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Early $2.50 (1796-1834)

Draped Bust (1796-1807)

At the turn of the 19th century, two and a half dollars represented a considerable sum of money—five days wages for the average U.S. Mint employee. It was unlikely however, that anyone outside the Philadelphia Mint would see that amount in the form of the new quarter eagle coin: so few were made, and fewer still entered circulation. The denomination may as well not have existed at all. A few large Northeastern banks did occasionally order quarter eagles, but apparently more as a whim than out of necessity, as most remained in their vaults.

Although authorized by the Mint Act of 1792, by all appearances the coin was an unwanted stepchild: it was the last denomination made, and then only in such small quantities as to be of little use in commerce. The cent, half dollar, and half eagle took center stage during this era—they were the real workhorses. The paucity of early quarter eagles has a flip side for numismatists however, as these coins—in their many variations—are among the rarest in numismatics, and have both fascinated and frustrated collectors and researchers for years.

The first quarter eagle—the 1796 Draped Bust without stars—was designed by Chief Engraver Robert Scot. The obverse depicts Liberty facing right, wearing a soft cap, with the inscription LIBERTY above, and the date below. The cap was long thought to be a liberty or Phrygian cap, taken from an ancient Roman model. However, even Mint Director Samuel Moore identified this cap in 1825 as a fashionable headdress of the 1790s, and indeed there are portraits of Martha Washington wearing just such a hat. The coin’s reverse features a heraldic eagle—Scot’s adaptation of the Great Seal of the United States—with clouds arcing from wing to wing, enclosing stars, with the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA around the margin.

These first quarter eagles lacked stars on the obverse because they were placed on the reverse as part of the new Heraldic eagle design. However, the half eagle and eagle were still using the small eagle reverse, with stars on their respective obverses. Whether due to artistic taste or uniformity of design, the quarter eagle obverse received stars for the last coinage of 1796. With Tennessee’s recent admission to the Union, 16 stars were on the obverse: eight left, eight right. After Tennessee was admitted however, Mint Director Boudinot realized the impracticality of adding a star for each new state. Thereafter, only 13 stars were to be used, symbolizing the original states. The No Stars variety of this year stands alone as a distinct separate type, but date collectors generally include it as a part of the extended series.

The 1797 issue had thirteen stars on the obverse, 7 left, 6 right. The reverse of the coin though, was from the previous year—it had 16 stars. Thus began the dance of changing obverse and reverse dies for this design. The position of the obverse stars changed almost every year, mimicking the arrangement on the more popular coins. The reverses genuflected within several years, reflecting the Mint’s haste or fear of waste. Reverse stars ranged from thirteen to sixteen, and not in any particular order, at that. Many reverse dies were also used to mint dimes when quarter eagle production was completed.

Only 20 examples are believed to survive of the 1797 issue out of a mintage of 427 pieces. The 1798 issue saw two reverses—with either four or five berries on the olive branch. The Five Berry reverse is significantly scarcer, but receives little attention, as the date is very scarce regardless of variety. Next came the 1802—one of the few so-called “common” dates in this series. Long attributed as an overdate, this status is now in doubt among specialists. Following was the 1804, with both thirteen and fourteen star reverses. The thirteen star variety is extremely rare and without question the key to the series: Only nine examples are believed to exist in all grades. The 1805 is one of the more frequently encountered issues, but its mintage of 1,781 pieces would certainly thrust this date to the forefront of almost any other series of U.S. coins. There are two overdates for 1806, one over a 4 and the other over a 5, the latter being considerably scarcer. The 1807 is the most available issue of the design, and is generally sought by those seeking a high grade example for a type set.

Draped Bust quarter eagles saw production in eight years between 1796 and 1807, totaling 19,487 coins, encompassing eleven recognized varieties. More rarities are in this short-lived series than common dates. Few collectors in recent years have attempted to complete a set of these coins—most consider themselves lucky to locate a problem-free VF-AU example at a reasonable price. The With Stars issue is rarer than the No Stars variety, but it is not as widely recognized, being overshadowed by the No Stars’ significance as a one year type.

No proofs were made, but several 1796 No Stars coins have enough mirror-like finish to support the theory that they were included in presentation sets of coins distributed on June 1 of that year—celebrating Tennessee’s admission to the Union.

