The Curiosity of 1796/5 Half Eagles
By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink
Half Eagles dated 1796/5 are always popular with collectors. A ‘date’ is different from a ‘year.’ The term ‘date’ has a special meaning in the field of coin collecting, and the 1796/5 half eagle is an overdate that is a ‘date’! As it happens, it is the only date in the $5 gold series of the year ‘1796.’ There is not a ‘normal date’ 1796 half eagle. If there were, then 1796 and 1796/5 would be different dates!
Half Eagles dated 1796/5 are ‘in the news’ as B&M just auctioned two in Baltimore on March 20th, and the Goldbergs auctioned one in February. As 1796/5 half eagles are very rare, the appearance of three high-grade examples at auction in less than six weeks is extraordinary.
United States $5 gold coins are termed ‘half eagles.’ These were first minted in 1795. Except for some non-proof commemoratives minted since 1986, business strike half eagles were last made in 1929. Proof and non-proof commemorative half eagles are a separate topic.
What is curious about 1796/5 half eagles? First, all 1796 half eagles are overdates. Second, there is strong demand for this particular date, even though it is extremely difficult to collect early half eagles ‘by date.’ Third, most of the greatest collections of all time did not contain a choice uncirculated 1796/5 half eagle, and several were missing this date altogether! Fourth, there are scant auction records of choice uncirculated examples, and some of the few that supposedly exist seem to have spent their whole lives in the shadows. Fifth, 1796 half eagles are the object of special demand by collectors of 1796-year sets. Sixth, although there is strong demand for 1796/5 half eagles, these get very little attention in auction catalogues, in conversations, or in the media. Collectors tend to focus on the 1795 half eagles, and there is much talk about the 1798 ‘Small Eagle,’ which is a Great Rarity.
Though there are several varieties of 1795 half eagles, and two distinct types. Both types share the same obverse (front) design. On the first type, the reverse (back) depicts a so-called ‘Small Eagle.’ It is so labeled because it was later replaced by a reverse design with a larger ‘Heraldic eagle.’
Someone who reads price guides, and avoids more educational materials, may have the incorrect impression that the ‘Small Eagle’ and ‘Heraldic Eagle’ types were minted simultaneously. After all, there are 1795 ‘Small Eagle’ $5 gold coins and 1795 ‘Heraldic Eagle’ $5 gold coins. Likewise, there were 1798 ‘Small Eagle’ and 1798 ‘Heraldic Eagle’ $5 gold coins. In reality, the ‘Small Eagle’ type was minted first, and the 1795 ‘heraldic’ eagle type coins were minted later than 1795. (Remember that a date is different from a year, and the ‘year’ on a coin sometimes does not indicate the year in which it was minted.)
All 1796/5 half eagles have the ‘Small Eagle’ reverse (back). These were probably made in late 1796 or early 1797. An obverse die that was originally intended for use in 1795 was modified.
The obverse design that was employed from 1795 to early 1807 has been given many different names. Clearly, the portrait is of a ‘Capped Bust’ of Miss Liberty that is facing to the observer’s right. Depending upon how the term ‘date’ is applied, there are four or five different dates of the Capped Bust, Small Eagle type (1795, 1796/5, two varieties of 1797s, and 1798), and fourteen to eighteen of the Capped Bust, Heraldic Eagle type.
Of all denominations of U.S. coins, half eagles are the most difficult to complete ‘by date.’ There are numerous Great Rarities in the series. Among the pre-1808 issues, it is not clear which varieties should be considered separate dates. Some varieties are unobtainable, like the unique ‘normal date’1797 ‘Heraldic Eagle’ with fifteen obverse stars.
Most demand for 1796/5 half eagles comes from type collectors. In circulated grades, the 1796/5 is more expensive than the 1795 ‘Small Eagle,’ but not much more! As both dates are very rare, some type collectors will grab an appealing 1796/5 when the opportunity to do so presents itself. Half eagles dated 1797, of any variety, are much rarer than either the 1795 or the 1796/5.
While type collectors will take either a 1795 or a 1796/5, collectors of 1796-year sets must obtain a 1796/5. Sydney and Ruth Kalmbach put together a silver and gold 1796-year set. In addition to two 1796/5 half eagles, they had a 1796 half dime, a 1796 dime, two 1796 quarters, a 1796 Silver Dollar, a 1796 ‘No Stars’ quarter eagle ($2½ gold coin), and a 1796 eagle ($10 gold). In March, B&M-Spectrum sold the Kalmbach collection and other consignments in Baltimore.
Both of the Kalmbach 1796/5 half eagles were certified and encapsulated by the Professional Coin Grading Service. The first, PCGS graded AU-55, realized $88,850, and the other, PCGS EF-45, $48,300. Laura Sperber reports that her firm was the underbidder for the first one.
