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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #273

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds….
 

For less than $500 per coin, a set of true classic gold U.S. coins may certainly be completed except for just one coin. Indian Head quarter eagles ($2½ gold coins) were minted from 1908 to 1915 and again from 1925 to 1929. These are a little larger than dimes and are specified to be 90% gold.

This is the thirteenth in a series of discussions about classic U.S. coins that cost less than $500 each. (Please click to read about defining classic U.S. coins.) Although gem quality pieces are often extremely expensive, Indian Head quarter eagles overall are the least expensive of all U.S. gold series that were minted as true coins, rather than as bullion products. They circulated and they were really worth $2.50 each in the early part of the 20th century.

Markets for choice to gem quality, Indian Head quarter eagles are dynamic and may be volatile. Matt Kleinsteuber emphasizes, though, that such volatility relates to Indian Head quarter eagles “that grade above 62. Extremely Fine coins are hardly ever seen. Prices for AU-50 to AU-58 Indian Head quarter eagles have been stable for at least five years, except for the 1911-D, which has gone down.”

Kleinsteuber is the lead trader and grader for NFC coins. Also, Matt has often been an instructor of grading courses that were organized by the ANA.

As Indian Head quarter eagles sell for well over their respective gold bullion content, market levels are not necessarily affected by changes in the price of gold bullion. A ‘mint state’ quarter eagle is specified to contain a little less than one-eighth of a Troy ounce (0.12094) of gold. The so called ‘melt value’ is thus about $145.13 when the price of gold bullion is $1200 per ounce. Even Extremely Fine-40 grade Indian Head quarter eagles, which lost some gold content during circulation, tend to sell for more than $200 each.

Herein, there are no implications or assumptions regarding future market levels for Indian Head quarter eagles or the future value of gold bullion. I am referring to present, not future, prices for Indian Head quarter eagles.

A set of Indian Head quarter eagles is fun to build. In the context of classic U.S. gold coins, Indian Head quarter eagles are very inexpensive.

It is great that so many sets of classic U.S. coins can be completed or nearly completed without spending more than $500 for any one coin. A very large percentage of such sets, however, are of copper, ‘nickel’ or silver coins. For most collectors who cannot afford or do not wish to spend as much as $500 for any one coin, it would be exciting to add a true set of a classic U.S. gold series to their respective collections.

What are Indian Head Quarter Eagles?

Most Indian Head quarter eagles were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. Just the 1911-D, 1914-D and 1925-D issues were produced at the Denver Mint. It is curious that none were minted in New Orleans or San Francisco.

Indian Head half eagles were minted from 1908 to 1916 and again in 1929. Indian Head half eagles ($5 gold coins) were struck in New Orleans and San Francisco in addition to Philadelphia and Denver.

Although Indian Head quarter eagles and half eagles are of nearly identical designs, the half eagle ($5 coin), of course, is larger and heavier, as it is of a greater gold denomination. These two are the only types of classic U.S. coins characterized by design elements that are below the fields. The design elements are “incuse”, recessed, or sunken, all meaning the same thing in this context.

On almost all other coins, the design elements are raised, beyond the fields. These two types are extremely unusual, in this regard.

I first examined an Indian Head quarter eagle at a coin show when I was about eight years old. I was intrigued and puzzled by the sunken Indian Head and stars.

There are also Indian Head eagles, which date from 1907 to 1933. I just wrote about a gem 1933 last week. Artistically, however, these are dramatically different from Indian Head quarter eagles and half eagles.

Indian Head eagles are based upon artistic concepts of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the foremost sculptor in the history of the United States. Saint Gaudens is best known for the double eagles that were minted from 1907 to 1933. The Ultra High Relief and regular high relief double eagles of 1907 come closer than the later issues in depicting Saint-Gaudens’ conceptions for U.S. coinage.

Due to serious health problems, Saint-Gaudens was unable to be closely involved in the process of developing design types of coinage. President Theodore Roosevelt had hoped that Saint-Gaudens would design new issues of all U.S. coin denominations.

