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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Not Yet Famous 1864 Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold coins)

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #106

Among Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold coins), the 1841, the 1854-S and the 1863 are recognized Great Rarities. The two 1796 issues are well known rarities. The 1804-13 star reverse variety receives a lot of attention. The 1875 is a rarity that is frequently remembered, mostly because her big sisters, the 1875 Half Eagle and 1875 Eagle are extremely rare. The 1864 Quarter Eagle issues, however, just do not seem to be talked about very often, though both 1864 Proofs and 1864 business strikes are extremely rare.

The Heritage Platinum Night event of April 19 included an 1841, an 1863 and an 1864. In my view, these extremely rare Quarter Eagles were highlights of the auction, along with key Proof Double Eagles that I discussed last week and the Morris 1792 Silver Center Copper Cent pattern, to which I devoted an article. (Clickable links are in blue.) It is the Proof 1864 in this auction that is being discussed here.

Proof 1864 Quarter EaglesIn my column of Oct. 5, 2011, I itemize the four rarest Quarter Eagle issues, after providing a general introduction to the series of Quarter Eagles. As I then pointed out, collectors who seek lower priced gold coins spend may wish to complete a set of Indian Head Quarter Eagles, which were minted in the early 20th century, and are not rare.

The 1864 deserves to be the focus here, as it is a date that just does not receive much respect. Unlike the 1863, it is not a Proof-only date. The existing total of 1864 business strikes and Proofs together, however, is likely to be less than thirty-five, certainly less than forty-three. I put forth rarity estimates herein. All 1864 Quarter Eagles are extremely rare, and they receive much less attention than coins that are not nearly as rare, like 1857-S Double Eagles, some Carson City gold coins, all Morgan dollars, 1916-D dimes, and 1916 Standing Liberty Quarters, among others.

Also, Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles tend to be even more appealing than Proofs of many other dates. Indeed, “1864 Proof Quarter Eagles are especially well made, they come so Ultra Cameo. They are beautiful coins,” John Albanese exclaims. He is the founder and president of the CAC. Earlier, Albanese founded a major grading service, with which he is no longer affiliated. The Proof 1864 that just sold is ‘in the news.’

I. Proof 1864 in April

The 1864 Quarter Eagle just sold is NGC certified ‘Proof-66 Ultra Cameo’ and it has a sticker of approval from the CAC. Proof coins may receive ‘Cameo’ or ‘Ultra Cameo’ designations from the NGC, if warranted. The term ‘Cameo’ refers to the contrast between frosted devices (raised design elements) and dark fields (relatively flat areas) on a Proof coin.

As an aside, I disagree with the prevailing concept that a Proof with a Cameo designation should necessarily be worth more than a Proof of the same type, date, and numerical grade, with no such designation. I have seen beautiful non-cameo Proofs that are much more appealing than some Ultra or Deep Cameo Proofs.

This 1864 “is really nice, great look, true deep cameo, and pretty” overall, Matt Kleinsteuber declares. The $69,000 result is “not strong, not weak, the right price,” Kleinsteuber adds. Matt is the lead grader and trader for NFC coins.

In my view, the $69,000 result was strong. The upper reach of the wholesale range would probably be less than $59,000. This is a price in the middle of the retail range. Generally, auction results are expected to be around the border of the wholesale and the retail price range for each respective coin.

To understand this coin, it may be necessary to reflect upon a few past auction events. In Aug. 2000, for $13,225, and again in Feb. 2003, for $14,950, Heritage auctioned an 1864 that was NGC certified ‘Proof-64 Cameo.’ It may have been graded before the NGC employed an ‘Ultra Cameo’ designation. Later in 2003, this same coin was PCGS certified ‘Proof-64 Deep Cameo.’ The PCGS concept of ‘Deep Cameo’ is very similar to the NGC notion of ‘Ultra Cameo.’ In July 2003, it brought $18,400.

While I am not absolutely certain, it is very likely that the Proof 1864 that just sold, on April 19, is this exact same coin. If so, at some point between July 2003 and April 2005, it was moderately dipped and/or otherwise treated. It could be that acid from a standard ‘dip’ stripped down some of the coppery areas on the surface, dissolved toning, and wiped some natural cloudiness that seems visible in past photographs of this same coin.

It was already certified as ‘Deep Cameo’ by the PCGS in 2003. Moreover, a large number of classic U.S. coins upgraded during the period from 2003 to 2007, when coin markets were very ‘hot.’ Indeed, the era from 1997 to 2007 was characterized by grade-inflation. In my opinion, it is a shame that it was dipped or partially dipped. If it had not been dipped, it probably would have upgraded, anyway, and would have a more ‘original’ look now, with toning and clouds.

