Historic 1854-S Quarter Eagle, One of 12 Known
1854-S $2 1/2 VF35 NGC. The historic appeal of the 1854-S quarter eagle is
among the highest for any U.S. numismatic issue. It speaks volumes
about the conflicting needs of California and Washington during the
early Gold Rush days, and more broadly about the needs of the
nation as a whole.
Condition Census, Choice Very Fine
Collectors and specialists in Territorial gold well know of the extreme dearth of small gold coins in California during the early Gold Rush days, from 1849 through 1856 or so. As makeshifts, foreign gold and silver coins, along with gold dust and gold ingots, fulfilled but a small portion of the acute need. Hoarding quickly drove federal gold coins from circulation. Paper fractional currency was not an option: It was illegal under the State Constitution. The massive oversupply of gold versus silver caused silver coins' melt value to exceed face value. The few silver U.S. coins that made their way to California were insufficient for larger payments, and were hoarded or exported, rather than melted, after the 1853 content reduction. The Territorial gold coins that private minters issued were underweight (or perceived to be so), and mostly traded far below par or were melted.
Before 1854 the nearest federal mint that could coin California gold was in New Orleans, an extremely long distance by land or sea from the gold fields in California.
All these factors underline the need for a local California mint, but there is a broader perspective at work: Great Britain was at the height of her powers from the early 19th to early 20th centuries. But America's star was in the ascendant. The nation needed quantities of federally produced gold coinage not only to satisfy local commerce in California and to ease the flow of goods, but also to properly portray her increasing rank and wealth in the international community.
As early as 1848, the military governor of the California Territory, Col. R.B. Mason, Jr., proposed a federal mint. But New York state wanted a mint there, and state politicians opposed the idea. So did politicos from Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana--states that already had mints. Even Pennsylvania officials opposed such a move, apparently believing it could threaten the Philadelphia Mint.
After California achieved statehood, Sen. John C. Fremont traveled to Washington to discuss the need for a Western mint with Mint Director Robert Maskell Patterson, who unfortunately believed that America already had too many mints. He likely surmised that another mint for gold coinage would, like those in Dahlonega and Charlotte, prove inefficient and costly for the value received.
In December 1850 President Millard Fillmore conveyed these thoughts in his message to Congress:
"There being no Mint in California, I am informed that the laborers in the mines are compelled to dispose of their gold dust at a large discount. This appears to me a heavy and unjust tax upon the labor of those employed in extracting the precious metal, and I doubt not you will be disposed to, at the earliest moment possible, relieve them from it by the establishment of a Mint. In the meantime, as an Assayer's office is established there, I would respectfully submit for your consideration the propriety of authorizing gold bullion, which had been assayed and stamped, to be received in payment of Government dues."
But it was not the president who authorized legislation--it was Congress, which in matters of coinage facilities consulted the Treasury Department, which in turn consulted Patterson, the mint director.
In 1851 and 1852 the "unofficial mint" for the region, the U.S. Assay Office of Gold, was officially allowed to produce only the massive fifty dollar octagonal "slugs" that did nothing to alleviate the shortage of small gold coins, again burdening private mints to assist with the shortfall.
Finally Congress in 1852 gave the OK for a branch mint in San Francisco, but it would be April 1854 before the needed improvements in capacity and machinery could be made to the former U.S. Assay Office of Gold building. Even when the San Francisco Mint finally opened, a scarcity of "parting acids" meant that gold coinage was sporadic, subject to frequent fits and starts.
Most of the 1854 San Francisco gold coinage was directed toward the ten and twenty dollar denominations. Both the 1854-S quarter eagle and half eagle saw microscopic mintages, recorded as 246 and 268 coins, respectively. Both issues are extreme rarities today. Only three examples are known of the 1854-S half eagle, while about a dozen examples of the 1854-S quarter eagle survive.
The 1854-S quarter eagle is ranked number 87 in the 100 Greatest U.S. Coins by Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth. They noted in 2003 that "As one researcher stated back in 1952, the 1854-S Quarter Eagle is 'one of the most underrated United States coins in any metal ... and [is] completely free of the stigma of Mint experimentation and chicanery.'
Since then, the marketplace has certainly awakened to the rarity, broad appeal, and historicity of this first-year issue. In February 2007 we handled the XF45 PCGS Rio Rancho specimen, second finest known according to the roster below, for a strong $345,000. In September 2005 an XF45 NGC example, third in the list below, garnered $253,000. We expect the bidding to be exceptionally strong for this historic coin in the midst of a vibrant market for rare gold.
The surfaces on this golden-orange piece are quite smooth, with an immediate appearance that suggests the Choice Very Fine grade assigned, if not slightly finer. The obverse is quite sharply struck, and only a couple of tiny ticks on Liberty's jawline and a small dark toning spot at the forward truncation of the bust appear as pedigree identifiers. The reverse is also quite clean. There is some of the usually seen strike softness on the eagle's left (facing) leg, the wing feathers and fletchings, but even there the strike is superior to some examples known, and the mintmark is bold and sharp. There are no singular abrasions or other contact noted, and the overall impression is that of a problem-free example with high eye appeal.
The 1854-S Quarter Eagle
Roster of Known Specimens
Over a period of many years, several numismatists have attempted rosters of this issue. With no exception, every roster presented to date is factually inaccurate, containing errors and omissions. The present roster, compiled early in 2007 and updated in 2009, lists exactly 12 different pieces presented in approximate order by grade, based in part on personal knowledge and in part on past auction grades and descriptions. A few additional auction appearances follow, lettered A through F with notations.
