The half eagles struck from 1813 through 1834 have been given the appellation of the “Fat Head” design, due to the uncommonly large size of Liberty’s head and neck. John Reich’s half eagles of this era certainly have a “so ugly it’s charming” quality about them. But while they will probably never win a beauty contest, they are a fascinating series of coins which contain a host of great rarities. There are two major types of half eagle known with this design. The first, struck from 1813 to 1829, has a smaller bust with a larger sized planchet. There were a total of 667,536 pieces produced. The second, struck from 1829 through 1834, was modified by William Kneass and these coins show size reduction in the date, stars and lettering as a reduced diameter. There were 700,279 coins struck.
The Fat Head half eagles are a good example why a coin’s true rarity can not be gauged solely by its original mintage figure. The vast majority of half eagles struck between 1813 and 1834 were melted and the survival rate for most dates tends to be well under 1% of the original production.
Very few collectors attempt to collect Fat Head half eagles by date. This is due to the extreme rarity of most of these coins and their per-coin price levels. There is only one date in the entire series that is reasonably available (the 1813) and one (the 1822) is considered by many collectors to be among the greatest of all United States numismatic rarities. That said, these coins have become very popular with collectors in the past few years.
This date-by-date analysis is not meant to be a standard reference on this series. Rather, I intend to touch on some basic points on each date so that the collector can make informed decisions if and when he is considering the addition of one of these coins for his type (or date) set.
As mentioned above, the 1813 is by far the most available date of this type. There were a total of 95,428 struck of which an estimated 600-900+ are known today. This is one of the few dates of this design that appears to have actually circulated and examples can be found in grades as low as Extremely Fine. The 1813 is reasonably common in all circulated grades and can even be found in the lower Uncirculated grades without a huge amount of effort. It becomes rare in MS63 and it is very rare in properly graded MS64. Gems are extremely rare. Most 1813 half eagles are yellow-gold or green-gold and have very frosty luster. The strike is usually sharp at the centers but weak at the borders with many of the denticles not completely defined. I have seen a number with adjustment marks and others with dark spots. Due to the availability of this date, it is the perfect Fat Head Five for the collector seeking a single piece for a type set.
There are two varieties known. The more common shows the first S in STATES over the right side of the E in E PLURIBUS UNUM. The scarcer variety has the first S over the left side of the E.
The mintage for this date has traditionally been believed to be 15,454 coins but some contemporary researchers believe that the actual figure might be as low as 10,000. Given the fact that there are probably no more than 75-100 examples known, I would tend to concur with the lower mintage. This variety shows a clear overdate and it is considerably rarer than the 1813 although it does not get a substantial premium over this common issue, especially in lower grades. The 1814/3 tends to be much better struck than the 1813 with strong detail noted at the centers and borders. The color is typically a deep green-gold hue which is sometimes accentuated by orange-gold shadings. The luster is frosty but not as good as seen as on the 1813. The 1814/3 is usually seen in AU to MS61 grades. It is very scarce in MS62 and rare in properly graded MS63. This is a very rare issue in MS64 and I am not aware of a single coin that could be called a Gem by today’s standards.
There is just a single variety known. The reverse is the same as seen on the second variety struck in 1813 and it was also used to produce the very rare 1815 half eagles.
1815 The 1815 has the lowest mintage figure of any half eagle of this type. Only 635 are believed to have been struck. There are approximately a dozen pieces known and this includes five pieces that are housed in museums. The last example to be sold was the lovely AU58 from the Bass collection that was previously in the Eliasberg sale. It sold for $103,500 in 1999, a figure that seems extremely cheap today. There is a single Gem known (ex: Naftzger collection) which is graded MS65 by PCGS and is in a well-known private collection that, in my opinion, is one of the most impressive early gold coins in existence. This tends to be a well-produced issue with a good strike. The Bass II: 805; Eliasberg coin has superb rich coppery coloration and the other Bass coin (ex Norweb, Farouk), which is housed in the ANA Museum, is attractively toned as well.
All 1815 half eagles have the same reverse as that seen on the second variety of 1813 half eagles and on all 1814’s.
