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The Ultra Rare 1798 Small Eagle Reverse Half Eagle

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1798 Small Eagle Reverse Half Eagle.
1798 Small Eagle Reverse Half Eagle.

Why the 1798 half eagle with the Small Eagle reverse even exists is the combination of several factors. The Yellow Fever epidemics that had forced the Mint to close for periods of 1796, 1797, and 1798 certainly were a main factor. When the Mint reopened in December, 1797, after a bout with the fever, whatever dies that were available were used for coining and this 1798 obverse was combined with a small eagle reverse that earlier had been used with a Close Date obverse of 1795.1 It has been conjectured that the 691 coins of January 4, 1798 were dated 1797 and that the 1798 Small Eagle reverse coins were part of the 1,856 coins released February 28, 1798. This is possible, although the 1798 Small Eagle coins may have been struck later in the year since die and date combinations, as just footnoted, were indiscriminately employed as three 1795 obverses were also paired with two Heraldic Eagle reverses, these also likely struck sometime in late 1797 or anytime in 1798!

When W. Elliot Woodward sold the discovery piece in March of 1865 (Bache I:2771), numismatists were made aware of one of the legendary rarities of American numismatics – it was stated in the catalogue that is was the only one known! The Ten Eyck specimen in 1922 brought $5250 to Waldo Newcomer who was prepared to pay $6000! Edgar Adams knew of only two specimens when he wrote his gold treatise, Official Premium List of U.S. and Territorial Gold Coins, in 1909.2 In Stack’s Flanagan Sale in 1944, the 1798 Small Eagle was described as "…in the class of the 1822…the third specimen in existence…all three specimens were handled by us in recent years." Stack’s was not including the Smithsonian Institute coin, so they were referring to the three specimens in private hands of which they were aware. In addition to the Flanagan coin (Specimen 1 below), Stack’s had sold the Clapp collection virtually intact to Louis Eliasberg in 1942 (Specimen 2 below) and in 1943 had bought the Col. Green half eagles as a group (Specimen 7 below).3 They sold the Flanagan coin (Weihman’s duplicate) to King Farouk in a half eagle set made up from the Green collection. The Ten Eyck coin (the true Col. Green example) later went to H.P. Graves and still later was sold to Josiah Lilly.

However, two years after Stack’s sold the Flanagan coin, B. Max Mehl sold the William Cutler Atwater collection, which contained the Butler-Earle-Ellsworth coin (Specimen 5 below). Col. James W. Ellsworth purchased it in the Earle sale for $3000(!), which was a record in 1912 for an individual regular issue U. S. gold coin. Wayte Raymond later sold this coin to Atwater in 1924 (or 1925) along with other rarities from Col. Ellsworth, including the Stickney 1804 dollar. Stack’s must have thought that the Butler-Earle coin and the discovery coin (Mickley-Woodward-Bache-Appleton-Garrett) possibly were duplicates of the coins they had handled, since these two would make Mehl’s count in the Atwater sale correct at the time (the new example discovered in 1996 makes the current census 7). When Mehl sold the Atwater collection in 1946, he noted 6 known including the Parmelee-Smithsonian Institute coin (Specimen 6 below).

The extra coins not noted by Stack’s, besides the Butler-Earle-Atwater coin and the Parmelee-Smithsonian coin, were the discovery coin (the famous Mickley-Woodward-Bache-Appleton-Garrett example, which is Specimen 3 below) and Specimen 7 below – the true Col. Green coin, of which they were unaware as the Green collection purchase was not completed until 1945. As Harvey Stack recently informed the author, the Green Collection acquisition was completed in 1945. Chase Bank was the custodian of the Green estate after his death in 1943 and the actual transfer of coins was not until 1945. (Stack’s paid nearly $300,000 for the Col. Green half eagles and eagles, a staggering sum for the era – and a testament to the voluminous buying power of the son of the Witch of Wall Street.) This, plus Weihman substituting the Flanagan coin for the "Green" plates, solves the mystery of why Walter Breen has the Ten Eyck coin first going to Farouk and then later to Lilly. Green had one coin, but the "Green" plate coin is the Flanagan coin bought by Clifford T. Weihman! Weihman chose the nicer of the two coins to have photographed, which was done in 1946 by the same photographer who "captured" the nuptials of one Harvey Stack! B. Max Mehl also may have thought these last two specimens were the same coin, as he mentions neither specifically in the Atwater catalogue, which results in his count of 6 known.4 This roster has remained unchanged since the 1940’s with numismatists reporting the number of specimens as 6 extant – at least until now.

