Proof Coins: Under-appreciated Pittman Proof 1850 Liberty Seated Quarter in Platinum Night Sale
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding US coins, coin markets, and coin auctions #179 …..
On Friday, August 9, during a ‘Platinum Night’ session in an auction held near Chicago, a few days prior to the start of the Summer ANA Convention, Heritage will sell the finest of two to four known Proof 1850 Liberty Seated Quarters. Though not as interesting as the Proof 1855-S that was covered last week, this quarter is among the most attractive of all pre-1858 Proof silver U.S. coins, of any type. For a long time, it has been NGC certified “Proof-68,” though it is in a relatively new holder with prongs that allow for viewing of the edge.
This quarter is currently in the “Greensboro Collection,” which contains an almost complete set of Proof Liberty Seated Quarters ‘by date.’ The collector who refers to himself as Greensboro specialized in 19th century Proof, silver and copper coins. He collected Proofs of most types ‘by date’! The fourth part of the Greensboro Collection is being offered next week, which includes an 1804 dollar. (Clickable links are in blue.)
This Proof 1850 quarter was formerly in the collections of John J. Pittman and P. Kaufman. Indeed, it seems that it has had only three owners in more than sixty years. My impression is that Greensboro bought this Pittman-Kaufman 1850 quarter when Heritage auctioned it during the Jan. 10, 2008, FUN Platinum Night auction session in Orlando. Kaufman was then the consignor.
P. Kaufman, through an agent, bought this coin during the Pittman II sale on May 20, 1998, in Baltimore. The firm of David Akers auctioned John Pittman’s collection. None of Pittman’s coins were certified before they were sold by Akers.
Though Pittman’s collection was varied and wide ranging, Pittman foremost was a specialist in pre-1858 Proof coins. Though 1860 or 1861 may be a more logical choice, in terms of U.S. history in general, the year 1858 is a dividing line in terms of the history of the Philadelphia Mint. Before 1858, Proof coins were distributed, presented, traded, or otherwise released in a quiet manner, usually ‘off the books.’
I. Rarity of Pre-1858 Proofs
In 1858, the Philadelphia Mint formally began an open policy, which was ‘spelled out,’ of accepting orders for Proof coins. Although collectors obtained Proof coins before 1858, it was probably in 1858 that U.S. Mint officials begin to openly discuss and frequently communicate their willingness to accept orders for Proof coins.
Indeed, before 1858, the topic of Proof coins was discussed informally among a small number of people. There were no standard order forms. Even so, before 1858, anyone who visited the Philadelphia Mint on multiple occasions and expressed his intent to obtain special coins for his collection could probably have obtained many Proof coins for ‘face value.’ Most collectors were welcome, though it is believed that some collectors had accommodating friends who were U.S. Mint officials.
Before 1858, many potential collectors of Proof coins were unaware that Proof coins existed. One obstacle to collecting Proofs was that Proof coins were not always called “Proof coins.” Before the mid 1850s, Proof coins were often referenced casually with different names or adjectives, such as “Master coins.”
Starting in 1858, Proofs were usually minted in larger quantities than they were earlier. Pre-1858 Proof Liberty Seated Quarters are very rare. While more than sixty Proof 1858 quarters survive, and maybe thirty-five Proof 1857 quarters still exist, pre-1857 Proof quarters are dramatically rarer.
For most pre-1857 dates, fewer than ten Proof quarters are known. There are zero known 1851 Proofs, perhaps just two Proof 1852 quarters, and two to four 1844 quarters.The total of all known Proof Liberty Seated Quarters dating from 1838 to 1856 must be less than 150.
A Proof from 1850 has a special allure that cannot be totally explained. Plus, there is an aura of mystery surrounding the minting of Proof coins before 1858.
It is fascinating that Pittman, Kaufman and Greensboro all collected Proof Liberty Seated coins ‘by date,’ not just quarters; they collected all silver denominations in this manner. Liberty Seated Quarters were minted from 1838 to 1891. Liberty Seated Dimes were first minted in 1837 and Liberty Seated Half Dollars in 1839. Liberty Seated Half Dimes were produced from 1837 to 1873 and Liberty Seated Silver Dollars from 1840 to 1873. For all Liberty Seated types, however, collecting pre-1858 Proofs ‘by date’ is an extremely challenging pursuit. It is startling that, since 1955, anyone has even tried.
Pittman bought most of his Proofs during the late 1940s and early 1950s, when there was relatively little interest in pre-1858 Proofs. Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. acquired most of his Proof silver coins before 1945. Indeed, he probably obtained a large majority of them when he acquired the Clapp Collection intact, though Stack’s, in 1942. Eliasberg formed the all-time best collection of U.S. coins.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, almost all leading dealers and affluent collectors were unable to distinguish true, early Proofs from prooflike business strikes. Pittman was one of the few who understood the concept of a Proof. Before the mid 1950s, Pittman had little competition for pre-1858 Proofs when he bid at auctions.
