The Rarity and Importance of the 1808 Quarter Eagle
by Greg Reynolds for CoinLink
An 1808 quarter eagle is ‘in the news’! On March 20, Stack’s will be offering the Oliver Jung 1808 quarter eagle at a public auction in Baltimore, just two days before the beginning of the Baltimore Coin and Currency Convention.
The 1796 ‘No Stars’ and 1808 Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold coins) are special in that they each are one-year types. Both types may be accurately labeled as ‘Capped Bust,’ though their designs are not alike.
It could be argued the first two varieties of 1907 Indian Head eagles ($10 gold coins) constitute a distinct type, though I do not think so. These are varieties of the 1907-08 ‘No Motto’ type. High Relief Saint Gaudens Double Eagles ($20 gold coins), minted only in 1907, are a one-year type, but are not very rare.
The quarter eagles of 1808 and 1796 ‘No Stars’ are the two rarest U.S. gold types, in business strike format. No classic type set, no set of early U.S. gold, and no set of quarter eagles can be complete without a 1796 ‘No Stars’ and an 1808!
These type coins are central to collecting pursuits because most collectors of 18th and 19th century gold coins focus on design types, rather than dates. After all, collecting each date in any 19th century U.S. gold series is difficult, time consuming and expensive. There are, of course, many collectors who enjoy the challenge and can afford to collect ‘by date.’ The majority, though, collect such coins by design type; they seek only one or two examples of each series so that its design is represented in their respective type sets.
Some collectors will focus on one era, such as all series that started in 1866, or series that started circa 1840. Others focus on one denomination, such as eagles or quarter eagles.
Quarter Eagles with ‘no stars’ on the obverse (front) and a heraldic eagle on the reverse (back) were made just in 1796, and even then for only a few months. The ‘no stars’ obverse was replaced by the ‘with stars’ obverse in the middle of the year. This ‘with stars’ type continued to be minted, on and off, until 1807.
In 1808, a brand new design for quarter eagles was introduced, much different from the previous design. Almost the exact same design is found on half eagles ($5 gold coins) that were minted from 1807 to 1812.
This design was never again used for quarter eagles. Indeed, quarter eagles were not made from 1809 to 1820. In 1821, another design was adopted, that of the ‘Capped Head.’
While the current consignor of the Jung 1808 is not named, this coin was previously part of one of the finest type sets of all time. The Oliver Jung type set was auctioned by ANR in July 2004, in New York City.
Then and now, The Jung 1808 quarter eagle is graded MS-63 by the Professional Coin Grading Service. The PCGS has graded only one finer, an MS-65, which I have never seen.
The Jung 1808 is sharply struck for the issue. The details of the eagle are particularly bold. All 1808 quarter eagles seem to have both weak and missing dentils, teeth at the borders. Indeed, an 1808 quarter eagle with full dentils does not exist. In another words, these were all struck with incomplete rims and many missing dentils. Moreover, the outer parts of the stars on the obverse (front) and the legend (USA) on the reverse (back) are often weakly struck as well. Mint caused imperfections do not substantially reduce the grade of a coin, especially if such imperfections are characteristic of most or all of the coins of the same type.
The Jung 1808 is very lustrous and flashy. It seems alive. The fields are neatly smooth, and are reflective. This coin has cool cartwheel luster, especially on the reverse.
It is a very attractive coin, much more so than one would expect an MS-63 grade, early quarter eagle to be. Why did it not grade MS-64 or higher? It has several scratches, most of which cannot be seen with the naked eye. Under 5-times magnification, they are very apparent. Even under 3-times, there are just too many scratches for this ever to be considered a gem quality coin, and maybe too many for an MS-64? It should be emphasized, though, that these scratches are not deep, are not serious problems, and are commensurate with an MS-63 grade. Indeed, the Jung 1808 is a mid-range to high end MS-63.
Perhaps the highest quality, gold-only type set to ever be formed is the awkwardly named ‘Gold Rush’ collection. It was auctioned by Heritage in January 2005, and realized an astonishing $13.8 million. It lacked an 1808 quarter eagle!
In 1984, Stack’s auctioned the ultra-famous Amon Carter collection, which was especially known for gold rarities and silver dollars. Carter had numerous early quarter eagles, including a 1796 ‘No Stars,’ a 1796 ‘With Stars’ and an 1804 with 13 reverse stars, which is extremely rare. Carter did not have an 1808 quarter eagle!
