There are many great and interesting coins of the United States and without a doubt, the 1796 quarter eagle, or gold $2.50, would qualify as both. It is great in terms of scarcity and interesting as it was the first quarter eagle of the United States. It comes in two types, with and without stars on the obverse. There are a number of questions surrounding their issue.
The story of the 1796 goes all the way back to 1792 when the $2.50 was authorized as the lowest gold coin denomination. We like to assume the lawmakers of the time knew what they were doing, although in this case there is some uncertainty.
The first sign of that is that the quarter eagle was not exactly at the front of the line when it came to production. In fairness, no gold coins were struck until 1795. There were many problems to be solved. The list included simply getting the new Mint to function, which took much of 1793. There were problems of officials posting financial bonds before they could produce gold or silver. This consumed the rest of 1793. There was the matter of priorities. The silver dollar and half dollar came first that took the Mint to early 1795. By the time the first gold coins were produced, it was the middle of 1795. The denominations chosen were the half eagle and eagle coins ($5 and $10). This pushed the quarter eagle back into 1796. That was just a preview for how the quarter eagle would be treated for a long time.
Merchants depositing gold and silver with the Mint were allowed to pick the coins they wanted. It has been suggested the $2.50 was only a novelty. That may sound extreme, but the mintages tend to support the notion. Consider the fact that no quarter eagle had a mintage of even 7,000 until 1834. Moreover, from 1809 until 1821, not a single one was struck and there were none in 1822 and 1823 as well.
This makes the few early quarter eagles extremely tough dates with the 1796 at the top of the list.
The 1796 without stars can be considered a unique type. Its mintage is 963.
The version with stars has an even lower mintage. This total is 432. Had there been any collectors in 1796, they might have been excited by this, but the mintage in 1797 was 427, so low mintage became the norm.
The no stars lists for $55,000 in F-12 while the version with stars is less than half that value at $26,500. In MS-60 the listed values are $245,000 and $185,000, respectively.
Populations at grading services show that 80 examples have been seen at the Professional Coin Grading Service. with five reaching Mint State and a significant number of 27 were graded AU-58 and another 21 AU-55. In comparison, the variety with stars has been seen 19 times with just one making Mint State. At Numismatic Guaranty, it is 53 and 17, respectively.
The numbers raise the question: the type designation appears to make the no stars coin more valuable than the surviving numbers would warrant otherwise.
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