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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: The Controversy over 1841 Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold coins), Part 1

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #107

Quarter Eagles (U.S. $2½ gold coins) were minted from 1796 to 1929, and in every year from 1829 to 1915. They are about the size of dimes and are 90% gold or nearly so. For decades, there was nearly unanimous agreement that all 1841 Quarter Eagles were struck in Proof format. There were no business strikes. There is now an ongoing debate, which is of tremendous importance, even to collectors who cannot afford 1841 Quarter Eagles. The debate relates to the definition of a Proof and whether experts can agree on the Proof status of a large number of 19th century coins, including many that are not particularly expensive.

In Feb. 2012, the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) announced that most known 1841 Quarter Eagles are really business strikes, not Proofs. Indeed, PCGS mastermind David Hall determined that all but four 1841 Quarter Eagles are business strikes, “regular strikings.” David Akers agrees. Hall acknowledges, however, that experts are deeply divided over this issue.

Here in part 1, I examine the debate and analyze its importance. Next, in part 2, I put forth theories as to why there might have been many more Proof 1841 Quarter Eagles than Proof Quarter Eagles of any other date until the 1860s. In part 3, I discuss the physical characteristics of some individual 1841 Quarter Eagles, and, hopefully, shed light on the definition of a Proof coin.

Three 1841 Quarter Eagles have been auctioned over the last ten months, one in April. Including those three, I have seen six or seven of the sixteen or seventeen that are likely to exist. In my view, it is the physical characteristics of a coin, not historical circumstances, that determine the Proof or business strike status of a coin. I realize, though, that others address the topic from different angles.

Experts on both sides seem to employ both historical and technical arguments to support their respective positions as to whether 1841 Quarter Eagles are all Proofs. I focus on the physical characteristics of the coins. I concede, however, that, if a coin is too worn and/or too mistreated to yield sufficient evidence to determine its Proof or business strike status, then historical analysis often should play an important role.

I. Importance of the Debate

This debate is extremely important for at least two reasons. First, if the new PCGS position becomes widely accepted, prices, on average, for 1841 Quarter Eagles will be higher than such prices would have been if all were judged to be Proofs. If the previously accepted Proof characteristics of other rarities are similarly reviewed, the prices of those would be affected as well.

Secondly, this debate has implications as to the definition of a Proof coin and thus how other coins from the 19th century are to be interpreted. Are circulated coins, even of dates that were thought to be Proof-only, to be judged business strikes if their remaining physical characteristics do not demonstrate that they are certainly Proofs? I suggest that the supposed Proof-only status of some other coin issues should be reviewed.

If the surviving circulated 1841 Quarter Eagles are not Proofs, are there many other 19th century coins that are PCGS or NGC certified as Proofs, yet are not really Proofs? If some certified Proofs lack the detail of other certified Proofs of the same type and date, as often occurs, then should the certified Proof designations of the some of the weaker pieces be rescinded? There are a few silver coins and many nickels from the 1870s and 1880s that have been certified as Proofs that I, for one, doubt are truly Proofs. The statuses of some silver and gold coins from 1850s could be subject to question as well.

It is curious that David Hall, the primary founder of the PCGS, focuses on a few design sub-elements on some 1841 Quarter Eagles that seem to lack a little of the detail that other 1841 Quarter Eagles possess. Many other 19th century coins that lack much detail are PCGS certified as Proofs. Consider the Classic Head Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles that are PCGS certified as Proofs. Some of these have fuzzy details in the centers. Plus, design detail tends to vary on certified Proofs of the same type and date.

David Hall clearly controlled the recent PCGS publication on this controversy. I am impressed that it also contained dissenting views, especially a long, sophisticated essay by Ron Guth. Hall has certainly handled the matter in a very honest and ethical way. David arranged for Doug Winter to view four 1841 Quarter Eagles at the same time and Hall showed multiple pieces to other experts. Also, through a press release that Hall is likely have approved, the PCGS revealed that Mike Sargent, a long-time PCGS finalizer, strongly believes that all 1841 Quarter Eagles are Proofs.

