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Quarter Eagles 1795-1834

Posted on: 2016-01-07


There are those of us who not only consider early gold as rare coins worthy of our investment dollars, but the ultimate embodiment of the first American mint masters and engravers’ art as well. The best examples of these coins are rare and desirable as both artifacts of our new nation and tangible evidence of the difficulty that the original founders faced when creating our new MONETARY system. The mintages are small and the survival rates in all grades low. Early United States gold coins in any grade worthy of investment are going to be both rare and much in demand, and thus difficult to acquire.

Collectors have known that pre-1834 gold is rare virtually since the coins were originally minted, but just how rare, while not a surprise, is statistically amazing. All the mintage figures in this article come from John Dannreuthers’ Early U.S. Gold Coin Varities, the “state of the art” on the subject.

The population report figures come from both Professional Coin Dealers Grading Service and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation population report figures combined, in some if not all cases there will be some duplication and other statistical errors, perhaps to the extent of twenty percent in either direction. Grades of individual coins go up and down with the fashions in grading, complicating the issue even further. Additionally, the coins held in old collections, museums and at the National Collection in Washington are not certified by PCGS or NGC, so they will further confuse the survival rates.

Early Money before United States Gold Coins

The first attempts at producing currency inside North America were issued by the Continental Congress, the original Thirteen Colonies individually, and later the brand new United States of America. Because these were for the most part paper or copper money, what little acceptance they received was on the faith of our early patriots and did not readily translate into serious use for international commerce. The paper money devalued into fiat currency, as paper money almost always does, and the need for hard currency became apparent immediately during the American Revolution.  Production was planned as soon as the new government was able, which was no small undertaking. This was authorized by the new US Government by the Mint Act of 1792.

This new coinage appears to have begun in March, 1793 with the production of what we now call chain cents, the design of which the public was not pleased with. The first gold coins, the coins that we are particularly interested in here, half eagles, were not manufactured until 1795. It is here, with the quarter eagles, that we start our analysis.

Early gold coins come in three denominations, those being quarter eagles ($2.50), half eagles ($5), and eagles ($10), as the gold coins were all divisions or multiplications of the eagle ten dollar denomination. There were no denominations on the coins because it really did not matter to the merchants and governments of the time who used the coins in commerce, as the coins were only worth their weight and fineness in gold, and no more.

The various gold coins were distributed from the mint in the following order: First, the Half Eagles, seven hundred and forty-four of them, were struck on July 31st, 1795. Next, the Eagles, 1,097 units of the highest denomination coin, on September 22nd, 1795. Last, the smallest denomination gold coins, quarter eagles, and they were first delivered on September 21st, 1796.

Note that all mintage figures at the early US Mint are more or less educated guesses, as there was no law governing the use of coin minting dies like there is today. Dies were time consuming and expensive to make, so the dies were used almost indiscriminately until they were no longer serviceable, and sometimes even past then, as coins struck from cracked and rusted dies are not uncommon. The date on the gold coin is not necessarily the date that the coin was made at that first American mint, and in some cases, has no relationship at all to the date of manufacture.

All the early gold coin types of all denominations are rare for several reasons. First, the very limited mintages made them hard to come by even when they had just been freshly minted. Then they were removed from circulation for all of the usual reasons, including loss and wear. The grand final, so to speak, was the change in the weight of all gold coins by Act of Congress on June 28th, 1834 which restated the ratio of the value of gold to silver. With the increase in the relative gold value, the coins were worth more as metal than they were as coined currency, so they were melted by the thousands. The few that are left today were saved as souvenirs by the new Americans, shipped overseas, saved as bank reserves both in the States and abroad, or in the hands of early collectors.

Quarter Eagles 1796-1834

Quarter eagles, or $2.50 gold pieces as they are also called, come in six different styles or basic types:

• Draped Bust No Stars

• Draped Bust With Stars

• Capped Bust Left

• Capped Head Left Large Size

• Capped Head Left Small Size

• Liberty obverse and Large or Heraldic Eagle reverse

All have the same manufacturing characteristics, in that they are all 25 millimeters in diameter, weight one hundred thirty-five grains of .9167 fine gold, are alloyed with copper, and were struck in a screw press with a reeded collar at the Philadelphia mint. By and large they are mostly softly struck; a well struck coin is always a prize in any grade.


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