Q. David Bowers:
The following narrative, with minor editing, is from my "Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia" (Wolfeboro, NH: Bowers and Merena Galleries, Inc., 1993). Note: the Notable Specimens list should be used with caution - it has been updated in my 2013 edition of "The Encyclopedia of United States Silver Dollars 1794-1804."
OBVERSE 2: 16 stars, arranged 9 to the left and 7 to the right. Highest wave of hair, below upright of E, is lightly defined, probably due to insufficient depth of punching of the Draped Bust motif into the die (and not due to relapping). Prominent lump in field below star 9. Heavy die file lines in front of neck. One is vertical with several others slanting down to right.
Obverse die used to strike 1797 BB-72 (earlier) and BB-73 (later).
REVERSE B: Described under 1795 BB-51, herewith repeated: Small Eagle. Small Letters in legend. Eagle stands on clouds. Wreath is composed of a palm branch (right) and olive branch (left), the latter with seven berries. A short, prominent die scratch extends up to left from tip of right, inside leaf below (observer's) left wing. Berry under A of STATES; a quick way to identify this reverse.
Reverse die used to strike 1795 BB-51; 1796 BB-62, BB-63, and BB-66 (now relapped); 1797 BB-72; and 1798 BB-81.
Die State I: Perfect dies (no cracks). Earliest state of the obverse; equivalent to 1797 BB-73 Die State 1. Reverse die relapped, equivalent to 1796 BB-63 Die State II.
ABOUT MINTAGE AND RARITY: How many exist? 1797 BB-72 has been subjected to widely varying estimates of rarity over the years, with some observers stating that only about 20 are known, and others ranking the population at Sheldon's Rarity-4 (76 to 200). The latter is probably closer to the truth. I believe that 200 to 300 exist today, and believe that this figure is conservative (I wouldn't bet against someone who suggested that even more than 300 could be traced). At a convention a few years ago, I purchased four specimens for stock –s omething that one usually can't do if only 20 are known. At that rate, one would see a 1797 BB-72 dollar only about as frequently as an 1876-CC 20-cent piece (of which I believe about 20 are known)-but that isn't the case.
In reality, the fame of the 1797 BB-72 has been larger than reality. However, the BB-72 is still eminently desirable. It is just that quite a few more than 20 are known. In trying to track down why the issue has been listed as a major rarity, I concluded that the culprit is the low mintage of just 7,776 for the calendar year 1797. If only 7,776 were minted, and if 1797 BB-72 is the rarest variety of the year (which it is), then the mintage of BB-72 must have been some tiny fraction of 7,776. What might the mintage be? From that point, it was a short step to the inspection of the calendar year 1797 delivery figures by day: February 28: 342; May 26: 1,060; June 30: 3,881; August 13: 2,071; August 28: 422. The lowest figure, 342, fit the bill exactly; q. V., 1797 BB-72 dollars were all delivered on February 28, 1797, and the mintage was 342. Neat idea. However, it doesn't square with the fact that nearly that many are known to exist today.
Robert P. Hilt III, in Die Varieties of Early United States Coins, 1980, stated that the mintage of Bolender-2 (BB-72) was not 342, but composed the entire production of 7,776 for the 1797 calendar year. He went on to suggest that if the survival rate of the issue was 1.45% of the mintage, 112 coins would exist today. He further stated that the other two varieties, Bolender-1 (BB-73) and Bolender-3 (BB-71), were struck in 1798. While I do not agree with all of the numbers, the Hilt theory comes far closer to what I consider to be the truth, than anything else I have seen in print. (I believe the mintage of 1797 BB-72 to have been in the range of 4,000 to 4,500 coins, also probably minted in 1798; I, too, believe that BB-73 and BB-71 were minted in 1798, or at least a majority of each was.)
COLLECTING NOTES: Of all 1797 varieties, the BB-72 is at once the rarest, best known, and most sought after. This issue occupies its own niche in numismatic literature, where it has been showcased as a rarity in some instances and ignored in others. Doubtless, it is the best known die variety of the 1796-1797 years combined. Indeed, it may well be the most famous variety after 1794 and before 1804.
While various cataloguers over the years have ascribed great rarity to 1797 BB-72, I believe that about 200 to 300 exist today, as explained in detail above.
In this die combination, the obverse shows very prominent and bold denticulation and excellent relief. The reverse, not deeply punched to begin with, and since relapped, always appears to be shallow and weak in comparison to the obverse, as the relapping largely destroyed what protective rim there was initially. Part of each reverse rim denticle has been ground away. Because of the low rim, a coin whose obverse grades VF, may have a reverse grading only VG. Typically, if a single grade is given, the grading is by the obverse only, although in the past there has been no consistency in this regard. A split grade such as VF/Fine or Fine/VG is more informative.
