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Branch Mint Focus Shortens Bigelow Gold Sets

The Indian Head quarter eagles and half eagles proposed by Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow and designed by Bela Lyon Pratt are very tough coins in top grades.

The Indian Head quarter eagles and half eagles proposed by Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow and designed by Bela Lyon Pratt are very tough coins in top grades. If you try to find either the Indian Head gold $2.50 or $5 in top grades of MS-65 or better, you are really facing a challenge. Moreover, branch Mint examples, even in circulated grades, can be much tougher than many would expect. That is one of reasons they are an interesting group worth serious study.

You may get the impression based on price guides that in circulated grades the Indian Head quarter eagles and half eagles are relatively available today because in most cases their prices are similar. Those similar prices may not mean significant numbers are available, however, as much as they may indicate a relative lack of collectors to test supplies. As was the case at the time they were being issued, there are not many people assembling sets of Indian Head quarter eagles or half eagles today.

The Indian Head quarter and half eagle were interesting products of an interesting time. President Theodore Roosevelt had made a decision that he wanted to change designs on U.S. coins. That process had begun when he recruited Augustus Saint-Gaudens to start work on the gold coins. That process ran into a couple problems, one of which was technical and the other physical. Just after the first tests of the new Saint-Gaudens double eagle, the artist died, leaving the rest of the work to his assistant. That was the physical part.

The technical part of the problem was that Saint-Gaudens, while an excellent artist, was not used to coinage requirements. A medal can be struck in high relief but a cirulating coin cannot. Coins have to be made by the millions and then have to stack properly when being used in regular commercial activity. The first Saint-Gaudens $20 gold piece had such high relief that it destroyed the dies after fewer than 25 were produced. That was totally unacceptable. Moreover, with such high relief, the coins would never stack as required.

The period that followed saw a continuing battle as Saint-Gaudens? designs were brought down to a relief that would work as a coin. In the meantime Roosevelt, frustrated by the process, was also seeing his dream of changing the coin designs of the United States fade away.

In the middle of the problems, Roosevelt was approached by Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow with a proposal to make some coins with incuse motifs. That meant that the field would be the highest part of the design. At the time, with something close to a war going on between the President and Chief Engraver Charles Barber, who had to make designs useable as coins, the idea of the design being sunk below the fields probably looked awfully good. At least in the coins Bigelow was proposing there would be no complaints of broken dies and improper stacking.

The idea got a green light from Roosevelt, which created the next problem: Bigelow was apparently not an artist and he needed someone to create his designs. He went to a former student of Saint-Gaudens by the name of Bela Lyon Pratt. Pratt had been considering ideas similar to Bigelow?s. With the backing of Roosevelt, Pratt was willing to take a chance and prepare designs.

The reverse was basically a copy of the reverse of the Saint-Gaudens $10 gold piece ? not surprising, as the pattern at the time was that the gold quarter eagle, half eagle and eagle would have basically the same design.
The double eagle was similar but different while the three other denominations shared the same designs, just as silver coins also featured basically the same designs. Apparently Pratt decided to not challenge that tradition.

Where Pratt did produce an impressively innovative effort was in the obverse, which featured a Native American. What was so impressive about the design was that it was definitely not a copy of the obverse of the gold $10 and moreover it used a real Native American as the model ? a first for American coinage. While there had been figures with feathered headdresses before, those figures were not based on Native American models.

The combination of a real Native American model and the incuse motifs was apparently too much innovation on one coin for some. Critics emerged with complaints of various types. The coins were seen by at least one as potentially germ- and dirt-infested. Bigelow defended the concept. He was even forced to defend the health of the model, which was also questioned.

While the critics could exercise the freedom of speech, the coins once put into production were protected by law for 15 years unless Congress acted to change the design. Apparently the Congress wanted no part of that, so the design stayed.

Production and issuance patterns for the Indian Head gold $2.50s and $5s would be interesting, especially in light of what we know about circulating coins at the time. Gold coins, still in use all over the country as were silver dollars, were seen as more popular west of the Mississippi River and especially in places like California. Back East, people had gotten used to bank notes. The convenience of paper, especially in larger denominations, saw usage of gold coins slowly declining in the East.

