Starting around 1907, it was an exciting time if you liked new coins. The President of the United States had taken a deep personal interest in coin designs, and when Teddy Roosevelt took a deep personal interest in anything that usually produced results. While the Saint-Gaudens double eagle may be the most famous of the new designs that suddenly started appearing, the Indian Head quarter and half eagles that made their debut in 1908 have to qualify as among the most interesting issues of the period.
Roosevelt?s pet project of changing U.S. coin designs had run into a snag before it really got off the ground. He had recruited a leading artist of the day, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to work with him on the gold coins. The results were spectacular, in the form of the Saint-Gaudens $20 as well as the Indian Head $10. The problem was that during that process Saint-Gaudens had passed away, leaving the completion of those projects to his assistant. It was not as easy as it sounds, in part because both designs had problems with their relief. Saint-Gaudens, after all, had primarily worked with medals and they are very different from coins. For a medal art comes first, but for a coin prime considerations involve technical matters such as can they be produced easily and will they stack without problems as they must be used in commercial activities. In both cases the Saint-Gaudens works had problems because their design relief was too high.
While something close to a war was raging over Saint-Gaudens? designs for the double eagle and eagle, a fellow by the name of Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow approached Roosevelt with an idea to make coins with incuse motifs, which meant that the field of the coin would the highest part of the design. At the time up to his ears in problems with relief that was too high, the Bigelow proposal probably seemed like music to the ears of Roosevelt. With the design recessed there would be none of the nagging problems over high relief that were creating all the fuss over the Saint-Gaudens designs.
Bigelow was confronted with a problem when the President gave him a green light to pursue the idea ? Bigelow had the idea but no particular artistic ability. He turned to a professor by the name of Bela Lyon Pratt who happened to have been a student of Saint-Gaudens. It proved to be a meeting of the minds as Pratt had apparently been considering a similar concept although not as radical as what Bigelow had in mind. With a go-ahead from Roosevelt, Pratt decided to join in the effort.
Looking at the Pratt designs today, it?s hard to imagine that they could cause controversy. Then again, well nigh everything Roosevelt was doing was likely to create controversy.
If the reverse of the Bigelow-Pratt Indian Head $2.50 and $5 gold pieces looks suspiciously like the reverse of the Indian Head $10 designed by Saint-Gaudens, there is a good reason ? Pratt?s is basically a copy. It has to be remembered that the established pattern for coins in circulation at the time was that all the gold coins would have the same basic design. The double eagle was somewhat different, but for all practical purposes the quarter eagle, half eagle and eagle were the same in terms of design. Much the same pattern of similar design was seen with the silver denominations.
Just having very different designs on the $20 and $10 was something of a departure from the regular pattern, but to have quarter eagles and half eagles very different from the eagle was definitely a dramatic change in approach. Later, silver coin denominations would also be issued with very different designs from one another, but that was in 1916, nearly a decade later. Any significant difference between the $2.50, $5 and $10 at the time represented a significant change in the historic pattern.
While the reverse was basically the same, the obverse featured that significant change. The Pratt designs showed an Indian Head obverse that was nothing like the one seen on the Saint-Gaudens $10. In fact, it was nothing like any Indian Head portrait ever seen before on a coin of the United States. There had been a number of obverses depicting what are called Indian Heads, but which were really not portraits of Native Americans. Pratt changed all that as his Indian Head was very clearly a Native American. While it would be used on both the quarter eagle and half eagle, the fact is it looked nothing like the Saint-Gaudens? Indian Head gold eagle.
It was natural that there was going to be some reaction from critics of the day simply because of the design, but the concept itself took what could be expected criticism and turned it into a firestorm of criticism based on the incuse motifs. Looking back at it today, it almost seems comical, but it was deadly serious to some at the time. There were concerns that the sunken designs would catch germs and dirt. In addition, there were suggestions that the Native American used as the model appeared to be in poor health.
Roosevelt approved the designs with thanks. Bigelow rose to the defense on the matter of the model?s health while also suggesting that the designs presented no health threat ? any dirt on coins was a result of their use and not the designs. Things got pretty heated although it really did not matter; the designs were in use and that meant they could not be changed unless Congress took action. The Congress appears to have wanted no part in the debate. The Pratt-Bigelow $2.50 and $5 coins were issued 1908-1929, though not in every year of that period.
