Quarter Eagles along with Half Eagles and Eagles were the three original gold denominations authorized in the Mint Act of 1792. As the “Dollar” was the unit of measure for silver coins, the “Eagle” (equivalent to $10.00) was the basic unit for gold coinage, with smaller denominations usually expressed as fractional parts.
Production of quarter eagles did not begin until 1796 (a year after the other two gold denominations) and the first issue was made with no stars on the obverse. With only 963 pieces made, this is likely the rarest and most difficult “type” coin in the entire U.S. series. Stars were added to the obverse later in 1796, and this type was made through 1807. The following year, another one-year type was produced in 1808 showing John Reich’s design of a capped and draped bust Liberty facing left. Between these two one-year types (1796 No Stars and 1808), a type set of Quarter Eagles is perhaps the toughest for collectors to complete.
After a 12-year hiatus, production resumed in 1821 with a modified figure of Liberty, now showing only the capped head. As the world price of gold rose in the 1830s, these coins became profitable to export and melt, and as a consequence, many of these coins no longer exist. Mintages were small to begin with, and when added to the mass melting, result in another very tough type.
A reduction in weight was made in 1834 with the issuance of the “Classic Head” type, and late in their run (1838-39), production began at several new branch mints in Dahlonega, GA, Charlotte NC, and New Orleans, LA. Christian Gobrecht’s Liberty Head design that followed in 1840 has the distinction of being the longest running coin to be produced without any changes whatsoever (67 years). The last quarter eagle type was Bela Lyon Pratt’s Indian head, made from 1908 through 1929. It featured an “incuse” design, in which the main devices (the Indian head on the obverse and the eagle on the reverse) were sunken below the fields of the coin.
Rare dates abound in the quarter eagle series. In addition to the aforementioned 1796 and 1808 types, collectors will be challenged to find an 1804 13-star reverse, 1841, 1854-S, 1856-D, 1864, and 1875 among others. The Indian series has only one key date, the 1911-D, though it is not nearly as tough as the earlier rarities.