Only the 1822 and the 1854-S are of greater date rarity than the 1798 Small Eagle amongst all half eagles struck from 1795 until 1929. (The 1829 Large Size and Small Size half eagles, of course, are of equal rarity to the 1798 Small Eagle, the Large Size with a few less specimens currently known.) The varieties 1797 16 Star Heraldic Eagle Reverse, 1825/4, 1828/7, and the 12 Star 1832 are of equal or greater rarity, but there are other varieties of these dates that make them less rare overall as dates. The 1798 Small Eagle is a distinct type, thus the Heraldic Eagle 1798 coin is not a variety of 1798 Small Eagles. This legendary rarity has had a roster of 7 (or 6 in some quarters) specimens for many years and a new specimen would, as Breen noted in his 1988 encyclopedia, "…unquestionably reach the front pages of all the coin-trade papers."

The seventh specimen appeared in 1996, bought by John Dannreuther with another dealer in a Southern coin shop that had purchased it from an individual, who only said that the coin had remained in his family for many years. The only specimen that this could be, if it is not a new coin, would be the Butler-Earle-Atwater coin (Specimen 5 below), but it does not match the description of that example. Thus, I have concluded it is almost certainly a different coin, as well as a previously unknown example. The Butler-Earle-Atwater coin’s whereabouts is currently not known, thus this is the only example "missing in action." Stack’s mentioning in the Flanagan catalogue of a sale at $7500 could have been their extrapolation of the price Louis Eliasberg, Sr. may have figured the 1798 Small Eagle in the 1942 purchase of the Clapp collection ($100,000 plus a commission to Stack’s).

The Lilly-Smithsonian Institute coin is not Specimen 1 below, as Breen had speculated. As noted, Walter was unaware that the Col. Green plates were actually not all Green coins with Clifford T. Weihman substituting the Flanagan coin when the "Green" plates were made. Stack’s also slightly confused matters by repeating the error in the Baldenhofer catalogue, identifying that example as the Ten Eyck-Newcomer coin. Breen did not know that Col. Green plates were really the Clifford T. Weihman collection! The Lilly-Smithsonian Institute coin is correctly identified as Specimen 7, as a recent examination (October, 1997) has found it to be repaired in the field where the scratches were reported to be located per the Davis-Graves catalogue. (It also matches the Ten Eyck plates.) What follows is the most current census (including some speculation) with the JDRC, Inc. coin listed as a new specimen among the seven possible examples.

CENSUS

1) Caldwell-Flanagan-Clifford T. Weihman- Farouk-Wittlin-Baldenhofer- John Murrell-Pogue. This is believed to be the finest known, reportedly, EF45-AU50. The picture in the Flanagan catalogue looks higher grade than the catalogue description of "Strictly very fine with slight file mark on Reverse and exceedingly rare." The current owner grades the coin at least EF45 and David Akers, a conservative grader, graded it AU50! The detail appears to be at least EF45 and the strike looks nearly full, although there are no breast feathers, which may be due to the angle of the light or beginning die failure. There also appears to be a depression on the right side of the first star that should be an easily identifiable "marker." The current owner also states that the reverse adjustment marks are present. Caldwell noted in his 1935 article in The Numismatist that this example was known at least as early as the Rev. Ely sale in 11/17/1888: "The fourth specimen mentioned as known in the Ely Collection has never been offered for sale. I happen to be the owner of it and it is here illustrated for the first time. There is just one other specimen of this great rarity known, and it was discovered by Mr. B. Max Mehl, who writes me that he obtained it ‘some ten years ago and sold it at private sale at almost its record price.’" Caldwell noted that his example was not the Ely coin, while he implied that he had owned the coin for quite some time and, when he wrote his 1935 article, there were but five known examples. The description of the example in the H.P. Smith (Bangs & Co.) 1883 sale "…eagle’s body not struck sharp, otherwise fine." seems to fit this coin, although it also could easily be the JDRC-Terranova-Sherman coin. The Baldenhofer plate has the planchet flaw at the first star, which Stack’s called the finest known with "…full proof lustre around the obverse stars, date and Liberty…Were it not for the faint cabinet friction, this coin could easily be called Uncirculated with semi-proof surface." Pedigree: possibly H.P. Smith (Bangs & Co.) 3/16/1883:1005; unknown intermediaries; Raymond L. Caldwell of Lancaster, PA (ill. The Numismatist 4/1935 p. 212); Col. James W. Flanagan in 1935 or later; Stack’s 3/23/1944 Col. James W. Flanagan:1063 @ $5000 to Clifford T. Weihman who placed it in the "Green" collection of which he bought a complete set of half eagles and eagles, then removed this coin and placed the Ten Eyck coin in his set, which was later sold (with his set of eagles) to Josiah Lilly intact (see below); Stack’s; privately to King Farouk; Sotheby & Co. 2/25/1954 King Farouk Palace Sale:229 in a 5 piece (!) large lot @ 600 Egyptian pounds plus 5% surcharge; P. H. Wittlin supposedly as agent for Farish Baldenhofer; Stack’s 1/11-12/1955 Baldenhofer:1203 @ $6000; possibly other intermediaries or directly to John H. Murrell; sold privately to Mack & Brent Pogue in 1979.

2) Mehl-Clapp-Eliasberg-Bass-Harry Bass Research Foundation. EF40+ pictured in Breen’s encyclopedia (B-6421). The Clapp-Eliasberg connection is well chronicled and the Raymond Caldwell 1935 article noted that Mehl had sold a recently discovered example for near its price record to a private client. As far as I know, Mehl did not disclose the source of this particular 1798 Small Eagle other than he had obtained it privately, so if a reader has information as to the source of this coin, the author would be appreciative of any help.5 Pedigree: private collector; B. Max Mehl privately to John H. Clapp at $5250 (1924) per Atwater catalogue; John H. Clapp to Louis Eliasberg, Sr. in 1942, with Stack’s as agents; Bowers & Ruddy 11/1982 Eliasberg:330 @ $77,000 to #340 Harry Bass, Jr.; Bass collection (1982-1998); Harry Bass Research Foundation (1998-present).

3) Mickley-"Bache"-Appleton-Woodward-Garrett-JHU- Private collection. EF40+. Dave Akers thinks this coin is superior to Specimen 2 although I graded them both EF40 or slightly better. While the Eliasberg coin has slightly better breast feathers and surfaces, there may have been some scratches removed from the left obverse field. This is believed to be the other PCGS EF40 graded example, one identifying feature is a rim dent above E of UNITED. Described in Auction ‘83 by Dave Akers as "Extremely Fine 40…Attractive, medium greenish-gold toning with orange highlights in the letters. The obverse has some light adjustment marks and planchet lines as well as a few carbon flecks…is a slightly higher grade than the Eliasberg specimen…" This example has the longest and most complete provenance of all 1798 Small Eagles. Pedigree: Joseph J. Mickley (before 1865); W. Elliot Woodward 3/20/1865 Bache, Bertsch, Lightbody, Lilliendahl, Vinton, and Watson:2771 @ $125 (alternately called Bache I:2771) described as "…very good condition, only a little circulated."; Harvey Strobridge; William Sumner Appleton; W. Elliot Woodward Jan. 18, 1883 private sale to T. Harrison Garrett; Robert Garrett (1888); John Work Garrett (1919); Johns Hopkins University (1942); Bowers & Ruddy 11/1979 Garrett:437 @ $110,000 to #388 Ken Goldman split with MTB (Paul Nugget as agent for Manfra, Tordella, and Brooks); Paramount Auction 83:367 @ $71,500 to #131 Joe Kuehnert; private treaty to Kevin Lipton Rare Coins; private treaty to Mid-American Rare Coin Galleries; Coin World ad, sold into a private collection.

