Through the 1820's, half eagles did not circulate. They were, instead, used by bullion depositors for export trade or melted by speculators due to their being worth more than face value. This problem was remedied with the passage of the Act of June 28, 1834 which lowered the weight of the quarter eagle and half eagle. A new design was rendered by William Kneass and the Classic Head half eagle series was born in the latter part of 1834. Classic Head half eagles are an interesting bridge between the "old gold" designs of the early 19th century and the Liberty Head issues which ran from 1838 until 1907. The Classic Head design was produced for only five years. The half eagles of this design are notable for including the first branch mint issues of this denomination.
This is an interesting series to collect. You can assemble a date set or a three piece mint set that contains examples from Philadelphia, Charlotte and Dahlonega. There are also enough interesting die varieties to consider specializing in Classic Head half eagles.
1834 Plain 4
This is the most common Classic Head half eagle. There are a few thousand known in grades ranging from heavily worn to Gem Uncirculated. Most are weakly struck at the central obverse, especially on the curls below BER in LIBERTY. The luster is often exceptional with textures ranging from frosty to satiny to almost fully Prooflike. The natural coloration is a rich orange-gold or yellow-gold. High grade 1834 Plain 4 half eagles can have extremely good eye appeal and there are some truly handsome pieces known. Varieties are known with a Large 4 and a Small 4 as well as two different styles of Liberty Head. The finest piece I can recall having seen was a PCGS MS-66 which brought $85,600 in the 1994 ANA sale. This issue makes a good type coin given its relative availability in high grades and the relative availability of attractive pieces.
1834 Crosslet 4
A small number of the nearly 700,000 Classic Head half eagles produced in 1834 show a Crosslet 4 in the date. This variety is also distinguished by having smaller arrows on the reverse than on the Plain 4 coins. It is usually found in the Extremely Fine-40 to About Uncirculated-50 range and has a better strike than the Plain 4 coins. The luster is often semi-prooflike and the surfaces show numerous marks below green-gold color. This is the rarest Classic Head half eagle in terms of its overall rarity and the rarest Philadelphia issue in high grade. Uncirculated pieces are quite rare and I have never seen or heard of one that graded higher than Mint State-63. It is still possible to "cherrypick" a piece from a dealer and I previously did this with some degree of regularity in the 1970's.
The 1835, while not a rare date, is many times scarcer than the 1834 Plain 4. It is generally fairly well struck with slight weakness noted at the central obverse and on the wing tips. The luster is not as good as on other Classic Head half eagles and original, higher grade pieces typically have a slightly subdued grainy texture. The natural coloration is often medium to deep green-gold. Many 1835 half eagles have been cleaned at one time and also show deep, detracting abrasions. This is a hard coin to find with good eye appeal and it becomes quite scarce in Mint State-62 and rare in Mint State-63 or above. I have never seen a Gem and have seen maybe half a dozen accurately graded Mint State-64's. There are three major varieties known. The first has a noticeably curved neck on Liberty, a single forelock and a small date. The second has a much more curved neck and a small date with the 3 nearly closed in appearance. The final variety, which is rare, has a head that is also distinguished by a curved neck on Liberty but with a more narrow end. On this variety, the date is large.
The Classic Head design was slightly modified in 1836 by Christian Gobrecht. There are numerous varieties known this year and the 1836 is, along with the 1834 Plain 4, the most fertile Classic Head half eagle for the die variety specialist. The most easily distinguishable varieties have a Small 5 and Large 5 in the valuation on the reverse. The 1836 is the second most common half eagle of this design. It is common in all circulated grades and only moderately scarce in Mint State-60 to Mint State-62. It becomes very scarce in Mint State-63 and rare in Mint State-64. Gems are extremely rare. The best piece I have personally seen was the Bass II: 848 coin, graded Mint State-64 by PCGS, that brought $29,900. Most examples show weakness of strike at the centers and are characterized by heavily abraded surfaces. The natural color ranges from medium orange-gold to deep green-gold. The luster is often satiny but tends to be impaired as the result of prior cleanings or dippings.
