1797 Draped Bust Small Eagle Half Dollar

The story of the Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollars (1796 15 Stars, 1796 16 Stars, and 1797) are all closely related.

Anytime you see a 1797 fifty-cent coin, stop for a moment and take note, for it belongs to a very exclusive club called the Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollars. Minted only in 1796 and 1797 and in meager quantities, this type is acknowledged as one of the rarest and most eagerly pursued United States coin groups.(1)

Exactly how many 1797 half dollars were minted is not clear. Mint records lumped the entire output of Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollars into one figure: 3,918 pieces. For that matter, the number of 1796 halves is unknown likewise.(2)

What is certain is all 3,918 were issued in three separate deliveries in 1797 to a single depositor: The Bank of the United States. These coins remained with the Bank for years, as backing for its paper money. Numismatists speculate that some of the small number today of surviving Mint State specimens were spared from the rigors of circulation by Bank employees who recognized the rarity of the two-year type and held aside examples for posterity.

Because half dollars were frequently the denomination requested by bullion depositors during the early years of the United States Mint, it may seem odd so few were made in 1796-97 and none from 1798-1800.

One explanation is that silver dollars and other denominations were the predominant requests by depositors during these years, to the exclusion of half dollars. A yellow fever epidemic shut down the Philadelphia Mint from August to November of 1797, and this may have had a limiting effect on half dollar production that year as well.

For the record, there are two die varieties of the 1797 half dollar. In numismatic parlance, they are called O-101 and O-102, and are differentiated by the peripheral lettering on the reverse relative to the wreath.(3) Of the two, the O-102 is the rarest, but most buyers of 1796-1797 half dollars pay little heed to die varieties, focusing rather on obtaining a representative of the two-year small eagle type.(4)

The current generation of collectors reveres the 1796-97 Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollars as classic rarities. We’re not the first to feel that way. In January 1868, Mason's Coin and Stamp Collector's Magazine spotlighted the extreme scarcity of the 1797 half dollar(5) (he could have justifiably mentioned the 1796 as well).

A century from now they’ll be singing the same praises.

Estimated survivors in all grades: 175
? 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.
Learn more at PCGS.
PCGS Rarity Scale: 7.2
? 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.
Learn more at PCGS.
Click HERE to check for availability on eBay**

Preview of eBay selection (the HERE link above may yield a few more 1797 half dollars for sale):

1797 Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollar pics Classic rarity 1797 Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollar
Trendline Avg = 9.94 CLASSIC RARITY
Last updated 9-2-23
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1. Heritage Auctions.  1797 50C. O-101a.  Aug 2010 Auction.

2. Heritage Auctions.  1797 50C. O-101a.  Jan 2023 Auction.

3. Heritage Auctions.  1797 50C. O-101a.  Aug 2010 Auction.

4. NGC.  1797 50C MS.

5. Heritage Auctions.  1797 50C. O-101a.  Jan 2023 Auction.

**Many very fine coin dealers sell on eBay. At any point in time, there may be over one million search results for United States coins. This includes quite a few of the recommendations on our Key Date Coin List.

If you’re thinking about purchasing a rare coin, eBay is certainly worth a look. For your convenience, the links from this site to eBay are coded to bring up only coins certified by PCGS and NGC.

As is always, always the case, never buy a valuable coin from a seller whose trustworthiness cannot be verified. Learn more about this at our chapter Best Places to Buy Coins, which also has a section on doing business on eBay.

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Coin images by Stack's Bowers Galleries.