Stack’s Bowers Galleries is proud to offer at auction the first example of the famous 1841 “Little Princess” Liberty quarter eagle certified in non-Proof format as lot 4266 in our upcoming March Baltimore Auction. For generations the rarity of the 1841 quarter eagle has been known and studied, and its popularity has been firmly established for more than 100 years. Rarely seen or offered, the 1841 “Little Princess” has earned its way into the hearts of numismatists for its rarity and desirability. Famed numismatist David W. Akers speculated years ago that all 1841 quarter eagles were struck as Proofs, even though many of the survivors actually appear to be circulation strikes. Indeed, and notwithstanding the fact that four Proofs are reported, the majority of known specimens are generally circulated to some degree. Many learned numismatists have studied the facts, and the prevailing consensus is that most of the surviving examples of the 1841 quarter eagle were issued not as Proofs, but rather as circulation strikes, possibly for sale to contemporary collectors, although in any event the coins were placed into circulation at some point in time. The facts remain that Proof quarter eagles dated 1840 through 1850 are extremely rare. Ironically, the issue with the highest number of surviving examples from that time period is the supposedly “Proof-only” 1841 with approximately 15 examples known in all grades – roughly double the highest number of any other Proof quarter eagle of that decade. The just released study of the 1841 quarter eagle by PCGS presents cogent arguments on both sides of the Proof vs. circulation strike discussion, with excellent pictures and careful study notes by several famed specialists. Both sides of the decision are presented, but the majority of specialists believe that the 1841 quarter eagle was produced in both Proof and non-Proof formats. All were struck from the same die pair. PCGS has decided to grade individual 1841 quarter eagles as either Proofs or circulation strike coins, and the present coin is the first public auction appearance of a certified “non-Proof” example.
One of the most famous of all United States coins, the 1841 Liberty quarter eagle is included in the book 100 Greatest U.S. Coins by Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth. Dubbed the “Little Princess” by Norman Stack in the Davis-Graves auction of 1954, or perhaps earlier, the name has continued in use to this day. Long known as a great rarity, when an example appeared for auction in 1930 and brought $3,000 the rarity of the “Little Princess” become legendary. A few other examples came to market after that towering price was achieved at auction in 1930, but demand has always been high. And as the American economy boomed after World War II prices have continued to rise for this rarity. Most examples reside in advanced cabinets and cross the auction block only when significant and famous collections appear on the market.
Certified EF-45 by PCGS, the example being offered in our March Baltimore Auction exhibits a sharp strike throughout, with all of Liberty’s hair curls and each of the stars brought up smartly by the obverse die. Matching depth of strike is present on the reverse where the eagle’s talons are bold, as well as the feathers. The surfaces show minor nicks and a few shallow pin scratches, as illustrated, one just touching the upper point of star 9 and continuing to Liberty’s head, another on the reverse through the letter E in UNITED to the rim above, just missing the upper left of the D. Warm yellow gold patina with no signs of toning.
This coin is the first 1841 Liberty quarter eagle to be classified as a circulation strike by PCGS, and its certification follows directly on the heels of a recent decision by that firm to consider any of these 1841 quarter eagles as non-Proofs. Tradition has long held that all 1841 quarter eagles are Proofs as, for one, they were all struck from the same die pair, the reverse in fact being used to coin all Proof quarter eagles dated 1840 to 1849 in deference to the policy adopted by Franklin Peale in 1839 which stated that Proof dies were not to be used to coin circulation strikes. Furthermore, Mint records do not account for any circulation strikes in 1841; while not recording mintage figures for Proofs was common practice for the U.S. Mint during the 1840s, it was not so for circulation strikes.
Despite these and other facts that seem to support the Proof-only status of the 1841, the number of examples known provides the genesis of the Proof versus circulation strike debate for this issue. Indeed, no other Proof quarter eagle from the 1840s has more than six to eight specimens known to exist. With approximately 15 specimens known in all, the 1841 seems abundant by comparison. The fact that so many are circulated today also bears witness to an unusual situation since Proofs are usually expertly crafted for and carefully preserved by collectors and dignitaries. The evidence is still being researched and more is likely to be discovered on these rare and cherished coins.
Of the approximately 15 examples of the 1841 “Little Princess” known in all grades, the finest example is that held in the Smithsonian Institution, a fantastic Gem Proof. An impaired example is held by the Connecticut State Library and, as such, is also off the market for private ownership. The Eliasberg specimen is a Proof, was later owned by Harry W. Bass, Jr. and now resides in an advanced collection. Another Gem Proof is the Menjou, Grant-Pierce, 1976 ANA specimen currently certified Proof-65 Ultra Cameo by NGC. Most of the other known specimens have prooflike surfaces but show slight to moderate circulation in grades from VF to AU. One example has even been certified as Good-4 by PCGS.
In conclusion, the recent decision by PCGS to certify certain 1841 quarter eagles as circulation strikes heralds a new era in collecting. Date collectors will need to obtain an example in order to complete their collections, as “Proof-only” issues have historically been left out of date collections due to their rarity and specialized striking status. While the controversy continues, several leading authorities have concluded that approximately 10 of the known 1841 quarter eagles appear to have been produced in a manner different than the four pieces that are unequivocally regarded as Proofs. As always, further study will likely bring in more points to ponder, as numismatics remains a lively science with such discoveries and controversies continuing to test the limits of our knowledge.
Regardless of the final conclusion about this important U.S. Mint issue, the 1841 “Little Princess” Liberty quarter eagle will certainly remain one of the most highly regarded and coveted coins in all of numismatics. The Stack’s Bowers Galleries March Baltimore Auction offers what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire an example of this prized rarity at a time when the issue is being actively studied and debated by today’s leading U.S. gold coin experts.