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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: The Rarest Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold coins)

News and Analysis of scarce coins,  markets, and the coin collecting community #75

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds

Quarter Eagles (U.S. $2½ gold coins) were minted from 1796 to 1929, though not in every year. These are very popular with coin collectors. As key Quarter Eagles have recently been and are currently ‘in the news,’ now is a good time to theorize about the survival of the rarest Quarter Eagles, especially since a collection that Heritage will auction in October contains representatives of all the extremely rare Liberty Head Quarter Eagles. Last week, I wrote about the 1854-S in that collection.  Herein, I discuss the four rarest Quarter Eagles overall.

For collectors who do not wish to spend substantial sums on the rarest Quarter Eagles, yet would like to collect Quarter Eagles, the Indian Head series is a logical choice. Three weeks ago, I analyzed the Shrike-Karschner set of Indian Head Quarter Eagles that are PCGS certified as grading MS-65 or -66. Indian Head Quarter Eagles, however, are much less expensive in grades below 65 and that set is very easy to complete, as there are no Indian Head Quarter Eagles that are rare in absolute terms. There are condition rarities and the 1911-D is relatively scarce, though not rare. Indeed, most circulated Indian Head Quarter Eagles are worth only a little more than their intrinsic (metal) content, which is not tremendous as these each contain less than one-eighth of an ounce of gold

The topic here is the rarest Quarter Eagles in all grades, not condition rarities. As I emphasized last week, not long ago, it seemed that the 1854-S was clearly the rarest Quarter Eagle (U.S. $2½ gold coin) of any type. Now, I hypothesize that the 1863, the 1841, and the 1834 Capped Head are all in the same category of rarity, and the 1797 is not far behind. Unfortunately, my research in this area is far from complete and this column is not intended to be a final conclusion. In the future, I will devote a column or article to each extremely Quarter Eagle issue.

In 2007, I wrote an article about 1808 Quarter Eagles, which are not as rare as the coins discussed herein, yet are especially important as one-year type coins. I am ignoring die varieties, which are of interest to a few dedicated specialists. I am focusing upon extremely rare ‘dates’ as these appeal to a wide audience and have a large fan base.

(The section on ‘Series of Quarter Eagles’ is introductory. Veteran collectors of gold coins may wish to skip the following section and go to the section on the 1834 Capped Head issue.)

I. Series of Quarter Eagles

In terms of Quarter Eagles that are gradable, or should be gradable, more or less in accordance with PCGS standards, the 1834 Capped Head is THE RAREST Quarter Eagle. Capped Head Quarter Eagles were minted from 1821 to 1834, though not in every year in between.

Classic Head Quarter Eagles are much less rare than Capped Head Quarter Eagles, and are easy to collect. These were minted from 1834 to 1839. Liberty Head Quarter Eagles were minted from 1840 to 1907, and Indian Head Quarter Eagles from 1908 to 1929.

Bust Quarter Eagles with ‘No Stars’ on the obverse (front of the coin) were minted only in 1796. Later in 1796, stars were added to the obverse. So, there are two types and thus two dates of 1796 Quarter Eagles, the ‘No Stars’ issue and the other ‘with stars.’ The latter is the first of the second type of Bust Right Quarter Eagles, which lasted until 1807. In another words, the first type of Quarter Eagles, which is the first type of Bust Right Quarter Eagles, was minted only in 1796. The second type of Quarter Eagles, which is the second type of Bust Right Quarter Eagles, dates from 1796 to 1807.

For one year only in 1808, Bust Left Quarter Eagles were minted. Quarter Eagles were not produced again until 1821.

As Classic Head Quarter Eagles featured a “motto,” E. Pluribus Unum, the 1834 Classic Head is sometimes said to be “The 1834 With Motto” Quarter Eagle and the 1834 Capped Head is sometimes referred to as “The 1834 No Motto” Quarter Eagle. This terminology, while true to an extent, is misleading.

