The Norweb 1797 Half Dollar, among the top five of the entire Draped Bust ‘Small Eagle’ type
Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #231
A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds for CoinWeek.com ……
The Norweb 1797 Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollar is, indisputably, the second finest known 1797 half dollar. It is certainly among the five finest coins of the entire Draped Bust, Small Eagle design type of half dollars. The Norweb 1797 will be auctioned in August by Heritage at the ANA Convention near Chicago.
The Norweb 1797 is PCGS graded “MS-65+” and has a CAC sticker of approval. For many years, it was NGC graded “MS-66,” which is a fair enough grade for it. The obverse (front) has wonderful natural toning and this coin has few imperfections. Its state of preservation is amazing for a coin that is around 217 years old and was minted under unfavorable circumstances at the Philadelphia Mint in 1797.
I examined it in 1988 and again in 2010. In the interim, it continued to naturally tone and its appearance improved. Indeed, it became even more attractive than it was earlier. It has never been dipped (in an acidic solution), though the reverse (back) may have been lightly cleaned, decades ago. The toning is definitely natural and this coin scores highly in the category of originality.
The blue toning on the lower obverse (front) is pleasant. On the upper obverse, there are appealing blue, russet and coppery red hues.
When this coin is tilted at some angles under a lamp, neat luster dances in a soothing manner. At other angles, this coin becomes rather lively.
The contact marks on the obverse seem minuscule, even under five-times magnification. One medium hairline could be noted. There are almost zero, noticeable contact marks on the reverse. There is a little mint-frost on the eagle, which is pleasing.
Overall, the Norweb 1797 half dollar is more than very attractive. Its rarity and pedigree make it even more desirable.
I. The Rarest Silver Design Type
Flowing Hair Half Dollars were minted in 1794 and 1795. Many more Flowing Hair halves survive than Draped Bust, Small Eagle Halves, which were minted in 1796 and 1797. The portrait of a ‘Small Eagle’ on the reverse (back) is not really small; this design is called a ‘Small Eagle’ because the later ‘Heraldic Eagle’ reverse design features a portrait of an eagle that occupies a large portion of the reverse (tail) of each coin. ‘Heraldic Eagle’ design types followed ‘Small Eagle’ design types of half dimes, dimes, quarters, silver dollars, Half Eagles ($5 gold coins), Eagles ($10 coins), as well as of half dollars, during the same era.
Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Half Dollars were minted from 1801 to 1807. Though scarce, these are much easier to obtain than Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollars (1796-97). The Draped Bust design on the obverse is the same for both types. There now exist a few thousand Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle halves, and there are less than 350 known Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollars in total, in all states of preservation.
Some such half dollars are in museums or have been inherited by people who do not even remember that they have them. Probably, fewer than 300 type sets of U.S. silver coins, including early issues, can possibly be complete at any one time. Furthermore, there are many collectors who seek 1796 or 1797 halves for reasons other than for type sets. There are tens of thousands of collectors who seek early U.S. silver coins.
Although numerous collectors of early U.S. silver coins by ‘die variety’ are active researchers and publish much material, most collectors of early U.S. silver coins, especially of coins that grade above AU-50, are assembling some sort of a type set and ignore die varieties. Someone assembling a type set needs just one representative of each design type that is logically part of the respective type set.
There are a few collectors who seriously focus on a complete type set of all classic U.S. coins, one of each design type from the 1790s to the early 1930s. Most type sets, however, are more specialized and thus more practical.
The idea of a set of pre-1840 copper and silver design types is very popular. Even more popular is a quest to assemble an overall type set of silver half dollars.
