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Capped Bust Right Half Eagle, Small Eagle (1795-1798) | CoinWeek

1797 Capped Bust Right Half Eagle, Small Eagle. Image: Stack's Bowers / CoinWeek.
1797 Capped Bust Right Half Eagle, Small Eagle. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

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

The Capped Bust Right Half Eagle, Small Eagle type was coined between 1795 and 1798, with an estimated mintage of 17,555 pieces for all issues. The 2008 Guide Book lists 8,707 half eagles minted in 1795. According to information provided in Bullion Journal A of the United States Mint’s records, the 1795 Half Eagle mintage occurred between July 31 and September 16.

Mint records also indicate that one extra five-dollar piece was struck for assay and included with the July 31 delivery, one with the August 11 delivery, two with the August 14 delivery, and three each with every delivery after that, for a total of 22 assay coins. The early Mint little cared what date a coin bore, and the reported quantities of coins made often failed to match the years stamped thereon. But the 1795 issues were created from 12 different die pairings.

Although the 1795 is not particularly scarce by half-eagle standards, it is a relatively high-priced coin due to its popularity among type collectors. Numismatists Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth, writing about the 1795 issue in their Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins: 1795-1933 (2008), indicate that the number of survivors today is about 520 examples. They go on to say that Mint State specimens are fairly rare and most likely to fall into the MS60 to MS62 grade range. Concerning Gems, Garrett and Guth contend that they are “extremely rare.”

The Capped Bust to Right, Small Eagle design was created by Chief Engraver Robert Scot. Walter Breen, in his Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, wrote that while Scot’s source for the obverse design is unknown:

Probably, he copied some unlocated contemporaneous engraving of a Roman copy of a Hellenistic goddess, altering the hair, adding drapery and an oversized soft cap.

According to Breen, the origin of the reverse small eagle is more certain:

It is Scot’s adaptation of a sketch or engraving of a first-century A.D. Roman onyx cameo, no. 4 in the Eichler-Kris catalog of these cameos in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, a lesser relative of the Gemma Augustea and possibly by the same master. The eagle’s attributes (wreath in beak, palm branch in claws) are the same, though Scot turned him from a profile view to [a] front view.

In the Mint’s humble first years, production of $10 eagles and $5 half eagles was slow. A bond issue held up the production of silver and gold coins in 1793. Silver coins were first issued in 1794; gold followed in 1795.

The Mint struck the Capped Bust Right Half Eagle, Small Eagle type from 1795-1798, before switching the reverse design to the Heraldic Eagle (or Large Eagle) type. Coins with the Heraldic Eagle reverse exist for 1795 and 1797, but these were struck in 1798 using older serviceable obverse dies.

None of the early half eagles or eagles bore their respective denominations. Gold coin expert John Dannreuther points out in Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties (2006) that the term “denomination” is a misnomer:

Even though a gold eagle was denominated as a ten-dollar coin, our forefathers traded gold by the tale. The weight and purity were the only things important to merchants and individuals–money was gold, and gold was money. In most cases, transactions had to be settled in gold, especially where governments were involved. There really was no need … for a stated denomination on either gold (or silver) coins, because it was known that our coins would be under extreme scrutiny and would likely be assayed by foreign mints and others as to their weight and purity. However, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, the architects of the United States’ monetary system, realized that a bimetallic system would afford this new country a more flexible currency, as both would be readily acceptable. Thus, the gold eagle was equal to 10 silver dollars, although eagles bore no denomination until their resumption of production in 1838.

It is worth noting that among silver coins, the presence or absence of a stamped denomination on the coins was also sporadic until well into the 1800s.

In many ways, the early half eagles and eagles were little different from the octagonal gold “ingots” representing $50 in California gold, which would appear a half-century later, or the rectangular assay bars representing different weights and values of gold and silver. The early gold coinage, however, showed the advantages of a consistent design, a uniform value and shape, a convenient form, and issuance by the United States government. Benefits that were enormous–and irreproducible–in California until the opening of a branch mint there.

Extended Coverage on CoinWeek

Rare gold coin expert and CoinWeek contributor Doug Winter writes about one of his 10 favorite U.S. gold coins – the 1795 Small Eagle Half Eagle.

Capped Bust Right Half Eagle, Small Eagle 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 any of these forms. A large curl of hair hangs over Liberty’s forehead, and her hair hangs long down the back of her neck and off 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. On the left side of the obverse, 10 stars wrap around the inside of the denticles. On the right side, depending on the issue, is a configuration of five or six more stars (for a total of 15 or 16) wrapped around the denticles inside.

Reverse:

A long-necked bird, meant to resemble an eagle, clutches a palm frond in its talons and a laurel wreath in its beak. Wrapping around the design is the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. A larger gap exists between UNITED and the rest of the legend, and OF is closer to STATES than to AMERICA. Denticles extend from the border or the design to the edge.

Edge:

The edge of the 1797 Capped Bust Right Half Eagle with Small Eagle reverse is reeded, a common anti-counterfeiting measure.

Coin Specifications

Capped Bust Right Half Eagle – Small Eagle
Years Of Issue: 1795-98
Mintage (Circulation): High: 8,707 (1795); Low: 100 (1798)
Alloy: .917% gold, 8.3% silver and copper
Weight: ±8.748 g
Diameter: ±25.00 mm
Edge: Reeded
OBV Designer: Robert Scot
REV Designer: Robert Scot

 

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Additional Resources

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.

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

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

Yeoman, R.S. and Jeff Garrett (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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