Before the Mint began their program of commercial proof offerings in 1858, no records were kept of how many proof coins were made during any particular year. In the early days, before about 1840, proofs were struck whenever a government official, such as the Secretary of State, requested specimen coins for diplomatic presentations, or when well-connected collectors, like Robert Gilmore, Jr., made special arrangements to procure the coins for their collections. As we understand the process today, when the Mint received these orders, the workmen polished a business-strike die, perhaps polished specially selected planchets, and struck the desired coins on the screw press normally used to produce medals. Thus, if the Mint received requests for proofs at different times during the year, they were struck from whatever dies were on hand at the time, resulting in several different die varieties of proof coins of the same date and denomination.
This is the case for the extremely rare proof quarters of 1820.
Only four examples of the 1820 Capped Bust proof quarter are known today, representing three different die varieties. The coin we will be offering in our June 7-12 Long Beach Signature auction is an example of the B-4 variety, with a small 0 in the date and small obverse stars. The same reverse die was used on the 1821 B-1 and B-3 varieties, and die state evidence suggests the B-4 business-strike coins were actually struck in 1821, after these other two emissions. This single proof example may have been struck in 1821 as well, if no suitable 1821-dated dies were available.
This coin possesses an unbroken pedigree over the last century, at one time being a highlight of such celebrated gatherings known as the George Earle Collection and the famous collection of Ambassador and Mrs. R. Henry Norweb. In the Norweb Collection, this coin was accompanied by a remarkable specimen of the 1820 B-2 variety that Walter Breen believed was a one-sided proof, but that coin has now been certified as an MS64 business-strike by NGC. Breen also thought the present coin might be a one-sided proof because of some frosty luster on the reverse, but PCGS has determined this coin is definitely a proof striking, awarding it the grade PR64.
This coin exhibits a stunning play of colors, with vivid shades of iridescent champagne-gold, cerulean-blue, and lavender patina blanketing the pleasing surfaces of both sides. The fields display areas of bright reflectivity under the toning. Some evidence of die rust can be seen in the obverse field near star 3, and on the reverse near the lowest leaves, adding credence to the idea that the coin was struck in 1821. The devices are sharply detailed throughout, adding to the incredible visual appeal. This combination of extreme rarity, high technical grade, and spectacular aesthetic appeal, with great historic interest and an extensive pedigree, makes this coin one of the most impressive offerings of the current auction.