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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Early U.S. $5 gold coins – Bust Right Half Eagles

News and Analysis on scarce coins, markets, and the collecting community #83

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds

From Nov. 15th to 18th, the firm of Stack’s-Bowers Galleries (SBG) conducted a major auction in Baltimore. This is my third week of coverage of this event. On Nov. 16th, I focused upon the Teich Family Collection of Proof coins and I discussed Southern Gold. On Nov. 23rd, I wrote about quarters in this auction event. (As before, clickable links are in blue.) This week, I am focusing on Bust Right Half Eagles (U.S. $5 gold coins) in this same auction. These were minted from 1795 to 1807. As there was an extensive offering of Bust Right ‘heraldic eagle’ Half Eagles in this auction, this is a suitable time to discuss coins in this series.

Also, in each of my columns relating to auction events, it is my intention to include general educational material, not just discussions of specific coins that were auctioned. I hope that beginners and intermediate level collectors learn something.

Yes, I am aware that not everyone can afford to collect Half Eagles. Even so, I find that collectors of copper, nickel and silver coins tend to like to read about rare early gold coins. These have historical significance and are exciting parts of American numismatics.

I. What are Half Eagles?

Half Eagles (U.S. $5 gold coins) were minted from 1795 to 1929, though not in every year in between. In several instances during the period from 1986 to the present, “$5” commemorative gold coins, which are the same size as earlier business strikes, have been produced for sale as novelty items. These are substantially different from the Half Eagles that were minted as a regular part of U.S. coinage from 1795 to 1929.

Bust Right Half Eagles were minted from 1795 to 1807 and these feature a bust of Miss Liberty facing to the right on the obverse (front) of each coin. On this first type, the Bust Right obverse design is paired with a relatively small eagle design 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.

Half Eagles, with a small eagle reverse, from this first type bear years from 1795 to 1798. Heraldic Eagle coins, the second type, bear some of the same years, and date from 1795 to 1807. It is widely believed that 1795 Bust Right Half Eagles with the heraldic eagle reverse were minted later than 1795 with an obverse die that had been prepared in 1795. As for issues of both types that are dated 1797 and 1798, it is not clear exactly when these respective issues were struck.

The ‘heraldic eagle’ design element is often termed a ‘large eagle.’ In the context of early U.S. gold coins, there are three categories of meanings of the word ‘eagle,’ representations of the bird as coin design elements, symbolic concepts of the eagle as the national bird of the United States, and coin denominations. An Eagle is $10 gold coin and a Quarter Eagle is a $2½ gold coin.

When employed to define a denomination, the word Eagle should be capitalized as it is, in such contexts, thus a proper noun, referring to the name of a specific group of coin denominations, rather than to a kind of bird. An Eagle, with a capital ‘E,’ is a U.S. $10 gold coin; an eagle, with a small ‘e,’ is a bird or a representation of such a bird.

During some periods in U.S. history, a Half Eagle and the sum of five silver dollars had different values. So, a Half Eagle did not just mean five dollars. Moreover, there is a need to distinguish the ‘Eagle’ in the denomination from the ‘eagle’ design elements on coins. The logic is compelling for all writers to capitalize Quarter Eagle, Half Eagle, Eagle and Double Eagle. These terms are proper names and do not have similar (or any?) meanings outside of the field of U.S. coins.

II. 1795 small eagle Half Eagle

Of the five Bust Right, ‘small eagle’ Half Eagle ‘dates,’ there was only one in this auction, a 1795. In October, I devoted a column to the Eliasberg 1796/5 Half Eagle. The 1795 in this auction is NGC graded “MS-61.”

The characteristics of this 1795 Half Eagle are consistent with those that are expected regarding NGC graded “MS-61,” uncirculated gold coins from the 1790s. It has been moderately to heavily cleaned, extensively, with innumerable light hairlines and a few medium scratches. It is fair to point out that 1795 Half Eagles were often semi-prooflike or even fully prooflike when struck and this coin probably had fields that were far more sensitive from the onset than the fields of most early gold coins. So, on reflective fields, hairlines from cleaning appear to be more of an issue than these are in a technical sense.

