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THE 10 MOST WANTED QUARTERS
By Ed Reiter
That series ended in 2008, and in 2009 the U.S. Mint issued six special quarters to honor the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories.
Then, in 2010, the Mint launched a series of “America the Beautiful” quarters spotlighting national parks and other landmarks in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the five territories.
Tens of millions of people are scouring their pockets and purses these days for these new and different quarters. They have captured the imagination not only of collectors but also of the populace as a whole.
With so much attention being focused on 25-cent pieces, this seems like a good time to take a look back at some of the most interesting – and valuable – quarters from the past.
Here, then, is my “two bits’ worth” on what I call the 10 Most Wanted Quarters:
(1) The 1796 Draped Bust/Small Eagle quarter.
Of the 10 denominations authorized by Congress in the Mint Act of 1792, the quarter was among the last three to be issued, making its first appearance – along with the dime and quarter eagle ($2½ gold piece) – in 1796. That very first quarter was barely a blip on the radar screen (or would have been if radar screens existed at the time). The Mint turned out just 6,146 examples – and didn’t strike any more until 1804.
In retrospect, this seems ironic, for the quarter has emerged as the single most important coin in U.S. commerce today. But in the nation’s formative years, 25 cents was a far more formidable sum and everyday transactions usually could be carried out with lesser-value coins – right down to the pure copper half cent, whose spending power was anything but trifling at the time. The government was intent upon establishing the silver dollar as the nation’s flagship coin in the eyes of foreigners, and the half dollar quickly became the coin of choice for larger transactions domestically – so there wasn’t any sense of urgency about producing quarters.
Its minuscule mintage alone makes the 1796 quarter a rare and desirable coin. Collectors covet it, though, for other reasons as well. It’s the only 25-cent piece struck by the U.S. Mint in the 18th century. And it’s also the only one to bear the Draped Bust portrait on its obverse and the Small Eagle design on its reverse. By the time the Mint resumed production of the coin eight years later, the Draped Bust obverse was paired with the Heraldic Eagle reverse.
The upshot is, the 1796 quarter is a one-year type coin – essential not only for a complete date-and-mint set of U.S. quarters but also for a complete type set. That serves to enhance its already substantial value – which exceeds $5,000 even in the lowly grade of “about good” and soars to six figures in uncirculated levels.
(2) The 1804 Draped Bust/Heraldic Eagle quarter.
Even non-collectors know about the 1804 silver dollar. This “King of American Coins” has long been among the most famous of all U.S. coinage rarities. Not so well known is the fact that there are also other rare U.S. coins dated 1804.
The 1804 eagle ($10 gold piece), for example, had a mintage of just 3,757. The 1804 quarter eagle had an even lower mintage – a mere 3,327. The 1804 dime was below 10,000, too, at 8,265. And the 1804 quarter barely surpassed the tiny output of the 1796 quarter, with 6,738 examples being produced.
Coin production was at low ebb virtually across the board that year. The Mint didn’t even issue half dimes, half dollars or half eagles ($5 gold pieces) dated 1804. And output of large cents ranked among the lowest in that entire series at a paltry 96,500. Only half cents, with a robust mintage of 1,055,312, emerged in normal or above-normal numbers.
Even the 15 known examples of the 1804 silver dollar weren’t actually minted in 1804. As scholars have shown, the Mint produced the first 1804 dollars in the mid-1830s for inclusion in presentation sets of U.S. coinage, intended as gifts for Asian monarchs with whom this country was seeking trade relations. Its records showed that 1804 was the last year silver dollars had been made, so the Mint chose that date for the coins – but research now suggests that all of the dollars minted in 1804 were struck from dies dated 1803 and possibly 1802.
Unlike its 1796 counterpart, the 1804 quarter isn’t a one-year type coin; Draped Bust/Heraldic Eagle quarters also were minted from 1805 through 1807 before production stopped for another eight years and the Draped Bust then gave way to the Capped Bust design type. But all of those have mintages well above 100,000.
The 1804 quarter isn’t a superstar coin like the 1804 dollar. It’s a highly elusive rarity, though – one of the rarest of all U.S. quarters. And it’s almost impossible to find in mint condition, and prohibitively expensive when it does appear in higher grades.
