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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Bust Half Dollars on Platinum Night

News and Analysis on scarce coins,  markets, and the collecting community #92

News and Analysis on scarce coins,  markets, and the collecting community #92

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds

Regarding the FUN Convention auction in Orlando earlier this month, I discussed quarters last week, the Garrett-Jacobson 1829 ‘Large Date’ Half Eagle the week before, the Eliasberg-Atwater-Jung 1793 Chain Cent right after the sale, and Dr. Duckor’s Saints before the auction. (Clickable links are in blue.) The topic now is bust half dollars that sold during the first Platinum Night session, on Jan. 4, 2012.

In this auction session, the selection of half dollars had more depth than the offering of quarters. It is not practical to cover all or even most of these halves here. So, I have chosen bust halves for the present discussion. Next week, I will focus upon Liberty Seated Half Dollars. Eventually, I will write about rarities of other denominations in the FUN auction, perhaps including a specially struck 1927 nickel, an 1802 half dime, a 1799 dollar, and some more gold coins.

I. Flowing Hair Half Dollars

Flowing Hair Half Dollars were minted only in 1794 and 1795. A PCGS graded VF-30 1794 sold for $27,600, which may seem just slightly strong to an analyst who has not seen the coin. Jim McGuigan asserts that it has “questionable color.” In my view, it has significant issues relating to its ‘colors.’ The $27,600 price is very strong, given the characteristics of this particular 1794 half.

In Nov. 2011, Stack’s-Bowers (SBG) auctioned another 1794 that is also PCGS graded VF-30, for $25,875. It was naturally toned and much more desirable overall than this one.

The next lot was a 1795 (Two Leaves variety) half that is PCGS graded MS-61. It has been moderately dipped in the past and has naturally retoned to some extent. I just glanced at it briefly. I tentatively find it to have minimal abrasions. Furthermore, it has less friction than most certified ‘MS-61’ bust halves. Plus, this coin’s overall appearance is somewhat pleasing.

Even Jim McGuigan grudgingly accepts that the assigned 61 grade “may be okay.” Jim is known to be tough on coins that are certified as grading MS-61 or MS-62. For decades, McGuigan has been a specialist in pre-1840 U.S. coins. He attends almost all major auctions and leading coin conventions.

Although this exact same 1795 half sold for $54,625 in May 2007, I find the current $51,750 realization to be strong, well within the retail price range. The values of many coins have not returned to respective peak levels that were reached during 2007 or during the first eight months of 2008.

II. 1797 Half Dollar

Draped Bust Half Dollars of 1796 and 1797 are much rarer than Flowing Hair Half Dollars of 1794 and 1795, though each pair of dates constitute two-year types. Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollars were minted only in 1796 and 1797. These are the rarest type coins of all series of silver U.S. coins.

The 1797 half in this auction is NGC graded ‘Extremely Fine-45.’ In terms of widely accepted price guides, the $86,250 price would seem to be very weak. Experts who have seen the coin, however, tend to be unsurprised by this auction result.

McGuigan regards this 1797 half as “VF-30, cleaned” and suggests that “maybe” the PCGS would grade it as “VF-35.” McGuigan and I each found this coin to have an awkward, washed appearance that is not rare for Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollars.

In September, SBG auctioned this exact same 1797 half for  $89,700. Further, it seems that, even earlier, Stack’s auctioned this same coin on March 23, 2007 in Baltimore. Although the online catalogue images are a little murky, I believe that it is the same coin. If so, it then realized $95,450.

As I have stated on numerous occasions, fresh coins tend, on average, to fare better at auction. For a coin to be fresh now, it must NOT have been publicly offered, such that many dealers and/or collectors know about it having been offered, for more than five years. This 1797 half is not fresh.

Additionally, circulated 1796 and 1797 halves now seem to constitute a category for which PCGS graded coins tend to be worth substantially more than NGC certified coins of the same respective grades. Price guides do not incorporate such wide gaps. Not too long ago, most collectors would have treated PCGS certifications equally, more or less, with NGC certifications, with respect to circulated bust halves. Market realities change over time, and such changes are often not reflected in price guides.

