Ask collectors of early United States federal coinage what one of the singularly most challenging issues is, and you'll likely hear many reply with mentions of the 1797 Draped Bust half dollar. While not the absolute rarest U.S. coinage issue from the 1790s, the 1797 Draped Bust half dollar with Small Eagle reverse saw a mintage of only 3,918 pieces, making it one of the smallest mintages off the bat for any single release from the period. Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) estimates only 175 specimens survive from across all grades.
Even in a grade of Good-4, a 1797 Draped Bust half dollar can set a collector back by some $40,000. So, when any example crosses the auction block, bidders pay attention. Such was the case when the finest-known specimen was up for bids at a March 2021 Stack's Bowers Galleries auction. Graded PCGS Mint State-66, this magnificent specimen has a population of just one at that grade. Its provenance traces a history through some of the most celebrated numismatic cabinets of all time, including those of Virgil Brand, Abraham Hepner, and most recently that once belonging to the late D. Brent Pogue.
Itself a numismatic luminary, the PCGS MS-66 1797 Draped Bust half dollar wasted little time under the hot spotlight on the auction floor, where live bidders and those raising paddles over the phone and via the internet helped bring a lofty hammer price. When all was said and done, the coin realized an outstanding $1,680,000 to become the most valuable half dollar sold at public auction.
*Images are courtesy of Stack's Bowers Galleries.