A Collector's Guide To Indian Head Half Eagles

Among the various United States gold coins produced during the 20th century, Indian Head half eagles are sort of the red-haired stepchild. They do not get the respect accorded to the dynamic St. Gaudens Indian Head eagles or double eagles and have never been as actively collected as the Indian Head quarter eagle. There are a number of reasons why the Indian Head half eagle series is not as actively collected as its three 20th century gold counterparts. I believe that the major reasons are as follows:

    This is, by far, the rarest 20th century American gold coin in higher grades. Even the most common dates in the series are rare in MS65 and a number of dates are nearly impossible to find even in MS63 to MS64. Simply put, this set is a bear to collect in Gem condition.

    Indian Head half eagles are extremely hard to grade. I’ve met very few people who truly know how to grade this series and both PCGS and NGC can be wildly inconsistent when it comes to Indian Head half eagles.

    This series has, somewhat by happenstance, fallen through the cracks. Indian Head quarter eagles are an easy series to complete and have been actively promoted. Everyone loves Saints and the massive size and lovely design of these coins make them ever-popular. Indian Head eagles have gone through ups and downs in terms of popularity but they currently seem to be in strong demand and I know of at lest four or five collectors currently putting together Gem sets.

    Which leaves Indian Head half eagles…a series which, up to now, has been out of the limelight for many years. I do think this is going to change, as evidenced by the fact that prices for common dates have jumped considerably in the past two years and I believe that a number of collectors are beginning to assemble sets.

How should Indian Head half eagles be collected? I can think of a number of ways. Here are three which make sense to me:

By Date: Assembling a complete set of Indian Head half eagles, as I mentioned above, is very challenging. The higher grade the set, the greater the challenge. If the collector wants to put together a set with the coins in the AU55 to MS62 range, he will find the set to be fairly easy to finish.

The two most expensive coins in the lower grade range for this set are the 1909-O and the 1929. The 1909-O is relatively plentiful in AU grades but because it is a very popular one-year type it is in great demand. Expect to pay between $7,500 and $12,500 for a nice AU coin and $35,000-40,000+ for an MS62. The other expensive coin in this set is the 1929. This date doesn’t really exist in grades lower than MS62 to MS63.

You’ll be looking at $15,000-20,000 for a nice example in this grade range. You should be able to assemble a complete set of Indian Head half eagles in AU55 to MS62 grades in a fairly short period of time for $75,000.

Moving up to an MS63 to MS64 set is a much more challenging and expensive proposition. Even the common dates are going to run around $4,000 for a nice MS63 and $6,000 for an MS64.

The 1909-O is extremely hard to find in MS63 and if you can locate one it’s going to set you back $60,000 or more. In MS64, this date is generally offered at the rate of once per year to year and a half and I would expect that the next nice PCGS example that shows up will sell for close to $200,000. The 1911-D is a very hard date to find in MS63 to MS64 grades. The former will cost at least $10,000 while the latter is easily a $50,000 coin.

The San Francisco dates produced from 1911 to 1915 are common and inexpensive in AU55 to MS61 grades but they become scarce in MS62 and very scarce to rare in MS63 to MS64. The most expensive of these is the 1913-S which is generally priced at around $10,000 in MS63 and $35,000+ in MS64. The 1914-S is a little less expensive but every bit as hard to locate, especially in MS64. And the 1915-S is extremely hard to find in MS63 and higher grades. You can expect to spend around $20,000 for a nice PCGS MS63 and close to $50,000 for a high end PCGS MS64.

To assemble a set of Indian Head half eagles in MS63 to MS64 you are probably going to have to spend $250,000+ and can expect the project to take at least two years.

Putting together a Gem Uncirculated set of Indian Head half eagles is one of the real challenges in all of numismatics. In fact, it is a harder set to assemble than the Indian Head eagle or St. Gaudens double eagle set.

Let’s say that you want your set to include only coins graded by PCGS in MS65 or higher. The 1909-O has a population of one in MS65 and one better. The 1909-S has a population of one in MS65 with three better. The 1910-S has a population of three in MS65 and one better. The 1911-D has a population of one in MS65 and none better. Still not intimidated? How about the 1914-S and the 1915-S which still have never had a single example graded above MS64 by PCGS? Even if you have an unlimited budget and a tremendous amount of patience, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to assemble a complete set in MS65. If you are willing to compromise somewhat by including a few MS64’s, then it might be possible to assemble a world-class set over the course of three to five years with an expenditure of well over $1 million. Obviously, this is a “big boy” set that isn’t for everyone. But with most of the current specialists in 20th century gold focused on other denominations, this set seems like a great opportunity.

By Year: An easier and more affordable way to collect Indian Head half eagles is by year. This series was struck for ten different years between 1908 and 1929. For most of these years, the collector has the option of including a Philadelphia issue which is inevitably cheaper than a branch mint counterpart. In addition, the Philadelphia coins tend to come very well struck and most have nice eye appeal. This set can be spiced up a bit by throwing in some of the more affordable branch mints. As an example, the 1908-S is surprisingly affordable in grades up to and including MS64 and it usually sells for just a small premium over a common Philadelphia coin.

