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.
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.
When viewing mintage figures, most numismatists exclaim that a coin is “rare” because only 10,000 or so were produced. But this figure seems almost laughable in comparison to the mintages for Proof gold coins struck prior to 1900. In fact, many of these issues have mintages that were lower than 100 coins. Proof gold was struck for collectors every year from 1858 until 1915. From the 1850’s until the early 1880’s, mintages were incredibly low. In fact, a few issues have mintages as low as twenty coins. A number of these issues are well-known and highly prized by collectors but a few have fallen through the cracks and their true rarity remains unknown even today. One of these overlooked issues is the Proof 1878 quarter eagle.
I recently sold an NGC PR65 Ultra Cameo example of this rarity to an Eastern collector. In searching through my records I realized that this was the first Proof 1878 quarter eagle that I have handled. And the more I studied this issue, the more I realized just how rare it truly is.
With an original production figure of only 20 Proofs, the 1878 is tied with three other issues (1874, 1875 and 1877) as the lowest mintage Proof date of this denomination from 1859 onwards. The rarity of this was known by numismatists as early as the 1910’s/1920’s. As recently as 1975, David Akers wrote the following about this date:
“Proofs are extremely rare and the 1878 is, in fact, the rarest post-1859 quarter eagle in Proof. At least I know of fewer examples of this date than of any other Proof after 1859. I would estimate that only a half dozen or so remain in unimpaired condition, most of which are impounded in museums or prominent collections.”
Despite this praise from Akers, the rarity of the 1878 seems to have been forgotten by this generation of collectors and other Proofs of this type, namely the 1875, are more highly regarded.
As a rule, Proof gold of this era has a survival rate of approximately half of the original mintage. This typically holds true in the quarter eagle series but the 1878 appears to be an exception. Akers believed that some of the 1878 Proof gold coinage may have been melted after it went unsold and given the extreme rarity of all Proof gold denominations from this year, I feel that this may well be correct.
Unfortunately, the population reports for Proof 1878 quarter eagles include a number of resubmissions and this has further obfuscated the true rarity of this issue. PCGS has graded three: one example each in PR64, PR64 Deep Cameo and PR65 Deep Cameo. NGC shows ten submissions but I can all but guarantee you this number is severely inflated. These include one each in PR63, PR64 and PR65 plus four (!) in PR64 Ultra Cameo and three in PR65 Ultra Cameo.
In the last decade or so, I am aware of only two distinct examples of this date being available for sale at public auction. The most recent of these was a PCGS PR65 that was offered as Superior 8/06: 639. It brought $32,570.
My best estimate is that there are seven or eight examples known. This includes at least two that are impounded (ANS and Smithsonian). Breen wrote that “at least three” are impaired but I have never seen or heard of one of these.
As someone who has specialized in rare United States gold for over two decades, it isn’t often that I handle a coin that is so rare that it causes me to write a blog about it. But this was clearly the case with the Proof 1878 quarter eagle that I just sold. It was an exciting piece for me to handle and I greatly appreciate being able to buy and sell it.
The first Proof gold coins were produced in the early 1820's. Mintages remained extremely limited until the late 1850's and, in most instances, never climbed above more than a few hundred pieces. While out of the price range of most numismatists, Proof gold makes a very interesting area to collect. For all but a handful of individuals, collecting Proof gold by date is not realistic. A collector on a more limited budget might consider assembling a type set of Proof gold. This article contains suggestions on how to accomplish this, as well as an overview of the various types of proof gold issues.
The first of two parts, this article focuses on proof gold dollars, quarter eagles and three dollar gold pieces.
a. Type One, 1849-1854
Proof gold dollars of this type are so rare that their very existence is controversial. I have seen a few 1849 gold dollars that I felt were Proofs but cannot recall having seen other dates of this type in Proof. It is a safe assumption that most collectors will never see--let alone own--an example of this type in Proof.
b. Type Two, 1854-1856
An extremely limited number of proof gold dollars were made of the short-lived Type Two design. Interestingly, most of the pieces that exist are quite choice and a few superb gems exist. There are perhaps four to six Proof 1854 gold dollars known plus as many as ten 1855's. When available, these routinely sell for $100,000.
c. Type Three, 1856-1859
For most collectors, the Type Three is the only Proof gold dollar that they will own. The issues produced in the 1850's are all very rare although not extravagantly expensive in Proof-63 or even Proof-64 grades.
The issues from the 1860's and the 1870's were, for the most part, produced in very limited quantities. A typical date from one of these decades has around half of the original mintage figure surviving; usually in Proof-63 to Proof-65 grades. When available, a nice Proof-64 gold dollar from the 1860's or the 1870's costs $6,500-8,500. I think coins such as this are incredibly good values.