Even so, a decision had been made. The new policy would seem, if widely accepted, to increase the values of all 1841 Quarter Eagles as some collectors demand only Proofs and some collectors demand only business strikes. Those who collect only business strikes Liberty Head Quarter Eagles had previously ignored the 1841. According to Hall and Winter, an 1841 is now needed for a complete set of business strike Liberty Head Quarter Eagles. Collectors of just Proofs, who accept the new policy, now have to compete for a smaller number of certified Proof 1841 Quarter Eagles. There could thus be the same demand for a diminished supply of PCGS certified Proof 1841 Quarter Eagles, if the PCGS theory is believed by the pertinent buyers.

Business strike 1841 Quarter Eagles, if collectors believe they exist, will be worth a great deal because a new business strike rarity will have been created and collectors will need them for sets of business strike Liberty Head Quarter Eagles. Also, these can and will be promoted as rarities for which only eleven or twelve are known.

An increase in prices for 1841 Quarter Eagles is not a crucial issue. It is the implications of the debate for less expensive coins of other dates and for the meaning of a Proof in general that are most important for the coin collecting community at large.

II. History of Collecting Proofs

Before the 1980s, collectors of high quality 19th century coins typically mixed Proofs and business strikes in the same sets. Consider the Eliasberg, Garrett, Starr and Norweb Collections, among others. A Proof was generally considered to be superior to a corresponding business strike of the same or similar grade, not just a product of a different production method.

If a Proof was not available or if none were struck for a particular type and date, then such advanced and wealthy collectors would choose a business strike. In the unusual situations where business strikes are rarer than Proofs, collectors in the past usually found that it made logical sense to select a Proof. In the 1980s, however, the tradition of mixing Proofs and business strikes in the same sets began to fade.

The new trend has been to consider the collecting of Proofs and business strikes as separate endeavors, which should not be confused with each other. Generally, now, a collector of coins ‘by date’ (rather than ‘by type’) will choose Proofs or business strikes for a given series and not acquire both. A collector who is wealthy and is enthusiastic about a particular series, however, may collect both Proofs and business strikes of this series, yet may regard these as two separate sets with zero common members.

The famous collector Simpson, for example, collected both business strike Liberty Seated Dimes and Proof Liberty Seated Dimes. In 2010, he decided to sell the business strikes and keep the Proofs. They were, in his mind, two separate sets. Louis Eliasberg, in contrast, mixed Proofs and business strikes in the same set of Liberty Seated Dimes, as did the Norweb family.

In most PCGS and NGC Registry sets, Proofs and business strikes cannot be mixed. Stack’s-Bowers and the Goldbergs continue to mix Proofs and business strikes in listings of offerings of coins of each particular design type. At an auction, an 1893 business strike may be followed by an 1894 Proof and then an 1895 business strike, followed by an 1896 Proof. Heritage, however, segregates Proofs and business strikes. In a typical Heritage coin auction, business strike Liberty Head Quarter Eagles are sold before any Proof Liberty Head Quarter Eagles are sold.

DLRC followed the new trend when DLRC auctioned in the Richmond Collection in 2004 and 2005. The collector known as Richmond collected both Proofs and business strikes of many types. His business strike Liberty Seated Half Dollars, though, were sold before his Proof Liberty Seated Half Dollars. For Philadelphia Mint dates, the ‘Richmond’ collector acquired two Liberty Seated Half Dollars of each, one Proof and one business strike, as, evidently, in his mind, they should be segregated.

Personally, I prefer the old tradition rather than the new trend of regarding Proofs and business strikes as members of separate sets. A discussion of the merits of these approaches is, though, beside present purposes.

The relatively new trend of segregating Proofs and business strikes relates to the fact that the new PCGS policy regarding 1841 Quarter Eagles has created an additional coin issue, business strike 1841 Quarter Eagles. Someone who collects both business strike and Proof Liberty Head Quarter Eagles would, in accordance with the new trend and this new policy, need two 1841 Quarter Eagles for complete sets.

