I can make a strong case for half eagles as the most compelling of the many Liberty Head denominations. There are many interesting ways to collect these coins which we will discuss in this article.
The Liberty Head design was first used on the $10 coinage in 1838 and it was later used on the half eagle in 1839 and the quarter eagle in 1840. The Liberty Head design continued with few changes until 1908 when it was finally replaced by the Indian Head design.
The following types are known:
- First Liberty Head, obverse mintmark: 1839 only
- Second Liberty Head, reverse mintmark, large letters: 1840-1843
- Second Liberty Head, reverse mintmark, small letters (No Motto): 1843-1866
- With Motto: 1866-1908
The Liberty Head half eagle is the only United States type to be produced at seven different mints. These are as follows:
- Philadelphia: 1839-1909 (71 issues; not including varieties)
- Carson City: 1870-1893 (19 issues)
- Charlotte: 1839-1861 (21 issues; not including varieties)
- Dahlonega: 1839-1861 (23 issues; not including varieties)
- Denver: 1906-1907 (2 issues)
- New Orleans: 1840-1857 and 1892-1894 (15 issues; not including varieties)
- San Francisco: 1854-1906 (51 issues)
In total, there are at least 202 different issues required to complete a set Of Liberty Head half eagles, and when one includes the major varieties recognized by PCGS, this number climbs to over 225. (!)
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is just one issue (1854-S) which is essentially uncollectable (just three exist with at least one impounded in the US Mint collection) and three more (1864-S, 1875, and the Proof-only 1887) which are very rare but which are realistically obtainable for the deep-pocketed collector. At least half of the 200+ issues can be obtained for $5,000 or less, and even some of the rarest Liberty Head half eagles can be obtained for $10,000-20,000.
1. Collecting by Date
The 1854-S is the only impossible Liberty Head half eagle. The three very rare issues I mentioned are going to cost over $100,000 each. The costliest will be the 1875 (fewer than 10 business strikes known) which despite being an expensive coin is an issue which I feel is highly undervalued given its status as a Classic Rarity.
It is not impossible to collect a set of Liberty Head half eagles in Uncirculated but there are at least a dozen dates (maybe more) which are either unique or exceedingly rare in high grades (or they may exist in MS60 to MS61 but with some question as to their true “newness”). It is more realistic for the highest-end collector to focus on a Condition Census quality set. On many issues, this is going to mean an AU55 or an AU58 will be adequate.
What’s interesting about this set is that many seemingly ho-hum issues are extremely rare in high grades. Let me give you an example. The 1873-S is a sub-$4,000 coin in nice middle grade AU and if I had one on my site, you wouldn’t look twice. However, this date is unknown in Uncirculated and I’ve only seen one AU58. Even a world-class collection isn’t going to have an 1873-S $5 in a grade higher than AU53 to AU55 and it’s not likely to be an especially pretty coin. And I could name five or more other dates just like this…
It is possible to complete this set for $600,000-800,000++ in Extremely Fine to About Uncirculated for the better dates and MS60 to MS65 for the more common dates. An exceptional, world-class set could be completed for $1,250,000 and up.
Let’s say you are sold on the concept of working on a long set of Liberty Head half eagles but you don’t want to commit to 200+ issues. How about a year set which would consist of one coin from each year of issue (1839-1908)? You’d reduce the set to only 69 coins and you’d save a fortune by not having to include an 1864-S, 1875, and 1887 as you could select the less expensive alternatives. In fact, you could do a complete year set in Uncirculated and probably not more than a small handful of the coins would grade below MS62 to MS63. (The years which would be hardest to find an issue in Uncirculated include 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865, 1866, 1867, 1870, 1874, and 1875.
As I write this (February 2018), there is much less competition in the Condition Census quality end of the Liberty Head half eagle market than there is for comparable coins in the eagle and double eagle series. And with prices for important coins considerably lower at this time than for $10 and $20 rarities, the appeal of specializing in Liberty Head half eagles is readily evident.
2. Collecting by Type
Numismatic tradition dictates that there are two main types for this design: the No Motto and the With Motto. I think it is important to also include the other two types I mentioned above: the Head of 1839 and the Head of 1840 with Small Letters reverse.
The basic four type set is easy to complete but it can be made more challenging by adding the mintmarked issues or just by focusing on higher grade coins.
There are three issues which use the Head of 1839: the 1839-P, 1839-C, and 1839-D. The first is inexpensive in circulated grades and only marginally rare in the lower Uncirculated grades while the two Southern issues are very popular and rather expensive even in collector grades. That said, they are generally available.
The Head of 1840/Small Letters issues were made at the Philadelphia, Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans mint from 1840 through 1842 or, in the case of New Orleans, 1843. While hard to locate in Uncirculated grades, a nice four mint type set of this design could be assembled in EF for $7,500-8,500 or so and in nice AU for less than $20,000.
