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Capped Bust Right Quarter Eagle, With Stars (1796-1807) | CoinWeek

1807 Capped Bust Quarter Eagle graded CACG MS62. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.
1807 Capped Bust Quarter Eagle graded CACG MS62. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..
 

A Humble Start for Quarter Eagle Coinage

The Mint Act of 1792 established the new federal mint and authorized the production of copper, silver, and gold coins for the fledgling nation.

Coin production did not take place overnight. After Congress appropriated the funding to purchase a building site, construction of the money factory began. This first mint has the distinction of being the first building built by the Federal Government. Under the leadership of the United States Mint’s first director, David Rittenhouse, coinage equipment and copper blanks from England were acquired. Rittenhouse also hired the Mint’s staff. In the interim, a “small start” of 1792 Half Dismes was struck in a workshop basement. These coins were distributed to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who spent them freely en route from the federal capital of Philadelphia to his Charlottesville home, Monticello.

In 1793, with everything in place to begin coinage operations, the Mint faced a serious issue that interfered with its ability to produce silver and gold coins: the bonding requirement stipulated in the Mint Act was much too high, considering the workers’ salaries. Congress had set a bond requirement of $10,000 per employee to insure against possible loss.

Rittenhouse approached Congress with a request to reduce this amount, which they eventually did. The new requirement was a $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 access only a limited amount of gold and silver at any time, further reducing the risk to the government.

Finally, everything was set for the production of precious metal coinage. Silver half dollars and 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. Finally, quarter eagles were produced beginning in September 1796 with the Capped Bust Right Quarter Eagle, No Stars issue.

The architects of America’s money designed a radical coinage based on the decimal system. Unlike the overly complicated coinages of Europe, the American denominations were logical and unambiguous. What wasn’t predicted was the nature of the demand for certain denominations. Like the quarter dollar, the quarter eagle was not a popular denomination, at least not at first. However, whereas the quarter dollar only had one emission in the 18th century (the 1796 Draped Bust, Small Eagle), the quarter eagle saw limited mintages in 1796-1798 before demand increased in 1802. The larger coins fared much better, especially the larger half eagle.

The reasons why so few quarter eagles were coined in the first place require a bit more explanation, but convenience seems to be the key.

Walter Breen suggested in his tainted opus The Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins (1988) that most were held in local banks, subject to the infrequent requests from depositors for the denomination:

“During this whole decade [1796-1807], quarter eagles were coined only in isolated driblets of a few hundred or at most a few thousand pieces. In most of these years, each date represented a new design modification–creating instant rarities and type coins.

The problem is less why the coins are rare, why so few were made to begin with, but why any were struck at all! To judge from available Archives records, they were ordered on a whim by a few local banks (principally the Bank of Pennsylvania and the Bank of the United States); to judge from the condition of survivors, they spent most of their time in vaults.”

Production of 1796 Capped Bust Right Quarter Eagles

The Mint began to strike Capped Bust Right Quarter Eagles using 1796-dated dies in September, with the first coins delivered by the coiner on September 21. The total number of coins delivered was just 66 pieces. This rare variety is known as BD-1 (BD for Bass-Dannreuther). It is believed that the failure of the reverse die caused the Mint to suspend production until a replacement could be prepared. This delayed the second delivery until December 8, 1796. Included in this delivery were 897 pieces, all from one die marriage that numismatists refer to as BD-2. While BD-1 and BD-2 varieties were struck from different obverse dies, both are of the 1796 Capped Bust Right Quarter Eagle, No Stars type.

A third delivery of 432 1796-dated coins occurred on January 14, 1797. These were all of the BD-3 variety and featured 16 stars on the coin’s obverse.

Today, there are six known examples of BD-1, approximately 80 to 100 examples of BD-2, and 40 to 50 examples of BD-3. These current estimated populations represent about 10% of the proposed original mintage.

Deliveries of 1796 Capped Bust Right Quarter Eagles
September 21, 1796 66 delivered December 8, 1796 897 delivered
January 14, 1797 432 delivered Total: 1,395 coins

Obverse and Reverse Designs Explained

The early quarter eagle design is generally attributed to Robert Scot, the Philadelphia Mint’s first Chief Engraver. Scott’s first iteration of the design–the Capped Bust Right Quarter Eagle, Without Stars–was issued in 1796. That year, he modified the design to add ornamental detail to the obverse.

Obverse:

A bust of Liberty faces right, draped and capped, with the 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 this way, as the usual orientation has a single point toward the border.

Reverse:

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 motto 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.

Two New States Force Design Changes

Kentucky became the 15th state to join the Union in 1792, and accordingly, the early U.S. gold and silver coins of 1794 and 1795 (generally speaking) featured 15 stars on new dies. When Tennessee was admitted to the Union on June 1, 1796, coinage designs accommodated a 16th star on new dies, but Mint Director Elias Boudinot realized that the burgeoning Union’s stars would eventually crowd other design features off of the nation’s coins. He accordingly ordered Engraver Robert Scot to limit the number of stars on new dies to the original 13.

The 16 stars are arranged 8 x 8 on this With Stars Quarter Eagle, which Breen calls “very rare,” noting that the 432 pieces of the issue were delivered on Jan. 14, 1797. The Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins: 1796-1933 (2nd Ed., 2008) says:

“This subtype is somewhat rarer than the 1796 No Stars quarter eagle, yet it generally sells for much less in comparable grades. Most examples are in circulated condition, with a cluster at the About Uncirculated level that may represent some unreported resubmissions. Mint State examples are extremely rare; included among them is a single gem example. Late states of the dies show heavy lapping to remove clash marks.”

Capped Bust Right Quarter Eagle, With Stars Coin Specifications

Capped Bust Right Quarter Eagle, With Stars
Years Of Issue: 1796-97
Mintage: High: 6,812 (1807); Low: 427 (1797)
Alloy: 91.7% gold, 8.3% silver
Weight: ±4.37 g
Diameter: ±20.00 mm
Edge: Reeded
OBV Designer: Robert Scot
REV Designer: Robert Scot

 

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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