The Mint Act of April 2, 1792, provided for various coin denominations from the copper half cent to the $10 gold eagle. Gold denominations included $2.50 and $5 as well. The first half eagles were delivered by the coiner at the end of July 1795, followed by the first delivery of eagles shortly thereafter. However, it was not until 1796 that quarter eagles were first made, thus rounding out the suite of denominations. Later, other values were added including the gold dollar (1849), $3 (1854), pattern $4 (1879) and $20 (1850).
The first quarter eagles of 1796 were of a special design, with the head of Liberty on the obverse, the date below, but with no stars. The reverse depicted a Heraldic Eagle, an adaptation of the Great Seal of the United States with 13 stars. Why stars were not on the obverse remains unanswered to this day. Perhaps this small coin would have had too many stars if they were on both sides.
It is important to mention that the contemporary $5 and $10 pieces were of a different design, with 13 stars on the obverse and with an eagle perched on a palm branch on the reverse. Thus, the total of obverse and reverse stars on those denominations was 13. The first quarter eagles of 1796 with stars on the reverse also had 13, logically fitting in. Then came a change:
For reasons unexplained, perhaps to match the obverses of the other coins, part way through 1796 a new obverse design was made with 13 stars. Thus, the new 1796 quarter eagles had 26 stars totally! This motif was continued through 1807, with some variations (such as an 1804 die with 14 reverse stars, probably an error). In 1798 the $5 and $10 obverses were changed to include stars, after which time these denominations also had 26 stars totally.
Today the two major types of 1796 quarter eagles are rare and are treasured as classics. The D. Brent Pogue Collection has beautiful coins as illustrated here, both graded Mint State-62 and both to be offered May 19, 2015, as highlights of Part I of our offering of this legendary collection.