The early quarters of the United States represent a real challenge. The mintages were infrequent and usually small. It was the policy of the Mint at the time to allow those bringing in gold and silver to request the denominations that would be made from their metal. Apparently the quarter was not a regular choice and that kept mintages low when there were any at all.
While the U.S. Mint?s first coinage was struck in 1792, they didn?t get around to quarters until 1796. This was largely due to the policy that those who brought silver to the Mint could choose the denominations struck.
Despite being tough, the early quarters are sometimes available. Whatever their availability, they tell an interesting story as they reflect the progress of the early Mint as it tried to deal with a national coin shortage and the growing pains of the early facility. That makes early quarters an interesting collection if you accept the challenges they present.
From the start, the early quarter seemed to be well down on the production priority list at the Mint. Authorized in 1792 with the other denominations, it would take until 1796 before the first quarter dollar was made.
In fairness, it would take until 1794 before the first silver coins were made as when the denominations had been authorized there was no mint where they could be made. Even once the facility had been established and was ready to make coins, there were other problems. The lawmakers had required officials to post a $10,000 bond before producing silver or gold coins. That was a lot of money and the newly appointed officials balked at posting such a bond. That meant Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was responsible for the Mint, was forced into action to solve the problem.
Once a compromise was reached on the bond, officials could begin silver coin production. They made a somewhat surprising choice as they decided to try to make silver dollars first. What was surprising about that choice was that the equipment they had was not capable of making coins that large. The needed equipment would be in place the following year, but that did not stop them as they tried to make dollars on equipment that was only adequate for coins of half dollar size.
It appears that the initial silver dollar production did not go well. Just 1,758 were delivered. No one thinks that the was the number attempted, but rather that it was the number that were able to meet what would have been rather modest standards of quality. We see evidence of trouble in the 135 or so known examples of the 1794 silver dollar as they tend to be weakly struck while evidencing other problems as well.
The next in line for production was the half dollar. That effort seems to have been more successful although the mintage was still small. Had they been going from top to bottom in denominations, the quarter would have been next, but that was not the case as the next silver coin attempted was the half dime. In fact, although some are dated 1794, the general belief is that the 1794 half dime mintage might well have been struck in 1795. At minimum it was very late in 1794.
The dawning of 1795 saw continued efforts to make the denominations already produced, with new denominations being only gold. The quarter and dime would have to wait until 1796. Finally, in 1796 there would be the first mintage of 6,146 quarters. Even there it is the belief of some that perhaps 252 of them were not struck until 1797.
With such a small total, the expectation would be that the 1797 production would be much larger, but in fact those bringing in silver decided what denominations would be made and that resulted not in a large 1797 mintage but rather no 1797 quarter production. In fact, the next quarter production would not come until 1804, by which time the design had changed, making the 1796 quarter not only an historic issue with a very low mintage but also an important one-year type coin with it?s Draped Bust obverse and Small Eagle reverse design. Naturally that is a perfect combination for very high prices.
In fact, however, the 1796 is somewhat less expensive than might be expected with a G-4 listing for $8,900 while an MS-60 is $93,500, which is up significantly in just the past few years, while an MS-65 is $235,000 and that price is also up markedly in the past couple years. The fact is, there are some supplies of the 1796, which is surprising. As Q. David Bowers points out in his book, A Guide Book Of United States Type Coins regarding the 1796, ?Hundreds of circulated examples exist, but as demand is so extensive, any specimen meets with enthusiasm when it is offered.?
The recent price increases would seem to suggest that the 1796 is on a straight path to higher prices, but actually that has not been the case consistently since 1998. It?s been up and down for the 1796, as is seen in the fact that a G-4 was $4,350 in 1998 and from there it dropped to $3,950 in 2001 before starting the climb which has produced the current $8,900 price. It was similar in the case of an MS-60 as they were $28,000 in 1998 before dropping to $26,000 in 2001 and then rebounding to the new level. The one exception to the up-and-down nature of the price has been the MS-65, which has consistently moved to higher ground from its 1998 listing of $50,000.
