There are a lot of elements to the story of the San Francisco Mint. The quarter eagle gold coins it began producing in the 1850s are certainly one of those elements. The Gold Rush and the coinage it spawned make interesting hobby topics.
The history of the San Francisco Coronet Head quarter eagles gives us a fascinating view of the early days and eventual growth of the San Francisco Mint. They are also a fascinating collection and a much tougher collection than most realize.
The story of the San Francisco Coronet Head quarter eagle started long before there was a San Francisco facility. Authorized back in 1792, the quarter eagle had been a denomination with what might well be called a spotty record. It was the smallest authorized gold denomination when it was born. The $1 denomination arrived in 1849 during the Gold Rush just before the San Francisco Mint was authorized.
In the early days of coin production in 1790s Philadelphia, the quarter eagle was really a denomination that saw very little use. The $2.50 face value apparently failed to meet any need. The proof of the matter is seen in the fact that those who supplied the Mint with gold or silver basically were allowed to pick the denominations that would be made from the metal. The quarter eagle was almost never the choice as if they wanted gold coins, depositors of metal at the Mint usually wanted the gold coins to be at least a half eagle as that was a popular size and was similar to European issues.
The quarter eagle just never seemed to meet the needs of those supplying the gold. Some experts suggest that the quarter eagle mintage seemed to almost be mintages for the coins to be used as novelties.
Even after the decision in 1804 to suspend production of the gold eagle and silver dollar, which was supposed to free up time and resources to make lower denominations, the quarter eagle had not really enjoyed a period of significant production. In large part the problem during the 1820s was of none of the existing gold denominations enjoying a period of heavy use simply because the gold coins were slightly too valuable and rather than being used they were simply sold to brokers who promptly had them exported and melted.
Once the size of gold coins was reduced slightly in 1834, the quarter eagle as well as the half eagle could again circulate. The changes seemed to make a significant difference when it came to quarter eagle mintages. The denomination might still have been awkward, but the passage of time had seen the use of a low denomination gold coin become more likely than it had been back in the 1790s or early 1800s, so at long last the quarter eagle was beginning to have a role in circulation.
With much larger mintages, the role of the quarter eagle in regular commerce did expand despite the fact that the denomination at least today seems unusual. At the time you could have used a couple silver dollars, which came back into production in 1840, and a half dollar to make $2.50 in coin, but a single small gold coin was much easier. Moreover, the silver dollar despite being produced did not really circulate. That said, the quarter eagle even today stands out as a seemingly unusual denomination.
All of that happened before there was a San Francisco Mint. In fact in the 1850s California was still a rather sleepy place far away from the settled part of the country. Many had even had doubts about the war with Mexico, which had seen California become a part of the United States, but those doubts were eliminated when suddenly gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill on the American River in 1848.
The discovery of gold in California would have a significant impact on the future of California and the amount of that gold would have a significant impact on the future of the United States and gold coin production. The gold was certainly a good thing, but it also presented officials with an immediate problem. In large numbers people began moving to California to seek their fortunes.
What people did with their lives was of no particular concern, but the fact is that sleepy California became alive with activity. The port, which had seen only sporadic activity, was suddenly bustling and the economy which involved primarily animal skins and a few coins was suddenly in need of coins. California quickly began asking for a mint.
Certainly California had a good case for the location of a mint in the area. After all, Dahlonega, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C., had received mints when gold was discovered in their areas. If they had mints, California had a much better case as it had more people needing coins and much more gold from which to strike them.
While the case for a mint was good, the location was not. The 3,000 miles between California and Washington and Philadelphia was an enormous distance at the time and many of the 3,000 miles whether you went by land or sea crossing Panama were dangerous. Moreover, at the time a U.S. branch mint was seen by many as something of a second-class operation that was established basically to serve an area but never, with the possible exception of New Orleans, to be a facility that was expected to make a major impact on the coin production needs of the United States. As a result, lawmakers were not particularly interested in large investments in far away facilities that the lawmakers did not ever want to visit and which were not expected to really make much of a difference.
The situation in California became too big to ignore, but lawmakers seemed to think that it was far enough away that it could at least be stalled. First, they approved an assay office before finally approving a mint in San Francisco. Even then it appears that they wanted to do things cheaply as the former facility of Moffat and Company private mint was obtained to be transformed into the San Francisco Mint. The three-story building was woefully inadequate. It was far too small and the ventilation was poor. That meant workers got sick and if you tried to transact business there you had to do so in spite of the fumes from the acid and over the loud noise of the machines. Almost immediately officials began to ask for a new facility, but that was going to take time. In the meantime, they would have to make do with the facility they had.
