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    Sharp and Spectacular Near-Gem 1795 Small Eagle Five Dollar
    Tied for Third Finest Known

    1795 $5 Small Eagle MS64 PCGS. B. 1-B, Breen-6412, Bass-3033, BD-3, High R.3. Star 11 overlies the Y in LIBERTY, wreath has four berries, upper palm leaf ends at foot of I in UNITED.
    Well, it was a start. The fledgling Mint first produced copper coins in 1793, silver coins in 1794, and its first gold coins--eagles and half eagles--in 1795. The red-headed stepchild of gold coinage--quarter eagles--would have to wait until late 1796.
    It is likely that mint personnel produced the larger eagles and half eagles as a matter of national prestige (and due to greater need), but it was slow going at first. The Mint first made the 1795 Small Eagle half eagles before switching to the 1795 Large Eagle (or Heraldic Eagle) reverse later in the year. But it reverted to the Small Eagle reverse for a few pieces made in 1798, an indication of just how in demand serviceable dies were. For the ten dollar or eagle denomination, the Small Eagle reverse lingered through 1797.
    None of the early half eagles or eagles bore their respective denominations. John Dannreuther points out in Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties that the term "denomination" is actually a misnomer:

    "Even though a gold eagle was denominated as a ten-dollar coin, our forefathers traded gold by the tale. The weight and purity were the only things important to merchants and individuals--money was gold, and gold was money. In most cases, transactions had to be settled in gold, especially where governments were involved. There really was no need for at first for a stated denomination on either gold (or silver) coins, because it was known that our coins would be under extreme scrutiny and would likely be assayed by foreign mints and others as to their weight and purity. However, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, the architects of the United States' monetary system, realized that a bimetallic system would afford this new country a more flexible currency, as both would be readily acceptable. Thus, the gold eagle was equal to 10 silver dollars, although eagles bore no denomination until their resumption of production in 1838."

    Dannreuther also mentions the fortunate happenstance that our forefathers made the national bird the eagle rather than the turkey that Benjamin Franklin favored, else we might be writing about half turkeys and double turkeys!
    It is worth noting that among silver coins, the presence or absence of a stamped denomination on the coins was also sporadic until well into the 1800s.
    In many ways the early half eagles and eagles were little different from the octagonal gold "ingots" representing fifty dollars in California gold, which would appear a half-century later, or the rectangular assay bars representing different weights and values of gold and silver. The early gold coinage, however, showed the advantages of a consistent design, a uniform value and shape, a convenient form, and issuance by the United States government, benefits that were enormous--and irreproducible in California until the opening of a branch mint there.
    The early Mint little cared what date a coin bore, and the reported quantities of coins made often failed to match the years stamped thereon. The Guide Book records a mintage of 8,707 coins for the initial-year 1795 half eagle. But the 1795 issues were created from 12 different die pairings. Dannreuther points out that the single 1796 issue used an overdated 1796/5 obverse die married to a reverse from 1795 BD-12, adding that "there is little doubt that some of the half eagles delivered in 1796 were dated 1795." Accordingly, the author estimates the total 1795 half eagles minted at between 8,707 and 12,106 pieces.
    Of those 12 die pairings the BD-3 is easily the most "common" of the series, although that term must be viewed within the context of this incredibly rare series. Dannreuther estimates that 175 to 225 pieces are known of the variety, out of an original mintage of perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 pieces. In terms of condition rarity, however, the present coin is another story altogether: Among all PCGS-certified 1795 Small Eagle half eagles, this coin is one of a half-dozen MS64 pieces, bested by just two others for finest certified, including the entire population of all 12 varieties (11/07).
    This piece has a short die crack from the obverse border to star 12. The reverse is nearly perfect, with only a short engraving line to the top of E and a tiny crack to the right top of T. Both sides have prominent center dots that are seldom visible as they are each positioned on the design highpoints and usually susceptible to slight wear. This is the second of three die uses for this obverse. The first use (B. 1-C, BD-2) has no trace of the obverse crack at star 12 and the third use (B. 1-A, BD-4) has the crack extending through star 12 into the field on some examples.
    Careful study of all die states for the 1795 Small Eagle coinage led Harry Bass, Jr. and John Dannreuther to the conclusion that Walter Breen's emission sequence was incorrect. The correct order of production for the first four 1795 half eagle varieties was B. 2-C, 1-C, 1-B, and 1-A, using Breen's numbering scheme (or BD-1, BD-2, BD-3, BD-4, to use Bass-Dannreuther's).
    Both sides of this Choice Mint State example have remarkable surfaces for the grade, with satiny greenish yellow-gold luster and a sharp strike. All design elements on each side are fully defined without any apparent weakness. While the grade is limited by a few faint hairlines, the overall appearance is spectacular. A small blemish, apparently present when this example was struck, appears at eye level in the right obverse field. An even smaller abrasion is present in the left obverse field, these last mentioned for pedigree purposes.
    From The Madison Collection.(Registry values: P5) (NGC ID# 25ND, PCGS# 8066)

    Weight: 8.75 grams

    Metal: 91.67% Gold, 8.33% Copper

    Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.

    View all of [The Madison Collection ]

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    Auction Dates
    January, 2008
    9th-12th Wednesday-Saturday
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