Background and History
The United States Mint would strike the first quarters in 1796, four years after the denomination was authorized under the Mint Act of 1792. Following limited production during a single year, the denomination would not be struck again until eight years later. By this time, a new reserve design had been adopted for silver coinage which would be used on the quarter dollar as well. These circumstances combine to make the 1796 Draped Bust Quarter (Buy on eBay) a significant coin on multiple fronts. In addition to being a low mintage key date coin, it also represents the first year of issue for the denomination and a one-year type coin.
The quarter dollar denomination can trace its origin back to Spanish colonial coinage. The Spanish Dollar, also known as “piece of eight”, was divided into 8 bits worth 12 ½ cent each. Thus, two bits would represent 25 cents, or a quarter dollar. The denomination and the colloquialism “two bits” would carry over into the American monetary system. In some respects, a more logical denomination for a decimal based currency may have included a 20-cent piece. Such a denomination was attempted in the 1870’s, however it quickly failed as the use of quarters had already been well established.
The first quarter dollar was designed by Robert Scot, whose draped bust design was used on virtually all denominations up until the early 19th century. It is said that a Philadelphia woman named Anne Willing Bingham sat for the portrait used on these coins. The original reverse design for the quarter featured a small eagle surrounded by a wreath, which would only be used for a single year. The second reverse design featured a heraldic eagle and would be put into place when production resumed for the denomination in 1804.
Key Date Coin Mintage
The mintage of the 1796 Draped Bust Quarter was extremely limited at a mere 6,146 pieces. This mintage is divided unevenly over two different die varieties, using a common reverse paired with two different obverse dies. The easiest way to identify the varieties is by noting the position of the “6” in the date in relation to the other numbers.
Variety B-1 (named after Browning, who wrote the definitive reference on the early quarter dollar series) is identified by having the number “6” lower in relation to the other numbers in the date. Variety B-2 has the number “6” higher in relation to the other numbers. The former variety is the scarcer of the two and is offered less frequently. However, due to the overall rarity of the 1796 quarter and the limited number of collectors pursuing the Browning varieties for this series, price differences are not significant.
As mentioned, there were no quarter dollars produced for the following eight years. The primary reason was that private depositors did not request this denomination. For them, it was cheaper and more convenient to have their silver minted in silver dollars or half dollars. The second reason was that the denomination was too large for use in general commerce. At the time, the average daily wages were not much more than 25 cents, making a quarter dollar a substantial amount. As a result, this denomination was more or less forgotten, as preference was given to half dimes and dimes for general commerce and half dollars and silver dollars for private depositors of silver.
Another factor that needs to be taken into account to explain the limited production for the denomination is the fact that the majority of silver coins in circulation at the time were of foreign origin. Although many of these coins were underweight and had seen much prior circulation, they continued to be used until finally outlawed in 1857. The use of foreign coinage was a major problem in the United States during the first part of the 19th century. This would eventually play a role in the banking crisis of the 1830’s, which had a major effect on the American economy.
Finest Known and Values
From the small original mintage, a surprisingly large number of 1796 Draped Bust Quarters have survived in uncirculated condition. It appears that many of coins were saved from circulation at the time of minting, resulting in relatively regular offerings at coin auctions. However, this does not mean that every surviving example is especially appealing, and a keen eye is always required when purchasing a 1796 quarter dollar in any condition.
For decades, rumors had persisted of a hoard of 1796 quarter dollars held within the collection of Col. E. H. R. Green, which numbered from 100 to 200 pieces. These rumors originated from the comments of Abe Kosoff who claimed to have seen the coins when the collection was being dispersed during the 1940’s. Subsequent research has found these rumors to be false, although the collection did contain at least one exceptional specimen, which is currently recognized as the finest known.
This piece found its way from the collection of Col. Green to the collection of Eric P. Newman. It was graded NGC MS-67+ with the star designation to denote exceptional eye appeal. The coin was sold at auction in 2013 for $1,527,500, representing a record price for the issue.
At the gem level or higher, PCGS has graded five examples as MS-65, two as MS-66, and one as MS-67. Besides the finest known piece mentioned above, NGC has graded three examples as MS-66 and two as MS-65. One of the PCGS MS-66 specimens from the Eliasberg collection realized a price of $881,250 at auction in 2014.
Regardless of the grade, all 1796 quarters are highly prized items. Any uncirculated specimen typically sells for six figure sums at auction, while choice AU coins often sell for $50,000 or more. Depending on eye appeal, circulated specimens in VF to XF condition have an approximate value of $30,000 to 40,000. At the absolute lowest end of the spectrum, an example graded PCGS PO-01 realized a price of $4,560 at auction in 2019.