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Collecting Indian gold $2.50 and $5 doable

Indian Head $2.50 and $5 gold pieces are two sets from the period prior to the Gold Recall Order of 1933 that can be completed. Apparently people are discovering that fact as well as the fact that the Indian Head quarter and half eagles are extremely interesting coins with possibly much more limited supplies than we think.

The Indian Head quarter and half eagles are very much a part of the process of coin redesign started by President Theodore Roosevelt. Their place in that process is not as well known as the Saint-Gaudens designs for the eagle and double eagle, but it was every bit as interesting and important.

It would have been possible that Augustus Saint-Gaudens would have been tabbed to design the quarter and half eagle at the same time as Roosevelt wanted to change the designs on all the coins, but Saint-Gaudens, who was clearly the President’s pick as the artist to do all the coins of the United States, had died during the process of making the double eagle and eagle. That left Roosevelt with a lot of ideas and no artist to execute them.

It was about that time that Roosevelt was approached by old friend William Sturgis Bigelow who had an idea for coins. It was Bigelow’s idea to create new coins with incuse motifs that would make the field the highest part of the design. At the time, the idea probably seemed quite revolutionary although in reality it was not as it had been used stretching all the way back to ancient times.

The idea was probably music to the ears of Roosevelt for a number of reasons. It would have seemed new and interesting and it would also be a way around the problems Roosevelt had with Chief Engraver Charles Barber. It must be remembered that the high relief of the Saint-Gaudens double eagle and eagle had been the source of the battles between Barber and Roosevelt and if the design  of these two additional denominations was actually below the field, that should avoid future problems.

In the mind of Roosevelt where there was no love lost between himself and Barber, he might have seen the Bigelow proposal as a way of shutting up Barber. Whatever the reason, Roosevelt told Bigelow to go ahead with the idea for the quarter and half eagle.

Bigelow had an idea and approval from the President, but he had a problem in that he was no artist. His first project was to find an artist  who could do the work he needed. He turned to a former student of Augustus Saint-Gaudens who happened to be an active artist and teacher. Bela Lyon Pratt it turned out had actually been thinking about a similar approach but had not really followed up on the idea having no way to gain an audience with the President.

Pratt was impressed with what Bigelow had done and wanted to do. In fact, Bigelow wanted to go even further with what was seemingly a radical concept than Pratt had imagined. Pratt agreed to make an attempt to produce the new designs.

The Bela Lyon Pratt designs turned out to be interesting. In the case of the reverse, Pratt really did nothing original as the reverse of the Indian Head quarter and half eagles is basically the same as the reverse of the Saint-Gaudens gold eagle. It shows a standing  eagle looking to the viewer’s left with its wings at rest.

We cannot really be sure if Pratt was simply following the tradition of using the same reverses, which up until the Saint-Gaudens designs had applied to both the obverse and reverse of the $2.50, $5, $10 and $20. Certainly the history of U.S. coin designs suggested that the designs of all four major gold denominations should be basically the same or at least similar. Whatever the reason, in the case of his reverse, Pratt simply adopted the Saint-Gaudens reverse.

The obverse, however, was a very different matter. The Native American obverse definitely was a departure and a rather significant one as Pratt used an authentic Native American as his model. A few years later James Earle Fraser would do the same actually using a number of models for his Buffalo nickel obverse, but realistically for the first time Pratt actually produced a Native American design for a coin that looked like a Native American. That fact alone should have seen Pratt receive some praise, but as it turned out he received anything but praise as the critics had a field day not liking the concept or the design.

Perhaps the leading critic actually came from the numismatic circles of the day in the form of S.H. Chapman, who seemed to like absolutely nothing about the whole idea. The incuse motifs had Chapman all worked up about the possibility that the coins could trap dirt and germs. He suggested that the coins had “filth bearing capacities.”

It was not just the coin and its potential to produce disease that seemed to concern Chapman as he also did not like the Native American obverse. In fact he was concerned about the health of the model, suggesting, “His shrunken mouth and nostrils indicate a man below par in his physical condition.”

In the end Bigelow responded that the model was in excellent health but that was not enough for Chapman who eventually simply called the coins “utterly miserable” and a “hideous production.”

