News and Analysis on scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #328
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds …..
Liberty Head half eagles (U.S. $5 gold coins) were minted from 1839 to 1908. The ‘No Motto’ type dates from 1839 to 1866. For less than $5,000 USD per coin, a collector may build a nearly complete set of all ‘No Motto’ Liberty Head half eagles. Gradable representatives of most very rare dates are available for $1,000 to $2,500 each.
“Many Philadelphia and New Orleans Mint ‘No Motto’ fives in XF and AU are under $1,000. Some can even be bought at a slight premium over bullion. These are good values for the patient collector,” in the view of John Albanese. John is the leading expert in U.S. gold coins.
Brian Boosi is an advanced collector who is serious about studying rare gold coins, including ‘No Motto’ half eagles. As his public writing and insights are impressive, he was invited to contribute to this discussion.
Brian “really didn’t collect coins as a kid but always collected something, cards, comics, etc. I came into coin collecting after a co-worker showed me an Oregon commemorative half dollar. I started collecting commems. But, after a visit to Dahlonega, Georgia, while visiting my mom in Atlanta, I bought a Dahlonega half eagle and so began my collecting focus which has lasted to today. Until about three or four years ago, $5,000 was about the max outlay I could afford for a coin, which is what drew me to ‘No Motto’ half eagles,” Boosi reveals.
What Are ‘No Motto’ Half Eagles?
Regular, United States five dollar gold coins are called half eagles. These should not be confused with U.S. commemorative $5 gold pieces, which have been issued with various designs since 1986.
Half eagles were struck from 1795 to 1929, though not in every year along the way. Bust Right half eagles in the Pogue Collection were discussed last year.
Liberty Head half eagles are similar to the quarter eagles and eagles of the same time period. Liberty Head Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold coins) date from 1840 to 1907 and Liberty Head Eagles ($10 gold coins) were minted from 1838 to 1907. Liberty Head Double Eagles ($20 coins), which were struck from 1850 to 1907, are really of a much different design.
An earlier piece in this series on ‘rare’ gold coins for less than $5,000 each was about Classic Head half eagles, which date from 1834 to 1838. Last July, I wrote about collecting Indian Head half eagles for less than $500, not $5,000, each. It was then maintained that, of the 24 ‘dates’ (including U.S. Mint locations) in the series of Indian Head half eagles, representatives of 21 can probably be obtained for less than $500 each. Such a quest is an option for collectors who do not wish to spend the amounts required to collect ‘No Motto’ Liberty Head half eagles.
In 1866, a traditional motto, “In God We Trust”, was added to the reverse (back) design of quarters, half dollars, silver dollars, half eagles, eagles ($10 gold coins) and double eagles. This motto first appeared on a U.S. coin in 1864 when the Two Cent piece was introduced. (Words in blue may be clicked to access past references.)
‘No Motto’ half eagles were struck at five U.S. Mints, those in Philadelphia, Charlotte, Dahlonega, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Each mintmark is below the eagle on the reverse (back of the coin). The 1839-C and the 1839-D are exceptions as the mintmark is on the obverse, above the numerals. Before 1942, Philadelphia Mint coins never had mintmarks.
The Philadelphia Mint half eagles from the 1843 to 1857 tend to be relatively less scarce, though not common in absolute terms. A coin is rare if less than 500 are known, including survivors of all varieties. A coin is very rare if fewer than 250 are known and is extremely rare if less than 100 are around in the present. If fewer than 25 are known, then a coin may be a Great Rarity.
Yes, other researchers define rarity in narrower terms. It is important, however, to be consistent, realistic and inclusive. It would not make sense to define the term ‘rare’ in a manner such that only a very small number of collectors ever own a rare U.S. coin.
In the U.S., there are more than one hundred thousand people interested in the field that is generally called ‘rare coins’ and 500 is a small number in contrast to the many thousands that survive of almost all 20th century U.S. coin issues. The scarcest 20th-century half eagle is the 1909-O and more than four thousand of those are known. A coin is scarce if less than 5,000 are around and very scarce if fewer than 2,500 exist.
