The 1909-O Indian Head half eagle is a very underrated coin. In fact, the 1909-O, at least in MS-65, is a significant rarity ranking among the most difficult gold coins in top grade of the past century. It is not that available in any grade and while not well known by most, if you attempt a set of Indian Head half eagles, you will learn to respect the 1909-O very quickly.
Back in 1909, the Indian Head half eagle was just in its second year of production. That was one year too many for its critics and there were a lot of them. The upsetting part about the Indian Head half eagle was that it used incuse motifs, which made the field the highest part of the design. In fact, the technique was not new, dating back to ancient times but that did not satisfy anyone. There were even claims the coins would trap dirt and germs.
Down in New Orleans, they had never really gotten into the spirit of things having produced no 1908 Indian Head half eagles. The New Orleans facility was about to go out of the coin production business, meaning the 1909 mintage would be it for New Orleans.
The 34,200 total of half eagles that New Orleans produced in 1909 is the lowest Indian Head half eagle total. In fact, the next lowest date, the 1911-D, was more than double the total for the 1909-O.
New Orleans was infamous for having little saving of the coins it produced. We do not know why, but the fact is there were not many collectors saving coins around New Orleans, at least based on the numbers in Mint State. The 1909-O Indian Head half eagle is no exception but, in the case of this design, any circulation or stacking would have a negative impact on the grade.
The problem traces back to the design where the field was the highest part of the coin. When stacked, any small friction hits a piece of the design and that might be hidden in the hair or other design elements. In the case of the Indian Head half eagle, that friction is in the fields. That makes a coin without field problems very tough to find, even in Mint State and the larger half eagle had more problems than the quarter eagle.
In the case of the 1909-O, it is a perfect storm of factors with a vulnerable design emerging from a facility where almost no coins were saved. The result is not too surprising with an MS-60 at $31,500. In MS-65, however, it is a bit more surprising as the listing is $550,000 and that is up from $210,000 in 1998.
Very clearly, the 1909-O is known as a rarity in MS-65 and there is good reason as, at NGC, they report just two examples out of 982 graded. PCGS is not much better with one coin in MS-65 and one in MS-66 out of 602 graded. You’ll find very few coins in U.S. history where you get a single MS-65 out of 600 graded but it proves the point that the historic 1909-O Indian Head half eagle is a major rarity in MS-65 and a very tough coin in Mint State grade.
For those seeking a 1909-O, the best advice is simply that if it’s MS-63 or better, it’s probably as good as you will see offered for a while and, even in lower grades, do not dismiss the 1909-O as this is a very unusual and important date.