The Large Letters reverse with No Motto was made from 1843 through 1866 at five mints: Philadelphia, Charlotte, Dahlonega, New Orleans and San Francisco. This is a completable set in Uncirculated grades although certain issues are nearly impossible to locate above MS61/62. A nice AU set could be assembled for well under $20,000 while an EF set will cost less than $10,000.
The With Motto type has a unique characteristic which we will discuss next in more extensive detail.
A full type/mintmark set of Liberty half eagles consists of 19 different issues.
To spice up a type/mintmark set, it would be fun (and reasonably easy) to focus on some better dates. As an example, the Charlotte version of the Head of 1840/Small Letters might contain an 1840-C or an 1841-C instead of the more common 1842-C Large Date. These two dates are scarcer but not all that more expensive in circulated grades.
3. The Seven Mint Set
Many years ago, when I was first making a name for myself as a rare gold coin specialist, seven-coin sets of Liberty Head half eagles were very popular. As I mentioned above, this is the only design type which was struck at seven mints and building a set is easy and fun.
Let’s take a quick look at each mint:
- Philadelphia: There are tons of dates to choose from in a huge variety of price points. I’d probably opt for a slightly better date of the No Motto type, say an 1844 or an 1846 Large Date, in nice MS62.
- Carson City: Given the rarity of the 1870’s dates, I’d either choose a nice AU 1880’s issue (maybe an 1883-CC or an 1884-CC) or a higher grade common date from the 1890’s in MS62 to MS63.
- Charlotte: I’d opt for the best available coin as opposed to a specific date. For collectors on a budget, it will be a VF or an EF while higher budgets can reach for a nice AU or even an Uncirculated.
- Dahlonega: Ditto what I just said for Charlotte. Don’t worry about a specific date, just wait for a coin that speaks to you.
- Denver: You only have two choices: a 1906-D or a 1907-D. I’d lean towards the former given its first-year status. Don’t overbuy a Denver half eagle as it is the least interesting coin in this seven issue set.
- New Orleans: Skip the common 1844-O and pass on the available 1893-O. I would focus on a date like the 1840-O, 1843-O Large Letters, 1845-O or 1846-O. If you are on a budget, shoot for a nice EF. If you can swing it, wait for an Uncirculated piece; these come available from time to time.
- San Francisco: Many collectors select a common date from the 1880’s or the 1890’s and fill this slot with a nice MS63 to MS65. I’d suggest focusing on a better date from the 1860’s or the early 1870’s in either EF or AU.
A meaningful seven coin set can be assembled for as little $15,000 or a macho version can cost into six-figures.
4. Collecting by Mint
The majority of collectors who read this article will no doubt focus on collecting Liberty Head half eagles by mint. While not every denomination lends itself to specialization, this series is fun and challenging to collect by mint.
As noted above, seven mints struck Liberty Head half eagles but one (Denver) isn’t readily collected due to its brevity. The other six are ranked in order of popularity as follows:
- Carson City
- New Orleans
- San Francisco
Let’s spend a little time looking at each of the mints as a possible area of specialization.
Dahlonega half eagles are very popular and there are numerous collectors attempting to complete sets. Some collectors are working on nice VF/EF sets; others focus on high grade pieces. There are two very scarce issues in this set, the 1842-D Large Date and the 1861-D. Neither of these is impossibly rare or expensive, and a Dahlonega set is a realistically completable goal.
Carson City half eagles range from common to rare with the three toughest issues being the 1870-CC, 1873-CC, and the 1878-CC. This is a challenging but completable set with most dates available in grades up through AU55 and rare to very rare above this.
The New Orleans set is shorter than its Carson City and Dahlonega counterparts but it is challenging, especially in higher grades. The keys are the 1842-O and the 1847-O. Both issues are available in lower grades but very rare in AU and excessively rare in Uncirculated.
The Charlotte set contains no major rarities and can actually be completed in comparatively high grades. The key issues are the 1838-C (while a Classic Head design it is always included in the Liberty Head set), the 1842-C Small Date, and the 1861-C.
The San Francisco set is typically sliced in two with the No Motto issues (1854-1866) more popular than the With Motto coins (1866-1906). This set is impossible to complete due to the unavailability of the 1854-S and the 1864-S is very rare. The No Motto coins are historically important and I believe the upcoming release of new pieces from the S.S Central America treasure will spur interest in these.
The duration of the Philadelphia series (and the fact that it contains many common issues) makes this the least popular set for Liberty half eagle collectors. But I think this series has the most upside and it is a really fun set with just one major rarity (1875), a rare Proof-only issue (1887), and a few other conditionally rare issues (1863-1865, 1869, and 1872).
