In June of 1795, Henry DeSaussure replaced David Rittenhouse as Mint Director. His initial goals were to begin striking gold coins and improve the current coin designs. Under Rittenhouse's orders, Chief Engraver Robert Scot had already prepared dies, and on July 31, 1795, 744 half eagles were delivered: the very first gold coins produced by the United States Mint.
Scot's depiction of Liberty on the new coins was a Classical design, modeled after a Roman-style Hellenistic Greek goddess, with hair rearranged and a large cap. The bust was draped so as not to offend "modern" eyes of the late 18th-century with the easy sensuality of the ancient motif. An onyx cameo from first century Rome inspired the reverse, which bears an eagle with wings outspread, holding a wreath in its beak and a palm branch in its claws. The small and stylized eagle was often called a "chicken eagle" by early citizens, a name sometimes heard in the numismatic community of today. Along with the date, only the inscriptions LIBERTY and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA are found on the coin: no denomination or statement of value appears.
Only 18,512 Draped Bust/Small Eagle fives were produced from 1795 through 1798, and most didn't escape the huge melts that later destroyed the bulk of U.S. gold coinage minted before 1834. Survivors, particularly in high grade, are very scarce. By far, the most common date of the series is 1795: With 8,707 minted and many saved as first year of issue "souvenirs," this is the date seen most often in type sets. An interesting error of this year is the S over D variety, a blunder created when the word STATED was first punched into the reverse die and then corrected by over-punching the D with an S.
All coins from 1796 are over-dates-1796/5-and are considerably more difficult to locate than the first year issues. Half eagles struck in 1797 are of two types: either fifteen or sixteen stars are on the obverse.
The 1798 issue is the key of the series and, with only seven traceable specimens, is one of the rarest half eagles of any date and the coin that prevents collectors from attempting complete "date" sets of this design.
In this era the Mint commonly used all dies until they were no longer serviceable. Obverse and reverse dies were used haphazardly in different years and in different combinations, accounting for many unusual and out of sequence die-pairings so often seen on early coins.
When grading this design, obverse wear first shows on Liberty's hair, cheek, shoulder and cap. On the reverse, check the eagle's wings, breast and left leg. Frequently seen on these early fives are adjustment marks, parallel lines made by files used in adjusting overweight planchets. These lines generally survived the striking process and, while adjustment marks may not affect a coin's technical grade, they do influence its value. Counterfeits are usually not encountered of this series, but altered dates do exist, simulating the rare 1798 issue.
The Small Eagle series of half eagles ended early in 1798. Scot's Heraldic Eagle design for the reverse-adapted from the Great Seal of the United States-appeared on the later issues of that year and continued through 1807. Its simple, yet elegant, design, coupled with its status as the first type of half eagle, makes the Small Eagle five truly an American classic.
Diameter: Approx. 25 millimeters
Weight: 8.75 grams
Composition: .9167 gold, .0833 copper
Net Weight: .25788 ounce pure gold
Mint mark: No mint mark; all were struck at the Philadelphia Mint.
Courtesy Numismatic Guarantee Corp. (NGC).
TURBAN HEAD FIVE DOLLARS OR HALF EAGLE (1795-1807)