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1848 “CAL” Liberty Head Quarter Eagle : A Collector’s Guide

1848
1848 “CAL” Liberty Head quarter eagle.

The California Gold Rush may have been set off by James Wilson Marshall’s January 24, 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, but the commercial extraction of oro fino in California had already been underway for eight years by this time.

This fact is important to understand because contrary to popular belief, the 1848 “CAL” quarter eagle is almost certainly not the first federal coin struck from California gold. That distinction probably belongs to 18.34 ounces of gold sent to the Philadelphia Mint in 1842 on behalf of Abel Stearns, a prominent trader and landowner living in the Los Angeles area. The gold was delivered to the United States Mint on July 8, 1843, and turned into $344.75 USD in coin.

Gold production in California would continue at a modest pace for the next few years, attracting hundreds of hopeful prospectors hoping to make a living extracting gold from the banks of alluvial springs

The 1848 discovery at Sutter’s Mill was the start of a completely different animal. Unlike the modest discoveries of 1840 and ’41, the discoveries from 1848 on were history-defining for the American continent. Gold yields in 1848 eclipsed $10 million. This total would quadruple in 1849 and reach $60 million or more annually from 1851 to 1854 when gold was discovered along the banks of the Kern River in Southern California. While the majority of the placer deposits were exhausted by the outset of the Civil War in 1861, California remained a leading producer of American gold well into the 20th century.

The 1848 CAL quarter eagles were struck with gold delivered to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia on December 15, 1848. The metal was shipped by War Secretary William L. Marcy, who received it from California Military Governor Richard Mason. In total, $3,910.10 worth of refined gold was contained in the parcel.

According to the best guesses of numismatic researchers, the 1848 CALs were likely struck in the last week of December 1848 and then delivered to Marcy in 1849. When struck, the coins did not bear the incuse inscription “CAL” that appears above the eagle’s head. This would be added later by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre, who imparted the three letters by striking each coin with a single punch. Longacre concluded his work on the 1848 CAL quarter eagles on January 4, 1849.

Aware of the historic nature of the moment, Longacre created and retained three Proofs for his private collection. It is possible that the Longacre Proofs were not struck with gold from Marcy’s deposit (actually it is highly likely that they weren’t). One of the Longacre Proofs was sold at auction 1869, mere months after his death.

In total, 1,389 “CAL” quarter eagles were struck. Some argue that this emission represents the very first federal “commemorative” issue. That the issue commemorates the discovery of California gold is true, but the incuse embellishment does not rise to the level of a Congressionally approved commemorative coin. The first U.S. issue carrying that imprimatur would not arrive until 1892, with the issuance of the World’s Columbian Exposition half dollar.

Commemorative or not, most of the issue was released into circulation and today possibly 200 or a little more survive – the overwhelming majority of them in circulated condition. So scattered about were they that the issue had become difficult to find by the late 1860s, and many serious coin collectors of the period were unable to source examples for their collections.

In Mint State, the issue is rare. As of the time of this writing, NGC reports only 20 grading events in uncirculated grades, 12 of which grade MS-61 to MS-63. The sole finest at NGC grades MS-68. The coin brought $340,000 at an January 10, 2008 Heritage Auction.

At PCGS, only 27 grading events in Mint State have been reported throughout the company’s 37+ years of business. The majority of these Mint State examples grade MS-64 and below. Gems at both services are rare. Like NGC, PCGS reports a single coin at the MS-68 grade. We could find no record of a public sale of this coin, but PCGS estimates its value at over $1 million.

In lower Mint State grades, 1848 “CAL” quarter eagles routinely trade for $100,000 or more. Proof strikings are even rarer. All Proof examples have a prominent die chip on the neck and display a date that is lower than what is found on business strikes. The finest of these resides in the National Numismatic Collection. The second-finest is graded PR-64 by PCGS. The third is graded PR-62 by PCGS.

As an enigmatic numismatic oddity connected to a pivotal period in America’s history, the 1848 “CAL” will always place high amongst the great numismatic objects in American history. In the most recent edition of Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett’s 100 Greatest U.S. Coins, the 1848 “CAL” ranks 54th. Gold coin expert Doug Winter calls this issue a “stretch date” that collectors should consider.

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Market Data and Noteworthy Specimens

The 1848 “CAL.” Liberty Head Quarter Eagle was difficult to find, even by the late 1860s. It’s been estimated that upwards of 200 survive. Most show signs of circulation. Gem examples exist and a few exhibit Prooflike appearance. Die striations and softness of the the hair behind Liberty’s ear and at the eagle’s neck is expected for the issue.

Unfortunately, much of the pre-2000 pedigree information on this issue is seldom reported.

Top Population: PCGS MS-68 (1, 2/2024). NGC MS-68 (1, 2/2024). CAC MS-67 (1:0 stickered:graded, 2/2024).

