Rare Gold Coins under $5000, Part 1: Classic Head Quarter Eagles ($2½ Gold)
Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #211
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds ……..
The present topic is Very Fine to AU grade, Classic Head Quarter Eagles (U.S. $2½ gold coins). These were minted from 1834 to 1838. U.S. Quarter Eagles date from 1796 to 1929, though were not made in every year along the way.
Quarter Eagles of all types are demanded by a large number of coin collectors. Most Indian Head Quarter Eagles (1908-29) are extremely inexpensive in grades below MS-64. While Classic Head Quarter Eagles cost more, they are far rarer than Indian Head Quarter Eagles, which tend to be extremely common.
Indeed, Classic Head Quarter Eagles are rare, historically important and fun to own. For less than $5000 per coin, a set of business strike Classic Head Quarter Eagles may be completed, mostly with appealing, relatively original, Extremely Fine to AU grade coins. A collector with a $5000 per coin limit may possibly have to settle for two or three of the rare dates in Very Fine grades. After all, no one can precisely predict the grades and other characteristics of most of the coins that will be available over the next five years.
Those who cannot afford to spend an amount near $5000 per coin may wish to collect copper or silver coins. To such budget-minded collectors, I draw attention to an earlier series on classic U.S. coins that cost less than $250 each, and to my series on rare or scarce coins that cost less than $500 each.
A little understanding of coin grades is needed to follow the points being discussed. (Coins are graded on a scale from 01 to 70: Poor-01; Fair-02; AG-03; Good-04, 06; VG-08, 10; Fine-12, 15; VF-20,25,30,35; Extremely Fine-XF-40, 45; AU-50, 53, 55, 58; ‘Mint State’ -60 to -70.) Many exciting, classic U.S. coins are not expensive. There is a free online grading reference at pcgs.com, which is helpful for grading circulated coins. Furthermore, examining images posted by the three leading auction firms is often educational. Even so, coins really must be seen in actuality to be understood. As will be discussed, the most famous coin in the series is the 1839-O.
I. The Series
Classic Head Quarter Eagles were struck for six years. It is practical to collect this series ‘by date’ (and U.S. Mint location). There are ten such ‘dates’: 1834, 1835, 1836, 1837, 1838 Philadelphia Mint, 1838-Charlotte Mint, 1839 Philadelphia Mint, 1839-Charlotte, 1839-Dahlonega Mint and 1839 New Orleans Mint.
Regarding 1836 Half Eagles, these are sometimes classified as two separate ‘dates,’ each with a somewhat noticeably different numeral ‘8.’ In essence, numeral eights of two different fonts were used. So, for a set ‘by date,’ some collectors seek eleven ‘dates,’ including U.S. Mint locations and two 1836 date-varieties. Before 1942, business strike coins made at the Philadelphia Mint never had mintmarks. A ‘C’ mintmark refers to the Branch U.S. Mint in Charlotte, North Carolina. Such a ‘C’ mintmark should not be confused with the ‘CC’ mintmarks that were used from 1870 to 1893 on coins struck at the Carson City, Nevada Mint.
Regarding 19th century U.S. coins, a ‘D’ mintmark refers to the Branch U.S. Mint in Dahlonega, Georgia. On coins minted from 1906 to the present, a ‘D’ mintmark refers to the Branch U.S. Mint in Denver, Colorado. From 1793 to 1837, all U.S. coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. Not long after the U.S. Civil War began in 1861, the Charlotte and Dahlonega Mints were closed by the Confederate regime. They never re-opened. The New Orleans Mint was closed, too, though it later re-opened. Coins struck in New Orleans each have an ‘O’ mintmark. One of the exciting as aspects of Classic Head Quarter Eagles is that these were struck at all four pre-war U.S. Mints.
