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Pair of Quarter Eagles Bring Millions

Pair of Quarter Eagle from the 2008 Heritage Platinum Night SalePlatinum Night at F.U.N. has come and gone, and what a night it was! Quality material consistently brought strong results throughout the session, led by a pair of Gem 1796 quarter eagles from The Madison Collection.

A 1796 No Stars quarter eagle with a pedigree dating to the Parmelee collection in 1890 realized $1,725,000, while its With Stars counterpart, the finest known example by two grade points, sold for $1,006,250.

Total prices realized have already exceeded $45 million, with final figures for this auction alone expected to roar past $50 million!

1796 $2 1/2 No Stars

this Gem PCGS-graded 1796 No Stars quarter eagle stands alone atop the PCGS population report, the single finest graded by three points. As of (11/07), that service has certified a total of six pieces in Mint State: two pieces in MS61, three coins in MS62, and the present MS65 specimen–and a specimen it is, in the broadest and best senses of the word. While it bears no special characteristics that would denote anything other than a “business strike” of a new gold denomination at the fledgling Philadelphia Mint, it shows obvious signs of both excellent production standards and subsequent loving preservation in its original state for more than 200 years.

Interestingly, NGC has certified another dozen coins in Mint State, including 11 pieces spanning the range from MS60 to MS63–and including a sole MS65 piece that, while we cannot be sure, may represent the same coin before it was “crossed over” to PCGS. Barring future discoveries of some splendid piece, this MS65 coin is at least tied for finest known, and likely to remain that way. Conversely, if the NGC piece does turn out to be a duplicate, this coin is the finest known by a wide margin.

While the 1796 With Stars quarter eagle–a Gem NGC-graded example of which Heritage is also privileged to offer in the present sale–is rarer as a variety, with an estimated mintage of 432 pieces versus 963 coins (both BD-1 and BD-2) for the 1796 No Stars, the With Stars quarter eagle is grouped as a type with the 1797-1807 With Stars issues, making the 1796 With Stars an extremely overlooked issue. But the 1796 No Stars is a nonpareil one-year gold type coin, the first year of issue for what is odds-on the rarest circulating U.S. gold denomination
The quarter eagle was of little use in early American commerce, too large for daily transactions and too small for the international commerce that favored the gold half eagle. From 1796 through the end of the Capped Head to Left quarter eagle design in 1834, the Mint produced approximately 64,262 quarter eagles, according to Guide Book figures. During that same time the Mint produced half eagles in the amount of 2,120,543 pieces more or less, or about 33 times the number of half eagles compared to quarter eagles. Some half eagles such as the 1820, with 263,806 pieces coined, had mintages that would represent a healthy emission even for a much-later Liberty Head half eagle–but both the early half eagles and quarter eagles (as well as gold eagles, made only from 1795-1804) were melted on a vast scale in the early 1830s, when there were still perhaps only a few coin collectors in the United States and the melt value of the coins exceeded their face value.

Fortunately for posterity, a few superior examples of most of those early issues survived, although sometimes in minuscule quantities. Especially fortunate were those issues such as the present piece representing the first year of a new design or type.

The estimated mintages of the 1796 No Stars and With Stars, 963 and 432 pieces respectively, are just that: estimates, which Walter Breen first propounded based on three delivery warrants. The first warrant, of Sept. 22, 1796, was for just 66 coins, while the second, from Dec. 8, was for 897 coins. The third delivery, made on Jan. 14, 1797, was for 432 coins. Breen lumped the first two deliveries together to come up with a total mintage of 963 No Stars coins–but that is just a guess, one that has been widely adopted, including by the Guide Book of United States Coins

The first delivery of 66 coins was almost certainly that of the exceedingly rare BD-1 variety, with the Extended Arrows reverse. That variety was “rediscovered” by Harry W. Bass, Jr., (originally mentioned by numismatist Edgar H. Adams in conjunction with the 1914 Gable sale) and published in 1973. The obverse is the same as the BD-2 Normal Arrows variety, but in an earlier die state, showing full lower curls on Liberty’s tresses. As Bowers writes in the Bass Sylloge, assuming a 10% survival rate would equate to six or seven coins, and at present four pieces are known of the BD-1, considered the rarest quarter eagle variety from 1796 to 1834. The short striking period is certainly explained by the prominent die crack running nearly vertically through the reverse of the Bass-3001 specimen (he actually owned two, with one sold in May 2000). The obverse die also cracked, showing through the bases of LIBER(TY), known to Bass-Dannreuther as Obverse State b

The second die pairing married the same No Stars obverse (including some later die states) with the Normal Arrows reverse die, presumably for that second delivery of 897 coins. (This is also the assumption made in the Bass-Dannreuther Early U.S. Gold: A Study of Die States 1795-1834.) The obverse die appears to have been lapped before this marriage (Obverse State c), so that the die crack through LIBER is mostly effaced, but a second die crack meanders into the field from the rim at 9 o’clock. The lower hair curls are lapped but still mostly intact. In the latest die state recorded (Obverse State d), numerous die cracks appear on the obverse, and most of the hair curls are gone.

1796 $2 1/2 Stars

Historical Commentary - The Mint Act of 1792 authorized all of the gold and silver coins that would eventually be struck by the young Philadelphia Mint. After property was acquired, construction of the actual buildings was completed, and all was ready to produced the Nation’s first coinage, copper, silver, and gold. Despite completion of the physical components and acquisition of the necessary equipment, coinage of gold and silver could still not be accomplished as the bonding requirement for key employees was too strict. These employees were unable to meet the original requirement of $10,000 bond to insure against possible loss.
Rittenhouse approached Congress with a request to reduce this amount, which they eventually did. The new requirement was $5,000 bond, a more reasonable figure for the time. It was understood that steps would be put in place for these bonded employees to only have access to a limited amount of gold and silver at any one time, further reducing the risk to the government. Finally, all was set for production of precious metals coinage. Silver dollars and half dollars were coined for the first time late in 1794, followed by other silver denominations. Half eagles and eagles came next, with the first gold coins struck in July 1795, and finally the quarter eagles were produced beginning in September 1796 with the No Stars issue. Even after all was set for production of gold coins, few quarter eagles were produced. The denomination of choice for depositors were the larger half eagles and eagles.

The Design - Creation of the early quarter eagle design is generally attributed to Robert Scot, the first Chief Engraver of the Philadelphia Mint.
A bust of Liberty faces right, draped and capped, with the 1796 date below and LIBERTY above. A total of 16 stars are arranged with eight to the left and eight to the right, each oriented point-to-point. Only a few early U.S. coins have stars oriented in this manner as the usual orientation has a single point toward the border.
The reverse has a large, Heraldic eagle patterned after the Great Seal of the United States. A ribbon in the eagle’s beak extends left and right, bearing the inscription E PLURIBUS UNUM. The eagle holds a bundle of arrows (eight are visible) in its dexter claw and an olive branch in its sinister claw. A shield on the eagle’s breast consists of eight vertical stripes and nine horizontal crossbars. Above the eagle’s head is a row of clouds (seven or eight, depending on the viewer’s perspective) and 16 stars in a seemingly random placement. The statutory legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA follows the border clockwise, from 7:30 to 5:30.

Individual Die Characteristics - Notable features of this die pair include the digit 6 overlapping the bottom edge of the drapery on the obverse and the raised die file lines through TATE on the reverse. The 8×8 star arrangement on the obverse is somewhat inconsistent with a wide space between star 1 and the hair curl, enough to permit a ninth star on the left, which would have eliminated the crowded appearance of the stars on the right.

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