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    1796 Quarter Eagle, CAC'd MS65
    Rare BD-3 Stars Obverse Variety
    The Sole Finest Example Known, Ex: Byron Reed
    A Former Museum Relic

    1796 $2 1/2 Stars on Obverse, BD-3, High R.5, MS65 PCGS. CAC. Ex: Simpson. Bass-Dannreuther Die State b. The quarter eagles of 1796 are some of the most coveted rarities in the U.S. gold series, spawned from some of the smallest recorded mintages of the early Mint. The With Stars issue is a one-year type, showing 16 stars around the obverse border. It is believed that only 40 to 50 pieces survive, of which as few as perhaps 10 qualify for Mint State classification. The Byron Reed Gem is the finest example known, and it holds that distinction by a wide margin. This coin spent more than a century stored away as a museum relic in the Omaha Public Library in Nebraska. It is without doubt the most famous 1796 With Stars quarter eagle known.

    Delivery Warrant 80, January 14, 1797
    Quarter eagles were authorized by the Mint Act of 1792, but this denomination was one of the last to be produced after the Mint was built and made operational. A bonding issue delayed coinage of precious metals until late in 1794. Mint personnel directly involved with handling silver and gold bullion were required to post security bonds of $10,000 each, a sum that none could afford. Only when the bond requirements were reduced to $5,000 were Mint employees able to post them so that coinage of precious metals could commence.

    Dollars were the first silver pieces struck, followed by half dollars. Gold coinage followed in 1795, first with the half eagle and then the eagle. Depositors greatly favored the larger denominations, as commerce in the 1790s was dominated by Spanish silver, which remained legal tender in the U.S. until 1857.

    Quarter eagles were not coined until late in 1796. On September 21, the Coiner delivered the first quarter eagles, a small group of only 66 pieces. The mintage was stunted due to failure of the reverse die. A new reverse was prepared, and on December 8, 897 more coins were delivered. These two deliveries represent the BD-1 and BD-2 No Stars varieties.

    The With Stars 1796-dated quarter eagles were produced in early January 1797. Warrant 80, delivered by the Coiner on January 14, contained 432 coins. This is the number typically associated with the mintage for the 1796 With Stars quarter eagle. The coinage deliveries provide a convenient and plausible separation of each die pair's usage, but it is not necessarily precise. It is possible that some of the 432 coins delivered on January 14 were of the older No Stars design, which would make the With Star coin's mintage even smaller. Likewise, some researchers suggest that the next quarter eagle delivery, on February 28, for 98 coins, may also have been from the 1796 With Stars die pair, thereby increasing this issue's mintage to 530 coins. However, the early Mint had significant trouble with working dies breaking from improper hardening of the steel, and more often than not the interruptions in the Coiner's delivery table were caused by interruptions in actual coinage as a result of die failure. If this held true during the coinage of 1796 quarter eagles, then the 432 pieces delivered on January 14, 1797 would most likely be the entire mintage of 1796 With Star coins.

    The Scot-Gardner Dies
    The 1796 With Stars obverse is unique in the quarter eagle series, featuring 16 peripheral stars, positioned in an 8x8 orientation. The stars are aligned point-to-point with each other, differing from the orientation of the stars on subsequent dies, which are typically aligned with a single star point toward the rim. The reverse differs considerably from the Heraldic Eagle used in 1798. The stars are placed in an irregular cross pattern, not the arc pattern of the 1798 reverse, and there are 16 of them instead of 13. The shield exhibits seven inner vertical shield stripes, and they are solid; by contrast, the 1798 reverse has six three-line stripes. The 1796 hub also depicts the eagle with a long, thin neck compared to the short, wide neck of the 1798 reverse.

    The design of the 1796 With Stars quarter eagle is generally attributed to Chief Engraver Robert Scot. Scot was an established engraver prior to his employment at the Mint in 1793, and he is credited with designing the hubs that were introduced for each denomination in 1796, including the quarter eagle. Most scholars agree the Draped Bust portrait of Liberty is Scot's work, although a number of historians maintain that the Heraldic Eagle reverse hub used for the 1796 coinage was created by Scot's assistant engraver John Smith Gardner. The case for this is a letter dated August 11, 1795, in which Gardner writes that he had been engraving the reverses of all denominations. Indeed, the 1796 reverse hub's many differences from the later 1798 design would seem to support this theory.

