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Unique Items: 1807 Draped Bust Half Dollar, SP65

1807 50C Specimen 65 PCGS. O-109, unique as a specimen strike.

Unique Specimen 1807 Bust half DollarThe superb, talented engraver Joseph Wright, designer of the Liberty Cap cent and half cent, was the first full-time engraver hired at the Philadelphia Mint. Tragically, he died in September 1793 during one of the annual yellow fever epidemics that killed so many early Philadelphia residents.

Robert Scot was hired only two months later as chief engraver, a post he held until his death in 1823. Scot was born in 1744 and was already 50 years old when he began working for the Mint. Although Scot was later criticized for his modest talent and slow work style, among his improvements at the Mint were the use of device punches; for example, the whole head of Liberty, so that only the date, stars, and letters required addition to the working dies.

By 1807 Scot, then 63, faced serious competition from a younger rival, John Reich, who was much more talented judging from each man’s artistic accomplishments. Breen writes in his Complete Encyclopedia:

John Reich sold himself into indentured service to escape to the USA from the Napoleonic Wars. As early as 1801 his name came to official attention as one of the finest engravers in the country. Opposition from Robert Scot prevented the Mint from hiring him except for occasional odd temporary assignments. But in 1807, Scot’s health (for which read failing eyesight) was a source of serious concern to officialdom; accordingly, the Mint hired Reich as assistant engraver at a pittance of $600 per year.

“Reich’s first assignment was to create new designs for gold and silver denominations: an insult to Scot. The first ones to benefit from Reich’s attention were the denominations most in demand at banks: half dollars and half eagles.”

In 1796 and 1797 only the the Draped Bust (a.k.a. Fillet Head) obverse was combined with the Small Eagle reverse, which was in turn replaced in 1801 by the Heraldic Eagle reverse, an imitation of the Great Seal of the United States. Both designs are attributed to Robert Scot. In 1807, when Reich joined the Mint as assistant engraver, the half dollar designs were modified yet again, this time to the familiar and ubiquitous Capped Bust or Turban Head design. Liberty now faced left and wore the Martha Washington-style “mob cap” on her head. The reverse features a more naturalistic eagle, although it bears a small shield attached to the center of its breast.

This special coin is accompanied by comments from David Hall and from PCGS co-founder John Dannreuther. David prefaced J.D.’s comments by stating:

“The United States Mint began selling proof sets to the public for a premium price starting in 1860. Prior to that time, starting approximately 1817 and certainly in 1821 as there are examples in the Smithsonian, the Mint struck what we would recognize as proof strikings on request and sold them for face value.

“From 1792 to 1817 (or 1821), the Mint did not strike what we would now call proofs. They did however, strike some coins that were so carefully and unusually struck that PCGS calls them ‘Specimens’ and designates them ‘SP.’

“The Reed Hawn/Queller 1807 Draped Bust Half Dollar graded SP65 by PCGS is one of these special coins. It has so much design detail and such unusual surfaces that one could only conclude that some special care was taken when this coin was struck. PCGS founder John Dannreuther did extensive research on this special coin and came to some interesting conclusions, which he subsequently published.”

John gave an even more detailed explanation of the special nature of this coin.

“I have studied this coin on several occasions. I believe the concentric lines are some type of polishing. For those unfamiliar with this coin, it is one of the most unusual early US coins in existence. The surfaces are like no other Draped Bust silver issue. One of my ideas (I wrote an article about this coin several years ago) included the possibility of this coin being some type of experimental striking.

“It is a very unusual coin. There was no reducing machine to leave concentric lines, as the reducing machine was not installed until 1837. This led to the conclusion that the concentric lines were some type of polishing. Others may come to a different conclusion, of course, as I came to the polishing conclusion because I could think of no other reason for the lines. The coin has the deepest prooflike surface that I have seen on a Draped Bust half dollar.
“When first shown the Reed Hawn/Queller 1807 half dollar, my response was stunned silence. I had known about this coin since the 1970s, around the time Walter Breen published his work on Proof coinage. Someone had come up to me at a coin show in the spring of 2004 and asked had I seen it, to which my response was ‘no,’ but knew it just sold in auction and hoped for the opportunity to view it.