Like the quarter eagle of this year, the 1837 half eagle is a scarce and very underrated issue. A lower than average percentage of the original mintage figure of 207,121 has survived and most are well worn. This date is not easily found in the higher About Uncirculated grades and it is very scarce in Uncirculated. It becomes rare in Mint State-63 and it is very rare in any grade higher. The best example I can recall seeing was the sensational PCGS MS-66 that brought $97,750 in the Bass II sale. Varieties are known with a Large Date and a Small Date; the latter is considerably scarcer. The 1837 half eagle usually has a decent strike with some weakness on the hair below BE in LIBERTY and at the corresponding reverse. The surfaces are often very heavily abraded and it is hard to locate a piece that has not been cleaned or dipped. The luster is typically frosty but some impressive semi-prooflike or even fully prooflike pieces exist.
This issue is unusual for the type as it is scarce in terms of its overall rarity but fairly available in higher grades. This suggests that a hoard existed at one time and this observation is given further credence by the fact that most of the Uncirculated pieces have a similar appearance. The 1838 makes an ideal Classic Head type coin as it is among the best produced issues of this type. It is often seen with a very sharp strike, attractive rich orange-gold color and frosty, bold luster. Two major varieties are known. One has large arrows and a small 5 in the value while the other has small arrows and a large 5. The 1838 is not hard to locate in the higher circulated grades and Mint State-60 to Mint State-63 coins can be found without much difficulty. Gems are rare but do surface more often than any other Classic Head half eagle.
The 1838-C is the rarest Classic Head half eagle in high grades. It is also one of my favorite branch mint gold coins. Its popularity is due to its status as the first half eagle from this mint and its status as a one-year type. Unlike the 1838-D, there are very few examples known in high grades. Of the estimated 150-175 pieces in existence, most are in the Fine to Very Fine range. Accurately graded Extremely Fine coins are quite scarce and About Uncirculated-50 to 53 coins are rare. In the higher AU grades, the 1838-C half eagle is very rare and there are just two Mint State pieces currently known. The best is a PCGS MS-63 that was most recently sold in the Bass II auction (in 1999) for $86,250. This issue is typically found with poor detail, extensive abrasions and unoriginal color. Two varieties are known. The more common has a repunched 5 in 5 D. while the rarer has a repunched 5. The great majority of 1838-C half eagles have massive die cracks on the reverse; examples with no cracks are extremely scarce.
The 1838-D is popular for the same reasons as the 1838-C. Unlike its Charlotte counterpart, this is an issue that is relatively available in higher grades There are 200-250 pieces known from an original mintage of 20,583. While most often seen in Very Fine and Extremely Fine, there are enough About Uncirculated pieces around that the collector should be able to find one without difficulty. In Uncirculated, this is a rare issue but it is much more available than the 1838-C. Nine or ten Uncirculated pieces exist with most of these in the MS-60 to MS-61 range. The 1838-D is a much better struck issue than the 1838-C and it shows considerably more detail on the hair and the feathers. Most higher grade pieces have nice luster but it is hard to find coins with original color. There are a few exceptionally attractive 1838-D half eagles known and when they are offered for sale, they tend to sell for strong premiums over typical quality pieces.
Bona-fide Proofs are known for a number of dates in this series. The 1834 is the most "common" issue in Proof. These coins were probably made for dignitaries to commemorate the new design. A number of very deceptive fully prooflike business strikes exist, so it is imperative to buy an example that has been "blessed" by a reputable grading service. There were Proofs dated 1835 (two examples) and 1836 in the Pittman sales. The 1835's brought $264,000 and $308,000 respectively while the 1836 brought $198,000. I have never seen a Proof 1837 half eagle but an example is located in the Smithsonian. A controversial 1838 Proof was sold in the Bass II auction for $115,00 and was earlier in the October 1996 Byron Reed sale.
CLASSIC HEAD HALF EAGLE RARITY RANKINGS Overall Rarity High Grade Rarity 1. 1834 Crosslet 4 1838-C 2. 1838-C 1834 Crosslet 4 3. 1838-D 1838-D 4. 1837 1837 5. 1838 1835 6. 1835 1838 7. 1836 1836 8. 1834 Plain 4 1834 Plain 4