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Quarter Started in Mysterious Way
By Paul M. Green, Numismatic News
June 13, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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There are a lot of questions today about early quarters. The problem is there are not many answers to the many questions. That, of course makes them both fun and interesting although just a little frustrating at the same time as we try to piece together a story that sometimes seems to have missing parts. That said, collecting and understanding the early quarters of the United States is a little like finding the clues in a good crime story and for some that’s a lot of fun.

One case where we have pretty well put together the story is why it took from 1792 when the quarter along with all other denominations was authorized until 1796 for the first quarter to be produced. It was a combination of factors but at least we basically know them.

Going from being authorized to actually being produced was not as easy as it sounds. Back in 1792 the U.S. government was starting coin production from scratch. First there had to be a place to produce the new coins and at the time the coins were authorized the Mint of the United States at least in the minds of Thomas Jefferson, who as secretary of State was responsible for it, was the basement of a saw maker named John Harper where assorted coinage related activities were conducted.

Before there would be official U.S. quarters or any other U.S. denominations there needed to be a mint. That took time.

The capital of the United States was Philadelphia and that is where the official Mint was located.

Once the Mint was established and ready to begin coin production there was another matter at least when it came to silver and gold and that was that officials were required by law to post a bond before any silver and gold coins could be produced. The bond amount was $10,000, which back in 1793 was a great deal of money. It was intended to be a guarantee of the honesty of Mint officials.

But whatever the intent, the amount was seen as too much and that saw would-be officials balk at the requirement.

Jefferson had to step in and attempt to solve the problem, but that took time. In the meantime the only coins that could be produced were copper large cents and half cents. To handle these, officials were able to post smaller bonds.

Finally, in 1794 the bond matter was settled and silver and gold production could begin. The situation was not, however, like the modern Denver or Philadelphia facilities today.

Even though the Philadelphia Mint was new, it was not exactly modern. There had to be priorities set because there was a very limited production capacity.

The first priority was the silver dollar, which was an odd choice because the equipment ordered to make silver dollars would not arrive until the following year. What equipment there was on hand was useful for smaller coins up to a half dollar in size, but officials went ahead with silver dollar production anyway.

The results were probably disappointing, but they should not have been surprising. Though the dollars were given the best strike possible with the equipment, alignments were not always perfect and in the end a total of just 1,758 were delivered.

No one thinks that they set out to make only 1,758 silver dollars. The kindest estimate is that this is what was usable after an attempted 2,000. They were simply those dollars that could pass what would have been very minimal quality standards.

The second coin to be attempted was the half dollar and it seemed to fare better with 23,464 being delivered. By that time, however, 1794 was basically over Half dimes were next denomination in line. There is some doubt as to whether any were actually struck in 1794 even though some would carry that date.

The Mint was adding to its capacity as things went along with 1795 seeing the mintage of some denominations already produced in prior years as well as gold coins. In each case the creation of a new denomination took time and while the first gold coins were prepared and produced other silver denominations like the quarter and dime were forced to wait.

The debut moment for the quarter finally arrived 1796. Thomas Jefferson was long gone from the post of secretary of State. It fact he was running for President. He lost to John Adams, so served as vice president instead.

But it was time for the first quarter. The mintage was a very small 6,146 pieces. There is even suspicion that perhaps about 250 of that number was not actually struck until 1797. With such a small mintage the normal expectation would be that 1797 would see a large mintage, but things were not normal and there would be no 1797 quarter production at all. In fact there would be no quarter production until 1804, making that low mintage 1796 the only date of its type as by 1804 the design was changed. This made the Draped Bust obverse and small eagle reverse the only quarter to have that design. You might say the 1796 quarter represents a perfect storm in terms of factors likely to make it costly for collectors as it is the historic first quarter of the United States, a very low mintage date and an important type coin all rolled into one.

The 1796 today lists for $12,000 in G-4 and it goes from there to $83,000 in MS-60 and $325,000 in MS-65 with that MS-65 price strongly higher during the 21st century. There is good reason for such high prices across the board as Q. David Bowers suggests in his book, A Guide Book Of United States Type Coins, when he notes regarding the 1796 quarter, “Hundreds of circulated examples exist, but as demand is so extensive, any specimen meets with enthusiasm when it is offered.”

