What Are the Three Rarest Carson City Half Eagles?

Of the three denominations of gold coins struck at the Carson City mint, perhaps the most popular to collect by date are the half eagles.

Of the 19 issues produced between 1870 and 1893, all are obtainable in reasonably high grades. But some of these are rarer than most collectors realize, and the Big Three are extremely challenging to obtain in higher grades. What are the three rarest Carson City half eagles and how do they compare in overall and high grade rarity?

The Three Rarest Carson City Half Eagles

Note how all three of these dates fit in a neat order as far as total known based on their original mintage figure. Generally speaking, a first-year-of-issue (the 1870-CC) will have a higher survival rate than other dates due to a number being saved as souvenirs, but this doesn’t appear to be the case with any of the 1870-CC gold denominations. All three of these rare half eagles have a survival rate of around 1%. Note as well that the figures given above for “total known” are based on my personal observations.

Now, let’s look at the three dates according to current (5/16) PCGS population figures.

Numbers graded at PCGS

These numbers are interesting as they show fewer graded for the 1878-CC than for the other two (and in my opinion rarer) dates. What gives?

First off, I think the number graded for all three dates is way inflated by resubmissions, especially for the 1870-CC in About Uncirculated and for the 1878-CC in About Uncirculated. In the last five years of specializing in rare date gold (and handling more of it than nearly any other dealer), I’ve owned just two 1870-CC half eagles in AU and above and exactly ZERO higher grade 1878-CC half eagles. My gut tells me that the figure of “22” AU 1878-CC half eagles graded by PCGS is particularly inflated.

Second, the answer to our original question turns out to have two parts: which of the three dates is the rarest overall and which is the rarest in high grades.

Third—and this is kind of a random observation—I find it interesting how all three of these dates show around 50% (or more) of the total number graded in VF and below. It is fascinating to note how the early date CC half eagles (especially those dated 1870 through 1875) were used extensively in circulation; a reflection of the economy in the western states versus the east coast or the southern states, where gold coins saw less extensive circulation due to the early acceptance of paper money in commercial transactions.

Let’s look at all three dates on an individual basis.

  1870-CC $5.00 PCGS G6

1870-CC $5.00 PCGS G6

1870-CC

This date has long been regarded as the rarest CC half eagle and it is still clearly the most avidly sought. It is the only one of the three rarest half eagles from this mint with multiple levels of demand and it is typically seen well-worn with nearly 60% of the “grading events” at PCGS occurring in the AG-VF range. There are fewer than a dozen known in higher grades (AU and Uncirculated) with nearly all of these off the market in tightly-held collections..

I regard the1870-CC as the second rarest of the Big Three both in terms of overall and high grade rarity.

  1873-CC $5.00 PCGS AU50

1873-CC $5.00 PCGS AU50

1873-CC

The PCGS population for this date is actually a bit higher than it is for the 1873-CC and 1878-CC, but I regard it as the single rarest Carson City half eagle, both in terms of overall and high grade rarity. A remarkable 67.90% of the “grading events” for this date have occurred in the AG-VF range and while I think this figure is high, it is clear to me that over one-half of the surviving 1873-CC half eagles are, in fact, in very low grades.

This is easily the rarest of the Big Three in high grades and fewer than 10 exist in high grades including two in Uncirculated (a PCGS MS61 and an MS62, both of which I have owned at one time). Not only is this date found well-worn, but higher grade examples are apt to show noticeable weakness of strike. I can count on one hand the number of 1873-CC half eagles in EF and above that I would regard as being net positive eye appeal.

  1878-CC $5.00 PCGS AU58

1878-CC $5.00 PCGS AU58

1878-CC

This date is the most enigmatic and the least understood of the Big Three. It is not generally seen in ultra-low grades (Good through Fine) and part of this is explained by the introduction of the Morgan Dollar in 1878 which made smaller denomination gold redundant in Western commerce. I regard the 1878-CC to be less rare than the 1870-CC and 1873-CC half eagles in terms of overall rarity, but it is very close to the 1870-CC in terms of high grade rarity. That pesky figure of “22” AU’s at PCGS notwithstanding, I doubt if more than a dozen properly graded AU and higher 1878-CC half eagles exist. I have seen pieces in AU50 and AU53 holders which were clearly gradeflated and at least a few of the “10” graded AU55 and AU58—combined—by PCGS are, in my opinion, cleaned and processed coins which are….ahem….problematical.

As recently as a decade ago, the price of this date trailed other rare CC half eagles such as the 1872-CC and 1876-CC, but the 1878-CC is really rare, especially in properly graded AU55 and above.

Do you collect Carson City half eagles? If you do, what order do you rate these three dates in for rarity and do you regard other dates as highly? Please leave your comments below!