(3) The 1827 Capped Bust quarter.
Production of quarters increased with the introduction of the Capped Bust type in 1815. It remained sporadic, however, for the following decade-and-a-half. There are no quarters at all for the dates 1816, 1817, 1826, 1829 or 1830 – and hobbyists know of only a handful dated 1827.
Mint records state that 4,000 quarters were made in 1827, but there have been no confirmed discoveries of business-strike examples bearing that date. The dozen or so “original” specimens known to collectors today all are believed to be proofs, though some of these are impaired from having entered circulation.
As in the case of the 1804 dollar, restrikes were made in the late 1850s, and these are readily distinguishable from the few originals. In another parallel, the 4,000 business strikes listed as having been minted in 1827 are thought to have been struck with dies bearing an earlier date or dates – most likely 1825.
There’s a fascinating footnote to the story of this major U.S. rarity. One of the few coin collectors active in this country in the early 19th century, Joseph Mickley of Philadelphia, regularly visited the Philadelphia Mint to acquire (at face value) examples of newly produced coins. On one such visit in 1827, he purchased four gleaming proofs of the new 25-cent piece. Today, those four coins – bought for a total of a dollar – would probably be worth a million dollars or more if still in the same flawless level of preservation.
(4) The 1873-CC no-arrows Seated Liberty quarter.
The California Gold Rush of 1849 was followed a decade later by a similar rush of prospectors to Nevada, where vast deposits of silver were discovered in the famous Comstock Lode. Within a few years, the U.S. Treasury decided to establish a branch mint at Carson City, the capital of that state, to facilitate conversion of the silver into coinage – just as it had done when it established the San Francisco Mint in 1854 to coin the California gold.
The Carson City Mint began operations in 1870, and from the very start its output was modest compared with that of the main mint in Philadelphia and even the branch in San Francisco. It was more than merely modest on some occasions, though – it was downright microscopic.
That was the case in 1873, when production hit rock bottom – particularly for Seated Liberty quarters and dimes – in Carson City. The unusually low mintages were reduced even further, in the eyes of collectors, by the fact that silver coins came in two different varieties that year. The weight of the silver coinage was increased slightly during the year; the quarter, for example, rose from 6.22 grams to 6.25. And to signify the change, arrows were placed alongside the date on coins of the higher weight.
Mint records show that 4,000 quarters were made at Carson City in 1873 without the arrows – in other words, at the lighter weight – and 12,462 with the arrows, or at the higher weight. Over the years, however, only four “no-arrows” examples have come to light. It’s assumed that the rest of the 4,000 pieces were melted, not having yet been issued when orders came down to add the arrows. These, of course, command enormous premiums, well up into six figures.
(5) The 1893 Isabella quarter.
The very first U.S. commemorative coin, the Columbian half dollar of 1892, was followed a year later by the second one – the Isabella quarter of 1893. Both were issued to commemorate and help finance the same event: the World’s Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair held in Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage of discovery to America.
The Isabella quarter bears the likeness of Spain’s Queen Isabella, the patroness of Columbus’ expedition. That makes it the only U.S. coin to depict a foreign monarch. In a sense, it represented a triumph for the cause of women’s rights, for it was sponsored by the exposition’s Board of Lady Managers and served to focus attention on the role being played by women at the fair (and, of course, the role that one woman played in America’s discovery).
The coin was sold for $1 each – four times face value – and that helps explain why its net mintage came to barely 24,000. The exposition’s loss was collectors’ gain, however – for while the fair derived relatively little income from the coin, it now is among the most coveted of all U.S. commemorative coins, commanding premiums well up in the thousands in mint condition. It is, by the way, the only non-circulating 25-cent commemorative ever issued by the U.S. Mint.
(6) The 1913-S Barber quarter.
What’s the lowest-mintage U.S. coin of the 20th century, not counting gold coins, offbeat varieties and errors – and specifically not counting the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, whose origin was clouded, to say the least.
Some might guess the 1916-D “Mercury” dime – a major rarity, to be sure, but a coin with a mintage of more than a quarter of a million (264,000, to be exact). An even better guess would be the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter, of which only 52,000 examples were produced.
