The Draped Bust Quarter Eagle, also referred to as the Turban Head Quarter Eagle, represented the first type for the smallest gold denomination established under the Coinage Act of 1792. The coins would be struck in extremely limited numbers for most years from 1796 to 1807. A new design was introduced in 1808, which sometimes is linked with this series, but should be seen as an intermediate step towards the subsequent design used in the 1820’s and early 1830’s. Because of their small mintages, all Draped Bust Quarter Eagles are extremely rare, especially in problem-free condition, and often are among the most difficult coins to acquire for a complete type set of United States coinage.
After previously introducing the eagle ($10.00) and half eagle ($5.00) denominations, the first quarter eagles ($2.50) were produced in September 1796. These coins are easily recognized for their absence of obverse stars, a feature which is unique to this particular subtype. The original quarter eagle design is among the most easily recognized and most difficult to acquire type coins of the United States, and has been considered a prime rarity for well over a century.
The Draped Bust Quarter Eagle was designed by Robert Scot, possibly with the help of others, although this is disputed and Robert Scot usually is cited as the sole designer. Except for the absence of the obverse stars, the design was virtually the same as the one first used in 1795 for the larger gold denominations. In a plain obverse field, the bust of Liberty, facing right, stands out remarkably. She wears a Phrygian cap and has long, slightly curly hair falling behind her neck. The word LIBERTY is above, and the date appears below.
The reverse design was the same as found on many early issues, including silver coins. Robert Scot based the design on the Great Seal of the United States and added a few of his own modifications. An eagle appears at center in a rather unnatural position, with thirteen stars in its right claw and an olive branch in its left. There are sixteen stars, for each state in the Union at the time, between the eagle’s head and a cluster of clouds. Later the number of stars was reduced to thirteen. The words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA appear around the outer edge of the coin, with E PLURIBUS UNUM on a scroll held within the eagle’s beak. Interestingly, the coin has no denomination indicated, as at the time transactions in gold were based on weight.
In late 1796, sixteen obverse stars were added to the obverse design. These were configured eight to the left and eight to the right of Liberty. This arrangement would be abandoned in 1797, when the number of stars was reduced to thirteen. Two different varieties, easily identified by the arrangement of the obverse stars, were struck in 1806, as are other minor varieties that were struck in most years. There are a smaller number of individual varieties for this type compared to the larger gold denominations. Since mintages were small that meant a relatively low number of dies were needed for production.