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The Controversy over 1841 Quarter Eagles, Part 3, The physical characteristics of Proof coins

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds

News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #109

There is not a need to read the first two parts to understand this discussion. In the next two paragraphs, I provide an introduction for those who have not read part 1 or part 2. Here in part 3, I discuss the physical characteristics of some 1841 Quarter Eagles (U.S. $2½ gold coins) and the criteria for a coin to be a Proof.

For decades, there was nearly unanimous agreement that all 1841 Quarter Eagles (U.S. $2½ gold coins) were struck in Proof format. There were no business strikes. There is now an ongoing debate, which is of tremendous importance, even to collectors who cannot afford 1841 Quarter Eagles. The debate relates to the definition of a Proof and whether experts can agree on the Proof status of a large number of 19th century coins, including many that are not particularly expensive.

In Feb. 2012, the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) announced that most known 1841 Quarter Eagles are really business strikes, not Proofs. The PCGS published a thirty seven-page report, The 1841 Quarter Eagle Revisited: A New Approach to a Classic Rarity. Moreover, PCGS mastermind David Hall determined that all but four 1841 Quarter Eagles are business strikes, “regular strikings.” David Akers agrees. Hall acknowledges, however, that experts are deeply divided over this issue.

In part 1, I covered the debate itself and analyzed its importance. In part 2, I put forth a hypothesis as to why U.S. Mint officials may have planned or intended to produce more than twenty Proof 1841 Quarter Eagles. The fact that there are logical reasons as to why more than twenty Proofs may have been produced, and for more than half of the survivors to have circulated, does not conclusively demonstrate that all are Proofs. Historical records accompanied by logical analysis do not demonstrate whether a particular coin is a Proof or a business strike.

There is a need to examine the physical characteristics of the coins. In my view, for a coin to definitely be a Proof, its physical characteristics must meet minimum criteria for Proof status.

XI. The coins in the Spotlight

Will coin experts in this century ever know whether any business strike 1841 Quarter Eagles exist? In the PCGS booklet that was published in February, a list of pedigreed 1841 Quarter Eagles is presented.

There is considerable agreement that four 1841 Quarter Eagles are definitely Proofs: 1) Mint Cabinet-Smithsonian, not certified; 2) Boyd-Eliasberg-Bass, PCGS certified as Proof-64; 3) Friedberg-Graves, NGC certified as ‘Proof-65 Ultra Cameo’; 4) Wolfson-Bass, PCGS certified as ‘Proof-60.’ I realize that some readers are unfamiliar with these names. Except perhaps Friedberg, who was a dealer and a famous author, these names are of people who owned epic collections. Their names serve to identify individual coins and provide information about their respective histories.

The two 1841 Quarter Eagles at the center of the PCGS inquiry are the Norweb Family coin and the R.M. Phillips coin. The Norweb 1841, which is #5 in the list in the PCGS booklet, was NGC certified ‘Proof-61 Ultra Cameo’ and is PCGS graded MS-61. David Hall, Doug Winter and David Akers boldly claim that it and the Phillips 1841 are definitely business strikes. Other than three of the four listed above that people on both sides of the debate agree are definitely Proofs, the Norweb piece and the Phillips piece are the two highest graded 1841 Quarter Eagles.

If and when a Proof coin circulates, some or all of the characteristics that distinguish it as a Proof gradually wear away. Coins are graded on a scale from one to seventy. Coins that do not have very noticeable wear grade from sixty to seventy. For a coin in 03 or 04 grade, it would typically be impossible to know whether it was struck in Proof format. In some cases, it is impossible to determine if a coin in 53 grade is a Proof. About most relevant coins, the evidence that does survive may be used to form a hypothesis about Proof or business strike status.

