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HomeUS CoinsCapped Bust Eagle, Heraldic Eagle (1797-1804) | CoinWeek

Capped Bust Eagle, Heraldic Eagle (1797-1804) | CoinWeek

1797 Capped Bust Eagle. Image: Stack's Bowers / CoinWeek.
1797 Capped Bust Eagle. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..
 

The highest denomination coin authorized by the Mint Act of 1792 was the $10 gold piece, one of three gold coins approved by Congress for the young nation.

A $10 denomination fit with the decimal system promoted by Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and was intended to be the main coin for international trade and other large transactions. But however reasonable the plan might have been, the reality was that the $5 half eagle was preferred by those engaged in international trade since it was similar in size to the dominant gold coins of other nations. Domestically, eagles rarely circulated because the face value was close to a week’s wages for the typical worker.

The biggest obstacle to the eagle’s use was a domestic silver-to-gold ratio that was unfavorable compared to other countries. It became profitable to trade one ounce of U.S. gold for 16 or more ounces of foreign silver, then use 15 of those ounces to procure another ounce of U.S. gold, netting a profit of one ounce of silver. The result was predictable; U.S. gold disappeared, except for the pieces secured in bank vaults or safely kept by citizens of means sufficient enough to set aside the precious coin.

Against this background, the United States Mint responded to criticisms of the “scrawny” eagle depicted on the first $10 coins by changing the reverse design to a heraldic portrayal of the national symbol. Some have speculated that the change was partly a response to a perceived preference for a national symbology reminiscent of European traditions, and the eagle and shield motif of the Great Seal of the United States fit that need. Both the Continental Congress and the Federal Legislature had adopted the Great Seal, designed by William Barton of Philadelphia, a lawyer, heraldist, and numismatist, and Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the Continental Congress. The portrayal also more closely matched the styles of the common and familiar foreign coins that still circulated in the nascent country, perhaps as an encouragement for the use of the domestic coin.

Chief Engraver Robert Scot adapted the Great Seal for the reverse, though some believe the result to be less artistic than the Small Eagle version. More attention has been placed on Scott’s “blunder”: his placement of arrows (thus implying war) in the eagle’s right, or honorable claw, and the olive branch (peace) in the left, or sinister, claw–symbology that probably would not be noticed by most people today. It was a reversal of the representation found on the Great Seal, but no changes were made to the arrangement during the life of the series.

By 1804, the melting of gold coins had become rampant, and the mintage of eagles was halted by then-President Thomas Jefferson following the 1804 issue.

How Much Are Capped Bust Eagle, Heraldic Eagle Gold Coins Worth?

Census and population reports show a few thousand Capped Bust Eagle, Heraldic Eagle grading events. A few Prooflike circulation strikes have been identified, along with a couple of pieces designated as either Specimen or Proof, including one remarkable Deep Cameo piece. All Capped Bust Heraldic Eagles are very expensive, even at low grades; anything finer than VF is extremely expensive, with prices exceeding one-half million dollars for Gem and finer examples. More expensive issues are 1798/7 9×4 Stars and 7×6 Stars and the 1804 Crosslet 4 pieces. The Proof 1804 novodel is extremely expensive, with prices exceeding $10 million USD in Near Gem Proof 64+.

Capped Bust Eagle, Heraldic Eagle Date-by-Date Analysis

Design

Obverse:

A right-facing portrait of Liberty wearing a cap. Some refer to the cap as a turban, a Phrygian cap, or a pileus, but its shape does not precisely convey these forms. Some have suggested the cap is an 18th-century mobcap. A large curl of hair hangs over Liberty’s forehead, and her hair hangs long down the back of her neck and off of her shoulder. Liberty’s bust is wrapped in the cloth of a chiton. The date appears centered below the bust, while canted slightly to the right is LIBERTY.

Not unusual for the time, the number of stars displayed on the obverse varied. The 1797 Eagles have 16 stars: 10 to the left and six to the right. In 1798 there were 13 stars, some with nine left and four right, others with seven left and six right. From 1799 forward, 13 stars were displayed, eight left and five right.

Denticles extend from the border of the design to the edge.

Reverse:

The reverse displays an eagle with outstretched wings in the center and a Union shield across its body. A banner on which E PLURIBUS UNUM is emblazoned is displayed high, across its outstretched wings above the tip of the shield. The eagle holds an olive branch in its left claw and a cluster of arrows in its right claw. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA makes nearly a complete concentric circle inside the denticulated rim, UNITED and STATES, and OF and AMERICA separated by the tips of the eagle’s wings. Underneath STATES OF is an arc of clouds. Below the clouds, above and around the eagle’s head, is a glory of small six-pointed stars in three short arcs, six at the top, five below, and one to each side of the eagle’s head.

All coins were minted at Philadelphia and exhibit neither mintmark nor denomination; the value of the eagle was understood at the time to be determined by the coin’s gold content.

Edge:

The edge of the 1797 Capped Bust Eagle, Heraldic Eagle reverse is reeded, a common anti-counterfeiting measure.

Varieties

Several known, including 1798/7 9 Stars Left, 4 Stars Right and 7 Stars Left, 6 Stars Right (all known 1798 eagles are overdates); 1799 Large Stars Obverse and Small Stars Obverse; and 1803 Small Stars Obverse and Large Stars Obverse.

Capped Bust Eagle, Heraldic Eagle Coin Specifications

Capped Bust Eagle, Heraldic Eagle
Years Of Issue: 1797-1804
Mintage (Business): High: 44,344 (1801); Low: 1,742 (1798)
Mintage (Proof): High: 4 or 5, estimated (1804, but minted in 1834)
Alloy: 91.7% gold, 8.33% silver and copper
Weight: ±17.5 g
Diameter: ±33.0 mm
Edge: Reeded
OBV Designer: Robert Scot, possibly assisted by John Smith Gardner
REV Designer: Robert Scot, possibly assisted by John Smith Gardner

 

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References

Bowers, Q. David. The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing.

–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.

Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Doubleday.

Dannreuther, John and Harry W. Bass, Jr. Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties, A Study of Die States. 1795-1834. Whitman Publishing.

Greer, Brian. The Complete Guide to Liberty Seated Dimes. DLRC Press.

Guth, Ron, and Jeff Garrett. United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Whitman Publishing.

–. Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins: 1795-1933. Whitman Publishing.

Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing.

Yeoman, R.S. and Kenneth Bressett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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