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HomeAuctionsThe Fabulous Eric Newman Collection, part 5: 1796 U.S. Half Dollars

The Fabulous Eric Newman Collection, part 5: 1796 U.S. Half Dollars

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #194

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

This is the fifth in a series on the Eric Newman Coin Collection, the most famous coin collection to be auctioned since the Eliasberg and Pittman sales of the late 1990s. Information about Newman himself and his collecting activities may be found in Part 1. The offering of most of Newman’s patterns and a few other items in April is covered in Part 2. The third part is about Newman’s Draped Bust Quarters, perhaps the all-time finest assemblage of that series. (Clickable links are in blue.) In part 4, the focus is on Newman’s Proof 1818 Capped Bust Quarter. Here in part 5, the topic is the two 1796 half dollars in Newman’s collection. The vast majority of Newman’s rare U.S. silver coins, including these two 1796 halves, will be auctioned by Heritage in New York on Nov. 15 and 16.

Newman’s two 1796 halves are both of great importance. These are among the finest known representatives of the rarest type of U.S. silver coins. Fewer than four hundred representatives of this type survive.

I. Excitement of 1796-97 Halves

This rarest type of U.S. silver coins feature a Draped Bust design on the obverse (front) and a Small Eagle design on the reverse (back of the coin). This is the first of two design types of Draped Bust Half Dollars. The two types share the same obverse (front) design.

1796_50c_thumbOnly for two years, in 1796 and 1797, halves were minted with a so called ‘Small Eagle’ reverse (back) design. The ‘Small Eagle’ is not small; it is called a ‘small eagle’ to distinguish it from the ‘Heraldic Eagle’ design, in which an eagle with a shield on its chest covers a very large percentage of the surface of the back of each coin. In relative terms, the representation of an eagle in the ‘Small Eagle’ reverse design is notably smaller than the eagle of the Heraldic Eagle reverse design, which is unusually large.

Half dollars, like silver dollars and half dimes, were first minted in 1794. The Flowing Hair design was employed for just two years, 1794 and 1795.

Many more Flowing Hair Halves survive than do Draped Bust, Small Eagle Halves. There are more than two thousand 1795 halves and there exist a few thousand Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Half Dollars, which date from 1801 to 1807.

The three major varieties of Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollars are often thought of as three distinct ‘dates,’ 1796 with fifteen stars on the obverse (front), 1796 with sixteen stars, and 1797. All 1797 halves have fifteen stars on the obverse.

In reality, most interested collectors are satisfied with just one 1796 half, regardless of whether it has fifteen stars or sixteen stars in the obverse design. Indeed, these tend to be collected by type, as few collectors are willing and able to spend the large sums needed to acquire more than one Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollar.

Early coins are often collected ‘by design type.’ A collector assembling some kind of a type set needs just one representative of each pertinent design type. Some collectors aim for a complete type set for all classic U.S. coins, one of each design type for regular U.S. coinage, from the 1790s to the early 1930s. Most type sets, however, are more specialized.

first_mint_1792A type set of pre-1840 copper and silver coins is very popular and is much less expensive than collecting such coins ‘by date’! Also, type collectors often focus on one denomination, such as half dollars.

Including classic U.S. and modern issues, the seventeen types of ‘silver’ U.S. half dollars are: 1) Flowing Hair (1794-95); 2) Draped Bust, Small Eagle (1796-97) ; 3) Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle (1801-07); 4) Reich Capped Bust, “Lettered Edge” (1807-36); 5) Gobrecht Capped Bust, “Reeded Edge” (1836-39); 6) Liberty Seated, No Drapery, No Motto (1839 only); 7) Liberty Seated, With Drapery No Motto (1839-53, 1856-66); 8) Arrows & Rays (1853 only); 9) Liberty Seated, No Motto, With Arrows, No Rays (1854-55); 10) Liberty Seated, With Motto (1866-91 except 1874); 11) Liberty Seated, With Motto, With Arrows (1873-74); 12) Barber (1892-1915); 13) Walking Liberty (1916-47); 14) Franklin (1948-63); 15) Kennedy-90% silver (1964 plus later Proof-only issues); 16) Kennedy-40% silver (1965-70); 17) Kennedy Bicentennial 40% silver (1976). Generally, ‘silver’ U.S. half dollars are about 90% silver.

Copper-Nickel “Clad” Half Dollars, all of which are modern, constitute a different topic, though are very inexpensive. In terms of type coins, Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollars are the most expensive and elusive. A few very wealthy collectors seek all the varieties of 1796 and 1797 halves.