John Whitney specialized in 1796 dated U.S. coins. He emphasized that 1796 was the first year in which all of the denominations of early U.S. coinage were made for circulation. Indeed, dimes, quarters, and quarter eagles ($2½ gold coins) were first minted in 1796. Half dollars and silver dollars had been produced since 1794. Half cents and large cents had been minted since 1793. After 1796, the next new denomination, $1 gold, was not introduced until 1849. The $20 gold piece began to circulate in 1850.
Whitney’s 1796 collection contained ninety-two coins, including two 1796/5 half eagles. Neither was certified when Stack’s auctioned his collection in 1999. The first realized $120,750, and Whitney’s second 1796/5, $103,500. Both pieces are worth much more in the present.
His first 1796/5, from Rarcoa’s session of Auction ’82, was thought by Whitney to be the finest known. The second was purchased privately by Whitney in October 1994. A Massachusetts dealer was the successful bidder for both coins.
The Numismatic Guaranty Corp. (NGC) has awarded an MS-64 grade to four 1796/5 half eagles, and one has been graded MS-65. I suspect that these five represent only two or three different coins.
The two Whitney pieces are the only 1796/5 half eagles that I have seen that could have been graded MS-64 by NGC. I thought that one of the two could possibly be certified as “MS-65,” but I did not then think that it was likely.
An East Coast dealer recently told me that remembers that it was, in fact, graded MS-65 by NGC. Though he never owned it, he saw it in an NGC holder shortly after the Whitney sale in May 1999. My guess is that then, or at some point since, the other Whitney 1796/5 has probably been graded MS-64 by NGC. The identities of the other 1796/5 half eagles that have been NGC graded MS-64 is puzzling, and I have no information about the lone 1796/5 that the PCGS has graded MS-63.
Louis Eliasberg, Sr., formed the greatest U.S. coin collection of all time. The Eliasberg 1796/5 was cataloged as “AU-55” in 1982, and has since been “estimated” by PCGS to grade “AU-58.” The Garrett 1796/5 was cataloged as “EF-40” and sold for $14,000 in 1979. The Norweb piece grades less than MS-60.
There are two Harry Bass 1796/5 half eagles. In the Bass 2 sale, a PCGS graded AU-53 1796/5 realized $26,450, in October 1999. The website of the Harry Bass Foundation indicates that one 1796/5 has been retained as part of the “Core Collection.” On the PCGS website, it is “estimated” that this Bass 1796/5 grades “MS-61.”
The Richmond collection, auctioned by DLRC in 2004 and ’05, lacked a 1796/5 half eagle. John J. Pittman also did not have one. The Garrett and Eliasberg pieces are the only two that Walter Breen specifically mentions in his encyclopedia, published in 1988. The Auction ’90 extravaganza was full of gold rarities. Yet, the only 1796/5 half eagle included was a very fine example in the Stack’s session.
The legendary collection of Amon Carter was auctioned by Stack’s in 1984, and is known primarily for silver dollars and gold rarities. Carter had six different varieties of half eagles minted prior to 1800. He did not, however, have a 1796/5!
There have been several auction appearances of NGC graded MS-62 examples over the past seven years. It is not clear, though, how many of these are truly different coins, or whether any of them could have upgraded to MS-63 or -64?
In February, the firm of Ira & Larry Goldberg auctioned a 1796/5 that is NGC graded MS-62. It is certainly better than many other NGC graded MS-62 gold coins from the 1790s. I have a favorable impression of this coin. It realized $143,750.
In March 2006, ANR offered a 1796/5 that is NGC graded MS-63. I did not attend this auction. The ANR cataloger identifies it as the 1796/5 from the Floyd Starr collection that Stack’s auctioned in October 1992. It sold for $207,000, which could be an auction record for the date? Then, the ANR cataloger said that the NGC had graded three 1796/5 half eagles above MS-63. Now, there are five! Could this one have been upgraded to MS-64?
How rare is this date overall? Before February 2007, the cataloger for the Goldbergs estimated that there are “80 to 100” 1796/5 half eagles in existence, in all grades. In 2006, an ANR cataloger said sixty to seventy-two. In 1992, a cataloger at Stack’s said that “fewer than seventy-five are believed to have survived.” At this time, I do not have an estimate of my own. The rarity, pedigrees, and condition rankings of 1796/5 half eagles are much more of a mystery than those of most other early gold issues. I am very curious.
© 2007 Greg Reynolds
About the Author
Greg Reynolds is a numismatic writer, researcher and analyst. Greg has examined almost all of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest type coins and patterns, He has extensively researched the pedigrees of important numismatic properties, and he has written about and analyzed numerous auctions, private sales and collections.