My Favorite Series Draped Bust Dimes 1796-1807

Photo courtesy of Rare Coin Wholesalers

Although a short-lived series of just 10 years (there was no dime coined for the years 1799 and 1806), the series packs a powerful punch of numismatic interest and challenge to complete. In this series you will find two different reverse designs–the Small Eagle reverse found on coins dated 1796 and 1797 and the Heraldic Eagle design introduced in 1798 and used through the end of the series in 1807.   There is a numismatic treasure trove of varieties, 29 in all, which include anomalies regarding the placement of the letters in LIBERTY for 1796 issues as well as 15 obverse stars; the number of obverse stars for 1797, ie 16 or 13; an overdate in 1798 as well as the number of reverse stars; 1800 introduces a new diagnostic–the size of the letter A within words on the reverse; while 1801 is differentiated by the use of a die from 1800 for one variety and a die from 1801 for the other; 1802 offers a new twist on the variety scale–this year three quarter eagle reverse designs were also used to produce the dimes; 1803 presents the challenge of varieties with weak strikes on the central obverse and nearly all of the varieties with various degrees of shattered reverses; 1804 is famous for the 13 and 14 star reverse varieties, while 1805 presents a difference in 4 and 5 berry reverse designs.  The final year 1807 only has one variety for the date.

I chose the Draped Bust dime series for a couple of reasons. The first is that it is my favorite design and my favorite series for the design.  In my opinion Robert Scot’s rendition of Lady Liberty is refreshingly beautiful (compared to the 1793 copper coinage where she frighteningly resembles a witch, in my opinion) Here she is depicted as a young, attractive woman, that embodies what I imagine Liberty to represent, a vision of beauty, elegance and grace.  Robert Scot was a native Scotsman who had been a watchmaker in England.  Prior to his appointment as Chief Engraver at the Mint in 1793 by Thomas Jefferson, he had been employed as engraver by the State of Virginia and also worked for Robert Morris in the late 1780s where he engraved plates for bills of exchange and for subsistence money as well as office seals. He later established his own engraving business in 1781 in Philadelphia.

As the chief engraver, Scot designed both the obverse and reverse designs for all of the Draped Bust coinage series of 1796-1807. In addition to the Draped design series, he engraved several dies for other United States coinage designs and remained at his post of Chief Engraver until his death in 1823.

One of the biggest challenges in die preparation was the inferior quality of the steel used to create the dies. Any inconsistencies with the composition of the steel or hardening process of the dies would result in dies of inferior quality.  It is believed that only the central device was contained on the original dies as there was insufficient force available to raise the peripheral areas of the coin design on the hub.  Therefore, the stars, letters and digits were individually punched, as were the denticles by use of a logo punch, after the central device was transferred to the working die.  Because of all of these individual punchings, each working die was unique, helping make identification of varieties  of various dimes possible. This coupled with the steel inconsistencies caused flaws, cracks and defects to develop during production.

Mintage figures for the years 1796-1800 range from the low to mid 20,000 coins. In 1801 34,640 pieces were struck. Mintage figures drop dramatically in 1802 to just 10,975 coins.  In 1803 the number climbs once again to 33,040 pieces.  In 1804 both the 13 and 14 star reverse varieties combined only totaled a mintage of 8,625 coins.  1805 and 1807 saw much larger quantities with both years well over 100,000 pieces being struck.

1796 is a popular year for collectors as it represents both the first year of production for the dime at the US mint and is also the first year of issue for the Small Eagle design. Because of the popularity, coins in the F-VF grade range will bring mid four figure prices.

As is typical for all silver coinage dated 1797, the dime is also quite scarce and underrated in better grades. In an effort to reflect the addition of Tennessee to the Union as the 16th state, the type I variety sports 9×7 stars on the obverse.  Realizing there was no further room to add additional stars as more states joined the Union, the obverse star design reverted back to 13 stars with 7 on the left and 6 on the right.

1798 is the first year the Heraldic Eagle reverse design is introduced and is also the only year an overdate is noted in the series with the 1798 punched over a 7. This is also the year that a large and small 8 were used for the date.  The overdate with 13 stars and Small 8 issues are tough to find without an extensive search. Because of the popularity of the issues in this series, many high grade examples were saved.  It has been my experience over the years that the 1798 dime is one of the harder coins to find in nice, problem-free, middle circulated grades from say VF-AU, even though it is presented as a “common date.”

Interestingly, the 1800 dime has appeared at auction less frequently than any other date in the series, other than 1804. That being said, it is not too difficult a task to find a high grade example of either variety as there are many extant specimens in the marketplace.  The vaiety 2 of the dime of this year has the distinction of being the only dime of the series that had been counterfeited back in the mid 1980s.  With the rise of Chinese counterfeits in all series, that is probably no longer the case.

The 1801 dime’s claim to fame is it is noted as being the issue with the lowest average grade of all of the dimes in the series. This being said, it is no surprise that Mint State examples are exceedingly rare.

1802 is popular among collectors as the year that has incorporated the use of four different obverse and three different reverse quarter eagle dies to strike many of the dime varieties as well. Obtaining all for die varieties for this year is a very difficult task since varieties 1 and 3 are extremely rare in any grade.

1803 a date that is so underrated and one that has sky rocketed in price in more recent times. See my story below for more details on this date.

1804 the cat’s meow of the series and the two varieties that seem to get the most press as the most difficult issues to obtain (although that could be debated). The allure of the 1804 dime falls in good company with the 1804 dollar and other 1804-dated coinage that made up the ever popular and alluring King of Siam set.  Finding a Mint State example of this desirable year is like looking for the proverbial hen’s tooth!

1805 the most common year in the series, yet still popular as it offers two different varieties of either a 4 or 5 berry reverse. Easily found in high Mint State grades

1807 a date that gets a bad rap as a notoriously weakly struck example. The reverse die of this particular year had already seen production in the minting of the quarter eagle series dates from 1805, 1806/4; 1806/5 and 1807 before being used again to strike the dime series.  Because there was much anticipation of the new John Reich design, they tried to make this last, and only pair, of heraldic eagle dies last as long as possible, thus resulting in the formation of die clashes and the weakness of peripheral design details.

Now for the second reason I chose to write about this, my favorite design. It was because I assisted a collector in the liquidation of his superb collection of early Draped Bust dimes in 2002.  This collector had a superb eye for quality and was fussy about striking characteristics, surface quality and color and overall eye appeal.  He was a stickler for well defined design elements, which is hard to achieve on these early dime dates.  Not every coin was the finest graded, but I would argue it was close to, if not the finest, example for it’s respective grade.  He bought the best that was available. It is important to remember that many times the BEST AVAILABLE is NOT the highest numeric grade.  Anyone who is a member of the Early American Coppers Club knows exactly what I mean by this statement–where planchet quality and color trump technical grade for marks, abrasions and the like.

At the time, we chose Bowers and Merena Galleries to auction the coins, as I knew they had a strong staff that would handle well the description and photography for these wonderful, Federal era coins. The sale was conducted in Beverly Hills on September 22, 2002 and is named The Rarities Sale.  His dimes are so outstanding that nearly every piece received a color photograph in the colo.r plates in the front of the catalogue–as did his 1796 and 1804 quarters (a story for another time)

My client decided he wanted to attend the sale to see his beloved coins find new homes with happy collectors. Although this was not the height of the coin market (that came in 2006), it was a VERY strong bull market and his coins, especially the 1803 dime sold for record prices for the date and grade.  His 1803 dime (Lot 194) sold for $42,000 hammer versus my $10,000 reserve I had placed on the coin.  I figured it to be worth around $15,000 at the time.  It was graded PCGS AU-58 and was top pop at PCGS at the time with only one finer graded, an MS-63 at NGC.  Wowie!  I thought he was going to pass out on me–his face kept getting redder and redder as the bidding increased.  I was thankful when the hammer finally fell, as I was not sure how much more he could take.  To say he was speechless and blown away by the results, would have been an understatement.  Several of the coins sold for double or triple my pre sale estimates.  This was a testimony to the strength of the market at the time, but more importantly, the quality of the coins presented for sale.  There is certainly a huge difference between a run of the mill coin and one that is hand selected for all of the important criteria I mentioned above.  When you have superb quality coins, it truly is a crap shoot as to what they will fetch.  As in this case, you can obtain run away prices as two collectors battle it out for the privilege of being the new owner.

The Draped Bust dime series is not a collecting endeavor for the faint of heart. This series will challenge your patience, wallet and stamina.  Even so-called common dates, like the 1798 (not the overdate), are very difficult to find problem-free in mid-grade range, say from VF-30 to AU-55.  In fact, I looked for years to find a quality, clean planchet, nicely struck, pearl gray example for a collector.  It was the last date we found for him and it was supposed to be the easiest year to obtain.

If you plan to try to collect this series, I recommend a nice VF or better set. You will still see the majority of the design details on a VF graded piece, but won’t break the bank trying to assemble a set.  Although the 1804 is touted as the “star of the show” for rarity, it is my opinion, that a lovely, choice, 1803 is just as hard to obtain.

If you would like someone who loves this series, to work with you on the assembly of a collection, I am just a phone call or email away at liz@lizcoggan.com or 508-513-8383. Happy Hunting, Liz Coggan, Elizabeth Coggan Numismatics, LLC