Early American Copper Coin Profiles: Finest Certified 1811 Half Cent

The 1811 Classic Head half cent is a low-mintage key in the popular series and a challenging condition rarity in high grade. Only a handful of high-quality examples have survived over the years, and any auction appearance of a Mint State specimen is a notable event for early copper collectors. PCGS has certified only five examples in all Mint State grades, while NGC has graded a single Mint State example, in MS61 Brown.

Heritage Auctions is privileged to present the finest certified example of this elusive issue, the CAC-endorsed MS66 Red and Brown PCGS specimen from the famous Missouri Cabinet and the D. Brent Pogue Collection, in our April 22-27 Central States US Coins Signature Auction.

According to Mint records, only 63,140 Classic Head half cents were struck in 1811 – a small mintage for this series, which had seen a production of more than one million pieces just two years before. The coins were all delivered on July 9, and no more half cents were produced until 1825. In American Half Cents, the “Little Half Sisters”, Roger Cohen speculates the small mintage in 1811 and the long gap in production might be attributed to a shortage of planchets. Apparently, the Mint’s supply of half cent blanks ran out in 1811 and it was difficult to resupply in following years, due to the economic and political fallout of the War of 1812.

Two die varieties that share a common reverse are known for the date. This coin represents the C-1, B-1 variety, with a Wide Date that shows the numerals 1 and 8 widely separated and the E in LIBERTY repunched over a smaller E. Although the Classic Head half cents did not circulate as extensively as their earlier Draped Bust counterparts, most examples of the 1811 C-1 are well-worn and Ronald Manley notes the variety is seldom seen in grades above the Fine level. The 1811 C-1 is more elusive than the C-2 variety and Bill Eckberg (2019) estimates the surviving population at 150 examples in all grades.

The 1811 was a collector favorite from the earliest days of the hobby. By the late 1850s, when coin collecting first became widespread in this country, the issue was already known as a sought-after rarity. In his American Numismatical Manual (1859), Montroville W. Dickeson described the 1811 as “rare and valuable, as they are to be found in few cabinets.” Examples began appearing at auction as early as lot 106 of the A.C. Kline Sale (Moses Thomas & Sons, 6/1855). The lot realized $.75, a strong price at the time.

The present coin established the current price record for this issue when it sold for a remarkable $1,121,250 USD in the Missouri Cabinet in January 2014.

Beginning when the Flying Eagle cents were released in 1857, favored Philadelphia collectors and dealers were able to examine many of the early coppers that were turned in at the Mint for recoinage. Prominent dealer Edouard Frossard reported:

“During the last fifteen years the vein of collecting coins has greatly increased in the United States. Before that time there were collectors, men of note, perseverance and genius, like Dr. M.W. Dickeson, Edward Maris, J.J. Mickley, and a few others, whose opportunities for collecting the various issues of Colonial and old mint pieces have not since been equaled. Had it not been for the spirit of research of these gentlemen at a time when old American coins were sent to the United States Mint for recoinage by the thousand; many rare varieties … would have been utterly lost to us. The facilities extended those gentlemen by a liberal mint government enabled them to handle thousands of coppers, and to select from the mass such specimens as they considered worthy of preservation.”

Undoubtedly, many of the 1811 half cents we know about today were preserved in this fashion (thanks to Bill Eckberg for this information). Discounting the enigmatic 1831 issue, the 1811 remains the most elusive date in the Classic Head half cent series and present-day collectors prize examples in all grades and conditions.

The present coin is a spectacular Premium Gem, the only 1811 half cent certified with the Red and Brown designation and the single-finest example certified by CAC. We grade it MS65 by EAC standards. The virtually flawless surfaces show highlights of original red around the design elements and the reddish-brown fields show strong hints of magenta, with semiprooflike reflectivity underneath. The design elements are sharply detailed in most areas, but the upper stars on the left show just a touch of flatness on the centers. The lower wreath shows a trace of the usual softness seen on this issue, due to the high relief of Liberty’s hair on the obverse. Raised die lines show on Liberty’s cheek and many areas of the reverse field. The only useful pedigree markers are a thin hairline from star 2 through the field to near star 6 and a small amber toning spot between F in OF and A in AMERICA. Overall eye appeal is terrific.

Among certified 1811 half cents, the only coin to rival this piece in grade is the MS65+ Brown PCGS specimen that was also featured in the Missouri Cabinet, but that coin is the more available Cohen 2 variety. The MS63 Brown PCGS coin in Heritage’s April 2014 Central States Signature is also a C-2 example, as is the MS62 Brown specimen from Jim McGuigan’s collection.

The only other Mint State Cohen-1 known to the numismatic community is the prooflike Norweb specimen that has never been certified and has not been publicly offered since it sold in 1987. The catalogers of the Missouri Cabinet noted that coin had better detail on the stars, but this piece has better color and fewer surface flaws. The coin offered here finished in first place at the Half Cent Happening events held in conjunction with the EAC annual conventions in 1998 and 2011. This coin is plated on page 77 of the second edition of Roger Cohen’s American Half Cents, the “Little Half Sisters” and in the color plate section of Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of American Half Cents 1793-1857, at the back of the book. It is also plated on page 97 of The Half Cent, 1793-1857/The Story of America’s Greatest Little Coin by William R. Eckberg and pictured on PCGS CoinFacts.

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