The design once put into production was protected by the law for 25 years unless Congress moved to change it so Chapman was simply out of luck in terms of making changes.

Ironically, there was a valid concern with the design and it is apparently one Chapman had missed despite the fact that he had a numismatic background. The incuse motifs by making the field the highest part of the design opened the coin up to problems in that stacked one on top of another as was done in stores and banks, the field would potentially have friction causing small marks in the field. That problem is very evident when you attempt to find examples today in high grades.

There are really very few coins in U.S. history where an aspect of their design makes such a difference in terms of the availability of coins today, but it is very clear that the Indian Head quarter and half eagles while available in lower Mint State grades are close to impossible in grades like MS-65 and up.

The summary of PCGS coins graded in the case of the Indian Head quarter eagle shows 67,137 coins graded of all dates combined but only 2,054 were called MS-65 and just 196 were better with only two coins in MS-67 being the best. It is worth remembering that the grading services tend to see the best coins and such numbers for a coin of the past century are extremely unusual. In fact, it is unusual for a coin of almost any period of time to have a mere two examples out of 67,137 graded reach MS-67.

The situation with the Indian Head half eagle is even worse as might be expected as the half eagle was heavier than the quarter eagle and consequently the added weight on the field when stacking would potentially cause even more problems. At PCGS they have seen 54,756 Indian Head half eagles and of that total only 507 made MS-65 and just 60 topped MS-65, and again like the quarter eagle, MS-67 was the top grade.

Were it a Bust quarter or some earlier issue, the totals might not be surprising but as a coin produced only in the 1900s the totals are very unusual.

Under the circumstances, there is little hope to assemble a set in MS-65, but a set in MS-60 or in circulated grades is a very different matter for collectors. The Indian Head quarter eagle presently shows almost every date in VF-20 at $175.

The fact that virtually every date is at the same price tends to suggest a lack of demand. Not counting the low mintage 1911-D, the mintages ranged from 240,117 to 704,191 and those totals do not suggest that every date should be equally available.

In fairness there was the Gold Recall Order of 1933 and that resulted in the melting of many Indian Head quarter eagles, but that melting should not have produced a situation where all dates are essentially equally available yet that is the way they are priced.

The one exception to the similar circulated pricing is the historic key of the Indian Head quarter eagles, the 1911-D. The 1911-D had a mintage of just 55,680 at a time when there were certainly not many people collecting quarter eagles and probably even fewer collecting them by date and mintmark. This makes it unlikely that many examples were saved and also unlikely that there would have been many new collectors in the years that followed to even pull an example out of circulation. In fact, in the few hoards we have found assembled in the period prior to 1933 and the Gold Recall Order, there is also little evidence of the 1911-D suggesting that it was not circulating in any numbers, or if so, was simply not saved.

What we know today is that the 1911-D is tough, listing for $2,500 in VF-20 and that price is up from just $700 in 2004. In MS-60 the 1911-D lists for $9,850 and that too is much higher than in 2004 when it was just $3,100.

In MS-65 the 1911-D is currently $90,000, an increase from $80,000. By comparison, an available date is $275 in MS-60 and $7,000 in MS-65 and that MS-65 shows that some collectors have discovered how tough the Indian Head quarter eagle is in MS-65 as it is up from $4,200 in 2004.

There are a couple other premium dates in MS-65, such as the 1914 and 1914-D, which are priced at $34,000 and $40,000, respectively, and they too are up in price from 2004 when they were $16,500 and $23,000, respectively. In fact, they like the 1911-D, are in short supply.

We see the situation with the 1911-D where NGC has graded 25 examples in MS-65 while PCGS has graded 13. In fact, the total of 38 is high for a coin priced at $90,000, although the demand is what probably keeps prices high and rising as the 1911-D has a reputation as the key to Indian Head quarter eagles and when a coin is clearly identified as a key date that can frequently produce added demand even if primarily from dealers who will buy it figuring as a key date it is not likely to remain in inventory very long.

The 1911-D has another feature that can influence its price and that is that its mintmark is notorious for not being clear. The mintmark was punched into the die,  making it a high point in the design and it too was subject to unusual wear simply by stacking and that usually meant the “D” would turn into a blur. That means that an example with a clear “D” is likely to command a premium price.

