Every so often, a coin turns out to be a lot tougher than might originally be expected. That could safely be the case with the 1865-S gold half eagle. With a mintage of 27,612, we might well expect the 1865-S to be better – and it is. But even its $20,000 MS-60 price listing may not really give an accurate picture of just how tough the 1865-S really is in Mint State.
To fully understand the 1865-S, we need to go back and take a look at the situation in 1865. There had been a suspension of specie payments during the Civil War and for all practical purposes, at least in the East, there were no gold or silver coins in circulation. A few were being made as is seen in the Philadelphia 1865 mintage of $5 gold coins, but that total of 1,295 was very clearly just a token.
Gold was simply never out of style or use in California during the time. The tiny San Francisco Mint continued to produce gold coins, usually in greater numbers than Philadelphia, which was very unusual.
Under the circumstances, the 27,612 mintage of the 1865-S half eagle would have been large for Philadelphia, but it was not unusually large for San Francisco, although it was higher than other Civil War years. Had that mintage been released in Philadelphia, it would probably be more available than it is today simply because there were more collectors near Philadelphia to save examples.
Simply put, back at the time of its release, the 1865-S half eagle was totally ignored, to the best of our knowledge, causing Walter Breen to suggest that it is “Prohibitely rare above VF, none above EF.”
In fact, Breen was a bit strong in his analysis. For one thing, there were two top quality examples found in the treasure of the S.S. Brother Jonathan some years ago. That was unusual, because the bulk of the coins involved were higher denominations since double eagles and eagles were most likely to be heading out of the port of San Francisco at the time. The two 1865-S half eagles have to be seen as a fortunate bonus to the treasure.
At Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, they have graded a total of 79 examples of the 1865-S half eagle. Of that total, five examples, all graded MS-61, were called Mint State. At Professional Coin Grading Service, there have been 44 examples of the 1865-S graded, and there a single MS-64 was called Mint State, although there were three in AU-58.
We can safely draw some conclusions from the numbers. The first is that, while not as tough as Breen suggests, the 1865-S is definitely a tough date in any grade. In the case of Mint State examples, however, the 1865-S becomes a nearly impossible date. A total of just six coins from the two grading services combined is all the proof that is needed. For its $20,000 MS-60 price, the 1865-S represents a great deal on a lesser known but very rare coin, at least in Mint State.