By Q. David Bowers – Stack’s Bowers
Early Quarter Eagles
Prior to our memorable auction of the D. Brent Pogue Collection Part I in May, Christine Karstedt moderated a panel discussion of the Pogue coins and their background. Participating were Dave Bowers and Larry Stack from our company and our long-time friend, David Tripp of Sotheby’s. Among the questions raised was, “Why are gold coins of the 1820s and 1830s so rare today, when in some instances many were made?”
Dave fielded this and stated that after 1820 the price of gold bullion on the international market exceeded the face value of the two denominations then being made: the $2.50 quarter eagle and the $5 half eagle. Depositors wanting half eagles in particular for export deposited more than $5 in gold for each. When shipped to their destinations, often England, they were valued for their bullion content. Their face value had no relevance. In England the coins were melted. Why? The British government received gold from many different countries, each with different weights and purities. To keep track of their current values would have been impossible. The easy answer was to melt incoming coins and use the metal to coin gold sovereigns. These could easily be counted.
Quarter eagles have a slightly different story. A rule provided that congressmen could request their pay in gold coins at face value, even though no similar coins had been in circulation since 1820. All had been exported or were held by speculators. The congressmen could take their pay to a bullion dealer and make a small profit. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, nicknamed “Old Bullion,” was the champion at the time for “hard money,” preferably gold, and later was the architect of the Coinage Act of June 28, 1834. Pay to congressmen accounts for a higher percentage survival rate for low-mintage quarter eagles of the 1820s and 1830s. Still, in absolute terms all quarter eagles after 1820 and prior to implementation of the Coinage Act of June 28, 1834, are rarities today.
Part I of the Pogue Collection offered quarter eagles from 1796 to 1808. After that year, none were coined until 1821. The later quarter eagles will be in the Pogue Collection Part II scheduled to cross the block at Sotheby’s on September 30. Here is one of the many highlights:
Superb Gem MS-67 (PCGS) 1831 Quarter Eagle
This memorable 1831 quarter eagle has a nearly fully prooflike surface and is unequalled by any quarter eagle of this date we have ever seen! Of the 4,250 pieces struck we estimate that 20 to 35 Mint State coins exist today plus 80 to 120 circulated examples, mostly Extremely Fine or About Uncirculated. All are of the Bass Dannreuther-1 variety.
In addition to the preceding, there is a possibility of another variety being known for this year. In his April 1886 sale of the J.S. Twining Collection, W. Elliot Woodward offered lot 950, a Proof 1831, followed by lot 951 described as: “1831 Different die; nearly equal to the last, scarce.”
We hasten to say that there is no way that grades listed in 19th century catalogs can be compared with those of today, as there were no guidelines or regulations in effect. One person’s “Proof” might be another’s polished About Uncirculated. Woodward, however, was the most respected cataloger of his era, and his descriptions are thought to have been more accurate than those of his competitors.
Provenance: From W. Elliot Woodward’s sale of the William J. Jenks Collection (58th sale), June 1883; T. Harrison Garrett; Robert Garrett; John Work Garrett; The Johns Hopkins University; our Garrett Collection Sale, March 1980, lot 750; David W. Akers session of Auction ’90, August 1990, lot 1838.