With virtually everything in its favor in terms of producing higher prices, the 1796 has been somewhat hard to predict as it is one of the few cases among early and historic issues where the price has moved up and down. In 1998 it was $4,350 in G-4 and from there it dropped to $3,950 in 2001 before starting the climb to $12,000 today.

Certainly the trend has been to higher prices, but it has not been a smooth path and it has also been that way in MS-60 where the 1796 was $28,000 then dropped to $26,000 before rebounding strongly to the current $83,000. Only in MS-65 have we seen steadily rising prices. In 1998 it was $50,000. Now that was a good investment for any lucky buyer.

Why such a low mintage historic coin would ever drop in value is something of a mystery compounded by questions regarding the supply of the 1796. The expectation would be that the 1796 is almost unknown in Mint State, but at Numismatic Guaranty Corporation where they have seen 139 examples, a total of 27 were called Mint State and four of them were MS-65 or better. At the Professional Coin Grading Service where they have graded the 1796 252 times, a total of 31 were called Mint State with three making MS-65, one making MS-66 and two were called MS-67.

The numbers are unusually high for a coin from 1796 with a mintage barely over 6,000 pieces. There were almost no coin collectors at the time it was struck to save such numbers and by 1796 the novelty of new coins of the United States had passed, so there normally would be very few examples found in Mint State. The total of more than 50 examples called Mint State as well as a significant number called AU, with PCGS alone called another 45 AU suggests that something unusual happened with the 1796 back in when it was released.

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We cannot be sure precisely what happened, but we do have stories involving the eccentric Col. E.H.R. Green who was supposed to have owned a major hoard of the 1796. It is not surprising as Green was very wealthy. He owned a railroad among other things. He didn’t just collect things. He liked to hoard rare coins, stamps and other items, If he could corner the market, so much the better. That was not likely with the 1796 quarter, but the stories have placed his hoard at 200 uncirculated examples.

The grading services do not support that number, but if you consider the Mint State and AU numbers there is reason to suspect that what some thought were Mint State examples might have been lightly circulated coins, bringing his total potentially to over 100 if not close to the rumored 200.

Whatever the number, it would have been a massive number of a very important and tough coin. Of course, even if there was a Green hoard, it still leaves open the question as to why they were ever saved in such numbers back in 1796 and that question we may never be able to answer.

Quarter production returned in 1804 but hardly with a bang as the 1804 had a mintage of just 6,738. It was probably no coincidence that 1804 would see the return of the denomination as it was in 1804 that gold eagle and silver dollar production was suspended.

Since the Mint was likely to strike something, it is no surprise the quarter was revived.

The 1804 quarter lacks the important place in history of the 1796, but with its low mintage, the 1804 is still a very good quarter. In fact, it is potentially tougher than the 1796 as it was unlikely to be saved in any special numbers. In G-4 today the 1804 lists for $5,500 and that is quite an increase from its $600 price back in 1998. Collectors are perhaps wising up to its true scarcity.

In MS-60 the 1804 is now $92,500 and that too is quite a jump from its 1998 listing of $22,000, and as you might have noticed, it is a higher price than the 1796 in the same grade.

An MS-65 is put at $425,000, also higher than the 1796. The Mint State numbers show that the 1804 is in a class with the 1796. Remembering that PCGS had seen 31 examples of the 1796 in Mint State, the total for the 1804 is just 9 pieces and none of them was better than MS-64. At NGC which reported 27 Mint State examples of the 1796, in the case of the 1804 the number is just 7. Moreover, the total numbers are also higher for the 1796 with PCGS reporting that they have graded the 1796 over 100 times more than the 1804.

The problems with quarters of the period were not limited to low mintages. The 1796 as well as the 1804 were subject to extensive wear while weak strikes and adjustment marks to make the planchet the right weight were closer to the rule than the exception. The wear, however, remains a nagging problem as was seen in a 2002 Superior Pre-Long Beach sale that saw a surprising total of seven examples of the 1804 offered. The best of the seven was an AU-50, but from there the drop off was significant, with one coin grading G-4 with the sort of wear you expect from a G-4, but the other five were all called AG-3 for a variety of reasons. In one case the wear was simply unusually heavy but in others there was damage of one type or another and that sort of thing is not unusual with early issues as even routine use in the 19th century could take a terrible toll on the condition of a coin.

