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Quarter Eagles – Liberty Head Quarter Eagle, 1840-1907

Pictured is the famous 1848 CAL NGC MS-68 Star sold at the 2008 January Orlando FUN sale by Heritage Auction Galleries. Lot 3091 $345,000

Christian Gobrecht’s depiction of Liberty followed the Classic Head of William Kneass, a culmination of efforts to both standardize the design and find an acceptable representation that could be used for a long period of time. Although the denomination had been minted since 1796, there were six previous variations before this latest effort by Gobrecht. The preceding Kneass Classic Head was used for only six years, though it would be reasonable to say the Liberty Head revision was more of an adaptation than a completely new design. Though differences between the previous depiction of Liberty and this one are obvious the general presentation is similar; and the reverse design is nearly identical to the previous, with relatively minor changes to the depiction of the eagle and other design elements.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

The Coronet Liberty, as the design is sometimes labeled, first appeared on the gold eagle in 1838 but was also used on several other 19th century issues, including half cents (known as the Braided Hair type), large cents (the Modified Matron Head), and half eagles. The type has the distinction of being a design that was used longer than any other U.S. coin type with no major changes (68 years!), though the record may be matched by the Roosevelt dime if no changes are made to that issue in the next few years. As a series that was produced at five mints, and that spans the Civil War years, there are several rarities and scarce issues. One of the best known and most desirable is the 1848 California issue, produced at the beginning of the period of discovery and mining of significant gold deposits in that state. Secretary of War William L. Marcy sent about 230 ounces of gold to the Philadelphia Mint; Macy had received the bullion from Col. R. B. Mason, the military governor of California.

The gold was coined into quarter eagles with a distinguishing CAL. counterstamp on the reverse. Some consider the California quarter eagles the first U.S. commemorative issue, produced several decades prior to the 1892 Columbian Exposition half dollar usually labeled with that honor, because it was produced in recognition of a historic event. Others collect the piece as a separate type, though because the coins are very expensive, that ability is reserved to the collector with significant resources. Other rarities include branch mint issues, particularly those from Charlotte and Dahlonega, and the Civil War era Philadelphia pieces. Some low mintage 1880s quarter eagles are more available than might be expected because of the recovery of many coins of those dates from European caches.

Liberty is in the center of the obverse, facing left. Her hair is bundled at the back with a string of beads, though a couple of hair strands fall down the neck. Across the top of the head is a cornet inscribed with LIBERTY. Thirteen six-point stars surround Liberty inside the dentilled rim, with the date centered at the bottom. The reverse is dominated by a centered left-facing eagle, wings outstretched nearly to the dentils, body covered by a Union shield. The eagle holds an olive branch in the right claw (left to the observer), and three arrows in the left claw; fletching is visible for only two of the arrows. Surrounding the eagle is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA inside the dentilled rim, the text separated into three parts by the eagle’s wing tips. The denomination of 2 1/2 D. is at the bottom, separated from UNITED and AMERICA by centered dots. Liberty Head quarter eagles were minted at Philadelphia, Charlotte, Dahlonega, New Orleans, and San Francisco; C, D, O, and S mintmarks are located above the denomination and below the eagle, somewhat overlapping the branch and the arrow fletching.

Tens of thousands of business strike Liberty Head quarter eagles have been certified, including many prooflike pieces. By date, more coins have been certified for the early 20th century pieces. Prices are modest for many Philadelphia issues to MS60 and expensive finer; 1840s examples and Civil War era pieces are expensive as AU55 and finer. Most Charlotte and Dahlonega quarter eagles are expensive to very expensive as XF40 and finer, and San Francisco issues are generally expensive as AU55 and finer. Higher priced coins include the 1840s dates, 1841 (extremely rare and expensive), the 1848 CAL. Above Eagle (expensive to extremely expensive), Charlotte and Dahlonega coins, 1854-S (extremely rare and expensive), 1864-1866 Philadelphia pieces, 1875, most pre-1880s pieces as MS62 and finer, and 1881. A few thousand proof examples have been certified, many as Cameo and Deep Cameo, and more from the late 1890s forward. Nearly all are expensive to extremely expensive, particularly as PR64 and finer. Cameo/ Deep Cameo examples command higher premiums, and other expensive issues are 1841 (extremely expensive), 1863 (minted in proof only, very expensive to extremely expensive), and 1875.

Designer: Christian Gobrecht. after John Reich and William Kneass
Circulation Mintage: high 1,404,668 (1853), low 246 (1854-S; unknown for 1841)
Proof Mintage: high 223 (1901), low 20 (1874, 1875, 1877, 1888; 20 or fewer per year estimated prior to 1859)
Denomination: $2.50
Diameter: 18 mm, reeded edge
Metal Content: 90% gold, 10% silver
Weight: 4.18 grams
Varieties: Several known including 1843-C Small Date Crosslet 4, and Large Date Plain 4; 1843-D Small Date Crosslet 4; 1843-O Small Date Crosslet 4, and Large Date Plain 4; 1848 CAL. Above Eagle; 1859, 1860, and 1861 Old Reverse and New Reverse; 1862 2 Over 1; 1873 Close 3 and Open 3; and other minor die variations.

Additional Resources:
CoinFacts: www.coinfacts.com
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins 1795-1933, Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth, Whitman Publishing.
Gold Coins of the Charlotte Mint: 1838-1861. Douglas Winter. Zyrus Press
Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint: 1839-1909. Douglas Winter. Zyrus Press
Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint: 1838-1861. Douglas Winter. Zyrus Press
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.

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