Gem Proof 1839 Seated Liberty Quarter
1839 25C No Drapery PR65 NGC. Briggs-2B. Ex:
Boyd-Pittman-Kaufman. Few coins in the U.S. series can claim to be
unique, but this example is the only proof 1839 Seated Liberty
quarter that has ever been reliably reported. As Walter Breen said
in his Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Proof
Coins, "No other even rumored." For advanced collectors of
early U.S. proof coinage, this lot represents an opportunity that
may not repeat in their collecting lifetimes.
Unique as a Proof
Proof mintages went unrecorded before the Mint began its program of commercial proof set offerings in 1858, nearly 20 years after this coin was struck. In earlier times, proofs were struck to order, whenever someone with enough influence to request them felt there was a need for special examples of the national coinage. A case in point would be the diplomatic presentation proof sets requested by Secretary of State John Forsyth in 1834, to be used as gifts to certain Middle Eastern and Oriental rulers with whom the United States hoped to negotiate favorable trade agreements (these sets featured the first appearance of the famous 1804 dollars). These special issues were usually called "specimen" strikings or "master" coins in those days, although the term proof had been in use among European minters for some time.
The Mint also began striking special coins, for a small charge, for influential coin collectors like Robert Gilmor, Jr., at some point in the early 19th century. This practice would become more popular as the century went on and eventually grew into the profitable official proof set program, beginning in 1858. As we understand the process today, whenever proof examples were ordered, the coiner would polish a pair of dies that were on hand, perhaps polish selected planchets for the occasion, and give the coins more than one strike on the medal press. This process produced a coin with the sharp design detail, squared-off edges, and brilliant mirrored fields that contemporary numismatists prized.
Proof coins from any date before 1858 are rare but, except for the Gobrecht dollar issue, the year 1839 was particularly sparse for proof offerings. Christian Gobrecht's Seated Liberty design had been introduced on the quarter denomination the year before, with Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury requesting 20 "specimens" of the new design in September 1838. Only one proof 1838 Seated Liberty quarter has survived to the present day, which we recently had the privilege of offering in lot 5596 of the FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2013). That coin realized $381,875.
The 1838 proofs were probably presented to Congressmen and other influential parties to demonstrate the new design, rather than numismatists who would carefully preserve the coins. It is logical to assume the 1838 issue would have a low survival rate, and this is confirmed by the survival of just one single specimen. While there is no recorded mintage for the 1839, which we assume was struck for numismatic purposes and had a higher survival rate, the circumstance of finding only this unique survivor argues that the original mintage was even smaller than the 20 pieces of the 1838 emission. Indeed, we would not be surprised if the present coin was the only proof 1839-dated quarter struck at the Philadelphia Mint.
In the early years of the Seated Liberty design, Liberty's elbow extended past the last fold of drapery on her right (facing) arm. This No Drapery design was modified in 1840, creating a short-lived subtype, much prized by type collectors. Four obverse and three reverse dies were used to strike the No Drapery quarters of 1839, with this unique proof specimen featuring Larry Briggs' Obverse 2 and Reverse B. The date is curved, slanting down from left to right, and the eagle's claws are closed on the reverse. Speaking of the business-strike 1839 quarters struck from these dies, Larry Briggs notes:
"Poorly struck head, stars, and toe. Eagle's left leg and head poorly struck up."
This single proof example displays many of the same striking characteristics noted for the business strikes. Nearly 500,000 business-strike Seated Liberty quarters were struck in 1839, and most survivors show the Closed Claws reverse. It stands to reason that the dies must have experienced considerable wear during the production run. Since this coin shows the sharply squared-off borders and deeply mirrored fields that characterize most proof issues, we theorize that the lack of design detail in some areas was the result of die wear rather than insufficient striking pressure. The order for this proof must have come late in the year, when the dies were worn, and the die polishing further reduced the design detail in the affected areas.
Lacking the diagnostics used by present-day numismatists, 19th century catalogers often called any coin with a reflective surface a proof, resulting in a disproportionate number of "proof" auction appearances for many issues. This is not the case for the 1839 Seated Liberty quarter. No comprehensive survey of auction catalogs was attempted for this issue, but a quick check of 50 of the more likely sales from the 19th century produced only one entry that even hinted at a possible proof specimen. That entry was lot 1660 of the Sixth Semi-Annual Sale (W. Elliot Woodward, 3/1865), "1839 Brilliant surface, resembling proof." Clearly, there were few candidates for proof status among 1839 Seated Liberty quarters in the 19th century.