When people collect ‘by date,’ it is usually implied that U.S. Mint locations and maybe some major varieties are categorized as distinct dates and need to be included for most sets to be complete. It is true, however, that, during the 19th century, collectors frequently assembled sets ‘by year’ and ignored mintmarks. In the current era, the PCGS and the NGC have listed some “date” registry sets that categorize coins ‘by year’ without reference to mintmarks and such registry sets require just one coin ‘per year’ (regardless of Mint location) to be complete.So, to be clear, I usually refer to collecting ‘by date’ (and U.S. Mint location).
I have communicated with thousands of coin collectors and I have engaged in a tremendous amount of coin related research. I do not know anyone who collects U.S. coins ‘by date’ while ignoring U.S. Mint locations, except in cases where all the coins in a series were minted in Philadelphia. Despite the terminology used in some, relatively less popular registry sets, my experience indicates that, in the minds of knowledgeable collectors, completing a series ‘by date’ requires coins of all pertinent U.S. Mint locations and usually requires more than one date of at least one given ‘year.’ An 1838-C Quarter Eagle and an 1839-O Quarter Eagle are of two different ‘dates,’ in terms of how the word ‘date’ is defined by most collectors of U.S. coins.
It is easy to acquire an 1834 Classic Head Quarter Eagle. In most cases, many people saved coins from the first year of a new design type. As Classic Head Quarter Eagles weigh less than Capped Head Quarter Eagles, which were minted from 1821 to 1834, business people had less of an incentive to melt them or export them. Of the original mintage of more than 112,000, more than 2,500 survive, including quite a few that are non-gradable. So, in total, these are mildly scarce, not rare. While a heavily circulated 1834 Classic Head Quarter Eagle could be found for less than $700, someone assembling a set of Classic Head Quarter Eagles may wish to obtain an 1834 that grades at least Extremely Fine-40.
Those that grade from EF-40 to AU-53 tend to retail for prices ranging from $1050 to $1600, depending upon the characteristics of the individual coins. Coins that have fewer contact marks or are relatively more original tend to be worth more. Those that have been very apparently dipped or modified to mask imperfections are often worth less than typical pieces, though modifications are often not detected by buyers.
On Feb. 5, 2014, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded ‘EF-40’ 1834 for $1057.50. I did not see this or most of the coins that I mention herein. Heritage auctioned three 1834 Classic Head Quarter Eagles in Orlando in January, a PCGS graded EF-45 coin for $881.25, a PCGS graded “AU-53” coin for $2350 and an NGC graded “MS-61” coin for $2585. It is interesting that a PCGS graded ‘EF-40’ coin brought more, $1057.50, than a PCGS graded ‘EF-45’ coin that sold three weeks earlier for $881.25. Although I did not see either coin, I emphasize that it is important to take factors into consideration in addition to the numerical grades assigned by the PCGS or the NGC.
There could be many differences between these two coins. It makes sense for collectors to hire an expert, who is not connected to an auction firm, to examine lots before bidding in auctions. During Sept. 2013, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded “MS-60” 1834, with a CAC sticker, for $3,965.63. During the previous six years, Heritage auctioned several NGC graded “MS-60” 1834 Classic Head Quarter Eagles for prices ranging from $2300 to $3289. In June 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded “AU-55” coin for $1645.
Although I recommend 1834 Quarter Eagles that are truly gradable, as these are not rare, I am aware that not everyone is able to spend more than $750 for one. In August 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a non-gradable 1834 Classic Head Quarter Eagle with the details of an EF-45 or higher grade coin. Despite a nasty chemical cleaning, this coin is not bad looking. It has naturally retoned to an extent. The price realized of $395.98 would be a good deal for some collectors and not a good deal for others, depending upon the tastes, preferences, objectives and budget of the individual collector, respectively. In some ways, non-gradable coins are more complicated than coins that merit numerical grades.
There are several noticeable die varieties of 1834 Classic Head Quarter Eagles. Some of these relate to subtle differences in the shape of the head or the forms of the arrowheads on the reverse (back of the coin). I suggest completing a set ‘by date’ before considering die varieties. After a date-set is complete, each individual collector may decide whether to expand his or her set of Classic Head Quarter Eagles in include many die varieties or, more likely, to start a new set ‘by date’ of a different type of coins.