The Newman Collection 1796, with fifteen stars, is NGC graded MS-62, which is fair enough. The Newman Collection 1796, with sixteen stars, is NGC graded MS-63 and has a sticker of approval from the CAC.

My belief is that the Newman Collection also contains a 1797 half, which is probably being retained. A type set of U.S. coins will remain in the Newman Money Museum in St. Louis. Reliable sources suggest that each Newman Collection silver coin retained for this type set is inferior, in terms of quality, to at least one coin of the same respective type that is being sold in this auction on Nov. 15 and 16. I do not know if this is true in all cases.

II. 1796 Fifteen Stars

There are fewer than ninety 1796 halves, with fifteen stars, around. I am including those that have problems that are so severe that they would not qualify for a numerical grade from either the PCGS or the NGC.

1796_50c_15_starsThe Newman-Green 1796, with fifteen stars, is NGC graded MS-62. Its grade is not in the high end of the 62 range, though I very much like this coin. Despite being lightly dipped and extensively moderately cleaned decades ago, this coin has made a comeback. It now has appealing natural toning and an attractive overall appearance.

For the most part, this half dollar has toned a mix of light gray and medium brown-russet. The centers are largely gray and brown-russet hues are mottled in the inner fields. There are orange-russet and green areas in the outer fields of the obverse (front of the coin). This coin is not dark and the colors are pleasing.

I understand how an expert could argue that this coin has wear, and many certified 62 grade coins do, indeed, have slight wear. I maintain, though, that this 1796 half is strictly uncirculated. An extensive, light to moderate cleaning, probably with a cloth, slightly affected the highpoints. There are light hairlines over most of this coin, though the presence of such hairlines is not unusual on coins that grade 62 and is not a cause for concern now. This coin is much more appealing than many other 18th century coins that are NGC graded MS-62.

Indeed, many coins that fairly grade 63 have a large number of hairlines, too. Though the reverse (back) of this coin is not as attractive as the obverse, it has fewer imperfections. The hairlines on the reverse are not very noticeable without a magnifying glass and those that are visible with five times magnification are shallow.

The obverse of this coin has the eye appeal that a grading expert may associate with a 63 grade. It cannot grade 63, however, because of some horizontal scratches and relatively noticeable, sizeable hairlines on Miss Liberty’s face and neck. Even so, 62 is a fair grade for this coin. It does not have serious problems and it is far more attractive than a 62 grade early U.S. coin is usually expected to be, particularly a 62 grade coin that is truly uncirculated. This coin is a real prize. There are probably only five 1796, fifteen stars, halves that are of higher quality.

III. Condition Ranking of 15 Star halves

The Eliasberg 1796 is probably the second finest known 1796 half, with fifteen stars. Though PCGS graded MS-63 long before I last saw it in Jan. 2009, it could be fairly graded MS-64 in the present.

The Norman-Whitney coin was NGC graded “MS-64” when Superior offered it in Aug. 1991 in a pre-ANA sale in Illinois. Jay Parrino was probably the consignor. Parrino had bought it from Norman Stack’s type set, via Eric Streiner. In 1991 or later, John Whitney acquired it. The Whitney Collection of 1796 coins was auctioned by Stack’s (New York) on May 4, 1999. Though this coin probably is or would be NGC graded MS-64 in the present, I maintain that the just mentioned Eliasberg coin is of higher quality.

The other Whitney 1796, with fifteen stars, grades MS-63+, in my view. It was previously in the “LA Type Set” that Stack’s auctioned in Oct. 1990. It is very sharply struck, semi-prooflike and was heavily dipped in the past. It was catalogued as “Specimen-66” when Stack’s sold it on May 4, 1999. Later, the PCGS certified it as “SP-63.”

In 1999, I found the LA-Whitney 1796 to be just a business strike. I would like to see it again. In the interim, I have devoted a great deal of time to analyzing the distinctions between Proofs, business strikes, and Specimen Strikings.

Contrary to some published reports, the 1796 half that the NGC has certified as “SP-66” is probably the Knoxville coin, not the Allenburger-LA-Whitney coin. The Knoxville piece had been previously NGC graded 64. I could understand a 65 grade, perhaps even an ‘SP-65’ certification, though not a 66 grade. The Knoxville coin is the finest known 1796, with fifteen stars, half dollar.

The Norweb-Green 1796 is NGC graded MS-63. It was last auctioned by Spectrum-B&M in Baltimore in Nov. 2010. It was NGC graded MS-62 when ANR sold it on Nov. 30 or Dec. 1, 2004, in Baltimore.

The Norweb-Green coin is superior to the “Allison Park” 1796, with fifteen stars, which is also NGC graded MS-63. The “Allison Park” coin has more technical imperfections than the Newman coin, if I remember correctly. Plus, the Newman coin is aesthetically superior.

Here is a tentative condition ranking, with my grades, of the ‘mint state’ 1796, fifteen stars, halves that I have personally examined: 1) Knoxville 65 ; 2) Eliasberg 64-minus; 3) Norman-Whitney 63+ to 64-minus; 4) Allenburger-LA-Whitney 63+ ; 5) Norweb-Green 62+ ; 6) Newman 62; 7) “Allison Park” 62-minus at most. It is possible that the appearances of these coins may have naturally changed or deliberately been changed since I last saw them. I am not aware of any others that I would be likely to grade above 61.

IV. 1796 Sixteen Stars

The NGC graded MS-63, Newman 1796, with sixteen stars, is certainly among the finest known of this extremely rare issue. The total certified by the PCGS and the NGC is thirty-nine or forty, of which perhaps thirty-two are different coins. I figure that there are at least a dozen that experts at the PCGS or the NGC would find to be non-gradable. There could also be two gradable coins that have never been submitted to the PCGS or NGC, or were submitted during an era when grading standards were tougher.

1796_50c_16starsI was about to hypothesize that fewer than forty-eight exist, before reading that “The Amato study lists sixty-one different examples of the 1796 Sixteen Stars half dollars,” in the current auction lot description for this specific coin. I am puzzled as to how there could be that many. Other estimates are dramatically lower.

The finest known is the Rogers-Whitney coin, which has been graded “66” by both the PCGS and the NGC. I saw it more than once.

The Gene Gardner 1796 has been graded “64” by both the PCGS and the NGC. ANR auctioned this coin in March 2004, though it was not part of Haig Koshkarian’s type set.  That 1796 half was offered by the Goldbergs in 2006 and in 2011.

Although the NGC currently reports having graded one as “MS-65,” I am not certain of its pedigree. The Eliasberg piece would probably be regarded as grading MS-64 in the present. Could it be the one that the NGC has graded as “MS-65”? According to Saul Teichman, who researched these in the past, there “are not more than three” 1796, with sixteen stars, halves that are of higher quality than the Newman piece.

V. Newman Sixteen Stars 1796

Newman’s sixteen stars 1796 half is one of the treasures in his collection. It is NGC graded MS-63 and has a sticker of approval from the CAC.

Yes, it was moderately dipped many decades ago and it was lightly to moderately cleaned. Most 63 grade, early U.S. silver coins have had such past experiences. This coin has, however, naturally retoned in a very pleasant manner. The obverse outer fields, stars and letters are characterized by neat toning, including much medium brown-russet. Some stars are reddish, others orange, a few gray or green. Further, there are tones of different colors on or about the letters of LIBERTY, including orange-russet, yellow, and green.The reverse (back) is characterized mostly by green-russet and gray colors.

Certainly, the obverse of this coin has the apparent ‘look,’ without magnification, of a 64+ or 65-minus grade coin. It is likely that the effects of a cleaning keep the obverse from grading 64, though I have seen certified 64 grade coins have been cleaned more substantially than this coin. A shallow, somewhat wide, short gash on Miss Liberty’s face is another factor that resulted in a 64 grade not being assigned. Hairlines and other marks on this coin are not particularly consequential, although there are plenty of hairlines, as most experts would expect there to be. In addition, there is a gash between the ‘E’ and ‘S’ of “STATES.” Even so, a grade in the ‘low end’ of the 64 range for this coin would be defensible.

This half is somewhat prooflike, meaning it has somewhat mirrored fields. Indeed, the reverse fields are very reflective when this coin is tilted under a light. It is not unusual, though, for 1796 dated coins to be semi-prooflike. Quite a few of other denominations are fully prooflike. The reverse of Newman’s 1796 quarter in this same auction is notably prooflike.

On the whole, the grade of this Newman coin is clearly in the high end of the 63 range, which is a very high grade for a sixteen stars, 1796 half dollar. There is an excellent chance that this NGC graded MS-63 1796 is one of the ten finest 1796 half dollars, of either variety, and could very well rank seventh or eighth.

©2013 Greg Reynolds

Questions? e-mail: insightful10  gmail.com

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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