By Doug Winter – RareGoldCoins.com ……
CoinWeek Content Partner
As a companion piece to the Sunnyvale Collection of Classic Head half eagles that they offered for sale in mid-October 2020, Douglas Winter Numismatics (DWN) creating a guide for assembling a set of these interesting coins.
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Classic Head half eagles were struck from 1834 through 1838. They form a bridge between the early gold issues (those struck from 1795 through 1834) and the ubiquitous Liberty Head issues, struck from 1839 through 1908.
A basic set of Classic Head half eagles contains eight coins: six issues from Philadelphia (the 1834 is found with a Plain 4 and a Crosslet 4), and one each from Charlotte and Dahlonega. None of these is rare from the standpoint of overall availability, but the two branch mint coins are very scarce in higher grades as is the 1834 Crosslet 4. As a rule, the Philadelphia coins (save for the Crosslet 4) can be located in all circulated grades with relative ease–although finding nice, original high-end About Uncirculated coins, even for the most common issues, can be a challenge.
1836 $5.00 PCGS MS64+. Images courtesy Douglas Winter Numismatics (DWN)
Many of the common Classic Head issues are not well-struck and this is a fault of a design that was difficult to fully bring up, especially at the central obverse. In my opinion, strike is an unimportant factor with these coins, and surface preservation is far more critical in determining if a coin should or should not be added to a collection.
As far as Uncirculated coins go, any Classic Head half eagle is scarce in properly graded MS63, rare in MS64, and extremely rare in MS65. It is likely that fewer than two dozen true Gems are known for the entire series and some dates (1834 Crosslet 4, 1835, 1838-C, and 1838-D) do not exist in MS65.
A Classic Head half eagle set can be completed due to its brevity and the availability of the coins. It can be done on a fairly reasonable budget, or on an essentially unlimited budget.
A common complaint made by collectors in the past was that there were no good, readily available reference works on the series. This was remedied in 2019 when Daryl Haynor published his excellent book, Classic Gold Coins of 1834-1839. I highly recommend it.
What follows are suggestions on how to collect this series.
As mentioned above, a complete set is just eight coins and none of these is rare or budget-busting.
The two key issues in the set are the 1838-C and the 1838-D. These are extremely popular standalone dates that are in strong demand due to their status as one-year types and as first-year issues.
1838-C $5.00 PCGS EF45 CAC
The 1838-C is the scarcer of the two. It is hard to find in any grade with original color and choice surfaces, and examples with good eye appeal typically sell for premiums as high as 50% over average quality pieces. This issue is scarce in Choice Extremely Fine, very scarce in About Uncirculated, and exceedingly rare in Uncirculated with just three or four extant.
1838-D $5.00 PCGS AU58 CAC, EX BASS
The 1838-D is easier to locate in nice circulated grades but it is still not an easy issue to locate. I’d say there are at least twice as many nice 1838-D half eagles as there are nice 1838-Cs, and the actual ratio may be more like three (or even four) to one.
1834 CLASSIC $5.00 CROSS 4
The Philadelphia issues are much easier to locate in circulated grades. The key issue in this subset is the 1834 Crosslet 4, which is fairly easy to find in grades through EF45 but is rare and underrated in AU grades and extremely rare in Uncirculated. The next scarcest date is the 1837, which, in my experience, is underrated and undervalued. The other four dates are much easier to obtain.
The collector on a limited budget should look for Fine to Very Fine examples of the 1838-C and 1838-D, a nice EF 1834 Crosslet 4 and AU55 or AU58 examples of the five Philadelphia issues. It is certainly possible to do this set with all coins having CAC approval although finding a nice, affordable 1838-C with a CAC sticker will be challenging.
If you have a big budget, I’d suggest nice AU examples of the 1838-C and 1838-D – maybe even an Uncirculated example of the latter if it comes available. The 1834 Crosslet 4 is an issue that might be available in Uncirculated (I know of around four or five that are Mint State by my standards; the two finest are a PCGS MS63 and an NGC MS64), but it is more likely to be located in the higher AU grades. The other five Philadelphia dates should be available in MS63 or even MS64.
