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Bust quarters not for faint-hearted

 

Bust quarters may be one of the tougher collections of early coins of the United States. That said, many Bust quarter dates are at least available in circulated grades and that fact along with a fascinating history reflecting the early days of the country and the first United States Mint makes Bust quarters a lot of fun and a good education as well.

From the start, the quarter was a denomination that was not likely to be heavily collected. The quarter at the time was an upper denomination and not one many of the very few collectors would have saved. In addition, even if you had wanted to collect quarters there was a problem simply because the denomination was not produced on a regular basis. Assuming collectors back in the 1790s and early 1800s were similar to collectors today it would have been discouraging to go a few years without adding a new coin to your collection.

The situation was simply one that evolved. The Mint Act of April 2, 1792, had included the quarter in the denominations authorized. Of course at the time there could be no production of any denomination as there was no Mint.

Perhaps it seems strange to modern readers, but Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, was made responsible for the new Mint. He was a keen rival to Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Keeping the Mint out of Hamilton’s hands was part of the political balancing act within President Washington’s cabinet. Hamilton was seen as both too powerful and too ambitious.

Jefferson turned out to be a good choice, so good in fact that the office of Secretary of State continued to oversee the Mint for approximately its first eight decades.

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It was perhaps not quite what Jefferson and others had in mind, but the future President was a man of many interests and talents. He had to supervise the establishment of a Mint in Philadelphia, which at the time was the capital of the United States.

While he was doing that, which was definitely not quite on a par with negotiating with foreign leaders as he probably thought he would be doing as Secretary of State, what activity there was seemed to take place at the saw making business of a fellow named John Harper in Philadelphia. That activity was limited to the production of approximately 1,500 half dismes with a 1792 date and that would in a sense illustrate the initial problem for quarters as they were not a priority.

The matter of priorities in terms of coin production would loom large in the next couple of years. Jefferson would manage to get the first United States Mint up and operational in a very short period of time. That was the good news with the bad news being there was a small legal glitch when it came to the production of gold or silver coins as before they could be produced, officials had to post a $10,000 bond as surety.

These officials balked at the requirement, which was probably natural considering they were fairly new on the job and $10,000 was a good deal of money at the time. It was a sum so large that some couldn’t raise the money. For comparison, the President’s salary was $25,000.

Jefferson had to switch to diplomacy, which was really one of his better skills anyway, but instead of diplomacy between the United States and France, it was settling this impasse between Mint officials and the Congress. While he worked on that problem, the year 1793 passed into history and the only coins that could be produced were copper large cents and half cents, which required much lower bonds.

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By 1794 the problem with posting the bond was worked out and production could begin on silver and gold coins. Of course, the Mint at the time was hardly up to the task of producing millions of coins of many denominations at the same time.

The equipment the Mint had in 1794 was not even designed to produce denominations larger than a half dollar. You would have thought such a limitation would have helped speed the quarter into production. That was not the case. It was the silver dollar that was chosen instead, a choice that was more interesting but difficult to explain.

The fact that the equipment was not up to the task of the larger denomination is seen in the initial delivery of just 1,758 silver dollars dated 1794. We can safely assume Mint officials had not set out to make 1,758 dollars and that the total is probably the number of coins that was able to meet what were almost certainly rather minimal standards of quality. The best guess is that they had probably tried to produce 2,000 dollar coins, but that many because of weak strikes and improper alignment were deemed unfit for release. We have no proof of that, but in the 135 or so 1794 dollars we still have with us in numismatics today we can see easily that strikes were uniformly soft and alignment was not always perfect.

The Mint next turned to half dollars and that appears to have gone better as did the half dime that followed. The half dimes, while dated 1794, were probably not struck until 1795 at which time the denomination was produced with both dates. With that production officials turned to the production of the first gold coins, leaving the quarter and dime until 1796.

Finally in 1796 the Mint turned its attention to quarters, resulting in a mintage of just 6,146 1796 quarters. The total was certainly not large and it is even possible that perhaps 252 pieces might have been produced the following year.

The assumption would be that the small 1796 mintage would have resulted in a much larger total in 1797, but that assumption would be wrong as there was no 1797 mintage. In fact, there was no 1798 mintage as well with the next quarter not being produced until 1804, making the 1796 Draped Bust and small eagle reverse quarter a one-year type coin and one with an extremely small mintage, which makes it a perfect candidate for a high price.

