a huge price spread between grades for coins like an 1860-S eagle. Because of this price spread, there is considerable temptation to take a nice original EF45, scrub it to death and get it upgraded to AU53. In theory, lots of value has been added but now you’ve got an already unpopular coin like this 1860-S eagle that is now bright-n-shiny and that has a very high Trends valuation to boot.

I’ve weighed in on semi-scarce San Francisco gold coins before. I don’t like coins like this very much as, to me, they represent the unglamorous segment of an unpopular area in the market. That said, if you had bought coins like an 1882-S eagle in MS62 a few years ago, you did pretty well, if only because of the rise in bullion prices.

One area of San Francisco gold that continues to shine is high quality 20th century rarities. In the past year, we have seen record prices for a number of Indian Head eagles and St. Gaudens double eagles from San Francisco. The fabulous PCGS MS67 Duckor 1920-S Indian Head eagle at $1,725,000 was a remarkable price for this coin but what was even more incredible was the fact that at least three or four bidders were actively pursuing this coin at the $1million level.

San Francisco gold has underperformed other areas of the rare date gold market but it is not the hopeless laggard it was as recently as two or three years ago. I think we will continue to see small pockets of popularity. Some currently moribund areas that I would keep an eye on include Civil War issues from this mint and Condition Census or Finest Known gold dollars, quarter eagles, half eagles and eagles struck prior to 1878. In addition, I think better date Indian Head half eagles and eagles from San Francisco will be a very strong area in the market in the near future.

February 2007 Long Beach Show Review

nother Long Beach week has come and gone and this February’s version provided some interesting insights into the current state of the rare coin market. For me, the week began with attending the Goldberg auction in Beverly Hills. This sale contained quite a bit of rare gold coinage, including extensive runs of early half eagles, numerous high grade Charlotte and Dahlonega gold coinage and some impressive double eagles.

I thought that the overall results of this sale were mixed. The early gold coinage was stronger than I expected with the coins consistently bringing 10-20% over current market values. I found that buyers weren’t hugely picky as, in a number of cases, coins that were substandard for the grade did not sell for much of a discount versus examples that were high end.

An area that definitely saw buyer discrimination was Charlotte and Dahlonega issues. The Goldberg sale contained a host of coins in the MS60 to MS62 grade range which had problems. Nearly all were passed on by bidders but attractive, medium priced pieces brought strong prices. It seems that there are still a number of overgraded, unoriginal coins overhanging this market and until some of these go away, they will drag down the desirability of the nice coins with them.

Liberty Head double eagles continued to be very popular. A number of bidders at the Goldberg sale paid strong prices for Type I and Type II issues. As expected, New Orleans pieces led the way but I saw surprising strength in the Philadelphia and San Francisco areas as well. In Type Three issues, some of the nice, high grade Carson City double eagles in the sale brought very strong prices.

I found the Long Beach coin show itself to be among the slowest editions of this convention that I have attended in years. I go to shows primarily to buy coins and I was extremely disappointed by the near-total lack of interesting material at the show. I looked at box after box of dealer’s coins and was routinely left shaking my head wondering where all the interesting coins were. Overall, I spent around one-quarter the amount of what I spent at the FUN show which I regard as one of the best buying shows I’ve ever had. Click here to see a full list of all my new purchases with images and descriptions as well.

A curious trend at the show saw the bottom falling out of the generic gold market; despite the fact that bullion is as strong as it as been for years. Buyers could purchase VF and EF Liberty Head double eagles at melt levels and it was possible to buy the same coins in MS62 holders for only a $20-30 premium over spot; essentially melt plus slabbing fees. I mostly attribute this to cash flow problems with many of the larger market makers in the generic gold market. While I hesitate to make investment recommendations, generic gold seems like an interesting play right now with premiums as low as they have been in some time.

The highlight of the Heritage sale was a fresh-to-the-market 1854-S quarter eagle graded EF45 which sold for a record price of $345,000. As many of you know, the 1854-S is an issue which I have championed for many years and I have had the good fortune to sell three of them in my career. It is interesting to quickly recap the ascendancy of this issue into the status of Classic American Gold Rarity.

In the October 1999 Bass II sale the probable finest known example of this issue brought $137,500 which was, by a considerable margin, a record price but which, in my opinion, was still cheap for a coin which, by all rights, should be considered one of the most significant of all 19th century United States gold coins. This piece was resold a few years later in the $175,000-185,000 range. Then, around a year and a half ago, I purchased the second finest known (graded EF45 by NGC) for a record price of $253,000. This clearly raised the bar for the 1854-S and I remember a number of savvy dealers complimenting me after the auction for what they thought was a great purchase. Even after the new record price realized at the Heritage sale, I still think the 1854-S is undervalued in relation to other comparable rarities.

The market for New Orleans gold coinage seems as strong as I can remember it. Many of the bread and butter issues that I like to buy (such as 1888-O eagles in MS62 or 1893-O half eagles in MS62) were completely missing from dealer’s inventories and this makes me feel that a number of marketers are now selling these “introductory O mints” to their clients.

There are two significant shows in March (Baltimore and Charlotte) and I expect these to be excellent indicators of exactly where the market will be heading as we slide into the second quarter of the year.

The 1854-S Quarter Eagle: A Forgotten American Gold Rarity

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.