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Building an Almost Uncirculated, Complete Type Set of Half Eagles (U.S. $5 gold coins)


 News and Analysis regarding scarce coins,  markets, and the coin collecting community #331

A Weekly Analytical CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds …….

There are eight design types of half eagles (U.S. $5 gold coins). For a total of less than $60,000, a complete type set may be assembled, with all coins having been certified by PCGS or NGC. If the first type is ignored, the total would be less than $40,000. The theme here involves AU grade coins and pleasing representatives of the two rarest types that have the ‘details’ of an AU grade.

A better quality type set would cost much more and a lower quality type set would be awkward, as most post-1880 gold coins are inexpensive. Uncirculated type coins of the last two series of half eagles are plentiful. For those who appreciate U.S. half eagles and cannot afford to spend this much, an earlier discussion is about collecting Indian Head half eagles for less than $500 per coin. (Words in blue may be clicked to access past articles.)

A type set features at least one representative of each coin design type of a chosen metal, mint, time period, or denomination. The term ‘half eagle’ refers to a denomination, as does half dollar or dime.

It is a standard practice to include representatives of the least scarce dates of each design type, as just one coin is needed of each type. There are many forms of widely recognized type sets. Regarding classic U.S. coins in general, the three all-time best type sets that I have seen are the Madison Collection that Heritage sold in January 2008, Oliver Jung’s first type set that ANR auctioned in July 2004, and the ‘L.A.’ type set, which Stack’s (NY) sold in October 1990.

In a type set, it would be awkward to include gem quality representatives of some types and Very Fine grade representatives of earlier, more expensive coin issues. Coins of earlier types, on average, will not score as high in the category of originality as coins of later type of half eagles. Nonetheless, a cool and appealing type set can be assembled in a few years, with a maximum total expenditure of $60,000.

Over a period of six years, this would be an average of $10,000 per year, not much for people who seriously plan to collect U.S. gold coins. Gold coin enthusiasts who cannot afford to spend even $7,500 per year may consult the already mentioned piece on Indian Head half eagles or my discussion of collecting Indian Head quarter eagles ($2½ gold coins) for under $500 per coin.

As already mentioned, Classic Head half eagles and ‘No Motto’ Liberty Head half eagles may be collected ‘by date’ for less than $5000 each. Unfortunately, a $5,000-per-coin limit is not practical for a type set. Surviving representatives of three early types are very scarce overall.

What are Half Eagles?

Half Eagles (U.S. $5 gold coins) were minted from 1795 to 1929, though not in every year along the way. Since 1986, there are have been several issues of “$5” commemorative gold coins, which are of the same diameter and weight as Indian Head half eagles. These “$5” pieces have been produced to commemorate events or people, and have been sold by the U.S. Mint for prices that are dramatically higher than production and distribution costs.

Given the values of gold bullion since 1986, it is odd and misleading for contemporary, commemorative “$5” gold pieces to appear to have a denomination of five dollars. When gold bullion is priced at $1,250 per Troy ounce, each uncirculated “$5” gold piece contains $302.34 worth of gold as a metal!

From 1839 to 1929, half eagles were specified to be 90% gold (‘.900 fine’). Further, each contained 0.24186 Troy ounce of gold when struck. From 1795 to early 1834, U.S. gold coins were specified to be 11/12 (91.67%) gold. A peculiar fineness, slightly below .900, was mandated for half eagles during 1834 and that was changed in 1837 to ‘.900 fine’ (90% gold).

During most periods of U.S. history from 1795 to the 1920s, half eagles circulated at face value. From some point after 1813 until 1834, during the era in which Capped Head Half Eagles were minted, the value of the gold contained in each half eagle rose above the face value of five dollars. The vast majority of Capped Head half eagles were thus exported and/or melted. Many bust half eagles were melted as well.

There are eight types of half eagles: 1) Bust Right, Small Eagle (1795-1798); 2) Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle (“1795”-1807); 3) Bust Left (1807-12); 4) Capped Head (1813-34); 5) Classic Head (1834-38); 6) ‘No Motto’ Liberty Head (1839-66); 7) ‘With Motto’ Liberty Head (1866-1908); 8) Indian Head (1908-29).

There are two notable subtypes of Capped Head half eagles. Although often referred to as “small size,” those of 1829 to 1834 are not significantly smaller in overall size than the type that was minted from 1813 to 1829, as the reduction in diameter was slight, one-sixteenth of an inch, 0.0625 inch equals 1.59 mm.

The numerals and letters on the half eagles of the subtype of 1829 to 1834 are smaller. Even so, the general design is artistically almost the same. Really only one Capped Head half eagle is needed for a type set. Specialists in the series will focus on both subtypes and on many varieties therein.

On pre-1836 U.S. coins, it is not unusual for there to be subtle size-related or artistic differences in the design elements of coins of the same type. There are multiple, slightly different portraits of Miss Liberty, for example, in the series of Reich Capped Bust ‘Lettered Edge’ half dollars. They are all of the same design type.