Ed Reiter informs that President Roosevelt agreed to support incuse or sunken designs, for the quarter eagle and half eagle, after listening to “advice from his close friend Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, a prominent Boston physician and collector of Far Eastern art.” In 1999, Reiter noted on the PCGS site that Bigelow “had come to admire the incuse relief used in works of art in ancient Egypt.” Reiter has been the editor of CoinAge magazine for decades and has authored numerous articles relating to designers of 20th century U.S. coins.

Bela Lyon Pratt designed the Indian Head quarter eagle and half eagle. Ed Reiter points out that “Pratt, too, was from Boston,” and closely acquainted with Bigelow.

Although Pratt had his own distinctive styles, he was influenced by Saint Gaudens. Indeed, like A. Alexander Weinman, the designer of the Mercury dime and the Walking Liberty half dollar, and James Earle Fraser, the designer of the Buffalo nickel, Pratt was an assistant to and student of Saint Gaudens. (Clickable links are in blue.)

Reiter regards Pratt as “a superior medallic artist who was a step below Saint Gaudens, Weinman and Fraser, but probably on a par with MacNeil and de Francisci.” Herman MacNeil designed the Standing Liberty quarter. Antonio de Francisci, who was heavily influenced by Weinman, designed the Peace silver dollar. Pratt’s Indian Head quarter eagle and half eagle “tower over anything issued by the U.S. Mint in recent memory,” Reiter declares in response to my recent inquiry.

After studying at Yale, Pratt enrolled in courses at the Art Students League of New York. One of his teachers in New York was Saint Gaudens, who invited Pratt to work in his private studio. Soon afterwards, Pratt left for Paris to study with French artisans, a traditional quest for promising sculptors.

During the 1890s and 1900s, Pratt completed many sculptures, most of which relate to famous people or institutions in the Boston area. He taught at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for more than twenty-five years.

Among Pratt’s most critically acclaimed works are his symbolic, human figures representing literature, science and art that are incorporated into the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress in Washington. Pratt’s sculpture of Nathaniel Hawthorne in Salem, Massachusetts, is viewed by a large number of tourists each year. His sculpture of Nathan Hale, which is on the Yale University campus, is notable as well.

Collecting Strategies

I suggest collecting Indian Head quarter eagles that are PCGS or NGC certified. Unfortunately, large quantities of counterfeits and forgeries are around.

Mike Sargent, the lead authenticator at PCGS, declared in 2009 that the Indian Head quarter eagle “series accounts for approximately 40% of all counterfeit gold coins received by PCGS.” Sargent emphasizes that all dates in the series are frequently faked and that forgeries are sometimes deceptive. He also notes that many fakes exhibit wear, rather than being ‘mint state.’

Matt Kleinsteuber maintains, in contrast, that the fakes are not particularly deceptive. “Collectors can learn how to spot them” without much difficulty. Moreover, Kleinsteuber figures that, “if you buy from mainstream dealers who know what they are doing, your Indian Head quarter eagles do not have to be certified. It is unlikely that you will end up with forgeries,” Matt asserts.

Given the under $500 per coin theme here, Kleinsteuber suggests a non-certified set of AU-50 to AU-55 grade Indian Head quarter eagles that “would look best in a Capital Plastics type holder. A whole set could be in one neat plastic holder, with a quality, classic feel,” Matt declares. Such a holder can be purchased for less than $30.

It is also true that collectors can buy PCGS or NGC certified coins and then remove them from their PCGS or NGC holders. “It is unlikely that careful collectors will harm, raw AU Indian Head quarter eagles. It is okay to hold them,” Matt says. “Except the 1911-D, all Indian Head Quarter Eagles can be found in AU grades for much less than $500 each,” Kleinsteuber makes clear.