III. 1807 Draped Bust Half

In this sale, the first bust half that I became enthusiastic about is an 1807 Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle coin that is PCGS graded MS-64 and has a CAC sticker. Draped Bust obverse, Heraldic Eagle reverse Half Dollars were minted from 1801 to 1807.

While this 1807 half is not exciting and maybe has the attractiveness of a 63+ or 64 minus grade coin, it is exemplary in a technical sense. There are minimal contact marks and this 1807 half does not exhibit any noticeable friction. Moreover, I do not remember any significant hairlines. The fields are impressive. Plus, for this issue, this coin is sharply struck. Also, it scores high in the category of originality. This 1807 half grades 64.4 or so, in my view. The price realized of $28,750 is strong, a full retail price.

IV. 1809 Half with Bars (|||) Edge

It is tricky to analyze the result for the 1809 Capped Bust Half in this auction, as it is of an unusual edge variety with irregular repeats of somewhat parallel bars among the words that are usually found on the edges of coins of this type. Capped Bust, Lettered Edge Half Dollars were minted from 1807 to 1836.

The 1809 ‘with bars’ ||| edge half in this auction is NGC graded MS-66 and sold for $43,125. John Albanese asserts that this “price is very strong.” I find it to be extremely strong and puzzling.

In 1809, other halves were minted with repeats of so termed “XXX” or “XXXX” devices between words on their respective edges. These seem to be sloppy, hand-engraved characters of some sort, which look more like graffiti than ‘X’ letters. Coins with such X devices on edges are even scarcer than those with the  (|||)  ‘bars’ edge. Most 1809 halves have normal edge devices, as the term ‘normal’ is defined in this context, typical letters for the type.

It has been argued that these extra edge devices are indicative of experiments. I doubt, however, that these 1809 halves relate to experiments. My guess is that some U.S. Mint employees were bored and added these devices in whimsical manners.

I was under the impression that collectors assembling sets of Capped Bust Half Dollars usually seek at least three 1809 edge varieties, normal edge, bars (|||) edge and XXX edge. Regarding this subject, I consulted Sheridan Downey, who is a specialist in varieties of Capped Bust Half Dollars.

“The ||| and XXX edge 1809 bust halves are anomalous” edge varieties that are listed in a widely read book covering all U.S. coins, according to Sheridan Downey. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines ‘anomalous’ as “inconsistent with or deviating from what is usual, normal, or expected,” and as “of uncertain nature or classification; marked by incongruity or contradiction.” “There are no other ‘edge varieties’ listed for the series” in the same guide book, Downey emphasizes.

I note that the famous researcher Breen addresses these varieties in his comprehensive encyclopedia that was published in 1988. Breen points out that there are a large number of edge varieties of Capped Bust Half Dollars and that it does not make sense for the (|||) bars and XXX varieties of 1809 halves to be specially itemized without mentions of many others.

Downey implies that these two ‘edge varieties’ should not be listed as separate entries in guides, except in very specialized volumes. I agree. While I am usually respectful of traditions, the  significance of these edge varieties is grossly exaggerated. These seem to be barely noticeable, irregular varieties, perhaps due to thoughtless behavior of some U.S. Mint employees, rather than coins that should be treasured as distinct issues. In my view, these are not separate issues and should not command substantial premiums.

The PCGS price guide values an 1809 ‘with bars’ edge at $30,000 in MS-65 grade, as opposed to $17,500 for a PCGS graded MS-65 1809 half with a typical edge. The PCGS price guide does not value this issue in MS-66 grade, as there are no PCGS graded MS-66 coins of the ‘with bars’ variety.

“The XXX and ||| [bars] edge 1809s are sought by [guide book oriented] and Registry Set Collectors,” Sheridan Downey asserts. “Date and Overton-variety collectors don’t care about them.” Varieties of Capped Bust Half Dollars are typically identified and catalogued with a system that was originally developed by Al Overton.