The Classic Head issue was a whole new type, not merely different because of the addition of a motto. There is the Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagle issue and there is the Classic Head 1834 Quarter Eagle issue. It is not logical to employ the term “motto” to distinguish them, as these are two very different types of Quarter Eagles.

II. The 1834 Capped Head

While all dates of Capped Head Quarter Eagles are very rare or extremely rare, the 1834 is the rarest. As many Capped Head Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles were being melted for their gold content, a new law required Classic Head types to contain less gold. More than one thousand Classic Head 1834 Quarter Eagles survive and just a few Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles.

David Stone, an experienced coin researcher and collector of coin related literature from the 19th century, is employed by Heritage. In response to my inquiry, Stone states that “the intrinsic [metal] value of U.S. gold coins was greater than their face value until Congress adjusted the specifications for gold coinage on July 31, 1834. Bullion dealers routinely culled [Capped Head] U.S. gold coins from circulation and melted them down for bullion value. After the weight change in 1834, the new lighter [Classic Head] gold coins were able to circulate, but the melting of old tenor gold issues was even more relentless. The [Capped Head] 1834 Quarter Eagle mintage was nearly wiped out by this melting.”

The data published by the PCGS and the NGC indicate that nineteen Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles have been certified and graded. This total includes multiple counts, however, of some of the same coins and perhaps a couple of these should not have been graded, anyway.

On a large number of occasions, the same rare date gold coins received higher grades in the 2000s from the PCGS and the NGC, than each did during the 1990s. Moreover, it is common for dippers and coin doctors to tamper with pre-1840 gold coins. Two coins that seem to be different, after one has been modified or has naturally retoned, may really be the same. I suggest that there are seven to ten gradable 1834 Capped Head Quarter Eagles.

It is extremely difficult to estimate how many ungradable ones exist. Coins that have been damaged, doctored, or very harmfully cleaned may receive further treatments after being photographed and sold, and may appear ‘on the market’ again after makeovers. These can be damaged and/or doctored again, yet ‘look better’ at first glance or appear to be high quality coins to non-knowledgeable buyers.

“Because this coin was much better known to numismatists of the 19th century,” David Stone suggests that more Capped Head 1834 coins “were saved of this issue than the other rare Quarter Eagles.” I disagree with Stone’s line of thinking in regard to such saving. In the 1830s, the few people who collected U.S. coins had only minimal, if any, interest in ‘new issues’ of business strike gold coins. Consider the extreme rarity of many issues of Capped Head Half Eagles ($5 gold coins).

In the 1850s and 1860s, collectors of gold coins tended to be much more interested in Proofs than in business strikes. Besides, long before the 1860s, as Stone himself points out, almost all of the minted Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles had been melted, anyhow.

Heritage has offered four ungradable Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles at auction since 1994. One of these is the Amon Carter coin, which Stack’s auctioned in 1984. The Carter 1834 is said by a Heritage cataloguer in 1997 to grade ‘AU-50 with reverse scratches.’ There are currently no online images of the Carter 1834 Capped Head Quarter Eagle. It is very plausible that this coin later found its way into a PCGS or NGC holder. It realized $12,075 in July 1997.

The Amon Carter coin was one of three Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles consigned to Heritage by the Diocese of Buffalo, all three of which were auctioned in 1997. Curiously, Heritage auctioned a total of five Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles in 1997, four that were PCGS or NGC graded plus the just mentioned Amon Carter coin.

While three of the five are certainly from the Diocese of Buffalo, could one of the others be a repeat offering of one of the Diocese coins after a dealer-buyer ‘upgraded’ it? In the 1990s, it was very common for rare coins to be purchased by speculating dealers, some of whom almost immediately consigned many new acquisitions to be auctioned again soon. Before the Internet era, collectors were generally unaware when the same coin was offered at auction two or three times during a relatively short period of time, even in just one year.