Counterfeits are virtually unknown, but there is an interesting piece with a similar design associated with the series—the Kettle token. These are actually brass gaming counters made in England, and while vaguely resembling the Draped Bust design, anyone familiar with a genuine quarter eagle will not be fooled. They are dated 1803, a significant date for quarter eagles, as the annual Director’s Report shows a delivery of 423 coins in that year (actually dated 1802). The lack of quarter eagles with the 1803 date makes the dated Kettle tokens an appealing adjunct to the series.

Grading this design can be quite a challenge, as striking weakness is often seen in the center of both sides. When such softness is encountered, high grade pieces must be graded by the mint luster remaining. Well-struck coins will first show friction on the cap and the highest point of the hair on the obverse. On the reverse, rub will first show on the wing tips of the eagle and on the clouds.

The Draped Bust design was current for eleven years, until Mint Director Patterson ordered John Reich to redesign all denominations in 1807. Reich’s improved design, first used on the quarter eagle in 1808, lasted only a year, and while Scot’s Draped Bust motif may have been retired prematurely, it remains one of the most beloved of all designs on early gold coins.

Capped Bust (1808)

The fledgling United States Mint opened in 1792 with a full complement of machinists, administrators and other sundry personnel, but it sorely lacked in artistic talent. After several years of negotiations, Secretary of State Thomas Jeffer-son’s attempts to hire French inventor Jean Pierre Droz, one of the finest engravers and coiners in the world, had proved futile. Mint Director David Rittenhouse appointed artist Joseph Wright as Chief Engraver in August 1793, but Wright hardly got started before he died a few weeks later in one of Philadelphia’s annual yellow fever epidemics. Desperate for an engraver, Rittenhouse engaged the aging Robert Scot, an English born watchmaker and banknote engraver. Unfortunately Scot’s limited talents as a die engraver, exacerbated by his advancing years and failing eyesight, provided the Mint with marginal designs at best.

Criticism of Scot’s designs was immediate and widespread, but the hired-for-life chief engraver thwarted any effort to challenge his position. By 1807, Mint Director Robert Patterson became concerned that the aging Scot could die at any time, leaving the Mint without a trained replacement.

The logical successor to Scot’s post was John Reich. A refugee from the Napoleonic Wars, Reich had sold himself into indentured servitude to escape to America. By 1801, his reputation as an engraver had earned him a recommendation from President Thomas Jefferson. Reich was assigned miscellaneous jobs at the Mint, but in deference to the professionally territorial Scot, he was not allowed to design coins. After six years on the job, Reich’s considerable talents were going to waste, and he began to make preparations to return to his native Germany. It was at this point that Mint Director Patterson intervened with a well-placed letter to President Jefferson, and Reich was promoted to Assistant Engraver at an annual salary of 600 dollars—half of what Scot was earning.

Reich’s first assignment was to improve the designs for all denominations. After preparing dies for the half dollar and half eagle of 1807, he created a single pair of dies for the quarter eagle of 1808. Reich’s design was a total departure from Scot’s Draped Bust/Heraldic Eagle motif of 1796-1807. Miss Liberty faces left, wearing a mob cap inscribed with LIBERTY. Critics of the day remarked on the European influence apparent in Reich’s Liberty, and many ridiculed his depiction as “the artist’s fat mistress.” On the reverse, Reich replaced Scot’s stiff heraldic eagle with a naturalistic spread-winged bird perched on an olive branch, holding arrows in its talons. Above the eagle is a ribbon with the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM, and all are surrounded by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and 2 1/2 D. While the coin was designed with denticles surrounding both sides, apparently these elements were lightly or incompletely sunk into the die, resulting in coins that are very weak at the borders.

Only 2,710 coins were struck from these dies, and no more quarter eagles were produced for more than a dozen years, making this date an instant rarity. Estimates are that fewer than fifty 1808 quarter eagles exist today in all grades. Most survivors are in the higher circulated grades, but several mint state examples have appeared over the years. Even among the low mintage quarter eagles, the 1808 is a very scarce date. But with so many collectors pursuing design types alone, this issue has assumed much greater importance than merely another scarce date in the quarter eagle series. It is one of the premier rarities in U.S. numismatics and undoubtedly one of the most eagerly sought of all type coins.

