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Collecting Draped Bust Dimes

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #218

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds ………..

As 1796 is the first year of dimes, which were a novel and mysterious denomination at the time, and because 1796 dimes are less scarce than 1797 dimes, 1796 dimes have always been much more popular than 1797 dimes, though both are of the same Draped Bust, Small Eagle Design type. The reality, though, is that 1797 dimes are much rarer overall, especially in regard to coins that grade above EF-45 (on a scale from 01 to 70). Next week, Heritage will offer four 1797 dimes in the official auction of the CSNS Convention near Chicago. One of these four is PCGS graded “MS-62” and another is PCGS graded “AU-58,” extremely high grades for 1797 dimes.

There are two major varieties of 1797 dimes, each of which is often collected ‘as if’ it is a distinct date. Beginners may wish to read a past article on ‘Collecting Dimes’ or a piece on assembling a type set of silver dimes. My discussions of 1822 Capped Bust Dimes and the unrecognized importance of 1846 Liberty Seated Dimes are relevant. It makes sense for collectors to consider the relative rarity and availability of various classic dimes, especially when collectors are thinking about starting sets of particular series. The values of some coins very much relate to how they are compared to other relevant coins.

There are two 1797-Thirteen Stars Dimes ‘in the news,’ one is PCGS graded “AU-58” and the other is non-gradable. The other is in an NGC holder that indicates that this 1797 has the ‘details’ of a ‘Very Good’ grade coin. (Very Good grades are 08 and 10 on the scale from 01 to 70).

1797 Draped Bust DimeThe main 1797 dime ‘in the news’ is PCGS graded “MS-62” and has a sticker of approval from the CAC. For a 1797 dime, 62 is a very high grade. As is mentioned herein, well circulated 1796 and 1797 dimes do not cost a fortune, much less than those that grade above Fine-12!

The second 1797-Sixteen Stars Dime in this CSNS auction will not be as expensive as the just mentioned ‘MS-62’ grade coin, though it is valuable. It is PCGS graded “VF-20” and is in the collection of the late Donald Bently. Recently, I wrote about the Bently 1927-D Saint Gaudens Double Eagle ($20 gold coin).

I. Designs and Major Varieties

The rarer of the two varieties of 1797 dimes has thirteen stars on the obverse (front of the coin). The other has sixteen stars on the obverse (front), one star for each of the sixteen States that then constituted ‘the union.’ It would not have been practical, though, to add a star to the obverse design of dimes on each occasion that another State was added to the union of the United States of America.

The use of thirteen stars in a U.S. coin design refers to the original thirteen States. Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollars of about the same design were minted in 1796 and 1797 as well. Curiously, there are fifteen obverse stars and sixteen obverse stars varieties of 1796 half dollars, though there never was a thirteen obverse stars variety of 1796 or 1797 half dollars.

Perhaps the number of stars was reduced from sixteen to thirteen on the design of dimes in 1797 because those sixteen stars appeared too crowded to critics at the time. Dimes are much smaller than half dollars. The thirteen stars obverse variety does appear neater than the sixteen stars variety. It is relevant that there are two major reverse (tail) varieties of 1798/7 Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Dimes, the first with sixteen stars on the back (reverse) of the coin and the second with thirteen reverse stars.

Collectors of Draped Bust Dimes ‘by date’ usually acquire three Draped Bust, Small Eagle dimes: 1796, 1797-Sixteen Obverse Stars and 1797-Thirteen Obverse Stars. Most interested collectors assemble type sets of early U.S. coins rather than collecting any one pre-1808 series ‘by date.’ Just two Draped Bust Dimes are needed for a type set of dimes or of early U.S. silver coins. Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Dimes were minted from 1798 to 1807, though none were ever dated 1799.

Draped Bust, Small Eagle Dimes and Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle dimes have the same obverse (front) design. The ‘Small Eagle’ is not small. The representation of the national bird on the reverse is called a ‘small eagle’ to distinguish it from the ‘Heraldic Eagle’ design, where an eagle, with a shield on its chest, covers a very large percentage of the surface of the back (reverse) of each coin.

As these representations of a bald eagle, the national bird, are so different, 1796-97 dimes are regarded as a design type that is clearly different from those dimes that date from 1798 to 1807. A set of all major varieties of Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle dimes would require thirteen coins. Only an 1804-Fourteen Reverse Stars Dime need cost more than $3000.

Many collectors ignore reverse varieties, which are subtle, and thus only ten ‘dates’ would be needed for a set of Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Dimes. Perhaps gradable representatives of all could be acquired for less than $1500 each?

II. Overall Rarity

Generally, Draped Bust, Small Eagle Dimes are certainly rarer than Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Dimes, which are not nearly as expensive. My analysis over the last couple of days suggests that 1796 dimes are much scarcer than I had earlier thought, scarcer than 1796 quarters!

