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Early $5 gold pieces make pricey targets

gre0911a.jpgIn all probability you are not going to complete a collection of the early half eagles of the United States. As a group, they are simply too rare. Even if you can acquire one of the better dates the numbers available are so low, in some cases, that it would potentially be years before a date you need will come on the market, even if you have unlimited funds to spend. While a complete collection might not be possible, it is possible for some to acquire type examples. It is also possible to learn about what was a fascinating early coin, which is an excellent reflection of the condition at the time ? both at the Mint and in circulation.

gre0911b.jpgThe early half eagle turned out to be a surprise in terms of its role which was actually much greater than many would have predicted on April 2, 1792 when the half eagle, along with other denominations, was first authorized. At the time, the half eagle was to be the middle gold coin between the $2.50 quarter eagle and $10 eagle. Normally, being in the middle tends to suggest a somewhat limited role, but as it worked out the half eagle became the dominant gold coin in circulation.

The $2.50 quarter eagle was not really popular at the time, while the $10 gold eagle had little commercial use as the denomination was too large. In 1804, the production of gold eagles was suspended, making the half eagle not the middle denomination, but rather the largest gold coin in production in the United States at the time.

Being the largest gold coin and also being a popular size saw the half eagle produced regularly. Although the numbers were limited, the half eagle was still the most heavily produced gold coin of its day.

gre0911c.jpgIn fact, it took some time before there was any production of gold coins. There first had to be a Mint where they could be made and that took until 1793. At that point officials had to post a bond before there could be any production of gold or silver coins and they balked at that requirement. It took until 1794 to settle the bond matter and at that time the first emphasis was on silver coins with dollars, half dollars and half dimes being produced. The dollar and half dollar were produced in 1794 with the half dimes having examples dates of both 1794 and 1795, although there is some suspicion the production might have been entirely in 1795.

gre0911d.jpgThe first steps toward gold coin production came in July of 1795 when the first gold arrived in the form of 128 ounces followed by another 100 ounces. The dies were ready, having been prepared by Robert Scot. As was the case with the other gold coins which would follow, there was no denomination, just a Capped Bust obverse and small eagle reverse.

Production apparently began fairly quickly as 744 half eagles were delivered on July 31, 1795. Those first half eagles had little impact on the commerce of the day as there were an assortment of gold coins of other nations already being used. The mixture of gold coins was at the root of the lack of denomination. Merchants of the day were more concerned about the amount of gold in the coins, rather than their face value.

Before 1795 there would be additional half eagle mintages putting the total for the year at 8,707 pieces. In fact, we cannot really be certain of the accuracy of that total. There was a reported 1796 mintage of 6,196 pieces with the strong suspicion that at least some of them may have been made with 1795 dies.

In fact, the matter of using old dies would be one that would mark the first few years of half eagle production. It takes time to make dies and that costs money which the early Mint did not have. The small profits from producing gold and silver coins at the time barely covered the cost of all the activity and material involved with the only real profit coming from the production of copper coins.

As a result, the Mint was frugal when it came to dies. If they were not completely worn out they would be used again, even if the actual year and the date on the die were not the same. This is proven by the fact that a 1795 is known with a large eagle reverse ? which did not even exist in 1795. What clearly happened is that an old 1795 die was discovered and pressed into service in a later year creating a variety dated before its reverse even existed.

There are a host of questions with regard to the early half eagle varieties. There is a 1796/5 with the regular 1795 being seen about eight times more by the grading services than the 1796/5. There are about a dozen varieties for the 1795 and only one for the 1796/5 suggesting the overdate was very possibly a 1795 die used in 1796.

The 1795 with the large eagle reverse is the best proof of dies being used long after they were created. The large eagle reverse did not appear on any denomination until 1796, although experiments were possible but hardly likely to be used for making regular coins back in 1795.

There is other evidence of the later date for the large eagle reverse in that there are 16 stars while the small eagle reverse has only 15. The addition of that extra star creates the earliest date when a 16-star reverse would have been appropriate ? after June of 1796 when Tennessee was added to the Union. Once that was official it would be natural to have 16 stars. Prior to June of 1796 it would seem unlikely that there would be any 16-star combinations.

