The design of the Indian Half Eagle was assigned to Bela Lyon Pratt following the death of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who had been commissioned to beautify America’s gold coins.
Hoping to avoid the controversy surrounding Saint-Gaudens’ depiction of Liberty wearing an Indian bonnet, Pratt departed from the traditional portrayal of Liberty altogether. Taking her place on the obverse of the Indian Half Eagle is the profile of a distinguished Indian chief wearing a full-feathered headdress. There are six stars on the left and seven on the right, separated above by the word “LIBERTY.” Directly beneath the bust are the designer’s initials, “BLP,” and below that, the date.
For the reverse, Pratt replicated Saint-Gaudens’ eagle perched on a sheath of arrows bound with an olive branch. The motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM” is on the left of the Eagle and “IN GOD WE TRUST” is on the right. The denomination “FIVE DOLLARS” is on the bottom.
Rather than render the coin in relief, in which the design and lettering rise up from the surface, Pratt again departed from tradition and had them incused, or struck into the surface. The effect was stunning, but the small crevices were perceived to harbor bacteria and unusually few were hoarded for posterity.
Pratt took one final step against tradition, forgoing raised rims. Although the idea beautifully complemented the incuse, the coins deteriorated rapidly without their protection. Consequently, very few high-grade Indian Half Eagles can be found today.
The Indian Half Eagle was minted from 1908 to 1916 and once again in 1929. The most common is the 1909-D, with a mintage of nearly 3.5 million. The lowest mintage was the 1909-O, of which only 34,200 were produced. More valuable today, however, is the 1929. In all 662,000 were struck – all in Philadelphia – but most were lost to melting.
Pratt’s Indian Half Eagle is highly favored by investors and collectors worldwide for its sheer beauty, unique design, and historical significance.
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