News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #337
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds .....
Liberty Head quarter eagles (U.S. $2.50 gold coins) were minted from 1840 to 1907. Representatives of most issues are available for less than $2,500, some for much less. The focus here is on very rare Liberty Head quarter eagles that may be purchased for under US$5,000 each.
In the culture of coin collecting in the United States during the past 150 years, rarities have commanded general attention. Even so, very rare Liberty Head quarter eagles have been overlooked.
Many collectors are unaware of the extreme rarity of some Liberty Head quarter eagles, never mind the fact that they are rather inexpensive given their rarity. Building a set is much less costly than gold coin collectors might imagine.
As was explained in a three-part analysis, the 1841 is likely to be a Proof-only issue. In any case, a collector with a $5,000-per-coin budget cannot acquire an 1841 quarter eagle.
I have already covered Liberty Head quarter eagles from the 1840s and pointed out that representatives of all business strike issues from that decade may be acquired for less than $5,000 per coin. For example, the 1842 is extremely rare, as there are just 55 to 70 in existence. The NGC-graded EF-40 1842 quarter eagle, from the Eric Newman Collection, sold for $3,818.75 in 2014.
As a theme here is very rare coins, the concept of rarity should be defined or at least outlined. This discussion relates to absolute rarity as opposed to condition rarity. For 20th-century coins, collectors will often pay a fortune for a coin that is common in grades below MS-65 but ultra-rare in grades above MS-65 or above MS-66. Such condition rarities are beside the point here, and frequently cost far more than $5,000 each.
There will never be near-unanimous agreement on a definition of rarity. I have consistently used a framework of definitions, in hundreds of published articles. I take these definitions to be consistent with the use of the concept of rarity by a large number of coin collectors in the past.
The Sheldon-Judd rarity scale has been widely employed since the first edition of the Judd book on patterns was published in 1959 by Whitman. The scale itemized in the Judd book is a refinement of William Sheldon’s rarity scale that was published earlier. Sheldon, in turn, was probably influenced by earlier rarity scales, including the scale put forth by Edgar Adams and William H. Woodin in 1913.
The Sheldon-Judd scale was reproduced in Q. David Bowers’ first book on silver dollars, as follows:
- R-1 = over 1,250
- R-2 = 501-1,250
- R-3 = 201-500
- R-4 = 76-200
- R-5 = 31-75
- Low R-6 = 21-30
- High R-6 = 13-20
- Low R-7 = 7-12
- High R-7 = 4-6
- R-8 = 2 or 3
Sheldon explicitly referred to “R-1” coins as being “common," and R-2 level coin issues as being “not as common” though still somewhat common. Regarding the collecting of classic U.S. coins, however, it is counter-productive to refer to coins for which 1,500 survive as "common". These are scarce or very scarce. It is important to distinguish a coin for which 2,500 are known to survive (like most Morgan dollars) from those for which more than 25,000 survive.
If 500 to 2,500 survive, a coin is scarce, not common.
There are hundreds of thousands of 1924 Saint-Gaudens double eagles. Those are common.
A coin is rare if fewer than 500 survive--including both Proofs and business strikes, and all varieties of one ‘date’ and type. For a separate variety to constitute a different date, it must be characterized by a difference in the numerals or a difference in the design that is readily apparent, without magnification. Furthermore, for there to be two or more dates of the same year and design type, they must be clearly distinguishable from each other without much thought. Quite a few blatant overdates are regarded as additional dates of one year, as are coins with especially small or especially large numerals in ‘the date.’
Also, my view of rarity seems consistent with the approach of Edgar Adams and William Woodin. Additionally, they each had a substantial impact on the coin community. In their book on patterns, published by the American Numismatic Society (ANS) in 1913, a rarity scale applies to coins for which fewer than 500 exist.
1959 Reprint: Available at Kolbe & Fanning
Though I do not recollect thinking about the works of Sheldon, Judd, Adams or Woodin when I formulated my definitions of rarity, it may very well be that I was subconsciously influenced by them. I cherished my first copy of the Judd book, which was of the seventh edition. I later purchased an original copy of the first edition of the Adams & Woodin book on patterns.
An immediate point is that Sheldon, Judd, Adams and Woodin all regarded 500 as an important dividing line. My definitions of rarity were designed to be consistent with the pre-existing thoughts and perspectives of thousands of coin enthusiasts.
A coin is Very Rare if fewer than 250 are known, and Extremely Rare if there are fewer than 100. A coin is a Great Rarity if less than 25 are known to exist.
