Why Does the 1861-C Half Eagle Get No Love?

When I first became interested in Southern branch mint gold coinage, the 1861-C and 1861-D half eagles were both highly regarded issues. The latter was always worth more than the former, but both were sought-after and regarded as key issues within their respective sets.

Fast forward 30 years and the scenario has changed. The 1861-D half eagle is now a revered multiple level of demand issue, sought after by Civil War specialists, Dahlonega collectors, and wealthy individuals who fancy cool coins with great back stories. The 1861-C half eagle has been relegated to also-ran status; appreciated by few collectors outside of the Charlotte half eagle specialist community.

I recently sold a nice PCGS/CAC AU55 1861-C half eagle and it made me think: why is the 1861-C less than one-third the price of the 1861-D in higher grades and why doesn’t the 1861-C have more of a fuss made over it?

1861-C $5.00 PCGS AU55 CAC

1861-C $5.00 PCGS AU55 CAC

Before I try to reach some conclusions, let’s look at some background for both issues, using PCGS populations and the PCGS Price Guide.

DW Comments: It is my belief that the PCGS figure of “54” 1861-C half eagles in AU is significantly inflated by resubmissions. The figure of 11 for 1861-D half eagles seems accurate.

DW Comments: It is my belief that the PCGS figure of “54” 1861-C half eagles in AU is significantly inflated by resubmissions. The figure of 11 for 1861-D half eagles seems accurate.

In my experience, the 1861-C is at least twice as common as the 1861-D, but its distribution of grades is different. The 1861-C is seen mostly in EF45 to AU53 grades and it is exceedingly rare in Uncirculated; I have only seen two or three which I felt were indisputably “new.” The 1861-D, on the other hand, is an issue was appears to have been saved. It is seen most often in AU grades but as many as 10-12 are known in Uncirculated; a sizable percentage given that fewer than 100 are known in total.

How have prices changed for these issues over the last two decades?

In 1999, an EF45 1861-C half eagle was worth in the area of $5,000. As an example, Heritage 2/99: 6302 sold for $4,370. Today, an EF45 example is worth in the $8,000-10,000 range. As an example, Heritage 1/15: 7092 sold for $9,684. It is safe to say that EF45’s have basically doubled in price in the last decade-and-a-half.

In 1999, an AU55 1861-C half eagle was worth around $10,000-11,000. As an example, Bass II: 1136 sold for $11,500 in October of that year. Today, an example is worth $12,000-16,000. I just sold a really nice PCGS/CAC AU55 for $15,000. The price performance for this date in AU55 has been underwhelming but this is mostly due to the quality of the coins available. Many of the AU55’s which I have seen are mediocre for the grade. This is confirmed by the fact that the current CAC population for AU55’s is just two.

It is a little harder to make a direct price comparison for the 1861-D half eagle. In 1999, an EF45 was worth around $15,000 and the most relevant auction trade, Bowers and Merena 5/98: 1347, sold for $16,450 in a PCGS 45 holder. (FYI, it would grade at least AU50 if not AU53 today). Today, if available, an EF45 would certainly fetch $37,500-40,000 if not more as evidenced by the Heritage 9/12: 4934 coin (graded EF40 by PCGS) which sold for $42,125. Clearly, EF45 1861-D half eagles have risen by a factor of close to 3x.

In October 1997, the nicest AU58 1861-D half eagle I have ever seen brought $26,400 in the Pittman I sale. I recently paid over $70,000 for this exact coin. A more “average” quality AU55 would have sold in the low-to-mid $20’s in 1999. Compare this to the $54,050 which a PCGS AU55 just realized as Heritage 1/16: 5589. In AU55, an 1861-D has appreciated by a factor of close to 3x since 1999.

Why have 1861-C half eagles been so clearly outperformed by the 1861-D? I would suggest that there is a list of reasons for this.

  1. The PCGS and NGC population figures for the 1861-C in About Uncirculated grades are way inflated due to resubmissions. This gives the unfair impression that the 1861-C is a fairly common coin. I can assure you that this is not the case, especially if eye appeal is regarded as a factor.
  2. Charlotte gold, on the whole, has lost much of its collector base in the last two decades while Dahlonega gold has become extremely popular. Today, my experience tells me that Dahlonega gold is more popular by a factor of three or four to one. I have a number of possible explanations for this, but will save them for another blog in the future.
  3. The fact that it is provable that certain 1861-D half eagles were made by the Confederacy is a huge “coolness” factor. I have sold 1861-D half eagles to collectors who have never bought another half eagle from this mint. If it could be proven that at least some of the 1861-C half eagles were made by the Confederacy, prices for the 1861-C would double overnight.
  4. Surprisingly, the 1861-D comes nicer in appearance than its Charlotte counterpart. I have handled some extremely nice AU’s and I’ve owned six different Uncirculated pieces, including two in MS63. I never owned an unquestionably Uncirculated 1861-C (although I’ve sold at least three graded MS61) and many of the AU’s I’ve owned have been decent but not as nice for the grade as comparable 1861-D half eagles. This, I feel, tends to hurt the value of the 1861-C more than any of the factors above, except for #3.

In conclusion, I think the 1861-C half eagle is an undervalued coin and the 1861-D is (gasp…) overvalued. That said, which date would I rather have three of in stock right now….hands down the 1861-D .

Do you aspire to own a choice, original 1861-C (or 1861-D) half eagle? Contact Doug Winter via email at dwn@ont.com to discuss acquiring one or any other Southern branch mint gold coin.