HomeCollecting StrategiesClassic U.S. Coins for Less Than $500 Each, Part 27: Capped Bust...

Classic U.S. Coins for Less Than $500 Each, Part 27: Capped Bust Half Dimes

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #368

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds …..
This discussion of Capped Bust half dimes is in line with a past discussion on Capped Bust half dollars and a recent piece on Capped Bust quarters. It is not difficult to collect Capped Bust silver coins without spending as much as $500 on any one coin, and it is especially easy to collect half dimes.

Half dimes are much different from five cent nickels, which were not introduced until 1866. Five cent nickels do not contain any silver and half dimes do not contain any of the metal nickel.

Capped Bust half dimes were minted from 1829 to 1837 and all were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. From 1794 to 1836, U.S. silver coins were specified to be 89.243% silver (1485/1664). On January 18, 1837, the Mint Act of 1837 was “approved”, which required that all U.S. silver coins be of a 90% silver and 10% copper alloy. It would thus seem likely that all 1837 half dimes are or were planned to be 90% silver and 10% copper. Has the metallurgical content of any 1837 half dimes been tested in a laboratory?

Whether 1837 half dimes consist of 89.243% silver or 90% silver is not a crucial issue for most collectors. A main point here is that, among early (pre-1840) U.S. coins, the easiest set to complete is that of Capped Bust half dimes. There are no very expensive rarities.

It is astonishing that more people do not collect these. Early U.S. coins overall are historically important and very popular with collectors. Also, a half dime is a curious and entertaining denomination to people in the present. Most U.S. citizens have never seen a half dime.

What Are Half Dimes?

Half dimes were minted from 1794 to 1873, though not in every year along the way. Half dimes existed before dimes, as U.S. dimes were first minted in 1796.

The 1792 “half disme” pieces are half dime patterns, not regular issues. This matter is explained in other articles. In his inaugural address in 1792, President Washington was referring to patterns as a ‘beginning.’ He would not have been familiar with the numismatic term ‘pattern’. Also, Washington then suggested that the U.S. Mint would not be ready for months to produce coins.

Briefly, half disme patterns served two purposes; they served as announcements that the U.S. was committed to its own system of coinage, which would be decimal; and they served as an expression of sovereignty, as before the 19th century the production of silver or gold coins was often considered a major factor in the legitimacy of a regime.

In 1792, the lowest-cost silver patterns of upcoming denominations were half disme patterns. The Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, acquired half disme patterns with his own funds, to promote the planned coinage system and the U.S. in general. Many European leaders were skeptical that the U.S. could survive as an independent, constitutional democracy.

Jefferson did not wish for people to spend half disme pieces in 1792 or 1793; Jefferson probably wished for influential people to focus on half disme pieces and to reflect upon the planned decimal system of coinage, which was radical and aggressive at the time. The Spanish, British and French monetary systems were non-decimal and were well-established.

U.S. silver coins were first produced in 1794, and half dimes lead the way. Flowing Hair half dimes, half dollars and silver dollars were struck in 1794 and 1795. Dimes and quarters were not introduced until 1796.

Like corresponding dimes and half dollars, Draped Bust, Small Eagle half dimes date from 1796 and 1797. Some half dimes dated 1797 were struck later than 1797.

There are no half dimes dated 1798 or 1799. Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle half dimes date from 1800 to 1805. “Half dimes were not minted from 1806 to 1828 because there was little call for them,” R. W. Julian reveals, in response to my recent inquiries.

From the early 1700s at least until the 1830s, most merchants and consumers in the region that now constitutes the United States thought of coins and prices in terms of the coin denominations of the Spanish Empire. In many cases, they used English terms for definitions of units derived from the Spanish Milled Dollar (Eight Reales coin), which was the basis for the U.S. silver dollar. In a sense, the U.S. coinage system was very gradually accepted in the U.S. from the 1790s to the 1840s.

While a U.S. quarter was consistent with the Two Reales Spanish denomination, and a U.S. half dollar was roughly equivalent to a Four Reales coin, the Spanish denominations below 25 cents (Two Reales) were much different from the lower U.S. denominations. The Spanish coinage system was based upon eighths and multiples of eight.

