Grading Draped Bust Half Dollars (1796-1807)
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The Flowing Hair portrait used for the silver coins of 1794-95 drew some criticism for Liberty's untamed appearance, so a more refined design was introduced on the silver dollar late in 1795. This was adapted for the half dollar beginning the following year. An old tradition holds that this new bust of Liberty was drawn by famed portrait painter Gilbert Stuart, though there's no archival evidence to verify this claim. Combined with a more polished rendition of the eagle-within-a-wreath motif used since 1794, half dollars of this type were coined 1796-97.
It's believed that the majority of the 1796-dated halves were struck in the following year. For the type collector, this tidbit is far less important than the fact that half dollars of either date are quite scarce. Fewer than four thousand pieces were struck of both issues combined. Since the reverse was changed before half dollars were next coined in 1801, pieces having the Small Eagle reverse are very elusive and somewhat expensive in all grades. As a consequence, some albums for the type collector simply omit the Small Eagle design.
The Draped Bust obverse continued into 1807, but the coins dated 1801-07 featured the Heraldic Eagle reverse based on the Great Seal of the United States of America. This type was produced in fairly large numbers, particularly after 1804 when dollar coinage was suspended. Readily available in most grades through Very Fine, higher-grade examples are scarce. Also, the 1801, 1802 and 1803 dates are less available than the later issues. By far the most common date of this type is 1806, though there are a number of scarce varieties for this and other dates within the series.
Both types of Draped Bust half dollars are often found weakly struck at their centers. This is due to poor metal displacement where the points of highest relief on obverse and reverse coincide. Aggravating this condition is the fact that dies were sometimes improperly hardened, causing them to sink at their centers. With the dies slightly concave, filling the deepest cavities became even more difficult. Such coins are lacking central details, even when in high grades. Features that may appear lacking include the hair around Liberty's ear, some letters in the Latin motto and the adjacent feathers. Most often lacking or ill defined are the clouds and stars below letters OF, since this part of the reverse is directly opposite the highest relief of Liberty's breasts.
Coins of both types were subject to being marred by adjustment lines. Overweight planchets were filed across their faces prior to striking so that their weight could be brought down to the legal standard. Some of these lines may still appear after striking, particularly within the relief areas (why such filing was not performed on the edge instead of the faces will always remain a mystery). Since adjustment lines were a normal part of the coining process, they affect a coin's grade only when especially deep or obvious. Coins of the Heraldic Eagle type are common enough that a collector may simply pass on pieces having these lines.
The Small Eagle halves are so scarce that a collector determined to own one will likely have to settle for a well worn example. In selecting such a coin, try to find a piece that has even, symmetrical wear rather than one that is worn heavily in isolated spots. Since the pool of available coins is quite limited, this will be very challenging. Heraldic Eagle coins are much more often seen, but the same advice applies. Also very desirable are examples that have never been cleaned. This is nearly impossible to find with the 1796-97 coins, but the later pieces are available with some patience. Lightly cleaned coins of either type usually are still certifiable, but ones having their original patina will prove more satisfying aesthetically and are easier to sell when that time comes.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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