The half eagle is the very first gold coin to be struck at the United States mint. This denomination was struck without interruption from 1795 to 1929, and it is the only U.S. gold issue to be produced at all eight United States mints. It is very popular with collectors, but the seemingly endless duration makes it very hard to collect by date. Because of this fact, it is an ideal set to collect by type. Let's take at the eight major types that constitute a half eagle set from 1795 to 1929. The beauty of this set is that while it contains some rare coins, it can be completed by most collectors; even in relatively high grades. While probably not realistic in Gem Uncirculated (although certainly feasible, albeit at a significant price), this set is very realistic in Uncirculated. In fact, many of the coins can be purchased in MS63 and MS64 grades for less than the price of far less rare 20th century gold issues.
1. Capped Bust Small Eagle (1795-1798)
While this type is dated from 1795 through 1798, for most collectors the only two realistic dates for type purposes are the 1795 and the 1796/5. The 1797 is very rare and the 1798 is exceedingly rare with just eight known.
If I were going to be putting this set together, there is no doubt that I would select a 1795 as my Capped Bust Small Eagle type coin. Even though the 1796/5 is much scarcer and probably undervalued in relation to the 1795, the latter is a first-year-of-issue which gives it considerable numismatic significance.
A total of 8,707 1795 Small Eagle reverse half eagles were struck. There are hundreds of coins known, in grades that range from VF+ to EF all the way up to Gem. Depending on the collector's budget, I would suggest either looking for a nice AU50 to AU53 coin or a solid MS62 to MS63. A nice AU coin should be available in the $50,000-60,000 range while an MS62 to MS63 will cost $100,000-150,000.
Due to the price and significance of this coin, I regard it as one of the key members of the half eagle type set. Therefore, the collector should be patient and fussy in his quest for the "right" coin. I think it is important to find an example with choice surfaces and original color. Nice, cosmetically appealing 1795 half eagles used to be available with relative ease a decade ago, but they have become hard to find as so many have been dipped or lightened. A high-end, original coin is worth at least a 15-20% premium over a typical example.
2. Capped Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle Reverse (1795-1807)
This is one of my favorite types of half eagle. It can be neatly subdivided into two categories: those issues struck prior to 1800, and those struck afterwards.
For the pre-1800 issues, there are two dates that make sense for a type set: the 1798 and the 1799. There are a number of varieties of 1798, but the most available (and the one that is best for a type set) is the Large 8 with 13 stars on the reverse. The mintage figure for the 1798 half eagle is reported to be 24,867, and it is likely that no more than 500-750 examples survive in all grades. A nice AU example of the 1798 half eagle should be available for under $25,000-30,000. An Uncirculated coin will cost $40,000-80,000+. In my opinion, the best grades for a type set are AU55 to AU58 and MS62.
The 1799 has a reported mintage of only 7,451 and I regard it as a real "sleeper" in the early half eagle series. It isn't that much more costly than the 1798, yet it is at least two times as rare. I recently sold a lovely PCGS MS62 with CAC approval for less than $45,000, and this seems like truly good value to me.
For most collectors, the best coin to seek for their Capped Bust Right Heraldic Eagle reverse type is going to be a half eagle dated from 1800 to 1807. All of these dates are relatively common, and each has its own merits for inclusion in the set.
If you are going to stick with an AU coin, you should be able to purchase a lovely, high-end example in the $10,000-15,000 range. In Uncirculated, an MS62 will cost around $17,500-20,000+, while an MS63 is $30,000+.
A few important factors to consider when buying this type are originality, color, nice surfaces and a lack of detracting marks. This is a common enough coin that you can afford to be quite finicky when pursuing it. If you don't really like a specific coin, wait until you find the "right" one.
3. Capped Bust Left (1807-1812)
In 1807, Reich again redesigned the half eagle. The new design features a Capped Bust Left obverse and an entirely new reverse.
All six years of this design are basically similar in overall rarity. All six issues also tend to be well made and fairly easy to locate in grades up to and including MS63. This makes it among the easier types in this set to acquire.
What year is "best" for this set? I like the 1812, given its historic association with the War of 1812, but I also like the 1807 for its significance as the first-year-of-issue for the Capped Head Left type. But none of these dates is really "better" than any other.
The best buying tips that I can give for this type are similar with the other early types discussed in this article. If you are purchasing a nice About Uncirculated coins, look for a piece that has the appearance of a Mint State coin but just a slight amount of friction on the high spots. On Uncirculated coins, try and stick with those that are original and those that are minimally abraded with good color and good overall eye appeal.
A nice AU Capped Bust Left should be readily available in the $10,000-15,000 range. A nice Uncirculated coin (one that grades MS62 to MS63) will cost in the area of $20,000-35,000+ depending on the date and grade.
4. Capped Head Left (1813-1834)
The half eagles struck from 1813 through 1834 include some of the rarest and interesting issues of this entire denomination. Unlike some of the very rare half eagles from the 1860's and 1870's, these issues tend not to be rare due to low mintages but because of intensive meltings that began in 1834. The weight of the half eagle was lowered during this year, making the old issues worth more intrinsically than their face value. Most of the issues from the 1820's were almost totally wiped out in the process. The most extreme example is the 1822, of which just three survive from an original mintage of 17,796.
But not all the Capped Head Left half eagles are extreme rarities and it is from the small number of more available dates that the type collector will probably make his selection. The most common issues of this design are the 1813, 1814/3, 1818, and 1820. "Common" is a relative term here, though, as some of these dates, like the 1818 and 1820 are quite rare when compared to the last two types that we discussed in this article.
