If you were doing your regular shopping during the days of the gold standard, you were living at a time before credit cards and during a time when paper money was not always trusted.
So, if you encountered one gold coin in your routine, it would have probably been a half eagle, or $5 gold piece. Today the $5 gets short shrift as everybody tends to focus on the larger gold coins. The one-ounce gold bullion coins make the headlines and the Saint-Gaudens gold $20 gets all the applause for artistic merit.
Perhaps that is typical of life as the hard working sometimes get very little attention. While gold double eagles and eagles many times sat in vaults, it was the half eagle that was out in circulation.
Of course, today’s collectors cannot be faulted. People just naturally like upper denominations and bigger coins. That seems particularly true for gold where there is always a solid demand for double eagles.
Half eagles, however, are frequently overlooked. Of course, there may be at least some reason for this to be found in the fact that there are some extremely rare half eagles. Even some of the types are very tough, but that makes a completed half eagle type collection all the more satisfying as it’s not easy to complete a half eagle type collection and the higher the grade the greater the challenge.
The half eagle did not begin with quite the same potential as it would eventually realize. As one of the first three gold denominations authorized in April of 1792, the half eagle was seen as the middle denomination sandwiched between the gold quarter eagle and eagle. That said, it appears that the Mint might well have sensed that it would be the half eagle that would see the heavy use. But perhaps this was due to the fact that the $5 gold piece was nearly the same weight as the British sovereign.
Once authorized in 1792 it would take until 1795 before the first half eagle would be produced. That delay had nothing to do with the denomination. It was a simple reflection of the problems of getting a new mint in a new country up and operational. The half eagle and other denominations had been authorized but there was no facility where they could be made. Naturally it took some time to obtain and outfit a mint so that delayed all coin production until 1793.
Even once the new facility was open there were problems as before gold or silver coins could be produced as the officials of the Mint had to post a bond as surety against theft and they did not want to or could not do so because to strike gold required a bond amount of $10,000, which was perilously close to a fortune at the time. That caused all of 1793 and much of 1794 to be limited to the production of copper large cents and half cents which did not require the bond.
Once an agreement was reached on the bond matter it became a question of priorities and the priority was silver issues, starting with the silver dollar and then going to the half dollar and half dime. The first production of gold coins would have to wait.
The design of the first half eagle that would also be used on the eagle and quarter eagle was very interesting as nowhere on the coin did it suggest a denomination. This, too, was a practice of British coinage. There was a Liberty head with a conical cap facing right with stars on both sides and a small eagle reverse, but nothing suggesting $5 face value. The assumption must have been that the money-changers as well as users would know what it was or what it at least seemed to be even though it was the very first issue of the denomination by the United States.
It would be that way with the other denominations of gold coins as well. Apparently the denomination was not of much use as the merchants of the day valued gold coins not by face value but rather by the amount of gold. Moreover, the gold coins of the United States such as the half eagle were not the most regularly encountered gold issues. The most likely gold coin to be seen at the time was the Spanish 8 escudo piece and fractions of the 8 escudo, which had something over eight-tenths of an ounce of gold in it while the $5 had a little over a quarter of an ounce.
The first production of half eagles took place in July of 1795 as on July 31 a total of 744 pieces were produced. Over the course of the year the amount would rise to 8,707, which was not enough to create much conversation. The type would last until 1798, but some coins with a large eagle also were produced as the large eagle technically became the reverse in 1798, but because of the use of old dies there are large eagle reverses dating all the way back to 1795.
Determining precise numbers of coins produced of a specific type is not really possible as dies were used, saved and then used again sometimes after the design was outdated. In the case of dates, the Mint really did not bother to keep track as the only accounting was the number of coins made each specific year but that total could include one or more dates.
Our best estimate is that somewhere slightly below 20,000 examples of the small eagle design of all dates were made. That makes the type tough at around $19,500 in F-12 and $45,000 in AU-50 for the most available 1795 if you can find one. It is highly unusual to find a Mint State example and even when you do it is likely to have adjustment marks from filing away metal on overweight planchets and light striking especially in the star centers, hair and feather details. Even with flaws, Mint State examples are very unusual with the bulk of the known coins being in grades around XF-40.
The large eagle reverse would be much more available, lasting from coins dated 1795 through 1807. For much of the period, the gold eagle was still in production so the role of the half eagle was basically to circulate, which it did in some numbers in the eastern part of the country.
