Know your U.S. coins: Indian Head $5 half eagle

Incused design feature sparks controversy
By , Coin World
Published : 03/27/15
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The early 1900s brought a sense of excitement and adventure to U.S. coinage design.

Between 1907 and 1921 some of the best American artists created designs for U.S. circulating coins: Victor David Brenner's Lincoln cent, James Earle Fraser's Indian Head 5-cent coin, Adolph Weinman's Winged Liberty Head dime and Walking Liberty half dollar, Hermon MacNeil's Standing Liberty quarter dollar, and Anthony de Francisci's Peace dollar.

The inspiration for much of the change can be credited to President Theodore Roosevelt's love of classic art, especially that found on Greek and Roman coins.

COIN VALUES: See  how much your Indian Head $5 half eagle is worth today

His artistic interests lead to friendship with leading sculptors and artists of the day. Those friendships provided the spark for a revolution of sorts in American coinage that would move through all denominations of U.S. coinage including gold coins.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens was commissioned by Roosevelt in 1905 to redesign the country's gold coinage. The famed sculptor began preparing designs for the Indian Head $10 gold eagle and the $20 double eagle but was not able to offer new designs for other gold coins before he died in 1907.

That is when a young Boston sculptor and artist, Bela Lyon Pratt, entered the picture and the numismatic history books.

A student of Saint-Gaudens at the Art Students League, Pratt also served as one of his assistants for a time. When Saint-Gaudens died, Pratt was given the assignment to complete the redesign efforts his mentor had started.

Pratt's work can be seen in his Indian Head designs for the gold $2.50 quarter eagle and the gold $5 half eagle.

The Indian Head design for both coins was introduced in 1908 and received mixed reviews. Some praised his boldness in stepping away from the allegorical Liberty concept and replacing it with an intense-looking Indian wearing a feathered headdress and facing left. The obverse design was the first real Indian to appear on U.S. coins. Pratt's reverse design shows a majestic, standing eagle with denomination below the eagle. The designs are the same for both denominations.

Pratt's new designs replaced Christian Gobrecht's Coronet-crowned Liberty design used on the obverse of the quarter eagle from 1840 to 1907 and on the obverse of the half eagle from 1839 to 1908. The eagle with shield reverse was first used on John Reich's Capped Draped Bust half eagle beginning in 1807. Variations of Reich's eagle design continued to appear on half eagles through 1908.

The way the designs were struck on the coins earned Pratt some unpleasant comments. Pratt's design features devices in normal relief but recessed below the level of the fields.

"This return to an ancient Egyptian concept called incuse-relief was advanced by Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, a close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. Bigelow was influenced by the "1837" Bonomi pattern crown of Queen Victoria, actually struck in similar incuse-relief style for her 1887 Golden Jubilee for antiquarian J. Rochelle Thomas.

The design features on the $2.50 quarter eagle and $5 half eagle were strongly criticized, with some suggesting that the "incused" portions would "permit enough germs to accumulate to prove a health hazard."

The reference to the health concern came from Samuel H. Chapman, a Philadelphia coin dealer, whose allegations included the charge that the incused areas would be "a great receptacle for dirt and conveyor of disease, and the coin will be the most unhygienic ever issued." In fact, the new coins were a success and were issued until 1929 without causing health problems.

Pratt's designs for the quarter eagle and half eagle remain popular today.

Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:

Cents and half cents:

2- and 3-cent coins:


Dimes and half dimes:


Half dollars:


Gold coins:

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