Dually popular as a one-year type and a first-year-of-issue, the 1796 No Stars is among the most desirable early United States gold coins. It is actually less rare than its With Stars counterpart but it is traditionally valued more highly and is certainly held in greater esteem by most collectors. Its low mintage, unique design and numismatic significance combine to make it an issue that is considered a cornerstone of any collection of early United States gold coins. STRIKE: Virtually all known examples are weak at the centers. On the obverse, this weakness is seen on the ear, the hair above and below the ear and the curls surrounding the face. About half of the 1796 No Stars that I have seen are weak on the E in LIBERTY. Some have detail on the obverse border while others show little or no definition on the denticles in this area. The obverse generally appears weaker than the reverse. This is not so much a function of strike is it is the design of the coin. The openness of the No Stars obverse causes this side to wear easily. The reverse is often weak on both the top and the base of the eagle’s neck. On some, the tip of the tail is weak; on others it is sharper. The tip of the left wing is always flat and the entire left wing appears less detailed than that on the right. The right claw is usually weak as well. The reverse denticles are typically visible from around 7:00 to 2:00 and hard to see or invisible from 3:00 to 7:00.
SURFACES: The surfaces often show numerous small marks in the fields but this issue tends to be a bit less abraded than the 1796 With Stars. Many have adjustment marks that range from light and unobtrusive to heavy and detracting.
LUSTER: This issue has a very distinctive type of luster. It is typically frosty with a somewhat subdued appearance. The fields are usually semi-prooflike and this is in contrast to the frosty texture of the devices. Many 1796 No Stars quarter eagles have been cleaned and show impaired luster as a result. There are some higher grade pieces that have a majority of the luster present and the one Gem that is known has magnificent thick, frosty luster.
COLORATION: The typical color for this issue is medium to deep yellow gold with a prominent olive undertone. A number show (or at least showed this before they were dipped) a nice coppery hue that was somewhat iridescent when tilted into a light source. As recently as a decade ago, it was possible to find a nice original Extremely Fine or About Uncirculated example with fully or nearly full original hues. Today, most of these have been processed or conserved and attractive 1796 No Stars quarter eagles with natural color are very rare.
EYE APPEAL: The typical 1796 No Stars quarter eagle actually has better overall eye appeal than many of the other early dates of this denomination. At one point, there were enough nice middle grade pieces to satisfy most collectors. Now, many of these coins have been conserved and rest in third-party slabs where they are enthusiastically graded, to say the least. That said, it is still possible for the patient collector to locate a reasonably attractive example for his type set or date set.
DIE CHARACTERISTICS: The left sides of the LI in LIBERTY are lightly recut. Most examples have a number of die cracks on the obverse with the most prominent located at the obverse rim around 9:00 extending crookedly into the field. On the reverse, there is an intermittent die engraver’s line from the top of the right wing through the tops of AMERI in AMERICA.
DIE VARIETIES: There are two varieties known.
Variety 1 (BD-1): The arrows reach to the foot of the I in UNITED. This variety is extremely rare with just four to six pieces.
Variety 2 (BD-2): The arrows reach to the end of the N in UNITED. This is by far the more common of the two varieties.
RARITY: Total Known: 90-110 By Grade: Very Fine: 10-15 Extremely Fine: 42-45 About Uncirculated: 33-43 Uncirculated: 5-7
AUCTION RECORD: The auction record for this issue was set by Heritage 1/08: 3058. This coin brought $1,725,000 which is the highest price ever paid at auction for any early United States gold coin. Higher prices have been paid, of course, via private treaty.
SIGNIFICANT PIECES: There are an estimated five to seven known that qualify, in my opinion, as being truly Uncirculated. These include the following:
1. Private collection via John Albanese, ex Heritage 1/08: 3058 ($1,725,000), Madison Collection via Heritage Galleries, ANR 6/05: 1002 ($1,380,000), Midwestern collection, Stack’s 11/95: 1498 ($605,000), Lelan Rogers collection, Stack’s 5/64: 1660, Phillip Ward collection, University of Pennsylvania, R.C. Brock collection, NY Coin and Stamp 6/1890: 719, Lorin Parmelee collection. Graded MS65 by PCGS.
2. Pogue collection, ex Stack’s 5/99: 1787 ($276,000), John Whitney Walter collection, Bowers and Ruddy 3/80: 732 ($125,000), obtained via private treaty from Harold Newlin in 1884. MS62 to MS63.
3. Stack’s 7/08: 2324 ($488,750), ex ANR 7/04: 82 ($345,000), Oliver Jung collection via Midwestern dealer, James Swan collection. Graded MS62 by PCGS.
4. Heritage 8/06: 5417 ($322,000). Graded MS61 by PCGS.
5. Heritage 7/08: 1451 ($276,000), ex Ed Price collection. Graded MS61 by PCGS.
As of July 2009, PCGS has graded three in MS61, three in MS62 and one in MS65 for a total of seven in Uncirculated. NGC has graded two in MS60, five in MS61, three in MS62, one in MS63 and one in MS65 for a total of twelve in Uncirculated.
The 1796 No Stars is probably the best known and most desired early quarter eagle. It is not as rare as the With Stars issue but its status as a one-year type and a first-year-of-issue leave it in heavy demand. There are approximately 100 known in all grades with the typical piece being in the Extremely Fine-40 to About Uncirculated-50 range. Properly graded high end AU coins are quite rare and the 1796 No Stars is very rare in Uncirculated with fewer than ten known. There is one Gem known.