This month’s coin highlight focuses on one of America’s most beautiful and unique gold coins—the $2.50 Indian Quarter Eagle. Unlike many of the larger denominations that were circulated around the same time, the Indian Quarter Eagle was one of the scarcest gold coins of the 20th century.
With the eagle and double eagle released into circulation by the end of 1907, after the insistence of Theodore Roosevelt to redesign the U.S. coinage, the U.S. Mint turned its attention to the half eagle and quarter eagle. The original game plan, to make it a quicker process, was to duplicate the design of the $20 Gold Eagle, but the Mint had much difficulty fitting the required inscriptions and marks on the small gold coins, which were roughly the size of a dime ($2.50 piece) and a nickel ($5 piece).
Sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt received the assignment of figuring the new 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. 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 central motif. The reverse shows an eagle resting and perched upon fasces and an olive branch, the intertwined symbols of preparedness and peace.
Upon its release, there were many who appreciated the change in design, and the artistry behind it. However, there were many others who immediately felt it was inadequate, whether it was the motifs not conveying what the public thought it should, or questioning the coin’s storage abilities such as how well it could stack; there were even some who believed the “sunken design” of the coin would lead to uncontrollable counterfeiting and even disease, as it was believed the recessed areas around the coin would become clogged with materials capable of spreading such illnesses. Nevertheless, President Roosevelt held strong to his support of these coins.
The $2.50 Indian Quarter Eagle would be minted from the years 1908-1915, with a break from production afterwards for 10 years. By 1925, the coins would be put back into production, but only for a small amount of time until production stopped permanently in 1929, as a result of the gold shortage of the Great Depression. There are only 15 different Indian Head Quarter Eagles by date and mintmark; the key is the 1911 struck at Denver (1911-D), which the 2014 A Guide Book of United States Coins values at $2,850 even in well-circulated VF (Very Fine, or 20 on the Mint State scale) condition.