For very rare to extremely rare coins, the emphasis is on the number known in the present, not the number that existed in the past or survivors that are unaccounted for by researchers in the mainstream of the coin community. The emergence of currently unknown coins can cause a coin to become less rare. In 2012, a newly-discovered 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ half dollar was sold at auction by Stack’s-Bowers.
There are no Liberty Head quarter eagles that are as rare as an 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ half. The 1854-S is the rarest Liberty Head quarter eagle and an 1854-S will never be obtainable for less than $5,000. There are, however, many Liberty Head quarter eagles that are very rare or extremely rare.
Very Rare Dates of the 1850s
Unquestionably, the 1851 Dahlonega Mint issue is very rare. Certainly, there are fewer than 190 around in all grades. In February 2014, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded EF-45 1851-D, with a CAC sticker, for $2,750. Generally, EF-40 to AU-53 grade 1851-D quarter eagles sell for well under $5,000.
The 1852 Charlotte Mint issue is even rarer than the 1851-D. The estimate listed on PCGS CoinFacts, of “140” survivors, is logical and consistent with work done by researchers.
In August 2014, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded AU-50 1852-C, from the Jepson Family Collection, for $3,055. Retail prices for Extremely Fine-40 to -45 grade coins probably range from $2,000 to $3,800, depending upon eye appeal, originality and technical characteristics.
The 1854-D quarter eagle is famous and is linked in the minds of collectors to the very important 1854-D Three Dollar Gold piece. It is almost certain that the 1854-D quarter eagle is extremely rare; less than 100 are known. It is not easy for collectors to buy one for less than $5,000, though may do so on occasion. On October 26, 2014, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded VF-35 1854-D for $3,989.70.
Collector enthusiasm for Charlotte and Dahlonega issues results in neglect of some New Orleans Mint coins. The 1856-O is very rare, surely fewer than 200 survive. PCGS and NGC data include counts of many re-submissions of the same coins. A retail price for an AU-50 grade 1856-O may range from $1,500 to $2,100.
The 1859-S is a noteworthy rarity as 1859-S coins of a few other denominations are rare, too. The ‘survival estimate’ on PCGS CoinFacts of 85 is questionable and the rarity of this issue should be further researched. PCGS reports grading 74 and NGC indicates 94.
Of course, the combined PCGS and NGC total of 168 includes multiple counts of some of the same coins, especially those that had been assigned grades of 45, 55 or 58. Many gold coins that were PCGS- or NGC-graded as 45 in the past have been upgraded to AU-50 or -53.
Furthermore, there are innumerable gold coins from the middle of the 19th century that may be graded 58 by some experts and 61 or 62 by others. Nonetheless, this total of 168 probably includes at least 100 different 1859-S quarter eagles.
Also, there must be at least a dozen 1859-S quarter eagles, probably many more, that have not received numerical grades at PCGS or NGC. Some failed to receive numerical grades and others have never been submitted.
A logical hypothesis is that 117 1859-S quarter eagles exist, very rare and almost extremely rare. These are not very expensive.
In October 2014, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded AU-58 1859-S quarter eagle, with a CAC sticker, for $3,290. In November 2015, Stack’s-Bowers sold a different one, with the same PCGS certification, though without a CAC sticker, for $2,820. Extremely Fine grade 1859-S quarter eagles would be likely to retail for prices between $850 and $2,000, depending upon the certification, the physical characteristics of the respective coins, and the circumstances of the transactions.
Very Rare Dates of the 1860s
The 1860-S is almost as rare as the 1859-S, and certainly is rarer than population data might suggest to someone who is unfamiliar with the coins. Undoubtedly, many of those reported to grade AU-55 or AU-58 are re-submissions of some of the same coins. The 33 that have been PCGS or NGC-graded as “AU-58” might amount to around a dozen different coins. Nevertheless, the CoinFacts estimate of “105” is too low.
The true number of survivors is possibly in the range of 125 to 145. There are at least 15 that have not received numerical grades from PCGS or NGC.
On September 21, 2014, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AU-58 1860-S for $1,804. In July 2015, Heritage auctioned a NGC-graded AU-58 1860-S for $1,880.
In June 2013, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded EF-40 1860-S for $497.20. If there is nothing wrong with or annoying about this coin, it could be an excellent value. Fewer than 150 are known and an 1860 San Francisco Mint coin has historical significance. There are many very common Indian cents, Mercury dimes and Morgan dollars that have each sold for far more than $500.
Coins from the Civil War era tend to be popular with history-minded collectors. The 1862-S is likely to be extremely rare.
