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1822 Half Eagle a Numismatic Treasure

This 1822 half eagle is graded PCGS AU-50. (Images courtesy National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution via

This 1822 half eagle is graded PCGS AU-50. (Images courtesy National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution via

With just three examples known and only one of them available for private ownership, the 1822 half eagle has to rank as one of the greatest treasures any collector of coins of the United States can hope to own, and it is one of the great stories as well.

How we got from a reported mintage of 17,796 for the 1822 half eagle to the current population of just three coins is an extremely interesting story. At least we think it is an extremely interesting story if anyone knows it. The problem is no one really knows the story.

There certainly are possibilities. The first and perhaps most possible is that the reported mintage was inaccurate. Just how many of the 1822 half eagles carried an 1822 date is a very important question that has no answer. At the time, reporting coins with one date in the production report of a different year was not at all unusual. Dies would be used until they were worn out, and if the year changed before the die was worn out it would be used into the next year. That could certainly have been a significant factor in the case of the 1822 half eagle as it is possible the mintage was much lower than the reported 17,796; a mintage such as that should leave us with more than three examples.

The circumstances at the time might also have played a role. There are a couple of factors involved in that the half eagle was the largest denomination at the time. There would have been very few collectors for any denomination, but that total would have been far lower for a $5 coin.

A second factor was that gold coins were not really circulating. If you received a gold coin you simply went to a broker and sold it, which would mean it was shipped out of the country and destroyed since the gold coins at the time were worth too much. That means any gold coin from the 1820s is tough as large numbers of every date were simply destroyed.

In that mixture of factors is probably the reason or reasons why the 1822 is so rare. Certainly, its rarity has been known now for more than a century. Of the three known pieces, one is thought to have been given to the Smithsonian by early chief coiner Adam Eckfeldt.

Also, it was one of the historic great purchases of all time when it was purchased for just $6.50 back in the late 1890s by Harlan Paige Smith. That example was on the market a few times starting with the sale of Smith’s collection in 1906 when it realized $4,165. B. Max Mehl had the chance to auction that 1822 and he described it as, “The rarest and most valuable coin of the entire United States series! Probably the rarest coin in the world.”

Ultimately that $6.50 1822 half eagle would make its way to the Amon Carter Collection for $20,000 and then to the Lilly Collection, which donated to the Smithsonian, taking it off the market permanently.

The other example traced to the Virgil Brand Collection, where it went to Abe Kosoff and then to Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr., who saw it sold in 1982 for nearly $700,000. Since then there have been reports of private sales in excess of $1 million, but the coin, like the one from the Lilly Collection that is circulated, has not been offered at public auction, leaving us with uncertainty as to what price it might realize if offered.

The one possible 1822 was a coin that, more than 180 years ago, was actually in circulation. That simply adds to the fascination as it’s a great rarity anyone could have acquired for face value.

While there is no certainty that any sale is on the horizon, it would certainly be interesting to see since the 1822, being the only available, could produce an extremely high price. With so many coins now reaching $1 million, the 1822 has the possibility to surprise many. What that means for a final price would be fun to learn.

This article was originally published in the July 14 issue of Numismatic News. Click here to subscribe. 

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