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Bust halves provide entree to early issues

Of all the early coins of the United States, it is the Bust half dollar that is perhaps the most available. That makes the Bust half dollar a great coin for anyone fascinated by the early coins of the United States.

Of course, the concept of availability is relative. The mintages of Bust half dollars are not high by the standards of today. While the numbers available, thanks to a number of small and one large hoard, are still modest for an early U.S. coin, the Bust half dollar is still an affordable and interesting choice.

Like the other initial denominations, the half dollar was included in the Mint Act of April 2, 1792. Like the others, the half dollar had to wait for its initial production simply because at the time the denominations were authorized there was no Mint where the coins could be produced.

Even in 1793 when the Mint was actually open for business there were problems. The  law required that Mint officials post a $10,000 bond before the production of any gold or silver coins. The officials balked at that requirement. That was a large sum of money at the time, especially for people who were relatively new to their positions. As Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson had to get involved in settling that matter. While he did, the Mint was limited to the production of copper half cents and large cents.
By 1794 the problem with the posting of the bond had been solved and officials could turn their attention to silver and gold coins. It is thought that half dimes were high on the list of priorities, but apparently a shipment of smaller silver coins arrived, allowing officials to focus instead on upper denominations.

The equipment at the time was only capable of producing denominations up to a half dollar in size, yet a decision was made to initially try silver dollars. We do not know the reason for this unusual decision, but a total of 1,758 silver dollars dated 1794 were the first silver coins delivered. The number is odd in that it seems highly unlikely that 1,758 was the number originally intended as the mintage. The best guess is that perhaps 2,000 pieces were struck but, with things not going well, only 1,758 could meet what were minimal quality standards. We cannot be sure but such a conclusion seems possible in light of the unusual total. That conclusion is supported by the fact that in the 135 or so 1794 silver dollars known to exist today, we find that light strikes are the rule and perfect alignment is not universal.

The next denomination attempted was the half dollar. This at least had reasonable prospects for success based on the capabilities of the equipment. That was seen in the first half dollar mintage, which was placed at 23,464 ? certainly not a massive total, but it was a lot better than the silver dollar total, suggesting that half dollars were in fact the largest possible denomination at the time. We cannot say there were no problems. Typical of early issues are adjustment marks to make the planchets the right weight, light strikes particularly on the breast, and sometimes defective rims. Better equipment was on hand the next year, but the first-year troubles are what make a truly nice example with a sharp strike and no real defects a premium coin and gives it a $2,650 G-4 price listing today.

Naturally, there were very few collectors at the time to save examples as they were first released. That means the number of Mint State 1794 half dollars is very small. This helps to explain the ever-increasing MS-60 price, which today stands at $125,000, which is up from $55,000 in 2002 and just $25,000 in 1998. That increase is supported by grading service totals that show only one of the 268 graded 1794 half dollars at Professional Coin Grading Service was called Mint State while Numismatic Guaranty Corp. reports only three in Mint State out of nearly 100 examples of the 1794 seen.

If you want a type example of the Flowing Hair and small eagle reverse half dollar, your better bet especially in top grades is the 1795, which had a mintage of 299,680 resulting in prices of  $650 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $25,000. While much more available, the 1795 is still not immune to the small problems such as adjustment marks and light strikes seen on the 1794. While more available, it is not safe to make assumptions about the quality of the 1795.

The obverse was changed in 1796 to the Robert Scot Draped Bust design, keeping the small eagle reverse. This two-year type would be the one exception to the general pattern of Bust half dollars being available: it would have a total production in 1796 and 1797 of just 3,918 pieces. In addition, the 1796 came with either 15 or 16 stars, reflecting the addition of states to the Union, with the 16-star variety being a bit tougher.

The extremely low combined mintage for two years raises immediate questions. First, there is no division of the mintage between the two dates. Over the years some have suggested 934 for the 1796 mintage and 2,984 for the 1797, but the price listings today really do not seem to support such a division. The 1796 with 15 stars lists at $29,000 in G-4 with the 16-star variety being $1,500 more and the 1797 being less at $28,500 while in MS-60 the 15-star 1796 and the 1797 are more available, if you call them that at a price listing of $175,000.

In any grade the type is a problem, as Q. David Bowers suggests in his book A Guide Book Of United States Type Coins where he says of the two, ?This is the Holy Grail, the rarest by far.?

The grading services supply us with some clue as to what the supply is like of the two today. PCGS has seen 56 examples of the two varieties of the 1796 and 71 examples of the 1797 while the NGC totals show a nearly identical number of the two dates. That may not be scientific, but it suggests that either the saving of the 1796 was much better or the two had fairly similar mintages.

After 1797 no half dollars were produced until 1801, probably reflecting the fact that at the time those who supplied the silver were able to pick the denominations made from their metal. They were increasingly picking silver dollars, which in many cases were exported. This was not helping a national coin shortage and would be ended in 1804 when the production of silver dollars and gold eagles was halted.

The return to production of the half dollar in 1801 saw a relatively low mintage of 30,289 while the 1802 was similar at 29,890. With such similar totals the two dates are close in price, the 1801 at $850 and the 1802 at $775 in G-4 while the 1801 lists at $36,500 in MS-60 and the 1802 at $40,000. As before, weak strikes and adjustment marks, among other defects, need to be considered in the coin you are considering and its price.

There was a significant increase in the mintage of the 1803. The total was put at 188,234 although some believe the bulk of the total may actually have been struck in 1804. Whenever the actual striking took place, the fact remains that the 1803 and the dates that follow up to 1807 had higher mintages and today are a much more available type, listing at $150 in G-4 and $7,250 in MS-60.

The later higher-mintage dates are available for another surprising reason. A large supply of half dollars of the period appeared back in the 1800s in the town of Economy, Pa., thanks to a group known as The Harmony Society. The Harmony Society was a group once numbering over 100 homes that had as its leader a German immigrant known as George Rapp. The group had assorted beliefs, including the idea of paying ?In Money,? which meant silver. As silver dollars were not in production at the time, they chose the next highest denomination, the half dollar, as the silver coin they would hoard. It was not a small matter. The Harmony Society was thrifty with the half dollars, amassing more than 115,000, all from before 1836, when their hoard was sold.

The huge hoard of half dollars has been traced by Bowers to dealer John Haseltine in the later 1800s, but we have no total inve ntory. What we do have is enough to suggest the importance of the hoard. It was reported to have 150 examples of the 1794, which would be roughly one-third of the total supply known today. In addition, there were thought to be 650 examples of the 1795, which again is a significant percentage of the number known today. In the case of the scarce 1796 and 1797, the hoard confirms they were not readily available even in circulation at the time as there were only three of the two dates combined. The bulk of the hoard consisted of dates from 1807-1836, the prime time of the hoarding, with the 1807 being the first heavily represented date. Its mintage was split between the old and new Liberty Cap design by John Reich, and its presence in the hoard as well as other dates of the type make it available at $150 in G-4 and $7,250 in MS-60.

The Harmony Society hoard has certainly made an enormous difference in the availability of many dates today, and that has helped both type and half dollar collectors. The dates after 1808, for example, have small design changes, including a shorter neck on Liberty as well as a larger ear. With so many available thanks to the hoard, the type collector can easily acquire the coins they want with a G-4 of the type at just $52 while an MS-60 is as low as $1,000 with an MS-65 at $8,500.

While many dates from 1807-1836 are available, the fact is that condition is still an issue. The mintages were larger but sometimes the quality suffered. Dies in some cases were used long past their prime and that can result in a grainy appearance. There were also a significant number of cases where strikes are light.

While there is no question some dates are available, there are also some better dates like the 1815/2 which had a mintage put at 47,150. The 1815/2 is actually thought to have been minted in 1816, and some doubt the reported mintage as it is much tougher than a date with its mintage should be. It?s currently at $1,100 in G-4 and $11,500 in MS-60. The 1815/2 seems especially difficult in Mint State where NGC reports only 20 of 150 seen were MS-60 or better while at PCGS a total of 184 produced just five Mint State coins.

