By Doug Winter – RareGoldCoins.com ……
CoinWeek Content Partner
The $5 gold half eagles struck at the Philadelphia Mint from 1866 through 1877 include a number of low-mintage issues that, while undeniably rare, are curiously underappreciated. I regard some of the issues as among the best values in all of the rare date gold market.
In this article, we will look at each of these issues; both business strikes and Proofs. We will look at the total number of coins known, the typical appearance of each date, discuss the finest known examples and share personal observations I have gleaned from handling many of these issues.
This issue has greater overall notoriety than many of the others of this era due to its being a first year of issue. There were 6,700 pieces struck for circulation and around 100 or so are known in total. A small group of 1866 half eagles was recently sold at a European auction and this has made the date a bit more available than in past years. It remains scarce in any grade and it is not often seen above AU55. It is easier to locate than other dates of this era with choice surfaces, and the luster tends to be frosty while many of the dates from the late 1860s are Prooflike. The natural color tends to be a deep russet or reddish-gold and the strike is always sharp. I am aware of around five or six in Uncirculated with the highest graded a single NGC MS63 (last sold as Stack’s Bowers 2/2013: 2168 which brought $34,075; it sold earlier for $40,250 as Heritage 9/2008: 3716). PCGS has graded two in MS62 and one in MS62+.
1866 $5.00 PCGS MS62 CAC. Images courtesy Douglas Winter Numismatics (DWN)
A total of 30 Proofs were struck. There are likely not more than 10 to 12 known, including one in the Smithsonian and another in the ANS collection. This is a very rare coin with but one auction appearance since 2010. Surprisingly, there are at least two or possibly even three really nice pieces known, including a PCGS/CAC PR66 DCAM that sold for $123,375 in June 2016. The all-time record price for this date is the Byron Reed: 140 coin, which brought a remarkable $209,000 back in October 1996.
The 1867 is a scarcer coin than the 1866 despite having a slightly higher mintage of 6,870. I estimate that there are around 80 to 90 known, with EF45 to AU53 being the grade range in which this issue is most often seen. Properly graded AU55 to AU58s are very rare and this date is extremely rare in Uncirculated with just two or three known to me. The single-finest business strike 1867 half eagle I am aware of is a PCGS MS61 (also graded MS62 by NGC), which I sold to a collector for $30,000 a few years back. PCGS has graded a single coin MS62 but I haven’t seen it.
There are but a handful of 1867 half eagles which I would describe as “original” as most have been cleaned or at least lightened. This date has fairly good luster that is typically frosty in texture and the natural coloration is a rich orange-gold. It is virtually impossible to locate an 1867 half eagle that is not liberally abraded and I regard this date as being highly undervalued in all grades. The current PCGS Price Guide for an AU55 is $6,000, which seems like great value for such a rare coin.
1867 $5.00 PCGS PR64 DCAM
There were 50 Proofs struck but a number of these were likely unsold and melted. There appear to be no more than 10 different pieces known, of which three or four are Gems. The single finest is a PCGS PR66CAM, ex Amon Carter, which last sold for $74,750 in December 2009; it is clearly a six-figure coin today. Other than an NGC/CAC Gold PR61 that recently sold, I am not aware of a Proof 1867 half eagle coming up for sale since the summer of 2014.
The 1868 is a scarce coin in all grades with a mintage of 5,700 business strikes. I think it is a touch scarcer than the 1866 and a touch more available than the 1867. There are around 100 known in total with most in the EF40 to AU53 range. Nicer AU coins—i.e., in the AU55 to AU58 range—are more plentiful than the 1866 and the 1867, but Uncirculated pieces are extremely rare with no more than three or four currently known. There are two graded MS62 by PCGS but one of these is clearly finer; it brought $26,400 as Stack’s Bowers 2018 ANA: 1273.
This is a well-made issue but it is one that is characterized by excessive abrasions which tend to impair the luster. Many have been cleaned or lightened and examples with natural color—most often a rich reddish-gold—are very rare. The luster is very frosty and it ranks as among the nicest of the dates from the early years of this type. The 1868 is another rare half eagle that is clearly undervalued. The current PCGS Price Guide is just $4,750 in AU55, and if you can find a nice coin at anywhere near that level, you are getting a lot of bang for your buck.
