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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: The Eliasberg 1796 Half Eagle ($5 gold coin)

News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #76

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds

Although early Half Eagles (U.S. $5 gold coins) are very expensive, I find that many collectors like to read about them. A famous 1796/5 Half Eagle is ‘in the news’ as Heritage will offer the Eliasberg piece this week at the ANA convention in Pittsburgh.

Like art enthusiasts enjoy reading about important works of art from past centuries, collectors of U.S. coins enjoy reading about the early types of U.S. gold coins. It is my intention for this column to be of interest to casual readers and beginning collectors in addition to advanced collectors. Moreover, while collectors of gold coins may be more interested in the subject matter, the pedigrees and great collections cited relate to copper and silver coins as well. An understanding of rare coins and the coin collecting community involves, in part, learning about the culture of coin collecting.

Yes, the title refers to a “1796 Half Eagle” even though all are 1796/5 overdates. I wish to communicate with a wide audience and some readers may be irritated by the 1796/5 ‘date’ and some beginners may not understand the meaning of 1796/5.

A clear 1796 in the title indicates an 18th century coin. I have always believed that 18th century U.S. coins have a special allure. The nation was very young, technology was primitive, the U.S. Federal Government operated with minimal funds, there was tension among people of the original States, and most European leaders did not think that the U.S. was going to survive, certainly not as a constitutional democracy. Generally, 18th century critics and doubters of the U.S. were proved wrong.

I. The First Type of Half Eagles

Half Eagles (U.S. $5 gold coins) were minted from 1795 to 1929, though not in every year in between. Later, at various times from 1986 to the present, $5 commemorative gold coins, similar to the earlier business strikes, have been produced for sale as novelty items. In my view, these are not in the same category as the Half Eagles that were minted as a regular part of U.S. coinage from 1795 to 1929.

From 1795 to 1807, on the obverse (front) of Half Eagles, there was a bust of Miss Liberty facing to the right, from the perspective of someone viewing coins. The first type of Half Eagles has this Bust Right obverse design and a relatively small eagle, the bird not the denomination, on the reverse (back of the coin). The ‘Small Eagle’ is not really small. It is just smaller than the Heraldic or “Large” Eagle design that was adopted soon afterwards.

Half Eagles from this first type bear years from 1795 to 1798. The 1796/5 $5 gold issue is a Bust Right, ‘Small Eagle’ Half Eagle. It is an overdate as a numeral six was punched over an underlying five.

There were also minted 1795 Bust Right Half Eagles with the Heraldic Eagle reverse design. It is widely believed, however, that these were minted later than 1795 with an obverse die that had been prepared in 1795.

The second type of Half Eagles features the same Bust Right obverse design and a Heraldic Eagle reverse design. The ‘Heraldic Eagle’ design element is sometimes called a ‘Large Eagle.’ In addition to coin design elements, the term ‘eagle’ refers to both a bird and a coin denomination. An Eagle is a $10 gold coin and the Bald Eagle is the national bird of the U.S.

Bust Right, ‘Heraldic Eagle’ Half Eagles bear years from 1795 to 1807. No one now knows exactly when these were first struck.

Bust Right Half Eagles of both types tend to be rare, some extremely so. It is unusual for someone to collect them ‘by date,’ though people do so. Most collectors of early gold coins are or would be satisfied with one Bust Right, ‘Small Eagle’ Half Eagle and one Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle ‘Half Eagle.’

“I handle ten times as many 1795 $5 gold coins and 1796s are only a small percentage higher in terms of price,” remarks John Albanese. “This is most likely due to very little date pressure” for the 1796/5 Half Eagles, “not many collectors buy these ‘by date’ as some other coins in the [Bust Right] series are basically unobtainable,” Albanese finds.