These highly prized coins are held in major gold collections and rarely enter the numismatic market. No proofs are known and no special strikings are even rumored to exist. The finest 1808 quarter eagle known traces its pedigree to the collection of the famous Colonel E.H.R. Green, son of the notorious “Witch of Wall Street,” fabulously wealthy Hetty Green. Since the 1930s sale of the Colonel’s collection, this remarkable coin has been the cornerstone of gold collections owned by such notables as Jerome Kern, Dr. J. Hewitt Judd and Congressman Jimmy Hayes.

Several circumstances contributed to the small mintage and subsequent rarity of 1808 quarter eagles. In the early years of the Mint, depositors of foreign gold or bullion could specify which denominations they preferred to receive. By 1808, only half eagles and quarter eagles were in production, and the overwhelming demand was for half eagles. Banks preferred the half eagles for international payments and reserves, and they rarely ordered the smaller coins. As only one set of dies was prepared for quarter eagles in 1808, it’s obvious the Mint had no intention of striking any large quantities, but early die failure probably limited production to far fewer coins than officials had planned.

All but one of the 1808 quarter eagles known today show a die break on the obverse from the cap through the stars on the right. As this fracture progressed, most likely the die broke and came apart, stopping production at that point. With no replacement dies, no more quarter eagles could be minted, and the minuscule demand for the denomination didn’t justify preparing new dies. Demand remained almost nonexistent until 1821, when some small orders for the denomination were again received.

No hoards are known of 1808 quarter eagles and no reasonably convincing counterfeits have surfaced over the years. These coins are invariably weak at the rims and softly struck on the peripheral stars. Because of this, care must be taken to differentiate actual wear from the effects of a weak strike. On the obverse, friction first begins to show above the eye and on top of the cap. Wear on the reverse is first evident on the eagle’s wingtips and talons.

After never receiving a raise in a decade and fed up with Scot’s harassment, Reich left the Mint in 1817. Ironically, the jealous Scot wasted little time in replacing Reich’s designs. When the quarter eagle reappeared in 1821, Scot copied his 1813 half eagle design for the smaller coin, creating the Capped Head quarter eagle. Over the next decade, Scot’s replacements for Reich’s designs were certainly no artistic leap forward, and are most likely a reflection of the lingering professional jealousy the tenured Scot harbored for the talented Reich. Yet, Reich’s design of 1808 left a lasting impression on future Mint engravers. His eagle remained virtually unchanged for the next century, until finally replaced by the Bela Lyon Pratt design in 1908.

Capped Head (1821-1834)

Early quarter eagles: little seen by collectors today, they were almost as rare when first made. Few were minted and most never saw circulation. Napoleon’s rampage through Europe had seen to that. A worldwide rise in gold prices, fueled by the chaos following the “Reign of Terror” in France, affected U.S. gold coinage disastrously. Bullion dealers bought U.S. gold coins, often with legal tender Mexican silver coins, and shipped them to Paris, London or Hamburg to be melted. The result was inevitable: Eagles were discontinued, half eagle mintage occurred almost exclusively for banks, and quarter eagle production remained minuscule, finally ceasing in 1808.

The War of 1812 only made things worse. The 15:1 silver/gold ratio established by Congress as “law of the land” in 1792, rose in Europe—by 1813—to over 16:1, allowing bullion brokers substantial profits on every ounce of American gold exported. At the same time, Spain’s preoccupation with Napoleon had allowed her colonies in Latin America to break free and establish Republics, and the huge flow of South America silver previously destined for Spain now flowed to the United States, further diluting silver’s value vis-à-vis gold.

The promise of huge profits enticed exporters to risk fortunes and face innumerable hazards. Often, ships perished in storms, were ravaged by pirates, or the gold was hijacked once ashore. Profits could be great—an ounce of silver or more per ounce of gold—but large amounts of bullion were required to make the overseas voyage worthwhile. Many would still buck the odds, and soon nearly all U.S. gold coins disappeared from circulation. J. Laurence Laughlin, a Harvard assistant professor, in his 1892 book, The History of Bimetallism in the United States, described the Mint in this era as “a useless expense to the nation, but a source of profit to the money-brokers.”

