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The Proof-Only Quarter Eagles ($2½ Gold Coins) of 1863

Coin Rarities & Related Topics #193: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community ………………………

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds
Quarter Eagles (U.S. $2½ gold coins) were minted from 1796 to 1929, though not in every year. The Stack’s Bowers Rarities Night auction session that will be held on Thursday, November 7, features two of the rarest Quarter Eagles. I discussed the Norweb-Richmond 1854-S at length, when it was last offered. This same 1854-S Quarter Eagle was in a Heritage auction in October 2011. (Clickable links are in blue.) Other items in this Rarities Night event were covered last week. The current focus is on the excellent, gem-quality 1863 Philadelphia Mint Quarter Eagle that will be offered tomorrow.

This 1863 Liberty Head Quarter Eagle is PCGS certified ‘Proof-66 Deep Cameo’ and has a sticker of approval from CAC. In the past, it was NGC-certified ‘Proof-66 Ultra Cameo.’ (Most rare, U.S. Proof coins qualify for grades from 60 to 68.) Heritage auctioned this exact same 1863 Quarter Eagle in April 2012.

Most U.S. Quarter Eagles are not nearly as expensive or as rare as an 1854-S or an 1863. Collectors who do not wish to spend substantial sums on rare Quarter Eagles may wish to collect Indian Head Quarter Eagles, which were minted from 1908 to 1929. A set of these is very easy to complete. Just 15 coins are needed and there are no Indian Head Quarter Eagles that are rare in absolute terms. The 1911-D is relatively scarce, though not rare. Indeed, most circulated Indian Head Quarter Eagles are worth only a little more than their bullion (gold metal) content. Indian Head Quarter Eagles, however, are beside the topic here, which is a gem 1863 Liberty Head Quarter Eagle.

I. This Proof-66 1863

This Quarter Eagle is very brilliant and is more than very attractive overall. Indeed, this coin really glows. The tan-beige-white design elements contrast marvelously with green-caramel fields.

1863 Liberty Head Quarter Eagle is PCGS certified ‘Proof-66 Deep Cameo’There should be no doubt about the assigned 66 grade. If not for some light hairlines in the fields and a few very short, very small scratches on the reverse, it would qualify for a 67 grade. It is probably among the three finest known 1863 Quarter Eagles.

I examined the Loewinger Collection 1863 Quarter Eagle in Jan. 2007, before Heritage auctioned Dr. Robert Loewinger’s extensive collection of Proof gold coins. I then devoted an article to the Loewinger Collection, which was published in a leading coin newspaper. That coin was then NGC certified ‘Proof-66 Ultra Cameo’ and may possibly have been upgraded by the NGC to ‘Proof-67 Ultra Cameo’ since Jan. 2007. Though the Loewinger 1863 scores higher than the currently offered 1863 in the technical category, this one is a more exciting coin.

These two are vastly superior to the other 1863 Quarter Eagles that I have seen over the years and are superior to the Norweb and Bass pieces, which I have not seen. The Norweb piece is PCGS certified Proof-58. The Bass piece is or was PCGS certified “Proof-64 Deep Cameo.”

Coincidentally, Heritage auctioned an NGC-certified ‘Proof-63 Cameo’ 1863 in Oct. 2011 and a PCGS certified ‘Proof-60’ 1863, less than one month later, in Nov. 2011. The certified 60-graded piece was more impressive than the certified “63” grade piece, which had a quantity of a substance in the fields that I find to be undesirable.

The certified “60” grade 1863 was CAC-approved. My belief is that the certified “63” grade 1863, which Heritage auctioned in Oct. 2011 and also on July 31, 2009, failed to be CAC-approved in 2009 and/or 2011.

Although 60 is a low grade for a Proof, I like the certified “60” grade 1863. Collectors should not categorically dismiss sub-63 grade Proof coins. The certified “Proof-60” 1863 has appealing, light tan-orange design elements and green-caramel fields. The design elements are especially crisp. With naked eyes, that coin looks almost very attractive. When the Proof-60 1863 is viewed with a 5X magnifying glass, a large number of contact marks are a little annoying. Imperfections notwithstanding, that coin is still very cool. Further, when it is tilted under a lamp, strong mirrors are very much apparent. Despite being fairly graded “60”, it is a really neat coin and a very desirable rarity.

