USA Coin Album: Little-known Gold Coin Varieties

Posted on 3/8/2022

Quarter eagles and three-dollar pieces offer some good opportunities for cherry picking varieties.

In last month’s column I took a look at some little-publicized varieties in the gold dollar series. This installment will feature quarter eagles and three-dollar pieces. The emphasis will be on dates that are not rare, yet offer some good opportunities for cherry picking varieties.

Most dates in the Coronet Liberty quarter eagle series have fairly limited mintages, and varieties are thus less likely with fewer dies being used. The higher mintage entries offer a greater hunting ground, and one date that doesn’t disappoint is 1851.

Mintages of gold coins swelled during the years 1850-53, when a huge amount of gold was recovered from newly-discovered deposits in California and, to a lesser extent, Australia. In fact, there was enough gold entering the market to depress its price. This caused the bullion value of United States silver coins to exceed their face value, with the result that they disappeared from domestic circulation. The production of gold dollars and quarter eagles swelled during those years to help make up for the absence of fractional silver coins in commerce.

With more than a million quarter eagles coined at the Philadelphia Mint during 1851, it’s not surprising that a few good varieties may be found. NGC will attribute two nice repunched date (RPD) varieties for 1851(P), as well as another for the lower-mintage 1851-O quarter eagle. Numismatic scholar Walter Breen knew about these varieties and assigned his numbers B-6210 to cover both of the 1851(P) issues and B-6214 for the 1851-O (Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins). All feature doubling of their entire dates, with the New Orleans variety being especially obvious.

Both are good candidates for inclusion in the next edition of The Cherrypickers’ Guide, which is eagerly awaited. As these dies wore and were repolished, however, the underlying dates were diminished to the point of displaying only partial doubling, and NGC attributes these varieties as either the complete, early die state (EDS) or the diminished, late die state (LDS).

1851 $2.5; VP-001
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1851-O $2.5; VP-001
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After Congress lowered the weights of the fractional silver coins in 1853, permitting them to circulate freely, the need for small-denomination gold coins declined. Mintages fell for the next several years, and it was not until another economic crisis appeared that their production swelled again.

To finance its war against the Confederate States of America in 1861, the USA issued paper currency for the first time in decades. These notes were redeemable in gold or silver coin, and uncertainty over the war’s outcome prompted holders of the notes to cash them in for gold almost immediately. The Philadelphia Mint answered this challenge by producing more than a million quarter eagles in 1861, but these coins quickly vanished from circulation.

The Treasury Department saw the hopelessness of continuing this dance, so it issued a new series of notes that were not immediately redeemable, and gold coin production was limited mostly to the larger denominations which had never been a big presence in domestic circulation.

To this day, the 1861(P) quarter eagle remains the most common gold coin of the period in Mint State condition, and the large number of dies employed in its manufacture have provided collectors with a couple of nice repunched date varieties. These two dies are similar enough to one another that initially a single number was assigned by NGC, but they are now broken out as VP-001 (high date) and VP-002 (centered date). For both varieties the doubling is most evident on numerals 18, which are clearly duplicated south of the main impression. These, too, merit inclusion in The Cherrypickers’ Guide.

1861 $2.5; VP-001
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1861-O $2.5; VP-002
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The series of three-dollar gold pieces is not one often collected by date, let alone by varieties. As it is, the number of dies required for that coin’s relatively small mintages makes the finding of varieties unlikely. Even so, there are a couple of good ones for which collectors should be on the alert. The 1882 edition is known with numerals 82 duplicated about 50% higher than the final impression. A very obvious doubled-die obverse (DDO) variety may be found on the 1887 issue, this doubling be most noticeable on the word AMERICA. Walter Breen identified these varieties decades ago, assigning them his numbers B-6396 and B-6401, respectively.

While it’s likely that no more than two die pairs were used for either of these dates, theoretically making the varieties as common as the ordinary strikes, the former do provide an additional element of desirability. A collector seeking just a single three-dollar piece for a type set should attempt to cherry pick either of these varieties, which still are not widely known within the hobby.

1882 $3
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1887 $3; VP-001
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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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