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Half Eagles

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #403

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds …..
 

Liberty Head half eagles (U.S. $5 gold coins) were minted from 1839 to 1908. These were struck in Philadelphia (PA), Charlotte (NC), Dahlonega (GA), New Orleans (LA), San Francisco (CA), Carson City (NV), and Denver (CO). So, a set of Liberty Head half eagles from all mints requires seven coins!

Before 1942, Philadelphia Mint coins never had mintmarks. On Liberty Head half eagles struck at the other mints, the respective mintmark is located near the bottom of the reverse, below the eagle motif and above the letters of the denomination, “FIVE D.”. Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles of 1839 are exceptions to this rule. For 1839-C and 1839-D half eagles, the mintmark is on the obverse below Miss Liberty and above the numerals of the year.

A Facility That Strikes Coins Is a Mint

For purposes of this discussion, a United States Treasury Department entity that officially and legally struck U.S. coins is or was a U.S. Mint. In terms of the law, there are technical concepts relating to Branch Mints, U.S. Assay Offices, and U.S. Mint subsidiaries that are the beside the theme here. A facility that legally strikes coins that did circulate as money – or easily could have circulated as money shortly after being struck – is or was a mint, regardless of legal or bureaucratic technicalities.

Although the West Point, New York, Treasury Department facility did not have the official status of a branch mint until March 31, 1988, it was earlier a U.S. Mint in actuality. “From 1973 to 1986, West Point produced [Lincoln] pennies to reduce production pressure on the other United States Mint facilities,” according to the official U.S. Mint web site, which also reveals that Bicentennial quarters were struck there in 1976. Millions of Washington quarters, without mintmarks, were struck at West Point from 1976 to 1979. Many other coins were struck at West Point, some with a ‘W’ mintmark, during the years that followed.

The San Francisco Mint starting minting coins in 1854 and continues to do so today, though now primarily Proofs and commemoratives. From 1962 to 1988, the San Francisco facility had the legal status of an “Assay Office” rather than of a ‘mint’, even though it was minting U.S. coins from 1968 onwards (including Lincoln cents for circulation from 1968 to 1974 and later). So, the San Francisco facility clearly was a functioning U.S. Mint during a time period wherein it did not have the legal status of a “mint”.

Although the official terms relating to mints in the U.S. have always been confusing, the topic of mints and mintmarks became more complicated during the second half of the 20th century. U.S. coins without mintmarks were struck at several locations, not just in Philadelphia. During the 19th century and the early 20th century, U.S. coins that were not struck in Philadelphia almost always had mintmarks, which clearly referred to mint locations.

A unique and interesting aspect of Liberty Head half eagles is that these were struck at all U.S. Mints that produced classic U.S. coins (1793 to 1934). The ‘No Motto’ type dates from 1839 to 1866, and the ‘With Motto’ type dates from 1866 to 1908. The motto ‘In God We Trust’ was added to the reverse in 1866.

From 1793 to 1837, all U.S. coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. In 1838, coin production began at U.S. Mints in New Orleans (LA), Charlotte (NC) and Dahlonega (GA). No copper coins were struck at these three mints. Indeed, copper or ‘bronze’ U.S. coins were all minted in Philadelphia until the San Francisco Mint began striking Indian cents… in 1908! U.S. coins with nickel content were all struck in Philadelphia until Liberty Head nickels were produced at the Denver and San Francisco Mints in 1912!

The Charlotte and Dahlonega Mints struck gold coins only. As I have discussed before, the Southern Gold Rush is often overshadowed by the California Gold Rush when students study history. During the late 1830s and into the ’40s, it was very sensible to manufacture gold coins in the South rather than ship bullion or raw gold nuggets from southern states to Philadelphia.

The San Francisco Mint did not begin minting coins until 1854, though the official U.S. Assay Office in San Francisco had begun minting gold coins a few years earlier. The New Orleans and San Francisco Mints struck nearly all denominations of silver and gold coins.