The 1815/2 is just one example from a period that seemed to produce overdates and varieties. The major rarity is the 1817/4, which was not discovered for more than a century when in the 1930s it was noticed by E.T. Wallis. The date was then included in the Wayte Raymond?s catalog and later was recognized by half dollar expert Al Overton. Every new recognition produced additional searching for examples, but as it was more than a century after being released, it was simply a matter of luck. In fact, almost no one was lucky with the 1817/4. It lists for $60,000 today in G-4 while an XF-40 is at $250,000. These prices are supported by the two grading services ? combined, they have seen just three pieces.

There are some other interesting dates from the period which are not as tough, such as the overdates of 1824/various dates, which list at $70 in G-4 and $1,850 in MS-60. It is certainly worth that price just because it is so interesting. The coin started out as an 1820 before the die was altered to 1822 and then later to 1824. That combination certainly makes it a true early Mint classic and a fascinating coin to consider.

The varieties continued through 1836, which saw a regular mintage of 6.5 million. There was also a special 1836 with a reeded edge that has caused a good deal of debate over the years. The reason is that the 1836 with reeded edge was definitely a test striking as they were using their new steam press for the first time, but the results were released into circulation. The reeded-edge 1836 is different, not only having a reeded edge but also with the denomination being expressed as ?50 CENTS? as opposed to ?50C.? Otherwise, the design and composition are the same as the other 1836 strikes.

The reeded-edge 1836 is thought to have had a mintage of 1,200 although we cannot be certain as the total would have been included as part of the regular 1836 mintage. While it was definitely a test, it was treated as a regular circulation strike half dollar, and the evidence is clear that it circulated. The roughly 300 known today have been found in all grades. As an interesting and important coin, the reeded-edge 1836 is in demand with prices today being $850 for a G-4 while an MS-60 is $7,250 with an MS-65 at $58,000 which is up from $22,500 a few years ago.

For the type collector there is an option. The 1836 was followed by an 1837 that had a mintage of 3,629,820. That gives the type collector an option at just $55 in G-4 and $1,000 in MS-60.

In 1838 the denomination was altered again, this time to ?HALF DOL,? creating the final type of Bust half dollar. By 1838 the Harmony Society had completed its hoarding, or at least it let go of the hoard that was to reach the market, and that means there is no extra supply of these later-date coins. Fortunately, higher mintages make most available with a G-4 at $55 while an MS-60 is $1,000 with one of the few MS-65s potentially starting at about $18,600.

One 1838 half dollar was special and that is the 1838-O, which in most minds is the first branch mint proof. The 1838-O was possibly struck as late as 1839. It was created to mark the opening of the New Orleans Mint, and reports from the time put the mintage at no more than 20 pieces. If that total is correct, perhaps half still exist today. As a prized and historically important coin, the 1838-O is rarely offered for sale with the Norweb Proof-64 to -65 commanding a price of $93,500 years ago and listings today at $250,000 for an XF-40 and $300,000 for an AU-50.

As with the 1836 reeded-edge half dollar, there is an option if you simply want a New Orleans half dollar of the period: the 1839-O. It had a mintage of 178,976. That total is still on the low side, and it was produced in New Orleans, which was never noted for saving large numbers of new issues in top grades, so the 1839-O lists at $240 in G-4 and $2,850 in MS-60. The big point with the 1839-O is that it is an option if you want an early New Orleans half dollar. Further, the case can be made that the 1839-O was the first New Orleans half dollar produced for circulation.

Certainly the rarities prevent many from attempting a complete Bust half dollar collection. That said, many can afford either a type collection or a larger, more complete collection in circulated grades, and that certainly cannot be said of all early issues of the United States. Thanks to solid mintages and the Harmony Society hoard, the early half dollar is one coin virtually everyone can own and enjoy.

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