Draped Bust Small Eagle Quarter, 1796
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
The 1796 quarter has been called an American classic for coin collectors. It is the first quarter produced, authorized by the Mint Act of 1792, and a unique design type (the reverse was modified for the second year of quarter production in 1804). The Draped Bust design was a result of Mint Director Henry DeSaussure’s intent to improve coin designs over the earlier Robert Scot flowing hair design used on half dimes, half dollars, and dollars in 1794 and 1795. The Liberty portrait is attributed to a sketch by artist Gilbert Stuart of a Newport, Rhode Island, resident, which was transferred to coinage dies by Robert Scot and his assistant John Eckstein. In the late 1790s the Mint produced coins only at the request of bullion depositors, and most of those requests were for the largest silver coin, the dollar. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the U.S. dollar was equivalent in value to the Spanish 8 reales “piece of eight” coin. The Spanish coin was often cut into eight pieces when fractional amounts of silver were needed, each piece being a “bit”. Thus, a fourth-dollar U.S. coin acquired the nickname of “two bits”. Although the Draped Bust Small Eagle quarter is rare, several hundred are reported in census/population reports. All coins were produced at Philadelphia, and no proofs were made though most high grade coins have a prooflike appearance. Spanish coins lost legal tender status in 1857 but the quarter continues today in the popular statehood (and soon to be territorial) reverse series.
The obverse features a right-facing classical portrait of Liberty with long flowing hair tied at the back with a multi-part ribbon. Loosely folded clothing drapes over her shoulders and across the accented bust. Inside a dentilled rim is a concentric ring comprised of the word LIBERTY at the top, the date at the bottom, and fifteen six-point stars split eight to the left and seven to the right. The reverse displays a centered, somewhat thin eagle, head turned to the left (viewer’s right) with wings outstretched as if ready to fly, perched on swirling puffs of what appear to be clouds. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA encircles inside a dentilled rim, and within that is another circle of olive branches (to the left) and palm branches (to the right), touching at the top and tied at the bottom with a bow. No mintmark is shown on the coin.
With a fairly small mintage and uniqueness as a type coin all 1796 Draped Bust Small Eagle quarters are expensive, even at low circulated grades. Though a few Mint State coins have been certified they are very rare and command premium prices, particularly at Gem and finer. Some commentators believe that specimen or presentation coins were struck, due to the strong strike quality and prooflike appearance of many coins, though others note that there is no evidence of special gifting ceremonies in Mint records that would account for such special pieces.
Designer: Robert Scot, from a sketch by artist Gilbert Stuart and assistance from John Eckstein.
Circulation Mintage:6,146 (1796, one year only).
Proof Mintage: None
Denomintion: $0.25, Twenty-five cents (25/100)
Diameter: ±27.5 mm, reeded edge
Metal content: 89.24% silver, 10.76% copper
Weight: ±6.74 grams
Varieties:Just two varieties are known, one with the date number 6 low, the other with that same digit high. The Low 6 variety is the rarer of the two.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.
Last Updated : 07/22/2008
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About the Author
Tim Shuck is a life-long Midwestern resident, and started collecting coins after finding an Indian Head cent on the ground at his childhood farm home. Additional encouragement came from looking through a collection of well-worn late 19th and early 20th century coins kept by his grandfather in an old leather coin purse. Current collecting interests include U.S. types from the Civil War era through the early 1930's, and Colonial and Early American coins.