Indian Head Quarter Eagles 1908-1929 Coin Guide
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Indian Head Quarter Eagles 1908-1929
The Saint-Gaudens double eagle (or $20 gold piece) is frequently
acclaimed as the single most beautiful coin in American history. A case
can be made, however, that two smaller United States gold coins from the
same historical period are really much more innovative and daring. And, at
the time they made their first appearance, they were also quite a bit more
controversial. These two coins are the Indian Head quarter and half
eagles-or, in layman's terms, the Indian Head $2.50 and $5 gold pieces,
At the start of the 20th century, the life expectancy of the average
American was less than fifty years. But the four gold coins then being
issued by Uncle Sam had all been around without a major design change for
more than fifty years. Three, in fact, had carried the same design-a
portrait of Miss Liberty wearing a coronet-for more than 60 years.
Clearly, it was time for a change, and in 1901 the groundwork was laid
for that change when Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency upon
the assassination of William McKinley. The restless, dynamic Roosevelt was
a quintessential agent of change, taking a personal interest and stamping
his imprint upon the entire gamut of national life-including U.S. coinage.
It was Roosevelt who arranged for famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens
to redesign the double eagle and eagle (or $10 gold piece), and he basked
in reflected glory when the stunning new coins debuted to rave reviews in
1907. He then gave his personal blessing to redesigning the two remaining
gold coins the following year.
The Indian Head quarter eagle and its larger companion, the half eagle,
stand out from all the rest of United States coinage because their designs
and lettering are sunken in a plane that is uniformly flat. The highest
points of relief are level with the coins' fields, and they have no raised
rims to protect them from wear. In fact, the only element of these coins
to exceed the level of their fields are their mintmarks, if any.
The concept for such coins came from a Boston physician and art lover
named William Sturgis Bigelow, who happened to be a close friend of Teddy
Roosevelt's. Bigelow's interest apparently had been stimulated by Egyptian
reliefs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and although there was no
modern precedent for the use of this technique in producing coins, he and
Roosevelt both thought the notion had merit.
Another prominent Bostonian, sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt, got the
assignment of fashioning designs. Unlike Saint-Gaudens who had come up
with different designs for the double eagle and eagle, Pratt provided
identical portraits for both of the smaller coins, but their dignity and
strength amply justify this added exposure.
The obverse depicts a realistic-looking Indian brave in a war bonnet,
with the date, thirteen stars and the motto LIBERTY forming a circle
around this central device. The reverse shows an eagle in repose, perched
upon fasces and an olive branch, the intertwined symbols of preparedness
and peace. Through judicious sizing and placement, Pratt succeeded in
incorporating four different inscriptions on this side, (UNITED STATES OF
AMERICA, E PLURIBUS UNUM, IN GOD WE TRUST and the statement of value)
without causing the coin to seem unbalanced, cluttered or cramped.
The public of 1908 received the coin with mixed feelings. Although many
appreciated the design's artistic merits, others immediately found fault.
Some felt neither the Indian nor the eagle were properly represented,
while others questioned the coin's ability to stack properly. Inevitably,
the incusing of the design elements, being unfamiliar, also stirred
criticism. Philadelphia coin dealer Samuel H. Chapman found it
particularly objectionable, warning President Roosevelt that the
"sunken design" would lead to a multitude of problems, including
counterfeiting and even illness (he maintained that the recessed areas
would become clogged with filth and convey disease). The president
remained unshakable, however, in his support for the coins.
Indian Head quarter eagles were issued annually from 1908 through 1915.
At that point, the Mint suspended their production for a decade; when it
resumed in 1925, the coins were struck for five more years before the
series ended in 1929-one of many victims of that year's Wall Street crash.
As the depression took hold, what little gold came into the Mint was used
for production of double eagles. With the cessation of gold coinage and
the great recall of 1934, the quarter eagle would not return.
With just fifteen different date-and-mint combinations (twelve issues
from the Philadelphia Mint and three from Denver), the series is one of
the smallest in U.S. coinage, making a complete set attainable for many
collectors despite the relatively high cost of buying anything made of
gold. Its affordability is enhanced by the fact that only one coin, the
1911-D, is notably scarce; at 55,680, it's the only coin with a mintage of
less than 240,000. The Denver mintmark can be found on the reverse, to the
left of the arrowheads.
Relatively small numbers of matte proofs were made in every year from
1908 through 1915, but not in the final five years. The flat matte finish
of the proofs proved unpopular with collectors of the day, and many
remained unsold, to later be melted by the Mint.
Being recessed, the design elements on Indian Head quarter eagles are
protected from excessive wear. At the same time, this complicates the
grading of these coins, since the patterns of normal wear differ from
those of raised-relief coins. Critical areas for detecting traces of wear
are the Indian's cheekbone and headdress feathers and the shoulder of the
eagle's left wing. Although these coins are relatively plentiful in grades
up to Mint State-64, a sharp drop-off occurs above that level and very few
examples exist in grades of Mint State-66 and above. Counterfeits of many
dates exist, and some are very deceiving. Any questionable piece should be
The Indian Head quarter eagle may not be quite as magnificent as the
Saint-Gaudens coinage, but it has its fair share of admirers and has long
since overcome its early criticism. This series offers the advantage of
being perhaps the only series of United States gold coins easily
completed. Aside from the 1911-D, all dates in this series are readily
available in mint state. They also make for a fun and satisfying
Diameter: 18 millimeters Weight: 4.18 grams Composition: .900 gold,
.100 copper Edge: Reeded Net Weight: .12094 ounce pure gold
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Akers, David W., A Handbook of
20th-Century United States Gold Coins 1907-1933,Bowers & Merena
Galleries, Wolfeboro, NH, 1988. Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Complete
Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I. Press/Doubleday, New York,
1988. Taxay, Don, The U.S. Mint and Coinage, Arco Publishing Co. Inc., New
York, 1966. Yeoman, R.S., A Guide Book of United States Coins, 47th
Edition, Western Publishing Co., Racine, WI, 1993.
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC.