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Early U.S. quarters often high priced

The general belief is that the early quarters of the United States are a tough group to collect bordering on the impossible. Indeed they are difficult, but in some cases there are pleasant surprises as they are more available even in upper grades than might be expected. That said, the challenge is there but it is one well worth taking as the early quarters produced before the U.S. Mint at Philadelphia introduced steam-powered presses are a historic, tough and interesting group.
Quarters today are the workhorse denomination. There are billions of them in use. In fact, for most people it is probably the only denomination that is not simply taken home and thrown in a jar or dresser drawer.

Former American Numismatic Association President John Jay Pittman said the coin was the most popular size historically around the world. He made the point in his advocacy for a circulating commemorative quarter for the Bicentennial in 1976.
Though it is easy to find and use today, the early quarters are tough at least in part because in the early days of the Mint producing this denomination was not a priority. That decision was not the decision of the early Mint but rather of the people who brought in the silver as they were allowed to select the denominations they wanted to receive for their silver. That proved to be a problem as the nation had a coin shortage especially in the case of lower denominations, but the people with the silver kept asking for silver dollars.

The silver dollar at the time had a limited role in circulation, but more importantly the people receiving the silver dollars in many cases promptly shipped the coins out of the country. It did no good to need silver coins in circulation only to have them riding the waves to other nations and that was a large part of the problem, but it was the reason that quarter mintages were sporadic and generally low.

All the denominations had started out on equal footing being authorized in the Mint Act of April 2, 1792. The quarter, however, would not even be produced until 1796. That delay was in part common to all silver coins and in part a reflection of the low priority of the quarter.

The first part of the delay was common to all silver issues as back in 1792 when the denominations were authorized there was not even a Mint where they could be made. The process of setting up a facility went surprisingly quickly under the direction of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

2012 U.S. Coin Digest: Quarters

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Once the facility was ready to produce its first coins there was another problem and that was that the officials were required to post a bond before producing any silver or gold coins. The bond was $10,000, which was a great deal of money at the time, and the officials were new to their positions. It was a bad combination. Until the matter could be settled and the bond reduced there could only be mintages of copper large cents and half cents.

The bond problem was solved and that produced the next delay, which was the matter of priorities. Officials decided that the first silver coin they would produce would be a silver dollar. However, the equipment they had would only produce coins up to the size of a half dollar. The equipment needed for dollars would be installed the following year.

In fairness they did manage a 1794 silver dollar mintage if you can call 1,758 pieces a mintage. No one believes that they attempted and produced 1,758 pieces. We really don’t know how many dollars they tried to produce with 2,000 being the low estimate. It could have been more, but all we know is that only 1,758 managed to meet what were certainly very minimal quality standards. Moreover, based on the 135 or so examples that still exist it is clear that even the coins that were delivered were a softly struck group with an assortment of problems.

The second silver coin produced was the 1794 half dollar and things appear to have gone better with that denomination, although the mintage was again low at under 25,000 pieces. By the time that production was finished the year was basically over although the dies were ready for 1794 half dimes. There are 1794 half dimes, but none was delivered in 1794.

In 1795 efforts at new denominations would turn to gold. It must be remembered that the early Mint was far from the best facility in the world at the time and there was constant demand for denominations already in production like the cent. As a result, new denominations were limited and that would see 1795 mintages never include the silver quarter or dime.

The time for the first quarter production finally arrived in 1796. It continues to be surprising that the 1796 production clearly saw no effort to make up for lost time as the total mintage of the 1796 quarter was just 6,146 pieces and there is even some suspicion that 252 of them were not produced until 1797.

The real situation regarding the quarter and its low priority is seen in the fact that after that low initial mintage in 1796 there was not a larger total in 1797. In fact, there was no quarter mintage in 1797 and there actually would be no additional quarter mintage until 1804, by which time the design had been changed, which made the 1796 with a Draped Bust obverse and small eagle reverse a one-year type coin with great historical importance and a very low mintage, which is a combination that basically makes it certain that the 1796 will have high prices in all grades.

