The gold quarter eagle may well be one of the most fascinating of all denominations of United States coins. It probably seemed a logical denomination at the time it was created, but in practice at least for a long time there was little, if any role for the gold quarter eagle in circulation.
True, there was only a limited role for gold coins in general during the early years of the Mint, but it also seems that the $2.50 denomination just did not really fit with the way Americans did business.
Unfortunately, we do not really know the precise logic behind the decision to include the gold quarter eagle as one of the initial denominations of U.S. coins in the Mint Act of April 2, 1792. It was probably a simple case of finding some denomination between the silver dollar and gold half eagle, but a $2.50 face value today looks suspect to 21st century minds in terms of likely use, but it was 1792 and we have to basically assume that they knew what they were doing.
The main gold unit was the eagle. It had a $10 face value. This was a time when fractions of coins were regularly used. For example, the Spanish Milled Dollar, the coin on which the U.S. dollar was based was regularly divided in halves, quarters and eighths, or in everyday language four bits, two bits and one bit, respectively.
If the silver logic prevailed we might have had an eighth eagle, too, or $1.25, but then the impracticality of tiny gold coins was widely understood at the time.
Of course, the assumption that officials knew what they were doing would be tested before the first gold quarter eagle was ever produced. It started right away as authorizations for coins from half cents to $10 gold eagles were approved, but there was no facility where these coins could be made. Moreover, an assortment of other features needed to establish a mint and make coins such as an authorization to purchase copper were missing from the original legislation.
So as seen from the vantage point of 1792, there would have been little expectation of seeing the first quarter eagle any time in the near future. First Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had to get to work simply to get a mint established as at the time the secretary of State was responsible for the Mint. Jefferson worked with speed and by early 1793 there was a mint, although in all probability it was somewhat hastily assembled. That really did not matter as there was very little the facility could do. Until a $10,000 bond was posted by top Mint officials, there could be no production of gold or silver issues. That limited production to just copper half cents and large cents.
The dispute over the bond took until 1794 to resolve and at that point officials turned first to silver issues. That is easily understood as there were indications including a speech to the Congress by President Washington that lower denominations were needed.
Under the circumstances it is a little hard to explain why it was decided to start silver coin production with silver dollars. While we can understand that a system based on dollars might need dollars, there was another factor as the equipment at the time was capable of producing coins only up to a half dollar in size. The needed equipment to produce dollars would arrive the following year, but they went ahead with dollars anyway.
The fact that they did not have the right equipment is probably seen in the low 1,758 mintage of 1794 dollars as no one believes that was the number of dollars they attempted to produce. If there is any doubt that there were problems you need only examine one of the approximately 135 1794 pieces known today as you will find they are generally poorly struck and have other problems as well.
After the silver dollar attempt, officials contented themselves with half dollars and half dimes before attempting to turn their attention to gold and by then it was 1795. Even then the matter of the quarter eagle being an odd denomination or at minimum a lower priority was seen as the gold coins produced in 1795 were the half eagle, which was a popular size, and the gold eagle, which was the largest gold denomination.
Production of the quarter eagle, however, remained on the back burner as the Mint was simply not up to the challenge of adding more than a couple new denominations each year. By 1795 there was regular commercial pressure for large cents as well as silver dollars, which at least with the new equipment were possible in greater numbers.
The first quarter eagle would come along in 1796 and it was a curious design featuring Liberty wearing a conical cap facing right. The curious thing about the obverse was that there were no stars as seen on other denominations. In fact, there was basically nothing with the only other design element on the obverse being the date, which gives the coin a cameo appearance unique to the first estimated 963 quarter eagles produced.
The reverse had the heraldic eagle from the Great Seal of the United States, but as was the case with other denominations, something was missing and that was that there was no denomination.
The fact that the first gold coins did not have denominations was basically a reflection of the times. Being a former British colony, old habits were hard to break. British gold didn’t have denominations on them either.