Under the circumstances, the “S” mint was going to be unable to produce everything it might have liked at the same time. There were going to be priorities. It should not be too surprising that the priorities were large gold coins.
The situation was immediately clear in the first couple of years. In 1854 the new facility in the old building opened and the only coins produced were gold issues. In the case of the gold dollar, the mintage was just under 20,000 pieces, but the gold eagle and double eagle saw totals of in excess of 100,000 pieces. The gold quarter eagle and half eagle, however, had only token productions of fewer than 300 examples being made of each with the precise 1854-S quarter eagle mintage standing at 246.
Out in San Francisco in 1854 there were few if any collectors to save new issues and that number was certainly further reduced by the fact that the first coins to be produced by the facility were all gold and the high denominations would have discouraged what few collectors there might have been.
Of course, with a mintage of just 246 pieces, the 1854-S quarter eagle was going to be a tough date under any circumstances, but the situation did not help. With perhaps fewer than a dozen examples known to exist today, the 1854-S is a significant rarity with a current listing of $32,500 in F-12 and $300,000 in MS-60, although there are serious doubts as to whether any Mint State examples exist as none have been reported. There was a discovery in 2005 of another circulated example and in the case of a date like the 1854-S, any new discovery is exciting. That said, even if a couple more were to be found, the 1854-S is, and will remain a significant rarity and an enormously important coin from an historical standpoint as well.
The situation in 1855 further confirms that the facility was having problems or that the quarter eagle was not a priority as none were produced in 1855 although we know that year that some attention was paid to the production of some silver coins so while busy the low priority of the quarter eagle probably played a role in the lack of production in 1855.
In 1856 there would be what could be called the first serious San Francisco quarter eagle mintage with the 1856-S having a mintage of 71,120, which makes it a relatively available date today at a price of $160 in F-12 and $4,500 in MS-60. In fact there are a surprisingly large number known in Mint State as PCGS reports 23 examples seen with a couple being MS-65.
The pattern would be very similar for the 1857-S, which had a slightly lower mintage and which is slightly more expensive in Mint State at $5,500, although it potentially could be more as only six are reported by the Professional Coin Grading Service.
In 1858 there were again no quarter eagles produced at San Francisco. The 1859-S mintage would also be significantly lower at 15,200, which makes it slightly better in circulated grades at $200 in F-12 while an MS-60 is at $7,000 and that price is certainly justified as PCGS reports just five examples. In fact even the circulated price may be low as PCGS has seen only 46 examples of the 1859-S and that is not a high total. If anything, it is probably a lack of demand that is keeping the circulated price modest as with just 46 examples graded the 1859-S definitely has the potential to move to a higher level.
The 1860s would be dominated by the Civil War. The 1860-S, however, was issued prior to the outbreak of the war and has a mintage 35,600, which makes it relatively available at a price of $170 in F-12 while an MS-60 is $4,000. It continues to have modest numbers known in Mint State with PCGS reporting eight examples.
The war broke out in 1861 and it would have a significant impact on coin production with the suspension of specie payments and widespread hoarding. The Philadelphia totals after a large production of quarter eagles in 1861 would drop to very low totals and stay low until about 1873. The impact at San Francisco was different as there would be lower mintages during the actual war years, but San Francisco mintages would rebound more quickly to higher levels. It was possibly a reflection of the fact that the impact of the war even when it came to the hoarding of coins was far less out in California than 3,000 miles away in the heart of the conflict.
Californians did not take readily to the many forms of paper money that the Easterners swallowed during the war.
California even had special notes called National Gold Bank Notes where the rest of the country made due with National Bank Notes.
The 1861-S quarter eagle would be slightly lower in terms of its mintage at 24,000 pieces, making it $200 in F-12 and $7,400 in MS-60. It could easily be more as PCGS reports only two examples and the better of the two was just an MS-62.
The 1862-S with a mintage of just 8,000 reflects more clearly the pattern of lower mintages. With that mintage the 1862-S is $500 in F-12 while an MS-60 is $17,000. That $17,000 may be partially reflecting the mintage as realistically based on the PCGS total, the 1861-S and 1862-S are very similar in Mint State as PCGS has seen only three examples of the 1862-S, but like the 1861-S none was above MS-62.
The 1863-S would be another lower mintage date at 10,800, which puts an F-12 at $250 while an MS-60 is at $13,500. It is another interesting case as at least based on the PCGS totals in all grades the 1863-S with a total of 35 is actually seen less often than the lower mintage 1862-S, which has been graded 45 times.