On the first type of half eagles, which date from 1795 to 1798, the Bust Right obverse (front) design is paired with a relatively “Small Eagle” concept on the reverse (back of the coin). The ‘Small Eagle’ is not really small. It is said to be ‘small’ because it is significantly smaller than the Heraldic or “Large Eagle” design element on the second reverse design, which occupies most of the reverse. The Heraldic Eagle type dates  from “1795” to 1807.

Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle fives were not really struck in 1795. Those with the year ‘1795’ on the obverse were made later, perhaps in 1798.

In the context of U.S. gold coins, the word ‘eagle’ refers to both representations of the bird and denominations. An ‘eagle’ is a $10 gold coin and a quarter eagle is a $2½ gold coin.

The distinction between ‘No Motto’ and ‘With Motto’ half eagles is explained in a recent article. Classic Head half eagles were discussed at length in an article that explains that a set may be completed for less than $5000 per coin.

The two rarest 19th century half eagles will be auctioned in the near future. Two of the three known 1822 half eagles are in the Smithsonian Institution. The third, the Eliasberg-Pogue 1822, will be auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers this month in the Pogue IV sale, at Sotheby’s headquarters in Manhattan.

There are also three known 1854-S Liberty Head half eagles. One is in the Smithsonian. Another has not been publicly seen for a very long time. The finest of the three, the Eliasberg-Pogue 1854-S, will be auctioned this year or next year. Fortunately for budget-minded collectors, most Liberty Head half eagles are not very expensive.

Indian Head Half Eagle


Indian Head half eagles are common. A PCGS or NGC graded MS-64 Indian Head half eagle could easily be purchased for less than $3,500, probably for less than $3000. Nevertheless, a PCGS or NGC graded AU-55 or AU-58 Indian Head half eagle is recommended in the present context.

The theme here is a type set of half eagles with Almost Uncirculated (AU) coins. Given the overall objective, choice uncirculated coins are inappropriate and it is best for an Indian Head half eagle to not use much of the $60,000 total budget.

In July 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a NGC graded AU-58 1912 half eagle, with a CAC sticker, for $411.25, and a NGC graded AU-55 1911, also CAC approved, for $381.88. Similar Indian Head half eagles, with CAC stickers, could be found elsewhere for prices in the $380 to $550 range. To allow for leeway, $600 may be budgeted for a coin of this type.

‘With Motto’ Liberty Head Half Eagle


An AU grade ‘With Motto’ half eagle is easy to find for less than $500. In March 2016, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded AU-58 1880 for $352.50. On October 18, 2015, GreatCollections sold a NGC graded AU-58 1897 half eagle, with a CAC sticker, for $439.45.

There are other CAC approved AU-58 or AU-55 ‘With Motto’ half eagles that are now or will be available for less than $500. If a total of $1,100 is budgeted for an Indian Head half eagle and a ‘With Motto’ half eagle, there is $58,900 left for representatives of scarcer design types.

‘No Motto’ Liberty Head Half Eagle


On the first of this month, GreatCollections sold a PCGS graded “AU-58+” and CAC approved 1847 half eagle for $1,100. Although this coin might be an excellent value, there is not a need to spend this much for a nice ‘No Motto’ Liberty Head half eagle.

In March, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an 1843 that is NGC graded AU-55 and CAC approved for $564. In February, GreatCollections sold an 1847 that is PCGS graded AU-55 and CAC approved for $503.80. Back in March 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an 1848 that is PCGS graded AU-55 and CAC approved for $517.50.

It is realistic to budget $650 for a certified AU-55 ‘No Motto’ half eagle. So, $58,250 remains to be allocated as part of the strategy here for a type set of half eagles.

Classic Head Half Eagle


In March 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an 1834 ‘Plain 4’ Classic Head half eagle that is PCGS graded AU-55 and CAC approved. It brought $1,782.50. It was from a fresh, non-dealer consignment, “The Raji Collection,” which contained many really neat coins.

Earlier, in August 2011, at the ANA auction, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned another 1834 ‘Plain 4,’ which was NGC graded AU-55 and CAC approved. The $1,552.50 result seemed fair.

Another NGC graded AU-55 1834 ‘Plain 4,’ with a CAC sticker, was sold by GreatCollections on March 6, 2016 for $1,555.40. A week later, this same firm sold a NGC graded AU-55 1838, with a CAC sticker, for $1,650. If $1,750 is budgeted for a Classic Head half eagle, $56,500 remains available.

Capped Head Half Eagle

The 1813 is the least rare date in the series of Capped Head half eagles. I have written about these on several occasions over the past dozen years. I estimate that 435 survive. So, the least rare date is truly rare.

Finding an appealing 1813 half eagle for less than $10,000 might not be easy. For these, a collector should hire an expert or buy one that has been judged to be non-gradable.

Many 1813 and 1814/3 half eagles that have received numerical grades should have been judged to be non-gradable. Many of these have been subjected to chemical cleanings, doctoring, or accidental environmental damage. Doctoring often involves covering imperfections or deflecting attention from problems.

