This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Early quarters of the United States are a tough group. It was apparently a case where the quarter was simply not a high priority for many years so the early quarters are a tough collection to assemble. Things are much better for collectors when it comes to Seated Liberty quarters. They may be a collection that is nearly impossible to complete, but they are a collection where you can assemble a set with a lot of very interesting coins at very good prices.
The era of the early quarter was coming to an end in the mid 1830s. There were new steam presses being installed in the Mint that would greatly improve production capabilities. There were also new branch mints being approved in Dahlonega, Ga., Charlotte, N.C., and New Orleans, La.
Even though Charlotte and Dahlonega would only make gold coins, the three would take the pressure off Philadelphia for the coin production for a growing nation. With things better on all fronts, officials decided that it might be a good time to make a design change.
The new design would be a Christian Gobrecht Seated Liberty, which was attempted on some denominations in 1837. The following year even though the design was still a work in progress it was decided to use it on the quarter.
The original design would be used on the quarters of 1838 and 1839 from Philadelphia as well as the 1840 from New Orleans. That makes it a short-lived type, but one that is available at prices of just $42 and up in G-4 and $1,250 in MS-60. In all cases, the 1840-O will be slightly more thanks to its lower mintage and the generally poor saving of new issues in New Orleans at the time.
In 1840 drapery was added to Liberty’s left elbow, creating a type that would last until 1853. With over a decade of production, the type is relatively easy to locate in most grades with G-4 examples starting at about $20 while an MS-60 is as low as $400 and an MS-65 is as low as $4,800. There are actually quite a few dates available at these or slightly higher prices.
Realistically, the prices make any date a better deal than you might expect at least in top grades. The 1843 is a good example as it is always seen as an available date with a mintage of 645,600. That results in an MS-60 price of $400 and $6,750 in MS-65. If, however, you check the grading service totals at the Professional Coin Grading Service, they have graded 46 in Mint State but only two were MS-65 while the Numismatic Guaranty total of 36 in Mint State has not turned up a single MS-65.
There are certainly better dates and they too appear to be good values. The 1842 coins from Philadelphia and New Orleans came with either large or small dates. The small date 1842-O is tough at $425 in G-4 and it is basically unavailable in Mint State. At PCGS they have graded just 20 and none was Mint State while NGC reports two Mint State coins in the 11 it has graded.
The Philadelphia 1842 whether large or small date can also be a challenge. The large date lists for $100 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $1,850. Those are actually good prices when you realize the 88,000 mintage was for both large and small dates. The small date, however, was not much of the total as it is thought to be proof only and is rarely seen with the Norweb Proof-63 to -64 bringing a price of $46,200 while the Eliasberg sale saw a Proof-63 hit $66,000 and those prices may prove to be very reasonable as the grading services have only seen 7 coins.
Financial conditions became unsettled in the 1850s as the discovery of gold in California resulted in changes in the gold-to-silver ratio, which saw the cost of producing silver coins rise to a price above their face value. This was because Western gold output was flooding world markets and driving up the price of silver. The public was aware of the situation and began to hoard silver coins, causing a national coin shortage.
The Mint was in an impossible situation as producing more silver coins would mean losses and even if the coins were produced they were only going to be hoarded. Of course, to not produce the coins would mean just allowing a national coin shortage to get worse. The Congress needed to act to reduce the amount of silver in each coin, but that action was slow in coming. For a few years the Mint basically had no good answer to the problem. In some cases, it appears that mintages were simply reduced as kind of a bad compromise to the situation.
We can see the trend in the 1851-O, which had a mintage of just 88,000, down from over 400,000 the previous year. That small total makes the 1851-O better at $185 in G-4 and $4,000 in MS-60. The trend was also seen in Philadelphia, which had an 1852 mintage of 177,060, resulting in prices of $60 in G-4 and $850 in MS-60.
The 1852-O is slightly higher mintage than the 1851-O, but still low at 96,000. Moreover, there appears to be reason to believe that the 1852-O was melted, reducing the number that survived as it has a $195 price in G-4 and an $8,000 price in MS-60, with the two grading services reporting just two examples.
Finally in 1853 the Congress was forced to respond by slightly reducing the weight of silver in silver coins. Before the change was made, however, Philadelphia produced 44,200 1853 quarters with a recut date. The 1853 like others was potentially melted resulting in a price of $450 in G-4 while an MS-60 is at $2,600.