XII. Study the Coins Or Study Their History?

The controversy over 1841 Quarter Eagles will, I hope, lead to a larger debate about the definition of a Proof. In the past, my impression has been that experts were in agreement that 75% or more of the criteria for a Proof stem from the physical characteristics of the coins, and 25% at most relate to Mint records plus historical circumstances. I am more than a little alarmed that revisionist researchers sometimes suggest that it is largely the pertinent historical circumstances, not the physical characteristics of a coin, that determine its Proof or business strike status. I disagree.

For example, Mint records indicate that all 1878 Three Cent Nickels are Proofs. If a specific ’62’ or higher grade 1878 Three Cent Nickel clearly has the physical characteristics of a business strike, it is, in my view, a business strike. Frequently, government records are wrong or are misleading. Even if Philadelphia Mint officials intended or planned for all 1878 Three Cent Nickels to be Proofs, it does not follow that these are all Proofs.

Coins that grade 60 or 61 sometimes have issues and problems such that little of their original surfaces remain and/or their devices (raised design elements) may be ‘banged up’ to the point that evidence has been obliterated. Usually, however, I find that I can reach a conclusion regarding the Proof or business strike status of a 60 or 61 grade coin.

So, I admit that I analyze evidence and arguments relating to the Proof or business strike status of coins with a bias towards the view that it is the physical characteristics of the coin, not the intent of the minters, that determines a coin’s Proof or business strike status. In some cases, coins with significant Proof characteristics that do not quite fulfill minimum criteria to be a Proof may be Special or Specimen Strikings.

When a coin has worn and/or has been mistreated such that much of the evidence has been obliterated, it may then be helpful or even necessary to consider Mint records and historical circumstances to form a hypothesis regarding Proof status. Here in part 3, the focus is on physical characteristics. Historical concepts are discussed in part 1 and part 2.

The possibility that some business strike 1841 Quarter Eagles were struck to be available to collectors must be considered, as all those involved in the debate seem to be in agreement that the Philadelphia Mint did not strike any 1841 Quarter Eagles for circulation in 1841. Akers and Hall theorize that 1841 business strikes were struck in 1842, and disguised as 1842 business strikes in the Philadelphia Mint records.

XIII. The Phillips 1841

Of the two 1841 Quarter Eagles that are central to this inquiry, I admit that I have seen only one. The Phillips 1841 was NGC certified Proof-58 when I saw it in 2009. The recent PCGS publication seems to indicate that it is now PCGS graded AU-58, with serial number 15544272.

This same coin was NGC graded ’45’ when it was auctioned by the firm of David Akers in 1990. Akers then said it graded “Extremely Fine” and is a business strike.

For starters, I strongly maintain that this coin grades 53 or so by current standards, certainly not 58. My guess is that it would fail to receive a CAC sticker if it continues to be certified as grading 58 and is submitted to the CAC. Whether it grades 45, 50, 53, 55 or 58 is very important to the present discussion, as a 58 grade coin will tend to provide much more evidence regarding Proof or business strike status than a 55 grade coin. Even for a 53 to 55 grade Quarter Eagle, this 1841 does not have much original surface left.

As an aside, I note that I like the coin. It has nice color. I am referring here to the evidence that remains that relates to its Proof or business strike status, not to the overall desirability of the coin.

The reverse (back) has far more wear than the obverse (front). Maybe the Phillips 1841 moved around in a coin cabinet, which was a common means of storage of coin collections prior to the 1920s. Indeed, coin cabinets were very common in the 19th century. Some of the wear on this coin’s reverse, however, seem to be due to a cleaning.

This coin was extensively, moderately to heavily cleaned, which is not unusual for 19th century gold coins. The cleaning, however, was done with a liquid that should not have been used on coins. A combination of wear and this cleaning abraded away much of the original finish on this coin.

It is not fair to conclude that it never had a Proof ‘fabric,’ surface texture. It might have had such a surface texture that is largely gone now.

There is some evidence that it is a Proof and there is some evidence that suggests that it is not a Proof. There is not a readily apparent answer.

Some Proof criteria are fulfilled.

