1796 Breen-1. Rarity-5. No Stars. MS-65 (PCGS).
A fabulous gem example of the famous 1796 No Stars quarter eagle, graded MS-65 (PCGS), and considered comfortably the finest known example made history as the 17th U.S. Coin to cross the $1,000,000 mark at public auction when it sold for an impressive $1,380,000!
Bright yellow gold with a slight greenish tint and abundant frosty lustre, more than we have ever seen on a specimen of this type. The obverse shows resplendent cartwheel, satiny and neatly swirling over the fields, and some light reflectivity. The reverse shows both deep reflectivity and bold cartwheel lustre. In 1964, this coin was described by Stack’s in the Ward Collection sale as “a gem coin …full frosty mint lustre … as sharp a specimen as we have ever handled or seen … This coin is the highlight of the U.S. section of this fine collection.” Some very light inherent roughness at the right obverse rim was present at the moment of striking, and an area of adjustment marks is present at the right reverse rim at the tops of AMER, affecting nothing but those letters and the nearby wingtip. The reverse fields are nearly pristine, apparently described as “equal to a brilliant proof” by B. Max Mehl in 1950 (see note below). The obverse shows some light scattered marks and evidence of handling, none individually severe, with a natural circular planchet depression off Liberty’s forecurl serving as the best identifier and a speck below R of LIBERTY noted for accuracy. A fine die crack may be seen from the obverse rim at 9:00 northeast into the middle of the left obverse field, and another die crack joins the bases of BER of LIBERTY. The lowest curls are nearly intact, indicating a middle stage of the lapping that progressively removes most of the lowest curl (as with the Bass II coin). These die state aspects show better on this coin than any we have seen.
The 1796 No Stars quarter eagle stands alone as a one year type and the earliest issue of this long-lived denomination. It is a classic in any grade, with tooled Fine or VF coins seeing competitive bidding from legions of type collectors. In grades above EF, the coin stands as a significant rarity—just 963 were struck, and perhaps 80 to 100 pieces exist in all grades. PCGS has offered a Mint State grade only five times: two as MS-61, two as MS-62, and this one all alone at a higher grade. NGC has graded precisely one coin higher than MS-63, a MS-65 specimen like this one and perhaps even the identical coin. It is easy to say this is the finest we have ever offered for auction, better than the marvelous MS-62 Oliver Jung coin that sold for $345,000 one year ago. It is probably also the finest we have seen, better even than the two nice coins retained by the Harry Bass Foundation. Indeed, it seems more than likely that this is the single finest example to have survived, as it is three points better than anything else PCGS has seen in over 20 years and one of only eight Uncirculated coins recorded by Akers (a number that almost certainly includes duplication). In discussing this precise coin on page 84 of The 100 Greatest U.S. Coins, Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett noted:
“In 1995, the finest known 1796 ‘No Stars’ Quarter Eagle was sold in a New York auction. After fierce bidding, the coin was hammered down for $605,000. A good argument could be made proclaiming that coin as the most desirable eighteenth-century gold coin. Not only is it rare but also it is the only year this design was produced.”
Connoisseurs of early American coins compete to own the very finest pieces, adjudged on the basis of grade, eye appeal, strike, and originality. This coin stands tall on all four aspects, perhaps most importantly the last one. With such a significant percentage of important early gold coins having undergone “improvements” in recent years, coins such as this—coins that look the same now as they did 40 years ago, whose surfaces have not been altered in the attempt to raise the grade a point and the price an increment—take on more substantial importance. It occupies a special place of primacy as the very best extant of the very first quarter eagle. Held privately for a decade, this coin has been cherished by its most recent owner and will undoubtedly become a centerpiece in the hands of its next steward as well.
PCGS Population: 1; none finer. This is the only example of the issue certified finer than MS-62 by PCGS.
Perhaps from New York Coin and Stamp Co.’s sale of the Lorin Parmelee Collection, June 1890, Lot 719; Brock Collection; University of Pennsylvania; Stack’s sale of the Philip H. Ward, Jr. Collection, May 1964, Lot 1660; Lelan Rogers; Stack’s Numisma ’95 sale, November 1995, Lot 1498 (at $605,000).