While it is true that it is unrealistic for a collector to expect to complete a set of Bust Right Half Eagles, there are reasons to purchase a 1796/5 in addition to or instead of a 1795. 1) As John Whitney and others have done, completing a ‘year’ set of 1796 coins is logical and exciting. Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold coins) were not minted until 1796, which was also the first year that dimes and quarters were produced. While the copper issues are a little complicated, a set of the silver and gold coins of 1796 is, in cool. Just a 1796 gold set of four coins, two types of 1796 Quarter Eagles, a 1796/5 Half Eagle and a 1796 Eagle, all rarities, is very desirable and meaningful.

2) Of the five Bust Right, ‘Small Eagle’ Half Eagle ‘dates,’ only the 1798 is a Great Rarity. A partial set of the other four can be done and would be important, in my opinion. 3) The fact that the 1796/5 is an overdate makes the 1796/5 a little more curious than the 1795. 4) As I have seen so many 1795 Half Eagles, each time I see a 1796/5, my attention is captured and I make a note of it. I could not be the only one who finds 1796/5 Half Eagles to be more noteworthy and newsworthy than 1795 ‘Small Eagle’ Half Eagles of the same grade and/or pedigree.

II. Eliasberg 1796/5 Half Eagle

While the Eliasberg 1796/5 is not the finest known, it is especially desirable and famous. It is NGC graded MS-62 and has a sticker of approval from the CAC.

Louis Eliasberg, Sr. assembled the all-time best collection of U.S. coins. He died in 1976 and his collection was divided among two sons. One of the sons consigned Eliasberg’s U.S. gold coins to Bowers & Ruddy and these were auctioned in October 1982. This very coin was included and it is being auctioned again about twenty-nine years later.

I very much like the Eliasberg 1796/5. Yes, it has noticeable hairlines and it has some light friction on the devices. Even so, it is more than attractive and it has great color.

John Albanese clearly remembers examining this coin. He was the sole founder of the NGC in 1987 and he started the CAC in 2007. Albanese declares that the “Eliasberg 1796/5 is a nice original coin.”

I agree. The Eliasberg 1796/5 Half Eagle has really neat, natural orange toning and proper overall color. Unlike many 1796/5 Half Eagles that I have seen, the Eliasberg coin has no deep contact marks in the fields and has minimal U.S. Mint caused imperfections. Indeed, many 1796/5 Half Eagles have both deep contact marks and striking peculiarities.

Other than being weakly struck like most 1796/5 Half Eagles, the Eliasberg coin has minimal imperfections. It was, though, struck a little weaker than most, especially on the obverse (front of the coin).

After considering a little light friction and plenty of light hairlines, I find its grade to be a mid range MS-62. It is more appealing, though, than a some other 1796/5 Half Eagles that have been certified as grading “MS-62” and higher. At a glance, without magnification, it has the ‘look of a MS-64’ grade coin. More importantly, its very high score in the category of originality makes it very special among 1796/5 Half Eagles

III. “Mint State” 1796/5 Half Eagles

My research suggests that little is known regarding the number of circulated 1796/5 Half Eagles in existence. As for the total number of all 1796/5 Half Eagles known, the same seventy-five or eighty to one hundred estimate has been repeated endlessly without much evidence. I will engage in further research before addressing the number of circulated 1796/5 Half Eagles.

I tentatively hypothesize that there are just ten that grade, or should be graded, MS-60 or higher. The PCGS CoinFacts site estimates that only eight grade MS-60 or higher. John Albanese suggests that there are more than a dozen.

Most of the greatest collections of all time did not contain a Choice Uncirculated (‘MS’) 1796/5 half eagle, and several were missing this date altogether! The Garrett 1796/5 was said to grade “EF-40” in an auction catalogue in 1979. The Norweb family formed one of the ten all-time best collections of U.S coins, including many coins that are high in their respective condition rankings. The Norweb 1796/5 Half Eagle, though, grades less than MS-60.

