Carson City Half Eagles: An Introduction and Overview

Assembling a collection of Carson City five dollar gold pieces or half eagles is extremely challenging. Completing a set of these coins, regardless of grade, is among the more formidable tasks a gold coin specialist can endeavor to undertake. Consider the fact that only 45-55 examples of the key coin in this set -- the 1870-CC -- are thought to exist. This means that only 45 to 55 complete collections of Carson City half eagles can ever be assembled. Much of the allure of collecting these coins (in addition to the romantic appeal of the "Old West") has to do with the fact that this series can be completed. There are only 19 different dates. This aspect is very appealing to many collectors. Unlike certain series where the run of dates seems endless and often numbing, this is a relatively short yet challenging project. In addition, there are no great rarities which are impossible to locate or prohibitively expensive. The challenge of this set can increase dramatically when the grades and eye appeal for each issue are factored upwards.

For the collector who is not familiar with Carson City half eagles, this series will come as a surprise. These are true "collector coins." They tend to hold their value in bear markets and show strong, steady appreciation over time. Carson City half eagles have multiple levels of demand. They are sought by general collectors, type collectors and specialists. Certain pieces may attract the attention of half eagle specialists, Carson City specialists or general collectors who are putting together seven mint sets of Liberty Head half eagles (the only gold denomination struck at all seven United States mints).

It is impossible to complete set of Carson City half eagles in Mint State regardless of a collector's time or resources. Several of the dates are unknown in any Mint State grade. Currently, there is not a single Uncirculated 1872-CC or 1878-CC half eagle known to exist. Five other dates--the 1871-CC, 1873-CC, 1875-CC, 1876-CC and 1877-CC--are currently represented by just one or two Uncirculated examples. And six more dates--the 1870-CC, 1874-CC, 1879-CC, 1881-CC, 1883-CC and 1884-CC--have just two to four Uncirculated coins known.

The only Carson City half eagles which are relatively obtainable in Uncirculated are those struck in the 1890's. These range in scarcity from the 1892-CC with 50-75 coins known in Uncirculated to the 1891-CC with a population believed to be in the area of 400-500+. The availability of an issue such as the 1891-CC half eagle makes it very popular as it is the only half eagle from this mint which can be purchased in Mint State by the collector of average means. (But, at the same time, this issue is surprisingly rare in Mint State-64 and almost unknown in any grade above this level.)

An incremental breakdown for the Mint State-63 grade is as follows:

Choice (Mint State-63 and Mint State-64) and Gem (Mint State-65) Carson City half eagles are very rare. I estimate that there are probably fewer than 10 pieces surviving in true Mint State-65. As of the spring of 2000, only one Carson City half eagle has ever been graded higher than Mint State-65 by one of the major grading services.

There are probably fewer than three dozen choice Uncirculated Carson City half eagles known to exist. The vast majority of the choice and gem Carson City half eagles were struck during the 1890-1893 era.

Why are these coins so rare in Mint State? The best answer has to do with the fact that there were no coin collectors living in Nevada in the 19th century. No one saved these coins and the few Mint State pieces which exist today are here by chance. They may have been placed in a bank vault and forgotten for a century. Some found their way to European or South American banks where they were sent as payment for international debts. A few others may have been put in a drawer or a cabinet and subsequently lost by their original owners. And some were undoubtedly assay pieces which were sent to the Philadelphia Mint for inspection but never destroyed.

In examining the rarity of Carson City half eagles, several trends are noted. Survival figures depend on the original mintage figures for a specific issue and they also vary by the decade in which a coin was struck. In general, the rarest issues are those which were struck from 1870 to 1878. With the sole exception of those struck in 1881, the half eagles produced from 1879 through 1884 are less rare. And those coined from 1890 to 1893 are relatively common in comparison.

After careful analysis, it becomes apparent that one cannot simply deduce the number of surviving coins or the condition rarity of any Carson City gold coin solely from their original mintage figures. One must study auction records and private treaty sales and gather as much information as possible from prominent collectors and dealers as well as examine the population reports issued by PCGS and NGC. After carefully examining the currently available information, certain trends clearly begin to emerge.