4) JDRC-Terranova-Sherman-Kardatzke. PCGS EF40 (4493648) bought in July 1996 by John Dannreuther Rare Coins, Inc. and partner. This has a weak reverse (the central area is flat and appears lower grade than the rest of the coin) and slight adjustment marks on the obverse, which is "better struck" than the reverse. This coin may be one of the last coins struck, since the central area of the reverse is weak from die failure, not from insufficient striking pressure. This accounts for the rarity of this issue, as not only was this reverse used in 1795, it may also have been used in 1796 or 1797, and finally in 1798 for this spectacular issue. It most likely failed striking this anomaly. For further identification, there also is a small planchet flake above the 2nd T of STATES. Pedigree: unknown, believed to be a different specimen than any of the 6 previously known examples; Southern family; Southern coin shop; private treaty 7/1996 to JDRC, Inc. and partner; Denver ANA96 split with Ken Goldman; private treaty to Anthony Terranova; private treaty to California collector (Gene Sherman); Terranova as agent 4/1998, sold to Dave Liljerstrand for his customer; Goldbergs’ 6/1999 Ariagno:710 unsold; Goldbergs’ 6/4/2000 Kardatzke:1290 @ $264,500 to The Mint (Jay Parrino).

5) Butler-Earle-Ellsworth-Atwater. This example is reported to be VF with scratches above RI or between R and I of AMERICA. B. Max Mehl described this coin as "…very fine. The wear is slight and evenly distributed. The coin is free from any nicks or dents and has considerable original mint luster." He made no mention of the scratches on the reverse that appear to be visible in the photo along with some marks (?) under the adjacent wing, although this may be a "stock" photograph and not one of the actual coin sold. I have not seen the Earle catalogue, so the slight surface problems may be mentioned there. Pedigree: John Butler of Burlington, NJ circa 1900; Butler’s son; George H. Earle; H. Chapman 6/28/1912 George H. Earle:2339 @ $3000 ; Col. James W. Ellsworth; Wayte Raymond 1923 private treaty in the purchase of Col. Ellsworth’s collection for a reported $100,000; privately to William Cutler Atwater in 1924 (or 1925); B. Max Mehl’s 6/11/1946 William Cutler Atwater MBS:1612 @ $3100; present whereabouts unknown.

6) Parmelee-Woodside-SI. VF with reverse scratched. Identifiers: Reverse has an X scratched in the field below the eagle’s neck; a scratch between RI of AMERICA; a planchet flaw below B of LIBERTY; a scratch between ER of LIBERTY to the hair curl on the forehead (viewed October, 1997). Pedigree: Lorin G. Parmelee; NY Coin & Stamp 6/25/1890 Parmelee:758; George Woodside; Mint Cabinet Collection, Smithsonian Institute prior to 1910 but after 1890.

