HomeAuctionsCoin Rarities & Related Topics: Auction Results for Half Dollars in Baltimore

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Auction Results for Half Dollars in Baltimore

News and Analysis on scarce coins, markets, and the collecting community #84

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds

A good way to learn about high quality and/or very scarce half dollars is to focus upon specific coins that were offered in public auctions. The characteristics of individual coins directly relate to their respective value and to how coins are interpreted by people who are very knowledgeable about coins. So, again, I refer to coins that were recently auctioned at the very large Stack’s-Bowers Galleries (SBG) event in Baltimore, which was conducted from Nov. 15th to 18th. As there were a variety of scarce and interesting half dollars in this auction, I focus on half dollars this week.

In relation to this auction, I wrote about Bust Half Eagles ($5 gold coins) last week, and, the week before, about business strike quarters. (As usual, clickable links are in blue.) Previously, I covered the Teich Family Collection of Proof coins and I discussed Southern Gold, of which this auction had a very extensive offering.

Two weeks ago, I revealed that I have been told by many collectors that sometimes they do not wish to read an analysis, or a list, of the most expensive coins in an auction. Most collectors wish to read about a variety of coins. Of course, for an analysis of coins in a Stack’s-Bowers Rarities Night or a Heritage Platinum Night event, it would make sense to focus on extremely expensive coins. If I wrote only about the most expensive coins in general, however, I would not then be communicating points about the depth and range of offerings in major coin auctions. Moreover, a large majority of coin auction participants do not bid on six figure coins. Many bid on, or realistically hope to someday acquire, coins like the half dollars covered herein.

Of course, I realize that most coin collectors cannot afford to buy rare half dollars in major coin auctions. In 2011, I have written several pieces about inexpensive coins, including discussions of circulated quarters, half dollars, and Three Cent Silvers. Moreover, I honestly maintain that a collector can attain a better understanding of inexpensive coins by learning about relatively more expensive coins. Studying the striking characteristics and surface quality of high quality half dollars, for examples, sheds light upon relevant characteristics of circulated half dollars of the same type. To understand the values in the coin collecting community, it is necessary for most collectors to learn about coins that they cannot afford.

I. Flowing Hair Half Dollars

The first U.S. Half Dollars are of the Flowing Hair design type. These were minted in 1794 and 1795. There were several in this auction.

More than twice as many 1795 half dollars survive, as 1794 halves, and 1794 half dollars have a special allure as the nation’s first half dollars. Plus, 1794 was the first year that U.S. silver coins were struck by the U.S. Mint. (The 1792 ‘half disme’ issue is another matter.)

There were three 1794 halves in this auction, all of which are PCGS graded, Very Good-10, Very Fine-30 and Very Fine-35, respectively. I have only a vague recollection of the one that grades VG-10. After all, there were thousands of coins in this auction. It sold for $8625, which seems to be a moderate to strong price.

This “VG-10” 1794 was from the “Brandywine Collection.” Last week, I discussed Half Eagles from the “Brandywine Collection.” This exact same 1794 half sold for $9200 at an ANR auction in New York on Sept. 21, 2006. At the time, $9200 was probably considered to be a strong to very strong price.

As for the other two, I found that the 1794 that is PCGS graded “VF-30” to be of much higher quality than the one that is PCGS graded “VF-35.” I am not referring to the level of detail. I am focusing on the surface quality. Indeed, in my notes, before I discussed these coins with anyone else, I said that it is “much better.” After the auction, I consulted Jim McGuigan, a long-time expert in pre-1840 U.S. coins. He agreed. Jim states that the “VF-35” graded 1794 has “questionable color.” I also found that it did not ‘look right.’ It sold for $27,025.

The PCGS graded “VF-30” 1794 half in this auction is a really nice coin. The toning is definitely natural. I like the brown-russet obverse outer design elements and the blue-gray fields. The lighter highpoints stem from honest wear. McGuigan refers to this coin as “totally original.” I prefer to regard it as ‘mostly original.’ Nevertheless, it is very attractive for its grade and pleasing in absolute terms. This is a coin I would recommend. At $25,875, it was a dramatically better value than the just mentioned “VF-30” 1794 half.