The older coins (i.e., those struck from 1870 to 1878) have survived roughly in proportion to their original mintage figures below. I estimate that between 2 percent to as little as one-half of 1 percent of each year's half eagle production has survived. In general, the older the coin, the lower the average surviving coin's grade and the lower number of high grade pieces which exist. This is common sense as the longer an issue is in circulation, the more likely it is that coins of that date will be worn or destroyed. Thus, the rarest Carson City half eagle is the 1870-CC (which is also the oldest) despite the fact that it has only the third lowest mintage.

The second rarest Carson City half eagle is the 1873-CC. This issue has an estimated surviving population of only 50-60 coins. My research indicates that this date is even more rare than was previously believed. The reasons for the rarity of the 1873-CC half eagle include its low mintage figure of 7,416 and its early date of issuance combined with the fact that it was not saved.

One issue which I find very interesting is the 1878-CC. It has a relatively high mintage of 9,054 but it is the third rarest Carson City half eagle with an estimated population of 60-70. The reason for the rarity and unusually low survival rare of this issue is not known.

Another interesting issue is the 1876-CC. I estimate that 70-80 are known out of a low original mintage of 6,887 coins. Despite a significantly lower mintage than the 1878-CC, the 1876-CC is actually less rare. Conversely, the 1881-CC half eagle (with a mintage of 13,886) appears to be as rare as the 1876-CC.

The 1877-CC (with an original mintage of 8,680 coins) has a disproportionately high survival rate. Approximately 75-85 are known, making it as rare as the 1872-CC, which has an original mintage of 16,980 coins. There is no clear explanation as to why the 1877-CC half eagle is more common than its mintage suggests. It is interesting to note that the 1877-CC eagle is found in higher grades (i.e., Extremely Fine and better) out of proportion to the other dates in the eagle series. This strongly suggests that there was a small hoard of higher grade 1877-CC half eagles and eagles in existence at one time.

The 1879-1884 Carson City half eagles are found in proportion roughly to their original mintage figures with the notable exceptions of the 1880-CC and the 1881-CC. The number of surviving 1880-CC half eagles is less than its original mintage of 51,017 suggests. In fact, the surviving population of this date most closely resembles the 1879-CC, which has a mintage nearly two-thirds smaller (17,281 coins). The 1881-CC has a surviving population of 70-80 coins, which is much smaller than one might project from its original mintage of 13,886.

What is unexpected about these two dates is that they actually have lower survival percentages than the issues from the 1870's. I cannot state with certainty why this is so, but a possible reason might be that some 1880-CC and 1881-CC half eagles were melted. This explanation becomes more plausible when one notes that there was a bullion shortage at the Carson City Mint in 1880-1881. (This is further confirmed by the fact that no double eagles were struck in Carson City during these two years due to a lack of available gold bullion). Another reason might be that the original mintage figures are incorrect and fewer 1880-CC and 1881-CC half eagles were produced than the current figures indicate.

The general trend of the 1890's Carson City half eagles is that the issues with higher mintage figures are more available today than those issues with lower original mintages. The one exception is the 1892-CC. While it has an original mintage of 82,968 coins, it is less commonly found in high grades than the lower mintage 1890-CC (53,800 struck) and 1893-CC (60,000 struck). Again, there is no satisfactory explanation for this anomaly.

Carson City gold coinage was heavily circulated. In the early days of the western gold and silver rushes, paper money was viewed with suspicion and contempt. Gold coins quickly became the accepted medium of exchange. Thus, it is not surprising to learn that most surviving Carson City gold coins show heavy wear and excessive contact marks. These marks were often compounded when loose coins were thrown into bags and shipped by stagecoach to San Francisco or other distant cities. Gold is the softest coinage metal and it is relatively easy for coins struck in this metal to pick up heavy contact marks when they hit against each other. As a rule, half eagles have fewer marks than eagles and double eagles. This is because when these smaller coins hit against each other in bags they do not have the weight and surface area to make large bagmarks on each other (as do double eagles, in particular).

For the collector, locating attractive, higher grade Carson City gold coins without excessive surface marks is a tremendous challenge. Certain dates, especially those struck from 1870 to 1878, are inevitably found heavily worn and severely marked.