III. The Rarity of 1841 Quarter Eagles

All 1841 Quarter Eagles are Great Rarities. No matter how these are classified, the total number of existing 1841 Quarter Eagles is certainly less than twenty-five. In my column of Oct. 5, 2011, I discussed the rarest Quarter Eagles. I noted that Mark Borckardt itemized seventeen explicitly and mentions a few auction appearances that may be additional pieces. Borckardt admits that his roster may include some duplication.

Undoubtedly, Borckardt referred to earlier work by Breen. Nonetheless, my impression is that Borckardt did a great deal of research. In Oct. 2011, my finding was that additional information and analysis suggested that Borckardt’s research is generally accurate. In 2011, I did not know that Ron Guth and Scott Rubin were further researching pedigrees of these.

To an extent, I relied upon Borckardt’s earlier research, though I have seen six or seven of them, and more images have been published since Borckardt’s last roster. My working hypothesis in October 2011 was that fourteen to eighteen, probably sixteen or seventeen, exist. Is it a coincidence that David Hall now says that sixteen or seventeen exist?

Borckardt is mentioned just once in the thirty seven-page report that the PCGS published in February 2012, The 1841 Quarter Eagle Revisited: A New Approach to a Classic Rarity. David Hall recollects that Borckardt mentioned Akers’ earlier point about the possible existence of business strikes. It is true, though, that the roster in the recent PCGS publication, which was compiled by Ron Guth and Scott Rubin, does seem to be the most thorough ever done and resolves some issues regarding past pedigrees.

Of the sixteen or seventeen that Hall says exist, he is now asserting that just four are Proofs. Twelve or thirteen are business strikes, according to the new policy. Akers is in full agreement with Hall. Doug Winter is tending toward Hall’s position that just four are Proofs. The new PCGS policy could be termed the Hall-Akers-Winter position.

IV. The Emergence of the Debate

In 1975, in his book on Quarter Eagles, David Akers suggested that some 1841 Quarter Eagles are business strikes. In Bowers & Merena auction catalogues in 1999, 2000, and probably earlier, Mark Borckardt and Q. David Bowers repeated Akers’ pronouncements without further comment. Borckardt said that he regards them all as Proofs.

For many years, Doug Winter has been echoing Akers’ viewpoint and stating that some 1841 Quarter Eagles are business strikes. In the past, Doug specifically referred to the PCGS graded 53 coin that Heritage auctioned in Feb. 2007 at a Long Beach Expo. I attended that convention and I saw this coin. Bob Green, of Park Avenue Numismatics, bought the coin after the auction and I discussed it with him. Green suggested that it was a business strike.

Of all the 1841 Quarter Eagles that I have seen, this one has the weakest Proof characteristics. I wrote about in 2007 and I will discuss it again in part 3. Before discussing individual coins, it makes sense to mention overall approaches.

Scott Schechter, vice-president of the NGC, explains that the “NGC will continue to recognize all 1841 Quarter Eagles as Proofs. Given that all examples were struck from the same pair of dies, we think differences in appearance among these coins can easily be attributed to modest variations in planchet preparation and striking pressure combined with each coin’s individual preservation history. Whether each example meets widely-held notions surrounding the production quality of true proofs is an interesting question, but does not have any bearing on whether or not these coins were struck as currency issues or presentation pieces, especially considering the [historical circumstances].”

Additionally, Ron Guth, Mike Sargent, and John Dannreuther take the position that all 1841 Quarter Eagles were Proofs when struck, though Guth hedges a little. Recently, I asked John Albanese and Matt Kleinsteuber to comment.

Albanese is the founder and president of the CAC. He is also the founder of the Numismatic Consumer Alliance, which has helped recover millions of dollars for people who have been unfairly treated by coin dealers or investment firms.

“I have never seen an 1841 Quarter Eagle that I thought was a business strike. I don’t know where they are coming from” on this issue,” John remarks. “Let’s compare it to the 1895 silver dollar. All the high grade examples are Proofs. Some low grade 1895 dollars will [no longer] have their Proof surfaces, but they were made as Proofs,” Albanese relates.