The correct answer is neither of the above. It’s the 1913-S Barber quarter, whose century-low mintage was a measly 40,000.
The 1913-S is one of three great keys of the Barber quarter series – all of them products of the San Francisco Mint. The other two are the 1896-S, with a mintage of 188,039, and the 1901-S, at 72,664. Oddly, the 1901-S – despite having a mintage figure nearly twice as high – is worth substantially more than the 1913-S in every collectible grade, from “good” right through mint condition.
Notwithstanding this quirk, the 1913-S deserves its place on our “Most Wanted” list simply because it’s the century’s scarcest standard-issue silver or base-metal coin. And its price is first-class all the way, ranging from the $1,500 range in “good” to more than $10,000 in typical mint condition.
(7) The 1916 Standing Liberty quarter.
Historically, first-year coin issues often have had low mintages because it took time to get out all the “bugs” and the start of production was delayed. That was especially true in years when the Mint was making two different coins of the same denomination and dividing its production time between them.
This is what happened with the Standing Liberty quarter in 1916. The Mint was producing three new coins that year – including not only the Standing quarter but also the Mercury dime and the Walking Liberty half dollar. And it also was striking final-year versions of two Barber coins – the dime and quarter. As a result, the new dime and quarter didn’t go on the presses until quite late in the year
As noted previously, just 52,000 Standing quarters were minted in 1916, and it has been a prized modern rarity ever since. Today, it brings more than $3,000 even in well-circulated shape and strong five-figure prices in well-struck mint condition.
(8) The 1918/17-S Standing Liberty quarter.
Some of the most dramatic – and valuable – mint errors in U.S. coinage history have occurred during wartime. Temporary help often has to be hired by the Mint at such times because regular workers are off fighting the war, so quality tends to suffer. In addition, wartime economies lead to such practices as reusing worn dies or still-usable dies from a previous year.
In one such economy move, the San Francisco Mint used 1917 quarter dies to strike Standing quarters in 1918. A technician engraved an “8” over the “7” in the date. This overdate was all too obvious, and the small number of quarters minted in this manner were soon set aside by collectors.
The Mint’s total savings were probably very modest, but the coin has been a bonanza for those lucky enough to obtain one. Today, it’s worth a strong five-figure price in mint condition
(9) The 1932-D Washington quarter.
The Washington quarter was intended originally as a one-year circulating commemorative coin marking the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. It was expected that after that one appearance in 1932, the quarter would revert to the Standing Liberty type, which had been issued for only 15 years – well short of the 25-year statutory minimum.
The new coin proved so popular, though, that the Treasury decided to retain it on a permanent basis. That decision was undoubtedly made easier by the fact that Standing quarters were prone to excessive wear, and many were already looking old before their time as they underwent rapid aging in circulation.
There was little demand for new coins in the deep-Depression year of 1932, so the Washington quarter’s mintage was extremely modest that year – particularly at the branch mints in Denver and San Francisco. The 1932-D and 1932-S quarters have been the key coins of the series ever since. Output was slightly higher in Denver (436,800 versus 408,000), but the D-mint issue has always commanded a somewhat higher premium, especially in the upper grades.
(10) The 1776-1976 Bicentennial Washington quarter.
The 200th anniversary of American independence in 1976 gave rise to many special tributes. Coinage was a natural part of this observance – but initially, Congress was prepared to authorize Bicentennial designs on only two coins, the Kennedy half dollar and Eisenhower dollar, both of which saw only limited use in circulation. That would have made the coinage celebration all but invisible to most Americans.
John Jay Pittman, then president of the American Numismatic Association, urged Congress to add the quarter to the list – and to hobbyists’ surprise and great delight, it went along. The result was the now-familiar coin depicting a Colonial drummer boy on the reverse.
Nearly 1.7 billion examples of this coin were minted in 1975 and ’76, all bearing the double dates 1776-1976. They captured the Bicentennial spirit perfectly and radiated it throughout the nation.
More than three decades later, the coin still turns up now and then in circulation. And it not only served as a fitting tribute to America’s 200th birthday, but also as both a model and inspiration for the statehood quarter program.
It has minimal value as a collectible, but great significance as a piece of hand-held history.