Including classic U.S. and modern issues, the seventeen types of ‘silver’ U.S. half dollars are: 1) Flowing Hair (1794-95); 2) Draped Bust, Small Eagle (1796-97) ; 3) Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle (1801-07); 4) Reich Capped Bust, ‘Lettered Edge’ (1807-36); 5) Gobrecht Capped Bust, ‘Reeded Edge’ (1836-39); 6) Liberty Seated, No Drapery, No Motto (1839 only); 7) Liberty Seated, With Drapery, No Motto (1839-53, 1856-66); 8) Liberty Seated, Arrows & Rays (1853 only); 9) Liberty Seated, No Motto, With Arrows, No Rays (1854-55); 10) Liberty Seated, With Motto (1866-91 except 1874); 11) Liberty Seated, With Motto, With Arrows (1873-74); 12) Barber (1892-1915); 13) Walking Liberty (1916-47); 14) Franklin (1948-63); 15) Kennedy-90% silver (1964 plus some later Proof issues); 16) Kennedy-40% silver (1965-70); 17) Kennedy Bicentennial 40% silver (1976).
Generally, ‘silver’ U.S. half dollars are about 90% silver, though 1797 halves were specified to be about 89.24% silver. Copper-Nickel “Clad” Half Dollars, all of which are modern, constitute a different topic, though can be easily acquired for extremely small sums. In terms of types of half dollars, Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollars are much more expensive than typical representatives of all other half dollar types in corresponding grades.
II. Baldenhofer Collection
This 1797 half was previously in two auctions of great importance. The first epic auction that I ever attended was the Norweb III sale in Nov. 1988. This half dollar was one of the highlights. I now remember being stunned by it. I was startled that it even existed. No one I knew then had knowledge of the superior Rogers 1797, except Ed Milas who had yet to tell me about the Rogers 1797. Many experts were then under the impression that a MS-64+ or higher grade 1797 half did not exist!
The Norweb 1797 was the best 1796 or 1797 half that almost all the people in attendance, at the Norweb III sale, had ever seen. Earlier, this same Norweb 1797 half had been auctioned by Stack’s on Nov. 11, 1955 in the sale titled the “Farish Baldenhofer Collection.”
Although not every coin in the Baldenhofer sale was consigned by the same person, this half dollar, in my estimation, was very likely to have been in the “Baldenhofer Collection.” This auction featured many important rarities and is often overlooked by those who research pedigrees or study the history of coin collecting.
W. David Perkins has investigated the identity of “Farish Baldenhofer” and his article on this topic was published in The Asylum, the physical ‘print’ journal of the NBS (Vol. 25: No. 2; Spring 2007). Perkins was not aiming to determine whether Baldenhofer consigned many of the major rarities in the sale. My interpretation of this auction in 1955 is different from that of Perkins.
Perkins’ findings regarding Baldenhofer himself are fascinating. For example, Perkins found that Baldenhofer was planning to co-author a book on early silver dollars with a leading researcher in the 1950s.
Perkins discovered that this collector’s real name was William G. Baldenhofer, not “Farish Baldenhofer.” It seems that Baldenhofer wished to be a semi-anonymous consignor and chose, as a false first name, the last name of a good friend of his, Richard Farish, who was an “honorary pallbearer” at Baldenhofer’s funeral in 1980.
David became interested in Baldenhofer because Baldenhofer was a serious collector of die varieties of early silver dollars. Perkins is best known as one of the two foremost researchers of die varieties of early silver dollars. Perkins was delighted to learn that Alfred Ostheimer and his wife acquired Baldenhofer’s early silver dollars through leading dealer and author M. H. Bolender, in 1959. Ostheimer is a legend among collectors of early silver dollars.
In addition to early silver dollars, William Baldenhofer could afford to buy Great Rarities. He inherited all or a large part of a scientific manufacturing company that was founded by his father, Christian Baldenhofer, in 1905 in Ohio. William Baldenhofer himself, though, was a brilliant engineer who was responsible for a large number of patents. More than a few of these patents are detailed on the Google website, which I recently learned has a section that lists patents.
Perkins did not seem to find evidence that most all of the rarities in the “Farish Baldenhofer” auction were consigned by Baldenhofer, despite inquiries to the Stack’s office in New York. I have, however, studied old auction catalogues and otherwise researched auctions, since I was a kid. A sound hypothesis is that this 1797 half and most (or all) other major rarities in the Baldenhofer sale were, in fact, consigned by Baldenhofer.