The Spanish system included: One Real (12½ cents), Half-Real (6¼ cents) and Quarter Real (3.125 cents) silver coins. Indeed, during the late 1700s and early 1800s, goods in the U.S. were often priced at 3.125 (3+1/8) cents, 6.25 cents, 9.375 cents, 12.5 cents, 18.75 cents, etc.

To a great extent, merchants and consumers in the U.S. were still thinking in terms of the monetary system of the Spanish Empire. Details are provided in Neil Carothers’ epic work entitled Fractional Money (1930), which was based upon his doctoral dissertation published in 1916.

“A very large number of Spanish and independent Mexican silver coins circulated in the U.S. during the 1810s and 1820s,” R. W. Julian notes. “As late as 1838 in New York, only one-sixth of the silver coins in circulation were U.S. coins.”

A five cent piece was inconsistent with the Spanish monetary system. People certainly would not have thought of five cent silver pieces as ‘money’ in 1792. Gradually, as decades went by, more and more U.S. citizens became accepting of half dimes and found them to be convenient.

Before the 1820s, half dimes would usually have been irritating. By the 1830s, there was substantial demand for half dimes.

Grades & Values

Capped Bust half dimes in Good-04 grade usually retail for less than $60 each, sometimes much less, and for under $100 to VF-20 grade. EF-40 grade coins generally sell for less than $200. Partly because this series of discussions is aimed at collectors who can afford to spend nearly $500 for some individual coins, the focus here will be on Capped Bust half dimes in the AU-50 to AU-55 range.

It is true that certified AU-58, MS-60 and MS-61 grade Capped Bust half dimes may often be purchased for less than $500 each. Such options notwithstanding, AU-grade coins are being recommended here.

For classic U.S. coins in general, the AU-58 to MS-62 range is complicated and a little dangerous. Coins that grade in this range usually have noticeable friction or readily noticeable technical drawbacks, like many contact marks and hairlines. Some coins that grade in this range are characterized by a mix of friction and or significant technical imperfections.

A coin non-controversially graded as MS-61 may have noticeable friction and minimal technical issues, or may have innumerable contact marks and hairlines though not having any noticeable friction. The grading of coins below AU-58 or above MS-63 is relatively less complicated in most cases.

A whole set of AU-grade Capped Bust half dimes is a practical objective. There are major varieties are often collected as if these are distinct ‘dates’, though they are not really needed for a set ‘by date’. The 1835 ‘Large Date’ features numerals that are a little larger than those of the 1835 ‘Small Date’ variety.

The face value, five cents, appears as “5 C.” as part of the design of the reverse. The size of the numeral ‘5’ varies. For 1835, 1836 and 1837 Capped Bust half dimes, ‘Small 5’ and ‘Large 5’ varieties are often included in sets by people who are collecting ‘by date’. NGC has not routinely distinguished 1835, 1836 and 1837 Capped Bust half dimes by these major varieties.

It is generally believed that the ‘Small 5’ varieties are much scarcer. Should these ‘Small 5’ varieties command higher premiums? These may be good values for collectors at current price levels. As collecting Capped Bust half dimes ‘by date’ is relatively easy, a subtle trend has been for collectors to include both ‘Large 5’ and ‘Small 5’ varieties of the same years in sets assembled ‘by date’.

Auction Prices & Internet Sales

The listing of prices realized here does not involve the endorsement of any specific coins. Collectors should consult experts and make an effort to learn at least a little bit about grading on their own. The same coin may receive different grades or ‘no grade’ from the same service at different times. When embarking upon a new collecting project, it is best to begin by spending amounts that the respective collector can easily afford to lose while he or she learns more about the coins that are being pursued.

Prices cited are supposed to provide ideas as to the market values of AU-grade Capped Bust half dimes. There are no explicit or implicit assertions here regarding the quality or value of any specific coins.

Buying PCGS- or NGC-certified coins involves less risk than purchasing equivalent, apparently equivalent or otherwise pertinent half dimes that are not certified. Although risks may be further reduced by acquiring CAC-approved coins, most relevant dealers may figure that circulated Capped Bust half dimes are not valuable enough to warrant the costs, especially in time, of submitting them to CAC. Therefore, many circulated Capped Bust half dimes have never been submitted to CAC. Collectors may wish to consider CAC submissions on their own.