It is interesting that most ‘No Motto’ Liberty Head half eagles are truly rare, meaning fewer than 500 survive, and quite a few are extremely rare. “In the series of No Motto half eagles a collector is afforded the opportunity to acquire coins with under 100 examples extant, all at a budget of under $5,000 per coin,” declares Brian Boosi.
The 1839 is probably rare. Certainly, no more than 550 survive.
In October 2013, the firm GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AU-50 1839 for $1,201.20. In January 2015, the Goldbergs auctioned an NGC-graded EF-45 1839 for $852.
During February 2016, in the auction at the Winter Long Beach Expo, an 1839 that is PCGS-graded AU-58, and CAC-approved, sold for $4,700. In March 2016, Heritage auctioned an 1839 that is PCGS-graded EF-45, and CAC-approved, for $1,410.
The 1840 is not expensive. In January 2015, a PCGS-graded AU-53 1840, with a CAC sticker, was auctioned for less than $1,000.
The 1841 is a very rare coin. The PCGS CoinFacts estimate of “150” survivors seems fair, though could even be a little high. My guess is that around 105 different 1841 half eagles have been PCGS- or NGC-graded. Maybe another 30 failed to received numerical grades or were never submitted to PCGS or NGC.
With some patience, an Extremely Fine to AU grade 1841 could be acquired for less than $2,000, maybe even less than $1,000. There are, though, some coins that have received numerical grades yet have serious problems. It is important to be careful when acquiring rare, pre-1880 gold coins in general and 1841 half eagles in particular. It is a good idea to seek expert assistance before bidding in auctions.
The 1842 ‘Large Letters’ is even rarer than the 1841. Its extreme rarity notwithstanding, a significant number of PCGS- or NGC-graded 1842 ‘Large Letters’ half eagles have been auctioned over the last 10 years for amounts in the $1,000 to $3,000 range.
Though not as rare as the 1842 ‘Large Letters’ reverse, the 1842 ‘Small Letters’ half eagle is extremely rare, too, maybe seventy survive. Finding one for less than $3,000 would not be hard, though might require a year or two of waiting. For less than $5,000, there are more than a few from which to choose.
Boosi maintains that “1842 Large and Small Letters half eagles represent the best value in the series. No more than a few dozen coins exist in all grades” and these are clearly two of the five rarest issues “before the Civil War dates in the 1860s. A choice AU-50 to AU-53 is a great value,” Brian insists.
The PCGS CoinFacts survival estimate for the 1843, “350,” is too low. This coin is scarce, not rare, at least 575 are around. PCGS- or NGC-graded MS-60 to -61 1843 half eagles tend to sell auction for between $1,000 and $2,250, depending upon the physical characteristics of the individual coins and other factors. A relatively original, EF-40- to 45-grade coin, perhaps with a CAC sticker, could be bought for less than $560.
Acquiring Philadelphia Mint half eagles from 1844 to 1861 is easy. In most cases, PCGS- or NGC-graded, EF-40 to AU-50 grade coins may be purchased for less than $1,000.
The 1862 is extremely rare, 50 to 75 exist, perhaps closer to 50. Curiously, NGC reports just four in ‘details’ holders. Furthermore, the 1862 is a popular Civil War-era date. It would not be easy to find an 1862 for less than $5,000. Nevertheless, one probably could be found, perhaps a coin with serious problems.
In July 2013, Heritage auctioned an NGC-graded EF-40 1862 for $4,112.50. Over the last 10 years, almost all other 1862 half eagles realized much more than $5,000 at auction.
The 1863 business strike is even rarer than the 1862. Over the last 10 years, a few non-gradable 1863 half eagles have sold for less than $5,000 each. One could be found within five years, probably.
It is incorrect for PCGS CoinFacts to report that the 1862 and the 1864 are of equal rarity. The 1862 is significantly rarer. There are at least 85 1864 half eagles in existence, many of which are non-gradable.
