The half eagle denomination was produced virtually uninterrupted from 1795 through 1929. During this 130 year period only one issue—the 1887—was struck only in a Proof format. For reasons still unknown, no business strike half eagles were made in 1887 and a total of just 87 coins were made; all as Proofs. This gives the 1887 the honor as the single lowest produced date in the entire half eagle denomination.
Despite this coin’s rarity, it is still not widely known. I recently purchased a lovely PCGS/CAC PR64+ which appeared as Lot 2452 in the recent Stacks Bowers March Baltimore auction. I paid $76,375 for this important coin and immediately sold it to a Southern collector who specializes in Proof Liberty Head half eagles. When he began his collection a few years ago, the 1887 was a date which we targeted but wondered if the “right” coin would come along.
I mentioned above that it is not known exactly why there were no business strike half eagles made in Philadelphia in 1887. Two things stand out to me as curious about this. The first is that mintages of San Francisco half eagles were huge in 1886 (a record-setting 3,268,000) and large in 1887 (1,912,000). This no doubt satiated Western demand for this denomination. Second, whether coincidental or not, the 1887 double eagle is a Proof-only issue as well with a mintage of just 121.
Of the 87 Proof half eagles struck in 1887, I believe that around half of these are known. What is interesting about this is that unlike other Proof half eagles of this era, the 1887 is often found impaired or mishandled and there are many known in the PR55 to PR62 range. Why is this so?
It is known that collectors in the early 20th century were aware of the rarity of this date. But the premium accorded to this date apparently was not high enough in the 1890-1910 era to keep collectors from spending Proof 1887 half eagles during times of economic uncertainty. There was likely a time when this issue was “too good” to melt but not worth enough of a premium to keep.
This is perhaps a reach but maybe a contemporary dealer or collector speculated on 1887 Proof half eagles and bought, say, 10 in the hopes of creating a market for this future rarity. Just as likely, he ran into financial hard times or was unable to generate interest in his position and bailed.
There appear to be around 40 or so Proof 1887 half eagles known which would make the 1887 one of the more available Proofs of this era, but one of the four rarest Liberty half eagles overall in terms of total known to exist in all grades, after the 1854-S, 1864-S, and 1875.
The single finest known 1887 half eagle is a PCGS PR65+ Deep Cameo was upgraded from PR65 Deep Cameo. The auction record is $126,500 for the Henry Miller coin, graded NGC PR65, which was sold in Heritage’s 2011 FUN event.
I have noticed that 1887 Proof half eagles typically come two ways: either impaired (see above) or in the PR63 to PR64 range and either with applied color or clearly over-dipped. There are probably not more than five or six Gems (or borderline Gems) and even fewer with natural color.
What really attracted me to the above-referenced coin was its blatant originality. This coin had been off the market since early 1979 and both the obverse and reverse display deep golden coloration indicative of that rare Proof gold piece: one which hadn’t been dipped.
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