Maybe the solution to the puzzle is that the buyer and/or the underbidder were thinking about including this 1809 in a PCGS or NGC registry set. There are popular categories in both the PCGS and the NGC registries for which three edge varieties of 1809 halves would be needed for a complete set of Capped Bust Half Dollars, an 1809 normal edge, an 1809 XXXX edge and an 1809 ‘with bars’ edge.

An objective relating to a registry set seems to be a plausible and logical explanation for the $43,125 result for this coin. After all, this 1809 is the highest certified representative of the ‘with bars’ edge variety. In April 2009, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded MS-66 1809, with a typical edge, for $14,950. The die variety, irrespective of edges, of that 1809 is rarer than the die pairing that was used to strike the $43,125 1809 ‘bars edge’ half being discussed here. Is it fair to suggest that the ‘with bars’ edge variety must have been the major factor factor contributing to the $43,125 result?

After all, the assigned 66 grade is debatable and very few high grade representatives of this edge variety have been documented. Downey “looked at but was not particularly impressed by the NGC [graded] 66” with bars (|||) edge half, this coin. I did not grade it as MS-66. I am not sure that the PCGS would even grade it as MS-65. The $43,125 price is one of the more interesting results in this auction.

Also, this NGC graded MS-66 1809 ‘with bars’ edge coin was previously in the collection of George Byers, which Stack’s auctioned in October 2006. If it then sold, this same realized $21,850, about half as much as the current result. I covered that auction for Numismatic News newspaper.

V. Run of Capped Bust Halves

There was a run of NGC certified Capped Bust Halves in this auction, several of which received grades that are sharply debatable. Very few are exemplary. The prices realized were moderate to strong for these overall, considering that several have characteristics that are causes for concern.

The following is a list of dates, with NGC grades in parentheses, and corresponding prices realized: 1810 (MS-65) $10,925, 1812 (MS-66) $14,950, 1814 (66) $15,625, 1815/2 (61) $19,550, 1817 (65) $10,925, 1817/3 (64) $17,250, 1819/8 (66), $16,100, first 1822 ($12,650, second 1822 (66) $10,925, 1828 (66) $12,650, 1830 (66) $9200, and 1834 (66) $11,500.

The 1815/2 is a scarce date and one of the keys to the series of Capped Bust Half Dollars. The one in this sale is NGC graded “MS-61.” Jim McGuigan suggests that this coin has “questionable toning.” Although I just glanced at this coin very quickly, I did not conclude that the toning was artificial. Even if the toning on this coin is not entirely natural, most collectors and dealers would probably accept this coin as being natural enough. It may have naturally retoned after a moderate to heavy cleaning. It is gradable, in my view.

Coins of the 1815/2 date that grade above MS-60 are subject to tremendous demand.Indeed, the PCGS CoinFacts site estimates that just a dozen 1815/2 halves grade MS-60 or higher. I suspect that there might be a few more than twelve. Nevertheless, the 1815/2 is scarce in all grades and is an important condition rarity in MS-60 and higher grades.

Even IF the 1815/2 in this auction merits a grade of MS-60 rather than MS-61, it would still be an extremely important coin. I reiterate that the MS-61 grade is probably fair, in accordance with widely accepted grading criteria. Even a MS-62 grade would not be ridiculous.

On July 31, 2008, when rare U.S. coin markets were peaking overall,  Heritage auctioned a different NGC graded MS-61 1815/2 half for $18,400 and auctioned that exact same coin again in August 2010 for $12,650. This one brought more, $19,550. It may be true that this one is superior to the 1815/2 that was auctioned in 2008 and 2010. Generally, though, the $19,550 result for this specific 1815/2 is a fair to strong price.

