1792 Eagle-on-Globe Copper Quarter Dollar
1792 P25C Copper Quarter Dollar, Judd-12, Pollock-14 MS63 Brown
NGC. CAC. The 1792 Eagle-on-Globe quarter dollar patterns
exhibit a number of stylistic differences from the other coinage of
1792. The cents, half dismes, and dismes all indicate their
denomination, while this coin remains silent with regard to its
value. The other 1792 patterns further bear the legend LIBERTY
PARENT OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY (or its abbreviation), while this
piece displays only LIBERTY. The quarter dollar pattern's eagle is
markedly different from that of the half disme and disme, which
clearly share a common source. The eagle here is a powerful bird
exercising dominion over the earth, as opposed to the eagle of the
half disme and disme, a scrawny, goose-necked creature (Cornelius
Vermeule, in Numismatic Art in America, called it an "ailing
barnyard fowl"). The engraver finely rendered the figure of Liberty
on the quarter dollar pattern, with the hair gathered in a bun.
Remaining coinage of this year depicts Liberty with flowing hair, a
feature not without controversy in early American coinage.
Dunlap's American Daily Advertiser reported the European
reaction on May 1, 1793:
Judd-12, MS63 Brown
The Only Specimen Available to Collectors
"A French gentleman of great classic knowledge, who lately arrived from England by the way of New York, happening to visit at my house, I shewed him the Cent, with other coins, in a frame contrived, that he could see the head only, which he immediately pronounced - a Medusa."
The design variances in total suggest a different engraver than that of the remaining 1792 coinage, with Joseph Wright being the leading candidate. Wright (1756-1793) was a well-connected American painter with access to the highest levels of society. Born in Bordentown, New Jersey, Wright trained at London's Royal Academy of Arts. During his time in London, he traveled to Paris to execute a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, who was at the time serving as United States Minister to France. Wright returned to the United States in 1782. He quickly acquired a coveted commission to paint Washington's portrait, which the retired General acknowledged by letter on January 10, 1784. Thomas Jefferson praised the work, declaring "no hesitation in pronouncing Wright's drawing to be a better likeness of the General than [Charles Willson] Peale's." At some point in 1792, Wright associated with the Mint as a "die-sinker." Although never officially appointed Engraver, it seems he acted in that capacity, for on October 3, 1793, Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington on the occasion of Wright's death: "The death of Wright will require a new [italics added] nomination of an engraver. If it be left to Mister Rittenhouse, I think he would prefer Scot." Robert Scot was duly appointed and is today recognized as the first official Engraver (later, the title of the position was changed to Chief Engraver).
Wright's pieces were admired, but his work habits were not highly regarded. The medal researcher Georgia S. Chamberlain established the case against Wright in the December 1954 Numismatist, in which she in part cited George Washington's letter to Robert Morris on January 10, 1784:
"I will thank you for putting the letter herewith enclosed into a proper channel of conveyance. The Count de Bruhl is informed by it that my Portrait (which I have begged the Count de Solms to accept) will be forwarded to his care by you, so soon as it is finished, & I request the favor of you to do it accordingly. Mr. Wright is desir'd to hand it to you for this purpose & as he is said to be a little lazy, you would oblige me by stimulating him to the completion. By promise, it was to have been done in five or six weeks from the time I left Philadelphia, near four of which are expired. I am sorry to give you trouble about trifles, but I know you will excuse it, in this instance."
Two pieces of evidence argue for Wright as the engraver of the Eagle-on-Globe quarter dollar. Don Taxay's The U.S. Mint and Coinage (1966) cites the September 11, 1793 memorandum of Moid Wetherill:
"Joseph Wright being very ill [Wright died of yellow fever in 1793] and not expecting to recover requested the subscriber to make a memorandum as follows: That the said Joseph Wright had presented an account against the United States for cutting a medal amount fifty Guineas [about 12 ounces of gold]. Two Essays of a Quarter Dollar, cut by direction of David Rittenhouse, Esqr. and presented to him (broke in hardening) value about 40 Guineas [about 10 ounces of gold]."
While Wetherill's memorandum suggests the quarter dollar dies "broke in hardening," Thomas Jefferson suspiciously used the exact same language to refer to Joseph Wright's engraving of the Henry Lee Comitia Americana medal (Julian MI-5). On December 31, 1793, Jefferson wrote "Wright's representatives to be paid for engraving the medal of Govr Lee and (that being broke in hardening) another to be engraved." Jefferson's Notes on the History of the Medals (undated, but circa July 8, 1792) had earlier referred to the problems with the Henry Lee dies:
"After I returned to America [from France, in 1789] Genl. Lee applied to me for the medal voted him by Congress, which Mr. Morris's list had by mistake omitted, and producing to me the resolution of Congress for the purpose I put it in hand with Wright to be executed in Philadelphia. Wright, as well as I recollect, would not agree to warrant against the quality of the steel. His dies broke after they were executed, so that this matter was not concluded when I left Philadelphia."
John Adams and Anne Bentley (Comitia Americana and Related Medals, 2007) trace only three test strikes of the Lee medal with an undamaged obverse; the remainder exhibit a prominent obverse crack which nearly bisects the whole of the medal. Although Wright's quarter dies may have cracked as well, it seems possible that Wetherill's account is simply mistaken on this point. Taxay notes the presence of "heavy die cracks on the reverse of one of the eagle-on-globe pieces," but here again, a visual inspection of the current coin does not reveal die cracks, nor does a photograph of the other piece in the Smithsonian.