I discussed this coin with Jim McGuigan who is an expert in pre-1840 U.S. coins. Jim and I are in agreement that this coin has been moderately dipped and is an unnatural “light gold” color. This is unsurprising and is certainly consistent with a 61 grade. Also, this coin is moderately brilliant.

This same coin was auctioned by ANR on June 23, 2004. It was then NGC graded “AU-58” and sold for $48,300.

In my view, its grade is very close to the MS-61 level. (A MS-60 grade coin is a different matter.) Most coin market participants would probably find it acceptable overall for a 61 grade 1795 Half Eagle. From the mid 1990s to 2007 or so, substantial grade-inflation occurred. McGuigan, in contrast, contends that it clearly does not qualify for a 61 grade. It sold for $74,750, which is a moderate to strong price.

In this auction, if there had been a 1795 Half Eagle that grades in the middle or high end of the MS-61 range, it probably would have sold for an amount between $80,000 and $97,500. In the case of the 1795 in this auction, $74,750 is a strong result for the ‘holder.’

III. 1798-99 heraldic eagle Half Eagles

There were three 1798 Bust Right obverse, heraldic eagle reverse, Half Eagles in this auction. Two of the three were in the “Brandywine Collection,” though both are ‘Large 8’, thirteen star reverse 1798 Half Eagles, yet are of subtly different die varieties. These two “Brandywine Collection” 1798 Half Eagles were struck from different pairs of dies, a fact that most collectors are not concerned about.

One of the Brandywine 1798 Half Eagles is PCGS graded “AU-55.” Jim McGuigan bought it for $20,125 and he reports that he had to “stretch” for it. He had planned on spending around $19,500, at most.

The second “Brandywine Collection” 1798 did not sell. It is NGC graded ‘MS-62’ and has a sticker of the approval from the CAC. Though not the most original early gold coin that I have ever seen, this piece does not have any serious problems and is strictly uncirculated unlike many certified ‘MS-62’ coins that exhibit noticeable friction on the highpoints. Despite being dipped and extensively lightly cleaned, with a few medium scratches, it is attractive. The assigned 62 grade is more than fair, in my opinion. It probably grades 62.6 or higher. No one expects a 62 grade coin to be a gem.

A bid of at least $46,000 would have been required to buy it. This was an unreasonably high reserve. It is true that this exact same coin was auctioned by Stack’s for $50,600 in August 2008. Even so, coin markets peaked in August 2008, and fell considerably in the eight months that followed. Besides, was $50,600 a high price for this coin in August 2008? Now, a price of $41,000 would be well into the retail range.

Another 1798 Half Eagle in this auction is in a PCGS ‘Genuine’ holder. Experts at the PCGS determined that its problems are too severe for it to qualify for a numerical grade. It was probably damaged when incorporated into jewelry long ago.

I am sure that many collectors still strongly desire it. First, it is a gold type coin from the 1790s that is priced much lower than gradable alternatives. Second, it is of the particularly rare variety with fourteen stars, rather than the usual thirteen stars, on the reverse (back of the coin).

As the SBG cataloguer notes, this ungradable 1798 has the ‘details’ of an Extremely Fine grade coin. It sold for $3,738. As before, I note that SBG rounds auction results to one dollar amounts or lists rounded versions of the auction results.

The 1799 Half Eagle in this auction was from the “Brandywine Collection” and was earlier in the epic collection of Harry Bass. This is a very rare coin in all grades. The Bass-Brandywine 1799 is NGC graded “MS-61.” It turned out to be a nicer coin than I expected it to be. Coins of this issue are often problematic. Despite having been moderately cleaned in a few areas, the Bass-Brandywine 1799 is mostly original and is satisfying overall. It went for $30,475, a strong price, well within the retail range for this issue in 61 grade.