The PCGS certified ‘Proof-64’ 1826 half in this auction did not sell, perhaps for three reasons. First, it has become stale by appearing in at least four auctions since 2005. Second, it exhibits a series of serious horizontal scratches near the numerals 1826, which cause some potential buyers to wonder about the assigned 64 grade. Third, even if its grade is held to be a solid 64, the reserve was just too high. A bid of more than $73,000 would have been needed to buy this 1826 half. Such an aggressive reserve discourages some bidders, possibly including people who might have been willing to pay $73,000 or more if the coin was unreserved.

This 1826 is very attractive and it is educational in the sense that it has powerful Proof characteristics. There are Capped Bust halves that are certified as Proofs yet might not be Proofs. This is not one of them. This half dollar is, indisputably, a Proof from the 1820s, and is very important as such.

VI.  1823 ‘Broken 3’ Half Dollar

The star of the Capped Bust Half Dollars in this sale is an 1823 half of the ‘Broken 3’ variety, which is distinct from the ‘Patched 3’ 1823 and from the ‘Ugly 3’! None of these should be confused with the 1823 issue that has normal numerals.

The unusual numeral ‘3’ varieties are all scarcer than the regular 1823 half with normal numerals. The ‘Broken 3’ coins, though, bring a higher premium than the ‘Patched 3’ or the ‘Ugly 3.’ The ‘Broken 3’ name refers to the fact that the top half of the 3 is mis-aligned with the bottom half and leans to the right. It seems to be disjointed.

The ‘Patched 3’ is characterized by additional metal where the top half and the bottom half meet and elsewhere. The ‘Ugly 3’ is mis-shaped, though not to a startling extent. On the die employed to strike 1823 ‘Ugly 3’ halves, in areas adjacent to the numeral 3,‘ die metal is missing and hot metal from the planchet (prepared blank) flowed into areas about the numeral ‘3’ while each coin was being struck. Improper punching of the numeral ‘3’ into the respective dies may have caused or contributed to all three of these unusual numeral ‘3’ varieties.

In my opinion, one 1823 is sufficient for a set of Capped Bust Half Dollars. Most collectors feel otherwise and find themselves compelled to include four 1823s in their respective sets. Coins with noticeable differences in numerals sometimes attain the status of ‘distinct dates.’ I just do not find the differences among the numeral threes in these cases to be especially important. I suggest that it makes sense for only collectors of die varieties to be concerned about them.

The one in this auction is certainly one of the finest known 1823 ‘Broken 3’ halves. Indeed, Downey says that the “1823 ‘Broken 3’ NGC MS 66 was more interesting” than the NGC graded MS-66 1809 that I already discussed. “It may be tied with the Overton Plate coin for finest known,” Sheridan declares. The “Overton Plate coin” is the 1823 ‘Broken 3’ coin that is pictured in the Overton reference book on die varieties of half dollars.

This 1823 ‘Broken 3’ is NGC certified “MS-66*,” including a star that is awarded by NGC graders to coins that they maintain have superior eye appeal. Furthermore, it is CAC approved. In my view, its grade is in the high end of the MS-66 range. Indeed, it is an especially appealing coin overall. John Albanese exclaims that it is “gorgeous.”

For some reason, the Numismedia retail guide value of $44,380 did not appear on the online listing for this coin on the Heritage website. Though it is strong, I did not find the price realized of $51,750 to be surprising. Albanese did. John states that this “price is very strong.”

If it is possible, then it may be very difficult to find another 1823 ‘Broken 3’ half that truly grades MS-65 or higher. In the minds of many collectors, this issue has the status of a distinct ‘date.’ After all, a numeral in the ‘date’ is different. While I am not convinced that it should have the status of a distinct ‘date,’ I find the ‘Broken 3’ variety to be much more important than the ‘with bars’ variety of 1809 halves that each include a few irregular bar devices on the edge in addition to the typical lettering.

I emphasize that it is not my intention here to cover all the pre-1840 halves in the Platinum Night session of Jan. 4. I selected some that are particularly newsworthy based upon consideration of their  rarity, popularity, unusual characteristics, and/or strength of price realized.

©2012 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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