What is the Rarest New Orleans Half Eagle?

A total of 17 half eagles were produced at the New Orleans mint between 1840 and 1909. Focusing on the No Motto Liberty Head issues (struck between 1840 and 1857) there are at least five issues which I would call “rare” (i.e., fewer than 100 examples known in all grades). These are the 1842-O, 1847-O, 1855-O, 1856-O, and 1857-O. Of these five, which is the rarest in terms of overall rarity and which is the rarest in high grades?

We can make a pretty clear determination of these two questions by combing the data in the PCGS auction prices database as well as examining the population figures from this service.

First, let’s look at the total number of auction appearances recorded by PCGS between the late 1970’s/early 1980’s and the present:

The results of this chart are surprising as they indicate that the 1847-O is the most actively traded rare date No Motto half eagle from the New Orleans mint. But note that I said “most actively traded” and not the “rarest.” As the chart below will show, the 1847-O is likely the rarest of these five issues as far as the total known population goes.

 1847-O $5.00 NGC MS60

1847-O $5.00 NGC MS60

Why does the 1847-O have twenty more appearances than the 1855-O, and seventeen more than the 1842-O? I think the answer is twofold: it is better known and thus it trades more frequently and since so many of the slabbed examples are either overgraded or have mint-made problems, they are apt to change holders frequently and/or not find end users who are happy with the coin(s).

The following chart shows the number graded at PCGS in Good-Very Fine, Extremely Fine, About Uncirculated and Uncirculated. It should always be remembered that these numbers are inflated by resubmissions, especially in the About Uncirculated range.

Total Number Graded by PCGS, as of April 2016

This chart makes more sense to me than the number of appearances at auction, listed above. In fact, this is pretty much the order of rarity which I rank these coins: 1847-O, 1842-O, 1855-O, 1856-O, and 1857-O.

I have a few observations which I’d like to share.

 1842-O $5.00 NGC MS63 CAC

1842-O $5.00 NGC MS63 CAC

The 1842-O is the second rarest No Motto New Orleans half eagle in terms of overall rarity, but it is likely the rarest when it comes to high-grade rarity. Only 8 of 57 examples graded by PCGS are in high grades (in this case, the term high-grade refers to those pieces in AU50 and above). This translates to 85.96% of the examples graded by PCGS being in Extremely Fine and lower grades.

The 1847-O is clearly the rarest No Motto New Orleans half eagles when it comes to overall rarity, but it is not as rare as the 1842-O in properly graded AU50 and higher. It should be pointed out that the number thus far graded in AU (16 as of April 2016) is clearly inflated by resubmissions, and the number of coins which are problem-free and accurately graded is likely fewer than 10. The figures above show that 58.13% of the 1847-O half eagles graded by PCGS are in low grades, but given what I just said, I think this number is more likely over 70%.

 1855-O $5.00 NGC MS61, ex Pittman

1855-O $5.00 NGC MS61, ex Pittman

The “sleeper” date in this group of five rare No Motto New Orleans half eagles is the 1855-O. Looking through my own database, I have handled fewer examples of this date in the last decade than I have of the 1842-O and the 1847-O. I believe that the number graded by PCGS in About Uncirculated is well inflated, but my personal observation is that the average 1855-O tends to come nicer than the average 1842-O and 1847-O.

The figures above show that exactly 50% of the 1855-O half eagles so far graded by PCGS are in high grades (29 of 58 coins). This seems pretty high to me and I believe that many of the coins in AU50 holders are, in fact, nice Extremely Fines. In my opinion, the 1855-O is actually a rarer coin than the 1842-O in terms of overall rarity but the 1842-O is clearly rarer in high grades.

 1856-O $5.00 PCGS AU58

1856-O $5.00 PCGS AU58

The 1856-O is another date which is not well-known outside of the specialist community but it is rare in all grades. Of the three “late date” No Motto New Orleans half eagles, I rate the 1856-O as the second rarest overall but it is clearly the rarest in higher grades. PCGS has graded 25 in high grades, but I feel this number is inflated by resubmissions and marginal coins and the actual number of properly graded pieces may be as low as 12-15. It is interesting to note that of these five dates, the lowest number of CAC approved examples belongs to the 1856-O; see the chart below for more information.

 1857-O $5.00 PCGS MS62 CAC

1857-O $5.00 PCGS MS62 CAC

Last but not least, we have the 1857-O. In my opinion, this is the most available of these five issues both in terms of overall and high grade rarity. This date is still rare with a likely total survival rate of fewer than 100 coins. PCGS shows a total of 66 in all grades, of which 35 grade AU or better. This high grade percentage of 53.03% seems considerably high and I think the proper number is more like one-third of the total number known.

CAC Approval, as of April 2016

The No Motto New Orleans half eagles tend to have low survival rates, and these coins were used more in commerce than their counterparts from Charlotte and Dahlonega. This means that with few exceptions, nearly all the 13 No Motto New Orleans half eagles are scarce in higher grades, and rare to very rare in Uncirculated. This is a very collectible series which can be completed, but a high-quality set, even in lower grades, will prove challenging; especially if the collector seeks choice, original coins with clean, wholesome surfaces.

Are you interested in collecting No Motto Liberty Head half eagles from the New Orleans mint? If so, please contact me by email at dwn@ont.com and let’s discuss the how’s and whys of such a collection.