One thing ironic about the Indian Head gold quarter eagle is that its mintages seem to indicate the exact opposite of what we know was the case. Although the heart of gold country and gold coin use was California, there was never an Indian Head quarter eagle produced at the San Francisco facility. It?s hard to explain, but it?s true.

The other facility west of the Mississippi at the time was the still fairly new Denver Mint. In the period from 1908 through 1929 when the final Indian Head quarter eagle was produced, Denver produced the $2.50 coin just three times: 1911, 1914 and 1925. That, too, has to be seen as surprising although in fairness it should be noted that, while regularly produced from 1908 until 1915, there were very few Indian Head quarter eagle mintages from any facility after 1915.

The first branch mint Indian Head quarter eagle would prove to be the key. The 1911-D had a mintage of just 55,680. There were not large numbers of collectors at the time collecting quarter eagles to save examples. With a mintage so much less than the next-lowest mintage Indian Head quarter eagle, the 1914 at over 240,000, the 1911-D was naturally going to command a premium price.

Over the years, however, the 1911-D has not only brought higher prices than the other dates, but has also taken on the role of being by far the key date in a way few coins do. In an Indian Head quarter eagle set, the 1911-D is the only date at a premium price. That is highly unusual. The 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent or the 1916-D Mercury dime might be the most famous dates in their set, but when it comes to prices in certain grades they are challenged. Any number of cent dates are more expensive in MS-65 than the 1909-S VDB. The 1916-D dime is challenged by the 1942/41 overdates in all grades and the 1919-D in MS-65 with full split bands. In the case of the 1911-D $2.50 currently listed at $2,500 in VF-20, $9,850 in MS-60 and $90,000 in MS -65, there are simply not challenges to its role as the key Indian Head quarter eagle.

The numbers of the 1911-D are lower, but not really that low when compared to other issues. There are premium 1911-D coins, and others that bring lower prices based on whether the ?D? is clear or not. That said, Professional Coin Grading Service reported 13 examples of the 1911-D in MS-65 or better and that is not likely to be the entire number known. While tough and in constant demand, the 1911-D is known in top grades.
In the case of the next branch mint quarter eagle, the 1914-D, there was a mintage of 448,000. That has translated into available-date price listings in circulated grades. In mint state, however, the 1914-D commands a slight premium at $300 as opposed to an available-date at $275 with an MS-65 at $40,000 being behind only the 1911-D in price, and that is justified with a PCGS total of 33 examples seen in MS-65.

The final branch mint Indian Head quarter eagle, the 1925-D with a mintage of 578,000, is at available-date prices in every grade. That puts an MS-65 today at $7,000 and the reason is about 350 examples graded MS-65 or better by PCGS.

Things were very different when it came to the Indian Head half eagle. While the quarter eagle was produced only three times outside of Philadelphia, all at Denver, the half eagle was produced at Denver, San Francisco and once at New Orleans. The pattern, however, was similar in that virtually all mintages were produced 1908-1916 with no branch mint having any production after 1916. That does leave us with a number of interesting and tough branch mint Indian Head half eagles today.

The first year, 1908, saw mintages of 148,000 pieces at Denver and 82,000 at San Francisco. The typical thought would be that the lower-mintage date would be tougher. That is true in circulated grades and MS-60 where the 1908-S currently lists at $1,275 as opposed to $460 for the 1908-D, which is the available-date level. Things change in MS-65 as the 1908-D is at $27,500 while the 1908-S is $24,000, which is basically the available-date price. The reason for the higher 1908-D is seen in the PCGS total for the 1908-D which stood at just eight as opposed to the 1908-S at 49.

The 1909-D with an enormous mintage of almost 3.5 million, as well as the 1909-S at a mintage of 297,200, are basically available dates in the circulated grades. The 1909-S, however, is a better date in MS-65 where it is currently listed at $45,000 on the strength of just four examples reported in MS-65 or better by the PCGS while the 1909-D total of 56 is one of the highest of all Indian Head half eagles.