Since 1997, Heritage has auctioned only three not graded Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles and zero graded ones. The last one that Heritage sold was an 1834 in a PCGS ‘Genuine – Not Gradable’ holder, which realized $11,500 in March 2010.

As far as I know, the last PCGS or NGC graded Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagle to publicly sell was on Oct. 11, 2004. A PCGS graded ‘AU-55’ Capped Head 1834 was then auctioned by ANR in New York, for $35,650. I covered this sale for Numismatic News newspaper. I hope that I can find my notes.

The BD book on die varieties of early gold coins (Whitman, 2006) states that twenty to twenty-four business strikes are known, plus one or two Proofs. In this book, however, there are frequently mentioned statistics stemming from a database of auction records dating from 1991 to 2005. As I mentioned already, in the 1990s, it was very common for speculating dealers to buy rare gold coins at auction and then re-consign them to other auctions soon afterwards. It was not unusual for the same rare gold coin to appear in several auctions during the 1990s, often with different certifications. At this time, I doubt that there are twenty known.

Neither the PCGS nor the NGC has certified a Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagle as a Proof. One of the two in the Smithsonian is probably a Proof. I have not seen it.

The PCGS CoinFacts site estimates the number of “survivors” at eighteen. I repeat, though, that I am certain that the population data includes duplicate counts of some of the same coins. The two “MS-61” grade pieces, two “MS-62” grade pieces and lone “MS-63” coin that are listed on the CoinFacts site probably do not constitute five different coins.

In 1988, the leading researcher Breen listed fifteen Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles in his ‘complete’ encyclopedia (on page 490). A careful reading of the text in his list, however, indicates that Breen was really saying that only nine, if that many, on the list are necessarily different coins. Indeed, while his list is ambitious and was path breaking, it contains several possible duplicate or triplicate listing of the same coins.

In the 1970s, David Akers estimated that twelve to fifteen exist, though Akers was not then distinguishing the gradable from the ungradable. After all, the PCGS was not founded until 1986. Jim McGuigan makes such a distinction in his estimates.

McGuigan has specialized in early U.S. copper coins since the 1950s and he has a tremendous collection of half cents. For “more than seventeen years,” he has actively traded in pre-1840 U.S. gold coins. From his experience and accumulated knowledge, McGuigan finds that “maybe five” Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles “are gradable.”

In my very tentative estimation, seven to nine are gradable, and four to seven ungradable Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles exist. There are thus eleven to sixteen in total, which, coincidentally, is the exact same range that I put forth last week in regard to 1854-S Quarter Eagles. There are, though, more gradable 1854-S Quarter Eagles.

The only 1854-S on the Heritage list of twelve that is definitely not gradable is the Atwater 1854-S, which I discussed last week. Although not noted as being certified in the Heritage list of twelve 1854-S Quarter Eagles, the last two, which grade in the Good to Very Good range, are both in PCGS or NGC holders. Bob Green handled one and told me about it. The other is owned by a collector that I know and I have seen the coin. If the Smithsonian 1854-S is imagined to be submitted to the PCGS and/or the NGC, it would receive a numerical grade.

I do not know whether the Samuel Wolfson 1854-S, which Stack’s auctioned in 1962, is gradable. I do not have a reason, at the moment, to believe that it would not receive a numerical grade if it were submitted to the PCGS or the NGC.

Therefore, there is an excellent chance that there exist eleven or more gradable 1854-S Quarter Eagles. (Please read last week’s column.) It does not seem that there are as many as ten gradable Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles.

III. The 1863 Quarter Eagle

Traditionally, the 1854-S was (and still is) considered the rarest Quarter Eagle and the 1841 the second rarest. I am, however, theorizing that the 1863 is at least as rare as and is probably rarer than the 1841.

Unlike the 1854-S, the 1841 and the 1863 are regarded as Proof-only dates. A few experts have recently asserted that some circulated 1841 Quarter Eagles are business strikes, not impaired Proofs. I will analyze the topic of supposed business strike 1841s in the future. Whether or not all 1841 Quarter Eagles were struck as Proofs is really a different topic. The pressing point here is that the total of all surviving 1863 Quarter Eagles is probably less than the total of all surviving 1841 Quarter Eagles.

