A Story of Numismatic Serendipity: DWN and the 1797 Small Eagle Ten Dollar Gold Piece

Every now and then, the fates line up in such perfect alignment that you just have to wonder if something wasn’t pre-ordained. In the case of a wonderful 1797 Small Eagle $10, everything that had to happen, happened, and as a result a great coin came out of hiding at the 2018 ANA show.

  1797 $10.00 Small Eagle PCGS AU55 CAC

1797 $10.00 Small Eagle PCGS AU55 CAC

The story behind this coin dates back to a few weeks prior to me leaving for Philadelphia. I got an interesting phone call from the college roommate of the owner of the coin. He lived in a western state and was a coin collector. His roommate (a non-collector) contacted him and let him know he had a 1797 eagle. The friend then asked some fellow coin club members about which dealers were knowledgeable about early gold and had a good reputation. Luckily, I was recommended and this is when I came into the picture.

I told the roommate that any 1797 eagle was a good coin and that an image would assist me in grading and valuing the coin. He told me he would forward an image in a few days and apologized in advance for what he expected to be a low-quality photo.

  1797 $10.00 Small Eagle PCGS AU55 CAC

1797 $10.00 Small Eagle PCGS AU55 CAC

There are two distinct types of 1797 eagle: the Small Eagle (only a few thousand were struck and this variety is rare in all grade) and the Large Eagle (a scarce issue but many times more available than its counterpart). Needless to say, I was expecting a low-grade Large Eagle.

The picture arrived in a few days and I almost screamed when I saw an image—albeit blurry—of what looked like a high-grade 1797 Small Eagle $10. I quickly phoned the roommate and let him know this was a good coin and that I was very interested.

At this point, it was agreed that I needed to speak to the actual owner. I was put in touch with him and he told me the background of the coin. In a nutshell, he had inherited it from his mother and it was essentially the only coin he received from her. What was odd was that a) she wasn’t a collector and b) she wasn’t wealthy. How had she come across this amazing coin? We will never know…

After telling him about the potential value of the coin and telling him about me, I explained that it was essential to send this coin to PCGS for grading. Ordinarily, this would have entailed me assuring him it was safe to send me the coin via Express Mail; a leap of faith that he likely would not have been willing to take.

Now here is where the serendipity really begins to take hold. I had, of course, forgotten to ask the owner where he lived and when he told me he was a short train ride away from Philadelphia, I knew this transaction had great karma behind it. I told him I was going to be in downtown Philly for a week and that we could get the coin graded in the morning with results likely within two to three hours.

The owner agreed to bring me the coin and when we met at my table the following week for the Big Reveal, I was actually a bit fluttery in the stomach. He placed it on my case and I was pleased to see a beautiful Choice AU example with nice original color and very choice surfaces. I told him I graded it AU55 to AU58 and that it was far better than I could possibly have hoped for.

We hustled over to the PCGS table and I filled out the paperwork. I could see him cringe when I asked for the coin but I assured him that PCGS would do a good job and that he had nothing to worry about.

He then decided that he didn’t want to hang around the coin show and was going to take in the sights until I contacted him. Less than three hours later, I went to the PCGS table and was pleased when I was told this invoice was ready. I opened the box and….BOOM! AU55.

  1797 $10.00 Small Eagle PCGS AU55 CAC

1797 $10.00 Small Eagle PCGS AU55 CAC

I then called the owner and gave him the good news. He hustled back to the convention center and after a brief negotiation, we reached a deal which we felt was fair to both of us.

A little bragging about the coin is in order. The 1797 is by far the rarest of three Small Eagle $10s with an estimated 50-60 known. This issue didn’t see as much circulation as the 1795, so it tends to come in slightly higher grades, with most known in the EF45-AU55 range. But where the 1797 becomes really rare is with original color and surfaces. The majority of the pieces known in lightly circulated grades are scrubbed and unappealing, and I have personally not seen more than two or three in the past decade with any sort of positive overall eye appeal. This is verified by the fact that until this piece was submitted to CAC, only one other 1797 Small Eagle $10 (an AU58) had ever been approved.

The last PCGS AU55 1797 Small Eagle $10 to sell at auction realized $126,500 back in March 2006. Amongst offerings in the last decade, the best example to sell at auction was the Pogue 2: 2094 coin—graded MS61 by PCGS—which realized $440,625 on a low estimate of $125,000-175,000.

I placed this coin with a collector soon after I purchased it and he was as entranced by the background story as he was the coin itself.

Do you have important early American gold coins that you would like to sell? Are you a collector looking for important early gold with choice surfaces and natural color? If so, please contact me at (214) 675-9897.