1797 Half Dollar, O-101a, Magnificent MS65+
1797 50C O-101a, R.5, MS65+ PCGS Secure. CAC. Amato-400. Ex:
Norweb. The Draped Bust half dollar with a Small Eagle reverse
bears the dates 1796 or 1797. This two-year design type comes from
a minuscule mintage of 3,918 pieces. Mint records show that this
coinage series was minted from silver bullion deposited by the Bank
of the United States, and that three deliveries were made to the
The Finest CAC-Endorsed 1796-1797 Half
An Ideal Type or Variety/Die State Coin
The Norweb Specimen
Warrant #81, February 28, 1797, 60 half dollars
Warrant #84, March 21, 1797, 874 half dollars
Warrant #90, May 26, 1797, 2,984 half dollars
It is interesting to note here that if the Bank had not made silver bullion deposits during this time and requested that they be coined into half dollars, it is likely that there would have been no coinage of Draped Bust Small Eagle halves!
The question often arises as to why the original mintage of 1796-1797 half dollars was so low. This question is especially relevant when the production figure is viewed against the relatively high mintages of most pre-Turban silver denominations and design types, coinage that generally ranged in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands (except for the 6,146-piece quarter dollar of 1796). While no definitive answer for the small 1796-1797 half dollar mintage is known, some possible reasons might be advanced.
First, silver bullion deposits declined significantly in 1796 and 1797 because of the disclosure of the illegal silver standard of 0.900 fine that was previously in effect in 1794 and 1795 instead of the 0.8924+ standard prescribed in the Mint Act of April 2, 1792. As discussed by Don Taxay in his The U.S. Mint and Coinage, 1966, the immediate effect of this unauthorized practice was that depositors paid an additional 2 ½ grains of silver bullion (about 1 percent extra) for every dollar they received. According to Taxay, one of the Mint's largest depositors, a Mr. John Vaughan, suffered a loss of $2,260 for which he later petitioned Congress.
Second, most bullion depositors wanted dollars for their silver, not half dollars or smaller denomination coins. The dollars were meant for export abroad, and unlike lower denominations, were readily accepted by foreign merchants.
Third, according to mint records, a yellow fever epidemic forced the Mint to close from late August to late November 1797. Coinage deliveries did not resume until early January 1798, and these included only dollars and gold coins.
Finally, the large number of 1794-1795 Flowing Hair half dollars that were coined (323,144 pieces) may have temporarily satiated the demand for this denomination.
Three obverse and two reverse dies were used to produce the Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollar series (Figure 1). Overton's Reverse A was used with all three obverses until it began to shatter by the time it was paired with Obverse 3 (1797 O-101). The development of more extensive reverse cracks led to the late die state designated as O-101a (the variety/die state of the present offering). A new reverse die (Reverse B) was then paired with Obverse 3 (1797 O-102).
Figure 1 - 1796-1797 Half Dollar Die Marriage Chart
Our ongoing research on the 1796-1797 half dollar series has documented, thus far, a total of 278 specimens in all grades. Most of these are in the Fine to Very Fine range. Additionally, 25 pieces grade Extremely Fine, 15 are designated About Uncirculated, and 22 are in mint condition. With respect to certified coins, PCGS has graded nine Uncirculated examples, including the present MS65+. The finest PCGS examples are two MS66s. NGC has seen 13 Mint State coins, the finest being two MS66s (6/14).
Considering the small production figure of 3,918 pieces, what might account for the relatively high number of higher-grade 1796-1797 half dollars that have survived to the present day? One possible reason is that a number of coins were saved as the first year of issue, as often occurs with a new coin design type. In this regard, it is instructive to note that our research has documented the existence of 10 Uncirculated 1796 15 Stars (O-101) specimens (the first Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollar variety coined) versus 12 Mint State examples for the remaining three varieties combined. The same general pattern shows for About Uncirculated coins -- nine extant 1796 15 Stars versus six AU examples for the remaining three varieties.
A second possibility for the high number of surviving 1796-1797 halves is that some (along with other American coins) might have been acquired by visitors from European countries who often visited America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These coins, undoubtedly Mint State pieces if acquired directly from the Mint, may have then been held as souvenirs or family heirlooms for untold periods of time until they eventually found their way back to America, and into the hands of dealers and collectors. The fact that English coin dealers occasionally placed auction- or direct-sale advertisements of American coins lends credence this notion. A case in point is excerpted from Mason's Coin Collectors' Magazine, February 1872, Volume 6, Number 2. Mason writes of his visit to William Webster, "a dealer in old coins" in London where he was shown "proof and uncirculated silver and copper United States coins" including "beautiful 1796 and 1797 United States silver half dollars ... a 1796 quarter dollar and dime ... all bright and beautiful."