For those who ‘buy the holder’ without carefully inspecting the coin inside, a common practice, $27,025 for a “VF-35” 1794 is a slightly weak price, while $25,875 for a “VF-30” 1794 is stronger, though just modest. In my view, the “VF-30” 1794 in this auction is an excellent coin and the “VF-35” 1794 is not a coin that I would recommend.

There were nine 1795 halves in this auction. One was certified by a grading service, other than the PCGS and the NGC, as “VF-20” and was catalogued as “VF-20 Old Cleaning.” In my opinion, it is not gradable or should not receive a numerical grade. It sold for $2444, which I take to be an extremely strong price. I am a little surprised that this coin realized as much as $2000.

Indeed, another 1795 half in this auction was judged not gradable by experts at the NGC, who said that it has the ‘details’ of a Very Fine grade coin. It failed to meet its minimum bid of $1725. It has a more natural ‘look’ than the 1795 half that sold for $2444, though several factors should be taken into consideration when interpreting a coin. I cannot convey all the pertinent characteristics of individual coins in brief discussions.

Another ungradable 1795 in this auction is in a PCGS ‘Genuine’ holder. It has some noticeable deep gashes and was heavily cleaned in small areas. It seems otherwise to be a decent coin, much better than some other ungradable 1795 halves that I have seen. It sold for $805.

A ghastly 1795, with a ghostly head, in this auction, also in a PCGS ‘Genuine’ holder sold for $347. It is a curious conversation piece.

Of the nine 1795 halves in this auction, two are CAC approved. One that is PCGS graded “VF-25” sold for $3738. I barely remember it. I was not thrilled by it.

The 1795 half in this auction that I best remember is PCGS graded “Fine-12” and has a CAC sticker. It is an attractive coin, with natural toning and minimal contact marks. It was a good buy at $2185.

I should mention that there are more than ten varieties of 1795 half dollars. In most years, coins of the same type were struck with more than one pair of obverse (front) and reverse (tail) dies, and sometimes dies were significantly modified during their respective lifetimes. At each mint, dies are used in machines (presses) to impart designs on blank circular pieces of metal that thus become coins, tokens or medals.

There are specialists who aim to obtain representatives of each variety. The 1795 halves that I just mentioned are not of extremely rare varieties and variety-collectors probably had only a slight influence, if any, on the prices realized for these.

II. 1797 Half Dollar

For U.S. silver coins, the rarest design type is the Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollar. In last week’s column, there is a little discussion of the ‘small eagle’ and the heraldic or large eagle reverse designs. Draped Bust obverse, Small Eagle reverse half dollars were minted only in 1796 and 1797.

Those who collect half dollars, all silver coins, just bust coins, or just 18th century U.S. coins ‘by design type’ require a Draped Bust, ‘Small Eagle’ half for their respective type sets. The total number of surviving 1796 and 1797 halves combined is maybe four hundred, including those that are not gradable.

The 1797 in this auction is PCGS graded “VF-25” and was from the “MHS Collection.” This collector attended many major coin conventions and bought a large number of scarce or rare coins during the 2000s. He purchased this 1797 half dollar in 2001 and many of his other coins were purchased during the period from 2004 to 2008.

This coin was moderately cleaned in the past and has naturally retoned to some extent. I am not completely comfortable with it, though it is much better than some of the other 1797 halves that I have seen.

Jim McGuigan has a more positive view of this coin than I do. He finds that it has been just “lightly cleaned.” Jim grades it as “VF-20” and says that it is “not bad, not a premium quality coin, but a nice representative example.” In McGuigan’s view, the “price was on the reasonable side.” It went for $51,750. I found the price, in contrast, to be modest, possibly strong.

Yes, other Very Fine grade 1797 or 1796 halves have recently sold for more than $51,750 at auction. My impression, however, is that those tended to be superior to this coin, especially in terms of surface quality. In any event, a 1797 half that is notably better than this one would be likely to cost substantially more than $51,750. It may be true that a collector is very happy with this purchase. Any 1797 half is exciting.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of just seeing one. I have since been spoiled by having been able to examine the four finest known 1797 halves.

III. Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle halves

Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Half Dollars were minted from 1801 to 1807. There were eleven in this auction. I have a crisp recollection of two of them.

The Queller-MHS 1806 half is PCGS graded “MS-63.” The toning is definitely natural and is appealing. The blue shades and light brownish russet on the obverse are really nice.

The PCGS defines the die variety of this 1806 as “Knob 6, small stars.” Many 1806 dated coins have a pointed numeral 6. In any event, for this die variety, as the PCGS defines it, this coin is the highest certified by the PCGS. The next highest is Dale Friend’s PCGS graded “AU-58” 1806 of this same variety.

This coin is hard to interpret. Further, this issue is notoriously weakly struck. When a coin is weakly struck, it lacks some of the detail at birth that a sharply struck coin of the same type exhibits. It is sometimes hard to distinguish friction on the highpoints from lack of detail that was never there.

Separately, Jim McGuigan and I both concluded that this coin has some friction on the highpoints. It is “hard to tell for sure, had the look of a slightly circulated coin,” Jim says. Personally, I would feel more comfortable if this coin were graded “MS-62.” It is not unusual for coins that are PCGS or NGC certified as grading “MS-62” to have a little friction on the highpoints, as long as such coins are choice in other ways. The surface quality of this coin is impressive.

Even if this coin were to be regarded as grading MS-61 or MS-62, it would still be the highest PCGS certified representative of the variety that the PCGS refers to as ‘knob 6, small stars.’ I wonder if the price realized of $43,125 came about because it is the highest PCGS graded representative of this variety. After all, a PCGS graded MS-63 1806 with a ‘pointed 6’ would probably sell for an amount between $12,500 and $17,500 at auction.

At least one of the serious bidders for this coin may plan to sooner or later place a coin of this variety in a PCGS registry set in the category of “Flowing Hair and Draped Bust Half Dollars with Major Varieties.” For whatever reason, the $43,125 result is very strong.

Another 1806 in this auction, of a less scarce variety with a ‘pointed 6,’ is PCGS graded “MS-62.” In terms of widely accepted grading criteria, this coin is uncirculated and qualifies for a MS-62 grade. Patches of hairlines from a moderate cleaning in some areas and a medium gash on Miss Liberty’s shoulder are bothersome. Strictly uncirculated coins that grade “MS-62,” however, tend to have very noticeable imperfections. The price realized of $12,650 is modest to strong.

IV. Capped Bust Halves

An “1808/7” Capped Bust half in this auction is memorable and is suitable for a non-rich collector. It is NGC graded ‘Extremely Fine-40.’ It was part of the “Charles W. Kennedy Collection.” It is a somewhat typical EF-40 grade Capped Bust half.

The fact that this “1808/7” is one of the earlier issues of this type adds to its appeal. Though it is not a blatant overdate, clearly it is not a ‘normal date’ 1808. Before this coin was struck, additional work was done on an obverse (front) die relating to the numerals.

Under five-times magnification, I saw some light hairlines and other abrasions. These were not bothersome and are not unusual for an extremely fine grade coin from the early 1800s.

This “1808/7” half exhibits pleasant mellow toning, with much orange-russet and nice shades of light gray. Though it was perhaps lightly dipped long ago, its underlying luster is mostly original and is attractive. This coin sold for $518.

Capped Bust Half Dollars were minted from 1807 to 1836. (Reeded Edge Half Dollars, which were struck from 1836 to 1839, are a different type.) Few Capped Bust Half Dollars are not rare. As for the five that I discuss herein, an 1822 brought a very strong price, an 1824 was earlier in the Eliasberg collection, and three halves from the George Dyer collection exhibit especially distinctive toning.

This 1822 half is PCGS graded “MS-64” and has a CAC sticker. As it was moderately dipped not that long ago, it was not one of my favorite coins in this auction, though I am sure that many people would like it. Some natural retoning occurred, with orange-russet hues at the periphery. This 1822 is very brilliant and has readily apparent cartwheel luster.

Although 1822 halves are not rare, or even very scarce, there are perhaps just one hundred and fifty that grade MS-63 or higher. There are tens of thousands of people who collect Capped Bust Half Dollars. Even so, the $4888 result is considerably more than I expected this coin to bring.

An 1824 half was earlier in the greatest collection of all time, that of Louis Eliasberg. It is PCGS graded “MS-65” and has a CAC sticker. In April 1997, when it was auctioned in New York, this 1824 half realized $5940. A cataloguer then graded it as “MS-64.” Charlie Browne, a top-level grader in attendance, graded it as “65+” in 1997.

I am not certain that this coin looks exactly the same as it did in 1997. Nonetheless, the current grade, “MS-65,” is accurate, in my view. The reverse, if it could be graded by itself, would merit a 66 grade. Indeed, the reverse is neatly toned and has almost zero noticeable abrasions.

This Eliasberg 1824 has a significant amount of orange-russet toning, especially about the design elements, more so on the reverse. There is also an appealing green color, in a few small areas. It is a very attractive coin.

According to the SBG catalogue, it was in the “MHS Collection” and “MHS” purchased it from Mike Printz in July 2008. In Nov. 2011, it realized $12,650, a strong price, solidly in the retail range, though fair, as the Eliasberg pedigree adds value.

As I noted in my column on the Teich Collection, I was charmed by the George Dyer Collection, which was a consignment of fresh material. From the 1930s until very recently, Dyer’s coins were stored in a wood cabinet that I had the opportunity to examine. The cabinet was probably designed for other kinds of collectibles. The coin trays inside were informally hand-made from cigar boxes. The toning that resulted on his silver coins is vivid and often wild.

An 1825, from the Dyer Collection, is PCGS graded “AU-58” and has a CAC sticker. The Numismedia.com retail guide value is $910. In an online auction in Oct. 2011, another PCGS graded “AU-58” 1825 half sold for $827. In Nov. 2007, Stack’s auctioned still another PCGS graded “AU-58” 1825 for $977.50. (These are not of particularly rare die varieties.) The Dyer 1825 realized $4082. This result is extremely strong, to put it mildly. Please see my column, which may be relevant, regarding the premiums collectors pay for bag-toned Morgan silver dollars.

The Dyer Collection 1830 half was perhaps a better value, at $748. It is PCGS graded Extremely Fine-45. The images in the catalogue hardly reflect the vividness of the toning on this particular coin. The colors are wild, including blue, green, red, russet, and orange shades. Bidders must have liked the colors, as a retail price for a tamer EF-45 grade 1830 half would be in the range of $200.

The Dyer 1832 is one of the coolest coins from this collection. It is NGC graded “MS-62.” The colors are terrific. Moreover, this coin is prooflike. I am surprised that experts at the NGC did not designate it as such. Experts at the PCGS will only consider a prooflike designation for Morgan Dollars and for Double Eagles from the S.S. Central America. At the NGC, in contrast, a wide variety of coins sometimes qualify for prooflike designations.

Indeed, Mark Feld remarks that this 1832 “was fully prooflike, though not a Proof, and had tremendous eye-appeal.” Mark adds that it “was a real attention grabber.” Also, Greg Cohen, who is on the staff at SBG, declared that this was one of his “favorite coins in the whole auction.”

Like many coins that grade “62,” this coin was extensively lightly cleaned. Even so, this coin’s imperfections are overwhelmed by the wonderful reflectivity of the fields and the dazzling toning

A nice MS-62 grade 1830 half probably has a retail value of around $1500. Even if a collector paid a $1200 premium because it is prooflike, this would bring its value to around $2700, assuming that such a buyer accepts the certified “MS-62” grade. This Dyer 1830 half brought $4888, a super price.

Some of the Liberty Seated Half Dollars from the George Dyer Collection have vivid toning as well. These, though, are a topic for another time. It is interesting that many collectors will pay substantial premiums, even multiples of a retail guide value, because a coin has certain aesthetic characteristics.

©2011 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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