Louis Eliasberg formed the greatest collection of U.S. coins of all time. His 1808 quarter eagle was graded “AU-55,” in 1982. Even if it was undergraded, it probably would not rival the Jung 1808. Indeed, PCGS officials have estimated that it would grade “AU-58” if submitted to PCGS. Could it already have been PCGS graded without being identified as the Eliasberg coin?
In July 2004, ANR auctioned the Oliver Jung 1808 for $322,000. Less than a month later, B&M auctioned a PCGS graded MS-62 example for $207,000. On January 4, 2007, during the Platinum 2 session, Heritage auctioned the Freedom 1808 quarter eagle for $287,500. It is graded MS-63 by the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation.
An anonymous collector’s “Freedom Collection” is the number one gold type set in the NGC registry. The second ranked set has neither a 1796 ‘No Stars’ nor an 1808. The third ranked set, the “Atlanta Collection,” has a NGC graded MS-61 1808 and a PCGS graded AU-58 1796 ‘No Stars.’ The fourth finest, “Elm Street,” has a PCGS EF-45 1808 and no 1796 ‘No Stars.’
In the PCGS registry, the Smithsonian’s 1808 is “estimated” to grade AU-58 and the Harry Bass 1808 is “estimated” to grade MS-63. The Jung 1808 is much more sharply struck than the Bass 1808.
In my view, the Jung 1808 is of higher quality than the Freedom 1808, though the Freedom 1808 certainly is an appealing coin. The NGC has graded one higher, an MS-64. I have no idea about it.
Estimates of the number of surviving 1808 quarter eagles have ranged from thirty-five to more than two hundred. There are so many low grade pieces with serious problems that it would be difficult to track them.
My guess is that most of the AU-55, AU-58, MS-61 and MS-62 pieces that PCGS and NGC have graded are resubmissions. I would be very surprised if PCGS and NGC together have graded more than seventy different 1808 quarter eagles, probably not even that many. There could be five to fifteen others that would, if submitted, definitely qualify for PCGS or NGC certification. Plus there are likely to be, out somewhere, twenty to forty-five pieces that are heavily worn or have what advanced numismatists would regard as serious problems.
My very tentative estimate of 85 to 135 survivors is lower than the range put forth in the Dannreuther-Bass book (Whitman, 2006). In 2004, the ANR cataloger talked of “a couple hundred.” If I had to pick a number of 1808 quarter eagles that exist today, however, it would be 105.
My belief is that the 1796 ‘No Stars’ Quarter Eagle is rarer than the 1808, and is the rarest gold type coin. In the Bass 4 catalog, now online courtesy of the Harry Bass Foundation, Mark Borckardt, perhaps along with Q. David Bowers, estimated that from “80 to 110” exist plus “a dozen or more” that have very serious problems. So, Borckardt seems to have asserted that there at least 92?
I believe that PCGS and NGC have probably graded forty-five to sixty different 1796 ‘No Stars’ quarter eagles. It is more famous than the 1808, and it is also more likely to have been used as jewelry. I suspect that there are very few technically acceptable pieces that have not been submitted to PCGS or NGC, maybe five to ten? There could be fifteen to forty that may not qualify for PCGS or NGC certification; some of these are already in NCS or other ‘third party’ holders. My very rough guess is 70 to 90, perhaps 80, in contrast to my estimate of 105 1808 quarter eagles.
While the 1796 ‘No Stars’ is slightly rarer than the 1808, it has gotten more than twice as much attention. In 2005, ANR sold the finest known 1796 ‘No Stars’ at auction for $1.38 million. Reportedly, in 2006, Heritage privately bought and sold it for even more. The Bass and Whitney 1796 ‘No Stars’ Quarter Eagles gathered a lot of attention when they were auctioned during the 1999-2000 period.
Even on ‘Platinum 2′ night at the FUN convention in January, the Freedom 1808 was overshadowed by the fantastic collections of gold coins that were auctioned earlier in the evening, and by some individual treasures that came later. Maybe it is time to take notice of just how rare and important the 1808 quarter eagle really is! There is a good chance that the Jung 1808 is one of the six finest known, and might even rank third or fourth?
© 2007 Greg Reynolds
About the Author
Greg Reynolds is a numismatic writer, researcher and analyst. Greg has examined almost all of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest type coins and patterns, He has extensively researched the pedigrees of important numismatic properties, and he has written about and analyzed numerous auctions, private sales and collections.