To make it plain to all Americans that the silver content was lower, the rest of the 1853 quarter production would have arrows at the date and rays around the eagle on the reverse. This type would last just one year as the rays were removed in 1854, making the arrows and rays type a very popular coin with collectors.
Thanks to a mintage of 1,332,000 in New Orleans and 15,210,000 in Philadelphia, the type is available at $18 in G-4, $950 in MS-60 and $16,500 for an MS-65. Produced in a hurry, truly well-struck examples are especially popular as oftentimes even if the technical grade is high the quality is not.
The removal of the rays in 1854 created another type with just arrows at the date. It would last just for 1854 and 1855, but again the mintages are high enough that type examples are no problem with a G-4 at just $15 with an MS-60 at $440 and an MS-65 at $7,500. There were tougher dates, such as the 1854-O, which had a large crude mintmark that actually laps over the “R” and “D” of “QUAR. DOL.” and this unusual coin is $800 in G-4 and $7,500 in XF-40 with few being found in higher grades.
The arrows were removed in 1856, creating another type that would last for a decade. The period would see available dates like the 1857, which can be found for $15 in G-4, $290 in MS-60 and $4,000 in MS-65. There are, however, better dates some of which are much more expensive.
By 1855 there was a new facility producing Seated Liberty quarters. The San Francisco Mint had opened in 1854, but its first quarter production did not take place until 1855 and that date with arrows is actually fairly available at a small premium in circulated grades. It is $40 in G-4 and $2,000 in MS-60.
As the years passed, however, San Francisco would produce some better dates like the 1864-S, which had a mintage of just 20,000, resulting in a G-4 price of $400.
In all cases it must be remembered that the quarter was a relatively high face value for many and that the collecting pattern was not of collecting dates and mints like today, but rather simply assembling date sets. Those factors meant very little saving of new coins as they were released and that was especially true of the branch mints where there were usually very few collectors.
The Civil War of 1861-1865 would have an impact on Mint output as well with the pressures of the war and the suspension of specie payments seeing smaller mintages especially in Philadelphia. That can be seen in the 1865 and other dates from Philadelphia. The 1865 had a mintage of just 59,300, leading to a price today of $85 in G-4 and $875 in MS-60.
America at the time was running on a paper economy as prices were quoted in gold, silver and in paper money. The notes had values as low as three cents because coins were in short supply due to hoarding.
When peace arrived, it took the federal government 14 years to get the monetary system back to the point where $1 in paper equaled $1 in gold coins equaled $1 in silver coins.
To get rid of the lowest denominations of Fractional Currency notes, the government began producing the nickel three-cent piece in 1865 and the nickel five-cent piece in 1866, the latter proved to be enormously popular – so much so that when the public could have their silver half dimes back in later years, they didn’t want them.
At the end of the Civil War there was another change that affected the quarter. IN GOD WE TRUST had been authorized. It was placed on the reverse of the quarter. That change was made in 1866 although there is a single 1866 from Philadelphia without the motto that was part of a group including a half dollar and two dollars probably produced for a collector or dealer. With one of the two known no motto 1866 dollars having topped $1 million, if ever offered the 1866 no motto quarter would be likely to realize a very high price.
The rest of the 1866 quarter production was low with just 17,525 pieces being produced. The type, however, would last until 1873, but during that period there were never large mintages, making it a more difficult type than might be expected at type prices of $30 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $450 and those prices are likely to be for the 1873, which had the highest mintage of 212,600.
There were a number of better dates of the type and that is especially true of the quarters to emerge from the next new facility in Carson City. The first Carson City quarter would set the tone as the 1870-CC had a mintage of just 8,340 pieces. Not only was the 1870-CC historical and low mintage but it also had the traditional poor survival rate seen at Carson City, making a G-4 $4,500 today. In VF-20 the price is listed at $15,000. PCGS and NGC have seen 35 examples and none was Mint State.
The 1870-CC would not be the only better Carson City date as the 1871-CC would have a mintage of 10,890. While not as historically significant as the 1870-CC, it is almost as elusive at $3,500 in G-4 and $18,000 in XF-40. It is unpriced in MS-60 but PCGS reports two examples and NGC has yet to see one.
There was another change on tap in 1873. After the Civil War inflation was over, Western mines produced prodigious quantities of silver. This pushed the price lower. The result was the amount of silver in silver coins was going to be increased slightly, but before that happened there was a mintage of 4,000 1873-CC of the old silver content and design. Most of the total was melted with perhaps as many as half a dozen remaining today making the 1873-CC a significant rarity with an MS-62 selling for $106,375 at a Heritage sale in 1999.
