Grading Indian Head $2.50 (1908-1929)
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One of the questions NGC customers sometimes ask is "Why don't you include all 20th Century gold coins in your discounted Gold Rush grading tier?" The answer lies in the greater difficulty of grading certain issues, even though the coins themselves may be quite common. For this reason, Coronet Liberty and Indian Head quarter eagles, as well as Indian Head half eagles, are specifically excluded from the Gold Rush tier, though NGC's Specialty Gold tier still offers a slightly lesser discount from the regular grading fee for these more challenging gold coins.
Seeking to achieve something novel in modern coinage, sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt set his design for this type below the coin's raised field. The resulting coins have no raised border. Their fields provide limited protection for the design, as well as a flat surface for stacking. The quarter eagle was coined in this manner from 1908 through 1915 and again from 1925 to 1929.
Though an interesting and attractive departure from the norm, these coins have become a real problem for collectors desiring attractive mint state examples. Without raised rims there was nothing to prevent rubbing of the coins' fields and design elements. Thus, most surviving examples are not fully mint state, even though they may have never actually circulated. With only one scarce issue in this short-lived series (1911-D, with 55,680 pieces coined), collectors typically seek only mint state examples when assembling a set. In fact, lesser-grade coins of most dates usually are valued at prices that reflect their bullion content rather than actual collector demand.
The same problem that resulted in so many lightly worn quarter eagles makes the grading of mint state pieces somewhat challenging. When examining these coins a grader has to look at the entire coin rather than focusing on known contact points. This is not to say a person shouldn't look at the entire coin when grading other types, but with Indian Head quarter eagles abrasions and contact marks appear with equal frequency at any point on their surfaces. Many show wear in the fields, while none is evident on the design elements. This is the exact opposite of conventional coins, and it takes a keen eye to discern the first signs of metal loss. Assessing the number and severity of contact marks also presents a grading challenge; these typically are scattered uniformly throughout the coin rather than being concentrated in specific, vulnerable areas. All these factors result in a coin that is exceedingly difficult for inexperienced collectors to grade. Many have difficulty understanding why NGC grades one coin MS-62 and another MS-63 when both appear quite similar to the untrained eye.
The degree of difficulty in grading and the value at stake both increase substantially above MS-63. Collectors who find these distinctions too subtle to detect without expert assistance may conclude that MS-60 through MS-62 Indian Head quarter eagles are satisfactory for their own sets. With a bit of practice, those conscious of quality will come to know the differences that distinguish one grade from another.
Since quarter eagles of this type were rarely used in daily commerce, most were coined toward the end of each calendar year simply to provide coins for holiday gift-giving. Nearly all were struck at the Philadelphia Mint to avoid the nuisance of sending dies to the branch mints. Only three dates—1911, 1914 and 1925— were coined at the Denver Mint; none were coined in New Orleans or San Francisco.
These facts have little to do with grading, but collectors seeking D-Mint issues should hold out for examples that have distinct mintmarks. As this letter was the only feature punched into the coin's field and thus raised above the field on each coin, it was subject to abrasion and wear. This resulted in many coins showing only scuffed or indistinct mintmarks.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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