By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
There are many unusual varieties among early United States Federal-era coinage, but perhaps few are as mysterious as some 1815 and 1825 Capped Bust quarters counterstamped with a single “L” or “E”. In all, there are a total of four different combinations of quarters with the counterstamps, including the 1815 “E”, the 1815 “L”, the 1825 “E”, and the 1825 “L”. These coins have attracted much numismatic attention for more than a century, with the first documented auction appearance of the group occurring in August 1881.
For many years, the presumption was that these counterstamps – all bearing identical “Es” and “Ls” in nearly identical locations above the bust of Liberty on the obverse – had government origins. More recently, however, numismatic scholars have continued to embrace a post-mint origin. Theories abound on where these counterstamps came from and what the intentions were. Yet, to date, none of these theories have been conclusive.
Nevertheless, one thing is certain – they are highly desirable among collectors today and among just a tiny handful of counterstamped United States coins that are widely collected.
Where Do The “E” and “L” Come From?
Many counterstamps are regarded by numismatists as no more than mutilations, yet some arouse special interest.
Among the most popular such coins are 1925 Stone Mountain commemorative half dollars counterstamped with state abbreviations, numbers, and other markings relating to a special promotional sale of these coins by various state governors and civic representatives in coordination with the Stone Mountain Monumental Association.
Unfortunately, there is no such clarity of origin for the “E” and “L” counterstamps on dozens of 1815 and 1825 Capped Bust Quarters. Perhaps most puzzling is that these counterstamps appear on coins that were struck 10 years apart, with none known on quarter-dollar issues from the intervening years. Also, these counterstamps appear on only one die marriage for both of the dates. While all 1815 quarters are known to have been struck with only one die marriage, the 1825 issue utilized three – but all 1825-dated counterstamped quarters are seen on just the B-2 die marriage.
In 1921, numismatic expert Dr. Frank G. Duffield advanced the theory that examples stamped with an “L” represented coins light in weight, with one of the L-stamped coins cataloged as a Proof.
In the 1950s, other theories suggested the stamps were produced by the government, with the confidence that further research would confirm this – yet, the findings were inconclusive. No mint records have so far revealed any mention of the counterstamps.
In 1982, noted numismatic author Walter Breen suggested the counterstamped quarters were used as school prizes, with the “E” standing for “English” and the “L” Latin. He went on to conjecture the coins are known in only higher grades because the coins were thus kept as special mementos and not spent as money.
In his 2008 book Early United States Quarters, 1796-1838, author Steve Tompkins sheds light on a bevy of other interesting origin stories for the counterstamps. These include one suggestion that the stamps are of mint origin and reflect press settings, including “E” for even, “L” for left, “E” for excess, “L” for light, and so on.
One popular theory posits that the coins were stamped by and used as vote counters in the 1830s for members of the religious utopian Harmonist community in Economy, Pennsylvania.
Then there are the conspiracy theories, including one implicating U.S. Mint Director Henry Linderman (“L”) and mint employee Theodore Eckfeldt (“E”) using the coins as the medium to account for revenue from the illicit sale of illegally struck pattern coinage. Yet another explanation suggests the coins were stamped to account for surpluses in shipments of coins sent to a bank in Louisiana.
But virtually all major theories contain holes. It could well be the case that the “E” and “L” stamps were created for no particular reason by someone wiling away his or her time by punching a bunch of quarters with “E” and “L” punches that just happened to be handy.
Careful comparisons of the four known counterstamped varieties, including the 1815 and 1825 “E” and “L” stamps, indicate the markings are identical but that they are seen in slightly varying positions on the obverse over the head of Liberty. This suggests but does not prove that they were stamped at the same time and perhaps by the same individual. However, there is no auction pedigree or provenance given in auction catalogs of the 1880s, when these coins – perhaps then recently released from a hoard – first came to light in the hobby.
The Importance of These Coins to Numismatists Today
Why do the “E” and “L” Bust quarters hold the interest of collectors today?
Inherent to the desires of many numismatists is the value of mystique and the entertainment of a good story. Even if the quarters are ultimately proven to be little more than random alterations with no particular intended purpose by the individual(s) who stamped them, they have already cemented their place in numismatic lore.
