By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
The 1841 $2.50 “Little Princess” Quarter Eagle symbolizes one of the most controversial numismatic reclassifications in recent years.
A coin long regarded as a proof-only issue, the 1841 Quarter Eagle was determined by numerous coin experts to have been struck as both a Proof and a circulation strike. The news made waves when PCGS announced in February 2012 that the 1841 Quarter Eagle whimsically nicknamed the “Little Princess” was being attributed as either a circulation strike or a Proof, depending on the characteristics of the individual coin. The news had implications not only on what grade given examples would receive but, perhaps more importantly for collectors of this rarity, also changes in population, condition censuses, and values.
Only a handful of 1841 $2.50 gold coins is known, period. Numismatic experts believe 20 coins were made in total and manifest as four Proofs and about 16 circulation strikes. Numismatists receive little help from United States Mint records on determining the status of this coin, as no such documents even acknowledge the creation of any 1841 Quarter Eagles. Odd, as perhaps 20 are known to exist and are accounted for. It’s not unlike the situation surrounding the 1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime or the 1870-S Liberty Seated Dollar, among other coins that are known to exist but also are not counted in Mint records.
The 1841 Little Princess was already a star before the 2012 announcement regarding PCGS’s policy change in grading and attributing these coins. After all, it has been a widely acknowledged, highly desirable rarity for generations. While numismatic taxonomy historically classified all 1841 Quarter Eagles as a Proof-only strike, a mystique has surrounded this coin for decades, with many questions long surrounding its Proof-only status.
In listing about a dozen suspected different specimens of the 1841 Quarter Eagle, Walter Breen adds the following commentary below a roster of survivors as published in his 1989 book Complete Encyclopedia of US And Colonial Proof Coins 1722-1989:
“The above accounts for nine demonstrably different specimens, with a couple more which may or may not duplicate those […] We may conjecture that either 10 or 12 were originally struck. However, evidence of other gold proofs of this year leads at least once to the conclusion that most of these quarter eagles were not for sets; more quarter eagles survive than proofs of all the other silver or gold denominations!”
Hmm… Curiouser and curiouser.
Late dealer David Akers also speculated in the 1970s and ’80s that the 1841 Quarter Eagle may not have been a Proof-only issue. At the time, he wrote:
“[N]umismatists and cataloguers feel that this is a proof-only date and that all known specimens were originally struck in proof for inclusion in presentation sets. This seems unlikely to me and I am not convinced that the 1841 is a proof-only date.”
Like Breen, Akers noted that a disproportionate number of 1841 “Proofs” existed as compared to other contemporary United States proof coins.
“Less than five proofs are known of every other quarter eagle from 1840 to 1848, and yet I would estimate that at least twelve and possibly as many as fifteen 1841s are known.”
Akers went on to write that only a few of the 1841 $2.50 coins were “clearly and unequivocally proofs,” while most of the other specimens showed various degrees of circulation wear:
“More importantly, the supposedly “impaired proofs” just don’t look like impaired proofs. Consider for example the Wolfson specimen, which was subsequently in the Shuford Sale and then in the 1974 NASC Sale conducted by the American Auction Association. Although barely circulated, it has almost no trace of a proof surface and few of the other characteristics of a genuine proof (such as a square edge), although it does appear to have been struck from the same dies as the proofs.”
When PCGS decided it was the due and proper time to acknowledge the existence of distinct 1841 $2.50 circulation strikes and proof strikes, many numismatic heavyweights supported the decision, including the likes of Akers, Q. David Bowers, Jason Carter, Steve Contursi, Jeff Garrett, Jim Halperin, Don Kagin, David McCarthy, Harvey Stack, Lawrence Stack, Anthony Terranova, Doug Winter, Fred Weinberg, and Gordon Wrubel.
To be fair, PCGS officials also noted that the decision was not “unanimous” and that John Dannreuther among others contended that the 1841 Little Princess was a Proof-only issue.
Ultimately, the 1841 Quarter Eagle remains one of the most sought-after mid-19th-century U.S. gold coins, regardless of grade. Virtually all examples that trade these days are hammered as six-figure coins. A resplendent specimen residing in the Smithsonian Institute National Numismatic Collection is estimated by PCGS experts to be a PR65, and at that grade would serve as the finest known of all proof examples of this coin. A PCGS PR64CAM specimen was sold at a March 2020 Stack’s Bowers Galleries sale for $408,000, constituting the record price for publicly transacted specimens. The record price among those designated as circulation strikes belongs to an example that fetched $105,800 as a PCGS XF45 in a 2012 Stack’s Bowers Galleries offering.
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