Also, it is true that a PCGS or NGC graded “MS-62” 1834 Classic Head Quarter Eagle could probably be obtained for less than $5000. Unless someone is planning on a set of 60 to 62 grade coins, or is advised by an expert who knows this series extremely well, I would recommend against focusing upon certified MS-62 grade Classic Head Quarter Eagles. These tend to be not strictly uncirculated, to be full of contact marks, and/or to have substantial problems. For U.S. coins of many series, an appealing, naturally toned, Extremely Fine to AU grade coin is typically a much better value than a certified “MS-62” coin, though there are exceptions to this rule.
For the 1835, I am astonished that the PCGS CoinFacts site has a “Survival Estimate” of “475”! I am almost certain that there exist more than 825, including many that are non-gradable. It is true that finding an 1835 that truly grades above 63 might take a long time. Coins that are PCGS or NGC certified as grading from VF-30 to AU-58, however, are available. On Feb. 5, in New York, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded “AU-58” 1835 for $1762.50. The exact same coin was auctioned by Heritage on Jan. 12, 2008 for $2000.70, though it had since been placed in an NGC holder with four prongs.
Most of the edge can now be viewed. On Dec. 6, 2013, Heritage sold another 1835 with the same “AU-58” certification, though of a rarer die variety, for $1997.50. In Nov. 2013, Heritage sold an NGC graded “AU-55” 1835 for $1410. In Sept. 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded “AU-55” 1835 for $1233.75. It does not make sense to draw conclusions from prices realized without substantial information about the physical characteristics of the respective coins. I am mentioning prices as general references so that collectors attain some understanding of the current costs of building a set of VF to AU grade Classic Head Quarter Eagles.
It should be kept in mind that two coins, of the same type and date, that have been assigned the same numerical grade by the same service may be very different, in terms of quality and/or aesthetics. In the Aug. 2012 ANA Convention auction by Stack’s-Bowers, a non-gradable 1835 sold for $442.98. It is said by experts at the PCGS to have the details of an ‘Extremely Fine’ grade coin. Although I did not view this coin, images suggest that it might be an attractive coin. As many PCGS or NGC graded pre-1840 gold coins have been moderately dipped, substantively cleaned, or doctored, non-gradable gold coins are sometimes good values for collectors. Certainly, a collector did not have much to lose by spending $442.98 for this genuine 1835 Quarter Eagle with EF-level detail.
There are two date-related, often cited varieties of 1836 Quarter Eagles. The numeral ‘8’ in the date varies. One variety has a rather block-like numeral ‘8’ in the date (year). The other has an ‘8’ that has a heavy mid-section. The upper and lower portions seem to flow, somewhat crudely. Neither variety is particularly rare. More than one thousand of each survive. In general, 1836 Quarter Eagles are available. PCGS or NGC graded EF-40 or -45 1836 Quarter Eagles often sell at auction for less than $850 each. A certified AU-50 to -55 grade coin could cost from $1000 to $2000, depending upon the characteristics of the specific coin. A PCGS or NGC graded “AU-58” 1836 may sell for a price ranging from $1600 to $2500. Some of these are dramatically more original than others. Luster varies considerably, too.
In circulated (sub-60) grades, 1837s do not cost much more than 1835 or 1836 Quarter Eagles. These might be good values for collectors, as these are rarer than most collectors and dealers realize.
It is probably true that 1837 Quarter Eagles are truly rare, meaning that fewer than 500 survive in all grades, including the ungradable. Indeed, there may not be as many as 350.
On Feb. 4, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded “AU-53” 1837, which has been approved by the CAC, for $2820, apparently a strong price. In November, Heritage sold an NGC graded ‘EF-40’ 1837, also with a CAC sticker, for $998.76, perhaps a reasonable amount.
On Aug. 9, 2013, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded “AU-53” coin, with a CAC sticker, for $1645. I wish that I had seen these coins.
On Jan. 27, 2014, the Goldbergs auctioned a non-gradable 1837, with the details of a VF-25 or higher grade coin, for $423. It is in a PCGS ‘GENUINE’ holder and has ‘filed rims.’ Again, as circulated pre-1840 gold coins often have significant problems, anyway, some (though not nearly all) of the coins in ‘Genuine’ or ‘details’ holders are good values.
In June 2012, Stack’s-Bowers sold PCGS certified, non-gradable 1837 with ‘Extremely Fine details’ for $370.13. Yes, it has a few gashes. Even so, it may be a mostly original, attractive and desirable coin. Around three months earlier, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded and CAC approved “AU-55” 1837 for $2185, almost six times as much as the just mentioned non-gradable 1837.
VI. 1838 Philadelphia
The head on the 1838 is noticeably different from the designs of the heads found on 1834 to 1837 Classic Head Quarter Eagles, almost different enough to constitute a separate subtype. A PCGS or NGC graded EF-40 to -45 1838 would probably retail for a price anywhere between $700 and $1300, depending upon the characteristics of the individual coin.
I imagine that AU grade 1838s retail from $1000 to $3000, though these are rare in the AU range. A collector seeking an AU-50 to -55 1838 may wish to acquire a sub-par piece rather than wait years for one with superior surface quality.
In Aug. 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned two different PCGS graded “AU-55” 1838 Quarter Eagles for $1414.50 and $1610, respectively. As there are so many variables that relate to pre-1840 gold coins, I will not speculate as to why one brought significantly more than the other. Even after taking into consideration the reality that many of these have problems, given the rarity and numismatic significance of 1838 Quarter Eagles, market prices in general for these seem reasonable, from a logical perspective.
The aesthetic issues and/or problems that may be responsible for differences in value among two coins with the same certification are hard to explain. Material on the surfaces of early U.S. gold coins may be natural, relating to normal storage, or may have been deliberately added to deflect attention from imperfections. When natural scuff, natural cloudiness, hazes, added wax, natural or added films, added powder or putty are present, such substances can often (though not always) be easily removed with acetone or sometimes just with running water.
When a coin, such as an 1838 Quarter Eagle, is rare in all grades, substances do not change that reality. The values of coins in the present discussion are to, a substantial extent, determined by their physical rarity, rather than by condition rarity. The values of Indian Head Quarter Eagles, in contrast, are determined, to a much greater extent, by condition rarity. Of course, physical rarity and condition rarity are two of several variables that determine the market values for classic U.S. coins.
VII. 1838 Charlotte
The 1838-C is very rare in all grades. The PCGS and the NGC together have graded less than 150 in total, probably amounting to fewer than ninety different, PCGS or NGC graded 1838-C Quarter Eagles. If there are ten gradable 1838-C Quarter Eagles that have never been submitted to the PCGS or the NGC and if there are fewer than seventy non-gradable pieces, the overall number of survivors is less than 170!
In theory, an attractive, mostly original, PCGS or NGC graded EF-40 1838-C could be purchased for less than $5000, though actually obtaining such a coin may not be easy. In January, Heritage sold a non-gradable 1838-C, with the details of an Extremely Fine, in an NGC holder, for $2350.
On June 3, 2013, the Goldbergs auctioned a PCGS graded “VF-30” 1838-C for $3680. In August 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a non-gradable 1838-C in an NGC holder, “Improperly Cleaned.” Although the catalogue states that it has the “details” of a “Fine” grade coin, the obverse (front) has the details of at least a VF-25 grade coin. This non-gradable 1838-C sold for $1207.50.
In 1839, Quarter Eagles were struck at four different U.S. Mints! Although ‘mint state’ pieces are extremely rare, circulated representatives of the 1839 Philadelphia Mint issue are not difficult to find. The 1839-C is more accessible than the 1838-C. Indeed, the 1839-C might not be rare overall. There could be more than 500 in existence, though 350 to 420 is my current tentative estimate, including perhaps 140 that are non-gradable or should not have been assigned numerical grades.