Taxay lastly notes William Dunlap's A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States. Dunlap (1766-1839) was a contemporary of Wright and stated the following:
"He [Wright] was a modeler in clay and practiced die-sinking, which last gained him the appointment, shortly before his death, of die-sinker to the Mint. (I have before me a design for a cent, made by Mr. Wright, and dated 1792. It represents an eagle standing on the half of the globe, and holding in its beak a shield with the thirteen stripes. The reverse has been drawn on the same piece of paper, and afterwards cut out.)"
Dunlap's description does not precisely match that of the Eagle-on-Globe quarter, although it does confirm certain elements. Taxay suggests Dunlap's attribution of the design as a cent is in error, as the 1792 Mint Act specified the use of an eagle for silver and gold, not copper. The drawing to which Dunlap refers is today missing, perhaps waiting to be discovered in a Dunlap archive. Whether Dunlap guessed at the denomination, or whether the denomination was noted by the artist on the drawing itself, remains an open question.
Taxay's research convinces many that the current coin is intended as a quarter, but this opinion is not universally held. Traditionally, the pattern was considered a cent, despite the fact that it has a reeded edge (the 1793 cents exhibited lettered and decorated edges). Sylvester S. Crosby (The Early Coins of America, 1875) referred to this coin as the "eagle pattern cent." R. Coulton Davis attempted the first comprehensive listing of the U.S. pattern coins in The Coin Collector's Journal, which was published serially beginning in 1885. Davis did not explicitly refer to the Wright coin as a cent, but sequentially placed the piece along with the other pattern cents of 1792. The Adams-Woodin pattern reference (United States Pattern, Trial, and Experimental Pieces, 1913) went further and directly called the Wright piece a cent. In 1953, Wayte Raymond's Standard Catalogue of United States Coins speculated that the pattern was intended for a half eagle while admitting "little is known" about the coin. Q. David Bowers echoed this opinion in the Lenox Lohr fixed price list of patterns (undated, c. 1961). Andrew W. Pollock, III (United States Patterns and Related Issues, 1994), no doubt influenced by Taxay's work, accepted the piece as a quarter dollar, as do the current editions of the Guide Book and Judd pattern references.
Taking a contrary position is the researcher Pete Smith. Writing in The Story of the Starred Reverse Cent (1986), Smith makes two points. First, the diameter of the Wright piece (29mm) is larger than that adapted for the regular issue quarter coinage in 1796 (27.5mm). The Wright piece has a surface area 11% greater than the 1796 quarter and would have required a thinner planchet if used for production coinage. Second, the initial coinages of gold and silver in the regular Federal series did not indicate denomination (except on the edges of the half dollar and dollar). This is consistent with the Coinage Act of April 2, 1792, which specified the inclusion of the denomination on the reverse of the copper coins. The Act made no mention of the denomination on silver and gold coinage, neither requiring nor prohibiting it. The Wright piece bears no inscription indicating its denomination. Smith suggests the Wright piece was commissioned with no specific denomination in mind, perhaps as a test of die production or the engraver's skill.
Regardless of its denomination, the current sale marks only the fourth public auction appearance of this coin in the last 152 years. With one of the two known pieces firmly secured in the National Numismatic Collection, this is the only coin available to collectors. History suggests an opportunity of only once per generation to acquire one of the most prized patterns of 1792. This is that moment.
Census of the two coins known to exist:
1. MS63 NGC. 178.9 grains. Edward Cogan (4/1863), lot 1074; Charles I. Bushnell (S.H. & H. Chapman, 6/1882), lot 1764; Lorin G. Parmelee (New York Coin & Stamp, 6/1890), lot 9; H.P. Smith; DeWitt Smith; Virgil M. Brand (journal #46508); J. Hewitt Judd; Abe Kosoff (Illustrated History, 1962), lot 15; Donald Groves Partrick; the present coin. Vertical reeded edge. NGC composition analysis is 99% copper.
2. AU50. 175.5 grains. National Numismatic Collection; Smithsonian Institution 1991.0357.0121, previously enumerated in T. L. Comparette's inventory of the Mint Cabinet (1914), #1561. "Cleaned in acid" per the Bushnell (1882) catalog. Large pit in obverse left field. Numerous spots, especially on the reverse.
This is an aesthetically pleasing early copper coin. Large obverse fields reveal smooth surfaces. Liberty's hair is highlighted with tinges of red and purple; the entire obverse is a warm copper color. Liberty is slender and delicate. The obverse fields are surrounded by a beveled edge, as the diameter of the obverse die appears to have been slightly less than that of the reverse die (the Smithsonian coin demonstrates a similar effect). There is a light mark hidden in Liberty's hair to the left and a thin, diagonal scratch underneath the neck. The reverse is brown and gray with no marks of note save for two lines that extend diagonally from the globe and the eagle's left foot. The overall eye appeal is considerable and combines with the coin's history and rarity to present a most desirable specimen of the Mint's earliest coinage. (NGC ID# 294L, PCGS# 11033)
Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.
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