Rare US Gold Coins: "Holy Grail" BD-1 Variety 1796 Quarter Eagle

Gold $2.50 Quarter eagles were struck for the first time in 1796 and three die varieties are known for the date. This coin represents the extremely rare BD-1 variety, with the No Stars obverse and the arrowheads extending to the base of the I in UNITED on the reverse. The Harry W. Bass Jr. Museum Sylloge calls this the “Holy Grail variety among early quarter eagles.”

Walter Breen listed this variety in his New Varieties monograph, the reverse being described as the die of 1797. The 1797 reverse, however, is different from any reverse die used in 1796.

The BD-1 coins are almost certainly from the delivery of 66 pieces on September 21, 1796, the very first quarter eagles minted. Die state evidence confirms that this variety was coined before the more common BD-2 variety of the year.

Robert Hilt attributed the discovery of the variety to Harry W. Bass, Jr. In his New Varieties monograph, Walter Breen suggested this was much earlier described in one of the Edgar Adams notebooks, from a coin in the Gable Collection and plated by Henry Chapman.

In fact, the coin in the Gable Collection proved to be this variety.

Just six or seven examples are currently identified, or about 10% of the estimated original mintage. Bass drafted an article discussing his role in the rediscovery of this variety. Bass himself admitted that he was not the discoverer of the variety, noting that it was included in the Chapman sale of the Gable Collection and was described by Edgar Adams in his private notebook. In late 1971, according to his collection records, or sometime in 1972 according to his article, Bass acquired an example from Michael Brownlee.

This is the rarest quarter eagle variety from 1796 to 1807, and probably the rarest from 1796 to 1834. Only the relatively unknown 1825 BD-1 quarter eagle that Harry Bass discovered will challenge the 1796 BD-1 marriage for the rarest variety honors.

Heritage will be presenting an example of this variety, graded XF45 by PCGS, as a part of our June 4-8 Long Beach Signature Auction. This coin was acquired by legendary collector Ed Price in 1992. Price remembers:

“I was lucky to find this coin. In the early 1990s I went to a few Wilmington [Delaware] shows, mostly for the chance to see Jules Reiver so we could discuss the 1801 half dime research we were then collaborating on. I saw this coin at the Long Island Numismatics table. It was clearly attributed as the rare Hilt 2-A. I knew what it was. I had the Hilt book in my car–just in case. So I knew that it was very rare. But, I did not know that I would see only one other example offered for sale in the next 15+ years–the Bass duplicate, which was dismal due to heavy scratches. I also had not yet fully decided to pursue a complete variety collection of quarter eagles. But I did understand that getting the rarities early made sense and I bought it.”

Price retained his prized BD-1 until he sold his remarkable collection through Heritage Auctions in July 2008. This coin was featured in lot 1450 of the Baltimore ANA Signature Auction, where it realized an astounding $207,000 USD. It has been off the market ever since.

Both sides of this attractive quarter eagle exhibit light greenish-gold fields and light yellow-gold devices, resulting in a pleasing cameo appearance. While the surfaces have a few insignificant hairlines and abrasions, the overall appearance is exceptional for the grade. The obverse details are slightly shallow, while the reverse details are bold. Traces of luster are still visible, especially on the reverse. The overall presentation is most appealing for this extremely rare early gold variety.
 

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