This Small Letters reverse die is famous in its own right, as already noted, and was mated with obverses dated 1795, 1796, and 1798, in addition to 1797.
Nearly all known specimens of 1797 BB-72 are in grades from VG to EF, with VF being most often seen. True EF coins are rarer than auction or other data suggest, as often grading has been on the liberal side for this rare variety. AU coins are virtually unheard of, the only one coming to my attention being the Carter specimen. Whoever carried it away for $6,600 scored a real coup, in my opinion.
Newman Specimen. MS-62 Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society. Die State I. Frosty lustre with lovely peripheral toning. Examined and graded by the author, March 1993.
Carter Specimen. AU-50 Amon Carter, Jr. Collection, Stack's, 1984: 218. AU, frosty lustre.
Ebsen Specimen. EF-45 Superior, Buddy Ebsen Collection, 1987: 1887. "Somewhat shallowstrike, perfectly centered on a problem-free planchet. Surfaces, still retain a good deal of lustre, particularly in the protected areas of devices. Attractively toned grayish violet highlighted by light golden and deepening to iridescence about the stars, date, etc."
Chalkley Specimen. EF-45 Superior, Chalkley Collection, 1990: 2839. "Cloudy, old cabinet toning with blue high-lights clinging to devices. A. single rim bump below 1 of date has been partially repaired. Blunt reverse strike. Early die state with two points of recut star visible below star 9 on obverse."
Aspen Specimen. EF-45/40. Bowers and Merena, Nelson Page Aspen, M.D. Collection, 1989: 361. "Traces of mint lustre noted around stars. Centering of obverse gives the coin a very pleasing cameo appearance, and both sides have rich golden, rose and gunmetal-blue coloration. Exceedingly faint tooling above Liberty's head, and there is evidence of removal of a spot in front of her mouth."
Austin Specimen. EF-40 Bowers and Ruddy, Austin Collection, 1974: 14. "Choice EF. Exceptional strike [on obverse]. Reverse characteristically weakly struck." Montgomery Collection, Bowers and Ruddy, 1976: 1426. EF, exceptional strike. Reverse weakly struck .March Sale, Stack's, 1983: 930. EF. Exquisite orange-russet over gray.
French Specimen. EF-40 Stack's, French Family Collection, 1989: 546. "Natural light gray with pink overtones."
H. Roland Willasch Specimen. EF-40 (ANACS)Superior, H. Roland Willasch Collection, 1990: 465. "Deep blue and gold toning on obverse, even deeper gray color on reverse. Numerous tiny contact marks, and some planchet roughness. Early obverse die" state with file lines connecting Liberty's neck to her chest and both points of the recut star visible in the field below ninth star."
Gross Specimen. EF-40JJ. Teaparty, June 1985. Sold to the following. Yolanda Gross Collection.
Hollinbeck-Kagin Specimens. EF-40 June, 1970: 603. "LIBERTY and outer portions of bust are quite sharp (grading EF to nearly Uncirculated), the legend, wreath and outer portions of eagle also grade EF to nearly Uncirculated." 21st MANA Convention Sale, Kagin's, 1973: 1301. "About EF with sharpest struck eagle we can recall seeing! Nominal even wear and without any nicks, scratches and other abrasions, Attractive bluish golden patina." 50th Anniversary Sale, Kagin's, 1978: 808. "EF with attractive even toning. Remarkable sharp strike, Stars and denticles full. Minute handling marks." Atlanta Sale, Kagin's, 1987: 3224. "Very sharply struck EF-40 or better. Light mark in right obverse field and an old scratch on reverse running from edge below U and down to right. Faint adjustment marks visible below eagle's wing to right. Lovely light gray color with a touch of beautiful, iridescent blue toning on obverse and lustre beneath suggesting a higher grade."
Green Specimen, VF-30. Col. E.H.R. Green Collection.
Davis-Graves Games Davis) Collection, Stack's, 1954: 1278
AJ. Ostheimer, 3rd Collection, Lester Merkin, 1968: 242. "Nearly EF, with considerable mint lustre, weak in centers as usual, reverse exceptionally well struck for variety, wing feathers clear and part of breast feathers visible, claws and all leaves plain. Mint lustre around letters; gray tone, clean surfaces."
Herdegen Specimen. VF-30. Schulman, Herdegen Collection, 1973. "Strong VF, with some light scratches."
Miller Specimen. VF-35/20. Warren Miller Collection. Double struck.