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Battle of the 1838-C and 1838-D Classic Head Half Eagles

By Doug Winter

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The 1838-C and 1838-D Classic Head Half Eagle U.S. gold coins are famous issues for similar reasons. They are first-year-of-issue coins and they both feature mintmarks on the obverse. They are issues with multiple levels of demand, and they have shown strong upsurges in popularity and price in the last decade.

If you ask most casual collectors which of these two issues is the rarer or more desirable, I’m guessing most would select the 1838-D. Let’s look at the Tale of the Tape for each issue and then I will add some analysis.


1838-C Half Eagle Population Figures





G-VF 69 19 3
EF 49 46 3
AU 20 34 2
MS 1 4 0
Totals 139 103 8

Original mintage: 17,179


1838-D Half Eagle Population Figures





G-VF 51 11 6
EF 61 32 3
AU 77 76 9
MS 10 11 1
Totals 199 130 19

Original Mintage: 20,583

Based on the figures above, there are some interesting conclusions which we can make.

The first is that the average grade for the 1838-C skews towards the range below EF, and that this date becomes appreciably scarce in About Uncirculated. I doubt if there are more than 15 or so in AU grades with most in the AU50 to AU53 range. And if we limit this to choice, original coins–the sort that, in theory, should sticker at CAC–we may be talking no more than four or five coins known.

The average grade for the 1838-D is decidedly higher. Even assuming some resubmissions, the chart above suggests that typical 1838-D examples grades EF to AU. A look at recent auction data tends to support this, although it should be stressed that gradeflation has hit this date (and the 1838-C) hard, and that today’s AU50 1838-D is, in many cases, 2006’s EF45 1838-D.

Part of this skew towards low(er) grades for the 1838-C has to do with die preparation and engraving. The 1838-C Half Eagle is not a well made coin, and the reverse in particular is very “lightly” engraved, giving even coins with minimal wear the appearance of extensive circulation. The 1838-D is better made, with a reasonably good overall quality of strike and the sort of luster which wears better than its Charlotte Mint counterpart.

One of the more interesting things about the charts above is the CAC numbers. Only eight 1838-C half eagles have been approved by CAC, and only two of these grade AU with none (yet) in Uncirculated. (The finest known 1838-C, graded MS63 by PCGS and in the Pogue Collection, should almost certainly sticker at CAC if and when it is submitted). The number of 1838-D half eagles that have stickered at CAC is more than double, with a surprising nine in AU and a single piece in Uncirculated.

Given these figures, one would expect the 1838-C to be significantly higher priced, especially in higher grades. But this is not the case as the following chart shows:

PCGS Price Guide Figures




VF30 5750 4900
EF40 8500 7000
AU55 22500 19500
MS60 38000 27500

These figures are fairly accurate (for PCGS-graded coins) but are a bit low for Choice, original pieces with good eye appeal.

Why isn’t the 1838-C priced higher relative to the 1838-D? I think the answer is clearly that Dahlonega Half Eagles are more popular and more widely collected than Charlotte Half Eagles. In fact, I’d be surprised if the number of serious D-Mint half eagle collectors weren’t at least three times the number of serious Charlotte Mint half eagle collectors. This disparity explains at least some of why the 1838-D is priced at close to the level of the 1838-C, despite being much more readily available.

1838-C vs. 1838-D: Which Half Eagle Won?

My long-held contention that the 1838-C Half Eagle is a very scarce date in in properly graded Extremely Fine and a truly rare United States gold coin in About Uncirculated is clearly borne out by the TPG population figures. I would contend that this date is undervalued in higher grades, and it will be interesting to see what the finest known PCGS MS63 brings when it is sold in the Pogue IV auction in May 2016. Will a rising tide lift all boats?

The 1838-D half eagle is, in theory, an overvalued coin. Nevertheless, it is so popular that there are always willing buyers for nice examples. I’m beginning to think that higher-end AU examples might be overpriced. As an example, a PCGS AU58+ just sold for $32,900 as Lot 5069 in the March 2016 Heritage auction. At this price point, there seem to be other rarer, more interesting coins available.

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Doug Winter Numismatics, specialists in U.S. gold coins


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Doug Winter
Doug Winter
Doug Winter founded Douglas Winter Numismatics (DWN) in 1985. The nationally renowned firm specializes in buying and selling rare United States gold coins. He has written over a dozen books, including the standard references on Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans gold coinage, and Type 1 Liberty Head Double Eagles. Douglas has also contributed to the A Guidebook of United States Coins, 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. He is a member of the PNG, the ANA, the ANS, the NLG, CAC, PCGS, and NGC - among other professional affiliations. Contact Doug Winter at [email protected].

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