Coin Rarities & Related Topics: The Only Known Proof 1839 Quarter

News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community ... #164

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds
Tomorrow, Thursday, April 25, during a ‘Platinum Night’ session in the CSNS auction in Illinois, Heritage will sell the only known Proof 1839 Quarter. Though pre-1858 Proofs tend to be extremely rare, there are not many dates for which just one Proof is known. Moreover, Liberty Seated Quarters of the ‘No Drapery’ design type (or subtype) were minted for just three years, 1838 to 1840, and this seems to be one of only two Proofs known for the whole “No Drapery” type! This 1839 quarter is in the Greensboro Collection and it was formerly in the epic collection of John J. Pittman. This discussion will be updated after the auction.

I. Dates & Types

Liberty Seated Quarters were minted from 1838 to 1891. The designs of Liberty Seated Quarters were modified along the way. There are six design types. Collectors who assemble type sets of silver business strikes or of 19th century coins tend to include at least six Liberty Seated Quarters, usually business strikes, which are coins produced by ordinary or standard manufacturing processes of the respective time period.

1839_proof_ha_thumb2Proofs are a different matter. These are specially made and are usually rarer than business strikes of the same type and date. Except the 1853 ‘Arrows & Rays’ issue, which is a distinct one-year type, and the 1854-55 ‘With Arrows’ two-year type, Proof quarters minted from 1840 to 1865 are of the general ‘No Motto’ type, as the motto, “In God We Trust,” was added to the reverse (back of the coin) in 1866.

The lone existing 1866 ‘No Motto’ quarter requires a separate discussion in another context. It might have been made for the benefit of a private collector. I saw both sides of it when it was displayed in Pittsburgh at the ANA Convention in 2004.

As type coins, ‘No Motto’ Proof quarters are scarcer than ‘With Motto’ Proof quarters. Collectors assembling relevant type sets typically demand one ‘No Motto’ Liberty Seated Quarter and one ‘With Motto’ Liberty Seated Quarter. Only very wealthy collectors seek Proofs of other types of Liberty Seated Quarters.

Collectors of type coins typically seek business strikes of the ‘No Drapery’ (1838-40) type and of the types with arrows next to the numerals of the year (“date”) on the obverse (front of the coin). Of all types of Liberty Seated Quarters, business strikes are not hard to locate.

The six design types of Liberty Seated Quarters are: 1) No Drapery, No Motto (1838-40); 2) With Drapery, No Motto (1840-53 and 1856-65); 3) Arrows & Rays (1853 only); 4) Arrows, No Motto, No Rays (1854-55); 5) Motto (1866-73 and 1875-91); 6) Arrows, Motto (1873-74). Arrows, when present, are always on the obverse (front) and the motto, when present, is always on the reverse (back). For coins dated 1853, rays were part of the reverse (back) designs of quarters and of half dollars.

Famous researcher Breen credits the design of the type of 1838 to 1840 (“No Drapery”) to Thomas Sully and Christian Gobrecht. The type of 1838 to 1840 is termed “No Drapery” by tradition and the type of 1840 to 1865 is termed “No Motto” by tradition. The “No Drapery” coins do not have the motto, “In God We Trust,” either. Moreover, there are substantial design differences between the “No Drapery” type of 1838-40 and the “No Motto” type of 1840 to 1865. The “No Drapery” and “No Motto” terms are names, not descriptions of the respective design types.

“In the summer of 1839, [Mint Director] Patterson ordered a thorough review of the Liberty [Seated] coinage, which had by then been extended to all the silver denominations, from half dime to dollar,” R. W. Julian explains. Patterson “hired sculptor Robert Ball Hughes to redesign the figure,” Julian adds (in a Coins Magazine article, which was posted online on Aug. 19, 2009).

In addition to more clothing material (“drapery”) being added about one of Miss Liberty’s arms, the style of her head, the shape of her other arm, the format of her shield, and shape of the rock on which she is sitting were all modified. Therefore, the additional “drapery,” a gown with more material, is not only one factor that distinguishes these two design types. The differences altogether, though, are not tremendous. A collector who has trouble affording a ‘No Drapery’ quarter, in his or her preferred grade range, may be content with a more limited type set.

Personally, I find Liberty Seated Quarters to be among the most attractive of all U.S. coin issues. Many collectors, though, are satisfied with just two Liberty Seated Quarters, a ‘No Motto’ coin and a ‘With Motto’ coin. Collectors of type coins seek coins that are representative of design types, while those who ‘collect by date’ seek coins of all years or of all years including mint locations, of a given type.

Though the collector who employs the code name ‘Greensboro’ collected Proof Liberty Seated Quarters ‘by date,’ this is a very unusual quest. A majority of the collectors interested in owning this Pittman-Greensboro 1839 “No Drapery” coin are seeking Proof Liberty Seated Quarters for type sets.

