Capped Bust (1808)
The fledgling United States Mint opened in 1792 with a full complement of machinists, administrators and other sundry personnel, but it sorely lacked in artistic talent. After several years of negotiations, Secretary of State Thomas Jeffer-son’s attempts to hire French inventor Jean Pierre Droz, one of the finest engravers and coiners in the world, had proved futile. Mint Director David Rittenhouse appointed artist Joseph Wright as Chief Engraver in August 1793, but Wright hardly got started before he died a few weeks later in one of Philadelphia’s annual yellow fever epidemics. Desperate for an engraver, Rittenhouse engaged the aging Robert Scot, an English born watchmaker and banknote engraver. Unfortunately Scot’s limited talents as a die engraver, exacerbated by his advancing years and failing eyesight, provided the Mint with marginal designs at best.
Criticism of Scot’s designs was immediate and widespread, but the hired-for-life chief engraver thwarted any effort to challenge his position. By 1807, Mint Director Robert Patterson became concerned that the aging Scot could die at any time, leaving the Mint without a trained replacement.
The logical successor to Scot’s post was John Reich. A refugee from the Napoleonic Wars, Reich had sold himself into indentured servitude to escape to America. By 1801, his reputation as an engraver had earned him a recommendation from President Thomas Jefferson. Reich was assigned miscellaneous jobs at the Mint, but in deference to the professionally territorial Scot, he was not allowed to design coins. After six years on the job, Reich’s considerable talents were going to waste, and he began to make preparations to return to his native Germany. It was at this point that Mint Director Patterson intervened with a well-placed letter to President Jefferson, and Reich was promoted to Assistant Engraver at an annual salary of 600 dollars—half of what Scot was earning.
Reich’s first assignment was to improve the designs for all denominations. After preparing dies for the half dollar and half eagle of 1807, he created a single pair of dies for the quarter eagle of 1808. Reich’s design was a total departure from Scot’s Draped Bust/Heraldic Eagle motif of 1796-1807. Miss Liberty faces left, wearing a mob cap inscribed with LIBERTY. Critics of the day remarked on the European influence apparent in Reich’s Liberty, and many ridiculed his depiction as “the artist’s fat mistress.” On the reverse, Reich replaced Scot’s stiff heraldic eagle with a naturalistic spread-winged bird perched on an olive branch, holding arrows in its talons. Above the eagle is a ribbon with the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM, and all are surrounded by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and 2 1/2 D. While the coin was designed with denticles surrounding both sides, apparently these elements were lightly or incompletely sunk into the die, resulting in coins that are very weak at the borders.
Only 2,710 coins were struck from these dies, and no more quarter eagles were produced for more than a dozen years, making this date an instant rarity. Estimates are that fewer than fifty 1808 quarter eagles exist today in all grades. Most survivors are in the higher circulated grades, but several mint state examples have appeared over the years. Even among the low mintage quarter eagles, the 1808 is a very scarce date. But with so many collectors pursuing design types alone, this issue has assumed much greater importance than merely another scarce date in the quarter eagle series. It is one of the premier rarities in U.S. numismatics and undoubtedly one of the most eagerly sought of all type coins.
These highly prized coins are held in major gold collections and rarely enter the numismatic market. No proofs are known and no special strikings are even rumored to exist. The finest 1808 quarter eagle known traces its pedigree to the collection of the famous Colonel E.H.R. Green, son of the notorious “Witch of Wall Street,” fabulously wealthy Hetty Green. Since the 1930s sale of the Colonel’s collection, this remarkable coin has been the cornerstone of gold collections owned by such notables as Jerome Kern, Dr. J. Hewitt Judd and Congressman Jimmy Hayes.