Matt Kleinsteuber also likes the Bass-Brandywine 1799. “Fresh and mostly original,” Kleinsteuber says, “it is a true BU early five. This coin should end up in a picky collector’s collection. [Matt] could see it as a 62 if not for a planchet flaw in the face,” Kleinsteuber adds.

IV. 1800s heraldic eagle Half Eagles

A heavily circulated and scratched 1800 Half Eagle in an NGC ‘Details’ holder is said to have the details of a ‘Fine’ grade coin, although experts at the NGC determined, for now, that it is not gradable. It sold for $2352.

I did not closely examine this 1800 Half Eagle. Matt Kleinsteuber clearly recalls it. He was “probably the underbidder.” Matt regards it as being gradable. “There is nothing seriously wrong with that coin. That one scratch is not distracting,” Kleinsteuber finds.

Matt is the lead trader and a grader for NFC coins. Also, he has been an instructor at many ANA grading seminars.

The first of two 1802/1 overdate Half Eagles in this auction is in a PCGS ‘Genuine’ holder. Its problems notwithstanding, I am a little surprised that it sold for only $2300. It has the details of a VF-30 to EF-40 grade coin and is of a very rare die variety. Traditionally, there have been quite a few devoted collectors seeking representatives of coins struck from each pair of dies relating to each early series of U.S. coins.

In Jan. 2010, Stack’s auctioned a horrible 1802/1 of this same die variety, “Centered Overdate,’ for $1840. That one is also in a PCGS ‘Genuine’ holder and the Stack’s cataloguer referred to it as “Sharpness of VG, damaged, tooled, and repaired.” Plus, it has other problems.

The other 1802/1 in this Nov. 2011 auction is from the “Brandywine Collection.” It is NGC graded “MS-62” and realized $18,400.

There were two 1804 Half Eagles in this auction. These are rare, though not extremely rare. If both major varieties of 1804 Half Eagles are considered to be one issue, really just one ‘date,’ there are perhaps five hundred known, including those that are not gradable. Representatives of both varieties were in this auction, an 1804 ‘normal date’ and an 1804 with a relatively smaller numeral ‘8’ struck over a considerably larger numeral 8.

The 1804 ‘normal date’ is NGC graded ‘AU-58’ and has a CAC sticker. Like the already mentioned 1799 Half Eagle, this 1804 was part of the “Brandywine Collection” and was formerly in the Harry Bass Collection.

It brought $12,650. While price guides and past auction records would suggest that this is a strong price, I find it to be one of the better deals in this auction. This coin has been moderately cleaned in small areas and has been just lightly dipped overall. It is mostly original. Moreover, I find it to be a 58+ or possibly 61 grade coin. For this issue, it is a really neat representative.

The other 1804 is a much better coin and it brought a dramatically higher price. The ‘8 over larger 8’ 1804 is PCGS graded MS-63. It also has a CAC sticker and it is also “From the Brandywine Collection,” according to the SBG catalogue.

The reverse is naturally very brilliant and is more lustrous than the obverse. McGuigan remarks that the reverse is “stone cold original”! From Jim’s perspective, this is a tremendous compliment. I, though, have an even higher opinion of this coin than McGuigan does of it.

Yes, the obverse has a few hairlines, and I admit that I did not spend much time viewing this coin. My preliminary impression, though, is that the PCGS undergraded it. Although extremely strong, the $69,000 result did not surprise me. It may be the finest ‘8 over larger 8’ that a dedicated collector could find or, more likely, a ‘crack-out artist’ bought it and the holder has already been shattered.

Matt Kleinsteuber did NOT find that this coin is a candidate for a ‘crack-out’ for a potential upgrade. It is “true CAC quality, high end MS-63, but not a 64,” Kleinsteuber declares. Matt does, though, have a very high opinion of this specific coin, which has “beautiful smooth surfaces with nice color. Also, the overdate is bold and easy to see. I really like this overdate,” Kleinsteuber states.