1868 $5.00 PCGS MS61
The mintage figure for Proofs this year shrank to just 25, and the 1868 half eagle is extremely rare in this format with fewer than 10 known. Only one Proof has sold at auction since June 2008, and it was an NGC PR62. I have handled but a single Proof 1868 half eagle and that was well over a decade ago. There are many truly rare Proof half eagles in the 1866-1877 date run, but the 1868 may well be the most unheralded.
By virtue of its tiny mintage of 1,760 business strikes, the 1869 is among the rarest With Motto half eagles from any mint. There are an estimated 55 to 65 known. This issue seems to not have circulated as much as the 1866-1868 half eagles and it is typically found in low-end AU grades. Virtually every 1869 half eagle I have seen has surfaces that are devastated by deep marks and these are accentuated by the semi-prooflike texture seen on nearly every piece. There are just a few known with natural color and this tends to be a medium reddish-gold.
1869 $5.00 PCGS AU58 CAC
There is one exceptional 1869 half eagle known. It has been graded MS64 by both NGC and PCGS and it first surfaced in the October 1999 Bass sale where it brought $33,350. I have handled just one nice 1869 half eagle: a PCGS/CAC AU58 that I sold two years ago. The 1869 remains a true appearance rarity and while it is more expensive than the 1867 or the 1868, it is probably a better overall value given its low mintage and its lack of nice pieces available to collectors.
1869 $5.00 PCGS PR64CAM CAC
The mintage figure was, again, just 25 Proofs but the 1869 seems to be a bit more available than the 1866-1868 issues. I believe there are around 12-13 known with a number either impaired or showing enough hairlines (from mishandling) to grade PR63 or PR64. For some reason, examples are almost never seen with strong contrast and I’m not certain that I have ever seen a Proof 1869 half eagle which was a Deep Cameo.
Mintages for business strike half eagles from Philadelphia remained very small in 1870 with a total of 4,000 struck. The 1870 closely mirrors the 1867 in terms of overall rarity with around 70-80 known in all grades. The 1870 is a bit more available in AU grades than the 1867 or the 1869, but it is very scarce in properly graded AU55 and rare in AU58. I am aware of just a single coin that I would regard as Uncirculated, a PCGS MS61 that sold for $14,375 in the Bass II auction (Bowers and Merena, 10/1999). This date comes with frosty luster although some are seen with semi-reflective surfaces.
1870 $5.00 PCGS AU58 CAC
Most examples are heavily abraded while the natural color is a rich reddish-gold and medium orange. The strike is usually very sharp but eye appeal is a problem with this date and there are not more than a tiny handful known that are choice and original. CAC has approved just four in AU (one in each grade) plus a single coin in MS61. This is yet another date – which I feel is highly undervalued as it possible to locate a presentable AU50 to AU53 for around $3,000.
35 Proofs were struck. It is likely that some of these went unsold and were melted, and today there are not more than 10-12 known. The single finest graded is an NGC PR66 CAM, which last sold in 2011. The last example to sell was the Trompeter coin, graded PR64 by NGC, which realized $58,750.
Here is yet another overlooked low-mintage half eagle with 3,200 pieces made for circulation. I regard this date as being similar in overall rarity to the 1867 and 1868, but not as difficult to locate as the tough 1869. Around 75 to 85 exist, with most in the EF45 to AU53 range. Properly graded AU55s are very scarce while a nice AU58 is truly rare.
I have seen just one 1871 half eagle that I think is legitimately Uncirculated: a PCGS MS61 that recently sold for $22,585; the others I’ve seen graded MS60 or MS61 are sliders, in my opinion. This date tends to come well-struck with semi-prooflike luster. Most are heavily abraded and most have been cleaned and/or lightened. A few reasonably nice pieces have come from European sources but these tend to grade AU50 or so. This is an exceptionally challenging coin to find with above-average eye appeal, yet an AU55 has a current PCGS Price Guide value of just $5,250. EF45s are listed at $2,500. At that level, I’ll buy every piece I can find in a PCGS holder!
