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Exhilarating 1796 With Stars Quarter Eagle, MS62, BD-3
The Eliasberg-Price Specimen

1796 $2 1/2 Stars MS62 NGC. BD-3, R.5. Quarter eagles were the third gold coin denomination struck at our first Mint, preceded by the 1795-dated half eagles that were delivered on July 31, 1795, and shortly thereafter by the 1795 eagles. Interestingly, the 1796 quarter eagles represent the first use of the Heraldic Eagle reverse. This fact--together the introduction of the 1796 No Stars quarter eagle obverse--is an indication that the Mint was experimenting with new designs. Perhaps this small, odd denomination was chosen as a test bed due to its unimportance, relative to the half eagle and eagle coins which were used extensively in the channels of international commerce.
The exact reason why Robert Scot left the first quarter eagle obverse die "unfinished" may never be known. Researcher Robert Hilt believed that the star punch broke after adding 16 stars to the other 1796 obverse die, so the decision was made to harden the die without stars. This is illogical for more than one reason. Other theories make more sense, but none can be proven definitively. Could it be that the first die was accidentally hardened before the engraver realized that the die was incomplete? Stranger things happened in the early days of our first Mint! The Bass-Dannreuther reference opines that the stars were intentionally omitted from the die, but Mint officials later concluded that the final coins looked better with 16 stars occupying the obverse periphery; an uncomplicated and refreshingly rational theory. And since the new quarter eagles featured a radically different reverse design, the case could be made that the Mint was exploring alternative design concepts. Perhaps the No Stars variety was a pseudo-pattern, if you will.
An early Mint policy was to include one obverse star for each state of the Union. Since Tennessee became a state on June 1, 1796, the With Star pieces included in the January 1797 delivery of 1796 quarter eagles displayed 16 stars around the obverse periphery. It didn't take Mint Director Elias Boudinot long to conclude that the engravers would run out of die space if even a few more territories became states, so the following year the rule was to changed to a static 13-star obverse design, although there are a few exceptions. Some have speculated that the 16 stars were added to the No Stars obverse die; the logic being that the Mint would not have wantonly discarded a perfectly good die. This is unlikely for the simple reason that the die was already hardened and modification would have been possible, but challenging. Instead a new obverse die was prepared, as was the third reverse die for the year. The amazing point here is that by this time a mere 963 1796 BD-1 and BD-2 quarter eagles had been struck. Even within the estimated mintage of 432 BD-3 quarter eagles--minuscule by any standard--Bass and Dannreuther documented a staggering five die states, replete with clashing, die breaks, and lapping. The specimen offered here appears to be Bass-Dannreuther Die State b, as Liberty's lower hair curls have not been partially effaced from excessive lapping. However it is likely that this piece was struck with dies that were at least lightly serviced, as evinced by the semiprooflikeness of both the obverse and reverse fields.
Bass-Dannreuther estimate that only 40 to 50 1796 BD-3 quarter eagles have survived, regardless of condition. That is less than half of the suggested extant population of the No Stars type. Nonetheless, the No Stars variant has always been in demand due to the fact that it is major single-year type coin, undeniably making the 1796 Stars variety an underrated issue. The current offering is one of just a half dozen or so Mint State survivors known, although in terms of eye appeal it must rank close to the top of that short list. Fiery orange-gold coloration is illuminated by reflective fields on both sides and the resulting display is exhilarating. Unobtrusive adjustment marks on the reverse's central design elements result in a slight softness of Miss Liberty's portrait. Elsewhere the coin is sufficiently struck. The aesthetic qualities of the current offering are such that it was a cherished holding in the collections of more than one legendary numismatist, as evinced in the ensuing provenance listing.
Ex: Spedding Sale (S.H. & H. Chapman, 12/1894); J.H. Clapp; Clapp Estate (1942); Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. (Bowers and Ruddy, 10/1982), lot 80; Long Beach Connoisseur Collection; Bowers and Merena (8/1999), lot 337; Heritage (1/2005), lot 8761; Ed Price Collection (Heritage, 7/2008), lot 1452.(Registry values: P10) (NGC ID# BFVN, PCGS# 7647)

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Auction Dates
January, 2009
Internet/Mail/Phone Bidders: 1
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