There are complicating factors when it comes to the price of the 1796 that are not well known. The 1796 was hoarded. We do not know how it happened or why, as it certainly was very unusual back at the time, but the fact remains there are higher numbers in Mint State than anyone would expect. At Numismatic Guaranty Corp., for example, they report 117 examples graded and of that total 25 have been called Mint State with four reaching MS-65 and two more reaching MS-66. At Professional Coin Grading Service the total graded is 252 with 31 being called Mint State with three reaching MS-65 while one was MS-66 and two more were called MS-67.
The question becomes why have there been more than 50 examples of the 1796 in Mint State at the two major grading services. In fairness, some of the coins could have been submitted more than once, but by the same token no one would argue that the two grading services have seen all of the Mint State examples of the 1796. Moreover, there are high numbers in upper circulated grades a well.
We can at least trace some of the numbers back to the collection, perhaps more appropriately called a hoard, of the eccentric Col. E.H.R. Green, who was supposed to have a major hoard of the 1796. That certainly would not be surprising as Green liked to hoard significant rarities in a number of fields. He not only liked to hoard, he sometimes tried to corner the market. The reports put his hoard of the 1796 quarter at roughly 200 examples that were supposed to be uncirculated. That seems unlikely based on the numbers today. If the coins were top-grade circulated examples as well as actual Mint State coins, it becomes more possible to conclude that the total might have been close to 200.
Whatever the actual number in the Green hoard, it still does not really explain how so many Mint State and top-grade examples became available in the first place. They would have been saved in 1796 or the years immediately following before picking up too much wear. That just did not happen that often at the time. Moreover, to the people at the time the quarter was an upper denomination, making saving or pulling a quarter from circulation that much less likely.
Certainly the original source of today?s supply is mysterious and very interesting. The Green hoard is also interesting as the often reported number of 200 pieces just does not seem to stand up based on what we know today. With just under 60 graded by two major grading services, there would have to be some 140 more somewhere. No one believes that there are such numbers still waiting to be graded. It would be one thing if we were discussing a 1950-D Jefferson nickel, but the 1796 quarter is a significant rarity and those usually are sent in for grading and authentication. While the number may not be close to 200, the words of Bowers regarding circulated examples ring true whatever the actual number. The demand for the 1796 is such that even a larger than normal supply for a coin of the period is not enough to keep the 1796 from increasing in price and producing exciting moments at auction.
The return to quarter production in 1804 was probably no simple coincidence. That year, officials made the decision to suspend the production of silver dollars and gold eagles. It was an attempt to free up the Mint to produce greater numbers of lower denominations, which people otherwise were not requesting. With a national coin shortage, especially in lower denominations, something had to be done. The impact of the suspension of the silver dollar and gold eagle was not immediately seen on quarter mintages. The 1804 had a mintage of just 6,738 although the case could probably be made that any mintage was an improvement.
Certainly the 1804 is not quite as important as the 1796. After all, it was the second quarter, and that?s not the same as being the first. It also had a slightly higher mintage although it seems to have had a much lower amount of saving. People are catching on that the 1804 is tough. Its G-4 price of $2,850 is up from just $600 in 1998. In MS-60 the 1804 is now $47,500, which is also a big jump from $22,000 in 1998. An MS-65 is at $195,000.
If anything, the prices are inexpensive as the 1804 is not nearly as available as the 1796, especially in upper grades. NGC has graded the 1804 60 times and of that total just seven were called Mint State. That total graded is about half of the 1796 total, and the Mint State total is less than a third of the 1796 total. At PCGS the total number of 1804 quarters graded is 149, which is over 100 fewer than the 1796, and the Mint State total of nine coins is less than a quarter of the total for the 1796. The best 1804 seen at PCGS was in MS-64, well below the MS-67 finest example seen of the 1796.
It should be pointed out that any quarter of the period was likely to have problems such as adjustment marks when it was made. The situation was likely to only get worse with wear. It was a rural country where people lived a hard life. The wear on coins was heavy and damage was routine. There was a good example in the case of the 1804 in a 2002 Superior Pre-Long Beach sale which saw an impressive seven examples of the 1804 offered. It is not often that so many are found in one spot. The best of these seven was called AU-50, which is a high grade for an 1804, but from there the next best was simply a G-4 with the other five all being called AG-3 for a variety of reasons, from extensive wear to harsh cleaning and damage. That is typical for an 1804 as the majority are low grade.