II. Physical Characteristics

1839_25c_proofThis Pittman-Greensboro 1839 Liberty Seated Quarter is NGC certified ‘Proof-65.’ The PCGS CoinFacts site lists it as a “Proof” and implies that it would probably be graded 64 if it was to be submitted to the PCGS. As it may have has just three owners since 1947, Pittman, Kaufman and “Greensboro,” this 1839 quarter may have never been submitted to the PCGS.

When I carefully examined it in 1998, before it was ever certified, I graded it as 65. Richard Burdick then assigned a lower grade to it.

It is significant that the PCGS CoinFacts site refers to it as a Proof. There are some coins that the NGC has certified (or would certify) as Proofs that the PCGS will not certify as Proofs, and there are a few coins that the PCGS has certified (or would certify) as a Proof that the NGC will not certify as a Proof. For example, an 1826 Capped Bust Half Dollar that emerged from a private holding in Nevada early in 2011 is PCGS certified as a Proof. At one point, more than ten years ago, experts at the NGC concluded that it is not a Proof.

Over the last five years, I have discussed, at length, differences between Proofs, business strikes and Specimen strikings. All such material cannot be reviewed in this discussion. I hope that more people will read my analytical works on 1841 Quarter Eagles, a Specimen 1839-O dime, the Garrett 1829 Half Eagle, a Proof 1907-D Double Eagle, the Turtle Rock Collection of dimes, and the incredible Carter 1794 dollar that sold for more than ten million dollars. (Clickable links are in blue.)

In all honesty, I have not carefully examined this Pittman-Greensboro 1839 quarter since 1998. I briefly saw it again in 2008, perhaps at the FUN Convention in Orlando in January or at the Long Beach Expo in February.

In 1998, I noted that it is a “definite Proof.” There were other coins in the Pittman sales that David Akers and/or Pittman referred to as Proofs that I could not embrace. For around ninety percent of the pre-1860 Proofs in the Pittman II auction, however, experts in attendance tended to be in agreement with or at least very much accepting of Akers’ conclusions regarding Proof or business strike status. Also, Akers’ conclusions in this regard were usually, though not always, consistent with those of Pittman, who died in 1996.

The fact that this 1839 quarter is not particularly well struck, and is obviously missing significant detail, caused a few collectors and dealers to doubt that it is a Proof. There are, however, quite a few 19th century true Proofs that are notably missing design detail. A razor sharp strike is neither a necessary nor a sufficient criterion for a coin to be a Proof.

Generally, 19th century Proof silver or gold coins have very reflective surfaces and were struck more than once such that they have physical characteristics that are markedly different from those of business strikes, resulting in some features that are beyond those of business strikes. (A new theory holds that one slow strike on a screw press, under heavy pressure, can bring about the same results as have been attributed to multiple strikings.)

Usually, some or all numerals, some of the outer letters, and many of the dentils (teeth at the periphery) tend to be substantially different on Proofs. While it is often true that Proofs were struck on polished planchets (prepared blanks), this is also a condition that is neither necessary nor sufficient for demonstrating that a specific coin is a Proof. I cannot list all Proof criteria here. (Please read the articles that I already cited.)

This Pittman-Greensboro 1839 certainly has deep mirrors. Indeed, the reverse (back) is characterized by very extensive deep mirrors including the inner parts of the shield on the eagle. The mirrors of a Proof are usually different in texture from the mirrors of a very prooflike business strike. A coin with deeply mirrored fields, however, is not necessarily a Proof.

Proofs are not just manufactured with polished dies; they are manufactured differently. On this coin the rims are broad and high. Most importantly, this coin was clearly struck more than once, probably three times. The missing detail is due to mistakes in die preparation and/or improper setup of the dies. Dies should be properly balanced, leveled, secured, and spaced apart. The skills of the workers who made this 1839 quarter were not as great as the skills of those who made Proofs in earlier or later times, or they were not being as careful as they should have been.

There is no doubt that this coin was struck multiple times on a screw press. The relationships of many devices (raised design elements) to respective adjacent fields provide primary evidence that it is a Proof. Many of the devices tend to be very much ‘squared.’ I discuss the concept of squaring in the articles cited above. There is no easy way, though, to explain it and squaring is only partly evident in images. The phenomenon of squaring, where present, needs to be seen under high magnification while the coin being examined is tilted at various angles.

A combination of factors indicates the Proof or business strike status of a coin. Another factor relates to the mint luster of business strikes and the usual absence of luster on Proofs. Luster relates to how light is reflected by microscopic flow lines in the metal of a coin. Such lines are much more pronounced on business strikes and are almost non-existent on most Proofs. Proof1839quarterRev08b

While some Proof criteria may be readily apparent, other criteria are subtle and require years of experience to identify. There is no single factor that demonstrates that a coin is a Proof. Some non-Proofs have been struck twice and some business strikes are extremely prooflike with deep mirrors. Also, some true Proofs have weak design details, sometimes even weaker than the design details on this 1839 quarter.