The rarest Carson City half eagle in Extremely Fine or higher grades is the 1878-CC. I estimate that only 16-20 such coins are currently known, of which only three or four grade About Uncirculated. Even though the 1870-CC is a rarer coin overall, it is more available in higher grades as witnessed by the fact that as many as 23-27 pieces remain in Extremely Fine or higher grades. One can speculate that the number of 1870-CC half eagles which do exist results from being a first-year-of-issue coin which may have been saved (albeit in very small quantities) as a souvenir. The 1878-CC, on the other hand, lacked this novelty value and those which survived the melting pot tend to show considerable evidence of hard circulation.

Two other Carson City half eagles which are prohibitively rare in higher grades are the 1873-CC and the 1872-CC. Approximately 17-21 of the former are known in Extremely Fine or higher while the latter issue has a population estimated at 19-22 coins. The 1873-CC is extremely rare in About Uncirculated with just five or six known and two known in Mint State while only 6-8 About Uncirculated pieces and no Mint State 1872-CC are known.

As one might well expect, dates with higher mintage figures are more available in high grades. The 1872-CC is more available than certain other dates in the early 1870's because of its relatively high mintage. But its age makes it a very rare coin in About Uncirculated (with just six to eight known). The 1871-CC, while also an "older date," is a bit more available in higher grades (46-52 known in Extremely Fine or better including one or two Uncirculated pieces) since it has the second highest mintage figure of any date struck in the 1870's.

The 1874-CC is the second most available Carson City half eagle struck in the 1870's. Between 40-46 coins are known which grade Extremely Fine or better with twelve to fifteen of these grading About Uncirculated and three grading Mint State. I have an interesting theory to explain why this date is not only one of the two most common Carson City half eagle struck in the 1870's (aside from having the highest mintage) but also why a higher percentage of the survivors than one would assume are in high grades. In 1874, there was a coin shortage on the East Coast. Much of the Carson City coinage from 1874 was transported to the East for use in circulation there. As paper money was more readily accepted in this area of the country, it is possible that many of these coins did not see wide circulation. Perhaps some of them were even stored in banks and were never used. This also seems to be the case with 1874-CC eagles which have a similar level of availability in higher grades.

By 1879 and into the 1880's, the mintages of Carson City half eagles were higher and more were sent overseas to banks for debt payment. These coins saw less circulation than those struck in the 1870's and, thus, are found in higher grades today.

The 1881-CC is the rarest Carson City half eagle struck in the 1880's. But more examples have survived in high grades than its low mintage and overall rarity would suggest. I estimate that 33-39 pieces exist in Extremely Fine or better with possibly nine to twelve of these in About Uncirculated and another two or three in Mint State. As one might expect, the diminished use of gold in the 1880's gives this coin an unusual grade distribution of survivors.

The 1890's Carson City half eagles are by far the most plentiful of these issues. More than 50 percent of all the surviving Carson City half eagles--regardless of date--are dated from 1890 to 1893. Approximately 90 percent of all surviving Mint State Carson City half eagles date from the 1890's. Furthermore, about 75 percent of the remaining About Uncirculated Carson City half eagles date from the 1890's.

The relatively large number of high grade Carson City half eagles from the 1890's stems from several causes. The mintage figure for coins in this decade was much higher than in the previous two decades. More of the coins were shipped overseas and thus escaped wholesale government meltings in the 1930's. As paper money became more readily accepted in the western United States, these coins saw less and less circulation. And the decline of the western mining industry in the 1890's meant that fewer coins were needed in circulation.

Most of the early issues (particularly those dated 1870 through 1876) are weakly struck. This weak strike is most noticeable in the central portion of the coin where the greatest amount of pressure is needed to raise the metal of the actual planchet. On the obverse, coins which are weakly struck will display flatness in the curls on the neck of Liberty as well as flatness on the top and the back of her hair. On the reverse, this weakness of strike is usually seen on the neck of the eagle, the central shield and on the talons of the eagle. This weakness is frequently misinterpreted as wear. Because of this, many early Carson City half eagles are often undergraded even by professional graders. Finding a sharply struck example of a certain date is very challenging at best and it is nearly impossible for others.

