I saw my first U.S. gold coin, an Indian Head quarter eagle ($2.50 gold piece), about 65 years ago. To say it was love at first sight is an understatement. My family had recently moved to a new subdivision, and my father and I were visiting a man in the neighborhood who my father knew collected coins. My memory is nonexistent on what other coins we might have seen, but I do remember getting the opportunity to hold a circulated quarter eagle. I was struck at the time with the thought that it was significantly heavier than I thought it would be, given its size.
The Red Book (A Guide Book of United States Coins) value of a circulated Indian Head $2.50 gold piece at the time was less than $20. In fact, there were only two dates that listed for more than $20, the 1911-D ($165) and the 1914 ($21). Did I rush out and buy a few or ask for one as a Christmas present? Of course not. At the time, I was focused on Lincoln cents, Buffalo nickels, and Jefferson nickels, particularly the 1950-D. It was only many years later that I thought about collecting any U.S. gold.
Not only was the Indian Head gold piece heavier than a silver coin of its size (the dime), it had a different type of design. As a recent Red Book puts it, "Its design features no raised edge, and the main devices and legends are in sunken relief below the surface of the coin."
In addition, the Indian whose bust graces the obverse looks like a real Indian, not a version of Liberty with a Native American headdress. In this, it matched another of my favorite coins, the Buffalo nickel.
As I learned from my 1961 Red Book, the design was the handiwork of sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt. Pratt was born in 1867 in Norwich, Connecticut. Like his father, Pratt went to Yale, studying at the Yale University School of Fine Arts. Next, he entered the Art Students League in New York City, where he took classes from, among others, Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
After working briefly in Saint-Gaudens' studio, Pratt followed many aspiring artists of his generation by traveling to France to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. There, he trained with sculptors Alexandre Falguiere and Henri-Michel-Antoine Chapu and won several prizes and medals.
Pratt returned to the United States in 1892 in time to work on sculptures for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. From 1893 until his untimely death in 1917, Pratt's career as a teacher of modeling at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and sculptor of renown, flourished. For numismatists, of course, Pratt is best known for his designs for the quarter eagle and the half eagle gold pieces. Both coins became part of the renaissance in U.S. coinage initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt.
The first two pieces of this renaissance were the Indian Head $10 gold piece and the new double eagle, or $20 gold piece, designed by Saint-Gaudens. Before he could tackle smaller denominations, Saint-Gaudens died, but his work was carried on by one of his former students, Bela Lyon Pratt. Pratt entered the picture through a recommendation to Roosevelt by one of his close friends, Boston physician William S. Bigelow. Through his observations of ancient Egyptian art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Bigelow had conceived the notion that coins might be struck with the devices sunk below the fields, thus avoiding the main problem with Saint-Gaudens high-relief design for the $20 gold piece. He suggested this idea to Roosevelt, and the president was intrigued by the novelty of the approach.
Bigelow, given the go-ahead by Roosevelt, suggested Pratt for the task, both because of his association with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and because of Pratt's earlier relationship with Saint-Gaudens. Pratt's designs for the quarter and half eagle were soon forthcoming, and despite the interference of Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, the first of the new quarter eagles entered circulation in late 1908.
As with anything new, there were some who appreciated it as a "novelty in modern coinage" and some who were steadfastly opposed to it. Despite the opposition, the design continued to be minted until 1929. Nowadays, collectors generally consider Pratt's design a work of art.
To this point, I've confined my remarks about Pratt's design for the two lower denominations to the quarter eagle, because that's the gold coin I first held and examined. The new half eagles issued in 1908 have the same design as the quarter eagles but of course contain twice as much gold (.24 vs. .12 ounces) and are larger (21.6 vs. 18 mm).
In The Collectors' Guide to Indian Head Quarter Eagles, Mike Fuljenz listed several reasons for the popularity of the quarter eagle series, issued between 1908 and 1929, as collectibles. For one thing, their incuse designs are both "unique in the annals of American coinage" and beautiful. As Fuljenz pointed out, ". . . people prefer to buy a coin that is universally declared beautiful, rather than one that is considered unattractive."
In addition, the Indian Head quarter eagle series consists of just 15 date/mintmark combinations. Because all but one of these combinations is affordable in circulated grades and lower mint state condition, the series is relatively easy and inexpensive to complete. The same statement cannot be made for any other series of gold coins minted before 1933.
Inexpensive, of course, is a relative term. If your numismatic budget is limited to coins costing less than $100, for example, then you won't find any U.S. gold series inexpensive. On the other hand, if you can afford to pay up to $500 for a coin, then all but one of the dates can be yours in grades of MS60 or below.
You'll undoubtedly notice that I keep referring to one of the Indian Head quarter eagles as being a coin that pricewise doesn't fit in with the other dates. This is the series key, 1911-D, with a minuscule mintage (55,680) relative to the other dates. In fact, the next lowest mintage in the series is that of the 1914 (240,000). Of the rest of the dates, only the 1927 has a mintage below 400,000 (388,000).
In Numismatic News "Coin Market" (CM), the 1911-D starts at $2,600 in VF20. In fact, it's the only date listed with a VF20 value. It's upward from there, listing for $2,950 in XF40, $4,000 in AU50, $6,400 in MS60, $13,000 in MS63, and a whopping $52,000 in MS65.
