Gold Coinage of the San Francisco Mint: Part Two, Quarter Eagles 1854-1879

The San Francisco quarter eagle series presents the collector with a challenging but completable goal with all coins available for less than $7,500, except for the exceedingly rare 1854-S. It is a set that I strongly recommend…

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The 36 Major Gold Types: A Collectors Guide

The 36 Major Gold Types: A Collectors Guide

Between 1795 and 1933 a total of 36 major gold types were issued for circulation. I’m going to discuss each type in more detail with suggestions on how and what to buy and some “alternative” dates to spice-up a type set.

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Stretch Dates: Liberty Head Quarter Eagles

Stretch Dates: Liberty Head Quarter Eagles

In October 2016 I wrote a blog entitled: “The Concept of the Stretch Date.” This blog was well-received and I thought it would be interesting to apply this concept to a few specific series. For my first attempt, I’ve chosen Liberty Head quarter eagles.

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How Rare are High-Grade Dahlonega Quarter Eagles?

How Rare are High-Grade Dahlonega Quarter Eagles?

The Dahlonega mint began production of quarter eagles in 1839 and discontinued this denomination in 1859. There are a total of 20 issues and two major types: the popular one-year Classic Head (1839 only) and the Liberty Head (1840-1859).

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Grade Distribution of Branch Mint Gold Coinage

It is interesting to study the grade distribution patterns for various branch mint gold issues. By this, I am referring to what percentage of a certain issue’s survivors exist in a specific grade range. In order to apply this to a practical numismatic situation, I am going to use the Dahlonega quarter eagle series as my lab experiment. Any assumption that I make in this blog is series specific.

By this, I mean that what applies to Dahlonega quarter eagles doesn’t apply to New Orleans half eagles or San Francisco eagles. And within the Dahlonega quarter eagle series there are differences; as an example the issues from the 1840’s are likely to have different grade distribution patterns than those from the 1850’s due to a number of factors. In the case of Dahlonega quarter eagles, the primary consideration is that of usage: these coins circulated differently in the 1840’s than they did in the 1850’s.

1843-D Small D $2.50 graded PCGS AU50

I think the best “base line” Dahlonega quarter eagle to use in our brief study is the 1843-D Small D. This is the most common date in this series both in terms of overall and high grade rarity. It has the highest mintage figure of any quarter eagle from this mint, and with over 500 examples known, it can be found in a variety of grades.

According to the most recent data from PCGS, there have been a total of 243 coins graded. This number, of course, is inflated by resubmissions, but it gives a good indication of the grade distribution for this issue. According to PCGS, the grade distribution is as follows:

  • VF and lower: 58 coins (23.86%)
  • EF: 77 coins (31.68%)
  • AU: 97 coins (39.91%)
  • Uncirculated: 11 coins (4.52%)

Before analyzing this, there are a few things to remember. First, there are probably more raw low grade 1843-D quarter eagles than there are high grade ones, meaning that the number at the low end of the grading scale could easily inflate if these were ever submitted. Secondly, the number of coins in very high grades (in this case AU58 and Mint State) is clearly inflated on account of the financial incentive to upgrade a coin. An upgrade from VF25 to VF30 is pretty meaningless, but an upgrade from AU55 to MS60 translates to a not inconsiderable amount of money. And lastly, the grade range that has seen the most gradeflation in the last decade is AU, meaning that a significant number of coins graded AU50 or even AU53 by PCGS would not necessarily qualify as such if broken out and submitted again.

Taking all of these caveats into consideration, this grade distribution makes sense to me. I expected at least 60-70% of all 1843-D quarter eagles to grade EF45 and below, and according to PCGS’s figures, the current percentage is 55.54%. If we were able to dismiss all the superfluous AU submissions included in the numbers above, and punt all the marginal AU50 coins that are actually EF’s, this figure might well be close to 70%.

