By CoinWeek ….
On December 22–GreatCollection’s last Sunday online auction for the year 2019–bidding ends on this 1838-C Classic gold quarter eagle, graded MS-61 by NGC.
The 1838-C Classic, or Classic Head, quarter eagle gold coin was among the first pieces struck at the Charlotte Mint, the first branch of the United States Mint built outside of Philadelphia. Produced later in the year, only 7,880 pieces were manufactured, making this date the lowest mintage of the Classic Head type.
Compounding the issue’s rarity, 1838-C quarter eagles are exceptionally hard to find in Mint State. The highest-graded specimens at NGC are three coins certified MS-63, and only four coins (including plus grades) are certified MS-62. The example offered Sunday by GreatCollections is one of a mere four pieces graded MS-61.
NGC lists the most recent auction result for an NGC MS-61 as having taken place in January 2012, when an example sold for $25,300 USD. Six months earlier, another specimen garnered $28,750. Demand had clearly jumped at the turn of the decade, since an example that sold in February 2009 went for “only” $19,550. Slightly higher results were achieved in 2006 and 2005, when MS-61 1838-C quarter eagles sold for $21,850 and $23,000, respectively.
To search through GreatCollection’s archive of over 600,000 certified coins the company has sold over the past seven years, please visit the GreatCollections Auction Archives.
At the time of writing, the high bid on this 1838-C $2.50 gold quarter eagle is $8,250 after 25 bids.
A Brief History of the Classic Head Quarter Eagle
Gold $2.50 quarter eagles had been produced since 1796. Few gold coins of any denomination circulated, and those that did traded at more than face value because of the gold content; gold coins were preferred over paper money. Five dollar half eagles went mostly to export trade because that denomination was the largest gold coin being produced ($10 eagles had not been minted since 1804). Certain federal legislators were able to receive their pay in gold coins, and some today believe this, along with coins being set aside as gifts (a popular use for the denomination), accounts for many of the quarter eagle survivors. But other than those reserved or saved, few (if any) quarter eagles circulated, likely because the face value was the equivalent of $50 today.
In response to the growing problem of gold not circulating, Congress passed the Act of June 28, 1834. This law reduced the weight of the gold quarter eagle by 0.19 grams, sufficient to halt the melting of the coins as bullion. Along with the weight reduction, Liberty’s portrait was redesigned, and to help the public distinguish new quarter eagles from old, the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM was removed from the reverse. The motto was intended to be restored in 1835, but that did not happen; Mint Director Samuel Moore expected many of the older weight coins (worth $2.66 after passage of the Act) to be returned to the Mint for recoinage, which indeed did happen. Though the yearly mintages of early gold coins were usually low, the rarity of many of those coins today is due to the periodic meltings that occurred whenever the bullion value of a coin exceeded its face value.
The new 1834 design of Liberty by William Kneass is considered a copy of the earlier John Reich design used on cents and half cents in the early 1800s. Some have noted that in contrast to the preceding Capped Head design, Kneass’ Liberty is neither as complex in detail nor as refined in execution. The portrait has also been described as androgynous, the hairdo and fillet (the narrow headband) more appropriate to ancient Greek male athletes. Kneass and his successor Christian Gobrecht made additional changes to improve the design, one of which produced the “Booby Head” type in 1834, so labeled by John Clapp sometime before 1942.
A youthful Liberty faces left on the obverse, surrounded for the most part by a circle of 13 six-point stars, with the date at the bottom, inside a denticled rim. Liberty wears a fillet, upon which is inscribed LIBERTY, with the ends of a ribbon visible at the back of the neck. Liberty’s curled hair is visible above the band, around her ear, and down the back of the neck, though constrained by the band on the forehead. Classic quarter eagles were minted at Philadelphia, Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans; C, D, and O mintmarks are located above the date, below the neck.
The reverse is dominated by a centered left-facing eagle, wings outstretched nearly to the dentils, body covered by a Union shield, an olive branch in the right claw (left to the observer), and three arrows in the left claw. Surrounding the eagle is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA inside the denticled rim, the text separated into three parts by the eagle’s wing tips, and the denomination of 2 1/2 D. at the bottom.
Several thousand business strike Classic quarter eagles have been certified, including a few prooflike pieces. Prices are modest for most dates to AU55, expensive to near-Gem, and very expensive as Gem and finer. Higher-priced issues are the quarter eagles minted at Charlotte and Dahlonega and, to a lesser extent, the 1839 New Orleans coins.
In perhaps the final saga of the Classic Head quarter eagle, the United States Supreme Court in 1871 decided that the 1834 Act was a violation of the Bill of Rights’ Fifth Amendment because it allowed debts to be paid at the face value of the new gold coins, rather than according to their bullion value. Along with the familiar prohibition for compelling self-incrimination by a witness, the Fifth Amendment also states that “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”. Because, for example, 20 dollars in debt could be paid with coins containing less than 20 dollars worth of gold, the use of the lower-weight gold coins was considered by the Court to be an unjust taking.
The Charlotte Mint
The Charlotte Mint, authorized by the Act of March 3, 1835, was the first branch mint established in the United States. It was built in response to the frustrations of gold miners near Charlotte, North Carolina, who were forced to send their gold all the way to Philadelphia to be refined and coined. Construction began in 1836 and it was open for business on July 27 of the next year.
The first coin, a $5 gold eagle, was issued in 1838, with quarter eagles following not long after.
Gold dollars were first struck at Charlotte in 1849.
No gold coins were struck in 1856 and 1858.
In 1861, Confederate forces seized the federal facility and operated the branch mint through October. Once all attempts at coin production ceased, the building was used as a hospital until the end of the Civil War. It was used as an administrative building by federal forces immediately after the war and reopened as an assay office in 1867, a function the Charlotte Mint fulfilled until 1913.
Threatened with demolition, the building was purchased from the Treasury Department and moved to a different location in Charlotte in 1933. It became an art museum in 1936 and persists in that role to this day.