Certainly the numbers known today strongly favor the small eagle reverse as PCGS reports over 300 examples of the small eagle reverse but fewer than 50 examples of the 1795 with a large eagle reverse. The NGC totals show the small eagle reverse has been seen 173 times while the large eagle is at just 23.

Interestingly enough, there are other indications of dies being used later as there is also a 1798 with a small eagle reverse. That was safely after the small eagle reverse had been replaced. It appears the die did not last long as the best estimates are the mintage might have been only 100 pieces. That number is supported by the fact that PCGS so far has seen only two.

For those seeking an example of the 1795 with a small eagle reverse, the current price is about $11,500 for an F-12 while the tougher large eagle reverse is $8,800 in the same grade. The 1796/5 rounds out the possibilities at $12,000. The prices actually reflect the demand and not the supply. The price that a special example can bring is seen in the $241,500 price of an MS-64 1795 with a large eagle reverse in a 2003 Bowers and Merena sale.

gre0911e.jpgIn all cases, coins are likely to be fairly well worn as they did see active circulation and adjustment marks from filing the planchet are likely as are strikes which tend to weak in various areas. The same can basically be said of the large eagle reverses, although they are less expensive at $3,000 in F-12, while an MS-60 is possible at around $8,600. For the specialist there are a host of options as might be suspected with the way dies were used years after being produced. Those possibilities are increased when different numbers of stars, different sizes of numbers and other possibilities are added to the coins.

gre0911f.jpgThere are certainly a host of questions for the dates from 1796-1807. A couple unique varieties exist , including the 1797 with a 16-star obverse and a 1797 with a 15-star obverse, both of which were thought to have been produced in 1798. Both are basically impossible to obtain. Add them to the 1798 with a small eagle reverse and you have major rarities. In other cases, there is simply uncertainty as the 37,628 mintage 1800 does not seem to appear in the numbers expected from such a mintage raising questions about that total.

The suspension of gold eagle production in 1804 would thrust the half eagle into the role of being the largest gold denomination. That would mean potentially large numbers being exported, although the 1807 Embargo Act shut down most of the maritime commerce at the time. That also means the coins were probably not melted in large numbers as would happen later, but realistically the supply remaining today is still very small and certainly not large enough to meet demand without seeing higher prices especially in higher grades.

There was a design change in 1807 that saw the John Reich Turban Head introduced ? a design that would last until 1812. The short-lived design, thanks to larger mintage and apparently relatively few losses from export, can be found today with an F-12 at $2,400 and an MS-60 at $8,000. The strikes are better and adjustment marks less common than on the earlier issues making this type somewhat easier to find in the form of a decently struck coin without problems.

The design would change again in 1813 with the new design having a capped head and this design would last until 1834. In this type we find some of the great rarities in U.S. numismatics although at least some type coins can be found.

The fact that the type produced some of the great rarities of U.S. numismatics is something that has been traced to a number of factors. There were certainly some very low mintages during the period and in addition there were even fewer collectors who would attempt to save such a high denomination. That did not change for decades which meant that half eagles released into circulation could have any number of potential fates and none of them were good in terms of the surviving to the present day.

An additional factor was that circulation losses were only part of the story. The ending of the War of 1812 saw international trade resume. As the largest gold coin of the United States at the time, the half eagle was the natural first choice to be exported in foreign trade.

That situation was enhanced by the fact that the American gold-to-silver ratio of 16-to-1 was slightly different from the rest of world, so American gold coins could actually be exported at a small profit. That was made easier by brokers who would cheerfully buy the coins and take care of the rest. There were virtually no gold coins in circulation even though there were regular mintages.

The situation made for a perfect storm of factors for any gold coin produced ? especially the half eagle ? to end up being melted in Europe in a relatively short period of time. That makes almost any date from the period extremely tough.

The first of a number of rarities is the 1815, which had a mintage of just 635 pieces. With that mintage, the 1815 did not need to be exported as it was going to be very tough under any circumstances and that is the case with less than a dozen examples known and many of them being housed in museum. While not well known, the 1825/4 overdate is even tougher with only two examples being known.

Under normal circumstances, other tough dates would be much better known. In a virtual galaxy of rarities a date such as the 1819 of which there are fewer than 20 pieces known simply does not stand out the way it might if it was another denomination.