5. Proof Liberty Head Half Eagles
To begin our discussion, let’s classify two distinct groups of Proofs for this design: the No Motto (pre-1866) and the With Motto.
No Motto Proof Liberty Head half eagles are extremely rare and only a small number of issues (1860, 1862, 1864, and 1865) are likely to be encountered. Proofs of this type are not generally collected by date due to their rarity and are viewed essentially as type coins.
With Motto Proofs were made without interruption from 1866 through 1907 and they are collected primarily as a type coin but with some demand by date collectors.
If one were to contemplate a set of With Motto Proof half eagles I would make the following suggestions. The first is patience as many dates are not readily available. The second is to be well-capitalized as the average coin will run in the $25,000-50,000 range. The third is to not waste funds on super-grade common dates (as an example, a 1901 in PR67; a coin likely to cost in excess of $80,000 and an issue which I would suggest spending $35,000 on a PR65DCAM). The fourth and possibly the most important is to work with a dealer who understands the series and calls attention to important opportunities and buying strategy.
For pre-1890 issues, the survival rate is usually around half of the original mintage figure while the post-1890 issues tend to have survived to the tune of 75% of the original mintage.
In my experience, the rarest With Motto issues include the 1866, 1868, 1870, 1871, 1874, 1875, 1877, 1879, and 1884.
6. Collecting by Variety
There are more interesting varieties of Liberty half eagles than there are of any other denomination of this design. A number of these are recognized by the grading services and some are collected alongside regular issues by date or mint specialized collectors.
The following varieties are, in my opinion, the most interesting.
- 1840 and 1840-O Narrow Mill and Broad Mill. Neither service properly recognizes these but they are interesting from an historic and visual standpoint. The 1840-O Broad Mill is a very rare issue which could really increase in price if designated by PCGS.
- 1842 Large Letters and Small Letters. Both varieties are recognized and both are extremely scarce and undervalued.
- 1842-C Small Date and Large Date. The former is by far the scarcer of the two and it is a key issue in the Charlotte half eagle series.
- 1842-D Small Date and Large Date. The latter is by far the scarcer of the two and it a key issue in the Dahlonega half eagle series.
- 1843-O Large Letters and Small Letters. Both are recognized and readily accepted by collectors. The Small Letters is the scarcer of the two.
- 1846 Large Date and Small Date. These varieties are recognized but not popular. The Small Date is scarce and undervalued.
- 1846-D/D. The repunched mintmark variety is visually impressive but is actually more available than the normal mintmark.
- 1847 Misplaced Date. A number of varieties are known and they range from minor to spectacular. The most collectible variety has an errant 1 lodged in Liberty’s throat.
- 1848-D/D. The repunched mintmark variety is very rare and while not as widely-known as the 1846-D/D it is highly coveted by specialists.
- 1849/49. The repunched date variety is moderately scarce but it isn’t recognized by PCGS. It is visually impressive but not an essential member of the P mint set.
- 1854 Doubled Obverse Die. Another visually impressive variety but it is unrecognized by PCGS and it currently sells for just a small premium.
- 1866-S No Motto and With Motto. Both are essential members of the San Francisco half eagle set.
- 1873 Open 3 and Closed 3. Both are recognized and both are essential.
- 1881/0: The only legitimate overdate half eagle of this design from Philadelphia and a somewhat scarce issue.
- 1901/0-S: A very common variety but legitimate and collectible.
7. The DWN Super Stealth List of Sleepers
You’ve made it through 2500+ words about Liberty Head half eagles and as a reward for your diligence, I’d like to share a list of some of my favorite “sleeper” dates. Some of these are inexpensive, some are pricey but all are, in my opinion, good values.
- 1842 Large Letters and 1842 Small Letters: Both are favorites of mine. Both are very scarce and not expensive.
- 1842-O: One of the rarest New Orleans half eagles but still seemingly undervalued, especially if nice.
- 1846 Small Date: Not as scarce as I once felt but still a tough date and not expensive at all.
- 1848-D/D: The rarest half eagle from this mint by a long shot. Even more fun to buy if cherrypicked!
- 1850: Very hard to locate above AU55 yet still reasonably priced.
- 1864-S: Yes it’s expensive already but it’s been five+ years since I’ve handled one. In any other series, this would be a six figure coin in EF.
- 1869: A rare low-mintage date I almost never see and when I do, it’s schlocky.
- 1876-S: An underappreciated date which is excellent value at current levels.
- 1878-CC: Probably the rarest CC half eagle but just not truly appreciated except by knowledgeable collectors.
- 1892-O: The toughest With Motto New Orleans half eagle and a really hard coin to find nice.
Are you inspired to collect Liberty Head half eagles or are you already a serious collector of this series? DWN buys and sells more great Liberty Head half eagles than any other dealer and we invite you to contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss your goals.