The “Brandywine Collection” also contained an 1805. “Brandywine” was serious about collecting ‘heraldic eagle’ Half Eagles. Unfortunately, I do not remember this coin. During lot viewing sessions, I did not plan on focusing on the early Half Eagles in this sale. There were many very appealing silver coins in this auction and I will eventually write about more of them, in other contexts. Additional articles about bust silver, Liberty Seated and Barber coins will appear in the future.

The “Brandywine Collection” has considerable significance in relation to this specific auction, and is noteworthy overall. The Brandywine 1805 is NGC graded “AU-58” and sold for $10,350.

V. 1806 Half Eagles

There were five 1806 Half Eagles in this auction. The two major varieties of 1806 Half Eagles are different in ways such that each has the status of a distinct ‘date.’ In another words, two 1806 Half Eagles are needed for the completion of a general set of Bust Right, ‘heraldic eagle’ Half Eagles. Regarding the two varieties, the numeral ‘6’ is markedly different and the formations of stars on the obverse (front) of the coin are very different. In this auction, there were two of the first variety (8 by 5 stars) and three of the second (7 by 6 stars).

In addition to an obverse (front) star formation of eight to the left and five to the right, the first variety has a ‘pointed’ numeral ‘6’ in the year 1806. From an unnamed consignor, there was a pointed ‘6’ (8 by 5 stars) 1806 that is NGC graded “MS-63.” It was earlier in an Oct. 6, 2005 auction that was conducted by ANR, in which it realized $25,300.

Jim McGuigan and I are in agreement that this coin color is a relatively original “medium gold” and that the coin has “no serious problems.” I was bothered by a few imperfections. Jim and I separately figured that it is “probably okay for a 63 grade” early Half Eagle. It went for $28,750, a weak to fair price.

The “Brandywine Collection” 1806 Half Eagle of this variety, ‘8 by 5 stars,’ is NGC graded “AU-58.” It sold for $11,513. I did not see it.

There were three of the second 1806 ‘date,’ which features a rounded ‘6’ and a star formation of seven to the left, six to the right. The Brandywine piece is PCGS graded “MS-64.” McGuigan and I were again in agreement that this coin is mostly original and has a nice “medium gold” color. When I viewed this coin, I noted that I had then been viewing coins for hours and I was just too tired to grade it. McGuigan noted that “64 maybe okay.”

One excellent aspect of this coin is that, while the obverse was extensively lightly cleaned, the coin may have never been dipped (in an acidic solution). Another positive aspect is that it features pleasing coppery areas on the reverse. The Brandywine ‘7 by 6’ stars 1806 sold for $41,400, a reasonable price.

A second ‘7 by 6’ stars, rounded ‘6’ 1806, also PCGS graded “MS-64” sold for $40,250, a moderate price, though perhaps too much for this specific coin. McGuigan and I agree that this coin does not really merit a 64 grade.

The third ‘7 by 6’ stars, rounded ‘6’ 1806 is in a PCGS ‘Genuine’ holder. It was clearly chemically altered. In a sense, it is ‘uncirculated.’ It sold for $7763.

Bust Right, heraldic eagle Half Eagles were also minted in 1807. There was not an 1807 Bust Right Half Eagle in this auction. Bust Left Half Eagles were minted from 1807 to 1812. There was just one representative of this whole type in this auction, an 1807 in an NGC ‘details’ holder. It has the details of an AU grade coin and it brought $3594.

In the 19th century, there were also Capped Head, Classic Head and Liberty Head Half Eagles. In my column two weeks ago, I mentioned a few of the particularly important Charlotte (NC) and Dahlonega (GA) Mint Liberty Head Half Eagles in this auction. These will be addressed again at another time.

©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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