A number of the Denver issues are also very affordable. The 1908-D and 1910-D are very scarce in higher grade but do not sell for a premium in the MS62 to MS63 range. The 1909-D is one of the more common dates in the entire set and can be found even in MS65. The 1914-D is similar to the 1908-D and the 1910-D in that it has a much lower population than the Philadelphia half eagles from these years but it typically has just a very small market premium in grades up to and including MS64.

The two most challenging dates in a year set are the 1916-S and the 1929. In 1916, the San Francisco mint was the only facility that produced Indian Head half eagles. This issue is actually not all that rare in MS63 and MS64 and for $5,000-10,000 the collector will be able to find a nice piece without a great deal of effort. The 1929 is the final year of issue for this design and it is a date that is far rarer than its original mintage figure would suggest. It is almost never found in grades below MS62 to MS63 and, as I mentioned above, a nice example in this grade range is currently valued at around $15,000-20,000.

An MS62 date set should cost around $30,000 with well over half of the price attributable to the 1929. This is an easy set to assemble.

An MS63 date set should cost around $60,000 with around a third of the price due to the 1929. It is a fairly good challenge to assemble this set and a few coins might prove hard to find but it should be completable in six months to a year.

An MS64 date set should cost around $90,000. This set is fairly challenging but can generally be assembled within a year.

An MS65 date set will cost at least $300,000. It will be a very hard set to assemble. The 1916-S and the 1929 are both very rare in MS65 and some of the supposedly common Philadelphia and Denver years will prove to be harder to find than expected.

By Type: Most people collect Indian Head half eagles as a type coin. The beauty of this series is that there is only a single type.

The easiest way to fill a hole in your type set with an Indian Head half eagle is to pick a common date. In higher grades, the most common issues are the 1908, 1909, 1909-D, 1911, 1912, 1913 and the 1915. All seven of these dates have hundreds of examples known in MS64 and, in the case of the 1909-D, there are thousands and thousands of pieces known in MS63.

There are a few scarcer date Indian Head half eagles that do not bring a large premium over a common date but which are appreciably harder to find in MS63 and higher grades. These include the 1908-D, 1908-S, 1910-D, 1914 and 1914-D. These “semi-scarce” dates are favorites of mine for type collectors as they offer excellent value for the savvy collector who is willing to stretch a bit to buy a rarer coin for his set.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, all Indian Head half eagles are rare in properly graded MS65. PCGS has graded only 573 examples of this type in MS65 and this number is unquestionably inflated by resubmissions. By far the most common date in the series in MS65 is the 1908. The two next most available are the 1909 and the 1909-D. After these three dates, the rarity level jumps appreciably. As recently as a few years ago, dealers had a hard time selling PCGS graded MS65 common date Indian for $10,000. Today, they are very liquid in the low-to-mid $20,000 range.

I feel that the real sweet spot in this series is in the MS64 grade (I would not be surprised to see these jump in price to $7,500-8,500 in the next few years) and for lower population issues in MS65.

I also stated earlier that one of the reasons this series is not as popular as other 20th century gold issues is that it is extremely difficult to grade. Here are a few tips to make buying these coins easier:

Every Indian Head half eagle I have ever seen has friction on the Indian’s cheek bone. Many new collectors are confused as to why the grading services will call a coin MS64 or even MS65 that seems to be AU based on wear. Because of the nature of the design, these coins are always going to show friction in this area. When you are looking at an Indian Head half eagle, ignore the cheekbone and look, instead at the eagle’s breast feathers and the left obverse field. These are areas that are much more telling when it comes to true wear.

It is important to learn each issue in the series in regards to luster, surface texture and strike. As an example, did you know that the early San Francisco issues tend to come very well struck while the issues from 1912 through 1915 are often poorly struck and show peculiar die deterioration around the borders? It is important for the collector to work with a dealer who really knows these coins, especially if he is working on a higher grade set.

In my opinion, the two most important factors when considering the grade of an Indian Head half eagle are coloration and luster. If a coin shows some scattered marks but it has wonderful original rose-gold or rich orange coloration, it is likely that this piece will be bumped up a point or two by the grading services. Similarly, an Indian Head half eagle with dynamic, booming luster is considered very desirable by specialists and such coins are often accorded high grades.

There are a number of potential factors that are considered negatives when considering an example of this design. Coins with dark, dirty coloration are undesirable—which is one reason why many collectors do not purchase Indian Head half eagles in grades lower than AU55 to AU58. Coins with very weak mintmarks should be avoided. A number of the San Francisco issues in the 1910’s are sometimes seen with mintmarks that are so weak they can be hard to detect with the naked eye. There is never any good reason to buy a coin such as this.

When examining population figures for higher grade coins in this series, there is quite a bit of consistency between PCGS and NGC. In my opinion, NGC does a very good job grading Indian Head half eagles and I do not think that coins in their holders (especially rare and very rare dates) should be penalized. As with most of the 20th century gold series, the popularity of the PCGS Set Registry has given many collectors a pro-PCGS bias which has occasionally forced them into making bad decisions in the assembling of their collections.

The Indian Head half eagle series is a wonderful group of coins for the collector who seeks a challenge and who wants to be involved in a set that currently is out of favor. I believe that this series will become considerably more popular in the coming years and that rarities such as the 1909-O, 1911-D, 1914-S and 1915-S will be accorded the same level of respect that the key issues in the $10 Indian and $20 St. Gaudens series currently hold.