The Mint State situation also remains very similar to the more expensive 1862-S as PCGS reports only two examples of the 1863-S in Mint State-60 or higher grades, although one was an MS-64, which is nicer than was seen for the 1862-S or the 1861-S.
There would be no 1864-S quarter eagles, but in 1865 San Francisco would show some rebound in terms of mintages with a 23,376 total for the 1865-S and that was followed by a 38,960 total for the 1866-S, a 28,000 total for the 1867-S, a 34,000 total for the 1868-S and a 29,500 total for the 1869-S.
By comparison, the Philadelphia totals at the time were always under 10,000 and usually under 5,000.
The mintages make these San Francisco dates relatively available in circulated grades. In terms of scarcity and underlying bullion value, buyers get quite a bit of bank for their bucks. The problem in finding them tends to be in Mint State where they continue to be fairly tough as there was little saving at the time. Priced at between $4,000 and $6,250 in MS-60 the dates are elusive as is seen in the PCGS totals where the 1865-S has been seen four times in Mint State, the 1866-S just twice, the 1867-S seven times, the 1868-S a surprising 17 times and the 1869-S nine times.
The 1870-S would see a mintage decline to 16,000. That might very well have been a result of other priorities as 1870 was the year when the activity began in preparation for what would be a new San Francisco Mint. It would be ready a few years later. Whatever the reason, the 1870-S despite its lower mintage is still priced at available dates levels in lower circulated grades, with an MS-60 at $4,900.
The next three dates were all between 18,000 and 30,000 in mintage also putting them is the available date price range but only the 1872-S at $4,500 is above $2,800 in MS-60. The 1872-S numbers graded in Mint State explains its price as it has been seen just four times in Mint State while the 1871-S is at 18 and the 1873-S is at eight. What is also seen is that the total number of these dates graded in all grades combined rises with each passing year. The 1871-S has been seen 85 times in all grades while the 1872-S is at 91 with the 1873-S topping 100 at 114.
All the trends would drop off again starting in 1875 as San Francisco had no production of quarter eagles in 1874. The 1875-S would have a mintage of just 11,600, although despite the low mintage it is still at available date prices in circulated grades, but in MS-60 it is at $4,500 and that is supported by the fact that PCGS has seen only eight Mint State examples.
The 1876-S is an interesting date with a mintage of just 5,000, yet a current F-12 price of just $170 while an MS-60 is $3,300. In fact, the 1876-S has not been graded that much as it has been seen just 69 times in all grades combined but as it turns out 14 were Mint State. The lower prices are probably at least partially because of limited demand in circulated grades and there is a reasonable chance that the supply in circulated grades had been helped slightly by examples found in Europe or other foreign banks and those foreign supplies have a potentially even greater impact when it comes to the 1877-S and 1878-S.
The 1877-S had a 35,400 mintage, which is in line with some earlier dates. The 1878-S, however, was high at 178,000. The two are readily available even in Mint State, where the 1878-S is just $340 in MS-60 while the 1877-S is about double that price, but that still is inexpensive for a San Francisco quarter eagle. The reason is PCGS has seen the 1877-S 54 times in Mint State while the total for the 1878-S is 83.
The numbers suggest the potential for these dates having been recovered from foreign banks as well. There were certainly not that many collectors of gold quarter eagles to have saved such numbers at the time and as dates around 1880 were the earliest to generally appear in Mint State in European holdings, the possibility is very real that today’s supplies came from an overseas source.
Ironically, the final San Francisco Coronet Head quarter eagle, the 1879-S, does not have a significant number of Mint State coins reported at the grading services. The 1879-S is available in circulated grades, but listed at $2,150 in MS-60 with a total of just seven called Mint State by PCGS. It is not all that surprising as dates appearing in European or other foreign banks were strictly hit and miss. One date might be there while another would not be found. In the case of the 1879-S, it simply seems to be a date that was never located and returned home.
The 1879-S would be the final San Francisco Coronet Head quarter eagle from San Francisco. The design would continue until 1907, but production at San Francisco was finished. It raises a question as to why. The best answer is the same one that explained the early low mintages and that is that it was not a priority.
San Francisco would bear much of the burden of the required Morgan silver dollar production and that would keep the facility busy along with other needs. The quarter eagle was not needed and there was no time to make them and that situation would have applied until about 1904 when the Morgan dollar production would end until 1921.
Certainly the wide range of interesting dates means that the San Francisco Coronet Head quarter eagle is an interesting collection and one well worth considering as most dates are available and many have interesting stories to tell.