The date: Monday, January 24, 1848. The morning began as a routine work day for James W. Marshall. As an employee hired by John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who was building a prosperous sawmill company in the Sacramento Valley of the California Territory, it was Marshall's responsibility to oversee construction of a new mill on the American River.(1)
While at the jobsite this particular day, Marshall happened to detect the sun's rays bouncing off a small glistening object in the water. Was it.... could it be.... gold? Secretly, Sutter subjected the rock to a battery of tests to confirm that yes, the tiny nugget was indeed gold!
Despite Sutter's desire to keep the discovery secret, word spread like wildfire that gold had been found in the Sacramento Valley. By 1849, stories of incredible overnight fortunes made headlines throughout the world. Dreams of riches stirred the imagination of the boldest adventurers. By the thousands, the "49ers" flooded the California gold fields in a mad rush.
Within a short time, the gold fields produced an abundance of treasures. The population of California soared to over 100,000, bringing statehood in 1850. The quiet community of San Francisco was rapidly transformed into a hopping boomtown, where businesses catered to the needs of the 49ers.(2)
Still, there was a severe shortage of legal tender to facilitate financial transactions in the gold mining district. Transporting raw gold to mints in New Orleans or Philadelphia where it was coined or converted to bullion bars, and then back again to California was both time-consuming and treacherous.
In 1852, Congress approved the construction of a branch mint in San Francisco. A wealth of the yellow metal on hand, combined with an ever-increasing Western Frontier populace begging for circulating coinage, was more than enough incentive to establish a new coining facility on the Pacific coast.
On April 3, 1854, the San Francisco Mint was ready for business. The lack of chemicals utilized in the refining process and other start-up issues prevented the new facility initially from reaching its manufacturing capacity. The first year focus was on the production of $10 eagles and $20 double eagles, with 123,826 and 141,468 mintages, respectively.(3)
As a result of capacity reduction and the preferences of the gold depositors for larger denominations, the $2.50 quarter eagle and $5.00 half eagle were nearly forgotten in 1854, with microscopic mintages of 246 and 268 respectively. All were released into circulation and absorbed into the local economy.
From Mint records, coin collectors of the 19th century understood there were 1854-S quarter eagles struck, but none were known to exist. It wasn’t until 1910 the first example was discovered. By 1921, the number of confirmed examples had increased to three.(4)
Today, the 1854-S Coronet quarter eagle is one of the most highly acclaimed landmark rarities in the realm of United States numismatics, with few peers. With but a dozen known pieces, its rarity is similar to more famous coins such as the 1804 Draped Bust dollar or the 1894-S Barber dime, but priced far less.(5)
The 1854-S quarter eagle is virtually non-collectible because of its extreme scarcity. We here at Rare Coins 101 almost omitted it from the Key Date List of recommendations for the same reason the aforementioned 1804 dollar is not listed… but a fairly recent development convinced us there is reason to hope for additional findings of this magnificent coin.
In 2005, a previously unknown example of the 1854-S quarter eagle was brought to light. C.L. Lee’s great-grandfather arrived in California for a second time, circa 1857, from China. Soon thereafter, he acquired a $2.50 quarter eagle and saved it in a burlap-covered chest, along with other artifacts of the day. Passed down from one generation to the next as a family heirloom, the chest contained a single coin – that happened to be dated 1854-S – one of the rarest United States quarter eagles.(6)
The coin was certified by NGC as EF-45 grade and sold for $253,000. Sometimes dreams do come true!
|Estimated survivors in all grades: 12
? The survivor estimate from PCGS represents an average of one or more experts' opinions as to how many examples survive of a particular coin in all grades. Survival estimates include coins that are raw, certified by PCGS, and certified by other grading services.
Learn more at PCGS.
|PCGS Rarity Scale: 9.5
? The 'PCGS CoinFacts Rarity Scale' assesses the relative rarity of all U.S. coins, based on estimated surviving examples. The scale runs from 1.0 to 10.0. The higher the number, the rarer the coin.
Learn more at PCGS.
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