Also, coins in circulation at the time were a mixture from all over the world. The early small mintages of U.S. gold coins were not enough to seriously impact the coins in use at the time and the merchants and brokers of the era basically did not consider gold coins by denomination. Denominations were many and varied. What counted was weight.
Precisely why the stars were not included on the obverse for the first quarter eagles in unknown. It might easily have been concern over what would actually fit on the smallest gold coin, but whatever that reason was after the first mintage the stars were added for the rest of the 1796 mintage, leaving the no stars quarter eagle as a rare and very historic coin.
Finding any 1796 no stars quarter eagle in any grade is a challenge, with the current listing for an F-12 being $30,000 while an MS-60 is listed at $165,000, but with recent sales commanding record prices not just for the no stars 1796 quarter eagle, but for other early coins of the United States, it seems likely that the listed prices are more of a starting point on negotiations for any examples that might be available.
We know the supply is small. At the Numismatic Guaranty Corp. they report 40 examples graded and of those 40 a total of 9 were called Mint State. A single MS-65 is by far the best. Most examples known today are lightly struck in at least one area although even in upper circulated grades there is usually luster especially on the reverse. While a well struck gem would be nice, the no stars 1796 is one coin where anyone has to be thankful if they are lucky enough to own one at all.
The rest of the 1796 mintage and all the others through 1807 would be the same basic design, but with stars on the obverse.
Produced for a number of years, the expectation would be examples are available, but this was a quarter eagle and what mintages there were tended to be very low. In fact, the high total of the type is the 1807, which had a mintage of 6,812 and the total for all the years combined is safely less than 20,000. The 1807 by a wide margin is the most available.
NGC has seen 119 examples, roughly double the next most frequently seen date.
Prices for an example of the type start at around $4,400 in F-12 with the most available MS-60 currently likely to command at least $21,000. The grades normally seen are around XF-40 and there are the usual problems of the period, with light strikes being evident on Liberty, the stars, dentils and other areas.
An interesting aside is that the dimes of the period used the same reverse. There was also variation as to star arrangement on both the obverse and reverse, but collectors do not generally consider the different possibilities as separate types, as having one nice example of the type is sufficient challenge for most.
In 1808 there would be a design change on the quarter eagle. The new design has a John Reich Turban Head obverse. The reverse featured “2 1/2 D.” This proved to be an important type coin for the simple reason that it had a mintage of just 2,710 and would be issued only in 1808.
The low mintage makes the 1808 a very difficult quarter eagle. An F-12 today is $22,500 while an MS-60 is listed at $125,000. The best estimates are that there may be a couple hundred examples known, although even that is subject to question as NGC currently reports having graded just 43, although surprisingly 15 were called Mint State, but none was better than MS-64. The 1808 quarter eagle in many minds is the toughest of all U.S. type coins and that makes any example a coin that will have a lot of anxious potential owners.
The next gold quarter eagle production would not take place until 1821. The long gap in production probably accurately reflected the lack of demand at the time for quarter eagles.
The weight specified by law was too heavy and no sane merchant was going to deposit gold with the Mint to get back coins whose face value was worth less than the bullion deposited.
The belief is that gold quarter eagles were requested almost as novelties, having no significant role in circulation at the time. As a result, the annual mintage through 1808 had still never reached 7,000 and it was not until Congress formally reduced the weight of gold coins (thereby devaluing the dollar in terms of gold) that output exceeded that number in a single year.
The Mint simply had little time to spend on denominations that were not serving some useful purpose in circulation as was seen in the suspension of silver dollar and gold eagle production in 1804.
The next quarter eagle appeared in 1821 with a Capped Head design, but diameter was reduced to 18.5mm from 20mm. The weight stayed the same. It lasted through 1827.
Production occurred again in 1829. The coin had the same basic design, but it was again made smaller but with the same weight. It was 18.2mm in diameter as opposed to the 18.5mm diameter of those from 1821-1827. Type collectors can combine the two, or view them separately, but either way the prices of the two types are similar. The earlier larger diameter examples start at $5,500 in F-12 while the later small diameter coins start at $4,900. There is a big difference in MS-60, with the earlier dates starting around $21,000 while the least expensive later dates are roughly $12,500.