1. AU53 NGC. F.C.C. Boyd (World's Greatest Collection, Numismatic Gallery, 1/1946), lot 242; Memorable Collection (Numismatic Gallery, 3/1948), lot 222; New Netherlands (51st Sale, 6/1958), lot 837; later, Harry W. Bass, Jr. (Bowers and Merena, 10/1999), lot 472; Superior (1/2004), lot 792. Bass' acquisition records indicate he acquired this coin in October 1974 from an unknown source. Past rosters have incorrectly included the Superior Rio Rancho offering (lot 89, just below) here.
2. XF45 PCGS. Rio Rancho Collection (Superior, 10/1974), lot 89; Heritage (2/2007), lot 4325.
3. XF45 NGC. C.L. Lee Family (American Numismatic Rarities, 9/2005), lot 1128. Reportedly held by several generations of the C.L. Lee family since the late 1850s.
4. XF45. Smithsonian Institution. Prior provenance unknown. Illustrated by David Akers in Auction Analysis of Quarter Eagles and in 100 Greatest U.S. Coins and Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins, both by Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth.
5. VF35 NGC. The present specimen. Auction '86 (Paramount, 7/1986), lot 1867; Chicago Sale (RARCOA, 8/1991), lot 937.
6. VF35 NGC. Davis-Graves Collection (Stack's, 4/1954), lot 825; Norweb Collection (Bowers and Merena, 3/1988), lot 2025; Richmond Collection, Part I (DLRC Auctions, 7/2004), lot 1149.
7. VF25 NGC. Belden Roach Collection (B. Max Mehl, 2/1944), lot 1001; Gilhousen Collection (Superior, 2/1973), lot 184; Rio Rancho Collection (Superior, 10/1974), lot 90; Dr. Franklin Altany (Paramount, 2/1977), lot 589; Windsor Collection (Abner Kreisberg Corp., 11/1981), lot 307; Heritage (2/2005), lot 7584.
8. VF20 ANACS. Certified as "XF Details, Damaged, Cleaned." Atwater Collection (B. Max Mehl, 6/1946), lot 2072; Grant Pierce (Stack's, 5/1965), lot 1154; R.L. Miles (Stack's, 10/1968), lot 166; 1973 ANA (Jess Peters, 8/1973), lot 826; 1974 MANA (Kagin's 304th Sale, 11/1974), lot 1547; Fairfield Collection (Bowers and Ruddy, 10/1977), lot 1544; Scott-Kinnear Collection (Sotheby's, 10/1982), lot 13; Heritage (10/1995), lot 5527; Heritage (9/2005), lot 4337. Illustrated in Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. This lot was unplated in the Atwater catalog. However, B. Max Mehl described the coin: "On the upper left obverse field there is a slight indentation or probably a tiny nick." This matches later plates of the piece and no others in the roster.
9. Fine. Wolfson Collection (Stack's, 10/1962), lot 165; S. Hallock DuPont (Sotheby's, 9/1982), lot 85; Herbert Melnick (11/1983), lot 2762; Stack's (400th Sale, 1/1988), lot 366.
10. Fine 12 NGC. Ezra Cole Collection (Bowers and Merena, 1/1986), lot 2546; Superior (10/1989), lot 4037; Superior (5/1990), lot 5431; Stack's (5/2006), lot 2220; Heritage (7/2008), lot 1902.
11. Very Good. 1979 ANA (New England Rare Coin Auctions, 7/1979), lot 82; Auction '81 (Paramount, 7/1981), lot 1405; Stack's (5/2000), lot 1194.
12. Very Good/Good. The discovery specimen. B. Max Mehl; H.O. Granberg; Elmer Sears; John H. Clapp; Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. (Bowers and Ruddy, 10/1982), lot 170; Stetson Collection (Bowers and Merena, 5/1993), lot 587.
A. Very Fine. J.F. Bell Collection (Stack's, 12/1944), lot 240. Illustrated in the catalog but unmatched to any above. The catalog description calls the piece "Strictly very fine." The piece illustrated appears XF or even finer by today's standard and is most likely the finest known Bass coin, although an exact match of the plates is impossible. In his Complete Encyclopedia, Walter Breen assigned the Bell coin to both the Boyd-Bass specimen and the Farouk specimen.
B. Fine. Abner Kreisberg and Hans M.F. Schulman (2/1960), lot 2592. Described there as "The obverse is just about Very Fine, Reverse Fine." The piece is illustrated, but the catalog quality renders plate matching impossible. Based on assigned grades, the coin is almost certainly absent among the first few coins listed above. It is also not the Eliasberg coin, as he owned that piece in 1960. We believe the Wolfson coin (number 9 in the roster) is the closest match.
C. Very Fine. King Farouk (Sotheby's, 2/1954), lot 278. This was a group lot that offered 15 different quarter eagles, described as "Some very fine." The 15 coins constituted a complete 1853-1856 set of quarter eagles including mintmarked issues. Individual coins were unplated. Breen provided an earlier pedigree for this coin from Waldo Newcomer and Col. E.H.R. Green, but it is unverified today. Breen also claimed this was the J.F. Bell coin and gave it a later pedigree to Gilhousen, et al. (number 7 in our list above). Gaston DiBello's annotated copy of the sale recorded Paul Wittlin as the purchaser of this lot and evaluated Farouk's 1854-S as "funny."
D. Very Fine. Menjou Collection (Numismatic Gallery, 6/1950), lot 1326. Unplated. Breen assigned this appearance to the Boyd-Bass finest known specimen.
E. AU. Pennsylvania Sale (Kagin's, 2/1947), lot 2449.
F. XF. Texas Sale (Kagin's, 12/1951), lot 1693.
From The R.M. Phillips Limited Partnership Collection.(Registry values: P2) (NGC ID# 25J3, PCGS# 7773)
View all of [The R.M. Phillips Limited Partnership Collection ]
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