For most collectors, assembling a comlete set of Liberty Head eagles is a daunting task, to say the least. There are 184 different issues (including major varieties) struck from 1838 to 1907. While none of these individual coins is impossible to locate, many are rare to very rare and nearly every issue struck prior to 1878 is rare in higher grades and quite expensive. So how can a collector of more average means approach what, in my opinion, is one of the most interesting and overlooked denominations in all of American numismatics. The answer is to assemble a year set of Liberty Head eagles. This set would include one example of each year that this denomination was produced. Instead of being close to two hundred coins in order to finish the set, it is now only 69 coins. Even better, the savings is immense as it eliminates some of the very costly issues like the 1863, 1864-S, 1870-CC and 1875 and lets the collector replace these with interesting but much less costly alternatives.
Let's take a look at each year from 1838 until 1866 in this set (in Part Two, we'll look at the 1867-1907 issues). I'll list what I think is the best issue for each year in this set along with suggested grades.
1838: Only one issue, from Philadelphia, is available. This issue is very popular and significant as the first eagle produced with the new Liberty Head design and it is the first coin of this denomination produced since 1804. I'd splurge on this and buy as nice a coin as you can afford; certainly at least an EF40.
1839: This is another one-mint year but with two types available: Head of 1838 and Head of 1840. The former is far more available and can be obtained in nice EF without great difficulty. This is another issue I'd splurge on as it is a limited type with a novel design.
1840: The last of the three Philadelphia-only issues at the beginning of the set and a significant first-year coin. I've always liked the 1840 eagle and find it to be underrated. I'd buy a nice AU53 to AU58 for this set.
1841: This is the first year in which more than one mint made eagles as the New Orleans facility began production in 1841. The 1841-O is a really neat issue but it is rare and expensive, so I'd probably go with an 1841 Philadelphia. I'd choose a nice original AU55 to AU58 coin.
1842: Beginning this year, the collector can select from Philadelphia and New Orleans issues. In a year like 1842, both are reasonably common although the 1842-O becomes very rare in higher grades. I'd go with the 1842-O in the AU50 to AU55 range.
1843: Surprisingly, the Philadelphia eagle dated 1843 is scarcer than its high mintage New Orleans counterpart. I'd go with a nice Choice AU 1843.
1844: The little-known 1844 is actually a rare coin in all grades and a real stopper in AU50 and above. Thus, I'd go with the 1844-O and look for a nice mid-range AU that had good color and surfaces.
1845: Again, the Philadelphia eagle is rarer but the 1845 is not nearly as hard to locate as the 1844. I'd look for a nice 1845-P in the lower AU grades as I think this issue is very good value in this range.
1846: This is the last of the tougher date Philadelphia issues for the next decade+. I'd stick with a nice AU50 to AU55 and I'd be patient for one with good color and fewer marks than average. In my opinion, nice 1846-P eagles remain undervalued at current levels.
1847: Both the 1847-P and 1847-O are common issues. I'd go for a nice AU55 to AU58 example of the New Orleans coin.
1848: The 1848-O isn't really rare but it is a tough coin to locate above AU53 to AU55, especially with original color and surfaces. I'd look for a nice example, keeping in mind that all pieces known have weak overall strikes.
1849: I'm a big fan of the 1849-O eagle as a date and believe that nice examples in all grades above EF40 are much harder to locate than generally believed. The Philadelphia issue is affordable in grades up to and including MS61/62.
1850: There are two varieties of 1850-P eagle: the Small Date and the Large date. The former is much scarcer and it is very overlooked. I'd look for a nice mid-range AU example.
1851: Both the Philadelphia and New Orleans eagles from 1851 are fairly non-descript issues. I'd stick with an 1851-P and look for a pleasing AU58.
1852: The 1852-P is very common while the 1852-O is a scarce to rare issue. I like the latter quite a bit and would probably rather have a pleasing EF45 for the same price that I'd be spending on an MS60 to MS61 1852-P.
1853: The most interesting issue struck in 1853 is the 1853/2 overdate from Philadelphia. This is the only confirmed overdate in the entire Liberty Head eagle series and it is an underappreciated coin in all grades. I'd look for a nice AU50 to AU55.
