Neil S Berman
Expert Numismatist & Rare Coin Dealer
1796 $2 1/2 With Stars MS65 NG
Breen-6114, Bass-3003, BD-3, R.5. BD Die State b. This is the only Gem quality 1796 With Stars quarter eagle certified. The next finest examples grade MS63, and the population goes downward from there. NGC and PCGS have combined to grade just 14 pieces in all Mint State grades, and that total undoubtedly includes several resubmissions. There are certainly less than ten true Mint State examples of this issue still in existence today. In all grades, the total estimated population is less than fourty-five coins from a mintage generally believed to be 432 coins.
The Mint Act of 1792 authorized all of the gold and silver coins that would eventually be struck by the young Philadelphia Mint. After property was acquired, construction of the actual buildings was completed, and all was ready to produce the Nation's first coinage, copper, silver, and gold. Despite completion of the physical components and acquisition of the necessary equipment, coinage of gold and silver could still not be accomplished as the bonding requirement for key employees was too strict. These employees were unable to meet the original requirement of $10,000 bond to insure against possible loss.
Rittenhouse approached Congress with a request to reduce this amount, which they eventually did. The new requirement was $5,000 bond, a more reasonable figure for the time. It was understood that steps would be put in place for these bonded employees to only have access to a limited amount of gold and silver at any one time, further reducing the risk to the government. Finally, all was set for production of precious metals coinage. Silver dollars and half dollars were coined for the first time late in 1794, followed by other silver denominations. Half eagles and eagles came next, with the first gold coins struck in July 1795, and finally the quarter eagles were produced beginning in September 1796 with the No Stars issue. Even after all was set for production of gold coins, few quarter eagles were produced. The denomination of choice for use in commerce was the larger half eagles and eagles.
Creation of the early quarter eagle design is generally attributed to Robert Scot, the first Chief Engraver of the Philadelphia Mint. A bust of Liberty faces right, draped and capped, with the 1796 date below and LIBERTY above. A total of 16 stars are arranged with eight to the left and eight to the right, each oriented point-to-point. Only a few early U.S. coins have stars oriented in this manner as the usual orientation has a single point toward the border. The reverse has a large, Heraldic eagle patterned after the Great Seal of the United States. A ribbon in the eagle's beak extends left and right, bearing the inscription E PLURIBUS UNUM. The eagle holds a bundle of arrows (eight are visible) in its dexter claw and an olive branch in its sinister claw. A shield on the eagle's breast consists of eight vertical stripes and nine horizontal crossbars. Above the eagle's head is a row of clouds (seven or eight, depending on the viewer's perspective) and 16 stars in a seemingly random placement. The statutory legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA follows the border clockwise, from 7:30 to 5:30.
Notable features of this die pair include the digit 6 overlapping the bottom edge of the drapery on the obverse and the raised die file lines through TATE on the reverse. The 8x8 star arrangement on the obverse is somewhat inconsistent with a wide space between star 1 and the hair curl, enough to permit a ninth star on the left, which would have eliminated the crowded appearance of the stars on the right.
The Gem 1796 With Stars quarter eagle that we are pleased to present is from the famous Byron Reed Collection. Both sides are sharply detailed with bright yellow-gold color displaying greenish tendencies. The fields are fully prooflike, suggesting the possibility that this may have been a special strike, although we hesitate to declare it a specimen strike or presentation piece. A few faint abrasions on each side are hardly significant, and obviously did not concern the graders at NGC. This is an early die state, although a light bulge appears in the left obverse field, usually seen on later die state pieces of various coins. A faint die crack extends right from the digit 6 and another crack connects the stars on the left. The lower hair curls are mostly complete, indicating that this example was struck prior to die lapping.
The eight pieces listed in this roster is by no means complete as pedigree research in early gold coinage is seriously lacking. For example, the Bass coin, considered AU58 by some observers, is almost certainly full Mint State. The other Mint State example offered in the present sale is probably one of the following coins, although there is not a conclusive match.
1. MS65 NGC. This coin. Byron Reed Collection; Durham Western Heritage Museum; Christie's and Spink America (10/1996), lot 41.
2. MS63 NGC. John Whitney Walter (Stack's, 5/1999), lot 1790; Bowers and Merena (11/2002), lot3063;Bowers and Merena (3/2004), lot 2512.
3. MS63. Stack's (2/1974), lot 495; Jimmy Hayes Collection; Auction '84, lot 1365; Auction '89, lot 1356.
4. MS63. Smithsonian Institution.
5. MS62 NGC. Heritage (11/2005), lot 2363.
6. MS61. John Whitney Walter (Stack's, 5/1999), lot 1791.
7. MS61 PCGS. Charles T. Steigerwalt (5/1907); John H. Clapp; Clapp Estate; Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr.; Eliasberg Estate (Bowers & Ruddy, 10/1982), lot 80; Long Beach Connoisseur (Bowers & Merena, 8/1999), lot 337; Cincinnati Collection (Heritage, 1/2005), lot 8761.
Walter Breen recorded three different pieces as "presentation pieces" in his Proof Encyclopedia. These included lot 2496 in the June 1912 Henry Chapman sale of the George Earle Collection, a coin that appeared in the 1875 sale of the M.I. Cohen Collection, an example that appeared as lot 12 in the 1886 sale of the Dr. Edward Maris Collection, and a piece sold in the 1974 "Winter Sale."
© 2006 Heritage Galleries. Used with permission of Steve Ivy and Heritage Galleries