Eliasberg’s U.S. silver coins were auctioned in May 1996 and April 1997. Coincidentally, Pittman’s U.S. silver coins were auctioned soon afterwards, in Oct. 1997 and May 1998. These Eliasberg and Pittman sales included more than U.S. silver coins; both collections were vast. These auctions were instrumental in spurring a boom in coin collecting that lasted from 1997 to the middle of 2008. Other factors propelled this boom, including the State Quarter program. More people were collecting coins than ever did before.
During the recession that began in the middle of 2008, prices for rare coins held fairly well and current prices are not much different, on average, from price levels that prevailed during the first half of 2008. Coin collecting continues to be much more popular than it was in the 1990s.
“The Proof 1850 quarter was the most gorgeous coin in the whole Pittman Collection,” declares Richard Burdick. Indeed, “it is one of the most beautiful silver coins I have ever seen,” Richard gushes. Although Burdick been collecting coins for fifty-eight years, he has been involved with coins full-time for only around forty-five years. He has attended a large number of major conventions and auctions, including many epic sales.
Richard Burdick was present at the Pittman sale of May 1998 and at the Platinum Night event of Jan. 10, 2008, as was I. Neither of us have seen the Pittman-Kaufman-Greensboro 1850 quarter since Jan. 2008.
When expert graders saw this 1850 quarter in 1998, they were stunned. It was not certified and more than a few of Pittman’s coins were cataloged as “Gem Proof.” I did not expect to see a coin of such high quality. This 1850 quarter really reaches out and grabs the viewer.
This coin looks much better in actuality than it looks in photographs.The orange-russet color in the centers is much more vivid in reality. Plus, the blue, green and green-blue tones are much richer and prettier.
The obverse (front) is very attractive to extremely attractive. The reverse is more than extremely attractive, really wonderful. The shades of russet and blue that characterize the reverse, and the ways in which the tones complement each other, cannot be effectively communicated in words. Also, as with many naturally toned, Proof silver coins of the 19th century, this coin becomes more alive when it is tilted at particular angles under a lamp.
The fact that the Pittman-Greensboro 1850 quarter has had only three owners in more than sixty years, all of whom are collectors, is important. Generally, Pittman’s silver coins had natural toning and many had never been dipped. It is probably true that this 1850 quarter has never been dipped. Pittman would not have bought a white 1850 quarter. (It takes years for a silver coin to naturally retone after having been dipped.) I am certain that this coin has not been dipped during the last seventy years.
Proof Liberty Seated coins, especially relatively early issues, tend to tone deeply. This is not just due to age. Proof Capped Bust coins do not tend to be as deeply toned and these were made earlier than Liberty Seated Coins. It is unlikely that the percentage of Proof Capped Bust coins that have been dipped is dramatically higher than the percentage of pre-1858 Proof Liberty Seated coins that have been dipped. The fact that Proof Liberty Seated coins are more deeply toned, on average, than Proof Capped Bust coins cannot be entirely explained by past dippings of Capped Bust coins. (Dipping involves artificial brightening with an acidic solution).
Generally, before 1837, U.S. silver coins were specified to be about 89.24% silver and, from 1837 to 1964, 90% silver. There are some exceptions. An immediate point is that a U.S. silver coin does not contain only silver and copper.
Invariably, traces of other metals found their way into alloys or onto coins during the minting process. Particles can also land on coins, from the atmosphere, after minting, or while coins are stored. Traces of other metals are typically microscopic in size.
Trace metals and environmental variables affect how coins tone. The deep toning of Liberty Seated coins may be partly due to trace metals that were common in regard to coins minted in Philadelphia during the middle of the 19th century.
Another explanation for the deep toning of Proof Liberty Seated coins relates to the cases that were used to store them. From the 1840s to the 1870s or so, cases of a particular type were often used for Proof Sets. The case that accompanies the King of Siam ‘1834/1804’ Proof Set, presumably the original case, is similar as well.
Perhaps it was a tradition at the Philadelphia Mint to use such cases. Has anyone researched the history of such cases?
When Proof Sets are auctioned along with 19th century cases, I usually request to examine the cases. Interestingly, such cases are sometimes auctioned separately, without coins, and they often bring thousands of dollars each. When such such a case is not sold with the consigned set at auction, it is usually because the auction firm sells the coins in a 19th century Proof Set individually. A set then ceases to exist, unless one bidder buys each of the coins in the set, one at a time.
There are pictures of such 19th century cases in various Stack’s and Heritage catalogs. Indeed, in several Stack’s (New York) auctions during the 1990s, in the Pittman sales, in at least one Bowers & Merena (NH) sale, and occasionally in Heritage auctions over the last six years, Proof Sets along with such 19th century cases were offered. I have thus seen many Proof Liberty Seated coins that were stored in 19th century cases. They do tend to be very deeply toned.
At some point later in the 19th century, the Philadelphia Mint shipped Proof coins in a particular kind of wrapping paper, which is similar to tissue paper. This wrapping paper contributed to the formation of very colorful toning on many Proof coins, especially Barber coins, which were first minted in 1892.
