By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.
Like it or not,the largest denomination U.S. coin in circulation is the quarter. It wasn’t always this way, of course, and when I first became aware of the buying potential of coins, half dollars circulated freely, and you could still get the odd silver dollar at face from your local bank.
My, how things have changed. Half dollars essentially disappeared from circulation in the mid-1960s, and dollar coins now are not much larger than a quarter. In addition, they contain no silver, and they don’t circulate. Think about it: When was the last time you received either a half dollar or a dollar coin in change?
The focus in the January 2018 issue of Coins Magazine is on U.S. quarters, and I’m going to write about a subset of quarters in the long history of this denomination. The subset is a lengthy one, extending from 1838-1891, for a total of 54 years. Because the run of Seated Liberty quarters includes many scarce and pricey dates, this article will focus on a design type set. In other words, I’ll talk about obtaining one representative coin for each major design type rather than one of every date/mintmark combination.
Used on every U.S. silver coin from the half dime to the silver dollar, the Seatd Liberty design was the work of Christian Gobrecht, the U.S. Mint’s third chief engraver. Born in Hanover, Pa., Gobrecht served as an apprentice to learn how to engrave ornamental clocks. After employment in Baltimore, Gobrecht joined a bank-note engraving firm in Philadelphia. Profiting by these experiences, he became well-known as a sculptor and engraver.
Because of his engraving experience, Gobrecht was offered a job by U.S. Mint Director Robert Patterson as assistant director in 1823. Although Gobrecht declined this offer, he later applied for the job as chief engraver after the Mint’s first chief engraver Robert Scot died. Because of his better connections, however, William Kneass became the Mint’s second chief engraver.
When Kneass had an incapacitating stroke in 1835, Gobrecht became his assistant, given the task of completing all pattern and die work Kneass had begun. When Kneass died in 1840, Gobrecht became the Mint’s third chief engraver.
Gobrecht is most known for his Seated Liberty design, which was based on sketches by the artist, Thomas Sully. On the obverse of Seated Liberty coins, there is an Americanized version of Great Britain’s iconic Britannia, a seated female figure. Dressed in flowing robes, Liberty is seated on a rock. She holds a shield in her right hand and a staff topped by a liberty cap in her left hand. The reverse features a perched eagle with outspread wings. On its chest is a shield, and it holds a bundle of arrows and an olive branch in its talons.
1.) Type 1, Seated Liberty Quarter, No Motto Above Eagle, No Drapery
After its 1837 debut in half dimes and dimes, quarters received the Seated Liberty treatment in 1838. The obverse featured 13 stars, unlike the “no star” versions in the two smaller denominations. In addition, there is no drapery below Liberty’s left elbow.
This first type was minted from 1838-1840, with coins struck at Philadelphia in 1838 and 1839 and at New Orleans in 1840. Mintage for each date was fairly substantial, with numbers approaching a half million in 1839. In United States Coinage: A Study By Type, Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett indicate that the two Philadelphia issues are far more common than the 1840-O, which is “…seen quite often with salt-water or salvage surfaces.” Further, the “…number of survivors is low due to mass meltings.…”
Q. David Bowers, on the other hand, writing in A Guide Book of United States Type Coins, notes that examples of this type “…are fairly scarce today, but enough exist that finding one in just about any grade except gem Mint State will present no difficulty, especially an attractive VF, EF, or AU example for type set purposes.” He suggests an Optimal Collecting Grade of Extremely Fine to About Uncirculated for the casual collector.
In EF-40, all three dates list for $400 in the October 2017 issue of Numismatic News “Coin Market.” In AU-50, the values for the three dates are $880, $900, and $900, respectively. If you have a smaller numismatic budget, a Fine-12 1839 should cost about $45, with a Very Fine-20 going for about $160.
2.) Type 2, Seated Liberty Quarter, No Motto Above Eagle, With Drapery
In 1840, minor modifications to the design included the addition of drapery below Liberty’s left elbow, resulting in a second design type. Because the type was minted between 1840 and 1865, finding a nice one for a type collection will not present a problem. Both Guth and Garrett and Bowers give an overall mintage for the type of more than 45 million pieces.
Although there are some pricey examples of this type, there are plenty of “common” dates. Guth and Garrett note that the most common date is the 1861, with a mintage of close to 5 million pieces. It’s worth noting that some other Philadelphia issues had even larger mintages.