In 1805, quarter production suddenly sprang to life. That year had a mintage of 121,394. This was followed by a 206,124 mintage in 1806 and a 220,643 total in 1807. With those mintages, the type is available at $525 in G-4, $11,000 in MS-60 and $93,500 in MS-65. The 1806/5 overdate, which was part of the 1806 total, is better and realistically the dates have somewhat different availability especially in Mint State even with basically identical prices.

At PCGS they have graded 20 examples of the 1805 in Mint State with a single coin being called MS-65. In the case of the 1806, the total in Mint State is 35 with 2 in MS-65 while the 1807 shows 49 in Mint State with 2 in MS-65 and one in MS-67.

Ironically the production of quarters simply stopped after 1807, suggesting that even with better capacity the Mint was not making the denomination a high priority, which probably reflected a lack of public demand. The next quarter would not be produced until 1815 and then it would be of the John Reich Liberty Cap design.

Capped Bust quarters lasted until 1828 when the diameter was reduced, which technically created another type. A type example of the 1815-1828 design lists for $95 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $3,550 and an MS-65 at $28,000 in the case of the most available dates.

What we see are dates where there are differences in availability, but in most cases not much difference in price. The 1815 was lower mintage at 89,235 and it does appear less than some of the others, which justifies a slightly higher $3,800 MS-60 price. At PCGS they report 41 examples of the 1815 in all Mint State grades combined but in the case of the higher mintage 1818 there have been 47 examples in MS-64 alone.

There are a number of interesting dates as this period saw any number of varieties such as the 1819 that came with different sizes of the “9” in the date with the large “9” variety being tougher and almost unknown in Mint State. There are also small and large “0” examples of the 1820 with the large “0” again being the tougher variety.

There are also some tough dates topped off by the 1823/22, which currently lists for $35,000 and that is just in G-4. An AU-50 examples of the 1823/22 lists for $110,000 as they are rarely seen in higher grades with PCGS having graded just 14 in any grade and only a single AU-58 reached AU. The reason for this is that there were few people checking at the time for overdates and by the time the 1823/22 was discovered it was too late to find any Mint State examples unless they had been saved originally as a normal date. Ironically, during the period from 1822 to 1827 almost every date issued was an overdate as there are others such as the 1825/22, 1825/23 and 1825/24.

Nor was it just the date as there is an 1822 with a classic engraver’s mistake in the form of the denomination, which is expressed as 25/50C. Something similar would happen in 1828, but the 25/50C 1822 is a very tough coin with a listing of $2,750 in G-4 while an AU-50 is placed at $25,000. It might well be underpriced as PCGS has only seen five examples of which one was an MS-61 while the other four were heavily circulated.

The regular 1822 is also a tougher date with a mintage of 64,080 although again its prices are not substantially higher than other more available dates. Its MS-60 price is higher and it should be at $4,250 as PCGS reports just 17 examples which were called Mint State.

The 1827 is another challenging date of the period with a reported mintage of just 4,000 and that produced a restrike with both the original and restrike being scarce. The original had a curl base “2” in the date and denomination while the restrike had a square base “2.” There were examples of both in the Norweb and Eliasberg sales. The Norweb original which was graded Proof-64 brought $61,600 while the Proof-65 restrike produced a price of $39,600 although a Proof-65 restrike in the later Eliasberg sale brought $77,000.

The 1828 features another classic 25/50C reverse although in this case it is much more available than the 1822 with a price of $500 in G-4 while an MS-60 is at $9,500, although PCGS reports only two Mint State examples in the 16 examples of the 1828 with a 25/50C reverse it has seen.

After 1828 there would be another production gap that would last until 1831 when the Liberty Cap design returned but with a smaller diameter. This final design would last until the introduction of the Seated Liberty design with the most available dates being at $68 in G-4, $1,225 in MS-60 and $25,000 in MS-65. A few dates like the 156,000 mintage 1833 might be slightly more expensive but premiums are generally low.

The lack of collectors shows in the fact that the prices are generally very close even though grading service totals sometimes suggest that in certain grades some of the dates of the period are not available. If, for example you check in MS-65 there have been none graded by PCGS in the case of the 1832 and only one for the 1833 and 1836. In fact the 1836 is surprisingly low in numbers in Mint State while the 1831 which comes with large or small letters is the most available in Mint State in the case of the small letter variety.

The options are many in terms of good values and it is certainly a case where collectors will find that the early quarters are a great deal of fun to study as you collect them. Of course they do raise questions that cannot always be answered, but that perhaps makes them even more alluring. Mystery adds appeal.

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