1871 $5.00 PCGS PR65CAM CAC
30 Proofs were struck and this is among the rarest dates of this design with as few as 10 known, including examples in the Smithsonian and at the ANS. The only Gem I am aware of is the Garrett-Bass coin graded PR65CAM by PCGS; this sold for $70,500 in September 2014. This issue is never seen with strong contrast between the devices and the fields and, thus, no Deep Cameo pieces seem to exist. The rarity of Proof 1871 half eagles is best expressed by the fact that since the beginning of 2008 just two separate coins have sold: the aforementioned Garrett-Bass coin, and an impaired NGC PR53 that still managed to bring $11,750 in April 2018.
This is a curious issue as it is clearly one of the rarest dates in this run by virtue of its absurdly low mintage of 1,660 business strikes, but it is more available in Uncirculated than the 1867-1871 dates with five or six known. This includes an MS63, an MS63+, and two MS64s graded by PCGS. Given the fact that other high-grade rare low-mintage 1872 gold denominations (namely the quarter eagle and eagle, as well as the higher-mintage double eagle) exist in greater amounts than they should, I am guessing that there was a small hoard of these at one time. In all, I estimate that there are 55 to 65 known.
This date usually shows weakness on the hair curls under IBER in LIBERTY and on the corresponding reverse. The luster is a blend of frost and prooflike reflectiveness while the natural color is a rich orange-gold. With some patience, you should be able to procure a decent AU example of this date for $4,000-6,000 which I think is excellent value.
1872 $5.00 PCGS PR63CAM CAC
30 Proofs were struck and this is an extremely rare issue in this format with likely no more than nine to 11 known in total. Since the May 2008 sale of a Gem PCGS PR65 for $63,250, only two pieces have traded at auction: an impaired NGC PR55 and a PCGS/CAC PR63 CAM. That coin was from the Trompeter Collection (arguably the finest set of Proof gold assembled in the post-1960 era), and it is interesting that PR63 was the best grade he was able to find despite years of searching and unlimited resources.
1873 Open 3
Demand for half eagles increased dramatically in 1873 with a total of 112,505 pieces struck for circulation. Two varieties exist: the Open 3 and the Closed 3. The Open 3 had a slightly higher number made (63,200 vs. 49,305 for the Closed 3) but it appears to be similar in overall rarity to its counterpart. The 1873 Open 3 is common in circulated grades and fairly easy to locate through MS62. It is slightly scarce in MS63, very scarce in MS64, and very rare in Gem with just three graded MS65 at PCGS with none finer. This issue is well made and has excellent luster with a satiny texture. The natural color is a rich yellow-gold and it is still possible to locate an example that hasn’t been dipped or messed with. Most show abrasions but this issue doesn’t usually come as heavily abraded as the 1866-1872 issues.
1873 OPEN 3 $5.00 PCGS MS63 CAC, Fairmont Collection
No Proofs or Specimen strikes exist for this variety. All Proof 1873 half eagles are Closed 3; see below for more information.
1873 Closed 3
On the Closed 3 coins, the 3 actually resembles an 8 at first glance. This variety is very similar in overall and high-grade rarity to the 1873 Open 3. It is very slightly more available in MS63 and MS64 grades but it is very rare in Gem. PCGS has graded just two in MS65 and one in MS66 with none finer. The luster on this issue tends to be a bit less flashy than on the 1873 Open 3, but it still rates as better than average for a half eagle from this era. The strike tends to be sharp with strong centers and borders. Most pieces are abraded but with patience, the collector should be able to locate a nice MS63 or even an MS64.
1873 CLOSED 3 $5.00 NGC MS63 CAC
Just 25 Proofs were struck and despite a few more auction appearances than for some of the earlier Reconstruction Era dates, this is a very rare issue with 11 to 13 known in total. This includes at least two that are impaired and another two which are impounded in museum collections. The nicest piece to be offered in the last decade is the Garrett coin, obtained directly from the US Mint in the year of issue, which brought $82,250 in January 2015. It is graded PR65 Ultra Cameo by NGC.