There were no half eagles struck in 1816 or 1817. Coinage resumed in 1818 and a total of 48,588 pieces were produced. There are three important varieties known and these are as follows:
Normal Reverse: This variety is easily distinguished by ample space between the words STATES and OF. This is the second most available of the three varieties. There are around five to six dozen pieces known. Unlike the other two varieties, the Normal reverse is sometimes seen in relatively low grades; I have personally handled at least two in EF40. This variety is most often seen in AU50 to AU55 and it is quite scarce in the lower Uncirculated grades. It is rare in properly graded MS62 and very rare in MS63 or better. There is a single MS65 that has been graded by PCGS while NGC shows a solitary Gem as well. This is the best struck of the three varieties and most are very bold at the centers and borders. Most have rich orange-gold color, very frosty luster and numerous marks on the surfaces.
STATESOF Reverse: On this variety, there is no spacing between these words. It is the most available of the three 1818 half eagles with as many as 125-150 pieces believed to exist. This variety is seldom seen in grades below AU55, suggesting that it did not see a great deal of commercial usage. It is somewhat available in the lower Uncirculated grades and sometimes seen in grades as high as MS63 but it is very rare above this. PCGS has graded one coin in MS66 (ex: Norman Stack type set) which is among the best Fat Head half eagles of this type that I have ever seen. This variety is often somewhat weak at the centers and some of the denticles are not fully brought up as well. The luster is often frosty and the natural coloration is a handsome canary yellow hue.
5D/50 Reverse: This is the rarest of the three varieties known for this year but it is not as rare as has been claimed in the past. This variety was created when the D in 5D was inadvertently punched over a 0. This reverse was used again in 1819. There are an estimated 30-40 pieces known and most are in the AU55 to MS60 range. PCGS has graded two Gems (an MS65 and an MS66) and there appear to be around four to six pieces known in the MS63 to MS64 range. The strike is usually somewhat weak at the borders while the curls are not fully brought up. The natural coloration is a distinctive green-gold hue while the luster is very frosty and sometimes has some semi-prooflike reflectiveness in the fields. Most examples are somewhat scuffy and at least a few have light mint-made adjustment marks.
While the mintage figure for this date is reported to be 51,723, it is believed that this might include coins dated 1820. Whatever the actual number struck (and I personally believe the number is significantly lower than 51,723), the 1819 is unquestionably a very rare coin with an estimated 20-30 pieces known. There are two significant varieties known to exist. The first uses the 5D/50 reverse that is found on 1818 half eagles. This is the more available of the two and it is likely that around 15-22 exist. This includes one or two Gems (PCGS and NGC have both graded coins MS65 although I am not certain if these are the same) and a small number in the MS63 to MS64 range.
The second variety of 1819 half eagle has a different date with the numerals much closer and a normal reverse without the 5D/50 blunder. This is a very rare coin with as few as 5-8 examples known. PCGS has only graded one in any grade (an MS61) while NGC has graded two (an EF40 and an MS60 which may be the same coin as the PCGS MS61). This variety is typically seen only in great collections of early gold and it generally appears at the rate of once every two or three years at auction.
There were more half eagles struck in 1820 than in any other year between the advent of this denomination in 1795 and the beginning of the Classic Head design in 1834. The mintage is reported to be 263,806 but this is somewhat misleading as the great majority of these coins were melted. Today, the 1820 is much scarcer than the 1813 but it is more available than the 1818 and 1814/3. There are no less than nine die varieties of 1820 half eagles including a number of extreme rarities. Most advanced collectors focus on the major varieties of this issue of which there are three. These are as follows:
Square Base 2, Large Letters: There are four die variations of this obvious, naked-eye variety. On the obverse, the base of the 2 is flat while the reverse has the A and the second T in STATES close at the base. This variety is easily the most available of the 1820 half eagles. It is almost always seen in Uncirculated grades and this suggests that most were either melted soon after they were struck or were stored in banks and did not enter commerce. Survivors often have exceptional luster which can be frosty or prooflike in texture and vivid rich yellow-gold or green-gold shadings. Most of the Uncirculated coins that exist are in the MS62 to MS63 range. The current population at PCGS in MS64 (55 coins!) is greatly inflated by resubmissions and Gems are extremely rare.
