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Die Variety: BD-3. Stars on Obverse. This die pairing offers considerable numismatic interest as both the obverse and reverse reflect a fluid moment of heraldic changes developing as well as a little studied style evolution underway in these challenging years of issue. The obverse is the second known die used to strike quarter eagles in 1796--the first used the same master hub and date punches but lacks the sixteen stars present on this coin. Thus, 1796 quarter eagles are defined by two major types, one called No Stars on Obverse, and this obverse die known as the Stars on Obverse variety. Early in the development of our coinage the Philadelphia Mint experimented on a few occasions with obverse dies that did not include stars. Examples include the copper patterns of the 1794 Judd-14 half dime and the 1794 Judd-18 silver dollar. In both cases obverse stars were added to the adopted designs when regular coinage began. In the case of the 1796 quarter eagle the small size of the coin offered an opportunity to try the "No Stars" option again, but apparently after the initial emission of coins and early reports, Mint officials determined that future quarter eagles should include obverse stars. Thus, when a new obverse die was needed, sometime after June 1, 1796, the stars were added surrounding Liberty. Why after June 1, 1796? That's the date that Tennessee joined the United States and this event brought the number of states to a total of 16, as dies made prior to this date reflected the then current 15 states in the United States. The attractive appearance of coins struck without the obverse stars is well known, but the wide open fields fail to protect the devices are well, shortening their durability in circulation. It is notable that in later years Mint Engraver Christian Gobrecht again produced No Stars obverse dies on half dimes, dimes, and silver dollars in the 1836 to 1837 era for circulation, but soon each denomination had the stars added to the obverse.
The reverse die offers several unique features that are reflective of the heraldic era of designs, where symbols were commonly used. Notice the 16 stars over the eagle's head in the reverse field; these are arranged in an irregular "star cross" pattern as opposed to two evenly spaced star arcs as commonly seen in later years. The original Great Seal of the United States has the stars over the eagle's head arranged in straight lines at angles, but this feature simply does not fit onto the confines of most coinage, and adaptations were made to include these star elements. Another important feature are the 16 stripes in the shield over the eagle's breast, one for each state at the time, and 13 feathers on the lower edge of each wing of the eagle, reflecting the 13 original colonies. The central eagle feature along with the clouds and motto E PLURIBUS UNUM were all imparted to the dies from a master hub, in this case almost certainly created by Mint Engraver John Smith Gardner. As Gardner left the Mint in 1796 some of the features on the hubs he produced were replaced by Chief Engraver Robert Scot as he was able to create new master hubs in the years 1796 and later. Gardner's hubs feature an eagle with a longer neck, two rows of tail feathers on the eagle, and three claws visible on top of and holding the arrows and branch. Scot's master hubs revised certain features, and normally include a shorter neck on the eagle, three rows of tail feathers and a single claw over the top of the branch and arrows. Other features that disappear on the Scot hubs are the eagle's tongue and usually the stars over the eagle are arranged in the arc pattern rather than the star cross pattern. John Dannreuther has done extensive research on these features and provides an excellent discussion in Appendix A in his reference Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties. The importance of the Gardner dies has been generally overlooked but is certainly going to rise in numismatic scholarship as future generations of collectors notice these distinctive features.
Die State: This is die state e with advanced cracks and clashing evidence on the obverse and reverse. An additional heavy clash line resides in the lower portion of the shield, this caused from die to die contact with the obverse curl that crosses Liberty's cap. Extensive die clashing and lapping evidence is present on the obverse and reverse as detailed in the Dannreuther-Bass reference. Slight die sinking is noted below NIT of UNITED, where the field appears slightly elevated into a mound perhaps reflecting localized die lapping or simply metal fatigue in the die field itself.
Original Mintage: Believed to be 432 pieces delivered on January 14, 1797, although some of these may have been more of the No Stars on Obverse BD-2 coins, and another possibly 98 coins may have been this BD-3 variety that were delivered on February 28, 1797 for a possible high mintage of 530 pieces. Given the die breakage ratio and various delivery dates the precise number coined of most varieties is subject to educated guesses based on the mintage figures and delivery dates.
Estimated Surviving Population: The number known is believed to be 40 to just under 50 distinct specimens.
Strike: The strike is sharp throughout, with bold curls on Liberty and all the fine, thin die cracks present including a nearly bisecting obverse crack down through the B of LIBERTY and then down Liberty's cap nearly to her shoulder. Another crack extends through the 96 up to the right-hand stars. Most of the stars on the left also are connected by a thin crack. The reverse shows evidence of die lapping and cracks as well, with clashing prominent from the obverse die. This is the final known die state of this variety.
Surfaces: Elegant wisps of copper-gold toning accent the fields near the devices, with hints of crimson as well present in the fields. In general the presentation is bright yellow-gold with the colorful accents near the devices. Prooflike reflectivity is found in the protected fields as well, and scattered lint marks are present. These lint marks are caused by short lint fragments which adhered to the dies between strikes, and appear as short, thick wavy lines that are commonly seen on early gold coins from this period.
Commentary: The small general size of the obverse die was deemed large enough to support 16 stars, which made their first appearance here on this denomination. The stars helped protect the central device of Liberty's head from wear and nicks during circulation, thus extended the life of the coin in commerce. This fact is made all the more notable as the obverse stars continued through the end of quarter eagle production in the late 1920s.
Q. David Bowers:
John W. Dannreuther: