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Coronet Head half eagles full of challenges

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It may be difficult to assemble a complete set of Coronet Head $5 gold pieces, but it certainly is fun.

As the working gold coin for many years, the Coronet Head half eagle reflects the changes in America over a long period and that makes them an excellent window into the past of both the nation and the U.S. Mint.

Even if you are unable to attempt a complete set of Coronet Head half eagles, there are many less costly options such as examples from each Mint of each type. That is an interesting challenge as the Coronet Head half eagle, produced from 1839 until 1908, would be struck at Philadelphia, Charlotte, Dahlonega, New Orleans, San Francisco, Carson City and Denver. That is a diverse and interesting list which, even if you are acquiring the most available date of each type from each facility, can make for an interesting challenge.

green2.jpgYou cannot go very far wrong with any Coronet Head half eagle, especially when it comes to their historic importance. The Coronet Head half eagle was created at a time when the half eagle was still the most heavily used gold denomination. The Christian Gobrecht design would emerge in circulation at about the same time that production of eagles was being resumed. They?d had their production suspended in 1804 in attempt to free up Mint resources to make great numbers of lower denominations. That meant that for decades the half eagle had been the largest and most actively used denomination.

green3.jpgIn fact, even though the gold eagle would return, the half eagle was still a heavily used gold denomination. A good example of that fact is that although the Mint facilities in Charlotte and Dahlonega would produce only gold coins, neither would ever produce a gold $10. Their highest denomination would be the half eagle as apparently there was little potential use for a higher denomination.

We also see evidence of the use of the half eagle in a hoard discovered in Baltimore in the 1930s. When sold, the hoard showed a fascinating diversity of gold half eagles, including examples from virtually all Mints and sometimes in surprising numbers. The clear suggestion was that half eagles once produced would travel  see a lot of use and travel as no half eagle date in the hoard was dated after the 1850s and all the early Mints were represented.

green4.jpgIn collecting Coronet Head half eagles today, you are looking at some excellent values. Of course it has to be remembered that because of their gold content an earlier date is likely to be around $220 in VF-20 whether it is a better or an available date. That fact must be remembered as when you see a price of $500 realistically only $280 of that price is for the scarcity of the date. The same is true if you see an available alter date at $300 in MS-60. You are really only paying an extra $80 for the better grade and that can be a pretty good deal. For most of the time they were produced, saving half eagles was a huge investment that most collectors were unable to make.

The first available type of the Coronet Head half eagle is an available one. It was seen on the first Coronet Head half eagles in 1839 and would last until 1866. There are some higher mintages, making an available F-12 about $200 although there are certainly some more interesting dates as the type would be produced in Philadelphia, Dahlonega, Charlotte, New Orleans and San Francisco. Historically speaking, available supplies from branch Mints tend to be lower. That is especially true in Mint State, making even a type coin from each Mint a good deal tougher than might be expected.

green5.jpgIn addition, there are better dates, and there are many. We?ll start with the mysterious 1841-O. The 1841-O had a listed mintage of just 50 pieces and that raises all sorts of questions. There is simply no good reason for a mintage of 50 pieces even back in 1841. We have no idea as to what really happened in 1841. We also have no idea as to what might have happened to those 50 coins, assuming they existed in the first place.

There have been reports from time to time of examples of the 1841-O, but there are doubts about the reports. As far as anyone can tell today, if any examples of the 1841-O do exist ? buried away in old collections that have not been seen for years ? the number possible would be only one or two. That would make any 1841-O a significant rarity, likely to command millions of dollars at auction. For now, however, the best guess is that the 1841-O probably does not exist although the possibility that there are a couple remains a lingering and fascinating possibility.

The other better dates of the type at least are known. The 1842-C is an interesting one. It came with either large or small dates. The large date variety is more possible with a current listing of $900 in F-12 while the much tougher small date 1842-C lists for $4,500 in the same grade. The scarcity of the small date can be seen in the fact that Professional Coin Grading Service has seen only 36 examples with just two being called Mint State, a fairly typical situation for a tougher branch Mint date.

green6.jpgThere is little doubt that if there was greater demand from collectors today, a host of dates would be much more expensive than they have been. A good example is the 1846-C, which had a mintage of just 12,995. Despite an increase to a listing of $1,350 in F-12 with an MS-60 at $24,000, the 1846-C is still much tougher than the prices might suggest. Numismatic Guaranty Corp. has seen 46 examples and only three were judged to be Mint State, while at PCGS the total seen is 59 with 10 of them being called MS-60 or better. When you realize some of those totals could well be repeat submissions, you understand that the 1846-C is a typical tough date without a big reputation or price tag simply because there are relatively few collectors.

