Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #369
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 was covered in Part Nine of this series. The ‘With Motto’ type dates from 1866 to 1908. Except for very few of the Philadelphia Mint and Carson City (Nevada) Mint dates in the 1870s, representatives of all dates can certainly be acquired for less than $5,000 USD each, many for less than $500 each.
All Liberty Head half eagles have the same (obverse) front design. In 1866, the motto “In God We Trust” was added to the reverse designs of quarters, half dollars, silver dollars, half eagles, eagles ($10 gold coins) and double eagles ($20 coins).
Carson City Mint half eagles, which date from 1870 to 1893, receive the most attention and publicity of any ‘With Motto’ Liberty Head half eagles. Partly because the 1875 is the rarest ‘With Motto’ Liberty Head half eagle, the Philadelphia Mint dates from the 1870s tend to command attention. The 1872 and the 1876 are extremely rare, and are emphasized in auction catalogues in addition to often being on the minds of collectors.
Philadelphia and San Francisco Mint issues from 1866 to 1869 are hardly ever discussed by collectors or researchers, though these are very rare.
Gradable coins of all dates from 1866 to 1869 are available for less than $5,000 each, usually for less than $3,000, and sometimes for less than $2,000!
What is Meant by Rarity?
In Part 10 of this series and in other articles, I discussed the concept of rarity being employed. Although my definitions are logically related to the Sheldon-Judd scale and a framework put forth by Edgar Adams and William Woodin in their U.S. pattern book (NY:ANS, 1913), my definitions were not copied from anyone else. I have consistently used my own definitions in hundreds of published articles. When referring to coins as rare or very rare, it is important to be consistent.
The terminology, including the Sheldon-Judd scale, that is typically used in relation to the rarity of patterns or die varieties should not be literally applied to classic U.S. coins in general. Also, it is important to distinguish absolute rarity from condition rarity.
For many coin issues, collectors will pay a large sum for a coin that is not rare in grades below a certain level and ultra rare in grades above that level. Condition rarities are beside the point of discussions of rare gold coins that cost less than $5,000 each.
A coin is absolutely rare if less than 500 exist in all grades, including coins that do not merit numerical grades. A total should also include all varieties of the same date, denomination and type. A coin is Very Rare if fewer than 250 are known, and Extremely Rare if there are fewer than 100. A coin is a Great Rarity if less than 25 are known to exist. Die varieties are a different topic.
I honestly believe that my definitions of rarity are reasonably consistent with the ways in which such terms have been used by collectors for generations. If other researchers disagree, then I hope that I will be informed of alternative definitions along with supporting logic. It is a concern of mine that some researchers and other coin enthusiasts employ the term ‘rare’ without communicating a definition of rarity.
Liberty Head half eagles from 1866 to 1869 are truly rare. Indeed, these are far rarer than most gold coin collectors realize, and are not particularly expensive.
“1866 to 1869 half eagles, without problems, are very infrequently sent to CAC. They are very hard to find generally, but there does not seem to be much demand for them now. There is a lot more collector interest in Carson City fives,” John Albanese of Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC) notes, in response to my inquiry.
It is not practical to build a set of Carson City Mint half eagles for less than $5,000 per coin. It would be frustrating to collect them with such a price limitation.
Besides, the years from 1866 to 1869 were important at the U.S. Mint and are particularly meaningful in the overall history of the United States. In addition to being emotionally painful for millions of U.S. citizens, the process of healing and re-unification after the American Civil War was characterized by controversial and path-breaking policies. Certainly, the role of the federal government in our society was forever changed.
Quality, Values and Strategy
Auction and ‘Internet-only’ sale results are mentioned here to provide an idea of the market levels for particular coins. Auction prices should not be taken too seriously, as many variables can affect auction outcomes. Moreover, I have not seen most of the coins that I am mentioning in this discussion. I am not recommending or advising against any of them.
Collectors are encouraged to learn a little bit about grading on their own, but don’t expect to become expert graders, who are rare enough themselves. Collectors should be prepared to take risks and to lose some money at times. Generally, the purchase of any valuable collectible or object of art involves a significant amount of risk.
Buying PCGS- or NGC-certified coins involves much less risk than buying other coins, but there is still risk. Doctored and otherwise problematic coins may be mistakenly graded, sometimes by even the best of graders. Furthermore, regarding pre-1880 gold coins, there are often differences of opinion among experts regarding which coins are non-gradable because of problems.
While some problems are obviously serious, other problems are subject to widely varying interpretations. A coin that was found to be non-gradable may later receive a numerical grade from the same service that made the earlier ruling.
Risks may be further reduced by acquiring CAC-approved coins. If a PCGS or NGC holder has a CAC sticker, experts at CAC determined that the coin inside the holder merits a grade that is at least in the middle of the range indicated by the already certified numerical grade. “Solid for the grade,” CAC experts say.
Unfortunately, though, there are only a small number of circulated, pre-1880 ‘With Motto’ half eagles that have been CAC-approved. For those dating from 1866 to 1869, only 51 half eagles in total have been CAC-approved. It is not practical for someone on a budget who is collecting ‘With Motto’ half eagles to buy only coins that have been CAC-approved. A majority of collectors of circulated, pre-1880 U.S. gold coins will acquire more than a few coins that failed to be CAC-approved.
Generally, pre-1880 gold coins will have notable technical imperfections and/or negative surface quality issues. A substantial percentage of them have been dipped in acidic solutions or cleaned with somewhat harmful chemicals. Deliberate additives and smoothing of fields are issues, too. It is best to think of originality on a spectrum, rather than in ‘all or nothing’ terms. While I suggest seeking coins that score highly in the category of originality, some collectors prefer brighter coins or focus upon coins without very noticeable contact marks.
Pre-1880, rare date, circulated Liberty Head half eagles tend to be cherished for their rarity, historical importance and place in the culture of coin collecting. They are usually not objects of interest to collectors who intensely focus on quality.
While there are sharp differences of opinion among experts regarding grading, surface quality and aesthetics, there are many ‘With Motto’ Liberty Head half eagles that are indisputably rare. In other words, for the dates that I identify as rarities in this discussion, it is not a matter of opinion that fewer than 500 of each are known, though the precise levels of rarity are subject to debate.
If it seems apparent that fewer than 175 coins of a specific date are known, it would usually be absurd to argue that more than 500 are known. Yes, it is theoretically possible that a hoard of pre-1880 half eagles could emerge, perhaps from the excavation of a shipwreck, but this is very unlikely.
Besides, most of the U.S. gold coins found in shipwrecks are eagles and double eagles. A large portion of those were ‘No Motto’ Liberty Head coins.
The 1866 Philadelphia Mint and San Francisco Mint coins are the first two issues of the ‘With Motto’ type. Philadelphia Mint coins dated before 1942 never have mint marks.
The 1866 is very rare and could be extremely rare. Indisputably, fewer than 160 are now known.
In September 2016, a PCGS-graded VF-30 1866 was auctioned by Heritage for $2,115. The firm GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded EF-40 1866 for $2,420 on December 6, 2015, and an NGC-graded AU-50 1866 for $3,039.50 on November 22, 2015.
Maybe 115 to 140 1866-S half eagles are known. Certainly, fewer than 80 are gradable.
On September 8, 2016, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-30 1866-S, in an old holder with a green label, for $2,585. In the same auction at a Long Beach Expo, a PCGS-graded EF-40 1866-S, in relatively newer holder, brought the exact same price.
The 1867 Philadelphia Mint half eagle is about of the same level of rarity as the 1866 San Francisco Mint half eagle, perhaps with more gradable pieces extant. Out of 115 to 140 in existence, probably more than 80 are gradable or borderline-gradable.
On September 9, 2016, Heritage auctioned an NGC-graded AU-55 1867 for $4,230 and an NGC-graded AU-53 1867 for $3,187.78. In November 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an NGC-graded EF-45 1867 for $1,840.
The PCGS CoinFacts estimate that only “75” 1867-S half eagles survive is too low. It is likely to be true that fewer than 90 different 1867-S half eagles have received numerical grades from PCGS or NGC. There are, however, quite a few non-gradable 1867-S half eagles extant. There probably exist more than 115 in total.
In June 2016, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-25 1867-S for $1,116.25. In November 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an NGC-graded VF-30 1867-S for $1,265. On April 26, 2015, GreatCollections sold an NGC-graded EF-40 1867-S for $1,387.79. In November 2013, however, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an EF-40 1867-S with a CAC sticker for $2,526.25, an amount which may incorporate quite a CAC premium. In June 2014, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-45 1867-S for $2,173.75.
There seem to be less than 100 1868 half eagles in existence. I have never once heard anyone talk about a business strike 1868 half eagle.
In August 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-45 1868 for $1,955. Heritage has auctioned at least three different, NGC-graded AU-50 1868 half eagles, for $2,115 in April 2014, for $2,232.50 in August 2014, and for $1,880 in October 2016.
The 1868-S is not as rare as the just mentioned coins. Even so, it is very rare, as there must be less than 250 in existence–probably fewer than 170!
