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    1908 Half Eagle, Matte PR66
    Top-Notch First-Year Example

    1908 $5 PR66 PCGS. The 1908-dated Indian Head half eagles and quarter eagles, designed by Bela Lyon Pratt, completed the series of four gold denominations updated for a new century, part of President Theodore Roosevelt's sweeping redesign initiative which began with the Augustus Saint-Gaudens ten and twenty dollar introductions of 1907. The Pratt designs, launched in 1908 after Saint-Gaudens' death, were a follow-on to those debut coins. The coinage redesign launched by Roosevelt, carried on many other shoulders, would extend to new artistic motifs in 1909 for the Lincoln cent, the Buffalo nickel in 1913, the silver dime, quarter, and half dollar in 1916, and finally the Peace silver dollar of 1921.

    The unusual sunken design of the Pratt quarter eagle and half eagle designs was certainly not without its detractors -- even for the circulating coinage, much less the proofs. The designs are sometimes called simply "incuse," but that would mean merely designs sunken below the plane of the surfaces. In fact, the Pratt designs are raised back up to the plane of the surfaces within a sunken panel, forming the background for the raised relief. This type of relief is technically called "coelanaglyptic relief" (from the Greek coel-, cavity; ana-, against; -glyph, glypto, carving, engraving); the Italians call it cavo rilievo, "hollow relief."

    Besides the usual "resistance to change" that almost any new coin design encounters, the Pratt proof coins, and all the gold proofs of 1908, met with another obstacle, the near-universal dislike among collectors for the heavy matte proof texture, one that was popular among European mints but new to American numismatists. The Mint had been tinkering with the proof finish on gold since 1902, when the all-brilliant format was introduced, but the debut of new gold coinage gave Mint officials carte blanche to try new textures (the new designs were, in any case, completely unsuited to the old brilliant or contrasted formats).

    Today, the reaction of collectors, with hindsight as their ally, is quite different. The matte proof gold coins from the early 20th century are prized for their beauty and recognized as the crème de la crème of coinage art. The 1908 half eagle proofs saw a mintage of some 167 pieces, but the mintage plummeted in the following year to 78 coins. This makes the 1908 doubly popular as a type and first-year-of-issue coin.

    Although the 1908 is the most often-seen proof issue in the series, at the Premium Gem grade of the present piece, it is still quite elusive. PCGS has seen more than five dozen submissions from PR61 to PR67+, but only 13 are in PR66 (including one PR66+), and only two PR67s are numerically finer (9/13).

    This example shows a lighter, moderate reddish-orange color than many survivors of the issue, some of which are quite dark and mustard to olive in color. No interruptions occur in the uniform matte surfaces, which are remarkably well-preserved. For pedigree purposes, we only note a single tiny dark fleck left of the U(NITED). This is beyond quibbling, however, as this is a top-notch example of the issue.(Registry values: N7079) (NGC ID# BYJ6, PCGS# 8539)

    Weight: 8.36 grams

    Metal: 90% Gold, 10% Copper

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

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    November, 2013
    1st-3rd Friday-Sunday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 12
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 1,657

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