1798 Small Eagle $5 Gold, Great American Classic, Finest Known

This week’s spotlight treasure from the D. Brent Pogue Collection Sale Part II is one of America’s most famous and most elusive gold rarities. Over a long period of years relatively few advanced specialists have ever owned one in any grade. The Pogue coin is the finest known.

This coin will cross the block in our auction held with our partner, Sotheby’s, at Sotheby’s international headquarters in New York City on September 30. You are cordially invited to attend as a bidder, buyer, or interested observer. You can also participate by telephone or on the Internet. On October 1, the day after the Pogue sale, we will have a companion auction of rare coins in the same venue. Plan to be a part of that as well.

Returning to the 1798 Small Eagle $5, this is the single finest coin certified by PCGS of one of the greatest rarities in the American gold series. In our sale of the Farish-Baldenhofer Collection in November 1955—that seems so long ago—Norman Stack described this landmark rarity as follows: “This coin is in our opinion, without doubt the finest known. A beautiful About Uncirculated example with full Proof luster around the obverse stars, date, and LIBERTY as well as the reverse legend and outline of the eagle. Were it not for faint cabinet friction this could easily be called Uncirculated with semi-Proof surface.”

The 1798 Small Eagle $5 is one of the rarest, most interesting, and in a way enigmatic coins in American numismatics. Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth in the Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins 1795-1933, cite the Pogue coin as the finest. The numismatic history of this variety is incredible, and a book could be written about the known examples and their appearances and owners.

Like Martha the passenger pigeon, the 1798 Small Eagle half eagle was the last of its species, a lone final die marriage to use the anachronistic first reverse type struck after the introduction of its Heraldic Eagle replacement in 1797. It is one of the great rarities in the entire series of American coins, perhaps somewhat overlooked precisely because it is so rare. Just six examples are known, of which only three remain outside of institutions and can therefore be collected.

Few half eagles can surpass the 1798 Small Eagle in terms of its pure rarity. The 1815 half eagle cannot, legendary though it may be. Nor can any other major variety of the Draped Bust half eagle series, save the unique 1797 Large Eagle, forever impounded in the Smithsonian Institution. It is only appropriate that the only private collection anywhere that includes the 1822 and 1854-S half eagles, the crown jewels of the denomination, would also include the finest known specimen of the 1798 Small Eagle. Three examples of this great rarity are impounded: the American Numismatic Association houses the Clapp-Eliasberg coin in the Harry Bass Core Collection, and the Smithsonian Institution holds both the Parmelee coin from the Mint Cabinet and the Ten Eyck-Col. E.H.R. Green-J.K. Lilly coin. That leaves just three coins remaining in private hands. Only two have been certified by PCGS, of which this is by far the finer. The Earle-Atwater coin, said to be untraced since 1946, is actually the piece rediscovered by John Dannreuther in 1996 and sold by Ira and Larry Goldberg in 2000. The Atwater plate is of little use, but the Earle plate is crystal clear, clear enough to tell with certainty that the reverse is that of the Dannreuther coin and the image labeled as the obverse is actually the obverse of the following lot, which happened to be struck from the same die. The reverse identification is enough, however, to marry these two broken provenance chains.

The 1798 Small Eagle half eagle once held the record for the most valuable American coin, and perhaps the most valuable coin of any origin, ever sold. When the Earle specimen realized $3,000 in June 1912, it made national headlines. The June 29, 1912 issue of The Sun in New York City trumpeted “$3,000 FOR A 1798 HALF EAGLE” on page 1, calling it “the gem of the collection gathered by George H. Earle, Jr." The article also singled out the silver 1776 Continental dollar that sold in the same session for $2,200. Small town newspapers across Pennsylvania featured the story, along with dailies as diverse as the Washington Herald in Washington D.C. and the Seymour Daily Republican of Seymour, Indiana.

When the Pogue Collection example was offered in the 1955 Farish Baldenhofer sale, it was the only coin depicted on the catalog cover. Selling for $6,000, it brought nearly six times the price of an 1827 quarter ($1,050), twice as much as an 1838-O half dollar ($3,200), and more than three times as much as a prooflike Mint State 1797 half dollar ($1,750). An 1815 half eagle brought $3,000, while an 1804 Plain 4 eagle in Proof brought $2,500. The entire auction yielded not quite $110,000, and this coin was the runaway star.

In recent years, few specimens of this variety have sold. Many experienced collectors and dealers have never seen one, and likely more than a few don’t even know such a coin exists. Since this example sold in 1955, the last time it was offered at public auction, this type has been sold just three times. The Garrett coin sold in 1979 after having been off the market since 1883. The Clapp-Eliasberg specimen sold in 1982; it was that coin’s only auction appearance. The Atwater example sold in 2000, having failed to sell in an auction a year earlier after being considered lost for more than a half century. These appearances amount to just four opportunities to acquire a specimen in the last 60 years, two of which were owed solely to the serendipitous appearance of a multigenerational old-time collection at auction. No 1798 Small Eagle half eagle has been offered in the last 15 years.

While even connoisseurs can rarely be finicky with a rarity such as this, the quality of this example is unmatched. No other 1798 Small Eagle $5, in public or private hands, surpasses this one. It exceeds the only other PCGS-certified specimen by 15 points. The provenance is similarly august, though regal may be the better term, having been in the collection of King Farouk of Egypt. Farouk purchased this coin from Stack’s, and his collection was sold by Sotheby’s. In some ways, this appearance has brought it full circle. For decades, this coin was included in the collection of Texan John H. Murrell, the owner of what Doug Winter has called “the greatest unknown collection of U.S. gold coins ever assembled.” Now offered from the most valuable collection of American coins ever formed, this great American rarity is set to find a new and similarly impressive home.

Provenance: Raymond Caldwell of Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Col. James W. Flanagan Collection, circa 1935; Stack’s sale of the Col. James W. Flanagan Collection, March 1944, lot 1063; Clifford T. Weihman Collection; Stack’s, by sale, after 1946; King Farouk of Egypt Collection; Sotheby & Co.’s sale of the Palace Collections of Egypt, February 1954, lot 229, via Paul Wittlin; William G. Baldenhofer Collection; Stack’s sale of the Farish Baldenhofer Collection, January 1955, lot 1203 (at $6,000); John H. Murrell Collection; Goliad Corporation (Mike Brownlee), by sale, August 1979

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