From 1795 through 1808, a design known as the Draped Bust motif appeared on America’s copper and silver coinage. Created by Robert Scot, the design was featured on the Half Cent, Large Cent, Half Dime, Dime, Quarter Dollar and Half Dollar. Some of the most famous early American numismatic rarities were struck using this design, including the 1799 Large Cent, 1802 Half Dime, 1796 Half Dollar, 1797 Half Dollar and 1804 Silver Dollar.
As the United States Mint was still just three years old when the Draped Bust motif was unveiled, many coins released with this design show primitive workmanship. They are frequently poorly struck, impressed from poorly constructed dies and made with faulty planchets (aka blanks). Dies were often used far longer than they should have been, as evidenced by signs of die cracks and breaks.
Some coins of this era show careless mint-made flaws. An example would be the Half Dollars of 1796 and 1797. The 1796 issue was originally made with 15 stars on the obverse – that is one star per state in the union. Later in the year the star count was increased to 16, as another state had been admitted to the U.S. However, in what must have been a mindless error, the Half Dollars of 1797 were released with just 15 stars again on the obverse.
Despite the numerous mint-made flaws, the Draped Bust coins of 1795-1808 are highly collectible and extremely desirable. Almost every denomination contains a major six-figure (or even seven-figure) rarity. Among Half Cents, the 1802/0 Reverse of 1800 has just 20-30 pieces known. The 1802 Half Dime is in the same general rarity class as well.
In the Half Dollar series, the 1797 has gained special attention in the past two years. The finest known specimen, an incredible coin graded PCGS MS66, sold for an astounding $1.5 million in 2015. This same coin fetched an impressive $517,000 in 1995. It is believed that just 175 or so pieces are known in all grades, but just a dozen (or perhaps less) survived in Uncirculated.
The undisputed king of Draped Bust coins – if not all American coinage – is the 1804 Silver Dollar. While not necessarily the rarest American numismatic item, it is one of the most famous rarities. A total of fifteen pieces are known in all grades. The finest known specimen last sold at auction in 1999 for $4.14 million, which at the time was the highest price ever paid for a U.S coin.