It is true that Stack’s Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-40 1864 for $4,025 in November 2012. It is not clear, though, that this coin is truly gradable. Among other issues, the indentations about the ‘T’ in UNITED suggest that it should not have been graded. Awkward chatter about the eagle’s head and near ‘ER’ in ‘AMERICA’ should be closely inspected. Imperfections on Miss Liberty’s chin and jaw are a concern, too, as are lines above the numerals in the year.
Stack’s Bowers auctioned a different, PCGS-graded EF-40 1864 for $3,277.50 in March 2011. I never saw it.
In January 2013, Heritage auctioned an 1864 in a PCGS holder that indicated this coin has the ‘details’ an Extremely Fine grade. That 1864 half eagle sold for $1,997.50.
The 1865 is extremely rare, too, though is definitely obtainable for less than $5000. In February 2013, the Goldbergs auctioned a non-gradable piece for $1380, which is a reasonable amount for an extremely rare coin. There is an excellent chance that representatives of all Philadelphia Mint ‘No Motto’ half eagles may be acquired for less than $5,000 each.
New Orleans Mint
New Orleans Mint, ‘No Motto’ half eagles are often overshadowed by their Charlotte and Dahlonega counterparts. Given their rarity, these are not expensive.
All 1840-O half eagles are very rare, meaning fewer than 250 in existence in total. In August 2012, Stack’s Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-40 1840-O for $940. A PCGS- or NGC-certified AU-50 grade piece could be acquired for less than $2,000.
It is curious that the 2016 North American Coins & Prices guide (F&W Media, 2015) states that two 1841-O half eagles are known. I would sure like to see one. If it really is true that 50 were minted, as other references report, I am not aware of any surviving now.
There are maybe 75 1842-O half eagles in existence. In April 2013, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-40 1842-O for $3055. In November 2012, Stack’s Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-30 1842-O for $2,530. In August 2010, Spectrum-B&M auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-45 1842-O for $3,881.25.
Both major varieties of 1843-O half eagles could be bought for less than $3,000 each. An EF-45 to AU-53 grade 1844-O could be acquired for less than $1,000!
Although the 1845-O is very rare, certified, Extremely Fine 40- to 50-grade coins tend to cost from $1,000 to $3,000, depending upon the circumstances of the sale and the physical characteristics of the respective coin. The 1846-O is about equally rare, maybe 200 are around, though tends to be a little more expensive than the 1845-O.
The 1847-O is an extremely rare coin. Data published by PCGS and NGC almost certainly include numerous cases of multiple submissions of some of the same coins. These could be much rarer than published references suggest.
It is realistic to seek to obtain an 1847-O for less than $5,000. In August 2014, Heritage sold an ‘improperly cleaned’ 1847-O with “AU Details” in an NGC holder for $4,112.50. Earlier in 2014, another 1847-O with “AU Details” in an NGC holder brought $2,115. The NGC label says that the reverse was “scratched.”
In June 2013, Heritage auctioned an NGC-graded VF-25 1847-O, with a CAC sticker, for $4,406.25. Brian Boosi reports that “a choice VF-25 1847-O was just offered on a major dealer’s web site for roughly $5,000. PCGS, CAC and very fresh, clearly not the same coin Heritage auctioned in 2013,” Brian adds.
There are no 1848-O, 1849-O, 1850-O, 1852-O or 1853-O half eagles. It is easy to acquire a gradable 1851-O for a price between $1,500 and $3,000.
Curiously, the 1854-O is inexpensive. There seem to be fewer than 250 in existence. A PCGS- or NGC-graded AU-55 1854-O might sell for less than $2,000. In June 2013, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded EF-45 1854-O for $744.70.
A pleasing EF-40- or 45-grade 1855-O is likely to cost between $2,750 and $3,750. An AU grade 1855-O could certainly be obtained for less than $5,000. Boosi maintains that “the 1855-O is perhaps the biggest sleeper” among New Orleans Mint, ‘No Motto’ half eagles.
VF-35 to AU-50 grade 1856-O half eagles are much better values than higher grade pieces, which can easily cost more than $5,000. In November 2012, Stack’s Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-45 1856-O for $2,610.85. VF-35 to EF-45 grade 1857-O half eagles might cost from $1,500 to $3,000.