In August 2016, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded VG-08 1868-S for $399.50, and a PCGS-graded AU-55 1868-S, with a CAC sticker, for $3,995. This same firm auctioned an NGC-graded AU-50 1868-S for $1,495 in August 2012, and an NGC-graded AU-53 coin for $1,645 in 2014. In June 2015, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded EF-45 1868-S for $1,032.90.
The 1869 is an extremely rare coin and is not discussed very often. Few people think of it as a classic rarity.
I hypothesize that 35 to 45 different 1869 half eagles have received numerical grades from PCGS and/or NGC. Another 15 to 25 probably exist. The PCGS CoinFacts estimate of “55” is fair, though there may very well be 60 to 65 around.
In August 2014, Heritage auctioned an NGC-graded EF-40 1869 for $2,266.58. Later, Heritage auctioned three different coins for $4,700 each: a PCGS-graded AU-50+ 1869 in January 2017, a PCGS-graded EF-45 1869 in September 2016, and an NGC-graded AU-53 1869 in February 2015.
The 1869-S is not one of the rarest ‘With Motto’ Liberty Head half eagles, though it is very rare. I tentatively estimate that around 115 different 1869-S fives have been numerically graded by PCGS or NGC, and another 35 to 50 survive, surely less than 170 in total.
Back in 2009, the Goldbergs auctioned a PCGS-graded Good-04 1869-S for $275. In September 2016, Heritage auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-35 1869-S for $1,527.50. In October 2015, GreatCollections sold an NGC-graded AU-50 1869-S for $1,997.85. In August 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an NGC-graded AU-53 1869-S for $3,220.
Many, very rare half eagles have recently sold for prices between $1,500 and $4,000. Rarities from the 1870s are a little more expensive, though representatives of most of those have sold for less than $5,000 each, too.
The 1870 Philadelphia Mint issue is very rare. In November 2013, an NGC-graded AU-53 1870 was auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers for $3,290. Very Fine to EF grade 1870 half eagles should cost less than $3,000 when available in the current market environment.
The 1870 San Francisco Mint issue is costlier than the 1870. VF to EF grade 1870-S fives, however, can certainly be found for well under $5,000.
The 1871 is very rare and is affordable. In August 2016, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an NGC-graded AU-58 1871 for $3,995. Over the past six years, several 1871 half eagles have been auctioned for prices in the range between $2,000 and $4,000.
A collector cannot count on obtaining an 1872 Philadelphia Mint five for less than $5,000. In contrast, it is easy to obtain an 1872-S for less than $5,000.
Neither the 1873 ‘Open 3’ nor the 1873 ‘Close 3’ are rarities. It is simple to buy these for modest prices.
Although the 1873-S is a rarity, it is not difficult to acquire an 1873-S for less than $5,000, even for less than $3,000. A PCGS- or NGC-graded AU-50 1874 would retail for much less than $5,000.
Though there could be more than 170 around, there are very likely to be less than 250 1874-S half eagles around. These are modestly valued. It is not difficult to buy a gradable 1874-S for less than $2,000, perhaps even for less than $1,000!
The 1875 is the key to the series and is extremely expensive. An 1875-CC could be found for less than $5,000. The 1875-S is probably very rare and is overshadowed by other rarities from the 1870s. For a collector who has patience, a relatively original and definitely gradable 1875-S may be purchased for less than $5,000, maybe for less than $3,000.
Though they can be found, it may take a long time to acquire 1876, 1876-CC, and 1876-S half eagles for less than $5,000 each, and the coins found may have problems. Finding an 1877 that is clearly gradable, in the opinions of most relevant experts, for less than $5,000 may be very difficult as well. There are quite a few non-gradable 1877 half eagles around,however, that have sold for less than $3,000 each.
After 1877, other than a few CC issues, Liberty Head half eagles are common. There are no challenges regarding circulated half eagles dating from 1878 to 1908.
While it may be time consuming to find circulated representatives of all the post-1877 dates, these are very inexpensive and fun to collect. Overall, a set of ‘With Motto’ Liberty Head half eagles, which is missing just a few dates, is a practical objective for collectors who have already determined that they can afford to collect gold coins.
© 2017 Greg Reynolds
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Recent Articles in the Gold Coins for Less than $5,000 Series:
Very Rare Liberty Head Quarter Eagles | ‘No Motto’ Liberty Head ($5 Gold) Half Eagles | Liberty Head Quarter Eagles from the 1840s | Classic Head Half Eagles ($5 gold pieces) | Three Dollar Gold Coins | ‘With Motto’ Liberty Eagles ($10 Gold Pieces) | ‘No Motto’ Liberty Eagles ($10 Gold Pieces) | 19th Century One Dollar Gold Pieces | Commemorative One Dollar Gold Pieces | Classic Head Quarter Eagles ($2½ Gold)
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