Production of half eagles began at the newly opened mint in 1854. Coins produced through the first part of 1866 lacked the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the reverse.
The 13 No Motto half eagles form an essentially incompletable set due to the extreme rarity of the 1854-S of which just three are known. There are other rare issues as well and all but three of these have overall populations of 100 coins or fewer.
Half eagles were actively used in commerce in the booming California economy of the 1850s and the 1860s. When this is coupled with the fact that there were no active collectors of branch mint gold in the 19th century, the survival rate for No Motto half eagles from San Francisco tends to be very low. For the dates that no hoards have been located (see below), around 1-2% of the original mintage still exists.
Before we look at each coin on an individual basis, let’s chart this group in terms of overall and high grade rarity. In the case of high grade rarity, we are talking about coins in AU55 and higher. To have set the bar at MS60 and higher wouldn’t have made sense as many of these dates are exceedingly rare (two to three known) at this level.
The 1854-S is among the rarest regular issue US gold coins with just three known from an original mintage of 268. When the discovery of the S.S. Central America was announced, I felt certain that at least one 1854-S would be discovered. Other first year of issue gold coins from this mint were saved (or were exported and later repatriated) but the low mintage quarter eagle and half eagle of this year appear not to have been saved.
An NGC EF45 was located in early 2018 but little background information was provided. It sold in Heritage’s 2018 ANA auction for $2,160,000. It was later resold to an Eastern dealer and crossed to PCGS EF45.
The finest known is the Pogue coin which was purchased in the Eliasberg sale (1982) for $187,000. It is graded AU58+ by PCGS, but when I was shown the coin around a decade ago by the late Brent Pogue, I graded it MS62. It is clearly the most valuable gold coin of any denomination from San Francisco and when it finally becomes available, I expect it to sell in excess of $5 million.
The mintage for half eagles jumped considerably in 1855 and a total of 61,000 were struck. This date is much scarcer than the 1856-S and the 1857-S due to the fact that only a small number were found on the S.S. Central America. There are likely 150-200 known in all grades with most in the EF40 to AU53 range. Properly graded AU55s are moderately scarce but are still very affordable with current levels around $3,000-3,500. An AU58 example qualifies in the Condition Census. I have only seen one Uncirculated 1855-S, a PCGS MS62 which brought $17,250 in October 1999 as part of the Bass Collection.
This date tends to come a bit softly struck at the centers and it almost always is very “ticky.” The luster is frosty and the natural color is a medium to deep orange-gold. There are not many 1855-S half eagles with original color, and choice pieces should sell for a strong premium.
I have noticed an uptick in AU58s in auction sales since 2016 but most of these have been low-end coins. There do not appear to be any high-grade 1855-S half eagles in the Fairmont Hoard and as far as I know, no high grade 1855-S half eagles are rumored to exist in other overseas sources. I expect this date to remain rare in high grades.
This issue has the highest mintage figure of any No Motto half eagle from San Francisco with 105,100 struck. It is the most available date of this type from San Francisco in terms of overall rarity, but it is slightly less available than the 1857-S in high grades. There are as many as 250-300 known with a number in the AU grades and as many as 10 in Uncirculated. The single finest is an NGC MS64 which brought $26,450 in the Heritage 2/1999 sale; this may be the same coin graded MS64 by PCGS. The best found on the S.S. Central America graded PCGS MS62.
This date comes much better-struck than the 1855-S and it tends to have good luster. The natural color is a medium orange-gold and examples can be found with reasonably choice surfaces.
The 1856-S half eagle is reasonably priced with nice AU58s still available from time to time in the $4,000-5,000 range. An average quality Uncirculated example will cost around $7,500.
There were 87,000 half eagles struck dated 1857-S. This date is a bit less rare than the 1856-S but it is clearly the most available No Motto half eagle from this mint in high grades. A number of superb pieces were located in the second S.S. Central America recovery including an MS65, an MS65+, and an MS66 graded and encapsulated by PCGS. In total there at least 225-275 known; maybe more including all the coins from the shipwreck.
The 1857-S is a well-struck issue and it is seen with good luster. It is still reasonably easy to locate a nice AU for less than $2,000.