Could I be wrong about it being the same coin that was sold in 2003 and earlier? It seems that indentations on the nose and forehead above the nose appear on several Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles and some stem from the obverse die. On these four coins, which I maintain are the same, however, there are common denominators that are not found on other Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles.

An indentation between the first and second stars seems to appear on just these four and is not found in images of other Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles that I have seen. Further, there is a small, drop shaped indentation in Miss Liberty’s chest that appears on the current piece and on images of the one that sold in 2003. In addition, there are a pair of marks near the fifth star that seem to be found only on these four, and thus not from the obverse die, amounting to additional evidence that these four auction sales are of the same coin. Something near the sixth star appears consistently in all obverse images of these four as well. The most convincing evidence, though, is a spot near the chin.

In the Heritage images from Feb. 2003, there seems to be a coppery area and/or toning spot near the chin. In the images from July 2003, a spot is in the same location, though it does not look as coppery in those images, possibly due to variations in lighting. Regarding the Proof 1864 sold in 2012, there is a spot in the same location, as best as I can tell, though, it is smaller and fainter.

I suggest that the spot was reduced in size and scope by a dipping, partial dipping, or other means. In the coin collecting community, a ‘dipping’ refers to the use of an acid solution to strip a layer off of a coin, to brighten the coin and remove color. It is not unusual for matter adhering to the surface of a coin to be removed by (acid) dipping.

If I am right about there being four auction appearances at Heritage of the same coin, including this one in April 2012, at least four of the eight sales of all Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles in Heritage auctions since 1995 are of this one coin. In the Heritage Archives, there are no online images of two appearances of Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles in the 1990s. Moreover, this same coin may have appeared in auctions conducted by other firms. Over the past dozen years, though, very few Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles have sold at auction

A search on the Goldbergs website, for example, suggests that the Goldbergs have not auctioned a Proof 1864 Quarter Eagle since they started a new firm in 1999. The Goldbergs have offered a large number of Proof 19th century gold coins. Spectrum, Bowers & Merena, and Stack’s, including the merged entity (Stack’s-Bowers), have not auctioned one in recent years.

On Jan. 10, 2005, in Fort Lauderdale, ANR auctioned an NGC certified ‘PF-64 Ultra Cameo’ 1864. It brought $34,500. The images of that coin that I have seen are not of high quality. As best as I can tell, it is not the same as one of the others that I am mentioning.

II. Proof 1864 in October

After not auctioning a Proof 1864 Quarter Eagle for years, Heritage auctioned different Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles in Jan. 2011, Oct. 2011 and April 2012. The one sold in October is NGC certified ‘Proof-65 Ultra Cameo.’

It realized $48,875 in October, a strong result, though not quite as strong as $69,000 for the NGC certified ‘PF-66 Ultra Cameo’ on April 19th. I am aware that the hairlines on the October piece may bother some people, particularly the lines from Miss Liberty’s neck to an area near the third and fourth stars. Even so, I like it more than the higher certified Proof 1864 Quarter Eagle that just sold.

The 1864 sold in October is more than very attractive. The tan devices contrast wonderfully with the brownish-russet fields. The October coin has a relatively more natural look than the higher certified piece that was auctioned in April.

If I was planning to buy a Proof 1864 Quarter Eagle, I would rather pay $50,000 for the October one than $69,000 (or even $59,000) for the one that sold in April.

The one in October, from my perspective, the price realized of $69,000 in April is high. It is, though within the realm of reason, given the rarity of 1864 Quarter Eagles, in all grades and in all forms.

III. The Henry Miller 1864

The late Henry Miller amassed a wonderful collection of Proof gold coins. As I reported at the time, these brought strong prices in Jan. 2011. (Please remember that clickable links are in blue.) Miller’s Proof 1864 Quarter Eagle had been ‘off the market’ for more than fifteen years. In the early 1990s, it was NGC graded ‘Proof-65 Cameo.’ I employ here the word ‘was,’ as there is a good chance that it has been upgraded.

The CAC not only approved the Miller 1864, experts at the CAC affixed a special ‘gold’ sticker to its holder, which indicates that CAC experts contend that it merits a grade higher than the grade that has already been assigned by the PCGS or the NGC. The Miller coin brought $80,500 in Jan. 2011, an auction record for an 1864 Quarter Eagle.

Reportedly, one leading dealer in the Midwest graded it as “68”! A West Coast specialist in gold coins publicly declared that it should be certified as ‘Proof-67 Deep Cameo.’ Now, though, the highest graded Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles by the PCGS or the NGC are ’66’ grade coins. My guess is that the Miller 1864 became PCGS certified ‘Proof-66 Deep Cameo.’

