Elusive 1797 Choice XF Half Dollar, O-101a1797 50C XF45 PCGS. O-101a, High R.4. The appearance of a 1796 or a 1797 half dollar at public auction is always cause for excitement. This two-year type coin, displaying the draped bust of Liberty on the obverse and a small eagle on the reverse, saw a minuscule mintage of 3,918 pieces. This is in stark contrast to the 323,144 half dollar coinage of the 1794-1795 Flowing Hair design type, and to the 1,600,787-piece half dollar mintage of the 1801-1807 Draped Bust Heraldic Eagle type.
Coupled with the paltry mintage of 1796-1797 half dollars is their low survival rate, with published estimates that range from fewer than 100 specimens to more than 300 examples. This cataloger (Jon Amato), in an ongoing research project that commenced in 1990 has, to date, accounted for about 230 Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollars. This finding resulted from a survey of auction catalogs dating back to the 1870s that contained photos of 1796-1797 half dollars, as well as a review of fixed price lists that possessed images of these coins. Specimens in institutional collections, such as the American Numismatic Society and Princeton University, were also examined, either via photos or in person.
The 1796-dated and 1797-dated half dollars each have two varieties, as described in the fourth edition of Early Half Dollar Die Varieties. The 1796 issue with 15 obverse stars is Overton-101, and that with 16 stars is Overton-102. The two 1797 issues, both containing 15 obverse stars and designated as Overton-101 and Overton-102, are differentiated by a slight difference in the placement of the reverse wreath vis-a-vis the peripheral lettering.
The four Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollar varieties were produced with three obverse and two reverse dies. Overton's Reverse A die was used with all three obverses (1796 15 stars, 1796 16 stars, and 1797). This reverse, after having been used for a time with the 1797 obverse (Overton-101), developed myriad cracks, resulting in the 1797 Overton-101a die state. A new reverse die (Overton's Reverse B) replaced the nearly shattered Reverse A. This 1797 obverse/Reverse B die pairing resulted in Overton-102.
The Choice XF specimen offered in this lot is Overton-101a, displaying the prominent die cracks that extend from the rim to the right side of the O in OF through the palm leaves to the lower-middle part of the eagle's left (right facing) wing, from the rim between the D in UNITED and the first S in STATES through the middle set of olive leaves and the upper part of the right wing to the lower neck, and from the latter crack through the bases of ST where it makes a sharp right turn to travel through a leaf to the eagle's upper neck. Several other less prominent reverse cracks are also visible, as is the heavy diagnostic crack on the obverse that extends from the rim through star 2 to Liberty's curl.
Delicate bluish-gray, yellow-gold, and mauve toning tends to deepen somewhat in the fields, thereby highlighting the design features. Sharp detail is apparent on most of Liberty's hair and on the eagle's wing and tail feathers, and the dentilation is quite strong on both obverse and reverse. A few minute marks are scattered about, but the surfaces are remarkably clean for a relatively large and heavy 200 plus year-old coin that saw some circulation. A small milling mark on the upper part of Liberty's right (left facing) breast might help to pedigree the coin. Each side is completely devoid of adjustment marks.
This is a most pleasing example of perhaps what is the most difficult U.S. type coin. Pressure from both type set and early half dollar collectors has resulted in strong prices for this piece of Americana in any condition. Such has been the case since the beginning of coin collecting in America in the 1850s. The winning bidder of this marvelous coin will be highly pleased with her/his acquisition.(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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