Coin Rarities & Related Topics: The Only Known Proof 1855-S Quarter

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #178 …..

On Friday, August 9, during a ‘Platinum Night’ session in a pre-convention auction near Chicago, Heritage will sell the only known Proof 1855-San Francisco Mint, Liberty Seated Quarter. This quarter is currently in the “Greensboro Collection” and was formerly in the “Richmond Collection.” Accomplished collectors often employ code names. This 1855-S is NGC certified ‘Proof-64’ and has a sticker of approval from the CAC.

This coin is probably the only known 19th century Proof quarter, of any type, that was struck at the San Francisco Mint. In an article that was just published, I covered all known Proof San Francisco Mint Dimes of the 19th century, each of which is dated 1894-S. (Clickable links are in blue.)

Heritage has been auctioning the Greensboro Collection in parts since Oct. 2012. This quarter was formerly in the epic “Richmond” collection that DLRC auctioned in 2004 and 2005.

The fourth part of the Greensboro Collection is a central component of this upcoming auction to be held a few days prior to the Summer ANA Convention in Rosemont, Illinois. The collector known as “Greensboro” collected classic U.S. Proof silver coins and Proof copper coins ‘by date’! Many Philadelphia Mint, Proof Liberty Seated Quarters will be auctioned during the same night, as will most of the Proof U.S. Silver Dollars that he collected. The highlight is an 1804 Draped Bust Silver Dollar. Along with 1913 Liberty Nickels and 1894-S Barber Dimes, 1804 dollars are one of three most famous Great Rarities.

The Greensboro 1804 dollar was formerly in the Mickley, Hawn and Queller Collections. It became PCGS certified as “Proof-62“ recently, after having been in an NGC holder for more than five years. More importantly, it is one of the first ‘class’ of 1804 dollars, those that were struck in 1834 or 1835 as a consequence of direct orders from President Andrew Jackson, who demanded Proof sets to be used as diplomatic gifts. The second and third classes of 1804 dollars were struck in 1858 or later.

The sale of the Mickley-Hawn-Greensboro 1804 dollar will be covered after the auction. Greensboro assembled one of the all-time greatest collections of pre-1917 Proof silver and copper coins. In regard to classic U.S.coins of these two metals, his collection of Proofs is certainly in the same league as that of John J. Pittman. Indeed, if Proof silver and copper coins are judged apart from other items, Greensboro’s Collection is probably superior in this regard to the Pittman, Norweb and Starr collections and almost equivalent to that of Eliasberg.

I. What is a Liberty Seated Quarter?

Liberty Seated Quarters were minted from 1838 to 1891. The designs of Liberty Seated Quarters were modified along the way. Liberty Seated Quarters are extremely similar to Liberty Seated Half Dollars, which were minted during the same time period. The obverse (front) design types of Liberty Seated Quarters resemble those of Liberty Seated Half Dimes, Liberty Seated Dimes and Liberty Seated Silver Dollars.

1855 s proof quarter obv Coin Rarities & Related Topics: The Only Known Proof 1855 S Quarter

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) With 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.

Someone who buys this 1855-S quarter will probably not be someone who is building a type set, even a Proof type set. Any Philadelphia Mint 1854 or 1855 quarter is of the same design type as any 1855-S quarter; ‘With Arrows, No Motto, No Rays.’ A Philadelphia Mint 1855 or 1854 that is PCGS or NGC certified as ‘Proof-64’ or ‘Proof-65′ would be much less costly than this Proof 1855-S!

The likely collector bidders will include people who collect Proof Liberty Seated Quarters ‘by date,’ people who collect 19th century Branch Mint Proofs and Specimen Strikings, people who collect especially neat or fascinating coins, people who specialize in early San Francisco Mint issues and/or people who seek to own something unique for emotional reasons. Dealers and speculators may competitively bid as well. (Please see my article on ‘What Are Auction Prices.’)

II. History

The San Francisco Mint began minting coins in 1854, though the U.S. Assay Office in San Francisco produced gold coins prior to the formal founding of this Branch Mint. Starting in 1849, a variety of privately issued territorial gold coins were produced in the San Francisco area. Vast quantities of gold were then being mined in Northern California. Silver coins were not produced at the San Francisco Mint until 1855 and some researchers suggest that this specific 1855-S quarter is the first quarter struck at the San Francisco Mint. At least two 1855-S half dollars that are similar in texture to this quarter were struck as well. One such 1855-S half will be offered in this same auction and another is reportedly in the Smithsonian Institution.