I examined the Miller 1864. It is more than very attractive. Indeed, it is awestriking. There are some crisscrossing hairlines. I graded it as 66. Many who saw it expected it to qualify for a ‘Deep Cameo’ or ‘Ultra Cameo’ designation. I hope that it has not been dipped. If I remember it accurately now, the tan-white devices and russet tinted fields were really neat. The Miller 1864 had (and hopefully still has) a great original look. It is the finest Proof 1864 Quarter Eagle that I have ever seen.

IV. Grading Data

I have not finished matching pictures of 1864 Quarter Eagles in the past with images of coins that have been offered in recent times. So called ‘plate matching’ and interpreting grading data are important parts of pedigree research.

Although David Akers implied, in 1998, that the John Pittman 1864 grades ’62,’ my hunch is that it is has been PCGS or NGC certified Proof-64 or -65, Cameo or, more likely, Deep Cameo. It has a strong cameo contrast.

Over the last ten years, the presence of significant hairlines on a Proof Quarter Eagle has not precluded assignment of a 64 or even a 65 grade from the PCGS or the NGC. Moreover, a substantial percentage of the Pittman coins that Akers’ firm auctioned in 1997 and 1998 later received grades from the PCGS or the NGC that are higher than the grades Akers himself assigned to the same coins, respectively.

Another important point is that the PCGS and the NGC did not, when these firms were founded in the mid-1980s, add Cameo designations to the grades of Proof coins. So, many Proofs that were earlier certified were later re-submitted for consideration of Cameo designations. Furthermore, years after ‘Cameo’ designations were added, ‘Deep Cameo’ for PCGS and ‘Ultra Cameo’ for NGC became designations as well. Therefore, many Proofs that had earlier been certified as Cameo Proofs were re-submitted for consideration of Deep or Ultra Cameo designations. The history of ‘Cameo’ designations reveals one of several reasons why the same Proof coin may have been submitted three or more times.

The printed labels (inserts) within PCGS and NGC holders are often not returned to the grading services by ‘crack-out artists’ and other wholesalers. The published data, ‘pop reports,’ are not adjusted for ‘crack-outs’ when the inserts are not returned.

Indeed, in 2005, one wholesaler returned more than thirteen thousand grading inserts to the PCGS. Rumors suggest that other wholesalers have stashes amounting to thousands of inserts. The overall point in this context is that the data published by the PCGS and the NGC do not accurately reflect the number of different 19th century coins that have been certified by these services. Collectors should seek the counsel of experts before attempting to interpret such reports.

The PCGS and the NGC together report that thirty or so Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles in total have been graded. I estimate that they have graded eight to thirteen different Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles. Additionally, there is one in the Smithsonian and one in the ANS museum in New York. There are probably two to four other individually owned Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles that have never been submitted to the PCGS or the NGC and/or are ungradable.

In Breen’s Encyclopedia of Proof coins, which was published in 1977, ten, apparently different Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles are listed, along with some additional auction records that probably amount to duplicates of some of the ten itemized. The Walter Childs piece, which B&M auctioned in 1999, is not on Breen’s list of ten.

The Pittman piece may not be either, though it was sold in a Kreisberg-Schulman auction in 1952. The firm of David Akers auctioned Pittman’s Proof 1864 Quarter Eagle in 1998 for $26,400. The Childs piece was PCGS certified Proof-64 in 1999, though it has probably upgraded and/or received a cameo designation. As Albanese pointed out, Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles tend to have sharp cameo contrasts. Besides, in August 1999, grading experts bidding at the auction generally determined that experts at the PCGS undergraded many of the Proof coins in the Childs Collection. Indeed, many of the Childs Proofs were incredible. I am almost certain that a majority of them later upgraded.

I suggest that fourteen to seventeen Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles exist, and my estimate here is not original. If it is correct, I do not deserve any credit. Other researchers have put forth similar numbers.

V. 1864 Business Strikes

For 1864 Quarter Eagles, it was thought that business strikes were much rarer than Proofs. Now, the PCGS CoinFacts site estimates that twenty-eight business strikes exist. Less than three weeks ago Doug Winter said that “around twenty or so known in all grades.” I believe, in contrast, that these are about as rare as Proof 1864 Quarter Eagles, fourteen to seventeen known.

Again, data published by the PCGS and the NGC includes multiple submissions of the same coins. I suggest that the PCGS and the NGC together have graded nine to eleven different, business strike 1864s. Furthermore, Jeff Garrett reports that there is an AU-55 grade 1864 business strike in the Smithsonian Institution. The trickiest part of forming an estimate of surviving 1864 business strikes is honing in on those that are not gradable, meaning those that have problems that are too serious for them to receive numerical grades from the PCGS or the NGC. These are difficult to track. Also, some collectors of circulated gold coins prefer coins that are not certified.

