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Building a Seated Quarter Collection
By Mark Benvenuto, Coins Magazine
November 14, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The Seated Liberty design is the only U.S. coin design to have been used on six different denominations, from the half dime all the way up to the dollar. Designed by Christian Gobrecht, this motif is on coins that quite a few collectors consider too expensive to focus on and collect seriously. When it comes to quarters, I’d like to flip that idea and prove that the Seated Liberty quarters are a series from which you can build a great collection and have some fun at the same time.

The Seated Liberty quarter series spans from 1838-1891 and saw issues from the Philadelphia Mint as well as branch mints in San Francisco, Carson City and New Orleans.


No drapery at elbow
Tempting though it may be to simply see if you can build a collection based on dates alone, it is more prudent to divide this series into sections. First, from 1838 to 1840 the Seated Liberty quarter was issued with no drapery from Liberty’s clothing near her left elbow. A change was made in 1840, which means there is an 1840 piece from Philadelphia with drapery and an 1840-O with drapery, as well as one without. The 1838 and 1839 are the cheaper dates without drapery, and of the New Orleans pieces, the 1840-O without drapery is cheaper than the version with.

Before I go further, it’s probably wise to say a word or two about just what “cheaper” means. At the rock bottom end of things, Seated Liberty quarters go for $35 to $50. That means grades such as Good-4. But you don’t get much for your money. Up in the mint state end of the grading scale, prices never get below about $500 for common-date coins. But that’s a lot of dollars for a single quarter.

Where plenty of collectors gravitate is toward grades like Very Fine-20 or Extremely Fine-40. There is still a wealth of detail on coins like these, and prices tend to be in the $100 to $300 zone for the more common dates, again going higher for the rare pieces and hard-to-find mintmarks.


Drapery at elbow
With those prices in mind, let’s see what comes next. The design with drapery added at the elbow lasted from 1840 to 1853 and includes some dates with hefty mintages. None made it over the 1 million mark, but a few years came very close. The 1843-O has a total of 968,000 and the 1845 comes in only a bit behind it, with 922,000. Interestingly, a look through any price list will show you that the 1845 always costs less in the grades I mentioned. Apparently, even the O mintmark commands something of a premium within this series.


Arrows and rays
Problems with keeping silver in circulation led to a change in the weight of the quarter. In 1853, its weight dropped from 6.68 to 6.22 grams. That reduction, which put it on a subsidiary level, was marked by arrows at the date of the Seated Liberty quarters and rays around the eagle on the reverse. With more than 15 million of them minted in Philadelphia, this is one of the first dates in the series that can be considered cheap. The mint-state prices may be high, but an example in EF-40 won’t set you back even $200.


Arrows, no rays
In 1854, the rays were removed but the arrows stayed. The end result is another short period (1854-1855) in which there is yet another Seated Liberty quarter variety for a collector to add to any starter collection. The 1854 is almost as common as its earlier sibling, the 1853, and the price is even better.

This short span also contains the first Seated Liberty quarter with the S mintmark of San Francisco. The mintage was rather small (only 396,400 coins for the 1854-S), but there are still some affordable possibilities if you move down to a Fine-12 specimen, for example.


Return of the first variety
The weight of the Seated Liberty quarters never went back to the original, but in 1856 the design cycled back to what it had been at the outset. This 10-year span saw a few years with mintages approaching 10 million coins, but none that beat the 1853s and the 1854s. Still, it isn’t too hard to land an 1856, 1857, or 1861 in a decent grade. In the latter two cases, the pleasant surprise is how much design you can get for only $100. Believe it or not, that will land you something in EF-40.

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‘In God We Trust’
It was 1866 and the end of the unexpectedly long and brutal Civil War that saw the addition of the now familiar motto “In God We Trust” on the Seated Liberty quarters, among other denominations. Unfortunately for collectors, this was also the beginning of a long dry spell in the quarters series, with only three years prior to 1873 that even had a mintage of over 100,000 coins.

Curiously, the price tag of a few of the quarters within these years doesn’t reflect that rarity, which gives us an opening. The 1870 and 1871 are two such dates, with prices not too different from the earlier dates I mentioned. The 1870, for example, has a mintage of only 86,400 coins, but price tags of about $200 in VF-20 and $300 in EF-40. It may not have the allure of a mintmark on it, but each one of these quarters is definitely a sleeper.

Also in this time span, the CC mintmark makes its debut. The 1870-CC is the earliest quarter so marked, and with a mintage of 8,340, it’s probably expensive even to think about the piece for too long. But we’ll keep a rein on our desire and see that there may be a later CC quarter or two that is easier on the wallet.


Arrows
Seated Liberty quarters actually gained a tiny amount of mass in 1873, going from 6.22 to 6.25 grams. Once again, the difference was noted for two years by the addition of arrows at the date. Only the 1873s that came out of Philadelphia have a mintage in the seven-figure range, making that the single easy date for this short-lived variety.


Prior variety resumes
The Seated Liberty quarters close out its rather long run with a return to the “In God We Trust” variety, without the arrows. In this final span of years there are too many dates with low mintages for most of us to think about a full date run, but there are a few with huge ones. The 1876 was coined to the tune of 17.8 million coins, making it huge by just about any measure, and even the 1876-CC and 1877-CC saw mintages of more than 4 million each.

Thus, even though this tail-end variety is rough to collect in all its possible dates and mintmarks, there are two CC coins that can be had for about $100 in VF-20 and a handful of even more common coins that will only cost about $150 in grades such as EF-40 or even AU-50. This then can be a good place to add to your growing collection and insert a couple of coins from the wild west that was Carson City at the time.

Now, with all those divisions and sub-divisions added together, a collector can easily make a good start on a worthwhile collection. But don’t stop there. Use these dates, and the prices you paid for them, as a baseline for expanding what you have.

For example, if the 1843 was one of the early dates you added to your group, can you find an 1843-O that’s got some eye appeal to it? Likewise, if you were able to find a sharp-looking 1853, as an example of the arrows and rays variety, can you add an 1853-O to that? As well, see what other sleepers lie dormant within this large series, as they are the textbook definition of a good buy. The possibilities here may not be limitless, but they are very large.

As a final note, there were several years within the Seated Liberty quarter series in which proofs were made. The numbers were never very high, only getting to 1,000 pieces for a couple of those years. All of them were minted at the Philadelphia Mint, except the 1891-O. And they never appear to cost less than a few thousand dollars each. So if the price tags I have been mentioning for the circulated pieces seem too high for you, then what I am about to suggest might seem truly outrageous: Save up and see if you can buy or bid on just one of these proofs.

Adding a coin like this to any collection is like placing the proverbial jewel in the crown. This will be an eye opening piece that can bring an enormous pride of ownership. Well, there we have a quick survey of the Seated Liberty quarters series. Try building a collection you can be proud of and enjoy.


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