Research by Perkins indicates that Baldenhofer had at least a somewhat advanced understanding of rare U.S. coins and would have desired major rarities. Indeed, Perkins found that an auction by the firm of Lester Merkin in 1968 featured a sizeable run of silver dollars with a revealing statement, “Most Proofs 1836-73 were from the Baldenhofer Collection.” Beginning or casual collectors of silver dollars tend to focus on Morgan or Peace Dollars. Gobrecht Dollars, which carry dates from the 1830s, and Proof Liberty Seated Dollars from the 1840s tended to be collected by people who were serious and had significant knowledge of rarities.
Research by Perkins also suggests that Baldenhofer desired privacy and did not reveal the details of his collecting activities, even to his nearest relatives. It is thus not surprising that there were no news reports of purchases of expensive rarities or public exhibits by him.
There is no record and no clue, nor even any circumstantial evidence, of anyone else consigning major rarities to this Stack’s auction in Nov. 1955. Evidently, it was Baldenhofer himself who dictated the name that was printed on the cover of the catalogue. Additionally, the fact that Baldenhofer sold his cherished bust dollars in 1959, when he was just 56 or so, indicates that he did not wish to retain his coins until he reached retirement age, even though he probably could have easily afforded to do so. He owned a reputable, long-standing, fairly large business and he had no children.
Perkins found that Baldenhofer and his wife collected expensive antiques from the Orient. Baldenhofer traveled to Japan for business purposes.
Granted, there is no solid evidence regarding the extent or depth of Baldenhofer’s coin collection in the early 1950s. Various bits of information and logical deductions contribute to the forming of a hypothesis. Plus, a careful reading of the Nov. 1955 Baldenhofer catalogue provides more information about Baldenhofer’s consignment than Perkins puts forth in his article, which was written from the perspective of a silver dollar enthusiast and scholar.
While it is certainly possible that there was a completely anonymous collector who consigned many of the major rarities in this Nov. 1955 sale, it is unlikely. Stack’s catalogues during that era tend to have clues at the beginning regarding such monumental consignments. If there was such a completely anonymous consignor, another code name could have been added. The sale could have been called the “Farish Baldenhofer and John Smith Collections,” among other names. There are multiple cases of coin auction firms using more than one code name, or misleading ‘names’ of multiple ‘people,’ in the title of a sale.
Additionally, my knowledge of the history of the coin business suggests that it is not plausible that Stack’s then had all the following rarities in inventory : 1827 quarter, 1838-O half, 1870-S dollar, 1884 Trade Dollar, 1885 Trade Dollar, 1815 Half Eagle, 1827 Half Eagle and a Proof 1804 Eagle! It is extremely likely that a dedicated and wealthy collector consigned these.
As Baldenhofer desired a considerable degree of privacy, without being completely anonymous, would he have consented to having Stack’s imply that Great Rarities and other major rarities were consigned by him if these were not consigned by him? After all, the sale is boldly titled as “The Farish Baldenhofer Collection” with “et al.” in smaller, fainter letters. It is more likely that Baldenhofer would have only consented to the use of his last name if all or most all the major rarities in the sale were really from his collection. After all, he was being portrayed as a wealthy collector who could have expensive rarities in his house.
I argue that Baldenhofer would not have sacrificed any of his privacy to serve as a smokescreen for someone else to be completely anonymous. Baldenhofer is not that common of a name, and not many Baldenhofers would have been willing and able to buy extremely rare coins. Even without a first name, salespeople and thieves could have found him. A logical conclusion is that Baldenhofer was willing to sacrifice some privacy to gain considerable credit for his own landmark collection.
Perkins states that “the first mention in the sale of Mr. Baldenhofer” relates to a set of Walking Liberty Half Dollars, starting with lot #869. This is not true. Before lot #573 (on p. 25), there is an introductory note to Baldenhofer’s set of Standing Liberty Quarters.
