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Item of the Week: 1795 Half Eagle

1795HalfEagle-SmallEeagle

The 1795 half eagle is an historic coin and certainly a tough coin. It is also a very interesting coin. It was produced with a small eagle or a large eagle on the reverse. It is an interesting situation because the large or Heraldic eagle reverse did not even exist in 1795.

In 1792, along with the other denominations, the half eagle had been approved. Like other gold and silver issues, production had to wait. First there had to be a mint, and that took until 1793. Then there had to be a bond posted before silver and gold could be produced. That did not happen without some serious negotiations.

By the time the bond was settled it was 1794, and the year saw only silver dollars and half dollars produced. The early months of 1795 saw half dimes, and around the end of June 1795 the director Henry William DeSaussure ordered that gold coin production should begin.

The gold half eagle was first. That was a little surprising because it was not the highest denomination. The size, however, was popular around the world at the time. On July 31, 744 half eagles were produced followed by other amounts finally reaching a total of 8,707 pieces for the year.

The original 1795 half eagle had a Liberty Cap obverse and a small eagle reverse. As was the case with other gold coins, there was no denomination on the coin. Five dollars would not appear until 1807.

The lack of a denomination certainly seems odd, but at the time the merchants were dealing with coins from all over the world. It was the amount of gold, not the face value that mattered in commerce. In fact, that initial mintage was barely mentioned at the time. It had little, if any, impact in commerce as the dominant gold coin was the 8 escudo.

The production of the 1795 would resume we believe in 1798. Naturally, this seems impossible. However, with the introduction of the new large or Heraldic eagle reverse, someone apparently found a perfectly usable 1795 obverse die. This was not all that unusual at the time as old dies would be put back into service until they were completely worn out. Matching a 1795 obverse with a 1798 reverse did not bother anyone. Of course it bothers us today as we are curious as to how many 1795 half eagles with a large eagle reverse were made. We really cannot be sure, although some have put the total at 500.

The prices today show the small eagle reverse at $16,000 in F-12 and $68,000 in MS-60. The large eagle reverse is at $8,000 in F-12 but $80,000 in MS-60. That too seems odd.

The grading services actually provide some reasons for the seemingly odd pricing. Professional Coin Grading Service has graded the 1795 with a small eagle reverse 308 times, while the large eagle reverse 1795 has been seen a total of 41 times.

The interesting thing, other than the fact that the numbers are fairly high, is that the small eagle reverse has been called Mint State a total of 64 times, which is a very high number. In the case of the large eagle reverse, it has been called Mint State 31 times. This is an astonishing total considering just 41 were graded.

The large Mint State numbers, however, can you give the wrong impression. It must be understood that most gold coins of the period only saw light circulation, so they grade higher than might normally be expected. Striking can vary considerably from one coin to another, so a sharp AU can actually be a better coin in some minds than a poorly struck MS-60. There are also adjustment marks, usually in the center or toward the borders, and a host of other factors that can influence the opinion and price of many when it comes to a specific coin.

All of that said, the fact remains that the 1795 with a large eagle or a small is an historic an interesting coin. With a mintage less than 10,000, frankly we are lucky to have the supplies there are today.