    Other scholars suggest that Gardner's letter referenced only the preparation of reverse working dies, and not the engraving of original hub designs. Gardner had no credited engraving experience prior to joining the Mint in 1794, and it is therefore less likely that he had the engraving experience necessary to be entrusted with creating original hubs.

    Whether Gardner designed the 1796 reverse hub or not, it is generally accepted among researchers that Scot designed and prepared the Draped Bust obverses of 1796, and Gardner at least prepared the 1796 reverse dies. It is therefore Gardner's reverse star formation that is seen on the BD-3 die, adding to its uniqueness among early quarter eagle issues.

    Early Appearances of High-Grade 1796 BD-3 Quarter Eagles
    High-grade examples of the 1796 With Stars quarter eagle began appearing at auction in the 1860s, although appearances were rare. The finest of these pieces were cataloged as proofs, or "almost proof," owing to the tendency of high-grade coins to exhibit reflective fields. One of these coins appeared in W. Elliot Woodward's December 1865 sale, where he described it as the second finest example of the variety he had seen. The lot sold to "Smith" for $12.00. Another piece, described as "proof," appeared in Edward Cogan's May 1873 sale. Perhaps an even more significant appearance of a 1796 Stars Obverse quarter eagle during this period was a coin from the Lilliendahl collection that Woodward listed in his March 1865 sale. Woodward described it:

    "1796 With Stars; perfectly uncirculated, almost proof impression, undoubtedly the finest existing specimen of this variety, excessively rare."

    The lot realized $40.00, a stunning price for the period. Colonel M.I. Cohen was the buyer in that sale. When Cogan auctioned Cohen's collection in October 1875, the 1796 With Stars quarter eagle was described as a proof and very rare. That specific coin was referenced by Walter Breen in his Proof Encyclopedia, where he called it a presentation piece. Breen also described a couple of other examples as presentation pieces, including the coin in the George H. Earle Collection, handled by Henry Chapman in June 1912. Chapman wrote of the coin:

    "With 10 stars on obverse, otherwise same design as last. Proof, the obverse field showing the slightest hairmarking from attrition; microscopic nick back of head. Sharp, even impression and probably the finest known example. Of excessive rarity and a gem of the first water. Plate."

    These undoubtedly represent the earliest appearances of the few Mint State 1796 With Stars quarter eagles known today, particularly those that grade at least MS63 by modern standards. A definitive link between one of them and the Byron Reed prooflike Gem is not possible due to the lack of photographic plates, but as Reed was actively buying during the late 1860s and 1870s, when several exceptional pieces appeared in Cogan and Woodward auctions, it is not hard to theorize about the possible origins of this magnificent finest-known example.

    Byron Reed
    In September 2008, E-Sylum editor Wayne Homren reached out to Dr. Richard Doty, Associate Curator of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, inquiring about his knowledge of Byron Reed and the Reed collection housed in the Western Heritage Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. Doty's reply was published in The E-Sylum in response to a reader's query:

    "There's surprising little information about Reed. He came out in the late 1850s, I think, got into real estate, did well, collected, left his collection to the city when he died in 1891.

    "I was involved with the collection on three occasions. I appraised it at the end of 1985, not sure how they contacted me, but they did and I went. Then there was the dedication of the new exhibit in May 1989, and a final trip out in early fall 1996 or 1997 to advise them on what to do next. Lawrence Lee was the curator at that point.

    "The eternal problem with that collection was an ongoing tug-of-war between the Mayors office and various other branches of the government. The first time I saw it, it had superb US stuff, including both varieties of 1829 $5, in proof; a stellar collection of German thalers, and, for what its worth, the best collection of Sutler tokens anywhere, incl. manufacturers samples. I always meant to get back out and work on the last, but never did."