I suggest that collectors seek coins that have tints of russet, rustic-orange, mellow green or copper. Those with medium, brown-green tones are likely to be very much original. Those that are shiny yellow, very light orange, or ‘candy-orange’ are likely to have been artificially brightened with an acidic solution (‘dipped’).

Indian Head quarter eagles that grade below Very Fine-30 tended to be melted in the past and are rare in the present. The surface quality and relative originality of sub-60 grade Indian Head quarter eagles varies tremendously. Fortunately, though, skilled coin doctors do not usually bother with Indian Head quarter eagles that have little or no chance of being certified as grading above 63.

Certified ‘MS-61’ grade coins tend to have a lot of problems or are not strictly uncirculated. Certified “MS-62” Indian Head quarter eagles that exhibit noticeable friction, however, sometimes have other characteristics that are wonderful, including crisp luster, sharp strikes, and/or technically impressive surfaces.

Interested collectors should carefully view Indian Head quarter eagles and buy a few to learn about them. Beginning collectors should be emotionally and financially prepared to accidentally acquire a few unpleasant coins during learning experiences.

Generally, AU-50 to -55 grade Indian Head Quarter Eagles tend to currently retail for $250 to $360 each. Auction results will often be lower than retail prices, though some auction prices are well into, or beyond, retail ranges for the respective coins.

I recommend EF-45 to AU-55 grade Indian Head quarter eagles that have pleasing natural toning. Many collectors, however, tend towards certified MS-61 and MS-62 pieces. Some certified ‘MS-62’ Indian Head quarter eagles can be acquired for less than $500 each.

Philadelphia Mint

It is easy to collect all issues of Indian Head quarter eagles that were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. The vast majority of them were produced there.

In many cases, it makes more sense to buy sub-63 grade, Indian Head quarter eagles privately, rather than at auction. Even so, I cite some results for live auctions and “Internet auctions” as parameters, as these prices realized are publicly available. I am not commenting, directly or indirectly, on the respective quality of any of the specific coins that are cited here.

On November 25, 2014, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded EF-45 1908 for $235. In the “2015 February Americana Sale,” Stack’s-Bowers sold two different, PCGS graded MS-62 1909 Indian Head Quarter Eagles for $446.50 each. In January 2015, the Goldbergs auctioned a NGC graded MS-61 1909 for $341. On November 5, 2013, Heritage sold a PCGS graded EF-45 1909 for $284.35.

The 1910 and 1911 Indian Head quarter eagles are worth about the same as those of 1908 and 1909. The 1912s and 1913s are very common. In the “2015 February Americana Sale,” Stack’s-Bowers sold four PCGS graded 1912 quarter eagles: MS-62 $430.05, MS-61 $364.25, AU-58 $282, and AU-55 $246.75. Last June, the Goldbergs auctioned a NGC graded “MS-62+” 1913 for $376.

The 1914 is less common than the other Philadelphia Mint issues. In this same Stack’s-Bowers sale in February, an NGC graded MS-61 1914 brought $564. One of two PCGS graded AU-58 1914 Indian Head Quarter Eagles realized $340.75. The other sold for $317.25. A PCGS graded AU-55 1914 went for $270.25.

Kleinsteuber notes that “the premium for the 1914 in AU-50 to -55 is slight, nothing to worry about.”
In grades above MS-62, the 1915 typically brings a premium over the most common dates in the series. In grades below MS-62, the 1915 sometimes commands a bare premium. Again, in the “2015 February Americana sale,” two PCGS graded MS-62 1915 Indian Head Eagles each brought $352.50. An NGC graded MS-62 coin, though, realized $376.

There is no 1925 Philadelphia Mint issue. The 1926 and the 1927 are extremely common. In February, Stack’s-Bowers sold a lot of two 1926 quarter eagles for $517. The first was PCGS graded MS-61 and the second was PCGS graded AU-50. In October 2014, Heritage sold a NGC graded AU-58 1927 for $235.