Over the past six years, a few PCGS or NGC graded ‘EF-45’ 1839-C Quarter Eagles have been auctioned for less than $5000 each. At least two PCGS graded ‘EF-40’ coins have been as well. A collector who does not have the patience to wait for one of these might be able to acquire a certified VF-30 or -35 grade 1839-C for well under $5000, maybe less than $3800. It is realistic to expect such coins to have problems.
The 1839-Dahlonega issue is rarer than the 1839-C. I estimate that there are between 200 and 275 1839-D Quarter Eagles in existence. Some people in the Dahlonega, Georgia area must have saved them. Undoubtedly, they were (and still are) extremely interesting conversation pieces.
Obtaining a PCGS or NGC graded, mostly original EF-40 1839-D for less than $5000 is a realistic objective, though a collector should not count upon being able to do so. In Nov. 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded “EF-40” 1839-D for $4312.50.
Unfortunately, there are not many gradable pieces that merit VF-30 or VF-35 assignments. When these emerge, however, they usually sell for much less than $5000 each.
In June 2011, Stack’s-Bowers sold an 1839-D that had been “repaired.” It is in an NGC holder with the notation that it has the ‘details’ of an AU grade coin. Though doctored, images suggest that it might be very nice looking for a non-gradable coin. From a logical perspective, it might be worth the $1322.50 price realized, as an NGC graded ‘AU-50’ 1839-D would probably have sold for more than $6700, if offered in the same auction.
Though not nearly as rare as the 1839-D and probably not as rare as the 1839-C, more collectors are attracted to the 1839-O, as it is a New Orleans Mint issue. Coins were minted in New Orleans until 1909 and hundreds of thousands of collectors are familiar with New Orleans Mint silver coins. No silver coins were minted at the Charlotte or Dahlonega Mints.
The PCGS and the NGC have graded around 525 1839-O Quarter Eagles, which probably amounts to approximately 300 different coins. Pre-1840 gold coins that grade in the AU-55 to MS-62 range are frequently resubmitted, as differences in grades in this range are subtle. Furthermore, there are a few gradable coins that have never been submitted to the PCGS or the NGC, plus a quantity of non-gradable 1839-O Quarter Eagles. The estimate of “400” in total on the PCGS CoinFacts site is probably about right.
The 1839-O issue is, by far, the most famous and popular of all Classic Head Quarter Eagles. This is the first gold coin issue of the New Orleans Mint and the only Classic Head type gold coin struck in New Orleans. The first O-Mint $5 coin, the 1840-O Half Eagle, is of the Braided Hair Liberty Head design type, as is the first O-Mint $10 coin, the 1841-O Eagle. Finding a relatively high grade 1839-O for less than $5000 is not especially difficult. In July, Heritage sold an NGC graded EF-45 1839-O for $2350. In January 2013, Heritage auctioned two different NGC graded “AU-50” coins, of the same variety, one for $3055 and the other for $2820. In Nov. 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded “AU-50” 1839-O for $3172.50.
A collector does not have to spend thousands to acquire an 1839-O Quarter Eagle. In Sept. 2012, Heritage sold a PGGS graded AG-03 1839-O for $705. On Jan. 30, 2012, the Goldbergs firm auctioned an NGC authenticated, non-gradable 1839-O, with the ‘details’ of Fine grade coin, for $391.
Overall, it is not very difficult to complete a set of Classic Head Quarter Eagles. A set of these can be very entertaining. As the dies were not hubbed and differing device punches were used, the design details of these tend to vary, often in interesting ways. The fabric of the coins varies too, especially in regard to the Branch Mint issues. Generally, this overlooked series has considerable numismatic and historical significance.
©2014 Greg Reynolds
Greg can be reached by e-mail, insightful10 gmail.com