The 1863 quarter eagle is a classic American coin issue that is familiar to many collectors, even those who specialize outside the rarefied atmosphere of 19th century proof gold coinage. As a proof-only production in the long-running Liberty Head quarter eagle series, the 1863 joins other legendary coins such as the 1841 “Little Princess” quarter eagle and the 1848 CAL. and 1854-S business strike quarter eagles at the forefront of key issues within the set.
Despite its similarity and identification with those other keys, the 1863 proof-only quarter eagle was produced in a quantity of only 30 pieces, far smaller than either the 1848 CAL. or 1854-S issues, with reported mintages of 1,389 and 246 pieces, respectively. Even at that, perhaps as many as half of the 30 1863 proof quarter eagles were subsequently melted as unsold — common Mint practice of the time.
Even within the much smaller proof emission of 30 pieces for the 1863 quarter eagle, the example being offerd by Heritage at the CSNS auction is among the finest survivors, certified at the PR66 Ultra Cameo level by NGC. NGC has seen one other submission at that same level with one finer, a PR67 Ultra Cameo. NGC has seen eight submissions in all grades, while PCGS has seen 11, making 19 submissions at both major services combined, with near-certain duplications among them.
Interestingly, the extremely low-mintage 1841 quarter eagle, 1854-S quarter eagle, and the proof-only 1863 quarter eagle are all bunched up together at numbers 86, 87, and 88 among the 100 Greatest U.S. Coins by Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth. The authors write of the 1863:
“The story of the 1863 Quarter Eagle begins with its total mintage of only 30 Proof examples.
“Of the original 30 that were struck, no more than 15 left the portals of the Mint. Demand for Proof gold was lukewarm at the time, so the Mint melted Proofs year after year. The 1863 Quarter Eagles were among those melted. Harold P. Newlin, a famous researcher in his day, corresponded with legendary collector T. Harrison Garrett about the 1863 Quarter Eagle. In a letter dated September 13, 1883, Newlin writes: ‘I have recently secured two pieces which were obtained at the mint in the year they were struck, by the gentleman from whom I got them. They are the gold dollar and quarter eagle of 1863. They are in beautiful proof condition. The former is rare and the latter in my estimation is the rarest of the series of quarter eagles.’
“Although more specimens surfaced after 1883, the gist of Newlin’s message still holds true: the 1863 Quarter [Eagle] is one of the rarest, if not THE rarest of the Quarter Eagles. …
“Rarity: Approximately 12 coins are known today.”
In the second (2008) edition of their Gold Encyclopedia, the authors have upped that estimate of survivors to 15-20 coins, which we believe is more accurate. That includes, however, two pieces in the Smithsonian, and some pieces are polished or damaged.
Given the Premium Gem grade from NGC and with the CAC green-label endorsement, the present coin unsurprisingly looks as though it could have just fallen from the dies, rather than being remarkably well-preserved for 149 years. The Ultra Cameo effect is all there in spades, stark gold-on-black contrast. Both sides benefit from a full strike that brings up all details to their utmost. The obverse shows no obvious signs of contact. The reverse shows several curlicue lint marks around the fraction bar, the D of the denomination nearby, and the arrow shaft that do not affect the grade of the coin. They are not overt or distracting but certainly bear mentioning a coin that is otherwise so close to perfection. A tiny fleck of grease (as struck) appears on the reverse just above the top left (facing) leaf triplet.
For collectors of the highest-quality gold coins, this is a coin that speaks volumes for itself. Census: 2 in 66 Ultra Cameo, 1 finer (2/12).
From The William D. Plumley Collection.( Registry values: P7) (#97889)
1863 $2 1/2 PR66 Ultra Cameo NGC. CAC. Lot 5221 in Heriatge’s Platinum Night CSNS Signature Auction on the April 18-22