The number of ungradable or non-certified 1864 Quarter Eagles appearing at auction is extremely small. In Oct. 1999, B&M auctioned Harry Bass’ business strike, which was not certified at the time. It probably failed to receive a grade when it was submitted to the PCGS shortly before the auction. It has the details of an AU-55 grade at least.

In Feb. 2009 and in Dec. 2010, Heritage sold an 1864 in an NCS holder with an explanation that it had a “mount removed” and has the “details” of a Good grade coin. It realized $2,070 in 2009 and $4887.50 in 2010.

As for the non-certified “Brushed” 1864 that Heritage auctioned in 1998, $11,327.50 would have been a suitable, perhaps even strong, price at the time for a gradable 1864 with the same level of detail. It is likely that the buyer or the underbidder was a dealer who was confident that he could eventually ‘get’ the PCGS or the NGC to assign a numerical grade to that coin. It probably has a numerical grade now. If it were clearly ungradable, in the eyes of pertinent wholesalers, they would have valued it at less than $5000 in 1998, maybe just $2000. It is possible, however unlikely, that two collectors bid above-market prices for that coin in 1998, even though it was not certified and described as being a coin with serious problems.

The prices of many rare gold coins more than quadrupled in value between 1998 and 2008. The prices of most at least doubled in value.

In Nov. 2010, Spectrum-B&M sold a not gradable 1864, with the details of an “AU-58” grade, for $17,250. This coin would have been worth maybe $5000 in 1998.

In March 2011, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS graded AU-55 1864 for $46,000. I covered it in my review of that auction.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend that event. In my review, I did quote Jeff Ambio and Doug Winter regarding this specific coin. I pointed out, though, that it is the exact same 1864 Quarter Eagle that Heritage auctioned in August 2010. I now notice that this same coin was auctioned by Heritage about one year earlier as well, on July 31, 2009. It was consigned as part of the “R.M. Phillips Limited Partnership Collection” in 2009.

It was PCGS graded AU-53 and in a regular holder in 2009. It then went for $32,200. Between March 2010 and July 2010, it was re-submitted under the PCGS SecurePlus program and it moved into a ‘Secure’ holder with the same AU-53 grade. In Aug. 2010, it sold for $40,250. By March 2011, PCGS had upgraded it to AU-55, though it went back to being in a regular PCGS holder.

One of the reasons for mentioning that this same Phillips 1864 was in three different auctions in three years is to demonstrate that a list of auction appearances may give the impression that a coin is less rare than it is in actuality, as individual coins may be repeatedly offered at auction, sometimes in different holders or even with changed appearances. For both business strikes and Proofs, some of the same 1864 Quarter Eagles have been repeatedly offered at auction over the past twenty years.

Consider that the NGC graded AU-58 1864 that Heritage sold in April 2011 was also in Heritage auctions in 2001 and 2002. It sold for $46,000 in 2011 and $20,700 in 2002.

The NGC graded 1864 that Heritage sold in October 2011 is clearly different from the one sold in April 2011. The October coin has some issues, but is acceptable as an AU-58 grade coin. The obverse is nice. It sold for $40,250. The one that Heritage sold in April 2011 may have been a higher quality coin. The already discussed Phillips coin probably scores higher in the category of originality than the one sold in Oct. 2011.

The number of 1864 Quarter Eagles that grade from EF-40 to AU-55 in actuality is not nearly as high as the numbers in the ‘pop reports,’ data published by the PCGS and the NGC. Indeed, the PCGS numbers in this regard have even become more bloated since Oct. 2008.

According to Winter, the PCGS graded MS-61 1864 and the NGC graded MS-61 1864 are different coins and are (or were) both owned by separate collectors in the Midwest. There is only one other 1864 Quarter Eagle that has been certified as ‘MS’ (‘Mint State’).

The finest known 1864 business strike is NGC graded “MS-67.” It was in the Byron Reed Collection. In 1996, it was in a Christies-Spink auction of coins that were deaccessioned from the Byron Reed Collection, which is held by a museum in Omaha. It then sold for $132,000, a startling price in 1996, though much less than the price that the same coin would realize if it was offered at auction in 2012.

John Albanese reports that, “about five years ago, I sold it to Mark Salzberg,” who is the chairman and largest shareholder of the NGC. “It is phenomenal. It must have been put away when it was minted,” Albanese says about the Reed 1864 Quarter Eagle. Winter recently called it the “the single greatest Liberty Head Quarter Eagle in existence.” It remains in Salzberg’s personal collection.

I hope that I have provided a worthwhile and entertaining analysis of 1864 Quarter Eagles. These are extremely rare, Civil War era coins. I find them to be much more exciting than the common coins that are often discussed in coin related media.

©2012 Greg Reynolds


Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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