The first indication that the suspension of silver dollar and gold eagle production was making any difference in quarter production came in 1805 when suddenly there was a quarter mintage of 121,394, by far the highest quarter total up to that time. That total, however, was quickly topped with a 206,124 mintage in 1806 and a 220,643 total in 1807. The higher mintages naturally make these dates more available with a G-4 at just $220 while the most available MS-60 is $5,500 and an MS-65 is $54,500. There is also an 1806/5 variety, which lists at slightly more: $250 in G-4, $6,850 in MS-60 and $72,000 in MS-65. Some solid numbers are known in Mint State. Certainly the totals are not large, but PCGS reports 15 examples of the 1806/5 in Mint State while the highest mintage 1807 total is 51. That total is equal to many Seated Liberty quarters of later decades. All the 1805-1807 dates except the overdate seem to have totals of at least 20 Mint State coins graded, so they are consistently possible although certainly not common.
Just as quarter production seemed to be regular, it stopped in 1808. There would be no additional quarter mintages until 1815. Once again, it may have been a lack of demand. The Mint was experiencing an assortment of problems, like the War of 1812, making a bad situation worse.
When the quarter returned to production it was 1815. The design was different in that it was the John Reich Capped Bust design. Capped Bust quarters would last until 1828 when the diameter would be reduced slightly creating another type. The 1815-1828 quarters are available with the starting price for a G-4 being $95 while an MS-60 is $2,875 an an MS-65 is $19,500. In Mint State there are a couple relatively available dates while most of the others are in short supply. PCGS has seen almost 100 Mint State examples of the 1818. The 1821 and 1828 also have better numbers along with a couple others. Moreover, in the case of some dates there are surprising numbers in upper Mint State grades. The 1818 has been graded 47 times in MS-64 and 16 times in MS-65.
There are also some better dates of the type, topped by the 1823/22, which currently lists for $30,000 and that is just in G-4. An AU-50 is at $100,000. The PCGS total for the 1823/22 is at just 14 examples and the nicest of the group was an AU-58.
Another interesting date of the period is the 1822 with a classic engraver?s mistake in that the denomination is 25/50C. It?s a very tough coin to find. Current listing is $1,500 in G-4 while an AU-50 is put at $20,000. In fact, those prices may be inexpensive as PCGS has only seen five examples, of which one was MS-61 while the others were heavily circulated.
The 1827 is a challenging regular date with a mintage listed at 4,000. There is also a restrike. Both the original and restrike are scarce. The original had a curl-base 2 in the date and ?25C? while the restrike had a square-base 2. There were examples of both in the Norweb and Eliasberg sales. The Norweb original, which was a Proof-64, brought $61,600 while a Proof-65 restrike brought $39,600. At the Eliasberg sale the original brough just under $40,000 primarily because it was a VF-20 but the Proof-65 restrike was hammered down for $77,000.
Interestingly enough, 1828 would produce another classic 25/50C reverse although the 1828 version is cheap at $135 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $9,500. PCGS reports just two examples called Mint State, so it may be tougher than the current prices suggest.
Following 1828 there would be another gap in production until 1831 when the quarter returned with a slightly smaller diameter. That would be the final type of early quarters, lasting until 1838. Mintages were larger, so it is a type virtually everyone can afford. A G-4 lists at $70, MS-60 at $1,100 and MS-65 at $17,000. There are a few dates like the 156,000 mintage 1833 that might be slightly more but the premiums are generally low.
The low prices can be somewhat misleading as the dates of the period are hardly common. Only one, the 1835, had a mintage of more than a million, and none prior to the 1835 had even reached 500,000. Moreover, they would potentially have been melted in the early 1850s if they circulated that long, making it hard to contend that they are readily available. While some like the 1834 might have been seen 80 times in Mint State at PCGS, others like the 1833 has just 22 appearances. In MS-65 only the 1831 has been seen as many as 10 times. While available, these dates are not ones which can be taken for granted.
For the collector today, the options are many in the case of early quarters. They are a challenging group yet one where several dates are available. Moreover, all are interesting reflections of their times and the situation at the Mint. When you acquire early quarters you acquire not only interesting coins, but a piece of history as well.