The story of the 1796-1797 Draped Bust, Small Eagle half dollars is shrouded in mystery. What we know for sure is that the Philadelphia Mint produced approximately 3,918 half dollars in 1796 and 1797 before suspension of the denomination until 1801. By the latter date, Robert Scot's Small Eagle reverse had yielded to his Heraldic Eagle design. This fact, coupled with the limited original mintage, accounts for the importance of the 1796 and 1797 half dollars as rare type coins.
In an effort to reconstruct the circumstances that surround the production of these two issues, we have relied heavily upon Breen's Complete Encyclopedia (1988), although we caution readers that even the noted numismatic author himself states that his conclusions are "presented only as conjecture, as no other Archives data survive about these mintages." It appears that the Mint produced two obverse dies (one dated 1796 and the other either undated or dated 1797) with 15 stars sometime before the admission of Tennessee as the sixteenth state on June 1, 1796. Following the latter event, a third 1796-dated obverse was produced with 16 stars. These dies were used to produced the following pieces: (60) 1796 15 Stars examples on February 28, 1797; (874) 1796 15 Stars and 1796 16 Stars examples on March 21, 1797; and (2,984) 1797 examples on May 26, 1797. The latter issue was produced using the second die that the Mint had made prior to June 1, 1796, now definitely dated 1797. No further examples of this type were delivered.
A problem-free Fine representative, this coin was struck with a late state of the dies. The obverse has cracked from the rim through star 2 to Liberty's lower hair curls. The reverse has shattered with myriad die cracks evident to the left of the eagle's head and left (facing) wing. There are also several prominent adjustment marks (also as produced) over the central obverse, but we stress that both sides are relatively free of abrasions. The wear is slightly uneven with poor definition over the lower right reverse. The remaining features are nicely defined and the otherwise lavender-gray toning scheme deepens to olive accents around most of the devices. A highly collectible rarity that would have little trouble completing even the finest type collection. (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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