By Dr. Richard S. Appel – UniqueRareCoins.com ……
The year 1859 was an eventful one for the United States Mint as well as future collectors. That was when the Mint redesigned or refined some of our circulating gold, silver and copper coins. For gold coin enthusiasts, this decision led to the birth of three important and rare varieties.
The names Snowden, Longacre and Paquet are well-known to the collecting community for the many beautiful coin designs they created. James R. Snowden was the mint director, James B. Longacre was the chief engraver, and Anthony C. Paquet was his assistant. Together, they were responsible for the impressive modernization of the reverse design of our Philadelphia Liberty $2.50 gold coins in 1859.
They weren’t aware of it at the time, but subsequent events at the Philadelphia Mint created three remarkable gold rarities.
Liberty quarter eagles first appeared in 1840. Between then and 1859, their obverse and reverse designs remained unchanged. But, due to the efforts of Longacre and Paquet, that year saw a substantial refinement with greater detail to the reverse image of these beautiful gold coins.
In 1859 Philadelphia produced the new reverse hub. Walter Breen, one of the foremost numismatists of his time, stated in his monograph, “Varieties of United States Quarter Eagles” (1964):
“One obv. and two rev. dies made for this year. The reverses–apparently one for proofs, another for regular business strikes–are from a new hub”.
The Mint then put the new reverse die into use, producing coins for circulation. However, the Philadelphia Mint also used one or more earlier working dies rather than retiring them. Thus, coins with two distinctly different reverse images bearing the same 1859 date were coined, paired with the usual Liberty bust obverse.
Philadelphia may have prepared the new hubs and dies later in the year, after producing some coins using the older dies. This would account for the 1859 issue with the older reverse. Nevertheless, one would think that by 1860 they would have removed all of the earlier reverse dies. Yet for some unknown reason, in both 1861 and especially 1860, a small number of coins were minted using an old reverse die. This is how the 1860 and 1861 issues came into existence.
I continue to wonder why a die that should have been retired in 1859 was used in each of the following two years when it was no longer sanctioned or needed. Was it a mistake, or an oversight? Was it because the mint operators were lazy? Was it for cost saving reasons? We’ll probably never know, and are only left to wonder why.
Across the years, the two types received several different attributions.
The original reverse has been called the “Old Reverse”, “Type I Reverse”, “Large Letters Reverse”, “First Reverse” or the “Reverse of 1858”. Its replacement was recognized as the “New Reverse”, “Type II Reverse”, “Small Letters Reverse”, “Second Reverse” or the “Reverse of 1859”. It is quite unusual in numismatics for a variety to boast so many different names – I believe this was the result of their great rarity!
The 1859 Type I Reverse was the first of the three to be discovered. This was likely around the 1960s. I suspect whenever a numismatist independently discovered an 1859 Type I Reverse coin, he named it what he thought was appropriate.
David W. Akers was one of the foremost gold coin experts at the time. In his renowned 1975 work, United States Gold Coins, An Analysis of Auction Records, Volume II, Quarter Eagles 1796-1929, he was unaware of the existence of the 1859 Type I Reverse issue. This is somewhat surprising given David’s experience and knowledge of our gold coinage. Even he hadn’t seen nor heard of one when he published his volume. Today, PCGS refers to them as the “Old Reverse”, while NGC calls them the “Type I Reverse”.
Visual Difference Between Type I and Type II Reverses
The coarse, crude appearance of the eagle, lettering and other design details in the Type I Reverse was replaced with a sleek, delicate, graceful look. The new reverse displayed the letters of UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, smaller and more widely spaced, and the eagle’s left talon holding the arrows is opened (it’s closed on the old variety).
1859 Type I Reverse
The appearance of the arrow bundle is one of the most telling differences. The older design displays shorter, thicker shafts with larger arrowheads that are closer together compared to the newer image. The lowest arrow point nearly touches the CA in AMERICA, and the upper two virtually meet on the old reverse. They are widely separated from the CA and each other on the new one.
It should be noted that the Dahlonega, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina branch mints used the Type I reverse exclusively for quarter eagle production until they closed in 1859 and 1860, respectively. Further, the San Francisco Mint used the Type I reverse from its 1854 inauguration until 1877. It finally received and employed the new reverse dies that year, and continued using them until 1879 when it ceased minting Liberty quarter eagles.
This created an unprecedented situation in the annals of the U.S. Mint.
For a number of years, by withholding the new dies from the branch mints, two different reverse dies were utilized simultaneously by our nation’s operating mints to coin the same type of coin.
Attesting to their rarity, Paul Taglione stated in his 1986 scholarly work (A Reference to United States Federal Gold Coinage) that the 1859 Type I Reverse issue was the first of the three dates to be recognized, probably by the 1960s – but it wasn’t until 1976 when the first 1861 Type I Reverse apparently was found. After the initial 1861 Type I example was discovered, it was confounding to present numismatists that none were known for 1860. However, after much searching and over a dozen years, our bewilderment evaporated with the discovery of the first 1860 Liberty Type I Reverse coin.