One part of the concept that would prove to be significant to collectors today is that, using incuse motifs, the field became the highest part of the design. That does not seem like a problem, but when the coins are stacked that means the fields pick up small abrasions from the friction of being one on top of the other. That would prove to be very damaging to their condition. Even without circulation, the fields can have flaws keeping them from reaching the highest grades. The situation is naturally more pronounced in the heavier half eagle, but finding examples of the quarter eagle or half eagle in MS-65 today is much harder than might be expected.
Pratt?s Indian Head quarter eagle was primarily produced at Philadelphia. After 1915 there would be no regular production, making it a relatively small collection. The dates that were produced, however, were produced in fairly large numbers, no Philadelphia business strike date having a mintage lower than the 240,117 of 1914. There is no doubt that many were melted as a result of the gold recall order of 1933, but even with the losses there are solid supplies of all Indian Head quarter eagles from Philadelphia.
If you examine available supplies, it is safe to suggest that all dates are available in lower Mint State grades. Professional Coin Grading Service has reported hundreds if not thousands of examples in all grades up to MS-64. Relatively uniform MS-60 valuations start around $275 in the Coin Market price guide. What we do find is that in MS-63 and even more clearly in MS-65 greater differences appear among the listings.
The early dates tend to be less available as you progress up the mint state scale. The 565,057-mintage 1908 is something of an exception to this rule. The difference is best seen in MS-65 where the PCGS total for the 1908 was at 315 pieces with another 69 graded MS-66. By comparison, the 1909 PCGS total was 87, the 1910 at 57 and the 1911 at 50. The 1912, 1913, 1914 and 1915, respectively, show numbers of 38, 62, 41 and 69. This explains why, instead of the basic $7,000 MS-65 listing, those four later dates are listed at no less than $13,500 in that grade, all the way up to $34,000 for the 1914.
A pretty good case could be made for the 1914 being the key date although the 1912, which is currently listed at $16,000 in MS-65 and where there were just 38 examples reported in MS-65 at PCGS, would also seem to be a solid contender as the toughest Philadelphia date. There is very little difference between it and the 1912 in numbers available in MS-65; however, the 1912 is consistently seen in higher numbers in grades like MS-63 and MS-64.
After 1915 there were no Philadelphia Indian Head quarter eagle mintages until 1926, which started four years more of production before the final Indian Head quarter eagle was made in 1929.
The final four dates from 1926-1929 are readily available. In all probability they were part of many small hoards created at the time. Especially with the beginning of the Great Depression, people assembled small hoards of gold for some security during the impending financial crisis. As the smallest denomination of gold coin in production at the time, it is possible that large numbers of these dates ended up in such hoards having never seen real circulation. That said, the 1929 is slightly better at $10,000 in MS-65 as opposed to $7,000 for the others. That is supported by a PCGS total of 90 examples in MS-65 while the others are all over 225.
It is relatively easy to assemble a complete set of the Philadelphia Indian Head quarter eagles, even in MS-65, although certainly dates like the 1912 and 1914 may provide some challenges.
It should also be noted that proof examples of all dates through 1915 do exist, but any proof Indian Head quarter eagle starts at about $15,250. As the later dates are not available in proof, it is a collecting option very few consider.
In the case of the Indian Head $5, there is a very similar situation. The numbers are even lower, though, especially in MS-65. Being heavier coins, their fields tended to pick up even more problems than were seen in the lighter quarter eagles. Listings for an MS-60 currently start at about $460 while a circulated example might be about $75 less. In MS-65 there is basically no readily available Philadelphia date. The MS-65 listings for Philadelphia dates start at $25,000, and at present only the 1929 goes substantially higher among the Philadelphia strikes.
If you had to find one available Philadelphia Indian Head $5 in MS-65, the PCGS totals suggest that date would be the 1908 where at least 136 have been graded. The 1909 would be second at 70 pieces grades. After that, the next highest total in MS-65 is the 1913 at 44 pieces with the 1911, 1912 and 1915 all being above 25 certified in MS-65.