1855 s proof quarter rev Coin Rarities & Related Topics: The Only Known Proof 1855 S Quarter

Most of the all-time best collections of U.S. coins never included this Proof 1855-S quarter. In an article in The Gobrecht Journal in 2004, John McCloskey states that this 1855-S “is believed to be the first quarter dollar minted in California and sent by Robert A. Birdsall, Superintendent of the San Francisco Mint, to the W.W. Long Museum. The piece was obtained from the Long Museum by Dr. Edward Maris and sold at public auction in 1886.” McCloskey has been president of the Liberty Seated Collectors Club for decades.

Maris, a general physician, was one of the fifteen most famous coin collectors of the 19th century. He was known mostly for studying large cents and pre-1793 American items. His book on New Jersey Coppers is still famous. It is interesting that Maris owned this coin.

Grant Peirce assembled a terrific group of Liberty Seated Quarters, which included this coin. Peirce’s collection was auctioned by Stack’s (New York) in May 1965. This 1855-S was then cataloged as a “magnificent Brilliant Proof.” In the Paramount session of Auction ’86, David Akers cataloged it as “Choice Proof-63+.” Before a Bowers & Merena auction in 1998, it was PCGS certified as “Proof-63.”

The greatest collection of which this 1855-S has ever been a part in the past is the Richmond Collection, which was assembled by a collector in the Midwest, Bradley H. In my recent condition ranking of 1894-S dimes, I noted that the finest known 1894-S dime was formerly part of the Richmond Collection. That dime and this quarter were both sold by DLRC on March 7, 2005, in the third of three auctions of the Richmond Collection. The 1855-S Liberty Seated Half Dollar that is NGC certified as a Proof was also in the Richmond Collection.

There were too many sets and Great Rarities in the Richmond Collection to list here. For example, the Richmond Collection contained a complete set of Eagles ($10 gold coins) ‘by date’ (and U.S. Mint location) from 1795 to 1933, which was missing just one major variety. Furthermore, the Richmond Collection contained sets of both Proofs and business strikes of Liberty Seated Coins and Barber Coins of all denominations. There were very few coins missing from such sets.

At the moment, the unique 1870-S half dime and the unique 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ Liberty Seated Dime are the only famous coins missing from Richmond’s Liberty Seated sets that come to mind. He had an 1870-S dollar, which is rarer than an 1804 dollar. Moreover, Richmond had one of ten known 1884 Trade Dollars and one of five known 1885 Trade Dollars. Importantly, he had an 1842 Small Date Liberty Seated Quarter, as does Greensboro.

While Greensboro specializes in Proofs and Specimen Strikings, Richmond collected both Proofs and business strikes of many series. For types starting around the late 1830s to the first part of the 20th century, the Richmond Collection was absolutely incredible. Although it has not yet been revealed whether Greensboro collects gold coins, Richmond had a comprehensive collection of gold coins. Among other gold rarities, the Richmond Collection contained 1854-O, 1856-O and 1927-D Double Eagles ($20 gold coins)

Regarding Proof, 19th century silver coins, Greensboro’s coins are of higher quality than those that were in the Richmond Collection. While Richmond often settled for coins that grade from 64 to 66, Greensboro eagerly sought coins that are certified as grading from “67” to “69.”

As there is only one Proof 1855-S quarter, its grade is not a crucial issue. Well before it was auctioned by Heritage on Aug. 12, 2011, it was upgraded to 64. Its NGC holder did not appear new in 2011. It may be true that it was upgraded in 2006 or 2007, when a long wave of grade-inflation was coming to an end.

The 64 grade for this quarter is not controversial. It is a very attractive coin with few imperfections. The overall champagne toning and other green hues are really neat. The mellow brownish-russet tones on or about some design elements are pleasing. The obverse (front) of the coin is more than very attractive. The reverse is not as attractive, though is appealing. Overall, it is special, fascinating and cool.

The ‘Proof-65’ certification for the similar 1855-S half could be challenged, from an intellectual perspective. It, too, is a great coin that sophisticated collectors would very much desire to own. Also, this half dollar was NGC certified Proof-63 before 2005 and thus increased in grade by two points before 2011.