The NGC census states one coin in MS-68, but both NGC MS-68* certification numbers remain active using the service’s online certification number look-up feature.

  • NGC MS-68* #1787965-004: “The Franklinton Collection”, American Numismatic Rarities, August 11 2006, Lot 1201 – $322,000; Stack’s Bowers, August 16, 2023, Lot 5103 – View.
  • NGC MS-68* #1734047-002: Heritage Auctions, January 2006, Lot 3419 – ; “The Madison Collection”, Heritage Auctions, January 10, 2008, Lot 3091 – $345,000; Heritage Auctions, April 23, 2020, Lot 3774 – $300,000. Rim hit to the right of star 4. Two small depressions located near Star 3. Tick between stars 12 and 13. Frosty devices.
  • NGC MS-67 #1727835-001: Heritage Auctions, January 7, 2004, Lot 3007 – $161,000. Scattered marks between Stars 3 and 4.
  • PCGS MS-64 CAC #46092972: “Harry W. Bass, Jr. Core Collection, Part One”, Heritage Auctions, September 29, 2022, Lot 11013 – $552,000. Harry W. Bass, Jr. Collection novelty insert. Hit above eye, scattered scruffiness in the left field, hit in hair above R, copper spot between Stars 9 and 10. On the reverse, two dark marks bracket the dot between D. and the second A of AMERICA.
  • NGC MS-64* #3435607-001: “The Henry Miller Collection”, Heritage Auctions, January 6, 2011, Lot 5027 – $115,000; Stack’s Bowers, March 21, 2012, Lot 4269 – $115,000.
  • NGC MS-64 #628834-001: As a “Brilliant Proof”. “Jerome Kern Collection”, B. Max Mehl, 1950, Lot 37; “Grant Pierce & Sons Collection of United States Gold, Silver & Copper Coins”, Stack’s, May 6-8, 1965, Lot 1130 – $6,500. Purchased by Rufus L. Miles, Jr. “The R.L. Miles, Jr. Collection of United States Coins”, Stack’s, October 25-26, 1968, Lot 142 – $7,600; Purchased by Winner F. Delp. “The Winner F. Delp Collection of United States Coins”, Stack’s, November 17-18, 1972, Lot 780 – $7,750.
    A-Mark Coin Company's October 1974 Numismatist ad offering the R.L. Miles, Jr. 1848
    A-Mark Coin Company’s October 1974 Numismatist ad offering the R.L. Miles, Jr. 1848 “CAL.” Liberty Head quarter eagle at a heavily juiced price.

    This coin was marketed by the A-Mark Coin Company in the October 1974 issue of The Numismatist, where the firm compared the coin’s current value to the price appreciation of the 1804 dollar, the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, the 1894-S Barber dime, and the 1876-CC Twenty-Cent piece! What they left out was the inconvenient truth of its 1972 hammer price! A-Mark wanted $65,000 for the coin. Highway robbery! Pedigree resumes: Superior Galleries, February 1998, Lot 3343; As NGC MS-64 #628834-001. Heritage Auctions, January 4, 2007, Lot 3412 – $109,250. Scruffy hits to the right of Stars 3 to 5. Possibly struck through from hair to Star 12. Hit across cheek. Hit below first S in STATES.

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Design

Obverse:

Christian Gobrecht’s design features a left-facing bust of Liberty with her hair tied up in a bun, which is secured by a string of beads. Liberty wears a diadem on which the word LIBERTY is inscribed. Thirteen six-pointed stars encircle the design leaving room only for the date, which appears centered below the bust truncation. Beaded denticles border the rim.

Reverse:

The reverse features the heraldic eagle with its chest protected by the federal shield, its wings held aloft, and its talons gripping arrows and olive branches. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA encircles the design. Above the eagle’s head and beneath the word STATES is the incuse inscription “CAL.”. The denomination 2 1/2 D. is inscribed at the bottom of the design, between two dots separating the beginning of UNITED and the end of AMERICA. Beaded denticles border the rim.

Edge:

The edge of the 1848 CAL $2.50 quarter eagle gold coin is reeded, like all other Liberty Head quarter eagles.

1848 CAL quarter eagle reverse

Designer

Christian Gobrecht was the third Chief Engraver of the United States Mint. He was first hired to temporarily fill in after the passing of Chief Engraver Robert Scot. Later, he was hired to assist ailing Chief Engraver William Kneass. At the U.S. Mint, Gobrecht designed a number of coin designs, including the Seated Liberty type, the Liberty Head gold type, and the Flying Eagle cent.

Coin Specifications

Country: United States of America
Year Of Issue: 1848
Denomination: Quarter Eagle ($2.50 USD)
Mint Mark: None (Philadelphia)
Mintage: 1,389
Alloy: .900 Gold, .100 Copper
Weight: 4.18 g
Diameter: 18.00 mm
OBV Designer: Christian Gobrecht
REV Designer: Christian Gobrecht
Quality: Uncirculated

 

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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