Gold quarter eagles had been produced since 1796, though mintage for any one year never exceeded 7,000 coins. Few gold coins of any denomination circulated, and those that did traded at more than face value because of the gold content; gold coins were preferred over paper money. Half eagles went mostly to export trade because that denomination was the largest gold coin being produced (eagles had not been minted since 1804). Certain federal legislators were able to receive their pay in gold coins, and some today believe this circumstance, along with coins set aside as gifts (a popular use for the denomination), accounts for many of the quarter eagle survivors. But other than those reserved or saved, few if any quarter eagles circulated, likely because the face value was the equivalent of $50 today.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
National Archives records mention an instance of the melting of 40,000 U.S. half eagles in Paris in 1831, and in response to the growing problem of gold not circulating, Congress passed the Act of June 28, 1834, that reduced the weight of the gold quarter eagle by 0.19 grams, sufficient to halt the melting of the coins as bullion. Along with the weight reduction Liberty's portrait was redesigned, and to help the public distinguish new quarter eagles from old, the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM was removed from the reverse. The motto was intended to be restored in 1835, but that did not happen. Mint Director Samuel Moore expected many of the older weight coins (worth $2.66 after passage of the Act) to be turned in to the Mint for recoinage, which indeed did happen. Though the yearly mintages of early gold coins were usually low, the rarity of many of those coins today is due to the periodic meltings that occurred whenever the bullion value of a coin exceeded its face value.
The new design of Liberty by William Kneass is considered a copy of the earlier John Reich design used on cents and half cents in the early 1800s. Some have noted that in comparison to the preceding Capped Head design, Kneass' Liberty is neither as complex in detail nor as refined in execution. The portrait has also been described as being androgynous, the hairdo and fillet (the narrow headband) more appropriate to ancient Greek male athletes. Kneass and his successor Christian Gobrecht made additional changes to improve the design, one of which produced the "Booby Head" type in 1834, so labeled by John Clapp sometime before 1942. In perhaps the final saga of the Classic Head quarter eagle, the Supreme Court in 1871 decided that the 1834 Act was a violation of the Constitution's Fifth Amendment because it allowed debts to be paid at the face value of the new gold coins, rather than according to their bullion value. Along with the familiar prohibition for compelling self-incrimination by a witness, the Fifth Amendment also states that "É nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation". Because, for example, twenty dollars in debt could be paid with coins containing less than twenty dollars worth of gold, the use of the lower-weight gold coins was considered by the Court to be an unjust taking.
A youthful Liberty faces left on the obverse, surrounded for the most part by a circle of thirteen six-point stars, with the date at the bottom, inside a dentilled rim. Liberty wears a fillet, upon which is inscribed LIBERTY, with the ends of a ribbon visible at the back of the neck. Liberty's curled hair is visible above the band, around her ear, and down the back of the neck, though constrained by the band on the forehead. Classic quarter eagles were minted at Philadelphia, Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans; C, D, and O mintmarks are located above the date, below the neck. The reverse is dominated by a centered left-facing eagle, wings outstretched nearly to the dentils, body covered by a Union shield, an olive branch in the right claw (left to the observer), and three arrows in the left claw. Surrounding the eagle is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA inside the dentilled rim, the text separated into three parts by the eagle's wing tips, and the denomination of 2 1/2 D. at the bottom.
Several thousand business strike Classic quarter eagles have been certified, including a few prooflike pieces. Prices are modest for most dates to AU55, expensive to near-Gem, and very expensive as Gem and finer. Higher priced issues are the quarter eagles minted at Charlotte and Dahlonega and, to a lesser extent, the 1839 New Orleans coins. Fewer than a dozen proofs have been certified for most dates, and the total includes pieces with a Cameo or Deep Cameo designation. All proofs are very expensive to PR62, and extremely expensive as PR63 and finer. Prices are reasonably uniform for all dates.
Designer: William Kneass, based on previous designs by Robert Scot and John Reich; additional work done by Christian Gobrecht.
Circulation Mintage: high 547,989 (1836), low 7,880 (1838-C)
Proof Mintage: high 10 (estimated total for each year, unknown for 1838)
Diameter: 18.2 mm, reeded edge
Metal Content: 89.92% gold, 10.08% copper 1834-1836; 90% gold, 10% silver 1837-1839
Weight: 4.18 grams
Varieties: A few known including 1834 Small Head and Large (Booby) Head; 1836 Script 8 and Block 8 (referring to the form of the 8 digit); 1836 Head of 1835; and other minor die variations.
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
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