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Classic Head Half Eagle, 1834-1838 | CoinWeek

Classic Head Half Eagle. Image: Stack's Bowers / CoinWeek.
Classic Head Half Eagle. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..
 

The Classic Head Half Eagle, along with its Classic Head Quarter Eagle sister coin, was produced in response to a problem that reached a serious and unsustainable level in the early 1830s: United States gold coins no longer circulated. Wars in Europe were putting continuous upward pressure on gold prices in the world market, but the Coinage Act of 1792 continued to tie the price of gold in the U.S. to a 15:1 silver-to-gold ratio. In Europe, the ratio had reached 16:1, so it took fewer ounces of silver to buy one ounce of gold in the United States than from America’s major trading partners abroad.

Predictably, American gold coins became a commodity worth more than their face value in European silver and thousands were exported and melted. Congress passed the 1834 Mint Act to address this imbalance, reducing the weight of U.S. gold coins to minimize the arbitrage gained from melting them.

The task of changing the half eagle (and the quarter eagle) fell to United States Mint Chief Engraver William Kneass, who had earlier modified the John Reich/Robert Scot Capped Head Half Eagle series. Kneass modified Liberty’s profile, which was said to be copied from John Reich’s 1808 Classic Head Cent design, giving her a more youthful, classical appearance than displayed on the previous half eagle. Removing the E PLURIBUS UNUM banner on the reverse was a change to help the public distinguish new coins from old.

Classic Head Half Eagles were minted in Philadelphia for all five years of the series, adding branch mints Charlotte and Dahlonega in 1838, the series’ last year.

How Much Are Classic Head Half Eagles Worth?

Mintages of the Classic Head Half Eagle are generous, at least compared to the preceding Capped Head Half Eagle that preceded it. To meet anticipated demand, 657,460 pieces were minted in the series’ inaugural year of 1834. Several 1834 Classic Head Half Eagle varieties are known, including a rare “Crosslet 4” issue.

Because half eagles circulated widely, many coins are available in VF through lower Mint State grades, but supply dries up in higher grades. Prices are affordable below the XF grade but double at each step from Choice AU, MS60, and MS62 through Gem MS65 grades and triple from MS65 to the handful of Premium Gems above that.

Of the Philadelphia issues, 1837 had the lowest mintage, though it does not generally carry a price premium. Three coins are considered key in the series: the 1834 Crosslet 4; the 1838-C, and the 1838-D. All trade at four to eight times the price of others in the series at all grade levels, with the Charlotte coin topping the other two in price listings at anything above Choice AU and Dahlonega edging the Crosslet 4 across the board.

Proof coins were made from 1834 through 1838, but all are extremely rare.

Extended Coverage on CoinWeek

Classic US Gold Coins - A Rare HM-2 1838-C $5 Half Eagle With Perfect Reverse, by Doug Winter

Classic U.S. gold coin expert and CoinWeek Contributing Partner Doug Winter analyzes the key date Southern branch mint issues.

1834 $5.00 NGC PR63 CAM. Images courtesy Doug Winter

And here, Doug offers his advice for collecting the series in a variety of ways.

Rare coin expert Greg Reynolds dedicates this entry in his US Gold Coins for Less Than $5,000 Each series to the Classic Head Half Eagle.

Design

Obverse:

The obverse of the Classic Head Half Eagle displays a left-facing bust of Liberty wearing a headband with the word LIBERTY running the full length from front to back. Thirteen six-pointed stars encircle the head inside a denticulated rim, with the date centered at the bottom. “D” (Dahlonega) and “C” (Charlotte) mintmarks lie between the date and the bottom of the bust.

Reverse:

The reverse shows the outstretched-wing eagle design used on earlier Capped Bust and Capped Head Half Eagles, with a shield over its breast and the eagle either perched upon or clutching an olive branch (viewer’s left side) and three arrows (viewer’s right side). The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, broken into three parts by the eagle’s wing tips, follows the periphery inside a denticulated rim, and the denomination is written as 5 D. centered at the bottom.

Edge:

The edge of the Classic Head Half Eagle is reeded, a common anti-counterfeiting tactic.

Coin Specifications

Classic Head Half Eagle
Years Of Issue: 1834-38
Mintage (Business Strikes): High: 657,460 (1834); Low: 17,179 (1838-C)
Mintage (Proofs): High: 10-15 (1834, estimated); Low: 1 (1837; None known for 1837-D and 1838-D).
Alloy: .900 gold, .100% copper
Weight: ±8.36 g
Diameter: ±22.5 mm
Edge: Reeded
OBV Designer: William Kneass, with modifications by Christian Gobrecht from 1836 forward.
REV Designer: William Kneass, with modifications by Christian Gobrecht from 1836 forward.

 

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References

Bowers, Q. David. The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing.

–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.

Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Doubleday.

Dannreuther, John W. and Harry W. Bass, Jr. Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties; A Study of Die States, 1795-1834. Whitman Publishing.

Garrett, Jeff and Ron Guth. Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins, 1795-1933. Whitman Publishing.

Guth, Ron and Jeff Garrett. United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Whitman Publishing.

Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing.

Yeoman, R.S. and Jeff Garrett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.
 

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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