On December 18, 2016, the firm GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AU-55 1829 half dime for $335.50. In September 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a NGC-graded AU-55 1829 for $223.25.

On November 8, 2016, Heritage sold an NGC-graded AU-50 1830 for $188. On December 18, a PCGS-graded AU-53 1831 half dime brought $193.88. Back on June 19, 2016, GreatCollections sold an NGC-graded AU-55 1831 for $198.02.

In November, Stack’s-Bowers sold two different PCGS-graded AU-55 1832 half dimes, each for $223.25. In the same “Internet-only” event, Stack’s-Bowers sold two different, PCGS-graded AU-53 1832 half dimes, one for $399.50 and the other for $199.75.

The $399.50 realization for a PCGS-graded AU-53 1832 is particularly strong. It was not catalogued as being of a rare die pairing. I have not investigated this coin.

In October 2015, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AU-55 1833 half dime for $209. In May 2016, Heritage sold an NGC-graded AU-53 1834 for $199.75.

Although multiple 1835 half dimes are not really required for a complete set ‘by date’, none of the four widely cited varieties are very rare. It is easy to acquire representatives of all four: Large Date on obverse, Large 5 on reverse; Large Date on obverse, Small 5 on reverse; Small Date, Large 5; Small Date, Small 5.

In November, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded AU-55 Large Date, Large 5 1835 half dime, with a CAC sticker. It went for $258.50. In June 2015, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AU-58 Large Date, Small 5, with a CAC sticker, for $363.

The Small Date, Large 5 1835 might be scarcer than most collectors and dealers realize. Back in September 2013, an NGC-graded AU-55 1835 brought $253. It was a ‘Small Date, Large 5’ variety, though it was not then identified as such. There are not many other recent appearances.

In AU grades, the 1835 ‘Small Date, Small 5’ is scarcer than the 1835 ‘Small Date, Large 5’. A rare public appearance was a PCGS-graded AU-58 coin, which went for $305.50. That coin was one of a very large number of AU-grade Capped Bust half dimes that Stack’s-Bowers sold in November 2016.

Also in November 2016, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded AU-55 1836 ‘Small 5’ coin for $258.50 and a PCGS-graded AU-50 ‘Large 5’ 1836 for $258.50. In May 2016, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded AU-53 1836 ‘Large 5’ half dime for $235.

An 1837 ‘Large 5’ in AU grade is not easy to find. In June 2015, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AU-55 coin for $268.40. In January 2014, Heritage auctioned an NGC-graded AU-50 1837 ‘Large 5’ half dime for $200.93.

The 1837 ‘Small 5’ half dime is much scarcer than an 1837 ‘Large 5’. The relative scarcity of these has not been widely reported.

On September 25, 2016, for $313.50, GreatCollections sold an 1837 ‘Small 5’ half dime though it was not so identified in the lot description. This coin was NGC-graded as AU-55 more than 15 years ago. This purchase may possibly have been an excellent value.

Generally, collectors may enjoy pursuing ‘Small 5’ varieties of 1835, 1836 and 1837 half dimes. The scarcity of ‘Small 5’ half dime varieties is not often discussed, and they do not tend to be very expensive.

“Early U.S. coins” are usually classified as U.S. coin types adopted prior to 1836 and last minted prior to 1840. Although definitions vary, there are clearly more than two dozen design types of early U.S. coins, each beginning at some point from 1793 to 1835. Among early design types that lasted for more than two years, a set of Capped Bust half dimes is the easiest, in terms of clarity, time and budget, to truly complete ‘by date’.

© 2017 Greg Reynolds

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Recent Articles in the Series on Classic U.S. Coins for Less Than $500 Each:

Capped Bust Quarters | Liberty Head Nickels | Barber Dimes | Proof Shield Nickels | Braided Hair Half Cents | Matron Head Large Cents | Classic Head Half Cents | Draped Bust Half Cents | Classic Head Large Cents | Gem Early Lincoln Cents | Indian Head Half Eagles | Two Cent Pieces | Three Cent Nickels | Indian Head Quarter Eagles | Copper-Nickel Indian Cents | Standing Liberty Quarters | Walking Liberty Half Dollars | Bust Half Dollars

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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