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The Marvelous Pogue Family Coin Collection, Part 3: Finest Known 1794 Half Dollar


Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #276

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds….
The focus here is on the 1794 Flowing Hair half dollar in the Pogue Collection, which is definitely the finest known. Indeed, there does not seem to be another 1794 half that is close in quality.

U.S. half dollars were first minted in 1794 and predominantly silver half dollars were last minted for circulation in 1964. Half dollars dated from 1965 to 1970 are 40% silver. Now, both silver and copper-nickel clad half dollars are made for collectors, though clad half dollars occasionally circulate as ‘money.’

This is the third in my series on the Pogue Family Collection, the most incredible set of pre-1840 U.S. coins. There are also a few post-1840 coins in the Pogue Family Collection, especially superb quality type coins. Stack’s-Bowers, “in association with Sotheby’s,” will auction the Pogue Family Collection in a series of seven events, the first of which will be conducted on May 19 at 7:00 PM. My impression is that all seven auction sessions are planned to be held at Sotheby’s headquarters in New York city, which is located at the intersection of York Ave and 71st St.

During the Pogue I event, there will be sold half dimes, dimes, quarters, half dollars and quarter eagles ($2½ gold coins). As far as I know, all of the Flowing Hair, Draped Bust and Capped Bust half dimes in the collection are included along with all of the bust quarters. Draped Bust dimes will also be sold on May 19, though Capped Bust dimes will be offered in a future session. Flowing Hair and Draped Bust half dollars likewise will be offered in this session, though not Capped Bust half dollars.

Quarter eagles ($2½ gold coins) dating from 1796 to 1808 ‘come on the block’ on May 19. The remainder of the pre-1840 quarter eagles will probably be sold on September 30th. The schedule may change.

This finest known 1794 half is important for multiple reasons, one of which is that early half dollars are an extremely popular collecting specialty. More pre-1840 halves survive than pre-1840 quarters or dimes. Although 1794 halves are especially scarce, 1795 halves are of the same Flowing Hair design type and are readily available. Thousands of collectors may have a representative of the Flowing Hair type of half dollars.

History & Rarity of 1794 Half Dollars

This is one of my favorite coins in the upcoming Pogue sale. Furthermore, it is not fully appreciated by coin enthusiasts. As the first year of silver dollars, 1794 dollars are extremely popular. The same is true of 1796 quarters, and 1793 large cents. The first year of a whole denomination has a special appeal, yet 1794 halves never became nearly as famous as 1794 dollars or 1796 quarters. Even 1794 half dimes receive more attention.

1794 Flowing Hair Half Dollar. Overton-101a. Rarity-3+. MS-64 (PCGS)
Pogue Family Collection1794 Flowing Hair Half Dollar. Overton-101a. MS-64 (PCGS)

Although 1794 half dimes were really struck in 1795, 1794 half dollars were truly minted in 1794. Major references often indicate that 1794 halves were first minted in October 1794. R. W. Julian states, however, that “the first delivery was on December 1, 1794, and it is believed that the 1794 half dollar dies were used well into January 1795.”

Bob Julian is the leading researcher of U.S. Mint related historical material dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. “Silver dollars were delivered on October 15, 1794, but the press did not bring up the designs all that well so that silver dollar coinage was suspended in favor of half dollars.” Julian adds, “a new press for dollars and medals was completed in early May 1795.”

An extremely small number of people set aside 1794 halves during this period. “Mint State 1794 half dollars are even rarer than mint state 1794 silver dollars,” exclaims Richard Burdick, who has been carefully examining coins of both Flowing Hair types for more than forty years. Richard started attending major auctions in 1969.

Five to seven strictly uncirculated 1794 silver dollars survive, depending upon how the concept of uncirculated is defined. Coins that have noticeable friction are often graded MS-61 or MS-62 by PCGS or NGC, partly because some friction may come about while coins are stored or when they are cleaned by way of wiping motions. Traditionally, coins with readily apparent ‘cabinet friction’ are not regarded as being strictly uncirculated, though these may now be fairly graded as high as MS-62 in accordance with widely accepted standards and criteria.

I have personally examined all of the privately owned ‘mint state’ grade 1794 silver dollars, and I am much more familiar with those than I am with 1794 half dollars. So, my roster, along with accompanying explanations, of 1794 halves is a ‘work in progress’ and should not be taken too seriously. I will improve it in the future.

Regarding 1794 silver dollars, the Carter-Cardinal-Morelan, Rogers-Stellar, Oswald-Hayes-Pogue, Norweb, Boyd-Eubanks-Cardinal and French 1794 silver dollars are all, in my view, truly uncirculated. Also, dozens of ‘mint state’ 1794 half dimes are around, including many that are strictly uncirculated. The rarity of ‘mint state’ 1794 halves is intriguing.

The PCGS CoinFacts estimate that “1200” 1794 halves survive is too high. PCGS and NGC together have probably graded fewer than 475 different 1794 halves. Another 75 to 175 are clearly non-gradable. There are probably 150 to 225 gradable or almost gradable, non-encapsulated 1794 halves around, just about all of which grade below VF-20, mostly below VG-08.

A substantial number of early half collectors prefer to place their coins in albums and/or to examine them outside of holders for various reasons. Overall, I estimate that 700 to 850 exist.

So, 1794 half dollars are very scarce, though not rare, in all states of preservation. The Pogue coin towers above the rest.

The Quality of the Pogue 1794 Half Dollar

I like this coin far more than I expected to like it. It is superior to many other early half dollars, of other dates, that are certified as grading MS-64 and it appears more exciting in actuality than it appears to be in published images.
The Pogue 1794 half scores extremely high in the category of originality. Indeed, John Albanese declares that it is essentially “completely original and technically very solid for the 64 grade!” Although there are noticeable mint-caused imperfections on all 1794 half dollars and this coin has a few small marks from mishandling, there is no evidence of cleaning, doctoring or dipping.

Pogue Family Collection1794 Flowing Hair Half Dollar. Overton-101a. MS-64 (PCGS)
Pogue Family Collection1794 Flowing Hair Half Dollar. Overton-101a. MS-64 (PCGS)

The toning is natural, rich, stable, well balanced and attractive. Further, there is much underlying original luster. In several areas, the luster glows underneath the toning. The luster is crisp and the overall appearance of this coin, especially the reverse, is really cool.

The obverse is mostly a pleasant russet-gray color. Orange-russet tints blend in well, ‘here and there.’ I especially like the green obverse outer fields. Stars 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 each have enticing blue-green outlines.

As this coin is so original and attractive, it is fair to ask why it does not grade higher than 64? There is more than one reason. The main reason relates to a series of horizontal contact marks that start around Miss Liberty’s ear and string across a small portion of her face. There is some minor chatter, groups of very small marks, above her forehead and a light gash between star 6 and her hair. All these marks are small for a half dollar.

I wonder if this coin was undergraded in the past, when PCGS certified as MS-63, because graders then mis-interpreted some mint-caused defects as hairlines or scratches. Adjustment marks were scraped into the prepared blanks (planchets) at the mint before striking to remove silver so that the resulting coins were not overweight. Before adjustments, many of the blanks were too heavy and thus contained more than the specified amount of silver for a half dollar.

Not all adjustment marks are straight line segments. Some curve or swirl. There are some mint-caused indentations on this coin that might be mis-interpreted as scratches, though are adjustment marks or other indentations caused at the mint before striking. The true grade of this coin is high in the 64 range, perhaps around the 65 border.

Most of the mint-caused defects are hardly bothersome, especially without magnification. The positive aspects of this coin far outweigh the negative aspects. All early coins have imperfections. This Hayes-Noblet-Pogue 1794 half is amazingly cool. Further, it seems to be stable in color and texture. This coin is a great prize to be treasured for generations.

Ranking 1794 Halves

Flowing Hair half dollars were minted for just two years, 1794 and 1795. These were followed by another two-year type, Draped Bust, Small Eagle half dollars of 1796 and 1797.

Both 1796 and 1797 halves are rare, far rarer than 1794 halves. Though both pairs constitute two year design types, the total number of 1796 and 1797 halves is much smaller than the total number of surviving 1794 and 1795 halves. No one is expecting the Hayes-Noblet-Pogue 1794 half to realize nearly as much as the Rogers-Foxfire-Pogue 1797 half, which was discussed in part 1 of this series. (Clickable links are in blue.)

Even so, there survive two gem quality 1797 halves, one of which was just mentioned, and two gem quality 1796 halves, including the Rogers-Whitney-Pogue 1796. There are zero, gem quality 1794 half dollars!

My preliminary ranking of 1794 halves is a beginning of research in this area, and is subject to change. Constructive criticism is welcome. I am not aware of another grading expert seriously attempting such a ranking.

1) The Hayes-Noblet-Pogue 1794 half is CAC approved at the MS-64 level and no other ‘MS’ grade 1794 halves are CAC improved. Furthermore, the next highest certified 1794 halves in PCGS data are the three that are graded MS-61. A PCGS graded AU-58 1794, of the O-106 variety, is one of three to be CAC approved at the AU-58 level. That piece is in a private collection in the Midwest.

Although the Hayes-Noblet-Pogue 1794 was previously PCGS graded MS-63, when it was auctioned in January 1999 as part of the Douglas Noblet Collection, I find its grade to be in the high end of the 64 range. It was clearly undergraded in the past.

2) The second finest known is likely to be the Hawn-Queller coin, of which I do not have a very clear recollection. It was auctioned by Stack’s (New York) in 1973 and again in 2002. There is an excellent chance that it is or was NGC graded as MS-63. It is suggested on PCGS CoinFacts and that the Hawn-Queller 1794 would now qualify for a MS-63 grade from PCGS, though I am not concluding that this is so.

I communicated with Dale Friend, a famous collector of half dollars, about this coin and he, too, believes that it is NGC graded MS-63. It is the second finest known to him.

3) Although not the third highest graded, my current working hypothesis, which is very tentative, is that the Eliasberg (O-105) 1794 half is the third finest known. There is not a need to know the meaning of the O-105 die pairing to follow this discussion. There is a need to mention the O-105 die pairing because the Eliasberg Collection contained two highly ranked 1794 halves, this of the O-105 die pairing and the O-101 that is now in Dale Friend’s set.

The Eliasberg O-105 is or was PCGS graded AU-58. It was auctioned by ANR on August 11, 2006 for $253,000, perhaps then an auction record for a sub-63 grade 1794 half. Stack’s auctioned this exact same coin in November 2007 for $287,500, just slightly less than the amount that the Hayes-Noblet-Pogue 1794 realized back in 1999.

In contrast, the Hawn-Queller coin brought $195,500 in October 2002. It would have realized more than $250,000 had it been auctioned in 2006 or 2007.

While it is true that the Eliasberg O-101 brought more than the Eliasberg O-105 in April 1997, $77,000 versus $66,000, this result could have been influenced by the catalogue descriptions or by the aesthetics of the coins in the eyes of specific bidders.

Charlie Browne assigned a higher grade to the O-105, “62+,” than to the O-101, 58+ though probably “commercially” higher. Yes, many dealers used plus grades in their notes years before PCGS or NGC explicitly assigned plus grades.

Browne served four stints, in different time periods, as a grader for PCGS. Moreover, Charlie has worked as a grader for leading dealers, who handled very expensive coins, at various times over a career of around forty years as a coin professional. Browne is generally regarded as one of the sharpest and most experienced graders in the nation.

My guess is that the Eliasberg O-105 has never been sent to CAC. It may receive a higher grade if re-submitted to PCGS. Could it be that it has been NGC graded as MS-62? I hope that bust half enthusiasts will furnish additional information to me.

The Cardinal 1794 half dollar – August 2010 Boston Rarities Sale Lot #1004

4) The Cardinal 1794 half dollar could be the fourth finest known. At the moment, I do not have a recollection of ever having seen it. Martin Logies, the curator of the Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation, assembled a mint set of 1794 coins. This set was consigned to the Spectrum-B&M pre-ANA auction in Boston in August 2010. A PCGS graded AU-58 1794 half was in that same auction.

The Cardinal 1794 half was NGC graded MS-62 before 2010 and was later PCGS graded MS-61. Published pictures of this coin are impressive, though it is not sensible to draw conclusions about coins from pictures. I have, though, discussed the coin with Logies and others.

5) The Cass-Simpson 1794 half was NGC graded MS-61 when auctioned by ANR on August 11, 2006, for $195,500. A little over a year later, when it was offered by the Goldbergs in September 2007, it was PCGS graded MS-61. Stack’s (NY) auctioned the collection of Charles Cass in November 1957.

Charlie Browne examined the Cass piece in 2007. “Beautiful coin, little bit of cabinet friction, well centered, minor lines, nice gray color,” Charlie noted. Browne was accepting of the assigned MS-61 grade.

6) The Eliasberg-Friend, PCGS graded MS-61 1794 half (O-101) seems to have less friction than the just mentioned Cass-Simpson 1794, which is also PCGS graded MS-61. “I bought it from Superior Galleries as an NGC-61 in 2002 and crossed it to PCGS about seven years ago,” Dale reveals, in response to my inquiry.

1794 Flowing Hair Half Dollar. O-106. AU-58 (PCGS). CAC.
Earle Collection 1794 Half Dollar. O-106. AU-58 (PCGS). CAC.

7) Although it might not necessarily be the seventh finest known, the Earle O-106 1794 half is the most famous of all those that are certified as grading AU-58 and it is superior to the NGC graded MS-61 Gardner 1794 half. George Earle formed one of the all-time greatest collections of classic U.S. coins, which was auctioned in 1912.

The Earle coin is PCGS graded and CAC approved. In August 2010, it was in the same Spectrum-B&M auction that included the Cardinal 1794 half. The PCGS graded AU-58 Earle 1794 brought just a little less, $175,000, than the then NGC graded MS-62 Cardinal 1794, $189,750. As already noted, the Cardinal 1794 was later PCGS graded MS-61.

8) The Gene Gardner 1794 has considerable friction and other issues. It is NGC graded MS-61 and was auctioned by Heritage in June 2014. If pertinent experts really evaluated it as grading MS-61, it would have realized much more than it then did, $152,750. I cannot accept even an AU-58 grade for it.

For early half dollars, the differences between AU-58, MS-61 and MS-62 grade coins are often not clear in the minds of professional graders, and many such coins have upgraded over the last twenty-five years. Perhaps all of the 1794 halves that fall within this grade range have noticeable friction on the highpoints? It is hard to rank them. In contrast, the strictly uncirculated Pogue 1794 is extraordinarily impressive.

©2015 Greg Reynolds

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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