“The mystery of the 1815 and 1825 quarters with ‘L’ and ‘E’ counterstamps has always been intriguing to me,” says PCGS Director of Numismatic Education & Outreach Steve Feltner. He’s recently seen many of these coins crossing his desk, as PCGS began certifying 1815 and 1825 “E” and “L” Capped Bust Quarters with numerical grades while noting the counterstamp in August 2019. “I have read many different theories behind these coins, many of which seem plausible. Whether or not we ever get the true story is inconsequential when it comes to the collectability and historical significance of these pieces.”
Feltner says the mystique behind these coins is, for him, just as important as seeking the answers that explain them.
“One of my favorite things about numismatics in general is that we will never truly know all there is to know on a subject. The study is so broad and far-reaching that there will always be little undiscovered pieces waiting to be found.”
He goes on to say: “For some, this comes as a great challenge. I have been involved in several ‘discoveries’ over the years, and it is always rewarding to see the whole puzzle fit together.”
David Perkins of the John Reich Collectors Society, a well-known coin organization named for the sculptor-engraver who designed Capped Bust quarters, says the coins carry an allure as unusual as the markings themselves.
“I can’t think of any comparison to the ‘E’ and ‘L’ counterstamps on early U.S. Capped Bust coinage,” he states. “Collectors of counterstamped coins generally prefer coins with a merchant’s name and initials, a business or location, or other advertising, versus a coin with one or more initials. The ‘E’ and ‘L’ counterstamped quarters have a story to tell. Thus they are collected by numismatists.”
Collecting “E” & “L” Quarters
The Centennial, Colorado, coin dealer has handled many examples of the “E” and “L” quarters over his decades in the industry.
“All of the 1815 and 1825 ‘E’ and ‘L’ counterstamped quarters I’ve seen over the years grade XF or higher,” confirms Perkins, who adds the caveat that he had recently seen an example graded VF30 cross the auction block.
“Perhaps this coin circulated briefly or was a pocket piece at one time,” he theorizes. “If the ‘E’ and ‘L’ quarters circulated, there likely would be many more examples known in VF and lower grades.”
While the coins are particularly popular among collectors of early United States quarters and counterstamped coinage in general, Perkins says the number of hobbyists who have pursued a complete four-piece set of the quarters is decidedly small.
“I don’t believe that there is an overly large number of collectors who own a set of all four.”
He does believe the relatively small number of numismatists who have completed the four-piece set owes more to the cost of buying the coins than any lack of interest in them.
“These quarters aren’t all together inexpensive, and this may be a reason.”
Indeed, prices are lofty for these scarce collectibles. In recent years, lower MS examples of the 1815 “E” quarter have taken $4,000 to $6,000 USD, while its 1815 “L” counterpart has commanded $3,000 to $5,000. The slightly more common 1825 “E” and “L” commonly trade in the lower Uncirculated grades for $2,500 to $4,000 apiece.
Data derived from sales of the coin point to the “E” countermarks being generally more common than the “L”, regardless of date. Furthermore, the “E” countermark is more frequently seen on the 1815 quarters, while the “L” is seen more often on the 1825 issues. Perkins notes: “Most of the examples I’ve seen were shown to me by collectors of the Capped Bust quarters by date and/or by die marriage, with a few others where someone had just bought one example because they liked it and thought it was neat.”
Ever the numismatic curiosity, these coins continue to confound scholars some 140 years after they came to light in the late 1870s and early ’80s.
“I think the odds of us learning the true story are increasing over time,” remarks Perkins. “In the past, researchers have looked for archived documents pertaining to these counterstamps, and a few continue to do so. Today, many of these documents are getting scanned, indexed, and posted online.”
What would be the ultimate archival find?
“I’m hoping a copy of a late 1800s newspaper article on these ‘curious counterstamps’ shows up online one day and helps us solve this mystery,” says Perkins.
Still, the decades of research behind these coins holds great significance to Perkins and the many others who love these coins and hope to learn more about them.
“I value all the different theories brought forward and published over the years. Hopefully, we learn the true story someday.”