Q. David Bowers (derived from the PCGS Coin Guide): Quarter eagles, or $2.50 pieces, have long been a popular series with numismatists, especially among collectors of the present century. The denomination is very appealing, for while it contains some landmark rarities, they are not completely impossible - just difficult. With the exception of a handful of major rarities, the completion of a full set of quarter eagles from 1796 to 1929 is a challenge which can be mounted by nearly any serious collector. Along the way much enjoyment will be derived in tracking down issues which have nominal catalogue value but which in reality are rarities in disguise.
The first quarter eagle design, minted in 1796, is of the Capped Bust to Right design without stars on the obverse. Just 963 pieces were struck, after which someone at the Mint decided to add stars on the obverse motif. The with-stars version was produced from 1796 through 1807. Within that span a number of interesting varieties, including variations in star arrangements, were produced.
Mintages were fascinatingly low. In addition to the 963 pieces minted for the 1796 without stars, just 432 were minted of the 1796 with stars, only 427 for the 1797, and the following for the other early years: 1798 (1,094), 1802/1 overdate (3,035), 1804 (3,327), 1805 (1,781), 1806 with 8 stars left and 5 stars right (1,136), 1806 with 7 stars left and 6 stars right (480), and 1807 (6,812).
Mintage figures of this era are not necessarily accurate, and certain dies may have been kept over to later years. There is no assurance, for example, that precisely 1,781 quarter eagles were minted bearing the date 1805. Some produced under that heading could have been dated 1804 or earlier.
Quarter eagles of the 1796-1807 span are typically seen in grades from Extremely Fine to AU. Uncirculated coins are rarities. Conversely, well worn pieces are rarities as well (but not necessarily desirable). Due to their high denomination ($2.50 was apt to represent a week's pay) such coins did not change hands often, with the beneficial result that nearly all surviving pieces are in higher circulated grades.