Regarding 19th century Proof gold coins, analyzing auction records and data published by the PCGS and the NGC is particularly tricky, in part because of the Cameo (PCGS and NGC), Ultra Cameo (NGC) and Deep Cameo (PCGS) designations. When the PCGS and the NGC were founded in the mid 1980s, there were no such designations on the holders that housed Proof coins. At some point, cameo designations were added to the labels pertaining to Proof coins that PCGS or NGC experts concluded had substantial cameo contrast, light frosted devices distinguishing themselves from much darker fields.

A few years later, a Deep or Ultra Cameo designation was added as an option for graders to assign to Proof coins. So, a certified Proof-63 gold coin may be resubmitted in hopes of receiving a cameo designation. Those certified Proofs that already have cameo designations are often continually resubmitted with the aim of receiving Deep or Ultra Cameo designations. This aspect of accepted grading practices is, in my view, upsetting and harmful. Cameo contrasts are often artificially enhanced by dipping and other means for the purpose of getting such designations, which typically increase the market values of Proof coins.

I recommend against paying substantial premiums for Proof coins solely because of any kind of cameo designations. Indeed, some Proofs that lack such designations may be better values and more original coins than those that have cameo designations

The topic of cameo designations is relevant here because it explains, to some extent, instances where same coin is counted multiple times in the data published by the grading services. It is plausible that a coin that was once certified as Proof-63 may later be certified ‘Proof-63 Cameo,’ Proof-64, ‘Proof-64 Cameo’ and maybe even Proof-64 Ultra Cameo. Along the way, it could receive any one of the just mentioned designations on two or three occasions. Many dealers do not return the paper labels (“inserts”) to the grading services, partly because they do not wish to be identified as being involved in a crackout game in general or do not wish to be linked to the ‘cracking’ of holders of specific coins. Also, if a Proof gold coin has been dipped or otherwise modified, it may be difficult to match it to previous pictures of the same coin.

Some research, a lot of relevant experience viewing and tracking 19th century Proof coins, and some (I hope) developed analytical skills all together lead to my theory that several or even a large majority of the entries relating to 1863 Quarter Eagles are multiple counts of the same coins. The total of twenty-one reported by the PCGS and the NGC amount to maybe nine to twelve different coins.

As an example, consider the pedigree listing in the current Heritage catalogue relating to the Phillips-“Baltimore” 1863 that will be offered in Pittsburgh this month. It is said to “probably” have been auctioned by Superior Galleries in Feb. 1992. If so, it was then PCGS certified “Proof-62.” It is now NGC certified “Proof-63 Cameo.” Also, it could have been PCGS and/or NGC certified “Proof-63” without a cameo designation at some points in the 1990s.

Doug Winter stated in 2010 that “twenty or so” exist and the PCGS CoinFacts website currently estimates twenty survivors. In their encyclopedia of gold coins, Garrett & Guth (Whitman, 2006) estimate fifteen to twenty. The Heritage cataloguer cites Paul Taglione, as having written in 1986 that twelve to fourteen 1863 Quarter Eagles exist.

I am partial to David Akers’ estimate, put forth in the 1970s, that ten to twelve “unimpaired” Proof 1863 Quarter Eagles survive. I am not certain, though, as to how Akers’ is or was defining the term “unimpaired.” Was he implying that there are a few 1863 Quarter Eagles that grade less than 55?

I do not remember ever seeing an 1863 Quarter Eagle in a PCGS ‘Genuine” holder or in an NGC/NCS ‘Details’ holder. By current PCGS or NGC standards, Akers may have been referring to Proof 1863 Quarter Eagles that currently grade 63 or higher. Regardless of Akers’ approach to this issue, I suggest, for now, that there are nine to twelve that grade 63 or higher and three or four that grade below 63. There are thus probably twelve to sixteen 1863 Quarter Eagles in existence.

IV. The 1841

In the catalogue of the Bass II auction event, Mark Borckardt puts forth a roster of 1841 Quarter Eagles, which is impressive. He itemizes seventeen explicitly and then references a few others that may constitute additional 1841 Quarter Eagles. Mark acknowledges that his roster of seventeen, plus a few additions, may include some duplication when he prefaces it by saying that it “is believed that no more than 16 to 18 different examples survive today, some of which are in institutional collections as noted.”

Auctions of most of Harry Bass’s gold coins were conducted in 1999 and 2000, mostly in New York, by the firm of Bowers & Merena (New Hampshire), which employed Borckardt at the time. He now works for Heritage.

Pedigree research is difficult for even the most brilliant of coin researchers. Could Borckardt’s itemized roster include more than one duplicate? The appearances of some of the same coins have changed over the years, due to dipping, natural toning, artificial toning and other kinds of doctoring, or environmental factors. Moreover, in decades past, some cataloguers and auction houses were not as honest as they are in the present, or as careful. Sometimes, an impression was given that a coin was a new discovery or ‘new to the market,’ when in actuality it had then recently failed to sell in a previous auction or privately. Besides, before the 2000s, pictures in auction catalogues were usually not very clear. In many instances where the same coin appeared in more than one auction, a researcher may mistakenly conclude that such appearances represented two or more different coins. Some of the 1841 Quarter Eagles cited by Borckardt, though, are known to have been in specific collections for long periods of time, including those of Eliasberg, the Norweb family and James A. Stack.

In my view, Borckardt has proven that there exist at least fourteen 1841 Quarter Eagles. A range of fourteen to eighteen seems logical. It is theoretically possible, therefore, that the 1841 could be rarer than the 1834 Capped Head, the 1854-S and the 1863. After all, there could be fourteen 1841 Quarter Eagles and fifteen or sixteen each of the others. My working hypothesis, which is a more likely scenario, is that there are twelve or thirteen 1854-S Quarter Eagles, thirteen or fourteen 1834 Capped Head Quarter Eagles, fourteen or fifteen 1863 Quarter Eagles and sixteen or seventeen 1841 Quarter Eagles.

©2011 Greg Reynolds

Addendum (10/06/11): Response to Teichman

After publication of the above column, Saul Teichman, a noted researcher, responded with a list of eight Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles: Eliasberg, Garrett, Norweb, Bass, Carter, Lamborn-Fairfield, and two in the Smithsonian.

At least six of these eight are on Breen’s list, which was published in 1988. It is very likely that seven or all eight are on it. I already thought about Breen’s list and cited it in this column. While Saul’s contribution is appreciated, his accompanying statement is potentially very harmful, “All would be gradable, except the Carter coin.”

I am almost certain that this statement is not true. Importantly, it would be harmful for a collector who is considering buying a Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagle to assume that these seven are gradable because of Teichman’s statement.

None of the experts who I interviewed could remember seeing a gradable 1834 Capped Head in a long time. Moreover, it is often necessary for an advanced expert to carefully examine a coin with a magnifying glass to determine whether it is gradable. Pre-1835 gold coins are notorious for having serious problems.

My impression is that Teichman is an expert in patterns and never really focused on Capped Head Quarter Eagles. Even if Teichman attended the pertinent Eliasberg, Garrett, Norweb, Carter and Lamborn-“Fairfield” auctions, and he may have done so, would he really have determined (carefully with magnification) each time whether each offered Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagle is gradable? Does he really remember the precise details of these coins now, a dozen to more than thirty years later?