Twenty Cent pieces were never produced in New Orleans, as the New Orleans Mint was not operational during the short time in 1875 and 1876 that Twenty Cent pieces were made for circulation. Three Cent Silvers were never produced in San Francisco or in Carson City, Nevada.

While Liberty Seated half dimes, dimes, quarters, half dollars and silver dollars were all struck at the New Orleans Mint, some of the respective types within these series were never manufactured there. ‘With Motto’ silver dollars, 1866 to 1873, were not struck in New Orleans. The ‘With Arrows’ type dimes, quarters and halves of 1873 and 1874 were not struck at the New Orleans Mint, which did not produce coins from 1862 to 1878.

This mint fell into disrepair during the U.S. Civil War and was not refurbished until the 1870s. After 1857, quarter eagles were never again struck at the New Orleans Mint. ‘With Motto’ half eagles were struck there during the early 1890s and Indian Head half eagles were struck in New Orleans in 1909.

It is noteworthy that ‘With Motto’ Liberty Seated half dollars were not produced in New Orleans. In 1891, Liberty Seated dimes and quarters were produced there.

Quarter eagles were not struck at the Carson City Mint, which lasted from 1870 to 1893. Further, Liberty head quarter eagles were not struck at the Denver Mint, which began minting coins in 1906 and continues to operate in the present. Eagles and double eagles ($20 coins) were not struck at the Charlotte or Dahlonega Mints.

“The South had a more rural economy and the larger denominations were not especially needed,” remarks R. W. Julian in response to my inquiry. “Also, the amount of gold bullion available to the Charlotte and Dahlonega mints was limited and the coinage of large values would have meant a smaller number of coins being made.”

It is fascinating that all mints struck Liberty Head half eagles. As Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco Mint coins were made of both the ‘No Motto’ and With Motto’ types, a set by design type that features coins of all mints need include just 10 coins, which need not be very expensive.

Philadelphia Mint

An uncirculated Liberty Head half eagle contains a little less than a quarter of a Troy ounce of gold, 0.2384 ounce. When the market price for gold as a metal is $1,350 per Troy ounce, an uncirculated Liberty Head half eagle contains about $322 worth of gold bullion. It is very likely that an appealing, Philadelphia Mint ‘No Motto’ five in Extremely Fine-40 grade could now be found for less than $425!

On January 14, 2018, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded AU-55 1853 half eagle for $492. On January 8, 2018, an NGC-graded AU-58 1853 brought $528. Back on October 1, 2017, a PCGS-graded VF-35 1847 went for $384.

Among Philadelphia Mint, ‘With Motto’ half eagles, there are many very common dates. On January 16, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded MS-61 1883 for $360. Two days earlier, a PCGS-graded MS-61 1882 brought $384. I have not seen these coins and I am not commenting upon the grade assignments of any of the certified coins mentioned in this discussion. Nevertheless, there is not much downside risk in acquiring a popular, 19th-century gold coin for little more than the value of the coin’s bullion content.

A buyer who is particularly concerned about certified grades may wish to pay premiums for coins that have been approved by Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC).

In the same previously cited January 16, 2018 event, a PCGS-graded MS-63 1883, with a CAC sticker, brought $630, and a PCGS-graded MS-63 1897 half eagle, with a CAC sticker, realized $480. Common date ‘With Motto’ Liberty Head half eagles are abundant, and it is practical for buyers to be very selective.

New Orleans

Both ‘No Motto’ and ‘With Motto’ half eagles were struck in New Orleans. In an August 2017 ANA event, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-45 1844-O for $517. In January 2018, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-35 1844-O, with a CAC sticker, for $630. These two coins really need to be seen in actuality to be compared fairly.

A collector on a tight budget might wish to note that, in February 2017, Stack’s-Bowers sold a non-gradable 1844-O in an NGC holder that fairly indicates it has the “details” of an Extremely Fine grade coin. This piece brought $376.

After 1857, half eagles were not again struck in New Orleans until 1892! There are 1859-O, 1860-O, 1879-O and 1880-O eagles ($10 coins).

