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Is the 1797 'Small Eagle' $10 Coin Often Forgotten?
By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink - May 8, 2007

Last week, I discussed the 1858 Eagle that no one talks about very often. This week, I will discuss a 1797 Eagle that people hardly talk about at all! The coin's title is even a little awkward to say, as an Eagle is a $10 gold coin, it is a 1797 'Small eagle' Eagle.

A 1797 Eagle with a 'Small Eagle' reverse is 'in the news' as the firm of Ira and Larry Goldberg will be offering one at auction on May 28. Before I came across the listing of this coin, it had been a very long time since I had given much thought to the 1797 $10 gold coins with the 'Small eagle' reverse (back of the coin). It would be fair to say that I had forgotten about this issue.

It is fairly valued in most major price guides. Indeed, in uncirculated grades, it is often priced nearly as high, or sometimes higher, than the famous and much rarer 1795 Eagle with 'Nine leaves.' The rarity of the 1797 'Small eagle' Eagle has certainly been recognized.
I have identified the coin that the Goldbergs will be offering as the Amon Carter 1797 'Small Eagle'!

The design of the 1797 'Small eagle' Eagle is unique in that no other Eagle has the same arrangement of stars on the obverse (front of the coin). There are twelve stars on the left and four on the right. It is thus easy to identify a 1797 'Small Eagle' without even seeing the reverse, as 1797 'Large eagle' Eagles have a different obverse star arrangement.

It is a little surprising that this date has never become famous. It seems that it is only discussed when a piece comes up for auction, and, even then, auction companies often devote only moderate catalogue space to it. No one seems to think of it as a 'trophy coin' to be 'showed off' by itself or as part of a group of rarities.

Most of the demand for it comes from collectors who are assembling sets of Bust Eagles, 1795 to 1804. Despite the absence of attention, auction prices realized for this date are often high. The 1797 'Small Eagle' Eagle does not seem to be undervalued in contrast to other gold rarities. In general, markets for early U.S. gold coins have been 'hot,' most of the time, from 2002 to the present. Auction prices for this date have increased substantially.

The 1797 'Small eagle' Eagle is much rarer than 1797 Eagles with the 'Heraldic' or 'Large' eagle motif on the reverse (back of the coin). The 1797 'Small eagle' that the Goldbergs will offer is graded “MS-63” by the Numismatic Guaranty Corp. (NGC). It is the only coin of this date so graded by NGC and none have been graded higher. The other leading service, the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), has graded one MS-60, one MS-62, and no other 1797 'Small Eagle' $10 gold coins above MS-60.

In 2006, an ANR cataloger, when cataloging another coin, said that the Amon Carter 1797 'Small Eagle' $10 was last auctioned in 2000, by Stack's. It is true that Stack's sold an uncertified example in Jan. 2000 for $135,125. I do not have a copy of that catalogue. I do have a copy of the Stack's catalogue of the Amon Carter collection that was sold in January 1984. Though the pictures in the Carter catalogue are nowhere near the quality of auction lot images often available in 2007, I am almost certain that I have matched the Carter catalogue pictures to the images in the Goldberg catalogue. Both are of the same 1797 'Small Eagle' $10 gold coin.

Norman Stack's description in 1984 is not inconsistent with an MS-63 grade in 2007. It is certainly very plausible that it is the finest known coin of this date.

I am aware of two NGC graded MS-62 examples that are definitely different coins. The coin that ANR (later merged with Stack's) auctioned in August 2006 and the coin that Heritage auctioned in January 2004 are distinct NGC graded MS-62 1797 'Small Eagle' $10 gold coins. Superior auctioned one in 1996 as well, but I do not have that catalogue and I do not know whether it was an earlier appearance of the 1797 Eagle that Heritage auctioned in January 2004 for $126,500.

The late Harry Bass had two 1797 'Small Eagle' $10 gold coins. One was retained to be part of the 'Core Collection,' and is on display at the ANA Museum in Colorado. The other has been auctioned three times, starting in 1999, by three different auction firms.

One experienced writer stated that “the lower grade piece was kept in the Bass Foundation Collection because it lacked the typical die crack on the obverse below 4:00.” This writer also cites a noted early Eagle specialist as saying that the 1797 'Small Eagle' that was auctioned in 1999 (and later) is of significantly higher quality than the one that was retained by the Harry Bass Foundation. I searched the website of this foundation and I found a fairly clear image of the 1797 'Small Eagle' that was retained as part of the “Core Collection.” In contrast to this writer's statement, the retained Bass 1797 does seem to have this die break. Perhaps there is a need to examine this coin 'in person' to determine the magnitude of the 'die break'?

Each coin is struck with two dies, one for the obverse and one for the reverse. When a die fractures, often due to stress, a raised line may appear on the coins that are struck during and after the die fractures. Such raised lines, or other shapes, that appear on the coins are termed 'die breaks.'