Bowers writes, “Circulated coins in VF, EF, or AU are sufficiently available for type set purposes,” and his Optimal Collecting Grades for the casual collector are again EF or AU. The 1861 in these grades lists for $80 and $180, respectively. In F-12 and VF-20, the date lists for $40 and $45, respectively.
3.) Type 3, Seated Liberty Quarter, Arrows at Date, Rays on the Reverse
This one-year type was created because of a change in the weight of the coin, which was reduced because of an increase in the value of silver. Earlier coins of the Seated Liberty type were melted in order to coin more than 16.5 million of this type. The bulk of these were minted in Philadelphia.
Bowers notes that many of this type were struck in haste, with a poor quality of striking as a result. “Accordingly, at any given grade range, it is important to select a sharp example, such coins being in the minority.”
For this type, Bowers’ Optimal Collecting Grades for the casual collector are EF to mint state. Values for an 1853 in this range of grades are $180 in EF-40, $415 in AU-50, and $900 in MS-60. For a nice VF-20, expect to pay about $45.
4.) Type 4, Seated Liberty Quarter, Arrows at Date, No Rays on the Reverse
Probably because of the striking difficulties caused by the rays on the reverse, they were removed in 1854, resulting in a two-year type (1854-1855). As with the previous type, mintage was sufficient that Bowers reports “…examples are available in just about every grade desired, except that Mint State pieces are somewhat scarce.”
The most common date by far is the 1854, with more than 12 million struck. Bowers’ Optimal Collecting Grades for the casual collector are the same as for the previous type, EF to MS. For the 1854 in EF-40, expect to pay about $110. “Coin Market” values the date at $250 in AU-50 and $600 in MS-60. For the collector with a smaller budget, a coin of this type in VF-20 should sell for about $42.
For something a bit different, you might look for a nice 1854-O, as the values listed are not all that much more than for the more common Philadelphia variety. Values in VF-20, EF-40, and AU-50 are $55, $125, and $300, respectively.
5.) Type 5, Liberty Seated Quarter, Motto “In God We Trust” Above Eagle
Beginning in 1866, “In God We Trust” was added to the reverse of all U.S. silver and gold coins large enough to carry the motto. The timing of this addition is significant, as the Civil War had ended the year before. Because of the horrors of that war, it was felt that U.S. coins should carry an appeal to a higher power. Hence, the addition of the motto.
Although many of the individual dates had small mintages, this new design occurred on coins over many years, with some of the dates having relatively large mintages. Guth and Garrett note that the most common date for the type is 1891, with a mintage of nearly 4 million examples. Some other dates had much larger mintages than this, but I suspect that this last-year-of-issue date was differentially retained.
Again, Bowers’ Optimal Collecting Grades are EF to MS for the casual collector. “Coin Market” values for an 1891 in this grade range are $80, $160, and $275, respectively. A VF-20 should be available for about $55.
6.) Type 6, Seated Liberty Quarter, With Motto, Arrows at Date
This is another two-year type (1873-1874) occasioned by changes in the weight of silver coins. This time the arrows indicated a slight increase in weight because of a change by the Treasury Department to the metric system. One glance at the mintages of the various date/mintmark combinations reveals that the most common date by far is the 1873, as it had more than half of the total mintage for the type.
Bowers’ Optimal Collecting Grades are VF to AU for the casual collector. According to “Coin Market,” values for the 1873 in this grade range are as follows: VF-20, $65; EF-40, $190; AU-50, $400. If you prefer a coin with an S mintmark, the 1874-S in these grades is not all that much more expensive. “Coin Market” values for the 1874-S, with about a third of the mintage of the 1873, are $100, $250, and $425, respectively.
When confronted with a lengthy series with a large number of rare and pricey dates, a type collection can be a satisfying approach. For Seated Liberty quarters, only six coins are needed for a type collection. All can be obtained relatively inexpensively in grades showing a lot of detail. For example, using the values cited in this article, a type set with one F-12 (Type 1) and five VF-20s should cost about $300, or an average of $50 per coin. That amount should fit any collector’s budget.
Such a collection would be an attractive addition to your collection of U.S. quarters. After completing it, you may decide to look at earlier types.
Doesn’t that sound like fun?
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