A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds …..
Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #347
U.S. half cents were first struck in 1793, and Braided Hair half cents were introduced in 1840. It is generally believed, though, that all half cents dating from 1840 to 1848 are Proofs. Indeed, standard references imply that no business strike half cents were minted from 1836 to 1848. As far as I know, this is true, though the absence of business strikes does not rule out the possibility that non-Proof Special Strikings were minted during that time period.
In any event, the present discussion is about business strikes. The term ‘business strike’ refers to production methods, not to the reasons why specific coins were made.
It should not be assumed that all business strike Braided Hair half cents were really made for circulation, even if they are listed in official documents in the same manner as coins that reach circulation. In addition to demand from collectors, many people desired business strike half cents as novelty items or conversation pieces. After the 1830s, half cents did not widely circulate.
In 1809, more than 1.15 million Classic Head half cents were minted; more than 600,000 were struck in 1828 and nearly 500,000 in 1829. Why are such mintage figures relevant to this discussion? There were never as many as 150,000 Braided Hair half cents struck during any one year.
There are no business strikes dated 1852. From 1849 to 1857, fewer than 60,000 were minted each year, except for approximately 148,000 in 1851 and almost 130,000 in 1853. Were any 1851 or 1853 half cents minted during 1852?
An immediate point is that, despite massive population growth in the United States during the first half of the 19th century, production trended downward after the 1820s. While population, output of goods and business activities were growing, there was less and less demand for half cents in commerce.
“Half cents were not used all that much. In some parts of the U.S., half cents were not used at all” after the 1820s, finds R. W. Julian, who recently responded to an inquiry of mine. Julian has extensively researched historical documents relating to 19th-century U.S. coins.
During the 1850s, it was not a secret that plans were being considered to end production of half cents and replace large cents with smaller one-cent coins. A wide variety of one-cent patterns were produced, some in substantial quantities. Moreover, there was much discussion among Congressmen and others in Washington. When it was finally made clear that half cents and large cents were being discontinued, people were probably not surprised; certainly, there is no evidence of an outcry.
By the 1850s, members of the general public had come to think of half cents as bothersome. Nevertheless, news that half cents would soon be discontinued led to a wave of nostalgia. Moreover, during the 1850s, there was a tremendous boom in coin collecting. A growing number of stores carried scarce coins in inventory, usually among antiques and other kinds of collectibles. During the 1850s, there were auctions devoted to coins.
It is impossible to know the number of people who collect or have ever collected coins at face value. People have been collecting rare coins at least since the 1300s, and the collecting of scarce items has been part of human civilization for millennia. It is certain that there were collectors of coins who did not attend coin auctions or visit stores that sold collectibles. During the 1850s, there were also many U.S. citizens who did not live near the Philadelphia Mint.
Collecting coins at face value is minimally expensive and involves almost zero risk. In most cases, family members of people who collect coins at face value eventually spent the coins collected, sometimes after inheriting them. Of the 40,000 or so half cents minted in 1856 and the approximately 35,000 that were struck in 1857, I hypothesize that many went to collectors and to people who accumulated them as conversation pieces or curios. Such people often asked for half cents at banks or at business establishments that traded various forms of money.
Because half cents were often collected at face value and kept as novelty items during the second half of the 19th century, Braided Hair half cents survive in significant quantities and are not expensive in the present. It is easy to collect them now.
A set of business strikes in Almost Uncirculated to ‘Mint State’ grades could be assembled without spending as much as US$500 on any one coin. As MS-60 to MS-62 grade coins tend to have problems, exhibit much friction or be heavily marked, AU-50 to AU-55 grade coins that are carefully selected may be better values, on average.
The Nature of Half Cents
Braided Hair half cents are similar in size to five-cent nickels. All U.S. half cents were specified to be entirely copper, and, by 1849, must have been very close to being 100% copper. No refining or production process is perfect.
The color of many copper coins has been deliberately changed by way of artificial toning, unnatural additives and treatments for corrosion. Even so, circulated Braided Hair half cents tend to be relatively original, much more so on average than pre-1815 U.S. copper coins, which are often deliberately modified.
