Heritage Auctions is proud to offer the finest known 1796 No Pole Half Cent as a part of our January 20-24 FUN Signature Auction. This legendary numismatic rarity grades MS67 Red and Brown according to PCGS.
The year 1796 is important in the history of the first Philadelphia Mint and some collectors have made a specialty of 1796-dated coinage. It is the first year that every authorized denomination of U.S. coinage was produced, from the half cent to the eagle.
There are two dates among circulation-strike half cents that stand out as rarities among all others. Those dates are 1796 and 1831, although many consider the 1831 as a Proof-only issue. However, there is no doubt that the 1796 is a circulation-strike issue, and that date stands alone as the legendary rarity among all half cents.
There are two 1796 varieties, the No Pole that is offered here, and the more plentiful With Pole variety. The two obverse dies, one without the pole supporting the Liberty cap, and the other with that supporting pole, were combined with a single reverse die. Due to the small number known, the emission sequence or order of striking for the two varieties remains uncertain. In most situations where two varieties share a common obverse or reverse die, the deterioration of that die will conclusively show which variety was struck first. For the 1796 half cents, the small production run was insufficient for the dies to deteriorate, thus the order of striking is not proven.
Current estimates suggest a total population of about 140 half cents dated 1796 including about 30 of the No Pole variety. The PCGS and NGC population data includes 13 grading events. Five of those are for Mint State coins, which grade between MS63 and MS67, and eight are for coins that grade from Fair 2 to Fine 15. PCGS Coin Facts records another Mint State coin that they state is PCGS-graded MS62 Brown, yet no such coin appears in their population report. There are no certified 1796 No Pole half cents at either service graded VF20 through MS61.
In his 1946 catalog of the Atwater Collection, B. Max Mehl, perhaps one of the greatest numismatic promoters of the mid-20th century, couldn’t help himself when he wrote of this coin:
“I am endeavoring to be conservative in both my description of condition of these coins, and also the use of superlative adjectives, but this gem is simply too much for me to overcome. It is simply too exquisite and thrilling a coin not to lavish all possible bouquets at it. It is worthy of everything fine and thrilling that may be said of it.”
While trying to suppress the use of superlative adjectives as Mehl noted, this Superb Gem 1796 No Pole half cent is a wonder to behold. As one well-known numismatist is fond of saying, it is the stuff of dreams. This is an extremely important opportunity as only the 11th auction appearance of any Mint State 1796 No Pole half cent, and this example is clearly the finest known. This is the second time that the present cataloger has described this piece, having enjoyed its company a quarter-century ago, when he described the coin as “fully Prooflike and most probably a presentation or specimen coin; just as easily called Proof-65 or finer.”
The mirrored surfaces are light chestnut-brown with traces of original mint red in the protected areas including the date numerals, letters on both sides, and the leaves of the wreath. The strike is full and well-centered, showing full and complete border details.
Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. summed up this piece in 1956: “This is the finest known specimen of the rarest half cent.”