This 1855-S half dollar was in the Greensboro Collection. It seems likely that Greensboro purchased it from the Heritage Platinum Night event of Aug. 2011 for $276,000 and consigned it to the FUN auction of Jan. 2013, in which it realized $170,375? For some reason, this 1855-S half dollar is re-appearing in the upcoming Platinum Night event.

Although this quarter and the Richmond-Greensboro 1855-S half dollar are extremely similar in texture, there are differences. The Richmond-Greensboro 1855-S half is NGC certified and has an advantage over the quarter in that business strike 1855-S halves are prohibitively rare in grades above 60, just a handful exist.

Indeed, in grades above 53, 1855-S halves are much rarer than 1855-S quarters, which are extremely rare in high grades as well. A point here is that people who collect Liberty Seated Quarters or Liberty Seated Halves ‘by date’ (and Mint location) in grades above 60 may feel tremendously attracted to these two special pieces, especially the half, as 1855-S quarters and halves, in grades above 53, are incredibly hard to find.

On Aug. 18, 2011, the Pryor-Osburn 1855-S half dollar, which is clearly a business strike, was auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers for $115,000. Paying more than $200,000 for the only certified “Proof” 1855-S half seems sensible in contrast. Considering all grades and non-gradable coins, there are at least three hundred 1855-S business strike half dollars in existence.

Even so, the Richmond-Greensboro 1855-S quarter is a more awe-inspiring coin. It is not likely to stun a casual collector, a beginner, or someone who is just becoming interested in Liberty Seated coins. To a collector who has studied thousands of Proof and business strike Liberty Seated Quarters, however, viewing this quarter should have a tremendous impact.

III. Proof Characteristics

There is no easy way to describe this coin. The fields are fully reflective. The mirrored surfaces, however, are different from those of Philadelphia Mint Proofs and are different from the mirrored surfaces of prooflike business strikes. This 1855-S quarter features mirrored surfaces that are special and extremely unusual, perhaps a little more fragile than the surfaces of Philadelphia Mint Proofs of the era, though very dynamic. When tilted about under a light, this quarter certainly becomes animated.

There is no one criterion that demonstrates whether a coin is a Proof, a business strike or a non-Proof Specimen Striking. There are non-Proofs with mirror surfaces. There are business strikes that are more sharply struck than corresponding Proofs of the same date and type. There are even non-Proofs that were struck more than once.

While I do not know the thought processes in regards to this coin of experts at the grading services, no living person has written as much published material about the differences between Proofs, Specimen Strikings and business strikes as I have. Here are reasons as to why it can be concluded that this coin is truly a Proof. Hopefully, all pertinent experts are in agreement that no one factor demonstrates that a coin is a Proof. It is necessary to analyze a combination of factors to draw a conclusion.

1) This 1855-S quarter has fully reflective, mirrorlike fields.

2) It was struck with excellent detail.

3) It has traces of a cameo contrast on the central design elements. An acidic solution was thus deliberately applied to some inner crevices of the dies to bring about a frosting effect on this coin.

4) Mint luster is absent. When a business strike is made, metal tends to flow in microscopic lines that often form radial patterns, which sometimes are reminiscent of the spokes on a wheel. Mint luster is not defined by how a coin reflects light in general; mint luster is a function of how metal flow lines on a coin reflect light. Such lines are usually pronounced on business strikes and are minimally existent on Proofs. Regarding Proofs, special treatment of blanks and/or extensive polishing of dies, in combination with multiple strikes, prevents significant lines of metal flow from emerging in the manner that such lines emerge when business strikes are made. Yes, there must be ultra-microscopic flow lines on Proof coins, though these are less in form and magnitude on Proofs, and are not like the flow lines on business strikes. Proofs usually have such little luster that they almost seem to have ‘no luster.’ While ‘mint luster’ is nearly impossible to fully explain, the visual aspects of luster are present in the minds of collectors who have carefully viewed many uncirculated business strikes. The absence of luster on this 1855-S quarter does not conclusively demonstrate that it is a Proof, though it is a significant piece of evidence.