1859 Type II Reverse
When he wrote his monumental 1988 work, Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, Breen knew of the 1859 and 1861 Type I issues. However, when he referred to the 1860 issue, he stated that the 1860 Type I Reverse “possibly exists”. Earlier, in the 1964 monograph referenced above, he made no mention of the 1860 or 1861 Philadelphia Liberty Quarter Eagles with the earlier reverse.
It was my good fortune to find the first 1860 Type I Reverse Liberty quarter eagle. I had actively searched for one for a number of years, and stumbled upon my specimen at a coin show in 1990. This, after having viewed 50 or more different 1860 examples. It was worn and lightly polished. I showed it to Breen a while later. He was excited and appeared relieved. He congratulated me and said he too had been searching for one for many years. Breen seemed vindicated with his theory that if 1859 and 1861 coins existed, surely the 1860 must as well. He was anxious to include it when he revised his Encyclopedia because of its great significance to numismatics.
Rarity of the Type I Reverse Philadelphia Liberty Quarter Eagle
The 1859 is quite scarce as an issue, with a total mintage of 39,364. This immediately elevates the Type I Reverse to a higher valuation level than if it were a common date. I believe a combined maximum of a few hundred separate examples of both types remain. Experience suggests that about 20%-25% of this date are of the Type I Variety.
If I am correct, this places the total number of Type I Reverse coins at about 75.
When ascertaining the number of existing coins of a given rare date it is deceptive to solely rely on population reports from NGC and PCGS. It doesn’t matter if it’s a scarce half cent, a rare Morgan Dollar or any coin that’s worth substantially more in the next higher grade. Coin dealers and even many collectors are noted for submitting the same coin numerous times to the grading services, if they believe they “have a shot” for an upgrade.
The reward is substantial if the coin “works”!
It’s not unusual for one coin to be re-graded a dozen or more times by different people at both services. Tragically, coin dealers bear the most responsibility for distorting population reports this way. Despite the efforts of PCGS and NGC to maintain accurate records, many dealers do not return the coin holder’s description inserts to the grading companies for removal from their pop reports. So each time they “break out” a coin from a holder and resubmit it, the population report numbers increase. For this reason, any discussion of rarity herein is from my and other experts’ experience, rather than blindly following the reports. Whenever you peruse a “pop” report for any coin you are purchasing, I suggest you bear this in mind.
The 1861 issue is one of the most common Liberty $2.50 gold coins, with a total mintage of 1,283,788. However, the Type I Variety is quite rare. Paul Taglione considered the 1861 coin with the first reverse to be the “second-rarest of all Quarter Eagles”. He knew of only six examples. More of this issue (along with the other two) have surfaced since then.
Nevertheless, I believe 1861 is rarer than the 1859 issue, with possibly 60-70 different coins extant.
This brings us to the 1860 Philadelphia Type I Reverse $2.50 gold coin. The total combined mintage for both the Type I and Type II varieties was a mere 22,675. Had Paul Taglione or David Akers been aware of this great coin, they certainly would have concurred with Walter Breen regarding its monumental importance to the numismatic community. It took well over a century after it was coined–and much searching by gold coin aficionados–before the first example finally surfaced. Today, I doubt if 25-30 different examples exist in all grades – possibly fewer.
It’s a shame that many rare coin dealers remain unconcern about helping NGC and PCGS maintain accurate population numbers. I believe the 1860 Philadelphia Type I Liberty gold coin possibly ranks in rarity second only to the famed 1854-S Liberty $2.50. For comparison, it is believed that barely a dozen 1854-S coins exist, despite NGC and PCGS listing 15 certified coins. A coin of this importance, rarity and value is thoroughly scrutinized when graded by NGC or PCGS; they usually bestow the highest possible grade the first time. This leaves little possibility for upgrading them.
But dealers will try, as the population reports indicate.
The original article I wrote for Coin World in 1995 regarding the 1859-61 Type II Reverse was the first comprehensive article to bring these exceptional coins to the attention of the entire rare coin community. Now, more and more gold coin collectors are including these important coins in their collections.
The hobby benefitted immensely when the Philadelphia Mint created the three Type I Reverse Philadelphia $2.50 Liberty gold coins. The 1859 and 1861 issues are rare in any condition, and quite rare at the Mint State level. The highly-coveted 1860, on the other hand, is among the rarest dates in the entire quarter eagle Liberty Gold Coin series in any grade. We owe the Mint a debt of gratitude for creating these rarities for present and future generations to study, enjoy and possess.
About Dr. Richard Appel
Dr. Richard S. Appel has been a numismatic expert for 50 years. He offers his personal services as a rare coin broker or rare coin consultant to both beginner and experienced consumers alike. Please visit, or contact him at his website www.uniquerarecoins.com. He can also be reached by phone at (800) 782-2646. For a modest fee he will treat every purchase or sale of your coins as if they were his own, and will negotiate the best possible prices on your behalf.
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