That is basically the case, but it could be much worse. The 1796 today lists for $11,000 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $82,500 up from just $50,000 in less than a decade while an MS-65 has increased $110,000 in the same period to a price of $235,000. Q. David Bowers in his book, A Guide Book Of United States Type Coins explains the prices suggesting of the 1796, “Hundreds of circulated examples exist, but demand is so extensive, any specimen meets with enthusiasm when it is offered.”
The fact that there are supplies has produced uneven price movements by the 1796. Back in 1998 a G-4 was $4,350 and from there it dropped to $3,950 in 2001 before beginning a climb to its current $11,000 level. It was much the same in MS-60 which saw a $28,000 price in 1996 which dropped to $26,000 in 2001 before rebounding strongly to the current $82,500. Only in MS-65 where competition is intense for one of the few examples known has the price only gone higher in recent times.

Collectors have always favored quality, but that emphasis has gotten stronger and stronger over the years.

Nothing in the case of the 1796 is similar to other early issues of the United States and that is especially true in Mint State. Consider the grading service totals, which at the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation show 147 examples of the 1796 graded and of that total 30 coins were called Mint State. At the Professional Coin Grading Service they have graded 252 examples and of that total 31 were called Mint State while 3 made MS-65, one made MS-66 and two were called MS-67.

The numbers from both grading services are unusually high especially for a coin made in 1796 and which was a denomination where there were virtually no collectors at the time. In addition, there were significant numbers of AU coins reported with NGC reporting 32 examples in various AU grades out of the 147 graded. When you consider the AU-50 and above coins seen at the two grading services the total rises to well over 100.

There may well be a reason, which is the Col. E.H.R. Green hoard of the 1796. The eccentric Col. Green liked to basically corner the market on assorted items including stamps and coins. Millionaires can do that. The 1796 quarter was apparently one coin he liked. He liked it so much he wanted as many as he could find. It would not have been possible to acquire every nice 1796, but he apparently had more than his share with one account putting the total at around 200 examples all allegedly in Mint State. That, based on the grading service totals may be high, but if you add in the AU and XF examples seen the total does not seem as inflated.

Of course Col. Green was not alive in 1796, so he was not the one who originally acquired examples of the new 1796 quarter and then decided not to spend them. The grading services may not have seen every nice 1796 quarter, but their total of roughly 60 in Mint State is highly unusual and suggests that someone back in 1796 made the decision to save the date. We do not know who or why someone would have hoarded the 1796 as there were other denominations and they could have never assumed that the 1796 would become a key type coin, but the evidence is very hard to doubt as the 1796 quarter appears to have been the first coin of the United States to have been hoarded. Even if we do not know the reason for the hoard, it makes the 1796 that much more interesting.

Also interesting is the fact that there would be no additional quarters produced until 1804 and the date is significant as that was the year that production of the heavily requested silver dollar and gold eagle was suspended in the hope that the Mint’s time and resources could be channeled to lower denominations. In fact, in the case of the quarter, there is some small evidence that the idea worked although not really in the case of the 1804 which would be expected to have a high mintage as coins had been made for a decade but so far barely 6,000 of them had been quarters. As it turned out the 1804 mintage was barely higher than the 1796 at just 6,738 pieces.

While not as historic as the 1796 the 1804 is probably tougher especially in Mint State as in this instance there do not appear to have been any hoards. The 1804 is costly in any grade with a G-4 today listing at $5,500, which is quite an increase from 1998 when it was just $600. In MS-60 the 1804 is $88,500 which is more than four times its $22,000 1998 listing while an MS-65 is priced at $335,000. Ouch.

If anything, the prices are modest. At NGC they have seen the 1804 a total of 85 times with just 6 being called Mint State. That is about one-half the total number of the 1796 graded while the Mint State total is less than one-third of the 1796 total. At PCGS they have graded 149 examples of the 1804, which is 100 fewer than for the 1796 and only 9, or less than one-quarter the 1796 total, were called Mint State.