Premiums for shipwreck 1857-S half eagles are very high and unless you are an avid collector of shipwreck gold, I would personally suggest acquiring a piece with original surfaces. I remain very impressed by the three Superb pieces found on the SSCA.
Mintages dropped significantly beginning with this issue and the 1858-S is a scarce coin in any grade. I have seen published estimates of as few as “45” known for this date but this figure is too low and the actual number is more likely in the 60-70 range. Fewer than a dozen exist in AU and there are just two in Uncirculated: an NGC MS60 and a PCGS MS61. It is interesting to note that PCGS shows seven graded in AU58; this number is likely inflated and at least two of them are overgraded, in my opinion.
The 1858-S is a well-struck issue although most show some weakness on the curls below LIBERTY. Virtually all examples are heavily abraded and many show evidence of prior cleaning or processing. Examples with nice natural color exist but these are not easy to locate.
There is a significant price jump for this date from AU55 to AU58 with the latter selling for as much as a 3x premium over the former. Unless you are offered a really nice AU58, a solid-for-the-grade AU55 seems like a better value.
From an overall rarity standpoint, the four San Francisco issues from 1858 through 1861 are very similar as all have an estimated 60-70 known. The 1859-S is more available in higher grades than the 1860-S and the 1861-S, and it is very similar to the 1858-S in higher grades. I am aware of four Uncirculated 1859-S half eagles: the Bass/Milas coin which last sold for $29,900 in October 1999, a second PCGS MS62 which I sold to a private collector around six years ago, and a single MS61 at both PCGS and NGC. There are also around three to four in both AU55 and AU58.
This is a well-struck issue which sometimes is a bit weak on the curl below the ear and at the central reverse. The luster tends to be a bit grainy in texture and the natural color is either russet or rich reddish-gold. Most 1859-S half eagles are noticeably abraded in the fields but a few choice pieces in each grade range exist.
In my opinion, this is an undervalued issue. A solid PCGS AU55 is really good value at the current $5,000-6,000 range while an AU58, if you can locate one, remains excellent value in the $8,000-9,000+ range.
The 1860-S is another rare and underappreciated date with an estimated total known in the 60-70 range. It is very rare in higher grades with two or three known in properly graded AU55, and another three or four in AU58. To the best of my knowledge, this date is unique in Uncirculated with the sole coin graded MS62 at PCGS; this piece is ex Bass/Eliasberg and it last sold in 1999 for $27,600.
The strike seen on the 1860-S is a bit less sharp than on the 1858-S and the 1859-S. The surfaces on most survivors are abraded and most have also been processed. A nice AU with original color and surfaces is rare.
The rarity of the 1860-S is better-known than the 1859-S and it is not as underpriced as the former. I recently sold an extremely choice PCGS/CAC AU55 for $10,500 and if available, a PCGS AU58 will cost in the $12,500-15,000+ range.
I regard the 1861-S as the most underappreciated No Motto half eagle from San Francisco. It is the third scarcest date in this sub-type in terms of overall rarity with probably fewer than 50 known. In higher grades, this date is a major rarity. I have never seen one finer than AU53 (and only one or two at this level; neither of which was choice) and the finest graded at PCGS is a single AU55.
This is an issue which is characterized by unappealing surfaces. It is odd that virtually every known 1861-S half eagle grading EF40 or finer has been harshly cleaned. There are not more than three or four extant with natural color and luster.
At current levels, this is an absurdly undervalued coin. A nice EF, if one were available, would cost around $5,000-6,000+ while a presentable AU wouldn’t cost much more than $10,000. Interestingly, I have handled more 1864-S half eagles than I have 1861-S and the former is valued at around 10x the latter.
Due to a number of very low grade coins (VG-VF), the overall rarity of the 1862-S is a bit lower than the 1859-S, 1860-S, and 1861-S. But the 1862-S is scarcer than the 1859-S and the 1860-S in higher grades. There are an estimated 45-55 known in all grades with fewer than 10 properly graded AU examples. PCGS has graded two in Uncirculated (an MS61 and an MS62). The MS61 last sold for $43,700 as ANR 8/2006: 1454 while the Hansen Collection contains the MS62.