The obverse of this coin is very attractive and the reverse is even more so. Overall, the reverse is of higher quality than the obverse. Near the fourth star, there are some significant scratches. Richard Burdick is upset about these scratches. I did not find them to be especially serious, though I agree that they are noticeable. The blue and brownish-russet colors are really neat, however, and this coin scores highly in the category of originality.

While technical factors alone suggest a 64 grade, the eye appeal and surface quality that characterize this coin are well above the 64 level, closer to 66. The reverse, if considered by itself, could be fairly graded 66+. The overall grade is in the 65 range, perhaps just barely. This Pittman-Greensboro 1839 “No Drapery” Liberty Seated Quarter should never be graded 66.

III. History

There is no doubt that this coin was in the epic collection of John J. Pittman, who had one of the all-time greatest collections of pre-1858 Proof coins. Starting in 1858, Proof coins were openly sold to the general public and, in effect, marketed. Before 1858, during many years, anyone could obtain Proofs of some denominations, though usually collectors then had to already know about Proofs in order to request them. They were generally exchanged ‘over the counter’ at the Philadelphia Mint, for face value.

John Pittman had many other rare coins as well. The firm of David Akers auctioned Pittman’s U.S. coins in October 1997 and in May 1998. Canadian coins were sold along with U.S. coins. Pittman’s coins from the rest of the world were auctioned in 1999. Almost all of Pittman’s U.S. quarters, half dollars and silver dollars were sold in May 1998, including this coin. It then went for $132,000 to bidder #120.

Either Phil Kaufman bought this coin at this auction, perhaps through one of his agents, or he acquired it not long afterwards. Kaufman was generally advised by Barry Stuppler and/or Mark Yaffe. At times, Charlie Browne was paid to grade coins that Kaufman sought for his collection. Browne is one of the sharpest graders of all time. Unfortunately, in regard this May 1998 auction event, Charlie’s grades and other notes did not survive.

Kaufman’s collection of pre-1858, Proof Liberty Seated coins was auctioned by Heritage in a series of events in 2007 and 2008. In April 2008, this exact same 1839 quarter sold for $517,500.

Markets for rare U.S. coins peaked at the summer ANA Convention in 2008, and were intensely active in April 2008. After such markets tended to reach bottom in April or May 2009, it took a long time for price levels to return, more or less, to levels reached during the first seven months of 2008. In some categories, prices are now higher than they were in 2008, though perhaps not for most Liberty Seated coins. Proof1838NDquarterO1

Coincidentally, a Proof 1838 Liberty Seated Quarter recently surfaced. It, too, is probably unique. I was unable to view it. I had to miss the Jan. 2013 FUN Convention, the first such convention that I had missed in a very long time. That 1838 quarter is PCGS certified Proof-63 and sold for $381,875 in the Jan. 10th Platinum Night event.

It is generally believed that the Pittman-Kaufman-Greensboro 1839 was earlier in the phenomenal collection of F.C.C. Boyd. On March 3, 1945, an auction firm owned by Abe Kosoff & Abner Kreisberg auctioned the second part of Boyd’s collection, in New York. This 1839, if it is the same coin, brought $41, a moderate price in 1945. In that same auction, an uncirculated 1796 quarter brought $100 and another sold for $160. A 1794 dollar sold for $2000. Since 1945, prices for Proof Liberty Seated coins have risen markedly in both absolute and relative terms.

Curiously, this 1839 quarter was purchased by Pittman privately from this same Kosoff-Kreisberg firm, “Numismatic Gallery,” in 1947, though Boyd’s “Proof” 1839 quarter was auctioned in 1945. Though it it likely, is it certain that the Pittman-Greensboro 1839 is the Boyd coin that was auctioned in March 1945?

The Proof 1839 quarter that Heritage sold in Jan. 2013 is believed to be the same 1839 quarter that Stack’s (New York) auctioned in 1954. The cataloger lists the pedigree as “Anderson-Dupont Sale (Stack's, 11/1954), lot 1815; Edgar A. West Consignment (Stack's, 5/1957), lot 667; the current consignor.”

Breen had some reason to believe that the 1838 Liberty Seated Quarter in that 1954 Stack’s sale is a Proof, though Breen did not explicitly state that he had seen it. As far as I know, no one has suggested that it is not a Proof.

If another Proof Liberty Seated Quarter of the “No Drapery” (1838-40) type survives, then it has not been seen by relevant experts for a very long time. It seems like these might be the only two and both were consigned, by different collectors, to auctions occurring during for the first four months of 2013. How important are the only two known Proofs of a design type?

©2013 Greg Reynolds

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