“The following group of quarters was assembled after many years of searching for the finest specimens available. … Where the head is not full, Mr. Baldenhofer told the cataloguer he did not believe [a Full Head representative of that date] actually existed,” reports the Stack’s cataloguer.
I hope that neither Perkins nor anyone else is figuring that because Baldenhofer’s name is only explicitly linked to a small percentage of the coins in the sale that these are the only coins that Baldenhofer consigned to the auction of the “Farish Baldenhofer Collection.” An understanding of auction catalogues of the time period would indicate that there is an excellent chance that Baldenhofer himself consigned most of the coins and that Stack’s probably placed a few, from other sources, to make sets more complete.
For decades, Stack’s New York catalogues contained minimal information about consignors in the body of the catalogue, if any. The explicit mentions of Baldenhofer’s name were not intended to be pedigree markers.
These mentions relate to extremely distinctive aspects of Baldenhofer’s collection, extraordinary characteristics. It is unusual to assert that a ‘Full Head’ Standing Liberty Quarter of particular date is not present in one collector’s set, only because such a ‘Full Head’ representative could not possibly have been found. Moreover, it was then very unusual to assemble two sets of very high quality Walkers. Before third party grading, it was a hassle for a collector to find true, gem quality, classic U.S. coins.
“Mr. Baldenhofer, after completing the painstaking task of building one set of Walking [Liberty] Half Dollars, decided to try to duplicate his first feat,” revealed the cataloguer (on p. 36, Stack’s: New York, 1955).
Perkins accurately notes that Baldenhofer’s name is mentioned in conjunction with an offering of early Eagles ($10 gold coins). It is likely that Baldenhofer’s name is explicity mentioned in that context because it is so unusual for anyone, then or now, to collect Bust Eagles by variety, while seeking high quality coins! Before emphasizing the ‘quality’ of these early Eagles, the cataloguer states, “Mr. Baldenhofer endeavored to assemble as many varieties of these early gold coins as possible” (p. 58).
As Perkins focuses upon silver dollars, it is understandable that he did not mention that, though I note, the 1828/7 Half Eagle in this sale, lot #1245, a Great Rarity. It is explicitly said by the cataloguer to have been “sold privately to Mr. Baldenhofer,” an explanation that was put forth to document a pedigree, which was assumed anyway. This explanation rather came about because of the unusual case that a collector-consigned Great Rarity had been in a then recent auction, yet the consignor did not purchase it from that recent auction. It was purchased privately and then abruptly consigned. Baldenhofer probably decided to part with coin collection, except his cherished primary set of silver dollars, for emotional reasons.
It is of tremendous importance that the Green-Farouk 1798 ‘Small Eagle’ Half Eagle was in this sale, an appealing representative of one of the greatest of all gold rarities. The catalogue description notes (on p. 50) that “an agent acquired it for Mr. Baldenhofer” at the Farouk sale in Cairo in 1954. A consigned coin having been previously acquired by by an agent for the consignor at the landmark Farouk sale is an example of a particularly distinctive reason for mentioning the name of a consignor in the lot description. Also, here is a clue regarding one of Baldenhofer’s dealer contacts.
It is emphasized by the Stack’s cataloguer that Baldenhofer avidly collected varieties and eagerly sought the highest quality coins he could find, a combination which distinguished Baldenhofer from other collectors. Usually, collectors of highest quality coins are not particularly concerned about obtaining multiple varieties of the same date (and Mint location). Collectors of varieties are usually not extremely interested in the highest quality coins; they tend to regard quality as a secondary consideration.
I found that Baldenhofer’s name is explicity mentioned in the description of lot #1202, a 1797 Half Eagle ($5 gold), “16 star variety,” Heraldic Eagle type, one of two representatives of this issue in this auction. “Mr. Baldenhofer’s desire to acquire the finest examples of U.S. rarities prompted him to purchase, through the years, additional examples to better his collection of rarities,” wrote the cataloguer, probably Norman Stack (on p. 50).