Circulated Braided Hair half cents are typically wholesome and naturally appealing. There is no reason to be nervous while seeking circulated Braided Hair half cents. It is probably best, however, to avoid half cents that exhibit very noticeable signs of corrosion.
As most of the coins relating to the theme here retail for prices from $65 to $400 each, there is not much financial risk in the context of classic U.S. coins. Such half cents can often be acquired at coin stores or at small-to-medium-size coin shows. Beginners should proceed slowly and enjoy collecting activities.
I have found that people who know little or nothing about classic U.S. coins tend to be fascinated when informed of half cents. Many people I’ve met are astonished that half cents ever existed.
Collecting ‘By Type’
Someone collecting business strike half cents of all series ‘by type’ would probably acquire just one Braided Hair half cent. It is simple to buy such a type coin in a ‘mint state’ grade for less than $500.
Recently, in the “Internet session” of Stack’s-Bowers’ offering at the American Numismatic Association’s (ANA) 2016 World’s Fair of Money in Anaheim, California, an NGC-certified “AU-58BN” 1857 half cent and an NGC-certified “MS-61BN” 1857 half cent each sold for $282. They were both struck from the same pair of dies.
Since a “BN” designation for brown color is usually thought of as being different from a grade, it seems to be more accurate to refer to a coin as being ‘certified’ as “MS-61BN” than being “graded” as “MS-61BN.” As the brown and ‘red & brown’ designations are assigned by graders and finalizers while grading, and a merited 61RB assignment is usually considered to be at a higher level than a 61BN assignment, the distinction between a grade and a designation is not completely clear.
Beginners seeking Braided Hair half cents for under $500 per coin should probably limit themselves to coins that are brown and/or designated as ‘BN,’ even if russet and green. Interpretations of red color on copper coins cannot be fully explained and require years of experience to understand. Red color on copper coins tends to turn brown, anyway.
The distinction between a 58 grade and a 61 grade is also not easy to explain. There are many coins that are certified as grading “61” that have readily apparent wear. A ‘61’ grade with wear may be more appealing than a strictly uncirculated ‘61’ grade coin that has innumerable contact marks.
In the case of the two coins that appeared in the already mentioned Stack’s-Bowers offering at the ANA Convention, the NGC-graded MS-61 1857 half cent was lot #4415 and the NGC-graded AU-58 1857 was lot #4416. It follows that all relevant bidders were aware of both coins, yet they each realized the same price, $282.
It doesn’t make sense to draw firm conclusions about auction prices for individual coins without actually seeing the coins. Moreover, auction results can be weak or strong depending in part upon the reasons why leading bidders are seeking the coins. Truly interested collectors will generally, though not always, be willing to pay more for the same coins than dealers who are seeking to buy for their respective inventories.
It does not make sense to take any one auction result or any one auction as being indicative of prevailing market values, though they frequently are meaningful indications. In March 2016, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded MS-64 1855 for $493.50. Very recently, on August 21, Heritage sold a different, PCGS-graded MS-64 1855 half cent for the exact same price. The same price being realized twice could be just a coincidence or it could be particularly meaningful. More information and analysis would be required before drawing a useful conclusion.
In any event, it is easy to acquire an AU- or MS-grade Braided Hair half cent for a type set, without even spending as much as $250. On August 23, an NGC-graded MS-62 1851 brought $199.75. On July 17, a PCGS-graded AU-53 1856, with a sticker of approval from CAC, sold for $141. Less than a week earlier, a PCGS-graded AU-58 1855 went for $176.25.
Collecting ‘By Date’
The series of business strike Braided Hair half cents is short and it is not difficult to truly complete a set. Indeed, this would be a logical and enjoyable task for a beginner who could learn about interpreting early copper coins without risking much money and may have the satisfaction of completing a set of a series of classic U.S. coins.
In June 2016, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded “AU-58+” 1849, for $352.50. In August 2016, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded AU-58 1849 also for $352.50. Back in March 2016, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned for $282 the just mentioned “AU-58” coin. In July 2015, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded “AU-55” 1849, also for $282.
All the just-mentioned 1849 half cents were struck from the same pair of dies. For Braided Hair half cents overall, not many pairs of dies were employed. In some cases, just one pair may have been used for all business strikes produced during a calendar year.
