This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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The 1796 quarter had an important place in history and this, combined with its very low mintage, results in it being very valuable. Its current prices are $11,000 in G-4, $82,500 in MS-60 and $235,000 in MS-65. The fact that there even is an MS-65 price for a 1796 quarter indicates that there is more to the story since most often we do not even see prices listed in MS-65 for coins of 1796.
The quarter was authorized along with the other denominations on April 2, 1792, but production of the quarter and dime was delayed until 1796. Apparently they were not priorities. This delay might lead one to think that the 1796 mintage would have been large, but the 6,146 total could only be called large when compared to previous years. No production followed in 1797 and, in fact, there was no additional quarter mintage until 1804.
This meant that there would be a design change with the 1804 quarter. The small eagle was replaced by a large eagle. So not only was the 1796 the first U.S. quarter and a low-mintage date, it also ended up being a one-year type coin.
Additionally, there was not much chance of the 1796 being saved in large numbers as a quarter was a good deal of money at the time. That would be the assumption, but that is where things start to take a surprising turn.
While certainly not common, the 1796 quarter is more available than might be expected. The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has graded 117 1796 quarters, and a total of 26 were Mint State with one even reaching MS-67. Of the 252 examples the Professional Coin Grading Service reports seeing, a total of 31 were Mint State including two in MS-67.
There is something unusual about the numbers and the one thing most point to is the fact that, according to Walter Breen, the millionaire eccentric Col. E.H.R. Green is supposed to have had a hoard of more than 200 uncirculated 1796 quarters.
It is at this point that things get debatable. Breen is almost certainly correct that Green had 1796 quarters, but there are problems with the idea of 200 or more uncirculated ones. Who would have saved 200 quarters back in 1796? That is $50 face value – a huge sum of money. Moreover, by 1796 saving new coins should have lost its novelty since most denominations had already been issued.
Next, if Green had 200 uncirculated examples, where are they? This is a case where the grading services should see most examples, especially in high grades, but they come up with less than 60. Are we supposed to believe that there are another 140 uncirculated 1796 quarters out there that the grading services have not seen?
There may be a middle ground, however, as the 1796 is famous for being prooflike. Q. David Bowers observes in his book, A Guide Book of United States Type Coins, that, “Mint State coins are prooflike, sometimes very mirrorlike, and not lustrous or frosty.”
If you add in AU totals from the two grading services, you are suddenly much closer to the 200. With changing grading standards, it is possible that some of Breen’s 200 were thought to be uncirculated back at the time but are not today. Suddenly the possibility of such a hoard is more realistic.
Even with the hoard, the 1796 remains extremely important and that will keep prices high and rising. We are lucky that somehow some examples were saved to later enter the market. Without the hoard, the 1796 might well be much more expensive today.