The problem as well is that like the 1796 or any other date of the period the 1804 can come with an assortment of problems such as weak strikes and adjustment marks. When, however, a coin saw a lot of circulation additional problems were possible as damage, cleaning and other things happen to coins. That was seen in a Superior 2002 pre-Long Beach sales that had a surprising 7 examples of the 1804. Of the 7, there was a single AU-50 and none of the others would rise above G-4. In fact, of the six only one actually reached G-4 while the other five were AG-3 with a variety of problems including harsh cleaning and damage. That is typical for an early date that has seen a lot of circulation as these were tough times and the treatment of the coins in circulation reflected that fact.

The first real indication that the suspension of silver dollar and gold eagle production in 1804 was having an impact took place in 1805  when a record 121,394 quarters were produced. That was just the start as mintages would grow to over 200,000 in 1806 and 1807. Compared to the 1796 and 1804 which combined for less than 13,000 pieces, it was virtually a flood of quarters.

The higher mintages make for a significant difference in availability and price with these later dates being just $220 in G-4 with an MS-60 starting at $6,300 while an MS-65 starts at $46,500. The 1806 in particular is available in top grades with NGC showing over 35 examples called Mint State.

Strangely there would be no quarter production beginning in 1808 and lasting until 1815. When the quarter did return to production it would be with a new design by John Reich featuring a Capped Bust Liberty that would last to 1828 when the diameter was reduced, creating another type. The type starting in 1815 are available although they do include tougher dates. The most available are $95 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $2,900 while the cheapest MS-65 is $19,500. The 1818 is especially available in Mint State and although there are no confirmed reports of hoards there has to be suspicion as at NGC in Mint State it has been seen 108 times and that is very unusual.

There are some other interesting dates topped by the 1823/2 overdate which currently lists for $30,000 and that is just in G-4 with an AU-50 at $100,000 and that is about as nice as they get with PCGS reporting just 14 with one making AU-58 while NGC has graded a single MS-61 in the 8 examples it has graded.

Another interesting date of the period is the 1822, which in a few cases can be found with a classic engraver’s mistake in the form of a 25/50C denomination. It’s a tough error to find with a current price listing of $1,650 in G-4 while an AU-50 is $20,000. It may actually be cheap at those prices as PCGS has only seen 5 examples with an MS-61 being by far the best while NGC reports three in Mint State out of the 7 seen.

The 1827, which appears to have been a proof, had a reported mintage of 4,000, but no one is sure that is accurate. Whatever the mintage there was also a restrike, but it like the original are rare with NGC reporting 3 examples of the original graded along with 9 examples of the restrike. The original had a curl base of the “2” in the date and “25C” while the restrike has a square base “2.” One of the most recent times the two were offered together was the Norweb sale where an original Proof-64 brought $61,600 while a Proof-65 restrike brought $39,600.

In 1828 there was another classic 25/50C reverse although this time it is more available at $165 in G-4 and $9,500 in MS-60 although it could be more as NGC reports just 12 examples in all grades combined.

There would be another production gap after 1828 with the next production being in 1831 and it featured a smaller diameter that would last until 1838 when the Seated Liberty design would make its debut. The type is available with the most available dates being $70 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $1,100 while an MS-65 is $17,000.  A few dates like the 156,000 mintage 1833 are slightly more but the premiums are not large when you consider the low mintage.

The low prices can be misleading as realistically only the 1835 had a mintage of more than one million and none prior to 1835 had even reached 500,000. With losses from circulation and the fact that many silver coins were melted after the 1853 weight reduction, it is hard to suggest that any of these dates no matter how high the mintage are available. At these prices all have to be seen as solid values on interesting early issues.

For the average collector today, the prices seem prohibitive in most instances, but the satisfaction that will come by saving up for one or two of the uncirculated pieces might surpass using the money to buy modern issues from the Mint that might fall in value next year.

These early quarters are classic coins. There will always be a demand for them and as we have seen, the supply is extremely limited.

Putting a set together is doable, but will require large sums even in G-4 unless you overlook the rare dates.

But every collector should consider the possibility of collecting early quarters. Most collectors will turn down the chance, but that is OK. The worst thing a collector can do is slap his forehead at the end of his time in numismatics and exclaim, “Had I only known.”

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