There are a couple dates that show up more often, according to NGC, with the 1825 being most frequently seen in the first type while the 1831 is seen more often from the later type. In fact, the 1831 has been graded 65 times and of that total just over 40 were called Mint State, making it much more available in Mint State than other dates of either type.
Even if you cannot afford a Mint State example it is usually possible to acquire a fairly nice coin as these quarter eagles saw relatively little circulation. What examples did survive tend to be at least in upper circulated grades. While the strikes may not always be perfect they are usually decent although the later smaller diameter strikes tend to not be as good as in the case of the early issues.
There would be dramatic changes in a variety of ways starting with some of the 1834 mintage. Gold coins of the United States were actually slightly too heavy and that meant that they could be shipped to Europe and sold at a profit. While the quarter eagle was not as heavily exported as the half eagle, the fact remains that if you had received a quarter eagle in the 1820s you probably would have considered going directly to a broker and selling it for a slight profit of just over six percent.
The situation continued for years and Americans living in the 1820s and early 1830s would have considered seeing a gold coin in circulation to be an unusual event.
The decision was finally made to slightly reduce the amount of gold in the gold coins and that took place in 1834 after the production of some of the older Capped Head coins. A new Classic Head design by William Kneass was used to indicate the new weight. There was very real concern that the new and slightly smaller gold coins be identified. While there was talk of special markings for the half eagle, such as using the word “New,” in the case of the quarter eagle it was decided that the new design as well the elimination of E PLURIBUS UNUM would be adequate to identify the new issues.
Actually, the motto was supposed to be restored in 1835 by which time the simple date would be enough to identify the coin as one of the new and slightly smaller issues, but for an unknown reason E PLURIBUS UNUM was not seen again on a quarter eagle until 1908.
Another enormous difference could be seen immediately. In 1834 alone with less than a full year of production, the mintage of the 1834 Classic Head quarter eagle was 112,234 pieces. There would be a couple higher totals in the years that followed, although the Classic Head quarter eagle would only be in production through 1839.
The mintages, however, were high enough to make Classic Head quarter eagles available today at modest prices, with a VF-20 of an available date starting at $475 while the most available MS-60 is $3,100. They are, however, tough in MS-65 where the least costly is the 1834 at $27,000 and its total in MS-65 at NGC is just 15 pieces while few others have totals as high as five examples.
The Christian Gobrecht Coronet Head quarter eagle made its debut in 1840 and it had a remarkable record. It lasted through 1907 with a single significant change. That makes the Coronet Head quarter eagle the longest running design type in U.S. history and it seems that its record is not likely to be broken anytime soon, although the Victor D. Brenner Lincoln cent obverse has lasted longer.
Even though the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to most gold coins in 1866, because of its size the Coronet Head quarter eagle had no change. With decades of production and sometimes high mintages, a Coronet Head quarter eagle is readily available for gold-related prices in circulated grades with an MS-60 of an available date around $275 and later date examples in MS-65 are also very reasonable.
The final type of quarter eagle was the Indian Head quarter eagle. It was designed by Bela Lyon Pratt who was selected by Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow to do the art for his idea of a coin to have incuse (recessed) design elements. This meant that the field was the highest part of the coin.
The idea had a problem if you wanted an MS-65 or better coin and that was that as the highest part of the design, the field would be subject to contact marks and wear. Even experts have a tough time grading the Indian Head quarter eagle, which is $275 in MS-60, but at least $7,000 in MS-65 simply because so few can be found without some type of problem in the field despite the fact that they were produced by the hundreds of thousands in many years from 1908-1929.
With the exception of the first gold quarter eagles, a type collection can be reasonably attempted. In the process, you will be building your knowledge of a denomination that did not really fit in for four decades after its creation.