This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Many times coins can be overlooked because they are too rare, and that might be the case with the 1796 half cent. It is an extremely tough half cent date that relatively few who do not collect half cents know or understand.
The early days of the half cent were definitely interesting ones. We can’t really be sure if there was a plan to produce the half cent back in 1793, but it was produced simply because there were literally no other choices.
The Mint was ready for business in 1793, but the business it could do was limited to copper large cents and half cents. A bond had to be posted by the officials before they could make any gold or silver coins. The bond was $10,000, an enormous sum back then, and officials balked at the requirement. That resulted in negotiations between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was responsible for the Mint, and Congress. While this went on, the Mint did all it could do, which meant producing copper coins.
After the first year, there would be additional half cent mintages in 1794 and 1795 with the combined total of the two years topping 200,000. By 1796, however, the Mint was still trying to produce some denominations for the first time.
The half cent was already proving to be a problem. There was no particularly good or reliable supply of copper in the U.S. The best place to obtain copper turned out to be England and that was awkward, to say the least. A bloody war was bad enough and years of making unpleasant comments and drawings of the king added to the problem. An unsettled political climate meant an unsettled copper supply.
At the time, the priority was large cents, not half cents. This was made clear in 1796 when the mintage of half cents was reported to be a mere 1,390, as opposed to some 363,375 large cents. Assuming the half cent mintage is correct, it was going to be an extremely tough date under any circumstance. However, it ended up getting tougher because the design was issued both with a pole and without a pole.
Adding to the difficulty for collectors today is that there was very little collector activity in 1796. Even if there had been, it is unlikely that collectors would have noticed that some had a pole and some didn’t.
Today the 1796 with the pole lists for $20,000 in G-4 and goes up to $96,000 in AU-50. As it turns out, it is the more available variety. The 1795 without the pole starts at $37,500 in G-4 and goes up to $125,000 in VF-20, the highest grade for which it is priced.
Such prices require support. Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has seen 15 examples of the with-pole version, two of which were Mint State. It has seen just a single example of the without-pole version. It graded MS-62.
PCGS reports 33 examples of the with-pole version with half a dozen graded Mint State. The total of the without-pole stands at just four, including an MS-62 and MS-67.
Now that is rarity. The two services’ combined total for the no-pole 1796 is a mere five coins, and there could have been repeat submissions since both NGC and PCGS report an MS-62. This coin has to be considered a potential major rarity.