Of all the silver coin design types in the United States series, the Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollars rate among the rarest and most desirable to collectors.(1)
This type lasted for just two years, from 1796 to 1797. According to the Mint’s delivery warrants, all of them were delivered to a single customer (the Bank of the United States) in 1797.(2) The number of pieces dated 1796 and 1797 is open for debate because their production totals were lumped together. In total, only a paltry 3,918 mintage was recorded for the Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollar.(3)
There are two major varieties of the 1796 half dollar: one having 15 obverse stars (called the Overton-101 die variety) and the other with 16 stars (O-102). The 1797 has a 15 star obverse that was paired with two separate reverses.
For 1796 half dollars, evidence suggests the 16-star variety is scarcer than the 15-star, but are priced about the same because most buyers are seeking a “must-have” representative of the Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollar group to round out their advanced U.S. coinage type sets, regardless of a specific date. Their 1797 compadre is similarly priced for the same reason.(4)(5)
Numismatists explain an additional star was added to the obverse design to recognize the June 1, 1796 admission of Tennessee to the Union as the 16th state. But if some Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollars were struck in 1797 when there were already 16 states, why did any coins of this type have 15 stars?(6)
That’s because the 15-star dies were engraved before talk began of statehood looming for Tennessee. Where the date was to be placed, the Mint engraver punched “179 “. At the time the die was placed into service, he completed the date by adding the last digit. Numismatic scholars speculate some half dollars were struck in 1796, but did not exit the Mint until the 1797 deliveries were made.(7)
From this, we can conclude the 1796 15 Star obverse and the 1797 obverse were prepared months before the Volunteer State joined the Union.
Next Question: Why were there no 1796 Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollars delivered until February 28, 1797? That’s because silver bullion depositors were requesting other denominations in 1796, mostly silver dollars. Also, there may have been plenty of Flowing Hair half dollars of 1794-95 stockpiled to satisfy demand for 50-cent coins.
Thank goodness individuals from generations long gone understood the rarity and importance of the 1796-97 half dollars and preserved a relatively high percentage of them for us today. Less than 300 examples(8) are estimated to be extant, but that’s quite a few when the starting number of just 3,918 is considered.(9)
Few coin types attract informed (and well-heeled) collectors as does the 1796-1797 trio of half dollars. Rarity, demand, history, legendary… superlatives have been attached to these special coins ever since the beginning of United States numismatics.
|Estimated survivors in all grades: 40
? The survivor estimate from PCGS represents an average of one or more experts' opinions as to how many examples survive of a particular coin in all grades. Survival estimates include coins that are raw, certified by PCGS, and certified by other grading services.
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|PCGS Rarity Scale: 8.7
? The 'PCGS CoinFacts Rarity Scale' assesses the relative rarity of all U.S. coins, based on estimated surviving examples. The scale runs from 1.0 to 10.0. The higher the number, the rarer the coin.
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