There is no dispute that the Indian Head half eagle is a tougher collection to complete. You start with basic VF-20 prices of $280, while an MS-60 of an available date is $525 with the least expensive MS-65 at $21,500. Once again those prices are up, with the MS-65 price of an available date having increased from $12,500 to $21,500 since 2004. Moreover, you will find relatively few dates at the $21,500 level as there are simply very few top grade Indian Head half eagles.

One date that is available is the Indian Head half eagle equivalent of the 1911-D. It is the 1929. The 1929 is simply a case of a date not being released in large numbers into circulation and consequently being melted in large numbers after the Gold Recall Order of 1933 was issued as the vast majority of its mintage was simply sitting in Treasury vaults when the order came to melt the gold coins in the government’s possession.

Of its ample mintage of 662,000, it is estimated that there are perhaps just 200 examples of the 1929 known to exist today. That results in a price of $7,500 in VF-20 which is up from $2,400 a year ago while an MS-60 is $14,500, which is $8,000 more than 2004 with an MS-65 listed at $50,000. The prices are supported by the grading service totals that show that NGC has graded 21 examples of which a stunning 20 were the same MS-62 grade.

In the case of PCGS there have been 266 graded, with roughly 10 percent, or 24 to be precise, were called circulated with the rest primarily falling between MS-63 and MS-64. Only eight were called MS-65. The totals point to the possibility that the 1929 was not released into circulation in any numbers as you do not normally find coins where the majority are MS-63 to MS-64 unless there are some unusual factors at work and that unusual factor in the case of the 1929 Indian Head half eagle is simply that they were not released into circulation.

Unlike the Indian Head quarter eagle, there are other tough Indian Head half eagle dates. At the top of the list is the 1909-O, which had a mintage of just 34,200. This was well below the total for the 1911-D quarter eagle. The 1909-O was not saved and once again based on the couple hoards from the period it seemingly was not in circulation in any numbers. That results in prices today of $2,150 in VF-20, which is up strongly from an earlier price of $650 in 2004,  while an MS-60 is $27,500, up from $10,000 in 2004 and an MS-65 is a real rarity at $475,000 up some $285,000 in the past few years. Is that as far as it can go? Perhaps not. It could go up more as the 1909-O has been seen in MS-65 just once at both PCGS and NGC and it is even tough in Mint State where PCGS reports only 60 examples out of 389 graded.

There are other tough dates as well. The 1914-S and 1915-S are now at $105,000 and $110,000, respectively, while the 1911-D has jumped from $120,000 to $255,000 since 2004 in part because people have realized the grading services combined report only three coins in that grade.

The 1913-S is also in the $100,000 or more group at a current listing of $125,000 despite the fact that it is not that tough in circulated grades with just a $320 listing in VF-20 and a $1,450 price in MS-60, but here too the sky is virtually the limit in MS-65 as the grading services have combined to see just four coins in MS-65.

When markets are hot, the grade rarities shoot up. Bragging rights about owning the best known example are apparently expensive when times are good.

It would be fair to suggest that there are really no generally available Indian Head half eagles in MS-65. A relatively available date based on price like the 1914-D is currently at $21,500 has appeared in MS-65 just six times at NGC and a dozen at PCGS. These numbers are far lower than those for the 1911-D quarter eagle and that suggests just how much potential even a lower priced date might have if additional demand surfaces.

Certainly you cannot approach an Indian Head quarter or half eagle collection in MS-65 with the expectation that you will be able to complete it. This is especially the case for the half eagle.

In lower Mint State grades or in circulated condition, it is a different story as the Indian Head quarter and half eagles together form one of the very few collections of gold coins from prior to the Gold Recall Order of 1933 where many collections can actually look forward to completing the set if they give it a little time. This doesn’t mean all of the pieces are easily affordable. We have seen that they are not. However, none of the pieces in either set is impossible.

Does that qualified endorsement make you want to give up your Lincoln cent collection and jump into gold coin collecting?

For sure some collectors will make the switch. To be active in the hobby means setting goals and meeting new challenges. Collecting the Indian Head $2.50 and $5 coins are not bad choices.

Remember too that these coins are made of a precious metal whose value has been rising over time. Sometimes there are reversals or pauses, but there is no reason to believe that the prices will not be higher in 20, 30 or 40 years.

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