1854: With the opening of the San Francisco mint, the number of facilities coining eagles grows to three in 1854. The 1854-S isn't a really scarce coin but it is a neat date and it is certainly the issue I'd choose to represent this year for my date set. Look for an AU50 to AU55 example with minimal bagmarks.
1855: Of the three eagles struck in 1855, the Philadelphia coin is common, the New Orleans coin is scarce and the San Francisco coin is rare. I would personally choose the 1855-O and I'd look for a coin in the EF45 to AU53 range.
1856: For this year, Philadelphia and San Francisco are common while the 1856-O is scarce to very scarce. I like the 1856-O eagle and would vote to include a choice EF45 to AU53 example in my year set.
1857: The mintage figures for all three issues are lower in 1857 than they were in the previous few years. The 1857-P is a sleeper that is still a good value in circulated grades while the 1857-O is undervalued. But I'd probably go with the 1857-S because of its historic association with the popular S.S. Central America double eagles dated 1857-S.
1858: The 1858-P is a famous rarity with just 2,521 struck. If you can find (and afford) a pleasing EF example, I'd strongly recommend including it in this set. The 1858-S is a rare coin as well. For practical purposes, you might want to pursue the more affordable 1858-O in AU50 to AU55.
1859: As this decade draws to a close, mintages continue to shrink. The 1859-P is fairly common while the 1859-O is very rare and the 1859-S is rare. To keep your powder dry for the rare coins that await in the 1860's, I'd suggest looking for a choice AU 1859-P.
1860: This is the final issue from New Orleans until 1879 so it seems natural to choose the 1860-O. The Philadelphia issue is common while the San Francisco issue is very rare. An 1860-O in AU50 to AU55 is affordable yet historic.
1861: Beginning with this year, we are back to two mints striking eagles: Philadelphia and San Francisco. The former is common while the latter is scarce to very scarce. I'd choose a nice AU58 to MS61 1861-P eagle as it is by far the most affordable Civil War issue.
1862: Until recently the 1862-P was an undiscovered sleeper but prices have risen as collectors learn of its true scarcity. The 1862-S is very rare and seldom seen above EF45. I'd stick with an Extremely Fine example of the 1862-P.
1863: This year is among the most challenging in this set as both issues are very rare. The Philadelphia eagle is a major rarity with just 1,248 examples produced. The San Francisco eagle has a mintage of 10,000 and it is more available. I'd stick with a nice EF example of the 1863-S but if a sensible 1863-P became available I'd consider it strongly as it is still very undervalued.
1864: Think the 1863 eagles were tough? Try the 1864. The 1864-P is rare with 3,580 struck while the 1864-S is one of the great rarities in the series with only 2,500 struck. You really can't go wrong with either coin for your set but as you as more likely to find an 1864-P than an 1864-S, I'd have to suggest going for the former. I'd splurge on this date and buy the nicest quality you can afford.
1865: Things don't get much easier in 1865. The Philadelphia issue is very rare while there are two varieties from San Francisco: the Normal Date and the Inverted Date. I'd choose the latter due to its "coolness factor" and the difficulty of locating the other issues. An EF40 to AU50 is going to be about the best you'll see for this year.
1866: This is a numismatically significant issue as it represents a transitional year. The San Francisco mint struck eagles with and without the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the reverse while Philadelphia only made with motto coins. I'd opt for the rare 1866-S No Motto which had a mintage of only 8,500. Anything grading higher than EF45 will be very expensive.
So there you have it. A total of 28 issues make up the No Motto part of the Liberty Head eagle set. There are three mints to choose from for some years and only a few dates (the 1863, 1864 and 1865 in particular) that will be hard to find and high priced. Assuming you follow the suggestions for dates and grades that I made above, we are probably talking about an overall average per coin cost of around $4,000-5,000. This translates to a low cost of around $112,000 and a high cost of around $140,000. If you were to pick the most common issue for each date and stick with coins in the EF40 to AU50 range, this would probably lower the cost to less than $100,000.
In Part Two of this article, which will be published in February 2012, we will look at the 1867-1907 dates. We'll see the introduction of the Carson City mint, the resumption of the New Orleans mint, the short duration of the Denver mint...and we'll have a good ol' numismatic time.