Of course, the 66-graded coin in the November 7, Stack’s Bowers Rarities Night event is much better. It is terrific. Even so, a lower grade piece may be a good value for some collectors. Not everyone can afford to buy ‘66’ grade rarities.

II. The Rarest Quarter Eagles

In my column of Oct. 5, 2011, I focused upon the rarest Quarter Eagles. I then figured that there are 12 or 13 1854-S Quarter Eagles, 13 or 14 1834 Capped Head Quarter Eagles, 14 or 15 1863 Quarter Eagles, and 16 or 17 1841 Quarter Eagles. Over the last two years, I have not found a reason to revise these estimates. In 2011, my estimates were considerably distinct from pertinent estimates put forth by others.

1863 Liberty Head Quarter Eagle is PCGS certified ‘Proof-66 Deep Cameo’When forming estimates of rarity, it would be a mistake to rely heavily upon the certification data published by the PCGS and the NGC. This is particularly true of 19th-century Proof coins because of so-called ‘cameo’ designations. Proof coins that exhibit strong contrasts between relatively light, frosted design elements and relatively deep, mirrorlike fields are referred to as being “cameo”!

The PCGS and the NGC actually certify and explicitly note “Cameo” contrasts, though they did not do so when these firms were founded in the 1980s. Because such contrasts are often artificially enhanced via dipping in acidic solutions, it may not be a great idea to pay a substantial premium for a coin solely because of a “Cameo” or “Deep Cameo” designation. The Proof-66 1863 Quarter Eagle being discussed here, though, scores relatively high in the category of originality and is a great coin overall; it is fairly worth a large premium over most of the surviving 1863 Quarter Eagles.

Over the last quarter-century, it has not been unusual for pre-1908 U.S. coins that were PCGS- or NGC-certified as Proofs without a cameo designation to be later re-certified with a cameo designation. The Harry Bass 1863 was certified by the PCGS as “Proof-64” when it was auctioned in May 2000 by the firm of Bowers & Merena. When it was auctioned again in Jan. 2004, it was PCGS-certified as “Proof-64 Cameo.”

The “Deep” and “Ultra” designations were employed years after just a “Cameo” designation was available. Proofs with a cameo designation were often and sometimes still are re-certified with a ‘Deep Cameo’ designation from PCGS or an ‘Ultra Cameo’ designation from NGC.

In my view, it is also true that graders at both services have become more liberal in terms of how much of a cameo contrast is needed for such designations. Coins that did not qualify for a ‘Cameo’ designation many years ago have a chance of being awarded such a designation now or may have been so designated in recent years. Coins that were previously designated as just “Cameo,” when “Deep” and Ultra” designations were in use, may likewise, in some cases, have received designation upgrades to “Deep” or “Ultra.” In other words, a coin that did not receive a “Deep” or “Ultra” designation during submission to PCGS or NGC may have received such a designation during a subsequent submission, perhaps months or years later.

When coins are ‘cracked-out’ of their respective holders to be re-submitted in hopes of grade or designation upgrades, ‘crack-out artists’ will sometimes NOT return the “inserts” (printed paper labels that are sealed inside PCGS and NGC holders) to the respective grading services so that published grading data may be adjusted for ‘crack-outs.’ Some dealers do not wish to be linked to the ‘cracking’ of holders of specific coins or of any coins.

Indeed, if a printed label (“insert”) is returned, this piece of paper demonstrates that a specific coin has been ‘cracked out’ of its holder and suggests that the person who returns the label (“insert”) is aware of that specific ‘crack-out’ or did it himself. After all, graders and executives at a grading service may not wish to be continually reminded that they frequently and often unknowingly upgrade coins that were handled by ‘crack-out artists’! Of course, some individual ‘crack-out artists’ have a motive to not remind them. Plus, a few ‘crack-out artists’ hoard such printed labels (“inserts”) for their own personal purposes. By 2005, one dealer amassed a hoard of more than 13,500 PCGS “inserts”! So, it should not be surprising that more than a few such printed labels (“inserts”) have never been returned.