The PCGS and the NGC together have graded around 540 1796 dimes. I hypothesize that this total amounts to about 425 different coins. These are not resubmitted as often as pre-1800 U.S. gold coins or as often as pre-1800 half dimes. Furthermore, many 1796 dimes are pedigreed or otherwise individually documented. The application of grading criteria for early dimes has been more consistent, over the last twenty-five years, than the grading of early gold coins, early half dimes, or even Draped Bust Silver Dollars.

I figure that there are ten to forty, gradable 1796 dimes that have never been submitted to the PCGS or the NGC. In addition, there are a few that failed to receive numerical grades before 2000, yet would be assigned numerical grades if resubmitted in 2014. There are probably not more than 475 that merit numerical grades, have been mistakenly graded by the PCGS or the NGC, or would be mistakenly assigned numerical grades if submitted, in my view.

There are another 135 to 175 1796 dimes that are clearly non-gradable. I figure that 600 to 650 survive in total. Therefore, 1796 dimes are very scarce, almost rare! From a logical perspective, these are good values for collectors, at current price levels. After all, they are the first U.S. Dimes!

As for the 1797-Sixteen Stars issue, someone editing the PCGS CoinFacts site estimates that “200” survive. I doubt that there are that many.

The NGC population of “59” that is listed in catalogue descriptions on the Heritage website is a total of all 1797 dimes that have been graded by the NGC, not just those with sixteen stars on the obverse. While the NGC reports around fifteen 1797-Sixteen Obverse Stars dimes, the NGC graded twenty-five 1797 dimes before the NGC had separate listings for dimes with Sixteen Obverse Stars and with Thirteen Obverse Stars. If sixteen of those twenty-five had sixteen obverse stars, than the NGC census for this variety is around thirty.

The PCGS has graded more than seventy-five. The PCGS and the NGC together have probably graded around seventy different 1797-Sixteen Obverse Stars dimes. I figure that another thirty have failed to receive numerical grades so far and perhaps fifteen to twenty more have never been submitted. I estimate that 115 to 125 1797-Sixteen Obverse Stars Dimes exist.

1797 Draped Bust Dime with 13 StarsRegarding the 1797-Thirteen Obverse Stars issue, the PCGS CoinFacts estimate is “50,” which is too low. The PCGS and the NGC together have graded at least forty different, maybe forty-five! I figure that there are approximately fifteen non-gradable coins and another dozen that have never been submitted to the PCGS or the NGC. An estimate of sixty-five to seventy-five is logical. Therefore, I theorize that there exist fewer than 200 1797 dimes of all varieties, and less than 850 of the whole design type!

Given the importance of this type and the fact that hundreds of thousands of people collect U.S. coins, market prices for 1796-97 dimes are not high, from a cultural perspective. Heritage has auctioned seven comic books for more than $450,000 each and other firms have sold several for more than $450,000 each as well. Further, there are dozens of 20th century sports items that have been auctioned for more than $250,000 each, including many worn jerseys. Moreover, the number of 20th century comic books and sports items that have sold for more than $100,000 each is very large. Are 18th century U.S. coins better values?

III. Prices for Well Circulated 1796-97 dimes

Well circulated 1796 or 1797 dimes are available every year. In Feb. 2009, Heritage sold a PCGS graded Fair-02 1796 for $632.50. The same coin would probably sell for more, if auctioned in 2014, though probably for less than $1100. In Jan. 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded “AG-03” 1796 dime for $1466.25. In April 2012, HA auctioned an NGC graded “AG-03” 1796 dime for $1610.

1797detailsIn August 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded ‘Good-04’ 1796 dime for $2467.50. Generally, PCGS or NGC graded ‘Good-04’ 1796 dimes may be acquired for between $2000 and $3000 each, depending upon the circumstances of the sale and characteristics of the individual coin. Comparing prices of different coins, without actually seeing the respective coins, may be misleading.

Draped Bust, Small Eagle Dimes that grade above Fine-15 cost substantially more. In Nov. 2012, though, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a non-gradable 1796 dime in a PCGS ‘Genuine’ holder. It has been holed and plugged. It has the ‘details’ of a Very Fine grade coin. This non-gradable coin sold for $1437.50, which may be an excellent purchase for a collector who cannot afford a gradable ‘VF-20’ 1796 dime. That same year, in Aug. 2012, that same firm, Stack’s-Bowers, auctioned a PCGS graded “VF-20” 1796 dime for $6325.

Prices for well circulated 1797 dimes are a little higher, on average, than prices for similar 1796 dimes. In March 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded ‘AG-03’ 1797-Thirteen Obverse Stars Dime for $1782.50. This is the rarest of the three ‘dates’ of the type. In May 2013, this same firm auctioned a damaged 1797-Thirteen Stars in a PCGS ‘Genuine’ holder, for just $940. In Jan. 2013, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded Good-06 coin for $3818.75.

Although the 1797-Sixteen Obverse Stars Dimes are not as rare as 1797-Thirteen Obverse Stars Dime overall, those that grade from Fair-02 to VF-25 have not been appearing as often over the last few years. I am curious as to the price that the PCGS graded “VF-20” 1797-Sixteen Stars Dime in this CSNS auction will realize. Leading price guides suggest a result in the range of $6750 to $7750.

In Aug. 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded “Fine-15” 1797 Sixteen Obverse Stars Dime for $7050. I saw it. Though having been subject to a light to moderate liquid cleaning very long ago, this coin naturally retoned in a pleasant manner. It is not dark. It is mostly a tan color with some brown and russet shades. It is gradable and is appealing, in my view.

IV. Jim O’Neal 1797 Dime

oneil2One of the highlights of the upcoming CSNS auction is a section of Jim O’Neal’s type set, mostly coins of lower denominations, not just cents, nickels and dimes. O’Neal’s half cents and half dimes are being sold, too, plus his three cent coins. Whether these are duplicates, or members of his primary type set, I do not know. In 2007 or 2008, O’Neal sold his duplicate set of Indian Head Half Eagles and later consigned his primary set to the FUN auction of Jan. 2011.

To this auction, O’Neal consigned a 1797-Sixteen Obverse Stars Dime that is PCGS graded “MS-62.” It is a CAC approved coin that I mentioned at the beginning.

O’Neal has assembled numerous sets of U.S. coins, several of which have been listed in the PCGS set registry. I covered the sale of his Indian Head Eagles in Jan. 2009 and the sale of his Indian Head Half Eagles in Jan. 2011. At one time, he was the chief of the Frito-Lay subsidiary of Pepsico and O’Neal has held positions with Collectors Universe, the parent of the PCGS.

The O’Neal 1797 could very well be one of the top ten 1797-Sixteen Obverse Stars Dimes and possibly one of the top dozen or so 1797 dimes of any variety. My research indicates that this coin has appeared in a few auctions since 2006. Curiously, none of these prior appearances are mentioned in the current lot description by a Heritage cataloguer.

It seems that O’Neal acquired this 1797 dime from the Heritage pre-ANA auction of Aug. 3, 2012, in Philadelphia, in which it brought $38,187.50. Earlier, this same coin was in an ANR auction that was held on Jan. 3, 2006 in Orlando, a pre-FUN event. This PCGS graded “MS-62” dime then sold for “$23,000.”

In Feb. 2009, it was in a Goldbergs auction. On July 30, 2009, it also did not sell in a Stack’s pre-ANA auction in Los Angeles.

I vaguely recollect viewing this 1797 dime in 2012. It seemed okay. I did not notice any serious problems. My tentative impression is that it has never been doctored and has appeared the same since before Jan. 2006.

There exist much higher quality, 797-Sixteen Obverse Stars Dimes. The finest that I have ever seen is likely to be the finest known. It was in the James A. Stack, Sr. (JAS) collection of dimes, the all-time greatest set of this denomination. The JAS 1797 has been PCGS graded MS-66 since 1990 and was in the Knoxville Collection for more than ten years.

V. 1797-Thirteen Stars, PCGS Graded AU-58

The PCGS graded “AU-58” 1797-Thirteen Stars Obverse Dime in this auction is very much noteworthy. I have never seen it and I have not discussed it with any expert who has seen it. Therefore, I am not now commenting about its physical characteristics.

This is the only 1797-Thirteen Stars that is PCGS graded “AU-58” and the PCGS lists just three as grading higher, one grading “MS-62” and two at the “MS-64” level. I am curious as to the identities of those that have been certified at higher grade levels.

The best 1797-Thirteen Stars that I have ever seen is the Allen Lovejoy coin. That coin was NGC graded as “MS-64” just prior to the Stack’s auction of Lovejoy’s collection on Oct. 16, 1990. It later appeared in “The Chicago Sale” of 1991 by the firms of RARCOA and Akers and then in the Numisma ’95 event in New York, probably as part of Pat Bolen’s epic collection of dimes. In any event, by 2008, it had been upgraded by the NGC to “MS-65.”

At some point, it was acquired by Ed Price. Heritage auctioned the Ed Price Collection on July 31, 2008. The Lovejoy-Bolen-Price 1797 brought $402,500!

An error on the PCGS CoinFacts site indicates that the Goldbergs sold an NGC graded “MS-66” 1797-Thirteen Stars in Sept. 1999. That coin is the 1797-Sixteen Stars Dime that was formerly in the Pittman Collection. That coin did not sell in the Goldbergs auction of Sept. 1999 and it was later downgraded by the PCGS to “MS-65.” Heritage auctioned it in Jan. 2013 for $99,875.

Of either variety, 1797 dimes that grade above AU-53 are extremely rare, especially those in the ‘mint state’ range (MS-60 to 68). In addition to being important elements of recognized sets that collector have been assembling for more than 125 years, all Draped Bust, Small Eagle Dimes are elusive, are interesting and have substantial historical significance.

©2014 Greg Reynolds


Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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  1. I was surprised to see that Greg estimates only 115-125 sixteen star 1797 dimes in existence. I found one with my metal detector. I have also found an 1803 dime as well.


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