The 1892-O is not as common as some market participants think it is and price guides tend to underestimate the value of it. An 1893-O is not hard to find and might be the best selection for a representative of a ‘With Motto’ O-Mint half eagle in a ‘mint location’ type set. An Extremely Fine grade 1893-O would probably sell for less than $500.

An NGC-graded MS-62, and CAC-approved, 1893-O realized $2,585 in June 2017. On January 8, 2018, Heritage auctioned an NGC-graded AU-55 1894-O for $570. Less than a month earlier, the same firm sold an NGC-graded AU-58 1894-O, with a CAC sticker, for $960.

Very Fine to Extremely Fine grade gold coins are suitable for collectors on a tight-budget. Both ‘No Motto’ and ‘With Motto’ O-Mint half eagles can be purchased for less than $900 in total.

San Francisco Mint

‘No Motto’ San Francisco half eagles are a little more expensive than some of their Philadelphia and New Orleans counterparts. For prices ranging from $600 to $1,500 each, VF-30 to AU-55 grade 1855-S, 1856-S or 1857-S half eagles may sometimes be acquired in the present market environment. I suggest relatively original coins, which tend to be a brownish and/or russet tinted tan color. In some cases, a relatively original ‘No Motto’ half eagle will be characterized by a mellow yellow hue.

In March 2017, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an NGC-graded EF-45 1855-S for $940 and a PCGS-graded AU-53 1856-S, with a CAC sticker, for $1,292.50. In February 2017, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded AU-50 1856-S for $940.

As for San Francisco Mint ‘With Motto’ half eagles, there are many common dates. A pleasing, relatively original, certified AU-55 grade coin could probably be found for around $400. Prices for these will fluctuate in the context of markets for generic gold coins.

Denver & Carson City

Liberty Head half eagles were minted in Denver during just two years, 1906 and 1907. Both dates are very common. Decent coins could be purchased for less than $385 each.

On January 16, 2018, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded MS-61 1906-D, with a CAC sticker, for $408. On January 8, 2018, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded MS-64 1907-D for $576.

The least expensive Carson City Mint half eagles are the 1891-CC and the 1892-CC. In August 2017, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-35 1891-CC for $763.75. On November 12, 2017, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded VF-20 1892-CC for $756.

Charlotte & Dahlonega

The most popular ‘No Motto’ half eagles were minted in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Dahlonega, Georgia. These mints closed in 1861.

Unfortunately, many of these have been dipped repeatedly, chemically cleaned or doctored. Collectors who can afford CAC-approved pieces should consider them, and beginners may wish to buy coins in PCGS Genuine or NGC Details holders, which are sometimes good values.

In March 2017, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an NGC-graded EF-40 1843-C for $2,115. In December 2017, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-45 1849-C for $2,280. In August 2016, Heritage auctioned an NGC-graded VF-35 1849-C for $1,527.50.

On January 8, 2018, Heritage sold an 1855-C in a PCGS Genuin’ holder with “VF Details” for $1,170. In December 2017, Heritage sold an 1845-D in a PCGS Genuine holder with the details of an EF-grade coin, for $1,140. Charlotte or Dahlonega Mint coins with certified numerical grades tend to cost more than $1,700.

Concluding Thoughts

It is not difficult to build a set of Liberty Head half eagles with all seven mints represented, and both ‘No Motto’ and ‘With Motto’ types. In terms of collections of classic U.S. gold coins, the costs of such a set are very modest. Just ten coins are needed. It would be exciting to acquire coins of one series from all seven mints.

It is best to start by pursuing Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mint coins. Next, finding an 1890-CC or an 1891-CC should be fairly easy. It would make sense to learn a little and pose questions to experts before buying Southern gold coins.

© 2017 Greg Reynolds

Insightful10@gmail.com
 


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1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for the fascinating article! Despite having been a collector for upwards of 4 decades I’m still learning new things about our coinage.

    One other bit of San Francisco trivia – that Mint also produced circulating “S” nickels from 1968 to 1970. In addition no nickels were struck in Philadelphia during those years making it the first period since WWII when no “plain” nickels were struck.

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