7) Rev. Ely-R. Coulton Davis-Ten Eyck-Newcomer-Col. E.H.R. Green-H.P. Graves-Weihman-Stack’s-Lilly. For years, this has been called nearly VF with obvious reverse digs and scratches. However, the Lilly coin has been repaired 6 in the right obverse field, with a scratch through the hat, undoubtedly Davis-Graves after repair work. Also, there is a nick in field between 2nd and 3rd star, as well as a scratch from the rim vertically upward through 12th star. The reverse has a dig in the field left of the eagle’s head and scratches below the right (viewer’s) wing. A partial Ten Eyck description by Mehl matches the Lilly coin quite well: "On the obverse it has a short light scratch in field before face, at ED of UNITED and a space to S of STATES has been rubbed, probably as a test; few other light scratches on reverse. The coin as a whole can be classed as fine." Mehl also only listed three known examples in the Ten Eyck sale, while the 1888 Ely sale listed 4 known! Of course, Mehl did not know about the Caldwell example until it was revealed to the world in 1935. However, eighteen months after the Ten Eyck sale, Mehl handled another example of this legendary rarity. He sold that coin to John Clapp in 1924, it presumably being unknown at the time of the Rev. Ely sale in 1888, as Caldwell notes that his coin was the fourth coin mentioned in that sale. Pedigree: Rev. W. Foster Ely; Scott Stamp & Coin 11/17/1888 Rev. Ely Sale:17 @ $51; possibly R. Coulton Davis (the Mint’s druggist); unknown intermediaries or directly to James Ten Eyck; B. Max Mehl 5/2/1922 James Ten Eyck:166 @ $5250; Waldo Newcomer bought this coin in that sale and was prepared to pay $6000 (!); Col. E.H.R. Green in 1932 privately from B. Max Mehl, who took it on consignment from Newcomer in 1931; private treaty to Stack’s with all of Col. Green’s half eagles in 1943-45; probably directly to H. P. Graves or possibly Clifford T. Weihman then to Graves; Stack’s 4/8-10/1954 Davis-Graves:1418 @ $7000; Clifford T. Weihman, or more likely, directly to Lilly per Stack’s book bid as Lilly never attended auctions; Stack’s; Josiah Lilly; Smithsonian Institute in 1968 with the Lilly donation, which required an act of Congress for the five and one half million dollar tax credit. According to Harvey Stack, if Lilly had not been given the tax relief, their firm would have auctioned the entire collection!

So, although some of the above participants may be slightly confused, the legendary rarity of this classic coin is not exaggerated. It may be slightly more rare than the seven examples listed! That is quite a change from the normal situation – most coins are usually not as rare as they are made out to be. From its discovery in the mid-nineteenth century, the half eagle of 1798 with the Small Eagle reverse has retained its position as one of the most rare of all United States coins, gold or otherwise. It is – a true American numismatic classic!

1 This 1795 obverse die may also have been used in 1796 or 1797, as both obverse and reverse dies were rather indiscriminately used in the Mint’s early years. The obverse used for the 1798 Small Eagle coins also was later paired with the Heraldic Eagle Reverse type!
2 W. Elliot Woodward had heard of no other specimens, but in the Rev. Ely sale in 1888, Scott Stamp and Coin noted there were 4 known. Today, the fact that Edgar Adams, a recognized scholar of the era, knew of only 2 examples is not surprising due to the limited references of the time.
3 Col. Green appears to have had two examples, per conversation with Harvey Stack, however, Stack’s did not complete the purchase of the Green half eagles and eagles until 1945. Clifford T. Weihman bought the Flanagan coin and placed it in the "Green" collection, which was photographed in 1946 with the Flanagan coin as the Col. Green example. This confused Breen and others who examined the Col Green plates, which were actually Weihman’s coins! The 1798 that Weihman bought in the Flanagan sale was not part of the Green estate, as the Flanagan sale took place a year after Col Green died!
4 Mehl, however, handled the Ten Eyck coin and sold it to Col. Green, although he occasionally "forgot" or confused examples of certain rarities he sold! This happened to many other early catalogers, as reference libraries were not as extensive as they are today.
5 Email [email protected] or regular mail at JDRC, Inc. 868 Mt. Moriah #202, Memphis, TN 38117.
6 The author’s personal observation of the Lilly coin in October 1997 revealed the repair work in the obverse field.
John Dannreuther grew up in the rare coin business. His father ran trade paper ads in the 1950s as V.J. Dannreuther and Sons. After graduating from the University of Mississippi with a degree in chemistry, John went back into the coin business, becoming a full-time dealer in 1973. Today he is considered one of the top rare coin experts of all time. In 1986, John was one of the co-founders of Professional Coin Grading Service. In 1997, he was the principal text author of "The Official Guide To Coin Grading And Counterfeit Detection," the Numismatic Literary Guild's "Book Of The Year" award winner for 1998.
Obverse and reverse view of the 1798 Small Eagle.

Obverse and reverse view of the 1798 Small Eagle.