    Byron Reed moved from Ohio to Omaha, Nebraska in 1855, and from 1860 into the 1870s served in several city council positions, including president. He was a corresponding member of the ANS and served on the Assay Commission of 1890 under President Benjamin Harrison's administration.

    Reed's numismatic interest was wide-ranging, including not only coins but also patterns, bank notes, Confederate currency, and medals. Reed was perhaps most famous for acquiring Lorin G. Parmelee's Class I 1804 silver dollar, for which he paid the substantial sum for the period of $570.

    Upon his death in 1891, Reed bequeathed the entirety of his collection to the City of Omaha, after which it was put on display in the Omaha Public Library, a fitting location since Reed had donated the land on which the library was built. An attempted theft of the collection was foiled in 1930, and the coins spent many years thereafter stored away for safety. In 1985, the collection was transferred to the Durham Western Heritage Museum, encompassing the old Union Station, with the stipulation that it "be cared for according to best practices and a portion of it always be available for public viewing."

    A portion of the collection was auctioned in October 1996 through Christie's and Spink America for the benefit of the Western Heritage Museum. The famed 1804 dollar was retained by the museum, but other rarities, including the 1796 With Stars quarter eagle, were sold to the public in a memorable auction that gave modern collectors the chance to acquire relics from one of the most well-preserved numismatic time capsules in American history.

    The Present Coin
    The catalog description of Reed's 1796 With Stars quarter eagle in 1996 was fairly brief. Following a description of the variety, the cataloger wrote, "choice uncirculated, with prooflike surfaces, well-struck, displaying sharp details in all areas of the design, from a mintage of just 432 pieces and probably among the finest surviving examples, an important rarity."

    This coin has long been established as the finest With Stars 1796 quarter eagle known. Although PCGS and NGC list a combined total of 16 pieces in Mint State, at least several duplications are known to inflate those numbers. Most importantly, the Gem PCGS example offered here is the same coin listed in MS65 on the NGC Census. The next finest examples known grade MS63 -- NGC and PCGS report five MS63 coins, but this figure again likely includes duplication, and the actual population of privately held pieces in this grade may be as low as just two or three specimens (12/20). The Smithsonian Institution contains two With Stars coins, the finer of which is graded MS63 by Garrett and Guth.

    The Byron Reed Gem is singularly beautiful in its preservation as well as its eye appeal. Bright yellow-gold surfaces with delicate greenish tendencies amplify the full prooflike mirroring of the fields. Strike sharpness is exceptional for the issue, particularly in the centers where weakness typically affects the base of the eagle's neck and the elevated hair curls that cover Liberty's ear - both features display above-average definition on this coin. The only discernible strike softness occurs on a few of the lower right obverse stars, although even this softness is minor. Indeed, many of this coin's attributes are reminiscent of what have been called on occasion presentation strikes from this period, although we decline to assign such a label to this piece. A few minuscule contact marks seen with a loupe on each side are nothing more than an afterthought and obviously do not hinder Gem classification from PCGS, NGC, or CAC. The die state is early, showing only a light bulge in the left obverse field and a faint die crack to the right from the 6 in the date; another faint crack connects the stars on the left. The lower hair curls are mostly complete, however, indicating that this example was struck prior to the heavy die lapping that occurs in later states of the obverse.

    The 1796 With Stars quarter eagle is one of the great rarities of the early U.S. gold series, and only a handful of Mint State pieces are known. This Gem, as the finest known example, represents the opportunity of a lifetime for the advanced early gold collector.
    Ex: Byron Reed; Omaha City Library/Durham Western Heritage Museum (1891-1996); Byron Reed Collection (Christie's/Spink America, 10/1996), lot 41, realized $231,000; FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2007), lot 3382, realized $862,500; Madison Collection / FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2008), lot 3059, realized $1,006,250.

    Coin Index Numbers: (Variety PCGS# 45502, Base PCGS# 7647)

    Weight: 4.37 grams

    Metal: 91.67% Gold, 8.33% Copper

    View all of [Important Selections from The Bob R. Simpson Collection, Part III ]

    View Certification Details from PCGS

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    January, 2021
    20th-24th Wednesday-Sunday
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