It is only natural that the bulk of the attention on early Coronet Head half eagles goes to the issues of Charlotte and Dahlonega. Those two facilities were famous or perhaps infamous for lower mintages and frequently lower-quality coins. As a result, even if you are lucky enough to find a Mint State example of one of their better dates, it is likely to be in a lower Mint State grade like MS-61 and when compared to a similar grade coin from Philadelphia it will frequently seem like a very poor second in quality.

With the focus on Dahlonega and Charlotte dates, sometimes other better date are overlooked. The 1847-O is an example. It had a mintage of just 12,000 and like other issues from Dahlonega and Charlotte had a poor survival rate. Without a lot of attention, the 1847-O today lists for $550 in F-12 with an MS-60 listing of $28,000. The grading services support such prices as PCGS has graded just 37 examples while the NGC total is just 30 and none were called Mint State.

The 1850s saw a major rarity from the new San Francisco Mint, which began coin production in 1854. The facility was small, loud and, just to make it even more uncomfortable, acid fumes made officials concerned about the health of the employees. Virtually from the start officials were asking Washington for approval of a new facility, but at least until the 1870s they had to make do with the facil ity they had. The situation meant that production levels were sometimes not high and priorities in the heart of a gold-producing region skewed toward gold coins, especially large gold coins. The bulk of the 1854 production was in the form of gold eagles and double eagles  with only token levels for the quarter and half eagle. The gold half eagle mintage in 1854 was just 268 while the quarter eagle was 22 pieces fewer.

These mintages would have resulted in major rarities under any circumstance, but this was San Francisco in 1854 and there were basically no collectors to save examples. Neither the 1854-S quarter eagle nor half eagle were saved in any numbers. No Mint State example is known of either. In fact, there are barely any examples in any grade known of either.

The best guess is that there are no more than a dozen known examples of the 1854-S quarter eagle, probably fewer than a dozen, while the latest accounting for the 1854-S half eagle puts the number known at just three. We are not even all that sure of that total, which is far less than some great rarities. The last sale of an 1854-S half eagle was the Elisaberg sale, which saw probably the finest known example graded AU-55 bring a price of $170,000. That, however, was years ago. If the importance of that coin and its rarity were explained, the possibility is very real that it would produce a surprisingly high price. It fully deserves to be considered one of the great rarities of the United States.

In comparison, any other half eagle of the period is going to seem common. They are not, however, with the 1855-O being a good example with a current listing today of just $315 in F-12. In this case the 1855-O had a mintage of just 11,000 pieces as well as virtually no saving and a low survival rate. The combination results in roughly 100 graded by NGC and PCGS combined but only a few of the coins could manage a Mint State designation making the 1855-O a lot better especially in Mint State than many realize and it is just one example of many.

A couple other interesting dates from the 1850s would include the 10,366-mintage 1859-D, which currently lists at $1,600 in F-12, and the 14,220-mintage 1859-S, which is about $615 in F-12 but more expensive than the 1859-D in Mint State. That situation is unusual as Dahlonega dates usually take a back seat to no other dates when it comes to being difficult to find in Mint State. In this case, however, it is appropriate and perhaps a reminder that ?S? Mint State coins from the period, unless they are recovered from shipwrecks, are extremely tough. PCGS has seen 10 examples of the 1859-D in Mint State but just a single 1859-S.

There have been a few Coronet Head half eagles discovered in the famous shipwrecks such as the S.S. Central America, but unlike double eagles the half eagle numbers were very small and not enough to make any significant difference in the available supply for collectors today. With few collectors, the prices of many Mint State Coronet Head half eagles remain modest but there is little doubt that additional demand, especially for Mint State examples would send prices soaring as there is simply no available supply, totals in Mint State many times being 10 or fewer examples.

When it comes to fascinating stories, the 1861-C and 1861-D Coronet Head half eagles take a back seat to very few coins in U.S. history. Their story starts with their date, 1861, and the fact that Charlotte and Dahlonega were located in North Carolina and Georgia. Back in 1861 those two states were leaving the Union. State forces arrived early in the year to take control of each facility, and when the states officially joined the Confederate States of America the facilities were turned over to representatives of the Confederacy.

The situation produced fairly similar results at both Dahlonega and Charlotte. At Charlotte there was a regular production of 3,948 Coronet Head half eagles before the forces of the state of North Carolina arrived. When the North Carolina forces did arrive, they found dies and gold and promptly decided to go into the coin production business, producing another 2,931 half eagles. The story did not end there. After being taken over by the CSA, an estimated additional 887 Coronet Head half eagles were produced at Charlotte, resulting in a combined mintage of roughly 8,000 pieces.

The problem with any 1861-C half eagle today is that there is no certain way to tell who was in charge of the facility at the time the coin was produced. There are some indications that provide likely clues, such as some exhibit a die crack through ?AMERI? and evidence of die rust. As those factors probably indicate a later coin, most suggest that coins with those characteristics were produced under Confederate control. That is certainly logical, though it falls short of actual proof. Any 1861-C is tough with listings today of $1,500 in F-12 and $25,000 in MS-60 where PCGS reports just three coins.

The situation at Dahlonega was very similar as there appears to have been a mintage of 1,597 half eagles before the state of Georgia assumed control of the facility on April 8, 1861. At that time it is thought that there was about $13,345 in gold still in the vault. While some of that total was used to make gold dollars, it is also logical to believe that half eagles were also produced as certainly there were still dies and more than enough gold to make a number of examples. The 1861-D is an interesting coin but one with a potentially very low mintage, resulting in a price of $3,000 for an F-12.

Trying to compare the two half eagles, in part to determine if there was some additional 1861-D production that would make the mintage greater than the 1,597 produced by the United States, shows NGC has seen the 1861-C 73 times with four being called Mint State while the 1861-D has been graded only 26 times with three being called Mint State. At PCGS they have seen the 1861-C 95 times with three being called Mint State while the 1861-D has been graded 65 times with a total of 13 being called Mint State. If the 1861-C mintage was roughly 8,000 pieces, it would appear based on the numbers seen that the 1861-D would have had a total mintage of 2,000 to perhaps 5,000. Whether it is at the lower end as NGC seems to suggest or the upper as the PCGS totals seem to indicate, the fact is that the 1861-D seems to have had some additional mintage under Georgia or Confederate control.

There was a change in the design in 1866 with the motto IN GOD WE TRUST being added to the reverse. Many at the time probably did not see the change quickly. Gold coins had basically ceased to circulation in the East and Midwest around 1862 and they would not return until the late 1870s. The type is readily available for as little as $215 for a VF-20 with an MS-60 at $235 while an MS-65 would be $2,600.

There are a number of tougher dates. The 1867-S seems to have had an especially poor survival rate; a VF-20 lists at $1,400 and an MS-60 at $34,500.

The toughest dates of the last type of Coronet Head half eagles tend to be those produced in Carson City, which produced its first half eagle in 1870. The 1870-CC might be historic but it is also extremely tough with a VF-20 listing for $5,250. Similar in difficulty is the 1878-CC, which had a mintage of just 9,054 and has a listing of $3,100 in VF-20 today. While there are other Carson City dates that are more available, the fact is that with poor chances of survival, any Carson City date is likely to command some premium.

There were other rare dates in the final type of Coronet Head half eagle, notably the 1875. It had a mintage of just 220 of which 20 are believed to have been proofs. The 1875 is naturally very scarce with such a low mintage. A VF-20 currently lists at $34,000 while an MS-60 would be $190,000.

The decades that followed were interesting not so much for the production of scarce dates but rather the coming and going of facilities. Carson City would be closed while New Orlea ns would be reopened. Denver became the final facility to produce Coronet Head half eagles in 1906. There would be tough dates like the proof-only 1887, which is $120,000 in Proof-65, but the vast majority of dates are routinely available.

For collectors the choices are many, and that makes whatever Coronet Head half eagle collection you attempt as interesting, fun and expensive as you care to make it. You cannot really miss having a great collection and a great time with Coronet Head half eagles.

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