By 1821, relative calm had settled over world and national affairs. The war with England was long past, and the turmoil in Europe a distant memory. Indian wars in the Northwest were ended by William Henry Harrison and in the Southwest by Andrew Jackson. The “Great Migration West” had begun. James Monroe was inaugurated as President for his second term, running unopposed the previous December. The future was indeed bright for the growing nation.

For whatever reason (the late Walter Breen, a renowned numismatic researcher, speculated that they might have been used as Christmas presents or souvenirs), in 1821, quarter eagles were once again requested by several banks. Although gold didn’t circulate during this era, bullion from Mexico, and later from the new mines in North Carolina and Georgia, did find its way to the Mint. Under the Mint’s “free coinage” policy, anyone could deposit foreign coins, or native silver or gold bullion, and request coinage of specific legal denominations. Usually, gold deposits were made by banks, accounting for what little gold coinage there was at the time. Generally, banks requested the larger denomination, half eagles (eagle production ceased in 1804 by order of President Thomas Jefferson), so the sudden demand for quarter eagles was totally unexpected. Chief Engraver Robert Scot, seventy-seven and eyesight failing, was in no condition to create an original design. He responded with a design borrowed from his 1818 half eagle, itself an adaptation of former assistant John Reich’s 1813 Capped Head motif.

Scot’s matronly, thick-necked Liberty on the new 1821 quarter eagle wears a headdress in the guise of a Phrygian or Liberty cap, really a mobcap, typically worn by women around the turn of the 19th century. Thirteen widely spaced stars surround the bust, with the date below. An eagle with outstretched wings graces the reverse, and the motto, E PLURIBUS UNUM appears above. Both are surrounded by the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and 2½ D.

The Capped Head quarter eagle maintained the legal weight standard, but was slightly smaller and thicker than the previous quarter eagle, Reich’s 1808 Capped Bust design, which had lasted only one year. In 1829, William Kneass, who had replaced Scot after his death in 1823, modified the coin by reducing the diameter further, punching in smaller stars on the obverse and redrawing the Liberty head and eagle. Kneass created a beaded border surrounded by a high, plain rim, taking advantage of a recent Mint innovation, the “close collar.” Essentially a steel doughnut with a hole the size of the coin and grooves to impart a reeded edge, the close collar gave an even, finished look to the coin.

From 1821 through 1834, 42,065 business strikes and fewer than 150 proof Capped Head quarter eagles were made. Although numismatists recognize the 1821 through 1827 issues as a separate type from the later, smaller coins, the rarity of the entire series generally limits type collectors to just one example of this design. Collecting the eleven issues by date is a formidable challenge not attempted by many, as every issue is rare in any grade and some, like the low mintage 1826 and the 1834 are particularly so. The 1834 coin is almost legendary in its rarity, as the bulk of the mintage of 4000 pieces was never released, but melted at the Mint.

None of the dates in the series appear in mint-state with any frequency, but type collectors will most often encounter the 1825 or 1829-31 coins in high grade. Most issues are usually found in grades from VF to Uncirculated, with more mint-state specimens among the later dates. Much of the mintage has disappeared, probably spent during the “Hard Times” era of 1837-44, and the few survivors are often impaired. When grading this design, look for wear on the hair above Liberty’s forehead, on the top of her cap, and on her cheek. On the reverse, check the eagle’s wing tips and claws.

Destruction of U.S. gold coins reached a pinnacle in 1831, when 40,000 half eagles were melted in Paris at once. Even U.S. banks were liquidating their coins. Finally, Congress was forced to address this decades-old problem. Responding to the pleas of Eastern businessmen and Southern mine owners, the legislators passed the Coinage Act of 1834, which reduced the gold content of U.S. gold coins by 6%, allowing them to circulate—virtually for the first time. The new law ended the flow of gold out of the United States and enabled holders of the “old tenor” quarter eagles (now worth about $2.66) to sell their coins directly to the Mint instead of shipping them overseas.

The new weight standard called for a new design. Mint Director Samuel Moore instructed William Kneass to prepare enough dies to accommodate the expected demand for the new lighter weight coins. Kneass’ 1834 Classic Head quarter eagle was easily identified by the missing motto on the reverse. It would be minted through 1839, when it was replaced by Christian Gobrecht’s Coronet Head design.

NGC Auction Central Disclaimer

NGC Auction Central Disclaimer

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