The 1862-S is very rare with good eye appeal. While this date comes well-struck, nearly every known example has been cleaned and only a small number display natural color. It is interesting to note that the few original pieces I have seen have tended to be in the VF-EF range and not in the AU grades.
This date is popular due to its Civil War issuance and it is likely to cost more than the undervalued 1861-S. The current price guides on EFs are well out-of-date, and a presentable AU will run at least $12,500-15,000 at the low end of that range.
Production of half eagles at the San Francisco mint nearly doubled from 1862 (9,500) to 1863 (17,000) and, accordingly, the 1863-S is more available. There are an estimated 60-70 known in all grades. Around 10 or so exist in About Uncirculated with two or three in AU55, and another two or so in AU58. PCGS has graded two in MS61 but this may only represent one distinct coin.
Virtually every 1863-S half eagle I have seen displays very heavily abraded surfaces and most lack original color. As with most No Motto half eagles from this mint, the strike is sharp with just a bit of weakness sometimes seen on the curls below LIBERTY.
A reasonably nice PCGS AU55 was recently offered in the Heritage 2019 ANA sale and it commanded $22,200. If an AU58 were to come available, it would likely sell in the mid-30s.
The 1864-S is the rarest collectible half eagle from San Francisco and it is the only issue (besides the 1854-S) which is fairly well-known outside of the specialist community. Just 3,888 were made and my best estimate is that around 30 or so exist. This includes a number of coins in very low grades (I sold a PCGS/CAC AG3 to a well-known collector a few years ago), and a single amazing PCGS MS65+ owned by a Southern collector and last sold in the October 1999 Bass Sale for $178,250.
Surprisingly, there are actually a small number of reasonably eye appealing 1864-S half eagles. The Heritage 3/14: 30318 coin was graded EF45 by NGC but it later earned a gold CAC sticker and I am aware of a PCGS/CAC AU50 which is quite pleasing. This date tends to show weakness of strike on the radial lines in the stars and on the upper center of the obverse (and the corresponding area on the reverse).
The 1864-S is a very expensive coin compared to the other rare No Motto half eagles from this mint. I don’t think it is overpriced; it has reached a level consummate with its rarity while this is clearly not the case with other rare issues such as the 1859-S, 1861-S, and the 1862-S.
The mintage for this issue is a comparatively high 27,612 which is actually more than the 1863-S and the 1864-S combined. There are an estimated 65-75 known in all grades which is slightly lower than one might infer from the original mintage. The 1865-S is very rare in About Uncirculated with fewer than 10 properly graded examples known. I regard this date as unique in Uncirculated with the sole example known to me being a remarkable PCGS MS64 which was recovered from the S.S. Brother Jonathan.
This date is not as well-struck as some of the other No Motto half eagles and it tends to show weakness at the centers. The natural color is a medium reddish-gold and I have only seen a small number which weren’t processed. Very few are lustrous and nearly every 1865-S, regardless of grade, is noticeably abraded.
I regard this date as very undervalued. EF45s are still available at around $5,000, while a decent AU will cost less than $10,000.
1866-S No Motto
This is an interesting transitional issue with No Motto and With Motto varieties known. The No Motto is much scarcer as only 9,000 were struck (versus 34,920 of the With Motto). There are maybe 70-80 known in all grades with most of these in lower grades. As with many of these dates, there are likely fewer than 10 properly graded AUs known and I am aware of just one in Uncirculated: a PCGS MS61 which brought $50,525 as Stack’s Bowers 3/17: 3111.
This issue tends to come with a good overall strike. Very few are seen with natural color and the luster is a bit on the dull side, even on higher grade examples.
Because of its status as a Transitional issue, the 1866-S No Motto is better-known than some of its counterparts in this series. It is still an overlooked coin and it might take many years for the specialist to uncover a nice EF or AU example.
The next article in this series, coming in November 2019, will cover the With Motto half eagles from San Francisco (1866-1906-S). Due to length, it is probable that this will be split into two parts.
Are you interested in collecting San Francisco half eagles? Please feel free to contact me at (214) 675-9897 and let’s get started.