Some awfully good coins receive almost no attention and that is the case with the 1864-S Seated Liberty quarter. This is a low mintage date with a low survival rate and enormous potential although it is an open question as to whether it will ever really get the respect it should receive.
In 1864, with specie payment suspension having been in force for some time because of the Civil War, there were basically not going to be any large quarter mintages. After all, even if a quarter was produced and released into circulation, it was just going to be pulled out and put in some hoard. Even copper-nickel cents had been hoarded.
Things were a little different in California. The ongoing war was 3,000 miles away.
While the East was a commercial disaster with people using stamps, tokens, Fractional Currency and heaven knows what else to make change, California was having none of that. California had a San Francisco Mint and plenty of gold. If the mint did not make enough coins, the people would use gold dust, nuggets, tooth fillings, or whatever else was handy. They had been doing it for years with private coins and other substitutes, so a little thing like a coin shortage was not likely to throw them off stride in the slightest. The rest of the country might have been in a bind, but it was business as usual in San Francisco, the gold camps and other towns.
Business as usual at the San Francisco Mint tended to mean as many large gold coins would be produced as fast as possible. Everything else was secondary although, by 1864, San Francisco was becoming more normal and that meant they needed regular denominations. In 1864, 20,000 Seated Liberty quarters were made, which was low for San Francisco. In prior years, the totals had been higher, running 50,000 to perhaps 150,000 pieces.
With a mintage of just 20,000, the 1864-S was going to be a better date. Of course, in San Francisco, no one was going to save a new quarter. The 1864-S would have basically just reached circulation where it would have stayed until retired and destroyed. There were other options like getting lost, but basically, with very few collecting at the time, the 1864-S mostly just wore out.
There is virtually no supply of the 1864-S in any grade today. It lists for $450 in G-4 and $12,500 in MS-60 and both are probably cheap. Historically, there has been some doubt as to the number that exist in Mint State. At NGC, they have only seen 38 in any grade, but one in MS-62, three in MS-64 and one in MS-65. Surprisingly, one example has been graded MS-68, a feat rather impressive for even common date Seated Liberty quarters. Likewise, at PCGS, the total seen is 70 and just two were called MS-64. All told, the grading services report only seven examples in Mint State.
The combined total of all grades at the two services is just 108 coins. Surely there are some examples that exist but have not been graded. For a $450 coin in G-4, however, that total is very, very low. It suggests that the 1864-S is a good value. When you remember the low mintage, the total does not seem so surprising as the 1864-S is a much better coin than many realize.
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