Thursday, July 9, 2009

Coin Thursday: The Little Princess

July 9, 2009
Posted by John Dale

As I was growing up, one of my favorite books was an English translation of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. My first memories of The Little Prince were of it being read to me, but I curled up with it on my own while I was still completely a child.

In high school, in college, and as a working writer, I read and re-read it, and each time two thoughts came to me: “How did I understand so much so soon?” and “How much will I never understand?” Like the Prince’s single rose, the story continues to unfold for me, and even as I learn and comprehend, the next layer beckons. I have no doubt that when I am old enough to be called either wise or a doddering fool, The Little Prince will be there for me, as simple and as complex as it ever was, never having lost its power to inspire and surprise me.

About the same time as my first rediscovery of The Little Prince, my passion for coins really took hold, and The Little Prince was counterbalanced by the “Little Princess,” more formally identified as the 1841 quarter eagle, a coin prominently featured in our August Los Angeles Auction.

Here’s a questions that’s been bandied about by many a numismatist: “If you could have any coin in the world, what would it be?” For several years, “an 1841 quarter eagle” would have been my answer.

As I grew up, my answer became a touch more mercenary: I would get an example of the “King of American Coins,” sell that 1804 dollar, buy my 1841 quarter eagle, and enjoy many more great coins with the rest of the proceeds. Still, the 1804 dollar is only the means to the end. Even today, the 1841 quarter eagle tops my list of dream coins.

With so many other wonderful coins out there, why did the 1841 quarter eagle capture my imagination? Pinning down one reason is impossible. There was a touch of Red Book mystique to it; it was a proof issue listed before the Red Book said there were proofs! (This was before I researched early proof coins and realized that yes, the Mint made many proof issues before 1858, just not in large and relatively well-defined quantities.)

It tied into my fascination and mild bewilderment with proof-only issues, when my child-mind would laugh at the silly grown-ups who would make “special” coins without remembering to make ordinary ones first.

The 1841 quarter eagle also happens to be highly elusive, with between 15 and 18 extant, though I do not know how well I truly comprehended such rarity back then. Maybe it really was the nickname above all else, the idea of having a “Little Princess” to call my own in the years before I was ready to claim a more famous coin.

I may be older now, but my love for the Little Princess remains. As with The Little Prince, how did I understand so much so soon, and how much will I never understand?

-John Dale Beety

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