Note that these are the values for the "strong D" version of the 1911-D. There is also a "weak D" 1911-D, which can be identified by certain design characteristics it shares with the strong D but not with the 1911 (P). Values are considerably lower for the weak D, but I would not want such a coin. The reason is that I have never seen a hint of a mintmark on coins certified as 1911-D weak Ds. To me, this is like a 1916 Standing Liberty quarter with the date worn away. Sure, it can be differentiated from the 1917 by design characteristics, and examples often sell for as much as $1,000. Personally, I have no interest in dateless or mintmarkless coins no matter how much cheaper they are.
To give you an idea of how much the 1911-D values have grown in this century, in 2002 I offered a friend $950 for a PCGS-graded XF45 1911-D strong D, which was the wholesale value at the time. For some reason known only to him, he said I could have it for $900! As you can see, that $900 coin is now worth nearly $3,000. I no longer have it, by the way, having included it in coins traded for two semikey Standing Liberty quarters: an MS65 1921 and an MS64 1923-S.
My current 1911-D is an AU58 graded by PCGS for which I paid $4,532 in 2019. PCGS says its retail value is $5,000. According to CM, with the exception of the 1911-D, all the dates have the same value through MS60. These values are $426 in XF40, $431 in AU50, and $466 in MS60. This uniformity disappears when you get to MS63.
At that point, the low mintage of the 1914 makes its presence felt, as it lists for $2,500. In MS65, the value jumps to $16,000. I bought an MS63 in 2017 for $1,766. Its current wholesale value is $1,995 and CM says it's worth $2,500, so I think I did pretty well on this purchase. If you've read my writings in this magazine, you know that I haven't always done this well, not by a long shot.
According to Fuljenz, the overall rarity of the 1914 is 3rd of 15, with its rarity in MS64 as 1st of 15 and MS65 as 2nd of 15. The overall rarity of the 1911-D is 1st of 15, but it slips a notch below the 1914 in MS64, and two notches below in MS65.
So, what is the date that is 2nd in overall rarity? According to Fuljenz, it's the 1909, with a healthy mintage of 441,760. David Akers, writing in A Handbook of 20th Century United States Gold Coins (1907-1933), assigned the 1909 to 3rd place in overall rarity and called it an underrated issue. My 1909 is an MS64 that I bought for $1,599 in 2018. According to the PCGS Price Guide, it's worth $1,750. In CM, there are two other dates that list for more than $1,000 in MS63, 1910 and 1914-D, which have values of $1,200 and $1,300, respectively. According to Akers, "The 1910 is similar to the 1909 . . ., but it is rarer than the 1909 in high grades."
Both Akers and Fuljenz ranked the 1914-D 1st in high grades (MS65). Akers wrote, "Low-grade Mint State examples are not all that difficult to find, but the population drops off markedly beginning in MS64." My 1914-D is an MS64 for which I paid $1,680 in 2018. PCGS says it's worth $2,250.
The 1912 is the last date worth more than $1,000 in MS63, as CM assigns it a value of $1,400. With a mintage of 616,000, you wouldn't expect the 1912 to be anything special in the series, but Akers called it underrated, and Fuljenz wrote, ". . . it is among the rarest dates in the entire series in the higher Uncirculated grades. For the collector putting together a very high quality set, the 1912 is always a true stopper.'" Mine is an MS64, which cost me $1,817 in 2018. Like the 1914-D, its PCGS value is $2,250.
The remainder of the coins in the series list for between $600 and $880 in MS63. In MS65, values take a big jump, with amounts between $1,500 (4 dates) and $16,000 (1914). At $10,555, the 1914-D is another 5-digit coin. As you can see, the 15-coin series is relatively affordable as long as you are content with higher-grade circulated pieces and can wait and save for a decent, circulated 1911-D (strong D). A collection of mint state coins, however, requires a heftier numismatic budget than most collectors have.
As for Pratt's Indian Head half eagles, there are 24 different date/mintmark combinations to acquire. Of these, there are two dates, 1909-O and 1929, that are expensive in any grade. In XF40, for example, CM prices the 1909-O at $6,500 and the 1929 at $15,000. Thus, if you require completion in your collection, this is a series you'll want to tackle after you win the lottery.
On the other hand, the remaining dates are all below $1,000 in XF40, and most are still below that figure in AU50. If you can be satisfied with an incomplete collection of mostly circulated coins, then you might want to give the half eagles a try.
At the present time, I have exactly one Indian Head half eagle, an XF40 1911-D that I paid $340 for in 2002. The 1911-D is interesting because it has the second lowest mintage in the series (72,500), behind only the 1909-O (34,200). Unfortunately for me, the 1911-D is priced as a common date in VF20 and XF40 and only rises in price significantly in AU50. I purchased it from the same guy who sold me the XF45 1911-D quarter eagle.
Bottom line on coins bearing Pratt's masterpiece design: With a limited number of date/mintmark combinations and only one key date, the quarter eagles are a fun series to collect.
In addition, the half eagle series is one that has mostly affordable coins in circulated grades. Just be sure that you purchase coins certified by the major certification services (ANACS, NGC, PCGS) as I've been told that counterfeits abound.
If you like pre-1933 U.S. gold coins, and who doesn't, you should start working on sets of these little gems today.