Johann Matthias (John) Reich was a Bavarian native who learned the engraving trade from his father, Johann Christian Reich. According to L. Forrer in the Biographical Dictionary of Medalists: the elder Reich was “born at Eisenberg (Saxe-Altenburg) about 1740, settled at Furth in 1758, and died in 1814. He probably began as an assistant to a Counter-manufacturer, but started business on his own account about 1770, as shown by various counters bearing his name, some of which refer to the famine of 1771/1772. He had a factory of organs, clocks, mathematical instruments, musical boxes, and other objects. Of that period is a series of medals by him dated 1771 and 1772, and commemorating also that famine.”
The younger Reich, according to Forrer, collaborated with his father from about 1789 to 1800. Johann Matthias was born in Furth in 1768. Many of the medals issued during those years with the signature of Reich were the work of father and son together.
John Reich immigrated to America in 1800, settling in Philadelphia. Apparently he came at the suggestion of Henry Voigt, quickly gaining the attention of Mint Director Elias Boudinot. In a June 16, 1801 letter to President Thomas Jefferson, Boudinot commented that “I have been waited on by Mr. Reich and was much pleased with his work.” Jefferson, in turn, agreed to have Reich prepare the design for his own Indian Peace medal.
Reich was hired out of indentured servitude in 1807 to work as an assistant engraver and joined the Mint engraving staff on April 1, 1807, and served a 10-year tenure until March 31, 1817. He was given the task of redesigning the U.S. coinage, a direct slap in the face of the aged chief engraver, Robert Scot. Reich turned first to the coins most used by banks, creating new master hubs for half dollars and half eagles. In 1808, Reich’s new designs would premiere for the large cent and the quarter eagle. The “secret notch” on star 13, Reich’s signature, is plain on all examples of the 1808 quarter eagle, including the present piece.
In 1807, his Capped Bust design appeared for the first time on half dollars, and a similar design also appeared on the half eagles in 1807. Early the next year, a modification of this design, known today as the Classic Head, appeared on large cents and followed on the half cents in 1809. For silver coins, the Capped Bust design was utilized for dimes in 1809, quarter dollars in 1815, and half dimes in 1829. Silver dollars and eagles were not in production, so the Reich designs never appeared on those denominations. Perhaps the single most important entry in the Reich parade of designs is the quarter eagle of 1808.
The Mint’s priorities in 1808 clearly lay elsewhere than in the quarter eagle. The skimpy mintage of 2,710 quarter eagles dated 1808 was accomplished using a single obverse and reverse die pairing, and today it is among the most widely pursued U.S. type coins. Among U.S. gold type coins, it is probably the second rarest, behind only the 1796 No Stars quarter eagle.
The quarter eagle denomination was struck only sporadically throughout its first few decades, until 1834. Token amounts of the denomination were struck dated 1796, 1797, and 1798 (although not necessarily struck in those years), then no more were produced until the so-called 1802/1 coins. Quarter eagles were struck yearly dated 1804, 1805, 1806, and 1807.
In Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia, the author states: “No archives documentation explains the small mintage, abandonment of the design, or noncoinage of quarter eagles for the dozen years to follow. All we have is conjectures; mine follow.” Essentially, Breen suggested that the banks, who made regular deposits of gold to be converted to coin, preferred the half eagle coins: “over 90% of the time they wanted most or all their gold deposits coined into half eagles.” This same reason is usually quoted for large production of half eagles throughout the early 19th century, but it fails to explain why the largest gold coin of that time, the eagle, had not been produced since 1804, not to appear again until 1838.
The mintages of 1808-dated coinage are clear evidence of the Mint’s scant support for the quarter eagle. While the coinage factory turned out 400,000 cents, more than 1 million large cents, nearly 1.4 million half dollars, and about 55,000 half eagles, the quarter eagle mintage of 2,710 pieces would constitute the sole production of the Capped Bust Left, Large Size type (in Guide Book terminology), and the last quarter eagle production until 1821. In the years from 1796 through 1808, the Mint managed (or chose) to strike only a reported 22,197 pieces, with a face value of $55,492.50. For comparison purposes, notice that the single-year emission of 1808-dated half eagles was 55,578 coins, with a face value of $277,890.
Mintage comparisons such as these make one realize how truly rare overall the quarter eagle denomination was, even to Americans of its own time.
This likely explains another anomaly, the existence of numerous 1808 quarter eagles in near-Mint State grades, a considerable number for the quantity produced. Due to its lower face value and its status as an oddity among American coins, it appears that some nice pieces were saved when they were encountered, in much the same way as Americans today might save a $2 bill or Buffalo nickel found in circulation. The most common grade among certified survivors is AU58, where NGC has graded 13 pieces and PCGS 14.