A third possibility accounting for the relatively high number of extant 1796-1797 half dollars might be attributed to their "parental" association with the Bank of the United States. As previously mentioned, all three deliveries of these coins were made to the Bank, whose main office was in Philadelphia, with branches in Boston, New York, Baltimore, Charleston, Norfolk, Washington, Savannah, and New Orleans. The minuscule mintage may have been recognized early on by its 25-member Board of Directors as well as by its employees in the various branches who might have acquired some specimens and passed them on as family heirlooms. These eventually may have been sold to the growing number of coin dealers and collectors in the mid-19th century.
Finally, the Bank might have played another role in preserving high-grade 1796-1797 halves. These coins (along with other early half dollars) may have resided in the Bank's vaults for a number of years, serving to back its paper notes. Also, the large mintage of 1794-1795 half dollars may have temporarily obviated the need for additional halves in the channels of commerce, enabling the preservation of additional Draped Bust small eagle halves stored in the Bank's vaults. The foregoing theories leave us to wonder (and we can only wonder, because we will never know for sure) what circumstance, or combination of circumstances, initially spared the present coin from entering circulation.
Beautiful and original multicolored toning cascades over both sides of this stunning high-end Gem. Gold and silver-gray coloration imbued with whispers of soft bluish-violet, orange, and russet predominate, accented with splashes of deep electric-blue, violet, reddish-gold, and purple at the upper-right and right obverse and on the lower-right quadrant of the reverse. Reflective prooflike fields highlight the frosty central motifs, yielding a pleasing degree of contrast on each side. The design elements are sharply struck, including individual strands of Liberty's hair and curls. The eagle's wing and tail feathers are bold, as are the talons. A curving, as-made lintmark is visible just above Liberty's cleavage, and light horizontal adjustment marks at the left and right reverse border do not affect the clarity of the letters in UNITED and AMERICA. The few minuscule marks that are visible only under a glass are insignificant and unobtrusive. Indeed, the surfaces on both sides are remarkably well-preserved.
Close inspection of the coin's reverse indicates that most of the die cracks characteristic of the late die state of Overton's Reverse A (O-101a) show clearly. Figure 2 illustrates the location of these cracks, the most prominent of which are discussed below.
Figure 2 - Reverse A Die Cracks
Sources: Beistle (1929); Overton (2013); Bowers and Merena (1997); Amato (2012)
The crack running through the tops of ES in STATES, the first to have developed on Reverse A, initially occurred when this reverse was paired with the 1796 15 Stars obverse. It eventually extended to the right of S into the field and then downward through the upper palm leaves before branching into two cracks, one above and one below the eagle's head.
The second crack to occur, also when Reverse A was paired with the 1796 15 Stars obverse, travels from the rim at 1:30 o'clock along the right side of O in OF. It eventually extends through the palm wreath and eagle's right (facing) wing to the upper part of the right (facing) leg when Reverse A was paired with the 1796 16 Stars obverse.
The crack extending from the rim at 10:30 o'clock through the first T of STATES and the laurel wreath to the upper part of the eagle's neck apparently developed when Reverse A was paired with the latter stages of the 1797 O-101 obverse.
A parallel crack to the one above travels from the rim at 9:30 o'clock through the wreath and wing to the lower part of the neck. This crack is quite heavy and visible even on well-worn specimens. For this reason, most catalogers and researchers consider it to be the major criterion for differentiating the 1797 O-101a late die state from its earlier 1797 O-101 predecessor. As evident from Figure 2 and from the present coin itself, an additional crack then connects the two parallel cracks through the bottoms of ST in STATES.
In the opinion of this cataloger (JPA), the physical description of this coin points to it being a top-notch choice for two categories of collectors. First, its outstanding technical quality and aesthetic appeal make it an ideal candidate for the advanced collector assembling a high-grade type collection. While it falls just a tad short of being one of the finest certified Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollars, its amazing original toning, bold design detail, and impeccably preserved surfaces, along with the CAC endorsement, cannot be discounted. With respect to this last point, it is significant to note that the present offering is the finest of all 1796-1797 halves that have been awarded the CAC sticker!
Second, its extensively cracked reverse is sure to draw the attention of the early half dollar specialist who collects by variety and die state. A comparison of the cracks on the coin's reverse with those shown in Figure 2 indicates that all except one or two on the coin's lower part stand out fully.
Ex: Farish Baldenhofer Collection (Stack's, 11/1955), lot 676; Norweb Collection (Bowers and Merena, 11/1988), lot 3027; Dr. Haig A. Koshkarian Collection (American Numismatic Rarities, 3/2004), lot 76; Stack's (7/2008), lot 4261, where it realized $1,380,000, a record auction price for a Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollar.
From The Collection of Oliver Jung.
Extended terms, interest-free, are available on this lot. Please inquire to Credit@HA.com. (NGC ID# 24EC, Variety PCGS# 39265, Base 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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