With such low numbers reported, it is a case where proofs might be seen as an alternative, even though only produced until 1915. Proofs, however, also seem to have problems reaching Proof-65. The numbers seen by PCGS are small enough that the current Proof-65 listing of $25,500 and up is not likely to go any lower despite relatively limited demand.
In the case of both the Indian Head $2.50 and $5, one source of supply cannot be ruled out. While they have never really been discussed in much detail, the fact is that a goodly part of today?s mint state supplies of both the Indian Head quarter eagles and half eagles are likely to have come from Europe.
In the years prior to the 1933 gold recall order, large numbers of U.S. coins traveled overseas. That had been going on for an extended period of time. The coins in large numbers found their ways to European bank vaults in countries such as Switzerland and France. Being out of the United States, they were safe from the melting ordered in the recall order.
Unfortunately, we have no comprehensive list of the coins discovered in the bank vaults of European or other countries. The dealers who traveled to Europe and bought thousands of coins back to the U.S. rare coin market talked very little about the coins they were finding ? probably in large part fearing that news of even small new hoards of certain dates would have an adverse impact on prices.
It is natural that large numbers of the coins found were double eagles or possibly eagles. Larger denominations were likely more useful for international transactions. That said, there is no doubt that there were substantial numbers of quarter eagles and half eagles as every denomination was found in some numbers.
There was a basic pattern to the coins recovered. Those dated prior to 1880 tended to be circulated, with grades going all the way down to VF-20. Dates after 1880, however, were many times in mint state. Generally speaking, these would be in lower mint state grades, but the presence of a few especially nice examples of any given date cannot be ruled out. At least in the case of the Indian Head quarter eagle, the best indication is that there were at least a few top-quality examples along with a number of examples in lower mint state grades. Much the same appears to be the case with the half eagles.
To have hundreds or in some cases even thousands of examples of a specific date grading mint state today flies in the face of logic, except for the existence of the European hoards. Certainly there were not sufficient numbers of collectors back in the 1920s to account for hundreds of gold quarter and half eagles. There might have been a few collectors, but the denominations were too high for many. The mintages after 1915 were sporadic at best, and that tends to discourage collectors as well. The small hoards of regularly available gold coins assembled by some Americans at the time as a hedge against financial crisis might account for a few more examples. Still, even combined, the collectors and the U.S. gold hoarders of the time would not have accounted for hundreds of examples of some dates and thousands of other dates. There had to be some other source of supply, and it had to be large. That is where the overseas banks enter the picture as probably the greatest single source of supply for many of the coins collectors are seeking today.
The final Philadelphia Indian Head $5 really stands out for a variety of reasons. The mintage of the 1929 was 662,000 pieces. This is relatively large, but that might have made sense at the time as there had been no Philadelphia Indian Head half eagle mintage since 1915. Moreover, the Great Depression was just starting and there would be an increased demand for gold coins. It would have been natural to have a mintage of half eagles at the time.
The next thing that stands out about the 1929 is its current listing. A VF-20 is listed at $4,200 while an MS-60 is $13,250 with an MS-65 at $45,000. Those are awfully high prices for a coin with that mintage. In this case the likely reason is the simple one, that the 1929 was melted in large numbers as a result of the 1933 gold recall order. The 1929 would have been the date most likely sitting in vaults as there had been no mintage since 1915. While not as tough as some of the double eagles that were also heavily melted, the 1929 half eagle seems to have a very similar history as a date that had much of its mintage destroyed.
Checking PCGS records we find they graded 266 examples of the 1929 with all but 24 being mint state. That suggests that the 1929 did not circ ulate heavily. It also suggests that the European bank vaults might well have supplied some of the small numbers known today. Most are in lower mint state grades, only eight reaching MS-65. Consequently, you will have a major challenge acquiring a 1929, especially if you want a circulated example or an MS-65. Whatever coin you do acquire, it will probably be easier to find and cheaper thanks to those European bank hoards.
Certainly the Bigelow-Pratt Indian Head quarter eagles and half eagles of Philadelphia make for a fascinating collection. The half eagles in particular can be difficult to acquire, especially if you want examples in MS-65. That said, Bigelow, Pratt and the idea for incuse motifs made their mark on American numismatic history.