If you enjoy collecting this series, you can expand the basic set by including significant varieties. In my opinion, such a set would include the following:
- 1834 Plain 4
- 1834 Crosslet 4
- 1835 Block 8
- 1835 Script 8
- 1836 Block 8
- 1836 Script 8 (extremely rare)
- 1837 Block 8
- 1837 Script 8
- 1838-C Perfect Die
- 1838-C Cracked Reverse
By Die Variety
There are a small group of collectors who specialize in Classic Head half eagles by die variety. This ultra-specialization is likely not for everyone, but for those who seek an interesting challenge, the following parameters should be noted:
- 1834: 9 varieties, with none especially rare
- 1835: 8 varieties, with four rare
- 1836: 9 varieties, with one rare and one extremely rare
- 1837: 3 varieties, all common
- 1838: 2 varieties, both common
- 1838-C: 2 varieties, both reasonably common
- 1838-D: 1 variety, common
There are a grand total of 34 varieties. Given the rarity of the 1836 Script 8, this set is extremely difficult to complete but it is not impossible.
The Haynor book is so easy to use and is so well-detailed that it takes the guesswork out of attributing Classic Head gold. It is still possible to cherrypick all but a handful of the half eagle varieties, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this specialization didn’t catch on, given the relatively low cost (for gold coins) of circulated examples.
A very small number of Proofs exist for 1834, 1835, 1836, and 1837 half eagles. A patient and undoubtedly wealthy collector could possibly assemble a partial set.
1834 $5.00 NGC PR63 CAM
The 1834 is the most “common” Classic Head half eagle in Proof with as many as nine or 10 known. This includes one in the King of Siam Proof Set; another is impounded in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian; and a third piece certified as a No Grade due to rim filing.
Only three Proof 1835 half eagles exist and one is impounded in the Smithsonian. The finest of the three–and the single best Proof Classic Head half eagle of any date–is the Farouk-Col. Green-Pittman coin graded PCGS PR67+DCAM, which brought $822,500 USD when it last sold in May 2016 in Part IV of the Pogue Collection.
Five Proofs dated 1836 are traced, with two of these impounded in museums. The finest is a superb PCGS PR67 DCAM, which realized $690,300 in a September 2013 Bonham’s auction.
A single Proof 1837 half eagle exists and it is impounded in the Smithsonian.
A single 1838 half eagle exists that has claims to Proof status but which I do not believe to be one, although it clearly has a “special” appearance. It sold for $164,500 in the same May 2016 auction of the Pogue Collection mentioned above.
As someone who has bought and sold hundreds and hundreds of Classic Head half eagles, here are some buying tips that I use when making decisions about these coins.
1837 $5.00 PCGS MS64
1. Remember that strike is not an important factor in determining the desirability of a specific Classic Head half eagle. Certain dates are found with weakness on the curls around the face of Liberty and this is not a detracting factor.
2. Even extremely common issues like the 1834 Plain 4 are becoming harder to locate with nice deep natural coloration and choice surfaces. On common dates, be patient and wait for a coin with outstanding eye appeal.
3. If you are looking for the best value grade for a Classic Head half eagle as a type coin, I would suggest AU58 for the collector on a limited budget and either MS62 or MS63 for the collector with more money to spend.
4. For collectors interested in assembling high grade sets of Classic Head half eagles, I would suggest that, in addition to buying the Haynor book, they purchase catalogs from the following sales: Pittman, Bass, and Pogue. These three collections contain numerous high-grade business strikes and Proofs and they are invaluable references.
5. The two most underappreciated dates in the series, in my opinion, are the 1834 Crosslet 4 and the 1837. If you are able to locate choice examples of either of these, don’t be afraid to pay a premium price as these are difficult to locate.
For more information on Classic Head half eagles or to begin a set of these coins, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (214) 675-9897.
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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.