A) There are exceptionally smooth and reflective areas about some of the letters in the legend, United States of America, on the reverse. These protected areas are smoother than the corresponding areas on typical business strikes, and are glossy.

B) Although wear and cleaning eradicated almost all of the original reflective surfaces that seem to have been there, when this coin is tilted under a light, considerable reflectivity is evident, especially on the obverse (front).

C) Indeed, if it is tilted about for a whole minute or more, additional reflective surface can be seen on both the obverse and the reverse (back). The Phillips 1841 seems to have had mirrors that are of a texture that are different from the reflective surfaces of prooflike business strikes.

D) I am puzzled that Hall implies that the dentils of this coin are that of a business strike. Dentils, which are sometimes termed ‘denticles,’ are toothlike structures that form borders, separating the rims from the fields. Unfortunately, the rims and dentils on this coin have considerable wear, another reason why the 58 grade is really hard to understand. Even so, many reverse dentils are squared or nearly squared. Some obverse dentils are very much squared. In contrast to some other student of Proof coinage, I interpret squaring as relative rather than in ‘all or nothing’ terms.

E) Though abraded and worn, the numerals in the date, 1841, were probably squared when this coin was struck. I wish I could clearly explain the concept of devices being ‘squared.’ The term ‘squared’ in relation to coins, has a meaning that is different from its meanings in mathematics. It has to do with the angles that the devices form with the fields. Moreover, very squared devices give the optical illusion of resting on the fields, while sloping devices, appear to have sprung from the fields, which is true in a literal sense as metal from the prepared blank (planchet) is forced to move and flow into the crevices of the dies during the striking of each coin.

In an abstract sense, devices (design elements) emerge from the planchet when a coin is struck. While devices spring from the planchet on a Proof, they do not look like they have sprung from the fields; the relationship of the devices to the fields is different on a Proof. The devices on a Proof seem more like they were designed by architects, while the devices on business strikes tend to look more like they rose from the fields.

F) Researcher Breen contends that silver or gold Proofs were struck at least twice. If so, the squaring of devices would come largely, from the second strike, which causes some devices to take on a structure and a relationship to adjacent fields that are different from corresponding phenomena on business strikes, which are usually struck just once. More recently, some researchers have suggested that the greater detail and device-to-field relationships on 19th century Proof coins is really due to squeezing under extra-pressure, rather than multiple strikes.

On a large number of 19th century Proofs, I have seen clear evidence of multiple strikes. I will continue to adhere to the traditional double-strike theory unless I read convincing evidence of the one slow strike theory. Either way, though, metal is forced into the upper recesses of the dies and the formation of the devices is different on Proofs.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to fully explain the concept of squaring, in regard to the devices on coins. On many coins, squaring is not ‘an all or nothing’ issue. The extent to which devices are squared relate to the extent to which Proof criteria are fulfilled. There is no single characteristic that conclusively demonstrates that a coin is a Proof.

There is also evidence that causes an expert to doubt that the Phillips 1841 is a Proof.

G) There are noticeable, significant U.S. Mint caused defects. These are imperfections that came about when the coin was struck, or even before, not problems that developed later. Indeed, the mint caused imperfections on the rims are odd and it would be unusual for a Proof to have such imperfections. I have, though, seen many pre-1860 Proofs that have noticeable Mint caused defects. These, though, are a substantial concern. In general, however, there is something different about the rims on at least a few 1841 Quarter Eagles.

H) The denomination, ‘2½ D.,’ and the letters UNI in UNITED, are especially weak. Yes, some of the weakness is due to wear and cleaning. Even so, I would expect these devices to be in higher relief (distance ‘above’ the fields) on a 50 to 55 grade Proof than they are on this coin.

At a confidence level of 75%, I maintain that the proper certification for this coin is Proof-53. Some lack of detail that appears to be striking weakness is really wear and some of this wear is uneven, partly due to mistreatment. My impression is that this coin was struck twice with heavily polished dies. Imperfections in the production process caused minor defects.

