During 2009, I wrote a series of “ten rarest” articles on all the major denominations of Liberty Head gold coinage. These articles were well-received and I enjoyed producing them. It’s a logical progression to apply this topic to the early gold series. Except it’s not quite that easy. The eagle denomination is very short-lived (1795-1804) making a ten rarest study impractical. And the ten rarest early half eagles contain a host of issues that are so rare that collecting them becomes impractical. That leaves us, for the sake of practicality, with just early quarter eagles. Five designs of quarter eagle were produced between 1796 and 1834. There are a total of 23 distinct issues and even the most available of these is rare by the standards of American numismatics. Early quarter eagles have always been undervalued and under collected in comparison to their larger-size counterparts. This has changed somewhat in the last few years as price for early quarter eagles have risen; along with most early coins in general.
Each of the ten rarest early quarter eagles is very hard to locate and a few of them are even six-figure coins in most grades. But what is most intriguing about this list is the fact that a collector with a good deal of patience and a solid coin budget could actually assemble a complete top ten list; something that certainly can’t be said for half eagles.
The list of the ten rarest early quarter eagles is as follows: 1. 1804 13 Stars 2. 1834 No Motto 3. 1797 4. 1806/5 5. 1796 With Stars 6. 1798 7. 1826/5 8. 1824/1 9. 1827 10. 1833
1804 13 Stars: The 1804 13 Stars is clearly The Big Kahuna of early quarter eagles. In my opinion, it is the single rarest quarter eagle of any date or denomination, eclipsing such rarities as the 1841, 1854-S and 1863.
Estimates range slightly on the number of examples known but I think it’s safe to say that the low number is around eleven while the high might go up as high as fifteen. Most are in lower grades. There are probably not more than four or five in the various AU grades and none in Uncirculated. There have been ten auction records for this issue in the last twenty years. The two finest are Heritage 7/09: 1209 (PCGS 58) and Heritage 7/08: 1459 (NGC 55). Both brought $322,000. I purchased the PCGS 58 coin as an agent and it is now in an Eastern specialist’s early quarter eagle collection. The other choice example is in the Bass core collection.
Dannreuther and Bass estimate that between 250 and 1,003 examples of this variety were produced. I am inclined to believe that the number is on the low end of this scale; maybe somewhere in the area of 250-500.
1834 With Motto: Viewed strictly as a year, the 1834 is the rarest early quarter eagle (there are specific varieties, such as the 1804 13 stars listed above, that are rarer). There were 4,000 struck but nearly all were melted due to economic conditions and a weight change of gold coins in 1834. Today, it is likely that around 20 or so survive including at least a few Proofs. Most are in the VF to EF range and properly graded AU coins are very rare. I think that there are three or four in Uncirculated as well as three or four Proofs.
This date has always been underrated and not especially well-known outside of the specialist community. My guess is that it is confusing to beginning collectors that the 1834 also exists in the more familiar Classic Head design and that the latter is a common coin even in comparatively high grades.
The all-time auction record for the 1834 With Motto was set all the way back in 1980 when the Garrett II Proof sold for $60,000 (it would bring many times this today if offered for sale).
1797: The 1797 has long been one of my personal favorite dates in the early quarter eagle series. The mintage is reported to be just 427 coins (although Dannreuther and Bass believe it may be as high as 585) and there are probably not more than two dozen or so known to exist in all grades.
All 1797 quarter eagles have a very distinctive obverse die crack in the right field which can be seen even on very low grade coins. This crack does not affect the quality of strike and most are reasonably well-defined on both the obverse and the reverse.
The probable finest known is Superior 11/05: 484, graded MS64 by NGC, that brought $276,000; a record price for this date. I am aware of two other Uncirculated coins: a PCGS MS62 and the Bass coin, which grades at least MS60 if not higher, that is in the ANA Museum.
Given this coin’s rarity and lack of availability, I believe it is undervalued; especially in comparison to such better known (and less rare) issues as the 1796 No Stars and the 1808.
1806/5: Two distinct varieties are known for 1806 quarter eagles. The more common is an 1806/4 overdate with thirteen obverse stars arranged eight by five. The rarer is an 1806/5 overdate with the obverse stars arranged seven by six. Only 480 of the latter were produced and there are around 30 or so known today. This variety is numismatically interesting as it uses the exact dies of 1805 but after they had been annealed and overdated.
When available, the typical 1806/5 quarter eagles grades in the EF40 to AU50 range and has poor overall eye appeal. There are probably around three or so known in Uncirculated and the finest appears to be ANR 6/05: 1004 ($195,500), ex Goldberg 2/03: 1900 ($120,750).
Very presentable examples of this variety are still available for less than $50,000 which, in my opinion, is good value for a coin with such a low original mintage figure and with so few survivors.
1796 With Stars: The 1796 is the fifth rarest early quarter eagle. Surprisingly, it is not even the best known quarter eagle produced in 1796 as the No Stars has, for many generations, received greater acclaim. But the With Stars is considerably rarer.
There were 432 produced and I believe that no more than 40-45 are known. There are as many as five to seven known in Uncirculated including one Gem, graded MS65 by NGC (ex Heritage 1/08: 3059, Heritage 1/07: 3382 and Byron Reed). This coin brought $1,006,250 the last time it sold; the second highest price ever realized at auction for any quarter eagle.
As I mentioned above, the No Stars variety has, for many years, been more highly priced—and prized—than the With Stars. This is due to the fact that the former is a distinct one-year type. The pricing gap has closed considerably and this makes sense as the With Stars is at least twice as rare as the No Stars.