Of course, without copies of original consignment documents, I cannot be completely certain, or even 90% certain, that the Norweb 1797 half was consigned to this sale by William G. Baldenhofer. A combination of circumstantial evidence, logical deductions and my understanding of the history of coin auctions leads to a hypothesis that this 1797 and most (or all) other major rarities in that sale were very likely to have been consigned by Baldenhofer.
In 1955, this half sold for $1750. In the same auction, an 1838-O half, which is much rarer, realized $3200. One of five existing 1885 Trade Dollars went for $4000. All five 1885 Trade Dollars are now each worth more than $1.25 million!
A Proof 1804 Eagle brought $2500 in 1955. If auctioned in 2014, it would probably sell for more than 1000 times as much, above $2.5 million.
Also, collectors in the 1950s were much more likely to collect early coins ‘by date’ rather than ‘by type.’ The strategy of assembling type sets is much more popular now and has contributed to tremendous increases in the market values of 1797 and 1796 half dollars, which constitute the rarest type of U.S. silver coins.
III. The Norweb III Sale
There is no doubt that this 1797 half was in the Norweb family collection, one of the all-time greatest collections of coins. Bowers & Merena (New Hampshire) conducted three auctions of the Norweb family’s U.S. coins in New York, during Oct. 1987, March 1988 and Nov. 1988.
In Nov. 1988, bidding for this 1797 half dollar started at less than $20,000. A New York dealer soon screamed “$100,000” (+10% = $110,000). Bidding then advanced in $20,000 increments, gargantuan leaps for a half dollar at an auction in 1988!
Jess Lipka bid at least $176,000 (=$160k+10%). Haig Koshkarian successfully bid ‘in person’ to acquire this coin for $220,000 (= $200k+10%). He was known as “Dr. Haig” to other collectors and to dealers.
This half was NGC graded MS-66 before ANR auctioned Dr. Haig’s type set in March 2004. This 1797 half sold for $966,000, an auction record for any half dollar. The buyer, a collector from the deep South, was assembling a type set.
In July 2008, the merged Stack’s-ANR entity auctioned the Norweb-Haig 1797 for $1,380,000. Kevin Lipton was the successful bidder. Kevin partnered with John Albanese to purchase this coin.
Soon afterwards, Albanese sold this Norweb 1797 to “a collector.” This is the first and only half dollar to sell for more than $1 million at auction. The PCGS graded MS-66, Rogers-Pogue 1797 half, however, will probably sell for vastly more than $1 million in the near future.
When I saw the Norweb-Haig 1797 again, on August 14, 2010, at the ANA convention in Boston, it had been PCGS graded “MS-65+.” Bruce Morelan acquired the Norweb-Haig 1797 through Albanese.
If the Norweb-Haig 1797 had been submitted to the CAC in a holder that indicates a MS-66 grade, it probably would not have been CAC approved. Moreover, when the CAC approves a coin that is certified as “MS-65+,” it does not necessarily follow that experts at the CAC determined its grade to be in the high end of the 65 range. Experts at the CAC ignore the plus aspect of a plus grade assigned by the PCGS or the NGC. Experts at the CAC will not reveal whether they figure the grade of this 1797 half as being in the middle or in the high end of the 65 range.
In 2010, Morelan was assembling a type set. In the middle of 2011, Bruce sold most of the coins in his type set, for reasons unrelated to coins or to coin markets. When Morelan resumed collecting, he decided to focus exclusively on silver dollars. Morelan was later to acquire the Carter-Cardinal SP-66 1794 Flowing Hair Dollar and silver dollars from the Eric Newman Collection. (Clickable links are in blue.)
In 2011, John Albanese acquired the Norweb 1797 from Morelan and sold to a dealer in the Chicago area, who was acting on behalf of a client. It may be true that this client consigned the Norweb 1797 half and other early type coins to the upcoming Heritage ANA auction.
As many excellent pre-1840 U.S. coins are likely to become available in the near future, this summer is a good time for a collector to begin a type set of these. Someone who cannot afford representatives of copper, silver and gold types may choose one metal or just one denomination.
©2014 Greg Reynolds