The special branch mint Indian Head half eagle of 1909 is the 1909-O. The 1909-O stands out for a variety of reasons, starting with the fact that it is the only Indian Head half eagle to be made at New Orleans. If you want an Indian Head half eagle from each of the mints that made them, the 1909-O is your only choice for New Orleans.

The availability of the 1909-O is a problem that starts with its mintage of just 34,200, which by a significant margin was the lowest mintage for any Indian Head half eagle from any facility. With some added demand that translates into a VF-20 listing around $2,000.

Mint state, however, is where the 1909-O is a real problem. New Orleans historically had poor rates of saving of new issues. That was not helped by a higher denomination like a half eagle. There were few if any collectors of half eagles at the time. In MS-60 the 1909-O lists for $21,000 but in MS-65 the price soars to $260,000, the highest price for any date of the series. The PCGS total shows why: it had graded just two examples MS-65 or better, making the 1909-O Indian Head half eagle one of the great condition rarities of the past century.

Branch mint Indian Head $5 production continued in 1910, but that year it returned to just San Francisco and Denver. The 1910-D and 1910-S are seen as nearly identical in terms of prices despite the fact that the 1910-S had a larger mintage. The 1910-S is more expensive in mint state with an MS-60 listed at $1,000 as opposed to $460 for the 1910-D. In MS-65 the 1910-S is a little more costly at $44,000, but the 1910-D at $42,500 is not far behind. The difference in numbers seen at PCGS shows the 1910-D at seven pieces in MS-65 or better while the 1910-S is at just four.

The Denver and San Francisco dates of 1911 are an interesting pair. The 1911-S had a mintage of 1,416,000, which was high, but in mint state it is tough at $560 in MS-60 and $41,500 in MS-65 where PCGS reported only eight examples. The 1911-D with a mintage of just 72,500 would be expected to be tough, and it is, listing at a premium in VF-20 where it is $475 while an MS-60 is $4,500 but an MS-65 is $241,000, behind only the 1909-O in that grade. The PCGS total for the 1911-D shows it?s worth the price as PCGS has seen only one example in MS-65, which would suggest it might even be tougher than the more expensive 1909-O.

Denver would produce no Indian Head half eagles in 1912 so the only branch mint half eagle was the 1912-S, mintage 392,000. That makes it an available date in circulated grades. The usual poor saving of mint state examples around San Francisco makes the 1912-S a premium coin in better condition, currently listed at $1,700 in MS-60 and $93,500 in MS-65 where PCGS reports just one example, suggesting that the 1912-S may well be as tough as the better-known dates.

The next three years would see San Francisco produce three more $100,000 dates in MS-65. The 1913-S, 1914-S and 1915-S are all available in circulated grades but all are tough in mint state at $1,375-$2,000 in MS-60 but in MS-65 the 1913-S is at $120,000 with the 1914-S at $100,000 and the 1915-S at $110,000. Interestingly enough, the 19113-S has been graded MS-65 or better twice at PCGS while the other two have never been seen above MS-64. Perhaps in the future the pricing may change.

Denver would produce its final Indian Head half eagle as of the 1914-D. It had a 247,000 mintage, which would make it an available date except in MS-65 where it is slightly better at a current listing of $26,000.

The final branch mint Indian Head $5 would be produced in 1916 at San Francisco. The 1916-S had a 240,000 mintage. It is one of the few branch mint Indian Head $5s generally regarded as available ? even an MS-65 is listed barely higher than an available date at $25,000. Yet, it is hardly common as PCGS reported only 11 examples in MS-65 or better.

After 1916 the only Indian Head half eagles would be produced at Philadelphia. Though time in production was short for branch mint Indian Head half eagles, they can certainly be suggested to have included a major group of rarities, especially in MS-65 and above. Combined with the quarter eagles, it can be safely said that the Indian Head gold $2.50s and $5s from branch mints represent one of the most interesting and tougher groups of coins from the past century.