I theorize that it HAD full strong mirrors, very smooth surfaces, mostly squared outer devices, and excellent, though not perfect, detail. While it was not the best made Proof 1841 Quarter Eagle, there is a 75% chance that it is a Proof. If it is not a Proof, it may be a Special Striking. My guess is there is only a fifteen percent chance that it is a business strike.

XIV. The Norweb 1841

As I already said, the Norweb Family 1841 was NGC certified ‘Proof-61 Ultra Cameo’ and the PCGS website give the impression that it is now PCGS graded MS-61. I have never seen it. It is number five on the list in the PCGS booklet.

The NGC certification of ‘Ultra Cameo’ is about equivalent to the PCGS designation of ‘Deep Cameo.’ David Hall is calling this coin a business strike. So, a cameo designation is not applicable now that it is presumably in a PCGS holder with an MS-61 grade.

An ‘Ultra Cameo’ or ‘Deep Cameo’ designation refers to a contrast of light colored devices with dark, fully mirrored fields. An ‘Ultra Cameo’ designation refers to Proof coins that have more depth of contrast than those with just a ‘Cameo’ designation, according to experts at the NGC.

While business strikes sometimes have naturally frosted devices (design elements), especially business strikes that are prooflike, it is very unusual for a business strike to have much of a cameo contrast. While I am not in agreement with all NGC certifications, I am surprised that a Great Rarity that was ‘NGC certified Proof-61 Ultra Cameo’ would be regarded by several experts as not possibly being a Proof. Indeed, I am fascinated that Hall and Akers point to this coin as convincing evidence that business strike 1841 Quarter Eagles exist. I really wish that I had seen it.

Also, Doug Winter is “convinced” that the Phillip and Norweb 1841 Quarter Eagles “are non-Proof Regular Strikes.” Recently, experts at the PCGS have been employing the term ‘Regular Strike,’ rather than business strike or circulation strike. All three terms usually refer to coins that were made in a standard manner, not with special characteristics.

XV. Christie’s 1841

The most recent appearance of an 1841 Quarter Eagle was in the Heritage Platinum Night event of April 19th. It surfaced in 1985 when it was sold in a Christie’s auction. I have identified it as number twelve on the PCGS list. In February 2012, experts at the PCGS did not know that this coin would be auctioned in April. It was NGC certified Proof-55 more than fifteen years ago.

I like this coin, too. I mention its imperfections here, not for the purpose of criticizing the coin. I am not criticizing this coin. I am mentioning characteristics that I take to be relevant to determining its Proof or business strike status.

This coin exhibits some scratches, and serious contact marks, and some wear. It also has a few pinpricks. As with the Phillips 1841, some of its wear is due to problematic cleaning. According to the PCGS list, it was graded “45” when it was offered in Superior’s session of Auction ’86.

It is a cool looking coin. I do not find the scratches to be very bothersome. Its net grade should be 50, in my view.

While I am only 75% sure that the Phillips piece is a Proof, I am more than 90% sure that that this piece is a Proof. I asked Matt Kleinsteuber about it. He said, without any prompting, “extremely nice, obviously Proof.” Matt is the lead grader and trader for NFC coins.

My impression is that this coin was struck twice. Moreover, it has full mirrors, which are especially evident when the coin is tilted under a lamp. The ultra-smoothness of some small portions of the fields in relatively protected areas (near and about devices) suggests that it is likely that it was struck on a buffed planchet.

On a few sub-60 1841 Quarter Eagles that I have seen, there remain small areas of reflectivity with ultra-smooth backgrounds, more of a Proof texture than the reflective fields of a prooflike business strike. When a business strike is made with dies that were recently polished, it may have very reflective surfaces. The reflective surfaces on a prooflike business strike, though, are different from the reflective surfaces of Proofs. On a circulated coin, however, it can be very hard to discern the difference.