5) The relationships of the devices to the fields are often the key to understanding the difference between a Proof and a business strike. On business strikes, the devices (raised elements) tend to slope into or flow into the fields. On most Proofs, however, at least some devices look more like they are resting on the fields as if they are architectural shapes that were added. This is really an optical illusion, as on both Proofs and business strikes of the 19th century, metal does flow into the crevices of the dies to form devices (raised elements) on coins as they are made.

Terms used to explain a phenomenon should not always be taken literally. Another way to think of the relationships between devices and adjacent fields is that, on Proofs, some devices (raised elements) look like ‘blocks or sculptures’ on the fields, rather than being revealed as ‘blending in’ with the fields. A third way to understand this point is to analyze the extent to which devices are ‘squared’ from the fields.

The main reason why the concept of squaring is not widely understood is that most coin experts wrongly interpret squaring in ‘yes or no’ terms.’ Such squaring is relative, not absolute. It refers to the angles to adjacent fields of the sides of devices (raised elements) on coins. There is some squaring on business strikes. Usually, not always, there is much more squaring, in relative terms, on a Proof than on a corresponding or directly relevant business strike. Indeed, to determine whether a coin is a Proof, it is important to become familiar with the physical characteristics of relevant business strikes.

While ideally, the differences between a Proof and a business strike, in this respect, would be stark. In reality, such differences can be subtle and may require an experienced expert to analyze. On many 19th century coins, it takes much longer to determine the Proof or business strike status of a coin than it does to grade it. When such coins are interpreted quickly by graders, business strikes may be incorrectly labeled as Proofs or true Proofs may be incorrectly labeled as business strikes (“Mint State” coins).

Some business strikes are characterized by devices that are very much squared. For example, unusually blocklike device punches for letters and numerals can be sunk deeply into a pair of dies and a coin that is struck once from such dies will not be a Proof. There are exceptions to rules.

On this 1855-S quarter, many stars, a few dentils and several design elements are relatively squared, including most letters on the reverse. Although many dentils are weak, it helps to consider that dentils tend to be weak on Philadelphia Mint Proof 1855 and 1854 quarters, too. On this 1855-S, the arrows on the obverse (front) and the eagle on the reverse seem to be resting on the fields, and are relatively squared, rather than revealing that they were sprung from the fields as the coin was struck.

In the category of the relationships between devices and adjacent fields, this 1855-S quarter does not qualify for a nearly perfect score. It receives a decent score in this category, a score which would be impossible to precisely quantify.

6) This 1855-S quarter shows considerable evidence of having been struck twice. This evidence relates to the relief of some devices and the ways in which devices are formed. There is overlap between the multiple strike rule and the previous criterion relating to the relationships between devices and fields. Generally, it is a good idea to examine a coin under 10x or 20x magnification to research this aspect.

7) The texture of the surfaces of this coin is not that of a business strike. I am not referring here to mirror surfaces. A prooflike business strike will often have mirror surfaces. Indeed, prooflike business strikes sometimes have more dynamic mirrors than corresponding Proofs of the same coin type.

There are other aspects to polishing dies besides smoothing them and making them shiny. There are a variety of tools and substances that were used on dies in the past and records of such practices usually do not survive. Clearly, some skilled person at the San Francisco Mint spent considerable time working on the dies that were used to make this quarter. I cannot communicate its texture in words and its texture cannot be effectively conveyed by way of images. This coin must be seen.

Business strikes are made by ordinary or routine means. A prevailing point here is that the dies that were used to make this coin were prepared in a time-consuming and extraordinary manner, and the resulting finish provides evidence that this coin is not a business strike.

The Richmond-Greensboro 1855-S quarter is not a business strike and it is more than a Specimen Striking. An analysis incorporating the seven categories of evidence just discussed leads to a conclusion that this 1855-S quarter is definitely a Proof.

Over the last five years, I have discussed, at length, differences between Proofs, business strikes and Specimen Strikings. 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. (As before, clickable links are in blue.)

©2013 Greg Reynolds

About the Author:

Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a vast majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than two hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least fifty articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. For three years in a row, he has been the winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award of the NLG. Greg has also won NLG awards for individual articles, for a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site. Reynolds is available for private consultations: insightful10{a}gmail.com

1 Comment on "Coin Rarities & Related Topics: The Only Known Proof 1855-S Quarter"

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  1. stgecko says:

    I never paid attention to this coin before, but I must say it is a good looking coin. Something tells me I won’t be seeing it in my collection any time soon.

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