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The Story of an American Coin

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The beginning: The Gold Account Ledger Book for the first quarter of 1808.
Photo courtesy of David Finkelstein.

On Friday, February 26, 1808, the Director of the Mint issued Delivery Warrant #471 to transfer 2,710 Quarter Eagles from the custody of the Chief Coiner to the custody of the Treasurer of the Mint. They were of a new design by John Reich, featuring a Capped figure of Liberty facing left. The basic design had appeared the previous year on the Half Dollar and Half Eagle, and in 1808 spread to the Cent and Quarter Eagle, replacing Robert Scot’s earlier Draped or Capped Bust facing right style. It would be the only year of issue for the design, as 13 years would elapse before the next delivery of quarter eagles from the mint. This resulted in the 1808 quarter eagle becoming one of the two or three most difficult U.S. type coins to acquire.

Of the 2,710 pieces delivered that day, perhaps 3% or 4% have survived. One in particular stands head and shoulders above the rest. This is the story of that coin...

Our 1808 quarter eagle first appears in the collection of Lorin G. Parmelee, a noted Massachusetts collector of the mid and late 19th century. Born in 1827 in Vermont, Parmelee relocated to Boston in the 1840s and by the end of the decade, was a well-known supplier of baked beans to inns and restaurants. Asked by friends to keep an eye out for scarcer copper coins (which were likely cents dated 1793, 1799, 1804 and half cents dated 1793, 1796, 1802/0 rev of 1800, and possibly even 1811 and a few Colonial coppers) he was soon "bitten by the bug" and began collecting coins himself. Parmelee started buying in the late 1850s and for the next thirty years or so, purchased several major collections including those of George Seavey, J. Carson Brevoort, Charles I. Bushnell, and a portion of the Sylvester Crosby collection.

The 1808 quarter eagle may have been in one of those collections, it may have been purchased at auction during the 1860s or 1870s or may have even been bought "over the counter" from Messrs. Henry Cook and Henry Ahlborn, local Boston dealers. Because the coin was not of particularly high value in the mid-19th century and the photographic plating of coins was reserved for only the most valuable pieces, the owner prior to Mr. Parmelee will likely never be known.

Parmelee sold off duplicates from the Seavey collection in 1873, the Brevoort collection in 1876 and the Bushnell collection in 1882 but the bulk of his collection was offered by New York Coin and Stamp in June 1890. The 1,443-lot sale was auctioned by Bangs " Co. in New York City and realized $23,600. Tucked away in the middle of the sale was an inconspicuous lot, not even plated in the sale. Lot 856 was described simply as "Quarter Eagle: new type, like next preceding: very fine; scarcely circulated." It realized a whopping $5.25, just over double its face value!

The buyer was John Story Jenks, a prominent Philadelphia collector. Born in Baltimore in 1839, Jenks started collecting as a boy in 1850 and over the next seventy years amassed one of the finest collections ever. In addition to U.S. coins, he collected ancient and world pieces as well, and the regular issue U.S. coins did not even begin until the 9th day of the 10-day sale. The sale was conducted in early December 1921 and was cataloged by Henry Chapman, who had sold him most of his coins over the preceding 45 years or so...

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