The most common proof gold dollars are those produced from 1882 until 1889. A Proof-65 is currently valued in the $7,500-8,500 range while a nice Proof-64 brings $4,500 to $5,500. To my way of thinking, I would spend the extra 50-75% and buy an early date.
II. QUARTER EAGLES
a. Pre-1834 Types
The earliest known Proof quarter eagles date from 1821. During the 1830's extremely limited numbers of Reduced Diameter Capped Bust Proofs were struck. Any pre-1834 quarter eagle is prohibitively expensive and most collectors will not include an example in their holdings.
b. Classic Head, 1834-1839
Proofs are known of all six years of this type with the exception of the 1838. Mintages for each issue appear to be in the range of three to ten coins. There have been some proof Classic Head quarter eagles offered in the Pittman and Bass sales but few others have come on the market for many years. If available, a Proof of this type will grade Proof-63 to Proof-65. A collector can expect to pay $75,000+ for an example.
c. Liberty Head, 1840-1907
Mintages for pre-Civil War era Liberty Head quarter eagles are extremely limited. All dates from the 1840's are extremely rare and, ironically, the most available is the most expensive: the famous Proof-only 1841.
No Proofs are known for any of the dates struck between 1849 and 1855 and the other dates from the 1850's are exceedingly rare as Proofs.
Issues from the 1860's and the 1870's were issued in very limited amounts. With the exception of the 1860 and the 1861, mintage figures ranged from a low of twenty pieces to a high of fifty. As with gold dollars, the survival rate for Proof quarter eagles of this era is generally in the area of 50%. Despite the obvious rarity of these coins, they are still affordable. A Proof-64 is currently worth $10,000-15,000 while a Proof-65 sells for $17,500 to $25,000 depending on the date.
The "common date" Proof Liberty Head quarter eagles begin in the early 1890's and last until the discontinuation of this design in 1907. These issues currently sell for $6,500 to $8,500 for a Proof-64 and $10,000 to $12,500 for a Proof-65.
d. Indian Head, 1908-1915
The Indian Head type has a matte or sandblast finish that is completely different from the brilliant finish seen on earlier issues. Mintage figures and survival rates for Proof Indian Head quarter eagles tend to be greater than on the earlier Liberty Head issues. The most readily available Indian Head issue is the 1908 while the rarest is the 1915. The 1910 is an interesting issue that is available in lower grades but exceedingly rare in Proof-65 or above. It is very important to purchase a Proof Indian Head quarter eagle from a reputable dealer as many pieces have surfaces which have been altered or enhanced. Current price levels for a "common" date are $9,000-11,000 for a Proof-64 and $13,500-16,000 for a Proof-65.
III. THREE DOLLAR GOLD PIECES
This denomination was produced from 1854 to 1889. The 1854 is technically, a one-year type coin as the word DOLLARS is considerably smaller than on other years. Most collectors do not differentiate between the two types and the Three Dollar gold piece is generally viewed as a single type with one coin serving as a representative in a gold type set.
Proof Three Dollar gold pieces from the 1850's are very rare and are usually offered for sale only when major "name" collections appear at auction.
Mintage figures for the issues from the 1860's and the 1870's closely parallel those seen on the quarter eagle proofs of this era. Most dates had original mintage figures between 25 and 50 coins. The survival rate for these is slightly higher than on comparable gold dollars and quarter eagles with 50-70% of the original mintage currently believed to exist. The "typical" date from the 1860-1879 era currently sells for $10,000-15,000 in Proof-63, $17,500-25,000 in Proof-64 and $30,000-40,000+ in Proof-65.
The 1875 and 1876 are especially desirable as they are Proof-only dates with no business strikes produced. The 1875 is a major rarity with sales records exceeding $100,000 for average quality examples. The 1876 is also rare but is not nearly as highly regarded as the 1875.
The Three Dollar gold proofs from the 1880's had higher mintage figures than their earlier counterparts and are much more available. Proof-63 examples are valued at $8,000-10,000, Proof-64 examples are valued at $11,000-14,000 and Proof-65 examples are valued at $20,000-25,000+.
For most collectors, a type set of Proof gold is the most practical way to focus on these issues. Suggested types and grade ranges for gold dollars, quarter eagles, and three dollar gold pieces are as follows:
Type Three Gold Dollar, Proof-64 to Proof-65
Liberty Head Quarter Eagle, Proof-64 to Proof-65
Indian Head Quarter Eagle, Proof-64 to Proof-65
Three Dollar Gold Piece, Proof-64 to Proof-65