Collecting Early U.S. Gold Coinage: Part Two

In the first part of this article, we looked at early quarter eagles and half eagles struck prior to 1813. The second and final part focuses on half eagles struck from 1813 to 1834 and eagles produced from 1795 to 1804. HALF EAGLES (continued from Part One)

A. Capped Head Left (Large Diameter), 1813-1829

The obverse of the half eagle was significantly redesigned in 1813 by John Reich. It featured a corpulent head of Liberty facing left with a liberty cap on her head. The reverse is similar to that seen on the Capped Bust left design of 1807-1812. In 1818, the obverse was slightly modified by Robert Scot. Very few collectors distinguish between the two varieties.

The Capped Head Left half eagles offer an excellent illustration as to why mintage figures are not always good indications of a coin's rarity. By the late 1820's/ early 1830's, the price of gold had risen to the point that the intrinsic value of a half eagle was greater than its face value. Consequently, vast numbers of these coins were melted. Certain issues, such as the 1819, 1825, 1827, 1828 and 1829 had nearly their entire mintages melted and are extremely rare today.

The only issues of this type that can be considered relatively common are the 1813, 1814/3, 1818 and 1820. A pleasing About Uncirculated example of one of these four issues can be purchased for between $3,500 and $5,500. Uncirculated pieces in the Mint State-60 to Mint State-62 range are valued in the high four figure range.

The great rarities of this type include the 1815, 1822, 1828/7 and 1829 Large Date. Each issue is typically offered for sale only when a great "name collection" comes on the market. The 1822 is regarded as one of the great United States rarities with just three known and only one of these not in a museum.

Buying Tips: The 1818 and the 1820 are good type coins as they tend to have better luster and coloration than their 1813 and 1814/3 counterparts. Considering the rarity of these issues, they are extremely good values and the collector should consider adding at least two examples to his collection. An interesting approach to this would be to obtain one issue from the 1810's and another from the 1820's. Always look for coins that have nice luster and color and no serious marks. While examples of this type are rare in an absolute sense, survivors tend to be attractive and relatively high grade. Avoid unencapsulated examples as many of these have rim problems or have been cleaned.

B. Capped Head Left (Reduced Diameter), 1829-1834

In 1829, the design of the half eagle was modified by William Kneass. The diameter was reduced from 25 millimeters to 23.8 while the letter, date and star sizes were made smaller as well.

The small size Capped Head Left half eagle type contains two extremely rare issues: the 1829 Small Date and the 1832 12 Stars. As with the larger diameter issues from the 1820's, the mintages figures of these coins are very misleading. As an example, 193,630 half eagles were reportedly produced in 1833. Today, there are probably fewer than fifty known.

The most likely candidates for a type set are the 1830 and the 1833 Large Date. Both of these are quite rare but are slightly more available than the other dates of this design.

When available, small size Capped Head Left half eagles tend to be in the About Uncirculated-50 to Mint State-63 range. This type did not readily circulate and the few that survived the melting pot tend to have been reasonably well-preserved. A lightly circulated example, if available, is likely to cost $10,000 to $15,000. A coin in the Mint State-61 to Mint State-62 range should cost $20,000 to $30,000. There are some very high quality examples occasionally offered for sale and they tend to be priced in the $50,000-$100,00 range.

Buying Tips: This type will prove very frustrating for the collector on a limited budget as very few lower grade pieces exist. I suggest saving up for a nice About Uncirculated (or better) example. As very few of these are available, do not hesitate if you have the chance to acquire the "right" coin, even if it is priced at a level that seems high compared to published pricing guides.


A. Capped Bust Right, Small Eagle, 1795-97

The eagle was the highest denomination coin struck by the United States until the double eagle was authorized in 1849. The ten dollar gold piece was never used as extensively in commerce as the half eagle. The eagle did not match other foreign gold coins in value as did the half eagle and its level of demand was not as a great. As a consequence, the mintage figures for early eagles tended to be comparatively low.

The first design for the eagle was by Robert Scot and it was identical to that on the half eagle. The Small Eagle reverse coins were produced in 1795, 1796 and 1797. The 1795 is the most obtainable of the three dates , especially in higher grades. The 1796 is rare and undervalued with most survivors grading Very Fine and Extremely Fine. The 1797 Small eagle reverse ten dollar gold piece is very rare with an estimated three dozen known.

This is an extremely popular type, for obvious reasons. These coins are among the oldest United States gold coins. Their large size and age make them very appealing, even to collectors who do not ordinarily care for gold coins.

Buying Tips: The 1795 is the most popular issue of this type but the 1796 is a much better value. It is considerably more scarce but only commands a 20% premium in most grades. However, the 1795's significance as a first-year-of-issue ensures its continued high level of demand. Many eagles of this type show extensive adjustment marks. These are mint-made filings on the surface that are the result of overweight coins having excess gold removed by hand. Unless the adjustment marks are extensive and/or situated in obvious places, they are not considered detracting.

Many Capped Bust Right small eagle ten dollar gold pieces have been cleaned. The collector is urged to be patient as this type has survived in sufficient quantity to expect a nice, original piece becoming available at some point.

An Extremely Fine 1795 eagle should be priced in the $15,000-18,000 range while About Uncirculated coins range from $25,000 to $35,000. Uncirculated examples start at $40,000 and run to over $150,000 for the finest available quality.

B. Capped Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle, 1797-1804

The next type of eagle has the same obverse as the last but a redesigned reverse based on the Great Seal of the United States. It was struck from 1797 to 1801 and again from 1803 to 1804. The eagle denomination was discontinued (along with the silver dollar) on December 31, 1804 and it would not be resumed until 1838.

The survival rate of Heraldic Eagle reverse ten dollar gold pieces is considerably greater than for the half eagles described above. This is excellent news for today's generation of collectors. Attractive circulated examples of dates such as 1799, 1801 and 1803 are not hard to locate and they fall within most collector's budgets.

The 1799 has always been a favorite date of mine. It is the most affordable 18th century eagle and it is generally found with a good quality of strike. The 1801 and the 1803 are of similar rarity and are also excellent type coins. But the magical 18th century date of the 1799 has always made it seem like a more interesting issue, in my opinion.

The rarest date of this type is the 1798/7. Two varieties are known. One has thirteen stars on the obverse with nine on the left and four on the right while the other has the stars arranged seven left by six right. There are approximately two dozen known of the former and fifteen to twenty of the latter.

The 1800 is a scarce and underrated date that sells for much less of a premium over the 1801 and the 1803 than it should. The 1804 is scarce in all grades and very rare in accurately graded Uncirculated. A total of four Proof 1804 eagles are known. These have a Plain 4 in the date (unlike the business strikes that show a Crosslet 4). They were struck in 1804 for inclusion in sets presented to dignitaries. One is included in the famous King of Siam proof set.

Buying Tips: This is an easy type to acquire and the collector should be careful and deliberate about a potential purchase. I would suggest looking for a coin that is well struck and original with minimal marks. Many eagles of this type have adjustment marks but it is easier to locate pieces without these marks than on the Small Eagle reverse type. A nice Extremely Fine common date (i.e. 1799, 1801 or 1803) is currently worth $5,000 while a About Uncirculated is worth $6,500-9,500 depending on quality. A piece in the lower Uncirculated grades sells for $10,000-20,000. This type becomes rare and quite expensive in Mint State-63 and higher grades.

A nice addition to a type set would be to purchase two examples of this type: a 1799 and either an 1801 or 1803 to illustrate the two decades in which Heraldic Eagle reverse ten dollar gold pieces were struck.