The 21 1862-S quarter eagles that NGC reports as having been graded as “AU-58” and the eight PCGS-graded AU-58 1862-S quarter eagles probably amount to a total of fewer than a dozen different coins. The PCGS CoinFacts estimate of 80 survivors in total would be a strong hypothesis. A theory that the true number lies in the range of 70 to 97 would almost certainly be correct.
In January 2012, Heritage auctioned a NGC-graded AU-53 1862-S for $4,312.50. In June of that year, a NGC-graded VG-10 1862-S sold for $1,035, which is not an exorbitant price for an extremely rare coin. In August 2012, a PCGS-graded VF-35 1862-S brought $1,997.50.
At least one contributor to PCGS CoinFacts concludes that the 1863-S is significantly rarer than the 1862-S. It might be true that there are more gradable 1862-S quarter eagles around than truly gradable 1863-S quarter eagles. I theorize that their respective levels of rarity are about the same, 70 to 100; probably 75 to 85 survive of each.
Gradable, extremely fine 1863-S quarter eagles are hard to find. It does not make sense to assume that all those that have been certified with numerical grades really merited the last grades that they received. Some have been doctored. It is generally a good idea to consult experts before a collector spends an amount that he or she personally considers to be ‘a lot of money.’
In March 2013, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-45 1863-S for $3,290. In July 2012, this same firm auctioned a NGC-graded EF-45 1863-S for $2,300. In August 2010, Stack’s auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-40 1863-S for $1,840.
Curiously, the 1881 is in the same category of rarity as the 1862-S and the 1863-S. The 1881 has commanded more attention, partly because of the oddly low reported mintage of 640 business strikes.
Early in 2013, the Goldbergs auctioned a PCGS-graded AU-50 1881, with a CAC sticker, for $4,370. An extremely fine grade 1881 would be likely to sell for less than $5,000, if one could be found in the near future. A small number of extremely fine 1881 quarter eagles have been certified.
Unquestionably, both the 1866 and the 1867 are extremely rare, yet hardly anyone ever talks about them. In September 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-40 1866 for $2,702.50. Earlier, in June 2013, GreatCollections sold a different PCGS-graded EF-40 1866 for $2,267.20.
There are probably around 60 1867 business strikes extant, including more than 10 that are clearly non-gradable and others that perhaps should not have received numerical grades. In August 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a NGC-graded AU-58 1867 for $3,055. In January 2012, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded AU-55 1867 for $2,311.50.
When available, 1867 quarter eagles that have been graded below AU-55 tend to sell for less than $2,000, not much for such a rare gold coin. In June 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a NGC-graded AU-53 1867 for $1,610.
Although not as rare as the 1866 or the 1867, business strike 1872 quarter eagles are extremely rare, between 60 and 90 exist. In September 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a NGC-graded AU-58 1872 for $2,203.13. In June 2013, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AU-55 1872 for $1,925. Prices for these are not gigantic sums for an extremely rare U.S. gold coin.
It would be fun and challenging to build a set of business strike Liberty Head quarter eagles. A set from 1840 to 1907 could very nearly be completed without spending more than $5,000 for any one coin. Only four to six coins would need to be excluded, particularly the 1854-S, the 1856-D and the 1875. The 1864 and 1865 business strikes might not be available for less than $5,000 in the near future, though non-gradable coins of these dates sell for less than $5,000 on occasion.
Finding an 1852-D, an 1854-D and an 1855-C for under $5,000 might not be easy, though it could be done in a few years. If the “1848 CAL” is deemed a regular issue that is needed for a set, then it would need to be excluded as well, though the “1848 CAL” really is a separate case.
Of the 136 dates in the series of business strike Liberty Head quarter eagles, at least 130 of them can be obtained for less than $5,000 each at current prices. Rather than focus on the coins that might be out of the reach of many collectors, it would make sense for budget-minded collectors to concentrate on those that may be easily obtained for less than $2,000 or even less than $1,000!
In the realm of classic U.S. coins, the whole series of Liberty Head quarters is largely ignored. Some speculators buy coins of ‘better dates.’ History-minded buyers often focus on coins of the Civil War era. Moreover, many collectors specialize in the coins of selected branch U.S. mints. Building a nearly complete set of the whole series would be exciting and practical.
©2016 Greg Reynolds
Earlier Installments in this series on Rare Gold Coins for less than $5,000 each:
19th-Century One Dollar Gold Pieces | Classic Head Quarter Eagles | Liberty Head Quarter Eagles from the 1840s | Three Dollar Gold Coins | Classic Head Half Eagles | ‘No Motto’ Liberty Head Half Eagles | ‘With Motto’ Liberty Eagles | ‘No Motto’ Liberty Eagles
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