I think that the actual number of 1843-D quarter eagles which grade AU is more likely in the 25-30% range; not all that far off from the 39.91% figure shown.

By any stretch of the imagination, Uncirculated 1843-D quarter eagles are rare. My best estimate is that 15-20 are known, and many are marginal MS60 to MS61 examples. In MS62 and MS63 there are likely no more than four to six and none finer.

The grade distribution for the 1843-D Small D quarter eagle is reasonably similar to that seen for the 1844-D, 1845-D, 1846-D, 1847-D, and 1848-D. These are six of the most available quarter eagles from this mint and they represent the Golden Age, if you will, of commercial use for this denomination in the antebellum south. Beginning in 1848, gold discoveries in California made the Dahlonega (and Charlotte) mint redundant, and by 1854, mintage figures of all C and D mint denominations except half eagles were cursory at best.

1857-D $2.50 PCGS AU55

There is a Dahlonega quarter eagle whose grade distribution is complete different than the 1843-D; enough so to be a complete anomaly within the series. This is the 1857-D; let’s look at the PCGS figures.

A total of 70 1857-D quarter eagles have been graded by PCGS. The by-grade breakdown is as follows:

  • VF and lower: 4 coins (5.71%)
  • EF: 6 coins (8.57%)
  • AU: 45 coins (64.28%)
  • Uncirculated: 15 coins (21.42%)

The 1857-D is the second to last quarter eagle from this mint with an original mintage of only 2,364 with an estimated 125-150 known. As long as I have specialized in Dahlonega coins, I’ve noted that the 1857-D is almost never seen in VF or EF grades, and most of the survivors are in the AU53 to AU58 range.

What is most interesting about this date is that so many of the survivors have a similar look. The typical example in AU55 to AU58 has an “Unc-ish” appearance with many of the hallmarks of a Mint State coin but with either light friction or soft hairlines suggestive or a gentle old cleaning. And, on most of the high grade coins, the color and quality of luster are similar.

These facts combined with the PCGS grade distribution lead me to believe that the 1857-D is a hoard coin. I can’t prove this—and even if it is true I know nothing specific about the so-called hoard. But the fact that 85% of all 1857-D quarter eagles graded by PCGS are AU or Uncirculated is interesting and is completely different in pattern than for any other date in this series.

1856-D $2.50 PCGS AU58 CAC

There is one final Dahlonega quarter eagle with a grade distribution pattern which varies from the norm but for a different reason: the 1856-D.

The 1856-D is not only the rarest quarter eagle from this mint; it is the rarest single issue of any denomination. Only 874 were struck and around 45-55 are known in all grades.

The distribution by grade is very interesting; let’s take a quick peek at how the PCGS has graded the 35 they have recorded:

  • VF and lower: 5 (14.28%)
  • EF: 8 (22.85%)
  • AU: 21 (60%)
  • Uncirculated: 1 (2.85%)

There are many interesting things about these numbers, but two points need to be mentioned first. The 1856-D is an extremely poorly produced coin which is exceptionally hard to grade. I have seen 1856-D quarter eagles which could be graded VF30 just as easily as they could be graded AU50. It is also important to remember that as a rarity within the series, PCGS (and NGC as well) tend to push the grade on the 1856-D quarter eagle. Because it is such a rare coin, a nice EF45 example is typically graded AU50 or AU53 with little complaint from specialists.

I think the PCGS grade distribution for the 1856-D is skewed way too far towards AU and I very, very seriously doubt if “60%” of all known examples grade AU50 to AU58. But given the difficulty of grading this issue, I can understand how this is the case.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the grade distribution for each series depends on a number of factors. Age and the original mintage figure are obvious and important, but there are less subtle factors at play such as perceived rarity, appearance of the coin, whether or not a hoard exist(ed), and if examples were expatriated to Europe and are now returning to the American market.

 

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Contact Doug Winter at (214) 675-9897 or by email at dwn@ont.com.

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.