“Sometimes, coins that are famous are a disappointment upon viewing them, but this coin did not fall into that category. I have never seen a Draped Bust half dollar that looked like this coin–not before or since. It had deeply mirrored surfaces, especially on the obverse. Upon magnification, the reason became apparent.

“There were incuse lines on the obverse, which are the result of burnishing the planchet before striking. Burnishing lines are incuse on the coin, while die polish is raised on the coins, as they are incuse on the die. Of course, these dies were also polished, the obverse seemingly more so than the reverse die. It is possible the reverse planchet was also burnished, but the evidence is no longer visible. The increased striking pressure likely applied to this coin may have obliterated the burnishing lines on the reverse die.

“It was obvious that this coin received special care, in both its striking and preservation. It had never jangled about with others of its kind. The Draped Bust series is notorious for striking weakness in the hair of the obverse and the eagle on the reverse for the years 1806 and 1807, however, this coin is the exception. Prior to 1817, PCGS uses the prefix SP for those special coins or specimens, while Mint terminology of the era most often called them Master coins. These equate to Proof coinage of later years, when the Mint equipment allowed superior coins to be struck. These include the introduction of the tight close collar in 1827, the rim in 1828, and steam presses in 1836. Prior to these innovations, the quality of the special coinage is uneven. This coin is an exception to that adage, too, as its strike and surface quality are nearly equal to the post-1827 coinage.

“Whether one calls this a one-sided Proof, a Specimen, a Master coin, or a Special Strike, ‘it is what it is.’ That was the title of the article I wrote about this example in 2004. In that article, I speculated that because the 1807 was the last year of issue that it was analogous to the one-sided Proof Large Size 1829 half eagle, which was also the last year of its type. They possibly were struck as examples of the last of the series.

“Just like the 1829 half eagle, the 1807 Draped Bust half dollar had the obverse planchet burnished, the obverse die polished, and was specially struck–possibly on the press used for dollars. It shows evidence of double striking on the obverse and has the sharpest stars of any Draped Bust half dollar seen. The 1807 half dollar examined shows no evidence of contact with other coins, thus leading to the conclusion that not only was it specially struck, it has been carefully handled by its owners. It is the most spectacular Draped Bust Heraldic Eagle half dollar I have ever seen! It is what it is.

“Perhaps, it is a stretch to suppose that the 1807 half dollar and the 1829 half eagle exist for similar reasons. There are no Mint records to support this conclusion, but there are no Mint records of most Proof coinage prior to 1859, when the production figures were first published. The only reason I can imagine to have struck this numismatic caviar would have been to preserve examples of discontinued coin series.

“We may never know why these coins were struck, but collectors today are lucky, as they can examine what was the pinnacle of the Mint’s output during its formative years. We can thank the early Mint personnel, especially Henry Voight (Assistant Coiner 1796-1814, Chief Coiner 1814-1839) for the striking and preservation of these treasures.”

The obverse has an even layer of golden-blue patina, and the mirrored surfaces flash brightly through the color. The reverse is more deeply toned, with most of that side exhibiting cobalt-blue with a rose-colored center and brilliance at the top. This is a unique opportunity to acquire a coin from the earliest years of the Philadelphia Mint, a coin that was obviously made for some special purpose.

Ex: Reed Hawn Collection (Stack’s, 8/1973), lot 24; Stack’s (3/1996), lot 359; 65th Anniversary Sale (Stack’s, 10/2000), lot 902, misattributed as an O-108; Queller Family Collection of Half Dollars (Stack’s, 10/2002), lot 72. (#6080)

This Coin Is being Offered at Heritag’e 2009 January Orlando, FL FUN Auction #1121

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