Mintages were back to their usual small numbers for Philadelphia half eagles in 1874 as just 3,488 were made for circulation. This date is slightly more available than its low mintage would suggest but it is still a scarce issue with around 90 to 100 known. It appears that the 1874 half eagle didn’t see much circulation and only a few are known in graders lower than EF45. Lower-end AU coins are scarce and very undervalued, while this date becomes very scarce (and remains undervalued) in AU55 and AU58. Uncirculated coins are rare although less so than the 1866-1872 issues.
1874 $5.00 PCGS MS62 CAC
There are around six or seven currently accounted for with two in PCGS MS63, and a single coin graded MS64 that sold for $22,000 back in 1989. Every 1874 half eagle I have seen is prooflike and the surfaces tend to be very heavily abraded. The strike is sharp and the natural color is medium to deep yellow-gold with green-gold undertones.
20 Proofs were struck and this is among the rarest With Motto half eagles to find in this format. None have sold at auction since 2011 and it is unlikely that more than eight or nine exist. In January 2006 an NGC PR66 sold for $126,500 (the same coin, graded PR65 by PCGS, had realized $41,400 in late 2000) which remains a record for a Proof half eagle dated 1874. I have never personally owned a Proof 1874 half eagle and this remains an unheralded but truly rare coin.
There is a long list of superlatives for this date. With a mintage of 200 business strikes, it has the lowest production for circulation of any Liberty Head half eagle; only the 1875 eagle from Philadelphia has a lower mintage (100 coins). It is by far the rarest Liberty Head half eagle from Philadelphia, and it is the second rarest date in the series after the 1854-S. And it is the third rarest regular issue Liberty Head gold coin of any denomination from the Philadelphia mint after the 1861 Paquet double eagle and the 1875 eagle. There are eight examples known in total with nothing finer than a PCGS AU58 (which began its long, gradeflated life as an NGC EF45!), and one other coin grading AU55, from PCGS. My personal favorite example is the PCGS/CAC AU53 sold by dealer Harry Laibstain around five years ago. Since that piece sold, only one other has been available at auction: an NGC AU50 which sold for $132,000 in 2020 and just a few months earlier brought $120,000 as a no-grade from this service. As six of the eight pieces are currently traced grade AU50 or finer, it is likely that this issue saw limited circulation.
1875 $5.00 PCGS AU58, courtesy PCGS Coinfacts
All of the known examples are Prooflike and all but one (the PCGS/CAC AU53 mentioned above) has negative eye appeal from excessive marks. In addition, at least half of these have been cleaned or lightened. Despite the fact that the 1875 half eagle is a six-figure coin, in my opinion, it is extremely undervalued. As a comparison, the 1870-S has around the same number known as the 1875 half eagle but because it is a silver dollar (and more popular), it brings $400,000 to $500,000 in EF grades. It is interesting to note that the 1870-S silver dollar was a six-figure coin as far back as 1988 when the Norweb coin (now graded PCGS AU58 but called “AU50” in the sale by Bowers and Merena) sold for a then-record-setting $126,500. At that point in time, the 1875 half eagle was a $35,000 to $40,000 item at most. If the Liberty Head half eagles were collected more by date, the 1875 would easily be a $500,000 coin.
Proofs of this date are very rare as just 20 were struck. They command a hefty premium over the other Proofs of this era due to the extreme rarity of the business strike half eagles dated 1875. It is doubtful that more than eight or nine exist, with at least two impounded in museums. There are but three auction records for Proof 1875 half eagles since 2005 and the most recent was in September 2014 when an NGC PR64CAM brought a strong $141,000. It is interesting to note that the 1874 is every bit as rare as the 1875 yet a PR64 is “only” a $45,000 to $50,000+ coin.
The 1876 is similar in overall and high-grade rarity to the 1872. It has a low mintage of 1,432, of which 50-60 are known. However, as many as six or seven exist in Uncirculated, and this includes at least two or three in MS64 and one or two in MS65. This abnormally high percentage of very high grades is a good indication that a small hoard of high grade 1876 half eagles once existed. This is made even more likely by the fact that these choice 1876 half eagles have a similar appearance. All have great luster with a very frosty texture and rich golden-orange and reddish coloration.