“If they really made business strikes,” Albanese declares, “show me a choice AU or uncirculated 1841 with mint frost. When coins grade below 55, it is hard to tell if they are Proofs.”

Matt Kleinsteuber concurs, though Matt was unaware of Albanese’s viewpoint or mine, when I asked him. “I do not think that there is enough supporting evidence to prove that any of them are business strikes,” Kleinsteuber says. Matt is the lead grader and trader for NFC coins.

John and Matt suggest central questions: To support their respective positions, is it sufficient for the business strike theorists to demonstrate that some are business strikes or even just one, or, is it necessary for those that hold that all 1841s were struck as Proofs to demonstrate that each is a Proof? It seems that neither of these questions must be answered.

Indeed, my impression is that there is an implicit agreement that those 1841 Quarter Eagles that are certified as grading less than 55 cannot be used to prove one position or the other. In part 3, I will discuss 1841 Quarter Eagles that have been certified as grading 53, 55 and 58. These may be the keys to the controversy.

V. Same Dies, Same Alignment, Same Press Run?

John Dannreuther has demonstrated that the same reverse (tail) die was used for all 1841 Quarter Eagles and that this same reverse die was used for all Proof Quarter Eagles from 1840 to 1848. If Philadelphia Mint officials were going to make a few business strikes in 1841 or 1841 dated business strikes in January 1842, would they have employed a business strike reverse die? Were all of the reverse dies used in 1840 cracked, worn out, or discarded? In 1841, were other reverse Quarter Eagle dies available? Reverse dies were needed to manufacture business strike Quarter Eagles in 1842, anyway.

I find it puzzling that Akers, Hall, QDB, and others speculate that an order for Quarter Eagles arrived at the Philadelphia Mint in early 1842 and that this order was fulfilled using the Proof dies of 1841, including the reverse die that was used for 1840 Proofs and 1842 Proofs as well. How urgent could this supposed ‘order’ have been?

Is it plausible that such a customer in January could not wait weeks for Quarter Eagles that would have been dated 1842 and would have been properly listed in U.S. Mint records? Was an order for “100 to 250” Quarter Eagles that important during an era when there was little demand for Quarter Eagles anyway? If there was such an order, would the customer have been satisfied with Half Eagles and/or a commitment to deliver Quarter Eagles later? As overdates are not unusual in the 19th century, if such an order needed to be filled immediately, the second numeral one in the 1841 obverse die could have been over-punched with a numeral two to conform with a policy, which seems to have been enforced during the 1840s, that coins be ‘dated’ the year in which they were struck.

Dannreuther also argues that all of the 1841 Quarter Eagles must have been made at the same time. I do not accept this argument, though it does not prove or disprove a theory that all are Proofs. Generally, Dannreuther contends that, for coins of the same type and date, when the die rotation is exactly the same for each, all must have been struck during the same press run. I am not persuaded. To save time when dies were next used, workers could have just put some kind of mark on the shaft to be used to ‘line up’ the dies when inserted into the press in the future.

Throughout history, people who were experts in tools and metalwork of various kinds often learned ‘tricks of the trade’ from mentors, and some ‘tricks’ or policies may have never been recorded in writing. For centuries, people learned skills by being apprentices or assistants to experienced tradesmen. Throughout much of the history of human civilization, tradesmen and their apprentices did not do much reading and writing. Knowledge of many of their respective skills and practices has been lost.

It is very plausible that there was more than one technique that workers at mints knew to use so that the alignment on special strikings and Proofs was consistent in more than one press run. It also follows that some U.S. Mint officials would be concerned about such details while others did not care. Moreover, the same foreman may have diligently sought to maintain the same alignment in a second run of striking Proofs of some issues and not others, depending upon his mood or whatever else was on his mind. I am more concerned about the style of my writing during some weeks than during others.

If U.S. Mint officials decided to make a few business strike or other non-Proof 1841 Quarter Eagles, would they have bothered to enlist another reverse die? They would have figured that it would not do any harm to make a few non-Proofs with the same die pair and not bother to record them. I maintain, however, that Dannreuther does provide strong reasons for doubting David Akers’ belief that 100 to 250 1841 Quarter Eagles were “probably struck in early 1842.”