The 1873-CC was not the only date of the period to seemingly disappear. The 1872-S had a mintage of 83,000, but it is simply not available in the numbers that would be expected, with a price of $900 in G-4 and $7,500 in MS-60.
The increase in the amount of silver in the quarter was marked by arrows at the date and the arrows would remain through 1874, creating another type. Mintages were generally high and as a result the type is available at $16 in G-4 with the most available MS-60 being $775.
There were, however, better dates with the 1873-CC with arrows not being as rare as the 1873-CC without arrows, but it is tough, having had a mintage of just 12,462, which translates into a price of $3,500 for a G-4 today while Mint State examples are basically impossible.
This increase in silver weight was just the first manifestation of a problem that was going to plague the United States for the next 27 years. As silver mine output increased, the metal’s price began to slide.
Mine owners were not happy. They wanted higher prices. People of wealth, as embodied by Eastern Wall Street bankers didn’t want depreciating silver. They wanted gold.
Germany abandoned the silver standard in 1873 in favor of gold, freeing up yet more silver to weigh on prices.
In 1875 the arrows signifying the greater silver weight were removed from the quarter.
Some of the mintages of the new weight were higher, making it available at $14 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $225. Even an MS-65 can be found for some dates and at a very reasonable price of $1,600.
Those looking to acquire a Mint State coin from Carson City will even have some possibilities thanks in large part to a hoard described by Q. David Bowers in his book American Coins Treasures and Hoards. Bowers explains that the 1877-CC was found in some numbers recounting, “hundreds of these came onto the market in the 1950s and 1960s.” The proof is seen in grading service totals where the 1877-CC is seen much more often in Mint State than would normally be the case especially with a date from Carson City.
The famous “CC” mintmark still makes the 1877-CC a premium priced issue, but it is much more available in Mint State than would be normally expected. At $325 in MS-60 and $2,000 in MS-65 makes this is at least one Carson City date many collectors can reasonably expect to find on the bourse floor and to afford.
Throughout the final years of its production, the Seated Liberty quarter would still usually see very low mintages from Philadelphia. During the period from 1879 through 1890, there were no Philadelphia mintages of even 20,000 pieces before the 1890 finally bounced back with a total of 80,000 although even that total is modest.
These low mintages were due to a number of factors. The most important was that when the federal government finally got its monetary house in order in 1879, the fear of paper money and inflation ended and many of the hoarded coins of 1861 began pouring back out into the general economy and even from across the border, especially from Canada where many had been sent.
The return of these coins meant fewer new coins were needed.
Also, 1879-1890 was a period of generally falling prices. This meant that fewer additional coins were needed by the economy.
Quarter dates of this period would normally be costly, but prices are quite modest with many being under $600 for an MS-60 and $2,500 in MS-65. The likely reason other than limited collector demand is the presence of proofs generally priced from $2,200 to $2,500. It was a case where the 500-1,000 proofs produced each year had a far better chance for survival as they would only be obtained by collectors. Because collectors can buy the proofs, some of the pricing pressure is off for the regular issues from Philadelphia.
Checking the grading services we find in case after case while an MS-65 might be very difficult, the numbers are much better for a Proof-65 examples of the same date. Under the circumstances, it has to help keep Mint State prices reasonable as if they get too expensive collectors will simply opt for the more available and usually less expensive proof.
In 1891 New Orleans returned to quarter production. It was a case where the facility had been making silver dollars and small numbers of other issues, but the 1891-O quarter was a first for the denomination and with a mintage of 68,000 it would be better with a price of $150 in G-4. Typically, the 1891-O was not heavily saved at the time, making it better in Mint State at $3,000 in MS-60 and $14,500 in MS-65 and those levels may actually be low as PCGS and NGC have only seen 9 examples of the 1891-O in Mint State.
It is possible to suggest that the 1891-O is typical of so many of the good values to be found in Seated Liberty quarters. Thanks to relatively few collectors today a date like the 1891-O while at premium prices is really much less than might otherwise be the case and that is seen repeatedly with Seated Liberty quarters.
While we cannot expect a big increase in collector numbers for the Seated Liberty quarter, the fact remains that supplies of many of the best and most interesting dates are very low. It would not take much new demand to make a difference and as a result anyone wanting a Seated Liberty quarter collection would be well advise to start acquiring some of the potentially great values now.