An AU grade 1928 could probably be purchased for less than $300. On November 23rd of last year, Heritage sold a PCGS graded AU-58 1928 for $293.75. Last month, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS graded AU-50 1928, from “the Dr. Donald Gutfreund Collection,” for $246.75. Images suggest that it might have honest wear and natural toning.

In grades above MS-63, 1929 quarter eagles are worth much more than common dates. Furthermore, 1929 half eagles are worth substantial premiums and are somewhat famous. Certified, EF-45 to AU-58 grade 1929 quarter eagles, however, are inexpensive, though are not easy to find, as most survivors are ‘mint state,’ more or less.

In February, Stack’s-Bowers sold five PCGS or NGC graded MS-62 1929 quarter eagles. Each brought $340.75. Two were PCGS certified and the other three were NGC certified. When such a selection is offered, I recommend that interested collectors inspect the coins in actuality. Experienced collectors will often find numismatically significant differences among them.

Denver Mint

There are just three Denver Mint issues of Indian Head quarter eagles and zero San Francisco Mint issues. This is surprising as U.S. citizens in the West were more likely to favor gold coins over paper money than residents of Eastern States. Indian Head half eagles and eagles, along with Saint Gaudens double eagles, were minted in San Francisco during the same era.

Before discussing the key 1911-D, it is important to point out that the 1914-D and the 1925-D are available for modest prices. In January 2015, the Goldbergs auctioned a NGC graded AU-58 1914-D for $329.

In February, Stack’s-Bowers sold five 1914-D coins. A PCGS graded MS-62 1914-D brought $423 and a PCGS graded AU-58 coin went for $270.25. Three were certified as MS-61; the two by NGC sold for $352.50 and $312.55, respectively, and the one by PCGS brought $317.25.

On November 16, 2014, Heritage sold a PCGS graded AU-55 1925-D for $282. Two days later, an NGC graded AU-55 1925-D went for $235.

The 1911-D is a different matter. The 1911-D is the key to the series. It is extremely difficult, perhaps almost impossible, to acquire a genuine 1911-D for less than $500. Most collectors ‘on a budget’ will consider their respective sets to be complete enough without a 1911-D.

The ‘D’ mintmark is much bolder on some 1911-D quarter eagles and is very faint on others. The so called “Strong D” coins command a substantial premium over the “Weak D” coins. Collectors must decide for themselves whether particular premiums are worthwhile. In the PCGS set registry, a 1911-D with a ‘Strong D’ certification is mandatory for a set to be complete.

Collectors who tend to spend less than $500 per coin may hope for a very heavily worn or non-gradable “Weak D” coin. Those with a “Strong D” tend to sell for more than $1500 in Very Fine grades and more than $3000 in AU grades. Non-gradable pieces may be strategic options.

In April 2012, Heritage auctioned a non-gradable 1911-“Weak D” in a PCGS genuine holder, with the details of a Very Fine grade coin, for $747.50. The “D,” though, is hardly noticeable. Another non-gradable “Weak D” coin, in a PCGS genuine holder, was sold by Heritage in September 2011, for $862.50. It has the details of an Extremely Fine to AU grade coin. I found additional instances of PCGS or NGC authenticated, non-gradable ‘Weak D’ coins selling for between $800 and $900. If a 1911-‘Weak D’ sells for less $500, it may have very serious problems, though could still be decent enough.

A set of fourteen Indian Quarter Eagles, missing a 1911-D, is 93.33% complete. After assembling such a 93.33% complete set, a collector ‘on a budget’ may then concentrate on other sets and enjoying coin collecting. For less than $500 per coin, a wide and varied assortment of classic U.S. coins may be acquired and incorporated into a logically structured collection that is very much consistent with traditions of coin collecting in the U.S.

©2015 Greg Reynolds

Collectors who are interested in other types of classic U.S. coins, and prefer not to spend more than $500 on any one coin, may wish to read earlier parts of this series:

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: U.S. coins for less than $500 each

 

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