In September 2014, Heritage auctioned an 1813 in a PCGS Genuine holder, ‘AU Details,’ for $4,553.13. Around three months earlier, an NGC certified, ‘AU Details – Improperly Cleaned’ 1813, brought $6,462.50.

An 1813 half eagle that is nearly gradable with AU level ‘details,’ or possibly one that is PCGS or NGC graded AU-50, may be purchased for less than $8,250 at some point in the near future. If $8,250 is subtracted from $56,500, $48,250 remains for bust half eagles.

Bust Left Half Eagle


Bust Left half eagles were minted from 1807 to 1812. A surprising number of clearly gradable Bust Left half eagles survive. Collecting coins of this type is much less difficult than collecting Capped Head half eagles.

On June 29, 2014, GreatCollections sold an 1807 that is PCGS graded AU-55 and CAC approved. It brought $9,927.50

In August 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded AU-53 1807 Bust Left half eagle, with a CAC sticker, for  $8,812.50. A very noticeable imperfection on Miss Liberty’s face may have prevented this coin from realizing a higher price.

In June 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded AU-53, and CAC approved, 1810, “Large Date – Large 5” half eagle for $9,106.25. In August 2011, “The Raji Collection” 1810 “Large Date – Large 5” brought $8,912.50. It was PCGS graded as AU-55 and CAC approved.

Including an agent’s or consultant’s fee, it might be a good idea to budget $10,000 for an AU-53 or AU-55 grade Bust Left half eagle. Conceptually, $38,250 of the original $60,000 budget is still available.

Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle


A Bust Right half eagle that is non-gradable and has the details of an AU grade coin could be purchased for less than $6,000. In some cases, the problems are not extremely noticeable, like rim filings.

For a few thousand more, however, a CAC approved AU grade coin could be purchased. As early gold coins may have so many problems, the notion of seeking a Bust Right half eagle that has received a numerical grade from a grading service and approval from two experts at CAC is worth considering.

In April 2014, Heritage sold a PCGS graded EF-45, and CAC approved, 1804 half eagle for $10,281.25. In July 2014, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded AU-50 1802/1, with a CAC sticker, for $9,987.50.

In January 2014, in April 2013, and in January 2013, Heritage sold different NGC graded AU-55, and CAC approved, 1807 Bust Right half eagles. The January sales each realized $11,162.50 The one that sold in 2013 went for $9,987.50. Also in April 2013, a NGC graded AU-55, and CAC approved, 1805 half eagle realized $10,868.75.

In August 2011, “The Raji Collection” 1800 brought $10,350. It was NGC graded AU-55 and CAC approved. In the same Stack’s-Bowers auction, “The Raji Collection” 1804 repunched date then went for $10,695. It was PCGS graded AU-55 and CAC approved. “Raji” had some excellent gold coins.

It seems that an allocation of $11,750 should be enough to purchase a CAC approved “AU-55” grade ‘Heraldic Eagle’ five, even if a consulting fee is paid. Therefore, $26,500 is budgeted for the first and scarcest of half eagle types.

Bust Right, Small Eagle


The first U.S. gold coins were minted in 1795, half eagles and eagles. The 1795 is, by far, the least scarce issue of the Bust Right, Small Eagle design type. It is a good idea to consult an expert before buying one. In the current context, this is the most expensive purchase and a 1795 half eagle is a coin of tremendous historical importance.

Many of these have problems, and grading services tend to liberal in terms of grading them. So, it is relatively safe to buy a 1795 half eagle that has failed to receive a numerical grade and is in a PCGS or NGC holder.

Last November, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a 1795 half eagle that was labeled at PCGS, “Edge Repaired – AU Details.” It seems to have much natural toning, along with the sharpness of an AU-55 or AU-58 grade. This coin and the $24,675 result are consistent with the theme of this discussion.

In July 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a 1795 in a PCGS Genuine holder, “Cleaning – AU Details,” for $28,200. In June 2014, GreatCollections sold a 1795 in a PCGS Genuine holder, “Repaired – AU Details,” for $14,544.20.

Heritage auctioned a 1795 in an NGC holder, ‘AU Details – Mount Removed,’ for $14,100, in June 2014. This piece might be a little too much off-color. In April 2014, the Christopher Bently Collection 1795, ‘Unc. Details – Obverse Repaired,’ went for $18,800, which is also the price realized of an “improperly cleaned,” NGC certified ‘AU Details’ coin in September 2013.

An immediate point is that there are quite a few 1795 half eagles that are non-gradable with the details of AU to uncirculated grades. It is certainly realistic to expect to buy one for less than $26,500. Many experienced collectors would rather have a ‘details holder’ coin with very much natural color and modest rim damage than a coin that has been chemically cleaned or artificially brightened such that the coin has a very unnatural appearance.

In sum, a complete and attractive type set of U.S. half eagles, six with AU numerical grades and two ‘AU Details’ no-grades, can certainly be built for less than $60,000. Half eagles are parts of U.S. history and a type set features coins from a variety of time periods and artisans.

©2016 Greg Reynolds

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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