In 1804, however, the production of gold eagles as well as silver dollars was suspended as they were being heavily exported at a time of a national coin shortage and consequently were serving little purpose. That would change dramatically the role of the half eagle, but in the case of the large eagle type, most coins did circulate and thousands survived.
While there may be thousands known, the demand for them remains much higher than the supply. With the regular use in circulating most surviving coins are lower grade, starting around F-12 or VF-20. The most available examples in F-12 are currently listed at around $3,850 while the most available MS-60 would be $15,850. Average examples frequently come with adjustment marks and the reverse in particular tends to be lightly struck with weak areas likely to be the upper part of the shield, lower part of the eagle’s neck as well as the wings and stars above the eagle.
Although they were only issued from 1807-1812, the Capped draped bust obverse half eagle is available at least in circulated grades thanks to solid mintages at the time, including the first 100,000 total in 1810. The starting prices reflect the availability as an F-12 is $3,100 while an MS-60 would start around $13,850. In fact the quality of strike is generally better than on earlier issues and adjustment marks although still found are not as common. Although when this type was struck, the $5 was the highest gold, denomination but it did not see extensive export in large part because trade was fairly limited especially after the 1807 Embargo Act which basically shut down American maritime commerce until after the War of 1812.
The John Reich design was modified in 1813 to the Capped Bust to left style and this type would remain in place until 1834. That would suggest they would be common, but they are anything but common in many cases as the type includes some of the great rarities in U.S. numismatic history, such as the 1822 which has three known examples or the 635 mintage 1815 of which only a small number are known.
The type reflects the economic situation in America at the time of issue. When first introduced, there was little export but that changed around 1815 when the fighting in the War of 1812 finally stopped well after the peace treaty ending the conflict had been signed in 1814.
The economic conditions at the time would vary. At first gold half eagles were seen in circulation, but at other times they were virtually impossible to find. The value of gold coins also changed regularly and communications were slow and that produced something of a business simply in trading gold coins from one city to another.
It was 1821 when things took a dramatic turn as that year gold coins basically disappeared as the American value of gold to silver was slightly different from the international ratio and that meant that the gold coins of the United States were worth slightly more. The difference was enough that the American gold coins could be exported for a profit and that is precisely what happened and in extremely large numbers. The proof of this can be found in the lack of coins existing today as some mintages were solid but the supplies for collectors in any grade today are not.
In fact, examples of any date can be called tough, with the least expensive being the early dates produced prior to the beginning of the massive exports. An available date is around $3,000 in F-12 while an MS-60 will begin around $11,000, but almost every date produced after 1821 is much higher.
Although not always collected by type simply because of the difficulty in finding examples, there was actually a change in 1829 to a smaller diameter. That makes dates starting with some of the 1829 mintage potentially another type, but there are really no dates that exist in any numbers plus such pieces as there are tend to have more bag marks than usual and other problems and there is a starting price of nearly $15,000 in F-12 while an MS-60 is $40,000 and up.
Under the circumstances, most collectors simply settle for any examples of the design type without regard to the diameter. It’s an unusual situation as the dates prior to 1829 when they can be found tend to be in greater than usual numbers in Mint State and some examples can actually be very nice while those from 1829 to 1834 are usually very difficult to locate without dull luster, bag marks or other problems.
Finally in 1834 the weight problem was solved in the only way that was possible and that was to reduce slightly the amount of gold in the gold coins of the United States. This naturally was not a step to be taken lightly by Congress as the public expected coins to be worth close to their face value in the metal from which they were made. In addition, even though the overweight situation while making gold coins almost unknown in circulation was profitable for the few who could find a gold coin and sell it to a broker for a few cents profit on each dollar.
The congressional Act of 1834 reduced the amount of gold as of Aug. 1, 1834. The concern of officials is seen in the fact that a debate raged as to how to mark the new coins to show they contained less gold. It would not be a problem after 1834 as any later date would contain less gold, but the 1834 mintage would be split between higher and lower amounts of gold. One suggestion was that the new coins have “AUG” on the new issues while another was to have “NEW” next to the date. It was serious stuff as down in North Carolina Augustus Bechtler the prime producer of private gold coins had an “AUGUST 1, 1834” inscription on a new $5 gold issue.
The Mint came up with a solution which was to introduce a new Classic Head design by William Kneass that would last until 1839. The Classic Head design was short-lived, but it did its job. Nobody could claim to mistake the new coin for the weightier old. The mintages of the Classic Head were massive in comparison to those of the past. A couple of dates even topped 500,000. That means examples are readily available by comparison as the mintages were not only high, but the coins were not being exported and destroyed as in the past.