Logically, as Dannreuther emphasizes, it is unlikely that this sole Proof Quarter Eagle reverse die of the eighteen-forties was used to make more than one hundred business strikes. Besides, supervisors would be less likely to be concerned about the precise die alignment on a regular press run and there is a good chance that striking 100 to 250 coins would have had a noticeable effect on the reverse die. Dannreuther discovered that this reverse die was not repolished before being used to strike 1842 Proofs. I agree that it is likely that it would have been repolished, had it been used to strike 100 to 250 business strikes in the interim.

In relation to the “preparation” of blank circular pieces of gold (planchets) for coinage of 1841 Quarter Eagles, Hall, Akers, and Winter “may be right,” Guth curiously concedes. Franklin Peale, the chief coiner at the Philadelphia Mint, “may have made some showpieces for sale to the collectors of Proof coins and some not-so-nice pieces for sale to date collectors.” This is not a powerful argument.

Yes, it is obvious that some more experienced and/or more sophisticated collectors may have had a much greater appreciation of Proofs than other collectors. It is also true that some collectors that came by the Mint may have been indifferent as to Proof or business strikes. Most likely, however, most collectors had never seen a Proof gold coin or did not know that any were available. Remember, these did not have clear labels or names at the time. It is not known how often the term ‘Proof’ was used to describe them prior to the mid 1850s, or really how they were typically described. Were Proofs then described to collectors in a consistent or even understandable manner? Besides, many collectors were satisfied with business strikes because they did not know about or did not think about Proofs.

Guth also cites R. W. Julian‘s point that Proof coins were favorable public relations tools for the U.S Mint. As long as a press was set-up to strike Proof 1841 Quarter Eagles, it is unlikely that non-Proofs would be struck after Proofs, for people who would not appreciate Proofs.

How much time and effort would really have been saved by making twenty non-Proofs after making five Proofs? It could not have taken a very long time to manufacture twenty-five Proof Quarter Eagles, even with equipment that was primitive by current standards.

Why not give the ‘date’ collectors who came by the Mint a thrill by enabling them to acquire a Proof 1841? Many probably had never seen a Proof before. In 1841, were there any collectors who adamantly preferred business strikes to Proofs? There are many such collectors today. Dr. Duckor comes to mind. Before 1980, especially in the 19th century, a very small percentage of collectors preferred business strikes to Proofs of coins of the same type.

There is a good chance that the first few Proofs struck were of higher striking quality than some of those that were struck later. This was probably true, however, of many 19th century Proof issues.

Some relatively ‘better’ coins may have been set aside for more influential recipients or for friends. U.S. Mint officials may have wanted relatively more beautiful coins for their own personal collections. The fact that, for a given date and type, some Proofs are of higher striking quality than coins that were struck a little later does not necessarily mean that those that were struck later are not Proofs. The coins struck a few minutes or a few months later may have been struck twice on buffed planchets (prepared blanks) from extensively polished dies.

Nonetheless, Guth does raise the issue that non-Proofs could have been made for casual collectors who did not appreciate Proofs or might not have cared about Proofs. Somehow, I doubt that officials planned for non-Proofs to made during a Proof press run.

As long as Proofs were being made, it was probably the intent of whoever was in charge that all twenty or twenty-five were to be struck as Proofs. Mint officials probably figured that they might as well try to impress collectors and/or influential people who would be receiving them. Because there was very likely to be a plan or just an intention to strike twenty or twenty-five Proof 1841 Quarter Eagles, however, does not necessarily mean that all struck are Proofs.

In part 2, I will discuss logical reasons as to why twenty to twenty-five Proof or special 1841 Quarter Eagles were most likely intended, even though the respective mintages for other Proof gold coins from the 1840s and 1850s are much lower, often less than five.

As for whether non-Proof 1841 Quarter Eagles exist, I will address this topic in part 3.

©2012 Greg Reynolds

Edited, May 9, 2012, 11:30 PM ET


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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