Rare 1796 15 Stars Select Half Dollar1796 50C 15 Stars MS63 NGC. O-101, R.5. The appearance of a Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollar at auction is always the cause for excitement, regardless of its grade or condition; even "impaired" specimens often bring high prices. This is because an example of this low-mintage coin (3,918 pieces) is necessary for the completion of a U.S. type set. The excitement escalates when the appearance is a Mint State coin. This is what makes the present offering of the MS63 1796 15 Stars half dollar so special.
The Draped Bust Small Eagle design type consists of two dates, 1796 and 1797, each of which has two varieties. The 1796 issue with 15 obverse stars is Overton 101, and that with 16 stars is classified as Overton 102. The 16 stars coin was apparently intended to commemorate Tennessee's June 1, 1796 admission to the Union as the 16th state. The two 1797 issues (Overton 101 and 102) are differentiated by the alignment of the reverse wreath in relation to the peripheral lettering.
All four varieties were struck in 1797 as part of three deliveries. Mint records show that the first delivery was made on February 28, 1797 (60 coins), the second on March 21 (874 coins), and the last on May 26 (2,984 coins). All of these were delivered to the Bank of the United States, and were produced from silver ingots deposited by that institution.
Relatively few 1796-1797 half dollars are thought to have survived, with estimates ranging from less than 100 to more than 300 coins. Ongoing research being conducted by this cataloger (Jon Amato) has thus far accounted for close to 230 specimens in all grades. The interested reader is referred to the February 2005 issue of the John Reich Journal (Vol. 16/Issue 2, pp. 12-17) for the study findings up to that date.
Prospective bidders on the current specimen in the present lot will be particularly interested in the number of Uncirculated 1796-1797 half dollar survivors, especially those of the 1796 15 stars variety. Of the 20 Mint State specimens identified in the above study, eight were of this variety.
The provenance of the present coin is traced to the August 2004 American Numismatic Rarities sale (lot 418), and prior to that, to the Bowers and Merena March 1989 sale (lot 1990). Unfortunately, we are unable to conclusively trace its pedigree to any prior sales.
We can, however, mention some of the other Mint State 1796 15 stars half dollar appearances. One of the most notable was a PCGS Specimen 65 coin in the March 2004 Bowers and Merena sale. This piece is pedigreed to the so-called "Knoxville Collection." One of the outstanding features of this particular coin was that it lacks the obverse die crack present on virtually all other known specimens. An MS63 Prooflike specimen appeared in the Bowers and Merena April 1997 Louis E. Eliasberg Sale (lot 1673). This example is pedigreed to the John H. Clapp estate (1942) and to Benjamin H. Collins (1896).
A 1796 15 stars half dollar described as "Brilliant Uncirculated" appeared in Stack's October 2002 sale (lot 22). This coin originally reposed in the collections of Reed Hawn and Lorin Parmelee. Another "Brilliant Uncirculated" example made an appearance in Stack's October 2000 sale (lot 876). This coin is pedigreed to the collections of Henry Norweb, T. James Clarke, Waldo Newcomer, and Col. E.H.R. Green. Stack's also sold an MS64 example in its May 1999 John Whitney Walter Collection (lot 1776), and a Specimen 66 out of the same collection (lot 1777). The latter coin can be traced to Max Mehl's March 1948 sale of the C.A. Allenberger Collection (lot 385), and to Thomas Elder's sale of the Peter Mougey Collection (lot 424).
The Dr. E. Yale Clarke "Brilliant Uncirculated, Prooflike" 1796 15 stars half dollar appeared in Stack's October 1975 sale (lot 182), and made previous appearances in that firm's April 1969 R.L. Miles and November 1954 Anderson Dupont sales (lots 1205 and 2031, respectively). The James A. Stack coin, described as a "Proof," sold in the March 1975 Stack's sale (lot 313), and is pedigreed to the H.R. Lee (1947) and Beistle collections.
The William P. Donlon Collection, sold by Abe Kosoff in November 1956, featured a 1796 15 stars half dollar described as "Uncirculated with Prooflike Luster" (lot 705). Donlon had acquired this coin out of Numismatic Gallery's June 1950 Adolphe Menjou Sale (lot 942). This firm also offered what it called the "Finest Known Brilliant Proof" out of the John M. Morris Collection (lot 868).
Rich pastel multicolored toning embraces reflective surfaces on the present example. The obverse displays a mélange of brassy-gold and pale-blue patination accented with splashes of green, orange, and violet. The reverse takes on slightly deeper tones of the same palette, joined by rose toning and a greater display of orange splashes. The design elements are sharply struck, save for the usual softness on the feathers of the eagle's breast and left (right facing) leg. The devices on each side are well centered, and the dentilation is bold. The typical die crack from the obverse rim at 5 o'clock branches along the drapery to the right through the last three stars to the rim at 3 o'clock, and to the left where it nearly joins the circular crack between Liberty's shoulder and neck curl. Mild diagonal adjustment marks are concealed within the hair curl below the ear, with a few more near the date, and another batch behind Liberty's head. Some minute toning spots are visible in the right obverse field, and two small parallel nicks are located in the field between the chin and star 14.
This is a rare opportunity for the connoisseur of early U.S. type coins to acquire a classic piece of Americana. The coin exudes tremendous eye appeal, and is certainly to satisfy the most discriminating collector. We expect very spirited bidder competition on this lot.
From The Southwest Collection. (NGC ID# 24E9, PCGS# 6057)
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The Draped Bust Half Dollars of 1796-1797 by Jon Amato is the culmination of more than 10 years of research into the Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollar series, one of the most coveted type coins in American numismatics and one about which remarkably little has been written.
This work will be the premier reference for 1796-1797 half dollars for years to come. Institutions having an extensive numismatic library or coin cabinet will find it a valuable complement to their holdings, and catalogers charged with writing up specimens for auction can now have an indispensable source of background and pedigree information. Likewise, coin dealers seeking to purchase one or more '96 or '97 half dollars for a client or for inventory, and collectors who own, have owned, or desire to own one will want this important reference work for their libraries.
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