Oddly, the New Orleans Mint did not produce half eagles again until 1892! There are 1859-O, 1860-O, 1879-O and 1880-O eagles ($10 coins).
San Francisco Mint
The rarest Liberty Head half eagle is the 1854-S. Three exist, one in the Smithsonian, one in the Pogue Collection, and one that has been untraced since the 1960s. The Eliasberg-Pogue 1854-S will probably be auctioned this fall or next year.
For prices from $1,000 to $3,250, 1855-S, 1856-S and 1857-S half eagles are often available in Very Fine to AU grades. Last month, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded EF-45 1855-S for $1,425.28. In July 2014, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded AU-55 1855-S for $3,025. In February 2014, Stack’s Bowers sold a PCGS-graded AU-50 1856-S for $1,292.50.
The 1858-S, the 1859-S, and the 1860-S are each significantly rarer than the 1855-S, the 1856-S and the 1857-S. Even so, sub-55 grade coins could be found for less than $5,000 each.
The 1861-S and the 1862-S are rarer still. Waiting may be required to obtain these for less than $5,000 each and non-gradable coins should be considered.
While the 1863-S is in the same category of rarity as the 1861-S and the 1862-S, quite a few heavily circulated 1863-S half eagles survive. There is a good chance that a gradable 1863-S may be found for less than $5,000.
In August 2012, a PCGS-graded AG-03 1863-S was auctioned for $763.75. In January 2014, Heritage sold an NGC-graded VF-30 piece for $3,055.
There would be no point in attempting to acquire an 1864-S for less than $5,000. Fewer than 30 survive.
A VF-35 to EF-45 grade 1865-S could be purchased for less than $5,000, maybe even for less than $3,000. Some waiting may be necessary.
The 1866-S is the last of the ‘No Motto’ half eagles. A few dozen heavily circulated pieces survive, though it is not clear as to which should receive numerical grades. For less than $3,000, a buyer can acquire a relatively original and mildly pleasing 1866-S.
Charlotte & Dahlonega
The most popular ‘No Motto’ half eagles are those minted in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Dahlonega, Georgia. These have tremendous historical significance in regard to their connections to the Southern Gold Rush. Even so, a large portion of the survivors have serious problems and more than a few have been doctored.
As strike quality, technical characteristics, surface quality, level of originality and eye appeal vary so widely for these, it just not make sense to cite auction results without discussing the precise characteristics of the individual coins.
Other than the 1842-C ‘Small Date,’ representatives of all Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles from 1839 to 1860 may be obtained for less than $5,000 each. In some cases, coins in Fine to Very Fine grades, or non-gradable pieces, may be the only options.
Confederate forces captured and later shut down the Charlotte and Dahlonega Mints in 1861. Southern gold coins were struck in 1861 for just a matter of weeks.
A non-gradable 1861-C could be found for less than $5,000. In August 2014, an 1861-C in an NGC holder with “AU Details” brought $3,290 in a Heritage auction. On June 1, 2014, GreatCollections sold an 1861-C in a “PCGS Genuine” holder with the “details” of an “AU” grade coin. It brought $3,219.70. Also, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-30 1861-C in January 2009 for $3,450.
The 1861-D was the topic of a previous discussion. A collector should not count upon being able to acquire an 1861-D for less than $5,000. It is plausible, though, that a non-gradable piece with the details of a Very Fine or EF grade could sell for less than $5,000.
In sum, it seems that a set of ‘No Motto’ fives could be built while spending less than $5,000 per coin, usually less than $2,500. Only two to four dates would be missing. It is certain that an 1854-S must be excluded. It is likely that the 1842-C Small Date and the 1864-S must be as well.
I suggest that collectors be willing to pay premiums for coins that are relatively original and ignore coins that have been very much artificially brightened. In any event, a nearly complete set, even with a few sub-par coins, would be enjoyable to build and a really cool achievement.
©2016 Greg Reynolds
NGC-Certified Liberty Head Half Eagles Currently Available on eBay