1876 $5.00 PCGS MS63
This date is typically seen with notable weakness on the curls beneath IBERT in LIBERTY and on the corresponding reverse. I have never seen an 1872 half eagle that graded lower than AU50, and only a small handful lower than AU55. Circulated pieces are typically dipped but they don’t show the excessive abrasions common to the other low mintage issues of this era.
Due to anticipated popularity as a result of the Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia in 1876, Proofs soared to 45 and there are as many as 20-25 known. However, this is still a rare coin and just one has sold at auction since early 2015: a PCGS/CAC PR64CAM which I purchased for $44,400 in August 2020. Gems are extremely rare, and PCGS has graded just one coin in PR65 CAM with none finer.
With the exception of the double eagle, all gold denominations made in 1877 at Philadelphia had very limited mintages. Only 1,132 half eagles were struck. This date is actually somewhat more available than its tiny mintage would suggest, and I estimate that around 60 to 70 exist, mostly in EF45 to AU53 grades. The 1877 half eagle is scarce in properly graded AU55 to AU58, and it is very rare in Uncirculated with around four or five known; the best I have seen is a single PCGS MS62. This date is always found fully prooflike but it is easy to distinguish between real proofs and PL business strikes. In addition, the 1877 half eagle is often seen with numerous deep, detracting abrasions. A nice AU example should be available for around $5,000 which represents good value although not as much so as from some of the earlier dates discussed above.
1877 $5.00 PCGS EF45
20 Proofs were struck and, to no one’s surprise, they are very rare with no more than eight to 10 known. They tend to come a little nicer than some of the earlier Proofs from this era and are well-made, with good contrast and deep mirrors. The most recent sale was at the 2017 ANA sale where Heritage sold a PCGS PR65CAM for $76,375, a record auction price for a Proof 1877 half eagle.
These 13 coins form one of the more interesting subsets in the entire Liberty Head half eagle series. It would be impossible to complete this set in Uncirculated, but it would be possible to form a set of AU coins; even more so if the 1875 is eliminated.
The following two charts should be useful for collectors who want to get a quick overview of this subset.
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About Doug Winter
Doug has spent much of his life in the field of numismatics; beginning collecting coins at the age of seven, and by the time he was 10 years old, buying and selling coins at conventions in the New York City area.
In 1989, he founded Douglas Winter Numismatics, and his firm specializes in buying and selling choice and rare US Gold coins, especially US gold coins and all branch mint material.
Recognized as one of the leading specialized numismatic firms, Doug is an award-winning author of over a dozen numismatic books and the recognized expert on US Gold. His knowledge and an exceptional eye for properly graded and original coins have made him one of the most respected figures in the numismatic community and a sought-after dealer by collectors and investors looking for professional personalized service, a select inventory of impeccable quality, and fair and honest pricing. Doug is also a major buyer of all US coins and is always looking to purchase collections both large and small. He can be reached at (214) 675-9897.
Doug has been a contributor to the Guidebook of United States Coins (also known as the “Redbook”) since 1983, Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Coins, Q. David Bowers’ Encyclopedia of United States Silver Dollars and Andrew Pollock’s United States Pattern and Related Issues
In addition, he has authored 13 books on US Gold coins including:
- Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint: 1839-1909
- Gold Coins of the Carson City Mint: 1870 – 1893
- Gold Coins of the Charlotte Mint: 1838-1861
- Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint 1838-1861
- The United States $3 Gold Pieces 1854-1889
- Carson City Gold Coinage 1870-1893: A Rarity and Condition Census Update
- An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Type One Double Eagles
- The Connoisseur’s Guide to United States Gold Coins
- A Collector’s Guide To Indian Head Quarter Eagles
- The Acadiana Collection of New Orleans Coinage
- Type Three Double Eagles, 1877-1907: A Numismatic History and Analysis
- Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint, 1838-1861: A Numismatic History and Analysis
- Type Two Double Eagles, 1866-1876: A Numismatic History and Analysis
Finally, Doug is a member of virtually every major numismatic organization, professional trade group and major coin association in the US.