The Classic Head half eagle today can be found for roughly $400 in F-12 while and example in MS-60 in a couple cases might be right around $3,000. The majority of the Mint State coins seen tend to be in lower Mint State grades with inconsistent striking probably resulting from the heavy mintages.
It is worth noting that the new half eagles of 1834-1838, as part of their design do not carry, E PLURIBUS UNUM, which was dropped. The same thing had been done with the quarter in 1831 and that produced some concern that if you removed the “2” and “C” on a quarter you could then gold plate them and pass them off as half eagles, but there are no records of that happening.
In 1839 a new design would appear in the form of the Christian Gobrecht Coronet Head. Nor was there just a new design for the $5 as there was also a new gold eagle, which was first produced in 1838. That was the first gold eagle since 1804 and it would reduce significantly the chance for future exportation of half eagles in large numbers as higher denominations were always more likely to be used in international trade (think Scrooge and Bob Cratchit. It is quicker to count fewer larger coins than more numerous smaller coins of the same total value).
The first type of Coronet Head half eagle would last until 1866 and while not an easy coin to get in Mint State there are certainly sufficient supplies of upper circulated examples of Coronet Head half eagles of the period as mintages were sometimes large. Current prices in lower circulated grades are gold-related with an F-12 of available date around $295, but with a volatile gold price situation that could change quickly. In Mint State the supply is fairly limited with the most available dates likely to start around $1,400.
In 1866 the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to reverse of the half eagle along with a number of other denominations creating a new type. A small number of the San Francisco mintage of 1866 did not have the motto, but all others did and that would continue until the last Coronet Head half eagle was produced in 1908.
Once again, circulated examples of this type will be at gold related prices of around $362 for a VF-20. In Mint State the situation is very different from all other types as an MS-60 is likely to be about $460 and many dates are readily available. The reason is simply that large numbers in lower Mint State grades were found in foreign bank vaults in the period starting around 1950.
While the half eagle was not the most likely gold coin to be exported, the amount of gold shipped overseas was so large that some numbers of half eagles were included and once secreted in foreign bank vaults those coins were never in circulation and were safe from the melting of gold coins ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Gold Recall Order of 1933. We benefit today as it is neither expensive or hard to find a nice Mint State half eagle of this particular type.
If anyone owns just one $5 gold piece, this is the design type it is likely to be.
In 1908 the final type of gold half eagle was introduced in the form of the Indian Head design with recessed features created by artist Bela Lyon Pratt.
Although many examples of the Indian Head half eagle were melted after 1933, there are still a significant number available, making a VF-20 roughly $370 depending on the price of gold while an MS-60 is around $500.
The Indian Head is a beautiful design. Collectors of the late 20th century always seemed to prefer it to the Liberty Head type immediately before. So there is a natural desire to obtain a nice example and while the final type of Coronet Head half eagle might be found in MS-65 for under $4,000 the Indian Head half eagle despite being produced more recently has starts at $16,000 and up – mostly way up.
The reason is that they simply do not reach MS-65. The recessed design saw significant friction take place in the fields and finding an example that will meet today’s MS-65 standards is a real challenge. As a result, competition can be fierce for some dates and even simply attempting to buy a suitable type example in the MS-65 grade is a real problem. Most collectors obviously will have to settle for something less than MS-65, but that is a part of a collector’s life – buying the best that one can afford and dreaming about being able to upgrade at a later date.
Those are the basic coins in a gold half eagle type set. That said, you can have a lot of fun with variations such as the fact that from 1854 through 1857 gold half eagles had the unique distinction of being produced at five different facilities with Philadelphia, San Francisco, Dahlonega, Charlotte and New Orleans all producing half eagles in that period and an example from each of the five facilities would be an interesting challenge.
There were half eagles produced at other facilities at other times and they could be added to a collection, giving you one half eagle from every facility that produced them over the years. There are other possibilities all of which help to make a gold half eagle type set an interesting collection and a lot of fun.
Gold has always captured the imagination of collectors. It is something more honored in the breach because the simple fact is most collectors cannot afford to collect gold coins by date and mintmark.
Average collectors must buy selectively. This means the $5 type set, no matter how it is defined or augmented by including examples of each mintmark in the set, is the only chance most collectors will ever have to enjoy this historical and important denomination of the United States.