Beginning collectors should just ignore die varieties. There is no need to understand dies in order to enjoy collecting business strike half cents.
There are many PCG-S or NGC-graded AU-50 to -55 1849 half cents that could be acquired for less than $225 each. It is practical for buyers to be selective.
The half cents of 1850 are much scarcer than those of 1849. The PCGS CoinFacts estimate of “800” surviving is definitely too low. Although just a few hundred have been graded by PCGS or NGC, there are many AG-03 to Fine-12 grade 1850 half cents that have never been submitted to PCGS or NGC. There are quite a few non-gradable pieces that have not either.
Overall, collectors of Fair-02 to VF-35 grade early copper coins tend to prefer that their coins not be encapsulated, unless such coins are particularly valuable (like 1799 large cents). I suggest, though, that early copper coins that are valued above $200 be certified.
A substantial percentage of uncertified early copper coins, which are priced above $200 each, have serious problems. Beginning collectors–and even many full-time dealers–may not notice such problems. There is no need to agree with a majority of grades assigned by PCGS and NGC in order to accept the point that buying PCGS- or NGC-certified coins involves less risk in general than buying coins that are not certified.
In March 2016, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded AU-53 1850 half cent for $446.50. Reportedly, it was “From the Collection of Henry Mitchell.”
NGC has graded 243 and PCGS has graded 285 specimens, amounting to maybe 400 different coins. NGC has certified another 69 1850 half cents without assigning numerical grades and has placed these in ‘details’ holders. In my estimation, there are 750 to 1,250 that have never been submitted to PCGS or NGC, mostly 1850 half cents that grade from Good-04 to VF-20. A logical estimate overall is 1,450 survivors. If so, 1850 half cents are very scarce, though not close to being rare.
The 1851 is one of the least scarce dates is the series. Thousands exist now.
On August 7, 2016, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-certified “AU-58BN” 1851 for $223.30. At the ANA Convention in August 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an 1851 that had been judged by experts at PCGS to have considerable original mint red color. This PCGS certified “MS-62RB” 1851 realized $440.63. A PCGS- or NGC-graded AU-55 1851 could probably be found for less than $150.
There are no 1852 business strikes. The 1853 is the least scarce date of the type. Perhaps 3,750 to 6,000 survive.
A PCGS- or NGC-graded MS-63 1853 half cent could certainly be acquired for less than $500. An AU-58 grade 1853 would probably cost less than $215, and an AU-55 grade coin might very well sell for less than $150. Relatively original and especially attractive coins will often bring premiums, especially since 1853 half cents are frequently chosen for type sets. Collectors building type sets tend, on average, to be more concerned about eye appeal and/or originality than collectors assembling sets of circulated, copper coins ‘by date.’
PCGS- or NGC-graded AU-55 1854, 1855 and 1856 half cents tend to retail for less than $200 each. In June 2016, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded AU-55 1854 for $129.25. In November 2015, a PCGS-graded AU-55 1856 brought $164.50.
PCGS- or NGC-graded MS-63 representatives of these three dates often sell for less than $400. In November 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an NGC-graded MS-63 1855 for $381.88. Others have been sold for less $400 by all the major coin auction firms.
The 1857 is somewhat scarce, and worth a premium over 1853 to 1856 half cents. Even so, a collector could probably acquire a PCGS- or NGC-graded AU-53 1857 for less than $260, and a certified AU-55 1857 for a price below $300.
In March 2016, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded AU-53 1857, with a CAC sticker, for $258.50, and a PCGS-graded AU-53 1857, without a sticker, for $211.50. On October 4, 2015, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AU-58, and CAC-approved, 1857 for $313.50, and a PCGS-graded AU-55 1857 for $215.60.
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In conclusion, for less than $320 per coin, a set of PCGS- or NGC-certified AU-53 or better Braided Hair half cents could be completed, a true set of business strikes. The obverse design by Christian Gobrecht is attractive, and these are really neat coins overall. For scarce coins from the middle of the 19th century, current market levels are reasonable, from a logical perspective.
© 2016 Greg Reynolds
Recent Articles in This Series on Classic U.S. Coins for Less Than $500 Each:
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
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