Several circumstances contributed to the small mintage and subsequent rarity of 1808 quarter eagles. In the early years of the Mint, depositors of foreign gold or bullion could specify which denominations they preferred to receive. By 1808, only half eagles and quarter eagles were in production, and the overwhelming demand was for half eagles. Banks preferred the half eagles for international payments and reserves, and they rarely ordered the smaller coins. As only one set of dies was prepared for quarter eagles in 1808, it’s obvious the Mint had no intention of striking any large quantities, but early die failure probably limited production to far fewer coins than officials had planned.
All but one of the 1808 quarter eagles known today show a die break on the obverse from the cap through the stars on the right. As this fracture progressed, most likely the die broke and came apart, stopping production at that point. With no replacement dies, no more quarter eagles could be minted, and the minuscule demand for the denomination didn’t justify preparing new dies. Demand remained almost nonexistent until 1821, when some small orders for the denomination were again received.
No hoards are known of 1808 quarter eagles and no reasonably convincing counterfeits have surfaced over the years. These coins are invariably weak at the rims and softly struck on the peripheral stars. Because of this, care must be taken to differentiate actual wear from the effects of a weak strike. On the obverse, friction first begins to show above the eye and on top of the cap. Wear on the reverse is first evident on the eagle’s wingtips and talons.
After never receiving a raise in a decade and fed up with Scot’s harassment, Reich left the Mint in 1817. Ironically, the jealous Scot wasted little time in replacing Reich’s designs. When the quarter eagle reappeared in 1821, Scot copied his 1813 half eagle design for the smaller coin, creating the Capped Head quarter eagle. Over the next decade, Scot’s replacements for Reich’s designs were certainly no artistic leap forward, and are most likely a reflection of the lingering professional jealousy the tenured Scot harbored for the talented Reich. Yet, Reich’s design of 1808 left a lasting impression on future Mint engravers. His eagle remained virtually unchanged for the next century, until finally replaced by the Bela Lyon Pratt design in 1908.
Capped Head (1821-1834)
Early quarter eagles: little seen by collectors today, they were almost as rare when first made. Few were minted and most never saw circulation. Napoleon’s rampage through Europe had seen to that. A worldwide rise in gold prices, fueled by the chaos following the “Reign of Terror” in France, affected U.S. gold coinage disastrously. Bullion dealers bought U.S. gold coins, often with legal tender Mexican silver coins, and shipped them to Paris, London or Hamburg to be melted. The result was inevitable: Eagles were discontinued, half eagle mintage occurred almost exclusively for banks, and quarter eagle production remained minuscule, finally ceasing in 1808.
The War of 1812 only made things worse. The 15:1 silver/gold ratio established by Congress as “law of the land” in 1792, rose in Europe—by 1813—to over 16:1, allowing bullion brokers substantial profits on every ounce of American gold exported. At the same time, Spain’s preoccupation with Napoleon had allowed her colonies in Latin America to break free and establish Republics, and the huge flow of South America silver previously destined for Spain now flowed to the United States, further diluting silver’s value vis-à-vis gold.
The promise of huge profits enticed exporters to risk fortunes and face innumerable hazards. Often, ships perished in storms, were ravaged by pirates, or the gold was hijacked once ashore. Profits could be great—an ounce of silver or more per ounce of gold—but large amounts of bullion were required to make the overseas voyage worthwhile. Many would still buck the odds, and soon nearly all U.S. gold coins disappeared from circulation. J. Laurence Laughlin, a Harvard assistant professor, in his 1892 book, The History of Bimetallism in the United States, described the Mint in this era as “a useless expense to the nation, but a source of profit to the money-brokers.”
By 1821, relative calm had settled over world and national affairs. The war with England was long past, and the turmoil in Europe a distant memory. Indian wars in the Northwest were ended by William Henry Harrison and in the Southwest by Andrew Jackson. The “Great Migration West” had begun. James Monroe was inaugurated as President for his second term, running unopposed the previous December. The future was indeed bright for the growing nation.
