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1795 Half Eagle

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There is no doubt that the 1795 half eagle is a fascinating and historical coin. It is also a scarce and somewhat confusing coin because it came with either a small or large eagle reverse. It all adds up to a lot of questions and not enough answers for one of the most interesting issues of early American coin production.

Just the fact that it took until 1795 to make a gold eagle is an interesting story. After all, the gold eagle, like other denominations, had been authorized back in early April of 1792. Lawmakers had authorized coins to be produced in an undisclosed location (because there was no mint), from undetermined supplies of metal, which was purchased by funds that were not yet allocated, made by employees still not hired.

It was a lot for Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to work out. It took about a year before there even was a Mint to operate, and even then there were problems: gold and silver coins could not be made until a bond was posted, and no one was willing to post the bond.

Once that happened, the first priority was silver coins, produced in 1794. Then in 1795, attention was finally turned to producing some gold coins. The first obstacle was to get the gold, which was accomplished in July when 128 ounces were acquired followed by another 100 ounces. This made it possible to begin production of the first Robert Scot design half eagle on July 31, 1795.

What happened to that initial mintage could be called one of life’s little mysteries. What we know is that a reported 8,707 1795 half eagles were produced followed by a 6,196 mintage of a 1796/5. Normally that second mintage would not matter, but in 1795 dies and dates seemed to have a life of their own, unrelated to any specific totals placed on Mint reports.

The first indication that things are not quite as they were reported back in 1795 can be found in the grading service reports. It would be natural with a higher mintage and being the historic first that the 1795 might be slightly more common today than the 1796/5, but instead of perhaps a 2-to-1 ratio we find that NGC and PCGS combine to show a difference more on the order of 8-to-1. That is backed up by the fact that we see roughly a dozen die varieties for the 1795 but only one for the 1796/5. That produces only one logical conclusion: There is little doubt that some of the 1796 mintage actually carried a 1795 date.

Then there is the matter of the two different reverses. We know the small eagle reverse was the earlier. We know the large eagle reverse was not used on any other denomination until 1796. Then there is the matter of the 16th star.

If you check the large eagle reverse of the 1795, you find it has 16 stars and not 15 as are found on the small eagle reverse. The addition of that 16th star is almost certainly due to the addition of the 16th state to the Union, Tennessee, in June of 1796. Add to the star the fact that some obverse dies even seem to be heavily worn, and there seems to be a good deal of reason to support the notion that large eagle reverse 1795 half eagles were in fact produced in 1796.

Whatever the reverse, the 1795 is a very desirable coin. That mintage, even if you combine the 1795 and the 1796, is still very small, and a $5 gold coin at the time was far too expensive for many to save.

In terms of price, we see that the 1795 with a small reverse currently starts at $16,000 in F-12 with an MS-60 at $68,000. For the large eagle reverse, the F-12 price is $8,000 while an MS-60 is at $80,000, with the 1796/5 at $22,000 in F-12 and $165,000 in MS-60. In upper grades, where any of the three are very elusive, the sky is the limit for ultra grade examples.

Realistically, most cannot hope to own a 1795 half eagle, no matter how large or small the eagle on the reverse. It is, however, a great coin to study if you want some indication of how things were working at the early U.S. Mint. Clearly, this was a coin where production was the only concern and not whether the date was right or the die worn or even the reverse correct. Back in 1795 and 1796, an overworked Mint was simply trying to produce what coins it could, which is clearly reflected in the 1795 half eagle, a true classic creation of the early Mint. ◆