In regard to especially rare Proofs, ‘crack-out artists’ have a particular, rational motive not to return printed labels (paper inserts). For many 19th century Proofs, there are three viable certification categories in a given grade: Deep or Ultra Cameo, Cameo, and just Proof without a cameo designation. It is easier to track the certifications of such, specific individual Proof coins than it is to track the certifications of most, individual 19th-century business strike coins.

If a certified “Proof-64” gold coin that did not previously have a ‘Cameo’ designation becomes re-certified as “Proof-64 Cameo,” the ‘crack-out artist’ who submitted it may not wish for potential buyers to know that such a coin was ever certified without a ‘cameo’ designation, so he may wish for potential buyers to think that a listed “Proof-64” rarity and a newly listed “Proof-64 Cameo” representative of the same rarity are different coins, even if he knows that they are the same.

After all, for a rare 19th-century Proof issue, there might be just one that is certified as “Proof-64” and if that listing ought to disappear around the same time that a listing for a ‘Proof-64 or -65 Cameo’ or “Deep Cameo” appears, prospective buyers could then easily figure that one coin may have been ‘cracked-out’ and ‘upped’. Some buyers may lose interest in a coin that is certified as “Proof-65 Cameo” if it is revealed that the same coin was previously certified as “Proof-64” without a cameo designation by the same grading service.

If a coin has been dipped or otherwise modified, it may be difficult to match it to previous pictures of the same coin. A printed label (paper insert) may, in some cases, be the only piece of conclusive evidence that two listings in a population report refer to the same individual coin.

In regard to 1863 Quarter Eagles, the current PCGS population data lists nine Proofs, zero “Cameo” Proofs, and six “Deep Cameo” Proofs. The NGC census lists zero non-cameo Proofs, four “Cameo” Proofs, including three as “Proof-63 Cameo,” one as “Proof-66 Ultra Cameo” and two as “Proof-67 Ultra Cameo.” In October 2011, the combined PCGS and NGC total of all 1863 Quarter Eagles was 21; this combined total is now 22.

In addition to designation upgrades, coins have been upgraded in regard to numerical grades because of grade-inflation, successful doctoring, mistaken over-grading or accidental under-grading at an earlier time. Moreover, the grades of some coins are especially ambiguous. Even if the appearance of a coin does not change, there will often be legitimate differences of opinion in terms of its grade. Indeed, if a coin is shown to several leading experts at a coin convention during the course of one single day, some grading determinations may be different from others.

As I said in 2011, the PCGS and NGC total of more than 20 may amount to just nine to 12 different 1863 Quarter Eagles, surely not more than 14. I do not remember ever seeing an 1863 Quarter Eagle in a PCGS ‘Genuine’ holder or in an NGC-NCS ‘Details’ holder. In my estimate, I incorporated the likelihood that two very much non-gradable 1863 Quarter Eagles exist.

After spending a few hours in 2011, and a couple more this week, researching 1863 Quarter Eagles with emphasis upon those that I have personally seen, my hypothesis that no more than 15 exist remains tentative. I am certainly open to revising it if additional evidence emerges. It is impossible for anyone to know for certain how many representatives of a 19th-century rarity exist. I am certain, though, that there cannot have survived more than 25 genuine 1863 Quarter Eagles. Therefore, the 1863 Quarter Eagle is a true Great Rarity.

A coin issue is a Great Rarity if no more than 25 are known to exist, including Proofs and business strikes, and all die varieties. Perhaps the term ‘known’ should be emphasized. Coins that have not been seen by experts in the mainstream of the coin collecting community and/or have not been tracked for a very long time may be essentially unknown in the present.

Although this issue is a Great Rarity, the 1863 Quarter Eagle certainly has not received much publicity over the past two decades. A main reason why 1863 Quarter Eagles are not talked about very often relates to a particular new trend in the culture of coin collecting over the past three decades, regarding the collecting of Proofs.

III. Sets of Proofs and Business Strikes

Before the 1980s, collectors of high-quality 19th-century coins typically mixed Proofs and business strikes in the same sets. This was true of most of the greatest U.S. coin collections of all time, especially the Eliasberg, Garrett, Earle, Pittman, Starr, and Norweb Collections.