The 1870-CC is usually found weakly struck in the curls on Liberty's neck and in the neck feathers of the eagle. The 1871-CC half eagles are usually found with a better strike except for the shield on the reverse which often comes flat. The 1872-CC is nearly always very flat on the obverse as are 1873-CC's; this latter issue is also frequently weak on the eagle's neck. The 1874-CC shows a sharper obverse but the reverse comes weakly impressed, especially on the eagle's neck feathers. The 1875-CC is unquestionably the worst struck Carson City half eagle. Several varieties are known; some have a weak obverse and others have a weak reverse. The 1879-1893 issues do not suffer from these problems of strike although it is not uncommon to see examples with some weakness at the centers of the obverse and the reverse.

The estimates of survival given in this book are based on current knowledge, as of 2000. As time passes, it is certain that more coins will surface from old or previously unknown collections, hoards and accumulations. This will lead to more accurate survival estimates and Condition Census data. While most dates will show an increase in the number of coins believed to exist, others may actually show a decrease due to examples being lost by accident or ignorance.

When Walter Breen wrote his landmark monographs on United States gold coins in the 1960's, he stated that many Carson City coins are much, much rarer than we now know them to be. Multiple higher grade examples of even the rarest issues have surfaced in the past three decades. There are, without a doubt, several other very significant Carson City half eagles which will be "discovered" in the years to come. I have attempted to address this situation by providing a probable high end and low end spread in our rarity estimates. This allows for the inclusion of currently unrecorded coins which I believe may exist.

My review of auction data, fixed price lists, dealer advertisements and available private treaty sale records provides an accurate idea as to the difficulty in amassing a complete collection of Carson City half eagles. For the 1870-1878 issues, it is typical for between zero and four specimens to be available each year. Often the only examples which can be purchased are in lower grades and may have minor to significant problems. As probability would have it, in some years a certain date may be prevalent or it may be nearly impossible to find. As a rule of thumb, it is safe to say that the rarer the date and the higher the grade desired, the harder it will be to find a specific coin. Many high grade pieces are held by museums or are owned by collectors who have no intention of selling them.

It is certainly possible to put together a run of Extremely Fine to About Uncirculated Carson City half eagles dated from 1870 to 1884. Trying to complete this group in Uncirculated is, of course, impossible and an About Uncirculated set is a virtual impossibility as well. Obtaining nice Mint State examples of the 1890's issues, fortunately, is not that difficult or costly.

The budget-conscious collector should not feel excluded from this series. All of the Carson City half eagles (even the 1870-CC) can be found in nice Very Good to Very Fine grades. Although these coins do show substantial wear and are not as attractive as higher grade specimens, they are wonderfully evocative of the history of the Old West and the colorful characters who are the basis of its legends.

For the typical United States gold coin collector, obtaining one example of each date in grades ranging from choice Very Fine to Uncirculated is a realistic goal. This project can be completed in a year or two. Its estimated cost can be determined by obtaining a current numismatic pricing guide.

The connoisseur with a generous budget might be interested in putting together a set of Carson City half eagles grading Extremely Fine and better. For the 1870-1878 and 1881 issues, he should look for examples which grade Extremely Fine-40 or better and which have as few contact marks as possible. For the 1879, 1880 and 1882-1884 issues, the collector should look for pleasing, lustrous About Uncirculated-50 or better coins. For those issues struck in the 1890's, he should seek clean, lustrous Mint State-60 or better pieces. A collection such as this could be completed within a three to five year time frame.

There are a few advanced collectors who study die varieties. Such individuals seek to complete a collection which includes all of the known--and possibly some unknown--die varieties. To my knowledge, only a small number of individuals have a complete or nearly complete collection of Carson City half eagles by die variety.

Coin collectors of all budgets can enjoy the fun, romance and challenges of Carson City half eagles. To further assist collectors of all levels, the following pages give detailed information on each half eagle issue. Information on die characteristics, varieties and overall rarity as well as grade rarity are provided. Also, the current Condition Census listing of the finest known examples for each issue is listed for reference. The photographs of each half eagle are enlarged to twice their actual size for better clarity.