Monday, July 6, 2009

Coin Monday: The 246

July 6
Posted by John Dale

(I am away on vacation this week – not that this will bother many of you, sniff sniff, sob sob – and have left the Heritage blog in the capable hands of our favorite young numismatist, John Dale. Those of us here at Heritage fortunate enough to deal with John Dale on a common basis share two things: we are quite fond of him and recognize the considerable talent he has at the tender age of 24. Working with him on this blog has made me aware not only of John Dale’s keen intellect and sharp humor, but also that he is a man of many interests and a flat out good writer, no matter the subject. All this week you’ll get to sample John Dale’s work across the spectrum of his existence. You’ll see that his taste is as varied as his talent and his eye for great collectibles so much more than just coins. Many thanks John Dale! – Noah Fleisher)

John Dale Beety here. As Noah has pointed out, I'm taking over the blog for the week. Beyond that, though, the routine isn't changing much, so I'm going to start things off with a Coin Monday.

Many of the greatest rarities in U.S. coinage have come from potentially illicit (or at least dubious) origins. An example is the 1913-dated Liberty Head nickel, which appeared suddenly in the form of five mysterious examples first owned and displayed by Samuel Brown, who never explained how 1913-dated nickels were produced bearing a design that ended in 1912. (Mr. Brown’s employment at the Mint during 1912 and 1913 has provided endless fodder for speculation.)

Other rarities – to give a modern paraphrase to any number of old-time researchers – are all-natural. One issue that has been singled out as such since its rediscovery is the 1854-S quarter eagle. Its origins are in the California Gold Rush, and it came about through an unusual combination of supply and demand.

The need for actual federal coinage was obvious, and the United States started to alleviate the shortage, first through the issues of the United States Assay office, and later through its evolution into the San Francisco Mint, which began formal operations in 1854. As the San Francisco Mint, it produced coins that were identical to those struck at Philadelphia, except for the “S” mintmark on their reverses. That first year, though, the San Francisco Mint struck only 246 quarter eagles. Because this feels like a Battle of Thermopylae sort of day, I’ll go ahead and call them… The 246. (For all the Frank Miller graphic novel devotees and source-material movie fanatics out there, sorry, but this is as close as you’re going to get for a reference.)

Like the Spartans at Thermopylae, The 246 had assistance in its battle against the coinage shortage: gold dollars, a similarly small group of half eagles, and much larger mintages of eagles and double eagles. Gold dollars passed for small change in the context of 1850s California, and eagles and double eagles were convenient for transport; mid-range denominations like the quarter eagle and half eagle simply fell through the cracks and were not ordered in quantity. Any gold struck by the Mint quickly went into circulation, though, and that included the quarter eagle.

The 246 were no match for the hundreds of thousands of miners, merchants, and settlers in California. For a number of years, the 1854-S quarter eagle was thought to be lost completely, though a well-worn example turned up in 1910, and 11 more have appeared in the near-century since, giving The 246 a dozen more survivors than The 300.

The 1854-S quarter eagle is the crown jewel in the R.M. Phillips Limited Partnership Collection, a remarkable collection focused on the denomination that includes many early rarities and the prized proof-only 1841 quarter eagle, the “Little Princess” – but that’s a story for another day.

-John Dale Beety

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