USA Coin Album: The 1891 New Orleans Quarter Dollar

Posted on 4/14/2020

An eleventh-hour entry in the Seated Liberty series.

My curiosity is always piqued by coins that were produced after long lapses in minting or that otherwise stand out as anomalies within their respective series. Past columns have looked at issues such as the 1909-O Half Eagle, the 1933-S Half Dollar and the 1888-S Quarter Dollar. This month I'll examine yet another oddity in the Seated Liberty quarter dollar series: the 1891-O entry.

The New Orleans Mint ceased coin production in 1861 when its existing stock of gold and silver bullion ran out and economic uncertainty over the outcome of the ongoing war soon drove both metals from general circulation. In all likelihood, that facility never would have re-opened under normal conditions, but the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 demanded production of so many silver dollars monthly that the old New Orleans Mint was needed to both coin and store the unwanted pieces. It took until the following year for necessary repairs and re-equipping to be completed, and from 1879 through 1890, New Orleans coined silver dollars in the millions and much smaller issues of gold coins.

In 1891, however, that facility struck some four and a half million dimes and a curious emission of just 68,000 quarter dollars. Both denominations had been made by the other mints only in limited numbers after 1878, since the total value of fractional coins and notes in circulation was capped by law at $50 million. The huge mintages of 1875-78 fulfilled this quota, with the result that large-scale minting of dimes didn't resume until 1882 and of quarters not until 1891. The great redundancy of fractional silver coins in Treasury vaults had finally worked itself off by that year, and the minting of dimes, quarters and halves would resume fully in 1892. It was by sheer coincidence that these two denominations were struck with the O mintmark in what turned out to be the final year of Seated Liberty coinage.

1891-O Quarter Dollar
Click images to enlarge.

The 1891-O quarter evidently was struck in several small batches that year, as there are three die marriages recorded in Larry Briggs' 1992 book The Comprehensive Encyclopedia of United States Liberty Seated Quarters. Whenever a day's coining was completed, it was the practice of the die setter to remove dies from the presses and return them to their locker. When it was once again time to strike a particular denomination, the die setter would make no conscious effort to use the same pair as during the last production. Instead, he would grab any suitable obverse and reverse. This accounts for the multiple die marriages seen in such a limited coinage as that of the 1891-O quarter, which could have been accomplished in a single day but clearly wasn't.

Interestingly, the example illustrated appears to be a pairing of Briggs' Obverse 1 and Reverse B, yet this combination is not listed in his book. Instead, Obverse 1 is shown as used solely with Reverse A. I don't know whether anyone has reported this new die marriage in the nearly 30 years since the Briggs book was published.

Both dies reveal clash lines as the result of their coming together without a planchet in place. This left inverted impressions of the opposite die on each one. This is most easily seen as the top of the scroll visible beneath Liberty's base and the straight line of that same base visible beneath the portion of the scroll reading WE. The odd angle of the latter reveals that the dies had rotated from their normal 180-degree opposition at the time of clashing.

This specimen displays a more broad style of O mintmark than was used for the succeeding type of quarter dollar featuring Charles Barber's bust of Liberty and an eagle with upraised wings. The top and bottom are both quite slender in comparison. For the record, NGC certified this coin as MS 62.

1891-O Quarter Dollar Obverse and Reverse Detail
Click images to enlarge.

Not surprisingly, given its very low mintage, the 1891-O Quarter Dollar is quite scarce across all grades, and NGC has certified a total of just 40 pieces. The finest of these graded NGC MS 68, with the runners up being three coins certified as NGC MS 65. That top example formerly was a part of the famed Louis Eliasberg Sr. Collection auctioned by Bowers & Merena in April 1997.

Despite the rarity of 1891-O quarters, worn pieces are collectable. The popular Red Book (A Guide Book of United States Coins) lists a Good 4 price of $350, and this issue doesn't hit the $1,000 mark until the grade of Fine 12. These figures are low for a coin of such great rarity, but this is mostly a reflection of how few people collect Seated Liberty quarters by date and mint. There are so many rarities in the series that not many individuals have the courage to undertake such a goal.

In contrast, the 1901-S Barber Quarter of roughly similar mintage is valued at $4,250 and $13,500, respectively, in those same grades. There are certainly more collectors attempting to complete sets of Barber Quarters than of the earlier type.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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