The early part of the 20th century was a time of great creativity in the design of U.S. coinage.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ $20 double eagle design was introduced in 1907, along with his Indian Head $10 eagle. Victor D. Brenner’s Lincoln cent, commemorating in 1909 the centennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth, broke new ground – it was the first use of a presidential portrait on a circulating coin.
A few years later, in 1913, James Earl Fraser’s Indian Head or Buffalo nickel was introduced, followed shortly thereafter in 1916 by Adolf A. Weinman’s Winged Liberty Head (Mercury) dime and Walking Liberty half dollar and Hermon A. MacNeil’s Standing Liberty quarter.
In the same time period, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition produced several silver and gold commemoratives, including the Charles E. Barber and George T. Morgan allegorical quarter eagle (one of Barber’s most creative works), and Robert Aitken’s equally symbolic round and octagonal $50 gold pieces.
Following the acclaim received for Saint-Gaudens’ stunning efforts on the $10 and $20 gold pieces, President Theodore Roosevelt turned his attention to the other two gold denominations: the $2.50 quarter eagle and the $5 half eagle (production of one dollar gold coins ended in 1889).
The Indian Head Quarter Eagle Replaces the Liberty Head Design
By the time the Indian Head quarter eagle design was adopted, the $2.50 gold coin was overdue a design change.
The Liberty Head quarter eagle had been minted since 1840; the Liberty Head half eagle since 1839. Saint-Gaudens died in 1907, and though he had carried out some work for the smaller denomination gold coins, his designs for the $2.50 and $5 denominations remained unfinished.
Bela Lyon-Pratt, a talented medalist and sculptor, had made the acquaintance of Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, a close friend of President Roosevelt. In January 1908, Lyon-Pratt wrote a letter to his mother, in which he discusses a conversation that he had with Bigelow about sinking the relief of on the two remaining gold coin designs. Bigelow, he wrote, wanted to go further, “his idea was to sink the relief at right angles to the coin after the manner of the old Egyptian reliefs.”
Bigelow presented his idea to the receptive President. Lyon-Pratt finished his designs at the end of January. Pratt used the same portrait on both denominations, a realistic image of Brulé Lakota Chief Hollow Horn Bear (March 1850 – March 15, 1913). While not explicitly referenced on the coin or the United States Mint’s marketing materials, With this depiction, Hollow Horn Bear was the first likeness of a real person depicted on a United States coin, and the first living person to have that honor.
Lyon-Pratt’s eagle reverse was based off of the Saint-Gaudens design for the Roosevelt inaugural medal and the $10 coin, and featured an eagle perched on a bundle of arrows and an olive branch.
Not everyone approved of the designs, however, and Philadelphia coin dealer Samuel H. Chapman was one of the most vigorous in opposition.
The incuse design, with devices and legends below the fields of the coin, promised to reduce wear on the features, but some thought the recessed areas would collect dirt and thus become a disease source.
Others found fault with both the portrait and the eagle, though Mint Engraver Charles E. Barber, ever conscious of the technical necessities of coin production, had modified Pratt’s original eagle design.
Claims that the coins could be easily counterfeited or wouldn’t stack properly (an odd comment given the fact that the coins were rimless and had no design high points above the flat field) did not sway Roosevelt, and the new design was implemented.
The Indian Head quarter eagle was minted yearly though 1915, after which production stopped for 10 years, and then again from 1925 through 1929, an apparent victim of the economic stress following the stock market crash of that year.
The Indian Head Quarter Eagle as a Collectible Coin
In recent decades, the Indian Head quarter eagle had really come into its own as a collectible coin due to an active two-way market that was supported, largely, by one major marketing company. A constant influx of newly graded coins proved to be too much, and the market collapsed. This took place about a decade ago and coin dealer Doug Winter talked about this issue in an August 2017 column.
For collectors entering the series, these depressed prices make the Indian Head quarter eagle an attractive option due to its value price point, and the fact that series presents collectors with only one key date, the 1911-D.
Buying the coin does carry risk as the Indian Head quarter eagle is one of most frequently counterfeited classic U.S. gold coins. We highly recommended that collectors only purchase coins of this type that have been certified and encapsulated in genuine CACG, NGC, or PCGS holders. We also recommend that collectors avoid all details grade coins as problem-free coins are available.
Thousands of business strike Indian Head quarter eagles have been certified per date, and more than 300,000 coins have been certified in the entire series. Prices are modest for most dates through MS-64. This series is difficult to complete in Gem grades, and the coins are scarce to rare in grades MS-66 and above.
Collectors making a serious run at building a competitive registry set should be prepared to pay between $30,000 and $60,000 for a 1911-D in MS-64+ to MS-65. Any finer, and the cost balloons to $150,000 or more.
Proof Coinage: Unpopular Then, Coveted Now
Matte Proofs were made from 1908 through 1915, and about 1,200 examples have been certified. This number is likely inflated due to resubmissions and crossovers.
The matte finish imparted on the Proof issues of this period was not popular with collectors at the time, and many Proofs went unsold and were later melted by the Mint. The challenge to build a quality Proof Set of Indian Head quarter eagles is substantial and expensive. Even having one example would be a highlight coin in any collector’s Indian Head quarter eagle set.
None identified except for the 1911-D Weak D, referring to a faint to almost invisible mint mark impression. The Weak D should be avoided, as the Strong D brings a strong premium.
In-Depth Indian Head Quarter Date Analysis by CoinWeek Notes
Indian Head Quarter Eagle Coverage on CoinWeek
CoinWeek wrote an essay about Alan Schein’s 2016 book on the series that is worth reading before you seek out the book.
The obverse is dominated by a left-facing somewhat determined portrait of a Native American chief wearing a full-feathered war bonnet. LIBERTY is at the top, and the date at the bottom. Six five-pointed stars are placed to the left along the coin edge, and seven to the right. The designer’s initials B.L.P. are located below the portrait and above the date.
The reverse displays a standing eagle facing to the left, perched upon a bundle of arrows with an entwined olive branch. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, the words separated by centered dots, is at the top, and the denomination 2 1/2 DOLLARS is at the bottom. E PLURIBUS UNUM, each word on a separate line, is to the left of the eagle, IN GOD WE TRUST, also with each word on a separate line, is to the right.
Indian Head quarter eagles were minted at Philadelphia and Denver; the D mintmark is located just to the left of the arrowheads. All design features except the D mintmark are incuse, recessed below the field, with no design elements higher than that flat surface.
|Indian Head Quarter Eagle
|Years Of Issue:
|High: 722,000 (1913); Low: 55,680 (1911-D)
|High: 682 (1910); Low: 100 (1915; none produced after 1915)
|90% gold, 10% copper
|Bela Lyon Pratt
|Bela Lyon Pratt
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Akers, David and Jeff Ambio. A Handbook of 20th Century United States Gold Coins 1907-1933. Zyrus Press.
Bowers, Q. David. The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing.
–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.
Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Doubleday.
Garrett, Jeff and Ron Guth. Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins 1795-1933. Whitman Publishing.
-. A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
Schein, Allan. The Gold Indians of Bela Lyon Pratt. Self Published.
Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing.
Yeoman, R.S and Jeff Garrett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.
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