It is irresponsible for Teichman to say that seven of these eight are gradable now. Even if those seven were very much original in the 1970s or 1980s, and this is doubtful, it is extremely likely that some of them have been doctored in the interim. There is a lot to be gained by deceiving experts into believing that a Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagle is of a higher grade than it was before it was doctored. Turning an AU-55 or MS-60 grade early gold coin, especially a rarity, into a coin that dealers and collectors may be deceived into thinking grades “MS-61” or even “MS-62” can be a profitable activity. Even giving the false impression that an EF-40 grade coin is naturally bright and problem-free can be profitable as well. Among other activities, coin doctors obliterate scratches, contact marks and mint-caused characteristics.

Roughly from 1997 to 2007, there was a tremendous amount of coin doctoring activities, regarding rare U.S. coins. For good reason, Laura Sperber was screaming often about this topic in her published commentaries in 2007 and 2008.

Pre-1840 gold coins were, and continue to be, among the prime targets for coin doctors. Almost every weekday, doctored gold coins are rejected by the CAC. The circumstantial evidence is strong that a few Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles have been doctored, and are thus currently not gradable, since the auctions that Teichman implicitly cites.

How many gradable Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles have appeared on coin markets over the past dozen years? Of gradable 1841, 1854-S and 1863 Quarter Eagles, several of each have appeared over this same time period. I maintain my position that, among gradable Quarter Eagles, the Capped Head 1834 is the rarest.

©2011 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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  1. Greg – with regard to 1834 With mottos, and anyone who feels like trying to pedigree examples from modern catalogs, start with these 8 which are unquestionably different. All would be gradeable except for the Carter coin.

    1 Smithsonian
    2 Smithsonian ex Lilly
    3 Eliasberg
    4 Garrett-JHU
    5 Norweb
    6 Bass Foundation
    7 Carter
    8 Lamborn-Fairfield

  2. I added a section to the above column in response to Saul Teichman’s comment. While Saul is a tremendous researcher and a very sophisticated collector, I do not get the impression that he carefully read the above column and my columns relating to coin doctoring. More importantly, his statement that seven of the eight on his list “would be gradable” is potentially very harmful. Collectors who own these coins or are considering buying a Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagle should not assume that these seven are gradable.

    It is often necessary for an advanced expert to carefully examine a coin with a magnifying glass to determine whether it is gradable. Pre-1835 gold coins are notorious for having serious problems. Even if all those seven Capped Head 1834 Quarter Eagles were very much original in the 1970s or 1980s, and this is doubtful, it is extremely likely that some of them have been doctored in the interim. Turning an AU-55 or MS-60 grade early gold coin, especially a rarity, into a coin that dealers and collectors may be deceived into thinking grades “MS-61” is a profitable activity. Turning an EF-45 grade coin into one that seems to look ‘better’ can be very profitable as well. Among other activities, coin doctors obliterate scratches, contact marks and mint-caused characteristics. Please read the added section to this column, and the pieces that I wrote in the past regarding coin doctoring and natural toning.

    One harmful statement notwithstanding, Teichman deserves more credit for much of the research that he has done. Saul’s contributions should be greatly appreciated by collectors of patterns and gold coins. His knowledge of patterns, of great collections and of the history of coin collecting, is amazing.

    Greg Reynolds

    • Greg – You overreacted to my comment regarding whether or not any of these would be gradeable or not. It was not meant to be an important part of my reply.

      To answer one question, yes, I have seen all of these coins and only the Carter coin would not be gradeable in its original sale state. With the exception of the Carter and Norweb coins, the others have been graded as proofs so they are all high grade.

      The reason for noting that was not to question that part of your article but to inform possible researchers and “pedigreers” that these coins are not likely to be among the several that are not gradeable whether doctored or otherwise. The Browning coin, a 9th example which I forgot to add in my earlier comment has been repaired and is likely among the those which would not be gradeable – coin doctoring not withstanding to either enhance them or to try to make them gradeable.

      In any event, for those trying to figure out how many there are, I have now given you a quick 9 of them to start from. If any of the Heritage coins do not duplicate the Browning coin, then you are into double digits and researchers can go from there.


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