George Earle’s collection was auctioned by the firm of Henry Chapman in 1912. Earle’s set of Liberty Head Quarter Eagles included business strike Philadelphia Mint issues from the 1840s and 1850s because he usually could not find Proof Quarter Eagles dating from the 1840s and 1850s. For the 1860s onward, his set of Liberty Head Quarter Eagles included a Proof of most all dates, as these were available and affordable to Earle. It seems clear that he was satisfied with either a Proof or a business strike for each date, though he always preferred a Proof.

Earle’s approach in this regard becomes even clearer if Earle’s sets of silver coins from the 1840s to the 1870s are analyzed. Proofs of Philadelphia Mint dates, business strikes of Philadelphia Mint dates that he did not have in Proof, and Branch Mint business strikes, were all parts of the same respective sets.

During most of the 20th century, collectors of 19th-century coins maintained that Proof-only dates and ‘business strike’-only dates were needed in the same sets if these were to be truly complete. So, in the past, a collector assembling a set of Liberty Head Quarter Eagles, with many business strikes, would have strongly desired an 1863, even though 1863 Philadelphia Mint Quarter Eagles are a Proof-only date. They wanted Proofs in their respective sets that mostly contained business strikes.

In the 1980s, the tradition of mixing Proofs and business strikes in the same sets began to fade. More of those who can (or could) afford choice or gem quality, classic U.S. coins started to view the collecting of Proofs and business strikes as separate quests, which are very distinct from each other.

Generally, now, a collector of a series of high-quality coins ‘by date’ (rather than ‘by type’) is likely to choose Proofs OR business strikes for a given series, and not even think about acquiring both Proofs and business strikes. In some cases, a collector who is very wealthy and is very enthusiastic about a particular series may collect both Proofs and business strikes of the same series, yet may regard these as two entirely separate sets with zero common members.

The famous collector Simpson, for example, collected both business strike Liberty Seated Dimes and Proof Liberty Seated Dimes. He regarded these as two separate sets while leading collectors in an earlier era would have mixed them in one set of Liberty Seated Dimes. In 2010, Simpson decided to sell his business strikes and keep his Proof Liberty Seated Dimes. Before the 1980s, most relevant leading collectors would have considered the Proofs and business strikes to be members of the same set of Liberty Seated Dimes.

In most PCGS and NGC Registry sets, Proofs and business strikes cannot be mixed. Stack’s Bowers and the Goldbergs continue to follow tradition by mixing Proofs and business strikes in listings of offerings of coins of each respective design type. Listings of individual Proofs and business strikes are interspersed in runs of auction lots. In a typical Heritage coin auction, however, business strikes are listed separately from Proofs of the same type.

In my view, there is not a cultural reason to preclude Proofs and business strikes from being in the same sets. More importantly, there are logical reasons to allow Proofs and business strikes in the same sets.

Mistakes are often made regarding the determination of the Proof status, or lack thereof, of specific coins. Not all coins that are certified as Proofs are really Proofs. Moreover, the Proof or business strike status of some individual coins will forever be subject to debate among experts. Plus, some Proofs are extremely expensive and, in other cases, high-quality business strikes cost more than similar quality Proofs of the same type and date. (Please refer to my article on 1904 half dollars.) Collectors should be allowed flexibility, especially when such flexibility is consistent with a collecting tradition that was well established and respected for decades.

If I planned to assemble a set of Liberty Head Quarter Eagles, then I would hope to include business strikes and Proofs in the same set, with a Proof 1841 and a Proof 1863. Perhaps, over time, the new trend of segregating Proofs and business strikes will fade as a fad and the time-honored tradition of mixing Proofs and business strikes in the same sets will return. Should current collectors reject the wisdom and approaches of T. Harrison Garrett, John Clapp, George Earle, Louis Eliasberg, and Mrs. Norweb? After all, there is still much for most collectors to learn from studying, interpreting and reflecting upon the great collections of all-time.

As is true in the fields of paintings, sculptures, and historical manuscripts, among many other realms, each collector may develop a better understanding of the scarce items that he or she can afford by learning about the items that are not affordable and about the criteria for greatness. Learning about the history and culture that relate to a collecting endeavor enhances the experiences of each participating collector, ‘no matter how rich or how poor’!

©2013 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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