The late Harry Bass had two 1796/5 Half Eagles. In the Bass 2 sale, a PCGS graded AU-53 1796/5 was sold in October 1999. The website of the Harry Bass Foundation indicates that one 1796/5 has been retained as part of the “Core Collection.”

On the PCGS website in 2007, it was “estimated” that this Bass Core Collection 1796/5 grades “MS-61.” Now in 2011, the listing has changed and the Bass 1796/5 is said to be PCGS graded “AU-53.” The coins in the Harry Bass Core Collection are not certified. Someone at the PCGS erroneously confused the two Bass 1796/5 Half Eagles. I suspect that it is true that PCGS officials have estimated that the Harry Bass Core Collection 1796/5 would grade “MS-61,” if it were submitted to the PCGS. The former Bass Collection, PCGS graded “AU-53” 1796/5 that was auctioned in 1999 has probably been upgraded to AU-55 or AU-58.

The epic Richmond collection was auctioned by DLRC in 2004 and ’05. The Richmond Collection contained a virtually complete set of Eagles, 1795 to 1933. Furthermore, the Richmond Collection featured numerous rare gold coins of all denominations. The Richmond Collection, however, lacked a 1796/5 Half Eagle. John J. Pittman did not have one either, nor did Amon Carter.

The Garrett and Eliasberg 1796/5 Half Eagles are the only two that Breen specifically mentions in his “complete” encyclopedia, which was published in 1988. The Auction ’90 extravaganza contained numerous gold rarities. Yet, the only 1796/5 half eagle included was a “Very Fine” grade coin.

There are other 1796/5 Half Eagles around. Although Sydney and Ruth Kalmbach were not as ambitious or sophisticated as John Whitney, they put together an impressive silver and gold 1796-year set. Spectrum-B&M auctioned the Kalmbach collection in Baltimore during March 2007.

Both of the Kalmbach 1796/5 half eagles were certified by the Professional Coin Grading Service, one was graded “AU-55,” and the other, “EF-45.” Unfortunately, I have never seen them.

The extensive “Ohringer” collection of rare date gold coins that the Goldbergs auctioned from 2008 to 2010 had an NGC graded “MS-61” 1796/5. I saw it. The 61 grade is fair enough.

Earlier, in Feb. 2007, the Goldbergs auctioned an NGC graded “MS-62” 1796/5 from an unnamed consignment. The Eliasberg 1796/5 is much more appealing.

The Floyd Starr 1796/5 was auctioned by Stack’s in 1992. It was then described as being “Brilliant Uncirculated, Prooflike.” The cataloguers at ANR were, of course, correct in finding that the NGC graded “MS-63” 1796/5 that ANR auctioned in March 2006 was the Floyd Starr coin. It is indisputable that these two coins are the same. Saul Teichman has a high opinion of this coin. At this point, I do not have a recollection of ever having seen it. Where are the other Choice Uncirculated 1796/5 Half Eagles?

As of March 2007, the Numismatic Guaranty Corp. (NGC) had awarded an MS-64 grade to four 1796/5 half eagles, and one has been graded MS-65. It seems that no others have been upgraded to MS-64 or MS-65 since that time. I suspect that these five represent only three different coins.

I have no information about the lone 1796/5 that the PCGS has graded MS-63. There really are scant auction records for 1796/5 Half Eagles that grade 62 or higher.


IV. John Whitney 1796/5 Half Eagles

It is or was believed that John Whitney had the two finest known 1796/5 Half Eagles. Actually, Whitney is not his last name. Long ago, he requested that I not mention his last name in my published writings.

Whitney specialized in U.S. coins of the year 1796 and he spent years seeking high quality representatives of each variety. His collection of 1796 coins was breathtaking. It was auctioned by Stack’s in New York on May 4, 1999. None of his coins were then encapsulated by the PCGS, the NGC, or any other service.