The 1796 quarter today lists for $11,000 in G-4 and it goes from there to $82,500 in MS-60 and $235,000 in MS-65. The 1796 is certainly a tough coin and one in constant demand as Q. David Bowers observes in his book A Guide Book of United States Type Coins, where he observes of the 1796, “Hundreds of circulated examples exist, but as demand is so extensive, any specimen meets with enthusiasm when it is offered.”

In theory the 1796 should follow a rather simple pricing pattern as we would assume very few exist and with the demand seen by Bowers the price would go in a straight line to ever higher levels. Actually it has not been that simple as in G-4 the 1796 was $4,350 back in 1998, but from that price it slumped to $3,950 in 2001 before starting to climb again. It was similar in MS-60 where the 1796 saw its 1998 price of $28,000 drop to $26,000 in 2001 before risingto $82,500. Only in MS-65 have we seen the 1796 remain relatively stable in terms of an upward price direction.

Part of the reason may be an assortment of factors that make the 1796 a somewhat difficult date to fully understand. With its extremely low mintage we would normally expect very few would be available today yet at Numismatic Guaranty Corp. they report 117 examples of which a surprising 25 were called Mint State with four of them being MS-65 and two MS-66. At the Professional Coin Grading Service they report they have graded 252 with 31 being MS-60 or better and three of them were called MS-65, one MS-66 and two more being MS-67.

Those are the numbers and there are also the stories. The most often repeated one is that the eccentric Col. E.H.R. Green who died in 1936 who started a number of odd and unusual collections when he inherited his mother’s millions. Along with pornographic films and the famous inverted “Jenny” stamps which he allegedly managed to acquire all known 100 at one time were 1796 quarters. Unlike the inverted “Jenny” stamps Green was unable to acquire all the 1796 quarters, but he did apparently have a pretty good start with his hoard of 1796 quarters being placed at 200 pieces. The grading services, however, do not really support the idea of 200 as they really account for closer to 60. It may well be that some thought to be nice were not Mint State by our standards of today as the 1796 can be found very nice with Bowers observing, “Hundreds of high grade examples also exist nearly all of which are prooflike.”

The Green hoard is one of the very few situations which seem to have no good resolution. Certainly there was some unusual saving of the 1796 quarter as a coin with its mintage even though it is the historic first date of its denomination would not routinely be found in the numbers we see today.

It was Walter Breen who used the figure 200 and in some other instances his accuracy has been proven to be suspect. Bowers admits the possibility of 200 pieces in the Green hoard, but he seems to leave open room that some may not have been Mint State. He seems content to note that, “at least 100 or more were more or less prooflike,” but he stops short of saying there were 200 in Mint State and the grading service totals seem to support the Bower view.

In fairness with many coins we can suggest that the grading service totals are incomplete as they have not seen all examples of a certain coin like a Jefferson nickel, or in many cases have seen one coin numerous times as would be possible with a borderline MS-65 Morgan dollar. In the case of a 1796 quarter, however, the possibility to be dramatically off seems much more remote as most with a 1796 quarter in any grade would be likely to have it graded. That does not answer any of the lingering questions about the Green hoard and leaves us basically with the observation that the 1796 is in constant demand, and while the supply including the supply in Mint State is better than we might expect for a coin of its age and mintage, the supply is never really enough to satisfy the demand.

The return of the quarter to production in 1804 did not produce the sort of mintages we might expect. Apparently the nation was not starved for quarters as the 1804 mintage was just 6,738 pieces. The reason for the low mintage even in the year when silver dollar and gold eagle production was suspended so the Mint could make greater numbers of lower denominations was apparently that the quarter was simply not being requested by those bringing in their silver to the Mint for coinage.

Unlike the 1796 there are no reports of major hoards to supply the market today. The 1804, while potentially tougher in some grades than the 1796, lacks the historical and type significance and that puts the 1804 at $5,500 in G-4 today although that price has jumped significantly as the 1804 was just $600 back in 1998. The 1804 has also risen dramatically in MS-60 going from $22,000 back in 1998 to $43,000 in 2005 to $88,500 today.

The contrast with the 1796 is seen in the grading service totals. The 1804 has been seen just 60 times by NGC about one-half the total of the 1796 and only 7 were called Mint State. At PCGS the 149 appearances is 100 fewer than the 1796 and only 9 were called Mint State with the highest being an MS-64.

