There is little doubt that the 1796 No Stars quarter eagle and the 1808 Capped Bust quarter eagle are two of the most important type coins in the entire panorama of American numismatics.
After the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, was passed by Congress, steps were taken to proceed with a physical Mint facility in Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital. The cornerstone for the new building, the first official government structure in the United States, was placed on July 31, 1792, and construction continued until early 1793. It was March 1 of that year that the first coins were produced within the physical Mint building, those coins being the 1793 Chain cents, specifically the famous “Chain Ameri” pieces.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Although the capability to produce silver and gold coinage existed at that same time, there was a delay in production of the precious metals. The original 1792 coinage Act specified that the Mint treasurer, assayer, and chief coiner shall each post a bond in the amount of $10,000 to ensure their proper handling of gold and silver deposits. While this doesn’t seem to be a large amount today, it was substantial for the time. The annual salary for the assayer and chief coiner in 1795 was $1,200, thus the required bond was more than eight years’ salary. Congressional approval was then required to lower the necessary bond to $5,000, a more reasonable requirement. Once these bonds were posted, silver dollars were coined in 1794, and gold coins beginning in 1795.
The first quarter eagles were struck on September 21, 1796, with a delivery of just 66 pieces. It is believed that all of these pieces were the extremely rare variety now known as BD-1 (BD for Bass-Dannreuther), that a further delivery of 897 pieces dated December 8, 1796, were all examples of this BD-2 variety, and finally a delivery of 432 quarter eagles dated January 14, 1797, were all the BD-3 variety of the 1796 With Stars design. Although an exact correlation of varieties and original Mint delivery records is guesswork at best, these quantities are clearly supported by the number of known specimens of each die marriage. There are six known examples of BD-1, approximately 80 to 100 examples of BD-2, and 40 to 50 examples of BD-3. Each of these current estimated populations represent about 10% of the proposed original mintage.
For those who are not well versed in numismatic terminology, we present a brief explanation of the term “delivery” or “delivery date.” In the early Mint, individuals (persons or firms) brought their silver or gold to the Mint where it was received by the Mint treasurer. After being refined by the assayer to the proper purity, the deposit would be received by the chief coiner for production into actual coins. These coins would then be delivered back to the Mint treasurer with an associated document known as a “delivery warrant” with a specific quantity of coins produced and the date that they were received by the treasurer. It was these dated “delivery warrants” that now give us the term “delivery” or “delivery date.”
These first quarter eagles featured the Draped Bust obverse design in a plain field with LIBERTY above and the date below. The reverse was the Heraldic Eagle design adapted from the Great Seal. A shield covered the eagle’s breast with a row of clouds and a constellation of 16 stars above. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA follows the border, and the eagle holds an olive branch and eight (more or less) arrows in its claws. Today, it is fascinating to think of the possibility suggested by James Ross Snowden in 1860, the possibility that a 1796 quarter eagle exists with a Small Eagle reverse. In his Description of Ancient and Modern Coins, in the Cabinet Collection at the Mint of the United States Snowden commented: “1796. The gold coins of this year have sixteen stars upon the obverse, eight upon each side of the effigy. The first coinage of quarter eagles took place this year. The first issue, which was made on the twenty first of September, was of the same type as the eagle.”
Designer: Robert Scot
Diameter: ±20 millimeters
Metal content: Gold – 91.7% Silver and Copper – 8.3%
Weight: ±67.5 grains (±4.37 grams)
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