The real export began in the early 1820s and that has produced a number of very tough coins. The first year of significant export was probably 1821. The 1821, mintage 34,641, is much tougher than the mintage suggests with a $5,800 price listing in F-12 of $7,000 and $70,000 in MS-60. The two major grading services report a mere six examples each. A couple were Mint State, but there is no way a collector desiring a nice 1821 can assume one can be found quickly at any price.

The overdates headed by the 1825/24, which sold for $148,500 in a 1989 Bowers and Merena sale, are also very tough. Currently there is relatively little recognition or demand and their prices are lower than might normally be the case.

The regular dates are not by definition available, either. The 1829, which came with a small or large planchet as that was the year the planchet size was reduced, gets a certain amount of attention as an interesting date. The mintage was put at 57,442, divided between the old and newer planchet sizes. Few of either are known with perhaps seven examples of the large-size planchet being accounted for, primarily in Mint State. The number of smaller-size planchets known is placed at six, meaning we cannot account for the remaining 57,429 pieces. A couple might turn up, but basically it?s a terrible survival rate and it leaves any 1829 at high prices. In 1985 Superior offered a large-size planchet in MS-65 and it realized $104,500. An XF-40 small planchet in 1992 brought $89,000 while the Norweb small planchet in Proof-64 to Proof-65 managed a price of $352,000 back in 1987.

The key date of the 1820s remains the 1822, which is a classic rarity. The 1822 had a reported mintage of 17,796. In all probability, not all were dated 1822 because we know of only three examples today, and two of the three are in the Smithsonian. It suggests the mintage was not all dated 1822. The number exported may also have been very large, with saving almost unknown.

With two examples in the Smithsonian, that makes the one other 1822 the only example that can be privately owned. It?s an interesting coin that brought a price of $687,500 in the Eliasberg sale. The price would have been higher but the coin only graded VF-30. Although being circulated does not help its price, it does help its charm, as it means that an extremely valuable coin was circulating for its $5 face value. Should it ever be offered again, it is certainly likely that the 1822 $5 will command a price in the millions, as it will be the only chance anyone will have to own one of the great rarities in U.S. numismatics.

Technically, the large and small planchet types can be considered different types, although the difficulty in finding just a single example from the period especially in Mint State sees many content with just a single example of type. Those looking for a Mint State coin will find the challenge is very real, although the long period of production has helped, even if only a small number of Mint State coins survived most years that does represent a limited supply. The supplies today put the type at $2,400 in F-12 for the most available dates, typcially from prior to 1821, while an MS-60 is listed at about $7,800 for the most available dates.

In 1834 there would be a significant change as the William Kneass Classic Head design was introduced. In fact, the design was to mark coins made with a new composition involving slightly less gold. There was some debate over what to do in 1834 when the old type and the new type would both be produced. There was also concern that the public be aware that the new type contained less gold. There was thought of putting the date Aug. 1, 1834, or the word NEW on the Classic Head 1834 half eagles, but eventually it was decided that the new design was enough.

The new Classic Head half eagles that contained less gold could circulate and made it possible to have much larger mintages, making the type readily available. In VF-20, an available-date Classic Head half eagle lists at $300 while an MS-60 lists at as littl e as $2,950. There are better dates, starting with an 1834 having a crosslet ?4,? which is $1,650 in VF-20 while a plain ?4? is at available-date prices.

In a sense, the Classic Head half eagles were truly transitional half eagles. They included the first half eagles to be produced outside of the main facility in Philadelphia. The Charlotte, N.C., and Dahlonega, Ga., facilities would produce their first half eagles in 1838. The 1838-C had a mintage of 17,179 while the 1838-D was at 20,583. The two are certainly historic with the 1838-C listing for $2,200 in VF-20 while the 1838-D is at $2,000 in the same grade. In MS-60 the 1838-C is $38,500 and the 1838-D is at $25,000.

 The grading services support the prices as the 1838-C has been seen in Mint State just once at NGC, while the 1838-D was seen 10 times. At PCGS, the 1838-C is at two Mint State coins graded, while the 1838-D is at six graded.

With the introduction of the Coronet Head design, the era of the early half eagles came to an end. While a complete set is basically impossible, even being able to own a single example of the early half eagles is a special opportunity. They were the most important gold coins of their day, and since that day they have attained a place as one of the most important and difficult of all U.S. coins.

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