I have now accumulated more information regarding the two Whitney 1796/5 Half Eagles than anyone since the 1999 sale of his collection. At the auction, both coins were purchased by the same pair of dealers. When I last asked, they did not clearly remember exactly what happened to these two coins afterwards.

I identified the second Whitney 1796/5 as having been in the Husky Collection, which Stack’s auctioned in New York in June 2008. The Husky Collection contained two 1796/5 Half Eagles, one of which was NGC graded “MS-64” and the other was PCGS graded “AU-50.” I am almost certain that the one that is NGC graded “MS-64” is the second of the two 1796/5 Half Eagles that were in the John Whitney Collection.

As far as I know, I am the only one who is asserting that these two are the same coin. In a way, it is a sad discovery. The Whitney-Husky 1796/5 Half Eagle was modified, harmfully in my view, between May 1999 and early 2008. Carbon flecks, some orange toning, and coppery areas that characterized this coin in 1999 were mostly gone by 2008. The overall color became somewhat unnatural, though not really bad. I cannot agree with the NGC grade of “MS-64.”

The Whitney-Husky coin is characterized by a very sharp strike. Back in 1999, it had semi-reflective, mostly original luster, and a cool look overall, despite quite a few hairlines. In 2008, it should have perhaps been graded ‘MS-62.’ Even if the Whitney-Husky 1796/5 was moved into a holder with a MS-62 label, I would still prefer the Eliasberg piece, as it just much more original and soothing overall.

After the June 2008 auction, I consulted Charlie Browne and he was not thrilled about either of the two Husky 1796/5 Half Eagles. Charlie has been recognized as one of the sharpest graders in the nation for more than a quarter-century. Plus, he has much experience as a grader for the PCGS.

I refer to the first Whitney 1796/5 Half Eagle as the Ketterman-Whitney coin. It is widely believed to have earlier been in the famous collection of Dr. H. Ketterman, though I have not confirmed this ‘fact.’ It was certainly in Rarcoa’s session of Auction ’82.

Despite a few imperfections, it is (or was) a very brilliant, dynamic, exciting coin. Although I did not grade it as MS-65 in 1999, I would not then have been surprised if the NGC did so shortly after the auction. In 2007, an East Coast dealer, who prefers to remain anonymous, said that he was fairly sure that he remembered seeing the Ketterman-Whitney 1796 in an NGC “MS-65” holder not long after the auction of Whitney’s coins in 1999.

Now in 2011, a different dealer, Larry Hanks, is providing more details. Hanks probably has “seen every really Choice Uncirculated 1796 $5 that has appeared on the market or that [has been] in private hands since 1961. That includes a private viewing at the Smithsonian of their Half Eagle Collection some twenty years ago. That being said, the Ketterman-Whitney specimen, in my view, is clearly the finest known” 1796/5 Half Eagle, Hanks declares.

In 1999, the Ketterman-Whitney “coin had highly reflective surfaces that approached Prooflike. It had deep, gorgeous original color with intense mint luster,” according to Hanks. “Contact marks etc were at a minimum in keeping with a highly Choice to lower Gem grade. The strike was as good as it gets for the year,” Larry adds.

“The last time I saw the coin available for sale was about five years ago,” recalls Hanks. “At that time, it certainly appeared to me that the color of the coin was lighter than it used to be.” Hanks “surmised that the coin had been dipped, perhaps to lift some light original, non-invasive film that was on the coin. The coin was still choice,” Larry explains. “Just the color was much lighter; more of a light white-gold versus deep yellow-gold.” Hanks concludes, “to this day the Whitney coin is still the best [1796/5 Half Eagle] known.”

The notion that the color of the coin has been changed from a “deep yellow-gold” to “more of a light white-gold” bothers me far more than it concerns Hanks. This is a travesty, in my opinion. As I have not seen it afterwards, I will not comment further. I would like to see the others that have been graded “MS-63” or “MS-64” before drawing my own conclusion as to which 1796/5 Half Eagle is the finest known.

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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