Curved Base 2, Large Letters: There are two die variations of the 1820 Curved Base 2, Large Letters. The more available of the two has the tip of the bottom arrowhead pointing to the outside of the C in AMERICA. It is unlikely that more than two dozen 1820 Curved Base 2, Large Letters half eagles are known. Most of these are Uncirculated coins and many of these are choice examples that grade in the MS63 to MS64 range. The finest known is a PCGS MS66. When available, this variety tends to come very well struck, with excellent luster and superb green-gold or rich yellow-gold coloration. A Proof exists in the Bass collection at the ANA Museum and this is regarded as the earliest known Proof half eagle. It is an absolutely spectacular coin in person!
Curved Base 2, Small Letters: Three die varieties of the 1820 Curved Base 2 Small Letters are known and all are very rare. In all, it is likely that fewer than fifteen examples exist with nearly all of these grading Uncirculated. Interestingly, the last three that I have seen have all been Gems (two were graded MS65 by PCGS while one was graded MS65 by NGC) and all were superb pieces with amazing detail, blazing semi-prooflike and frosty texture and rich green-gold coloration.
The 1821 is a date that does not receive as much attention as other half eagles from this decade but it is a major rarity. There were reportedly 34,641 pieces struck and if this number is accurate than an amazingly high percentage were melted as it is unlikely that more than 12-15 pieces are known. There are actually two die varieties. The more available has the thirteenth star touching the hair while the rarer shows this star away from the hair. There appear to be around four or five 1821 half eagles known in circulated grades (these are all in the AU53 to AU58 range) while the rest are Uncirculated pieces. The finest known is a single MS66 graded by PCGS and also by NGC. All of the 1821 half eagles that I have personally seen are prooflike with a good strike and greenish-gold coloration. There is at least one Proof known (ex: Norweb collection) and the Bass coin in the ANA Museum is a fully prooflike Gem business strike.
The 1822 half eagle is one of the great rarities in all of American numismatics. There are just three examples known to exist. Two are housed in the Smithsonian Institution and are off the market while the third is in the Pogue collection and was obtained for $687,500 back in 1982 when the Eliasberg collection was auctioned by Bowers and Ruddy.
Time for an Editorial: I have always thought that one of the best ways to solve the never-ending cash crunch at the Smithsonian in relation to the National Numismatic Collection would be to sell one of the 1822 half eagles in the collection. Here’s a coin that would fetch $5 million or thereabouts in the open market and which would focus tremendous attention on the collection. Does the Smithsonian really need two examples of this coin?
The 1823 generally gets lumped in the “semi-available” category of Fat Head half eagles along with the 1814/3, 1818 and 1820 but it is a date that I see less often. The mintage figure was reported to be 14,485 coins but I believe that this is a bit low and the actual number might be more like 17,500-20,000. There are probably in the area of 75-100 known with nearly all of these coins grading at least AU55 to AU58. Uncirculated examples of this date tend to be heavily abraded and generally grade in the MS60 to MS62 range. The 1823 is very rare in MS63 and extremely rare in MS64. NGC has graded one coin in MS65 while PCGS has never graded an example better than MS64. The 1823 is generally weakly struck at the left obverse border and on the curls around the face of Liberty; the reverse is bolder with sharp denticles and good detail on the feathers. The luster is very frosty in texture while the original color tends to be a deep green-gold. Many examples have been dipped.
There is just a single variety known and it shows the Large Letters reverse first used in 1820.
The 1824 is the third most available Fat Head half eagle from this decade but it is a very rare coin in all grades. The original mintage figure is listed at 17,340 but I believe the actual number is somewhat lower than this. I believe that there are around 30-40 pieces known. As with most of the half eagles from this era, the 1824 saw virtually no circulation and there are not more than a small handful of pieces that grade below MS60. Most of the Uncirculated coins are in the MS60 to MS62 range and pieces that grade MS63 are quite rare. The combined PCGS/NGC population of twenty-two coins graded in MS64 is definitely inaccurate and this reflects a few coins that have been submitted multiple times in an attempt to secure a higher grade. There are one or two Gem examples known; both PCGS and NGC have graded an example in MS65 but these may be the same coin.
The 1824 is generally a well struck issue although some show weakness at the obverse border from 9:00 to 12:00. The luster is a bit less frosty than that seen on the 1823 and examples that have not been dipped are often a medium to deep green-gold. Only one die variety is known and it employs the Large Letters reverse first used in 1820.
In Part Two of this article, which will be added to www.raregoldcoins.com in November 2006, we will discuss the 1825-1834 half eagles and offer a number of collecting and grading tips for the series.