Indian Head $2.50 Quarter Eagles

Designer: Bela Lyon Pratt
Face Value: $2.50
Pure Gold Content: .12094 oz.
Diameter: 20.5mm
Mints: Philadelphia and Denver
Years Minted: 1908-1915 and 1925-1929

When the Indian Head Quarter Eagles made their first appearance, they were rather controversial, but the $2.50 Indian gold pieces were also quite revolutionary . . . and, they remain so even today! And, they are highly desirable to a wide range of collectors.

At the start of the 20th century, the four gold coins then being issued by the United States had all been around without a major design change for over fifty years, having an obverse of a portrait of Miss Liberty with a coronet. Was America taking “Liberty” for granted? Many were of the persuasion that 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.

Theodore Roosevelt

The powerfully dynamic Roosevelt was a formidable agent of change, and took a strong individual interest to impact his notions upon a wide range of national issues, including U.S. coinage. Roosevelt arranged for famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign the $20 and $10 gold pieces. And, when the stunning new coins debuted to rave reviews in 1907, the President basked in the glory of the accomplishment. He then gave his blessing to redesigning the two remaining gold coins the following year.

The public in 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, which he maintained would result from the recessed areas becoming clogged with filth and disease. The president, however, remained steadfast in his support for the revolutionary coins.

The Indian Head Quarter Eagle and its larger twin, the Half Eagle, stand out from other United States coinage because of their incuse designs. The lettering is sunk into the flat plane, which is the highest point of the relief, except for a possible mint mark. This revolutionary concept is credited to a Boston physician and art lover by the name of William Sturgis Bigelow, who happened to be close to Teddy Roosevelt. It is believed that Bigelow’s interest in Egyptian reliefs at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had influenced his passion for this idea.

Another prominent Bostonian, sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt, was awarded the commission to design the two smaller gold denominations. Pratt, after graduating from Yale, enrolled at the Art Students League of New York where he took classes from William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Kenyon Cox (1859–1919), Francis Edwin Elwell (1858–1922), and most importantly, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), who became his mentor.

Weinman Art School

Pratt created the obverse to depict a realistic Native Indian brave in a familiar war bonnet, with the date, thirteen stars and the word ‘LIBERTY’ forming a circle around the Indian figure. And, he fashioned the reverse with an eagle in repose, perched upon fasces (a set of arrows bound in the form of a bundle) and an olive branch, which together symbolize preparedness and peace.

Collecting Indian Head Quarter Eagles

Indian Head Quarter Eagles were issued annually from 1908 through 1915, but the Mint suspended production for ten years and resumed in 1925. Coins were struck for five more years before the series ended in 1929, as a result of the Wall Street crash of ’29. As the Great Depression unfolded, what little gold came to the Mint was used to produce Double Eagles. With that, and the elimination of gold as money in 1933, the Quarter Eagle Indian would never again be issued.

The series is very popular to collect. With 12 issues from the Philadelphia Mint and three from Denver, the concise 15 date/mint series is one of the smallest in U.S. coinage . . . and it’s GOLD! Completing a set is attainable for many collectors despite the relatively high cost of buying anything made of gold. This is partly due to the fact that there is really only one coin, which is the 1911-D, that is notably scarce. At a reported mintage of 55,680, it’s the only coin with a mintage of less than 240,000. The Denver (“D”) mintmark is on the reverse, to the left of the arrowheads.

Proof coinage is also prized. There were a fairly few matte proofs made in each year from 1908 through 1915. However, none were issued in the final five years. As it turned out, the flat matte finish of the proofs proved to be fairly unpopular with the collectors of the day, and many remained unsold and were later destroyed by the Mint.

Uniquely, the incuse design elements on Indian Head Quarter Eagles shield them from excessive wear. The design does, however, somewhat complicate grading, as the coins wear differently than all other raised-relief coinage. Generally, good specimens are relatively plentiful in grades up to Mint State-64, but above that level, do become difficult to find. It is understood that counterfeits of many dates exist, which makes coins certified by NGS and PCGS evermore important.

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 collection.

$2.50 Gold Indian Quarter Eagles

Philadelphia Denver Total Issues
1908 1
1909 1
1910 1
1911 1911-D 2
1912 1
1913 1
1914 1914-D 2
1915 1
1925-D 1
1926 1
1927 1
1928 1
1929 1
12 3 15
Total Issues of Basic Set: 15