From the images of the retained 1797 'Small eagle' on the Bass Foundation's website, I got the impression that there is a good chance that the retained 1797 may grade above MS-60. Coins cannot be graded solely from images. The PCGS registry states that PCGS officials have “estimated” this coin would grade “MS-61” if it were submitted to PCGS.

It was an ANR cataloger who pointed out that the other Bass 1797 'Small eagle' Eagle has been auctioned three times. I did my own comparisons of auction catalogue illustrations, a procedure known as 'plate matching.'

I agree that the following three auction sales are all of the exact same Bass 1797 'Small eagle' Eagle. In October 1999, B&M (New Hampshire) sold it for $103,500. In July 2003, Heritage auctioned it for $184,000. In August 2006, ANR sold it for $276,000!

Discoveries of earlier auction appearances of the same coins are essential to the process of estimating the rarity of an issue, and contribute to a relatively more accurate interpretation of the data published by PCGS and NGC. This Bass 1797 'Small eagle' Eagle had three different grades in each of its three recent auction appearances. In 1999, it was PCGS graded “AU-58.” By 2003, it was NGC graded MS-61. Before August 2006, it upgraded again to NGC MS-62!

So far, I am unable to identify a pedigree for the NGC graded MS-62 1797 that Heritage sold for $126,500, in Jan. 2004. I have tentatively determined that it is not the Richmond, Norweb, Eliasberg, or Garrett pieces. The Heritage cataloger did not provide any clues. If a dealer consigned it, though, the cataloger might not have known anything about the pedigree.

I am not aware of any other 1797 'Small Eagle' $10 gold coins that grade MS-60 or above. Three different certified “AU-58” grade examples have been auctioned over the past three years.

The Richmond 1797 'Small Eagle' $10 is NGC graded AU-58. The Richmond Collection, auctioned by DLRC in 2004-05, was missing only one major variety in its set of Eagles from 1795 to 1933, a 1795 with 'Nine Leaves.'

The cataloger of the Richmond I sale, Ron Guth, makes no mention of the Richmond 1797 Eagle's pedigree. My research suggests that it is not the Norweb, Eliasberg, or Garrett pieces.

In January 2005, B&M (California) auctioned a PCGS graded “AU-58” 1797 'Small Eagle' coin, for $93,150. It, too, was sold without any mention of pedigree. I did not see the coin, and the online images are a little fuzzy. As best as I can tell, it is not any of the other 1797 'Small Eagle' Eagles mentioned above or below.

In August 2004, B&M (CA) offered a NGC graded “AU-58” 1797 'Small eagle' Eagle, with no pedigree information. Though I have never seen it, I am almost certain that it is the same Eagle that Heritage sold for $75,900 in May 2003, at which time it was PCGS graded “AU-55.” I also believe, though I am not near being certain, that it is the exact same coin that Superior auctioned in Feb. 2000 for $42,550.

In January 2005, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded AU-55 1797 'Small Eagle' $10 gold coin, for $80,500. The cataloger reports that it was from the consignment of the “Cincinnati Collection,” and provides no additional pedigree information. My research suggests that it is the Norweb piece that B&M (NH) auctioned in New York in March 1988.

A while ago, catalogers at Heritage pointed out that another NGC graded AU-55 1797 'Small Eagle' $10 gold coin is from the Garrett collection. It was auctioned by Bowers & Ruddy in Oct. 1980. The Heritage online archives reveal that it was NGC graded AU-55 when it was auctioned in August 1996 and, again, in March 1998. Unfortunately, these two listings in the archives are not accompanied by images, which would help in my efforts to identify more recently offered 1797 Eagles.

The Goldbergs auctioned an NGC graded AU-53 1797 'Small Eagle' in Feb. 2002 for $41,400. More recently, in Sept. 2006, ANR auctioned a PCGS graded AU-53 1797 'Small Eagle' $10 for $109,250. The ANR cataloger revealed that it had “been off the market for decades.”

A mystery that remains is the whereabouts of the Eliasberg 1797 'Small Eagle' $10 gold coin. Louis Eliasberg built the greatest and most complete collection of U.S coins of all time. His 1797 'Small Eagle' Eagle was graded “EF-40” back in 1982, and it was formerly in the very famous collections of John Clapp and John Mills. The 1982 catalogue illustrations do not seem to match any of the coins mentioned above.

Among collections of Eagles sold in the last quarter-century or so, the Eliasberg, Norweb, Bass and Richmond collections are in their own league. The late Amon Carter had a fantastic collection of Philadelphia Mint Eagles, and many gold rarities of other denominations. I was not surprised when I discovered that the piece that the Goldbergs are offering is the Carter 1797 'Small eagle' Eagle.

How rare is the 1797 'Small Eagle' Eagle? It is very likely that there are fewer than fifty in existence. Could there be fewer than twenty-five? Maybe it will become more famous in the future?

© 2007 Greg Reynolds

Publication Date: 05/08/2007