The 1795 Small Eagle Half Eagle

I’m not sure the 1795 Small Eagle half eagle is my favorite American gold coin, but it is certainly well up on my Top Ten list. I have handled dozens of 1795 half eagles in grades ranging from Fine-12 to MS65, and to this day, I get a little numis-tingle each time I buy and sell one.

The 1795 Small Eagle half eagle is a first-year issue, and along with the 1795 eagle it is one of the two first gold coins made by the fledgling Federal mint. There were a total of 8,707 struck and hundreds exist. It is by far the most available issue of the Small Eagle type (there were also half eagles with this design made in 1796, 1797, and 1798) but it is far and away the most popular.

When I first starting buying early gold, it was reasonably easy to locate a 1795 Small Eagle half eagle with natural color and choice surfaces. It’s not like you could go to a large coin show and find a number of them, but they seemed to be around. As prices rose for this issue, the number of coins that were dipped/brightened/processed increased incrementally, and today I doubt there are more than few dozen which exist with original surfaces.

My two favorite grades for early gold are EF45 and AU55/58. I like the way coins graded 45 look but most real 45 coins are now in AU53 holders. I have always been partial to early gold in AU55 and especially in AU58, and I try to buy as many nice coins in this range as possible.

It has been a long time since I have been able to buy an AU58 1795 Small Eagle half eagle. The ones I’ve liked over the past few years have either sold for crazy money at auctions or I have disliked the quality.

   1795 Small Eagle $5.00 PCGS AU58, purchased November 2017 for a Northwest collector

1795 Small Eagle $5.00 PCGS AU58, purchased November 2017 for a Northwest collector

In the recent Stacks Bowers Baltimore auction (November 2017) there was a PCGS AU58 1795 Small Eagle half eagle which really appealed to me. I was able to purchase it for $66,000 (including the 20% buyer’s premium) which I thought was a reasonable price considering the quality. I then sold the coin to a Northwest collector who is going to use it in his type set.

One of the many things that appealed to me about this coin was its freshness. It was part of a consignment called the Alexander Collection, and according to envelope which came with the coin, it had been acquired in 1947.

As I mentioned above, most 1795 Small Eagle half eagles have a “washed-out” appearance from numismatic mishandling. The coin I purchased has much nicer color than normal with even medium orange-gold hues. There is minimal wear with just some minor friction noted on the cheek plus some luster breaks in the left obverse field. If you look carefully at the images above you will see a few old scratches in the right obverse field which I don’t find detracting; the “scratches” on the eagle’s breast are adjustment marks and are “as made.”

For reasons of comparison, let’s look at two other AU58 1795 Small Eagle half eagles which have sold in 2017. The first coin, which brought $70,500 as Lot 5838 in Heritage’s 2017 FUN auction is very “meaty” with lots of remaining luster but notice its bright surfaces which clearly indicate a dipping. I don’t dislike this coin but for $70k, I’d like my early gold to show some crust.

   1795 Small Eagle $5.00 PCGS AU58, image courtesy of Heritage

1795 Small Eagle $5.00 PCGS AU58, image courtesy of Heritage

The second coin is also graded AU58 by PCGS but it only brought $54,050. It was offered as Lot 2309 in the Stacks Bowers March 2017 auction. The obverse, even though it lacked original color, wasn’t bad; note the exceptional hair detail and the lack of obvious wear on the cheek. The reverse, however, was another story. There was a detracting (deliberate?) mark to the right of the final A in AMERICA as well as other marks below the right wing. Note, as well, what appears to be some possible smoothing at the U in UNITED.  ADD PHOTOS

   1795 Small Eagle $5.00 PCGS AU58, image courtesy of Stacks Bowers

1795 Small Eagle $5.00 PCGS AU58, image courtesy of Stacks Bowers

The demand for great early gold coins should continue and specific issues like the 1795 Small Eagle half eagle should show the greatest interest due to its multiple levels of demand. Fewer and fewer really nice AU coins will be available in the future as coins like this tend to be placed into long-term private collections.

Do you aspire to own a nice 1795 half eagle or other early gold coinage? Contact Doug Winter at (214) 675-9897 and begin your collection.