For whatever reason (the late Walter Breen, a renowned numismatic researcher, speculated that they might have been used as Christmas presents or souvenirs), in 1821, quarter eagles were once again requested by several banks. Although gold didn’t circulate during this era, bullion from Mexico, and later from the new mines in North Carolina and Georgia, did find its way to the Mint. Under the Mint’s “free coinage” policy, anyone could deposit foreign coins, or native silver or gold bullion, and request coinage of specific legal denominations. Usually, gold deposits were made by banks, accounting for what little gold coinage there was at the time. Generally, banks requested the larger denomination, half eagles (eagle production ceased in 1804 by order of President Thomas Jefferson), so the sudden demand for quarter eagles was totally unexpected. Chief Engraver Robert Scot, seventy-seven and eyesight failing, was in no condition to create an original design. He responded with a design borrowed from his 1818 half eagle, itself an adaptation of former assistant John Reich’s 1813 Capped Head motif.
Scot’s matronly, thick-necked Liberty on the new 1821 quarter eagle wears a headdress in the guise of a Phrygian or Liberty cap, really a mobcap, typically worn by women around the turn of the 19th century. Thirteen widely spaced stars surround the bust, with the date below. An eagle with outstretched wings graces the reverse, and the motto, E PLURIBUS UNUM appears above. Both are surrounded by the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and 2½ D.
The Capped Head quarter eagle maintained the legal weight standard, but was slightly smaller and thicker than the previous quarter eagle, Reich’s 1808 Capped Bust design, which had lasted only one year. In 1829, William Kneass, who had replaced Scot after his death in 1823, modified the coin by reducing the diameter further, punching in smaller stars on the obverse and redrawing the Liberty head and eagle. Kneass created a beaded border surrounded by a high, plain rim, taking advantage of a recent Mint innovation, the “close collar.” Essentially a steel doughnut with a hole the size of the coin and grooves to impart a reeded edge, the close collar gave an even, finished look to the coin.
From 1821 through 1834, 42,065 business strikes and fewer than 150 proof Capped Head quarter eagles were made. Although numismatists recognize the 1821 through 1827 issues as a separate type from the later, smaller coins, the rarity of the entire series generally limits type collectors to just one example of this design. Collecting the eleven issues by date is a formidable challenge not attempted by many, as every issue is rare in any grade and some, like the low mintage 1826 and the 1834 are particularly so. The 1834 coin is almost legendary in its rarity, as the bulk of the mintage of 4000 pieces was never released, but melted at the Mint.
None of the dates in the series appear in mint-state with any frequency, but type collectors will most often encounter the 1825 or 1829-31 coins in high grade. Most issues are usually found in grades from VF to Uncirculated, with more mint-state specimens among the later dates. Much of the mintage has disappeared, probably spent during the “Hard Times” era of 1837-44, and the few survivors are often impaired. When grading this design, look for wear on the hair above Liberty’s forehead, on the top of her cap, and on her cheek. On the reverse, check the eagle’s wing tips and claws.
Destruction of U.S. gold coins reached a pinnacle in 1831, when 40,000 half eagles were melted in Paris at once. Even U.S. banks were liquidating their coins. Finally, Congress was forced to address this decades-old problem. Responding to the pleas of Eastern businessmen and Southern mine owners, the legislators passed the Coinage Act of 1834, which reduced the gold content of U.S. gold coins by 6%, allowing them to circulate—virtually for the first time. The new law ended the flow of gold out of the United States and enabled holders of the “old tenor” quarter eagles (now worth about $2.66) to sell their coins directly to the Mint instead of shipping them overseas.
The new weight standard called for a new design. Mint Director Samuel Moore instructed William Kneass to prepare enough dies to accommodate the expected demand for the new lighter weight coins. Kneass’ 1834 Classic Head quarter eagle was easily identified by the missing motto on the reverse. It would be minted through 1839, when it was replaced by Christian Gobrecht’s Coronet Head design.
Coin Descriptions Provided by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC)