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Desirable 1797 Half Dollar, AU501797 50C AU50 NGC. O-101a, High R.4. The appearance of any 1797 half dollar in a public auction is a significant numismatic event. This was the second year of the Draped Bust Small Eagle design type, which bears the dates 1796 or 1797. A paltry 3,918 pieces were produced.
It is interesting to speculate on the reasons for this small mintage, especially in light of the 323,144 Flowing Hair half dollars of 1794-1795, and the 1,600,787 Draped Bust Heraldic Eagle half dollars made between 1801 and 1807. A review of the numismatic literature suggests some possible reasons for the low 1796-1797 half dollar mintage. First, most bullion depositors wanted dollars for their silver, not half dollar or smaller denomination coins. The dollars were largely destined for export abroad, and unlike lower denomination coins, were readily accepted by foreign merchants. Second, bullion deposits brought to the Mint declined significantly in 1796 and 1797 because of the disclosure of the illegal silver standard that was previously in effect. The silver coinage of 1794 and 1795 employed a 0.900 fine standard instead of the 0.8924+ standard prescribed in the Mint Act of April 2, 1792. The most immediate effect of this practice was that depositors ended up paying an additional 2 1/2 grains of silver bullion (about 1% extra) for every dollar they received (Don Taxay, 1966, p. 89). This "silver famine" likely helped to account for the smaller number of all Draped Bust Small Eagle denominations during these two years. Third, a yellow fever epidemic forced the closing of the Mint from late August to late November 1797. Coinage deliveries did not resume until early January 1798, and these included only dollars and gold coins (U.S. Mint Records).
Published estimates of surviving 1796-1797 half dollar range from around 100 to 300 specimens. Research being conducted by this cataloger (Jon Amato) has accounted, to date for about 225 or so Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollars (for more information on this research, the interested reader is referred to the article entitled "Surviving 1796-97 Draped Bust Half Dollars and Their Grade Distribution," in the February 2005 issue of the John Reich Journal, Volume 16/Issue 2, pages 12 to 17).
The AU50 example presented in this lot displays light mauve-gray color accented with narrow bands of cobalt-blue, lavender, and light green toning around the borders. Well-centered design elements exhibit nice detail in Liberty's hair and drapery, and in the eagle's wing and tail feathers. The dentilation is bold, except for the usual softness along the right obverse border; the centers of the seven adjacent stars also reveal the typical softness. The reverse exhibits the cracks characteristic of the Overton-101a variety; likewise, the crack from the rim through star 2 to the curl is visible. Neither side reveals adjustment marks. A few linear circulation marks in the field between stars 7 and 8 and Liberty's head may help to pedigree this coin. In sum, this is a great piece for the advanced collector seeking to complete a high-grade type set of early United States coinage.(Registry values: N10218) (NGC ID# 24EC, PCGS# 6060)
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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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