Additionally, on this “Proof-55” 1841, the head of Miss Liberty just has the ‘look and texture’ of a Proof. Further, the fields near her head have a Proof fabric. Mirrored areas surround some stars as well. Some of the devices seem to be not fully formed because they were somewhat worn by an unfortunate cleaning. In my view, this coin merits a Proof-50 certification.

XVI. Others

There was another 1841 recently ‘in the news.’ A PCGS graded EF-45 1841 was sold by Stack’s-Bowers in March. In my view, this coin just has too many ‘issues’ (negative aspects) for its Proof or business strike status to be fairly interpreted.

The Kramer-Roswell piece that Heritage auctioned in Oct. 2011 and the Green 1841 that Heritage auctioned in Feb. 2007 are relatively less convincing than others as Proofs, if they are Proofs. The Green 1841, though, has just the minimum of characteristics to suggest that it may be a Proof. In my view, its Proof or business strike status cannot be determined. As for the Kramer-Roswell piece, its status could also be fairly argued either way. It is more likely than not that it is a Proof.

DLRC auctioned the Richmond piece in July 2004, in New York. I was there. This coin is too worn to interpret for this purpose. The Green, Kramer-Roswell and Richmond 1841 Quarter Eagles all have substantial, underlying original mirrors. While these could be prooflike business strikes, there is not a compelling reason to conclude that they are prooflike business strikes or Special Strikings (Specimens). They have some Proof characteristics. They may remain mysteries forever.

XVII. David Hall’s Details

There are differences in detail in the hair, face and dentils that David Hall emphasizes in the Akers-Hall-Winter theory that only four are Proofs and twelve or thirteen are business strikes. None of the 1841 Quarter Eagles that Hall pegs as business strikes grade higher than 61. I have never seen the one that has been certified as grading 61, the Norweb 1841 that was formerly NGC certified ‘Proof-61 Ultra Cameo.’

I have compared the PCGS images of the Norweb 1841 to images that I received from the Smithsonian, thanks to curator Richard Doty. While the Norweb 1841 has less hair and face detail than the better of the two 1841 Quarter Eagles in the Smithsonian, the Norweb 1841 has more hair detail than the Proof 1840 Quarter Eagle in the Smithsonian, which is widely regarded as an indisputable Proof, though I have never seen this 1840 either. The Norweb 1841 likewise has much more detail on the eagle on the reverse than on the eagle of the Smithsonian 1840. It is not possible to adequately analyze dentils from images.

Dentils, by themselves, do not demonstrate whether a coin is a Proof or a business strike. They can, though, constitute evidence. In my experience with pre-1860 Proofs, some dentils will be far more developed than others. On a Proof, many of the dentils may be squared or nearly squared, while others are weak.

Yes, some of the dentils on circulated 1841 Quarter Eagles are not fully structured. This may, though, be partly due to wear. The characteristics of Proofs vary.

As Ron Guth, John Dannreuther and/or Craig Sholley may be implying in the PCGS publication, on a screw press, pressure during striking is not precisely distributed in an even manner; different parts of a coin may be struck more so than other parts. The devices in the highest relief are not necessarily the devices that are not sharply struck.

As for the lack of detail in parts of Miss Liberty’s hair and face on the 1841 Quarter Eagles that Hall and Winter call business strikes, inconsistencies in the pressure applied via a screw press are not the only explanations. In my view, some substances could have gotten into the dies, which would reduce detail in the subsequently struck coins.

There were no electric vacuum cleaners in 1841. Invariably, there was ‘stuff’ about the press or in the air. Plus, workers may have added liquids or grease to dies in the middle of a press run, intentionally or accidentally. Substances may splash, drip, or bounce. A very small amount of some substances that found their way into the dies could have affected striking detail.

In relation to the production process, there are a lot of variables that could affect the detail present and other characteristics of coins. Maybe a different crew of workers took over in the midst of the operation? Maybe an individual in authority walked into the room in the middle of the press run and gave orders, ‘hurry up and get these done faster’ or ‘slow down and make some sharper coins’! After some not so great Proofs were made, a boss may have told the workers to strike the remaining pieces three times each. Conversely, it could be true that after the boss left the room, the workers may have made some coins that were not nearly as great as the ones that they made when the boss or high level Mint official was in the room.

