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    Description

    1797 Small Eagle Five, BD-3, 16 Stars, MS61
    The Sole Finest Certified at NGC
    Only 20 to 25 Examples Believed Known

    1797 $5 Small Eagle, 16 Stars, BD-3, R.6, MS61 NGC. Ex: Hilt Collection. Bass-Dannreuther Die State a/c. The Hilt specimen is from an earlier stage of this late die state than was the similarly attributed Bass coin that was offered in Bowers and Merena's October 1999 sale of the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Collection, Part II. The heavy crack from the lower rim to the eagle's right (facing) leg and the lighter crack from the tailfeathers to the second A in AMERICA are both present, but the other two cracks - through the M in AMERICA and between the IT in UNITED - are not yet formed. This stage is very similar to that of the Josiah Lilly coin in the Smithsonian Institution, also a die state a/c representative. The other Smithsonian example of this variety, the Mint Cabinet coin, is in a much later, terminal stage of this final die state. No perfect die state coins are currently known, and it is likely that the first reverse crack - from the eagle's tailfeathers to the bottom edge of the wing - occurred during the hardening process.

    BD-3 is an extremely rare variety in the absolute sense, but it is remarkably one of the more plentiful varieties of the 1797 half eagle. There are seven varieties known, including four Small Eagle die marriages and three Large Eagle pairings (the Large Eagle coins were possibly struck in 1798 - it was a common practice at the early Mint to use production dies well into the next year if they were still serviceable, thus reducing manufacturing costs). Of the Small Eagle varieties, BD-4 - unique - is the undisputed rarest, followed by BD-2 with eight to 12 pieces believed known, and then by BD-1 with 10 to 15 coins extant and BD-3 with 20 to 25 examples known (including the two pieces permanently housed in the Smithsonian Institution). The Large eagle varieties are even rarer, with BD-5 and BD-6 each represented by just one coin, and BD-7 surviving in a total of only 16 to 20 pieces. This makes a total of just 57 to 75 1797-dated half eagles known in all varieties and all grades, with the Small Eagle type represented by just 39 to 53 pieces, all varieties included. It is little wonder, then, that the offering of any 1797 half eagle at auction draws substantial bidder attention from not only variety specialists, but also type and date collectors, even if the coin is of one of the more "plentiful" varieties, such as this BD-3 representative.

    This is the first of three uses for this obverse die, which was later employed for the unique BD-4 Small Eagle variety and then again for the also unique BD-5 Large Eagle die marriage. This is also the only 1797 obverse with 16 stars, the extra star apparently added to a 15 star obverse below the hair curl near the date to recognize Tennessee's admission into the Union as the 16th state. It became apparent, however, that the rapidly growing country would not permit the coins to accurately exhibit one star for each state, and shortly after this the number of stars was reduced to a fixed total of 13, representing the 13 original colonies. This reverse die is seen here in its only use, as the connecting die cracks that develop quickly in the late die state ultimately proved terminal.

    Our archives show just six prior appearances of this variety, out of only nine 1797 Small Eagle fives offered in the past 10 years. The last example, offered in our 2014 FUN Signature sale, was only a net-graded XF coin. The last time we had the pleasure of offering a Mint State example of this rare variety was back in our June 2004 Long Beach sale, where an NGC MS60 coin brought $126,500. This piece is both technically and visually superior to that coin, showcasing original honey-gold patina with deeper coppery-orange overtones. The eagle's breast and the central hair curls are not fully brought up, but the remainder of the devices and the peripheral stars are sharply struck, set against substantial semiprooflike mirroring in the fields. To see this amount of reflectivity on such a late die state coin might normally be unusual, but this reverse failed early in the dies' usage, and the surfaces were never worn to the point of producing distinctive mint frost. No obtrusive abrasions are present, and we instead note just some minor, evenly dispersed chatter in the fields as being the cause for the MS61 grade from NGC.

    This piece is decidedly one of the finest Small Eagle 1797 half eagles we have ever offered, and is also distinctive as the finest BD-3 representative we have handled. NGC reports having certified just seven examples of this 16-star obverse variant, with just two in Mint State and the present coin being the sole finest; PCGS reports another MS61 example, but it is uncertain if that is in fact a different coin (11/14).

    Few opportunities to bid on this date let alone this variety, ever surface. The serious specialist should bid accordingly to secure this truly remarkable early gold rarity.
    From The Liberty USA Collection. (NGC ID# BFWY, Variety PCGS# 519865, Base PCGS# 8068)

    Weight: 8.75 grams

    Metal: 91.67% Gold, 8.33% Copper


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

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    Auction Dates
    January, 2015
    7th-12th Wednesday-Monday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 14
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
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