For type purposes, the 1813 is clearly the best date to choose for this set. It is easily the most available date and it tends to come better produced as well. A nice AU example can be found for less than $15,000 and an MS62 to MS63 is available for less than $30,000.
Let's say that you want to add some real "meat" to this set and decide to include a very rare issue. Is this possible? With patience and a large budget, it is. The 1824, 1825, 1826, and 1827 are all very rare coins but they do become available on average of once (or possibly twice) per year. These issues didn't circulate very much so just a few exist in grades below MS60. If a nice AU coin is available, a collector is looking at an expenditure of at least $50,000-60,000+ while a solid MS62 to MS63 will cost in the $80,000-100,000 range.
In 1829, an important change occurred to the design of this type: the diameter was reduced. Design changes that reflect this include smaller date, letter and star sizes. The 1829-1834 subtype could certainly be included in this half eagle set but it is not absolutely necessary. If it is included, this is a challenging hole to fill as all six issues are quite rare due to the wholesale meltings, mentioned above, that occurred in 1834.
5. Classic Head (1834-1838)
The size and weight of the half eagle was reduced in 1834 and this is reflected by an entirely new design by William Kneass. The Classic Head type was struck from 1834 through 1838. This is a popular and numismatically significant type as it includes the first branch mint issues for this denomination. The southern branch mints at Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans opened in 1838. The 1838-C and 1838-D issues are scarce and extremely popular, but as they are not readily available in higher grades they are not generally included in a half eagle type set.
Most collectors will select a Philadelphia issue. Due to high original mintage figures, Classic Head half eagles tend to be readily available in circulated grades and are not rare in Uncirculated until you reach the MS64 to MS65 range.
In the highest circulated grades, a common date Classic Head half eagle can be purchased for less than $3,000. Even though these coins are reasonably common, it is remarkable that a classic United States gold coin that is over 175 years old is still so affordable. In MS62 to MS63, a nice coin will cost $6,000-12,000 while an MS64, if it is available, will cost around $20,000+.
Here are some suggestions when buying a Classic Head half eagle. First, if you can, try and buy a date other than the 1834. While interesting as the first-year-of-issue, the 1834 is appreciably more common than dates such as the 1835, 1836, and 1838. Yet in spite of this, these scarcer dates sell for a small premium, even in comparatively high grades. Second, look for a coin with deep, rich natural color. This type is available with good eye appeal and a pretty example is clearly going to add more "oomph" to this set than a washed-out, average quality piece. Finally, try and find a well-struck coin. This design is often weak at the centers so avoid coins that show little central detail.
6. Liberty Head, No Motto Reverse (1839-1866)
The Liberty Head design should be familiar to most collectors as it existed, in this basic format, all the way from 1839 until 1907. The coins struck prior to 1866 did not include the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the reverse.
Known to collectors as No Motto half eagles, these Liberty Head issues were made at the Charlotte, Dahlonega, Carson City, New Orleans and San Francisco branch mints as well as at Philadelphia.
For most collectors, a Philadelphia No Motto half eagle makes the most sense as a type coin. The more common dates from the 1840's and early 1850's tend to be readily available in the lower Uncirculated grades (MS62 and below) and can be obtained for under $5,000. A collector who wants a nice MS64 will have his choice between a few different dates and should expect to pay around $20,000. Gems of this type do exist, but they are expensive and hard to locate.
The half eagles struck in 1839 are actually a distinct one-year type with a different rendition of the portrait as well as the mintmark on the obverse for the Charlotte and Dahlonega issues. The 1839 half eagle is not rare in circulated grades, but it is scarce in Uncirculated and quite rare in MS62 and above. Expect to pay at least $15,000-20,000 for a higher quality Uncirculated example. A nice AU piece can be found for less than $3,000.
7. Liberty Head, With Motto Reverse (1866-1907)
The With Motto Liberty Head is among the more common types in this set. It was produced from 1866 to 1907 in prodigious quantity at the Philadelphia, Carson City, New Orleans, Denver and San Francisco mints.
For type purposes, most collectors will select a common date Philadelphia or San Francisco With Motto half eagle. The lowest grade that should be included in a better-quality set is probably MS63 to MS64 and a really nice coin is going to be readily available for less than $2,000. As a hint, I'd suggest that you look for a date struck prior to 1900, as that adds a "neatness" factor.
This type is actually easy to find in grades up to and including MS66. I'm not certain I'd commit spending a lot more than $10,000 on an example for a type set unless this set involved a "best of everything" mindset.
8. Indian Head (1908-1929)
The final type in the half eagle set is the attractive and popular Indian Head design. These coins were struck from 1908 to 1929.
This is an easy type to locate in any grade up to and including MS65. An MS64 would be the lowest quality coin I'd recommend for type purposes and these have come down in price to the point where you can buy a nice one for less than $5,000. In MS65, prices have dropped as well and what was once a $20,000-ish coin can now be found for around $12,500.
Here are a few hints when looking for an Indian Head half eagle. First, try to find a slightly better date (like a 1909 or a 1911) that used to sell for a premium, but which is now essentially a type coin. Secondly, be patient and wait for a coin with great color and choice, original surfaces. This is an easy coin to locate so you should wait for a coin that really "speaks" to you.
Assembling this eight (or ten) coin set is a real challenge and quite a bit of fun. Depending on your budget, you could include coins grading from Extremely Fine to Gem Uncirculated. Because of the rarity and cost of the 1795, this is never going to be an inexpensive set, but it is one that I think has the potential to be very desirable in the future.