Grading Draped Bust $2.50 (1796-1807)
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Of the three gold denominations authorized by the Mint Act of 1792 the quarter eagle, or $2-1/2, was the last to be coined. The first delivery of these coins was not made until the autumn of 1796, and a total of just 963 pieces was recorded for the year. All of these bear Robert Scot's bust of Liberty adorned in a loose-fitting gown and tall cap. The Heraldic Eagle reverse of this type is an adaptation of the Great Seal of the United States of America, linking it to the other gold and silver denominations. This first emission lacked stars on the obverse, making it unique among coins of that design. The Mint was struggling to fit additional stars to its coins in keeping with the addition of new states, and perhaps the first quarter eagles were a test of a proposed starless obverse.
As if these quarter eagles were not rare enough by virtue of their low mintage, their status as one-year-only type coins makes them among the most expensive and highly sought issues in the United States series. Providing yet another obstacle to the collector is the fact that the starless Draped Bust quarter eagles were poorly made, particularly when judged by the standards usually applied to gold issues. With very few exceptions, these coins display uneven strikes. Much of the central design on both sides is typically incomplete, and it is very rare to find one with full borders.
United States gold coins saw only limited circulation, and this type seldom is found with more than light to moderate wear. Even rarer, however, are coins having no wear. Mint state examples are quite elusive and highly prized. Known specimens typically fall within the lower uncirculated grades of MS-60 through MS-62.
A second emission dated 1796, though issued the following year, included 16 stars around the obverse to represent the number of states in the Union. A mere 432 pieces were coined, making this subtype with stars even rarer than its predecessor. But, since it was produced through 1807, the demand from type collectors is spread over several dates, a factor reflected in lower prices. Mintages for coins of the Draped Bust type remained small throughout the series, the largest figure being the 6,812 pieces dated 1807. There is not much price differential for this series by date, the exceptions being the rare 1797 and a couple of varieties.
As one would expect from its relatively high mintage, the 1807 quarter eagle is the most readily available issue in this series. It is by no means a common coin, but a number of mint state examples have been certified by NGC. In addition, numerous pieces have been graded About Uncirculated-50 through -58, and these also are good candidates for the type collector.
This is not the whole story, however, as grade alone does not make for the ideal type coin. In addition to the poor strike mentioned earlier, distracting file marks sometimes are seen on these early coins, a remnant of the weight-adjustment process. Clerks weighed each planchet prior to its being struck into a coin. Those planchets found to be underweight were consigned to the melting pot, while overweight pieces were filed across their faces until they conformed to the legal standard. A normal part of the minting process, these adjustment lines have only minimal impact on grading, but they can affect a coin's aesthetic value. Collectors should be as mindful of the coin's overall quality and eye appeal as they are of its numeric grade.
The vast majority of early United States gold coins (those coined before the weight reduction of 1834) have been cleaned at one time. This cleaning typically was performed generations ago, when both tastes and grading skills were less refined. As long as the cleaning was not too harsh, time permits such coins to gradually recover their look of antiquity, though expert numismatists always can tell the difference between a cleaned coin and one that is totally original. Damaged and harshly cleaned gold coins are rejected by the major grading services, though some latitude is given for lightly cleaned pieces that retain their eye appeal.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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