Unlike the 1796 there was no significant saving of the 1804 and we see it today. A good example was a Superior 2002 pre-Long Beach sale which offered an unusual number of seven examples of the 1804. The nicest was an AU-50 but from there the drop-off in grade was substantial with a G-4 ranking second while the other five managing AG-3 grades featured damage of a variety of kinds, harsh cleaning and extremely heavy wear.

The desperate decision to suspend the production of silver dollars and gold eagle in 1804 seems to have had an impact on the quarter as in 1805 the mintage jumped to 121,394 pieces and then increased again to over 200,000 in 1806 and 1807. Those higher mintages naturally make the dates more available with prices starting at $220 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $12,000 and an MS-65 of an available date would be around $56,000.

Ironically after a few years of higher mintages, the quarter hit another spell of no production with nothing being struck after 1807 until 1815. We know the Mint had problems during the period and the War of 1812 certainly did not help, but clearly the quarter continued to be a lower priority.

When the quarter returned to production in 1815 it was the John Reich Capped Bust design. The quarters produced starting in 1815 have a larger diameter than those after 1828 and while available at $100 or so in G-4 and approximately $3,000 in MS-60, there are still some tougher dates.

The better dates include the 1823/22 overdate, which currently lists for $30,000 and that is just in G-4 while an AU-50, which is about as nice as they come would be $100,000. The price is justified as PCGS has only seen 14 and the best of those was an AU-58.

Another interesting coin of the period is an 1822, which had a classic engraver’s mistake in the form of a 25/50C denomination. The error is not just classic but also tough as it lists for $1,650 in G-4 while an AU-50 is put at $20,000 and those prices seem reasonable when you realize that PCGS has only seen five examples in any grade with four of the five being heavily circulated while the fifth was called MS-61.

The 1827 is one of the real challenging dates of the period with a reported mintage of just 4,000 pieces. The mintage led to a restrike with both the original and restrike being scarce. The original had a curl at the base of the “2” in the date and “25C” while the restrike had a square based “2.” There were examples of both in the Norweb and Eliasberg sales with the Norweb original a Proof-64 commanding a price of $61,600, while the restrike a Proof-65 brough $39,600. In the Eliasberg sale a VF-20 original brought $39,600 while a Proof-65 restrike was hammered down for $77,000. These prices would be far higher now.

Ironically, after 1825 there would be yet another gap in quarter production, which would be broken by the very low mintage 1827 and 1828 only to be followed by still another gap in production lasting until 1831.

In 1828 there was another classic 25/50C reverse although this time it is more affordable at $165 in G-4 and $9,500 in MS-60.
When quarter production resumed in 1831 there had been a reduction in the diameter while E PLURIBUS UNUM was eliminated from the reverse making technically another type, but one which is readily available with some dates starting as low as $70 in G-4 while an XF-40 would be $385 with an MS-60 even including the 1833, which had a mintage of 156,000 at roughly $1,100 to $1,400 while the MS-65 prices range from $17,000 to $23,750.

The reasonable prices can be misleading as the dates are really excellent values. The quarters of this period tended to be better struck than earlier dates, meaning you can frequently have a much nicer coin for your money. While the prices are not high, the fact is that these dates are not common as three had mintages below 300,000 and none had a mintage that today would be considered high.

The times that these quarters were in circulation must be considered. They were used at a time when there were very few coin collectors. The nation was still basically a rural country and although there were cities and improvements, the coins in circulation were still likely to be handled in a rough manner, picking up dings and nicks frequently. Even if a coin survived without heavy wear or damage it would be just over a decade when the discovery of gold in California produced a situation where the silver coins cost more than their face value to produce. As a result, large numbers were hoarded and melted and while the majority were probably the Seated Liberty quarters that were struck starting in 1838, there is little doubt that some earlier Bust quarters were also destroyed.

All those factors make a case where while available it cannot be taken for granted that any quarter from the 1831-1838 period is common and that is especially true in Mint State. They are certainly more available than some of the earlier type, but where Bust quarters are concerned there are no common dates.

For the collector today the early quarters make for an interesting, but challenging collection. The 1796 and 1804 represent significant challenges. Many of the later dates are much more available. The collection is an interesting one as it traces not only the history of the country, but also the early Mint as despite being a low priority the quarter finally became a regularly produced denomination. That makes an early quarter collection an interesting education involving truly tough coins, which even at today’s prices have to be seen as good values.

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