The first public auction appearance of this coin that we can identify with any degree of certainty was in lot 147 of F.C.C. Boyd's World's Greatest Collection (Numismatic Gallery, 3/1945):
"1839 N-1 A splendid proof turning steel blue."
The N-1 designation referred to Numismatic Gallery's own variety classification, as no standard variety guide had been published for the Seated Liberty quarter series at the time. The prices realized for the sale show the coin sold for $41.00 on a $25.00 estimate.
It is possible that Abe Kosoff and Abner Kreisberg purchased the 1839 proof quarter for inventory at the WGC sale, or they may have acquired the piece from the winning bidder at some time shortly after the auction. In any case, the coin surfaced again only two years later, when Kosoff and Kreisberg sold it privately to John Jay Pittman for the reduced price of $30. Pittman was a connoisseur who valued quality and rarity above all other considerations in his famous collection. He was especially fond of this coin, as revealed in a conversation with prominent coin dealer David Akers:
"JJP held this coin in especially high regard and considered it one of the highlights of his collection. When he first showed this piece to me many years ago, as he took it out of his pocket and carefully unwrapped it, first from the lead foil and then from the inner tarnish proof tissue, he smiled his famous ear-to-ear grin and said, 'I have something here I'm sure you've never seen before', and, of course, he was absolutely right."
Akers sold Pittman's collection in a celebrated series of public auction sales in 1997-1999. The 1839 proof Seated Liberty quarter was offered in lot 1298 of the John Jay Pittman Collection, Part II (Akers, 5/1998), where the cataloger noted:
"This is truly a coin of the ultimate rarity, and fortunately it is also of very high quality with excellent color and eye appeal. Without question, it is one of the most important coins in the entire Pittman Collection, a coin that could not be duplicated for any amount of money."
The lot realized $132,000. After reposing in Pittman's Collection for more than 50 years, the 1839 proof quarter went off the market for another decade before it appeared in the collection of Philip Kaufman, which was sold as part of the Central States Signature and Platinum Night Auction (Heritage, 4/2008), lot 2375. On that occasion we described the coin as:
"Its mirrorlike fields highlight the motifs on both sides, and despite minor softness in a few localized areas, the design elements exhibit sharp detail. The toning is absolutely superb deep grayish-blue, with subtle gold undertones and whispers of lighter blue iridescence at the margins. There are myriad signs of die polishing throughout the fields, especially on the reverse and around Liberty's head and the date, and heavy horizontal die polishing lines or die file marks are visible below the date. A few minute marks scattered about are totally within the parameters of the grade designation.
"This piece is an extreme rarity with undeniable eye appeal. Indeed, we believe it may well be unique, a coin that most connoisseurs of Seated Liberty proof coinage can only dream of owning. The mere existence of a single proof 1839 quarter is remarkable, but its survival in Gem quality is absolutely amazing."
The lot realized an astounding $517,500.
"Once in a lifetime" is an overused phrase in present-day numismatics, but the expression really applies to this opportunity. For the collector of early U.S. proof coinage, once this lot passes into history there is no possibility of finding an alternate replacement for this fabulous unique coin. Furthermore, this specimen is capable of disappearing from the marketplace for more than half a century, as it did between 1945 and 1998. The discerning collector will not let this truly priceless coin escape when this lot is called.
Ex: F.C.C. Boyd; World's Greatest Collection (Numismatic Gallery, 3/1945), lot 147; Numismatic Gallery; sold privately to John Jay Pittman for $30 on 7/1/1947); John Jay Pittman Collection, Part II (David Akers, 5/1998), lot 1298, realized $132,000; Phil Kaufman Collection of Early Proof Sets, Part III (Heritage, 4/2008), lot 2375, realized $517,500.
From The Greensboro Collection, Part III. (NGC ID# 23W2, PCGS# 5528)
View all of [The Greensboro Collection, Part III ]
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