A theory is that the cases used in the middle of the 19th century to house Proof coins, without such wrapping paper, contributed to blends of toning that are different from the tones that appeared on Proof coins that were wrapped at the Philadelphia Mint later in the 19th century. This, though, is just a rapidly formulated theory. There could be another explanation as to why, relatively original Proof Liberty Seated coins from the middle of the 19th century are often deeply toned, more so than Proof Capped Bust coins.
For whatever reasons, specific kinds of deep tones on Proof Liberty Seated coins are typical and natural. Most sophisticated collectors place a high value on natural toning and on originality in general.
Some dealer-buyers of Proof Liberty Seated coins from the Greensboro Collection may be tempted to dip or otherwise brighten them. In the views of most sophisticated collectors, and in terms of the traditions of coin collecting, this would be harmful and would reduce the desirability of the coins. While many people collect, sometimes unknowingly, dipped Morgan Dollars or dipped Walking Liberty Half Dollars, Liberty Seated coins usually appeal to a different group of collectors, many of whom would be very upset if any of the Pittman-Kaufman Liberty Seated coins were dipped or otherwise modified.
IV. Auction Events
This Proof 1850 quarter sold for $143,000 in May 1998, a strong price at the time. On Jan. 10, 2008, it brought $460,000.
Researchers at Heritage suggest that a Proof 1850 quarter that appeared in a series of auctions in the 1970s and early 1980s is different from the one that is PCGS certified “Proof-62.” It is believed, however, that the PCGS certified “Proof-62” coin is the same as the NGC certified “Proof-62” 1850 quarter.
According to these Heritage cataloguers, the certified “Proof-62” 1850 quarter appeared in the Stack’s auction of Jan. 1993 and in a B&M auction in Aug. 1998. I missed those two auctions. If the certified “Proof-62” coin is not the “Proof” 1850 quarter that was offered in the 1970s and 1980s, then where was it before 1993? Besides, David Akers was not convinced that there exist more than two true Proof 1852 quarters, the Pittman-Kaufman coin and the Richmond coin.
As researchers at Heritage tend to diligently search auction records, it is surprising that they did not notice that the NGC certified “Proof-65” 1850 quarter was in the Richmond Collection and was offered by DLRC on March 7, 2005. One reason why this auction appearance may be overlooked is that the Richmond 1850 did not sell in the Richmond III auction event.
While an NGC certified “Proof-65” 1850 quarter would be a highlight of a routine auction, it was not one of the more famous coins in that event. The Richmond Collection contained innumerable rarities and many Great Rarities. For example, the finest known 1894-S dime was auctioned that same day.
I am not aware of the opinions of other experts of the Richmond Proof 1850 quarter. I expected some bidding action, though there were no floor bids. While it is not unusual for expert bidders at an auction to have doubts about the Proof status of some pre-1858 coins that are PCGS or NGC certified as a Proofs, I never heard anyone say anything about this coin, positive or negative.
As there was so much attention paid to and discussion of more famous rarities, during the days before and the days after the Richmond III sale, especially at a coin show in Baltimore, I did not then have time for a thorough analysis of this coin. My auction reviews for Numismatic News newspaper were generally about coins that sold, anyhow.
In my view, the Richmond Collection, NGC certified “Proof-65” 1850 quarter is definitely a Proof. Also, it has some pleasing green toning that is not evident in the catalog photos. As best as I can remember, it is or was an appealing coin.
I repeat that there exist from two to four true Proof 1850 quarters; at least three are certified as Proofs. As for business strikes, 1850 quarters are rare in all grades, meaning the total known is less than five hundred, including those that are non-gradable. Gem quality business strikes, coins that grade 65 or higher, are especially rare; probably less than six, true gem uncirculated 1850 quarters exist.
The Pittman-Kaufman-Greensboro Proof 1850 quarter is one of the most desirable of all U.S. coins. It may very well be the highest quality pre-1858 Proof Liberty Seated Quarter. Moreover, the Pittman, Kaufman and Greensboro pedigrees are important, especially that of Pittman. Of course, the eye appeal of this coin adds much to its desirability. I emphasize that it is stunning.
This 1850 quarter has never received much publicity. In the Pittman II sale, there were a large number of high quality, pre-1858 Proof coins, including gold pieces.
When the Pittman-Kaufman Proof 1850 quarter was auctioned on Jan. 10, 2008, it was overshadowed by some unprecedented prices realized. Two 1796 Quarter Eagles each brought more than one million dollars, one of the two sold for $1,725,000, a record for the denomination. A Very Fine grade 1792 pattern cent sold for $603,750, a result which was surprising at the time. Moreover, in that same Platinum Night event, a PCGS graded MS-63 1792 half disme realized a startling price of $503,125. Also, two Indian Head Eagles in the incredible Madison type set sold for as much as or more than this Proof 1850 quarter. A 1907 ‘Rolled Edge’ Eagle brought $460,000 and a 1933 sold for $552,000.
Will this 1850 quarter sell for more than $460,000 on Aug. 9? Will it receive more publicity and recognition? Should it be more famous? Collectors will decide its value and place in the history of coin collecting.
©2013 Greg Reynolds