XVIII. Conclusions

There is a good chance that all 1841 Quarter Eagles are Proofs. I have, though, seen just six or seven of the sixteen or seventeen. It is also true that some could be Special Strikings that do not quite qualify as Proofs, because of strikes that are not powerful enough, insufficiently formed devices, somewhat rough planchets, slightly contaminated dies, etc.

I have not found much evidence that any are business strikes, though this is possible. The 1841 Quarter Eagles that I have seen tend to lack original mint luster, which would suggest business strike status. John Albanese notes that 1840 Quarter Eagles are often “very frosty,” with much original mint luster. “None of the 1841 Quarter Eagles that I saw are frosty. None seem to have the mint luster that you [often] see on [gold] business strikes,” John reports. Albanese is the founder of the CAC and of the Numismatic Consumer Alliance.

Importantly, it seems that 1841 Quarter Eagles were struck with extremely smooth and reflective, sensitive surfaces that are easily abraded. Proof coins wear differently from business strikes, though the surfaces of prooflike business strikes are also sensitive in this manner.

The wear patterns of some of these suggest that they are Proofs. Indeed, if they are Proofs, then one of the reasons why some of them have been overgraded may be that, despite considerable wear, some devices exhibit much detail because they had more detail than business strikes from the moment they were struck. So, a circulated Proof with a significant amount of wear will, on many occasions, exhibit more detail on some devices than a corresponding, circulated business strike that has the same amount of wear.

Do some 1841 Quarter Eagles have more powerful Proof characteristics than others? Yes, of course, this is true. In the 19th century, however, it is not that unusual for some Proofs of the same issue to have more powerful Proof characteristics than other Proofs of the same issue, even coins produced during the same press run.

In my view, the most powerful argument that business strikes exist is that the rims on many 1841 Quarter Eagles are not impressive, which is unusual on 19th century Proof gold coins. The rims tend to be formed in non-robust manner, not squared at the edges, and exhibit interruptions on the faces. Admittedly, this is odd. It may be relevant and important, however, that some 1841 large cents that are widely regarded as Proofs also seem to have rims that are sub-standard for Proofs.

For a coin to be a Proof, not all Proof criteria must be met. There is no perfect Proof. The relationship of the devices (raised design elements) to the fields is vastly more important than the formation of the rims.

These are not the only controversial 19th century coins that I have examined. I have inspected hundreds of 19th century Proof gold coins, including more than a dozen from the 1840s, plus numerous Proof coins in all metals minted from 1820 to 1840.

I attended the Pittman sales in 1997 and 1998, which contained many pre-1850 Proof gold, silver and copper coins. I have seen many early Proof coins in other auctions as well.

I wrote an analytical article about the unique Proof 1876-CC dime and one about a Proof Denver Mint gold coin. My article about the Turtle Rock Collection of Proof silver coins, including many Capped Bust Dimes from the 1820s and 1830s, is relevant. (Clickable links are in blue.)

While I would like to look at some 1841 Quarter Eagles ‘out of their holders’ with a microscope, I am not assuming that further examination of the coins will yield more answers. Before reaching a firm conclusion, though, I would like to examine additional 1841 Quarter Eagles and maybe some more Proof 1841 large cents.

My tentative position, for now, is that the preponderance of the evidence, roughly meaning at least a 67% chance, indicates that at least seven 1841 Quarter Eagles are Proofs and the others are either Proofs or Special Strikings. So, there is a one-third chance that business strikes exist. Will experts ever know? By stating, however, that at least seven Proof 1841 Quarter Eagles exist, I am clearly in opposition to the Akers-Hall-Winter position in the controversy over 1841 Quarter Eagles.

©2012 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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