The Philadelphia mint began producing the familiar Liberty Head half eagle design in 1839. After a quick modification in 1840, this issue continued without change until 1866 when the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse. The branch mint No Motto half eagles from the 1840’s are very popular with collectors. But their Philadelphia counterparts have lagged behind, both in price and level of demand. I would not be surprised to see this change a bit over the coming years given the fact that the Philadelphia issues are much more affordable and a complete “by decade” set from the 1840’s is within the budget of most gold coin collectors.
Here is a date by date analysis of the Philadelphia half eagles from the 1840’s, to assist new collectors.
1840: Mintage: 137,822. This is one of the more common issues from this decade. There an estimated 400-500+ known and they are easily located in all circulated grades. In Uncirculated, the 1840 is scarce. I believe that there are around fifteen to twenty known with most in the MS60 to MS62 range. There is one Gem. It is originally ex Pittman I: 947 where it brought $41,250 as a raw coin. It last appeared as Heritage 2/06: 1853 where it sold for $43,125. It has been graded MS65 by both PCGS and NGC.
There are two varieties known. The more common has a Narrow Mill (or diameter) while the scarcer has a Broad Mill. The Broad Mill variety seems to be considerably harder to find in higher grades, especially in Uncirculated. The Broad Mill has an extremely distinct appearance and it is much easier to distinguish from the Narrow Mill than on the New Orleans and Dahlonega issues of this year.
1841: Mintage: 15,833. The number of half eagles produced at the Philadelphia mint in 1841 is the fewest of the decade. This is the second scarcest date in this subset but it has an interesting grade distribution. There are an estimated 125-150 known and this issue is generally seen in Extremely Fine or in the MS62 to MS64 range.
There was a hoard of 1841 half eagles that was found a few decades ago. Most are in the MS63 to MS64 range and are characterized by sharp strikes, excellent luster and rich golden coloration. I have personally seen at least four MS64 examples and believe that there are a few more known. In all, probably 10 to 15 exist in Uncirculated. The finest is Bowers and Merena 12/04: 2635, graded MS65 by NGC, which sold for a record-setting $27,600. PCGS has not graded any pieces higher than MS64 and their current listing of eight examples is certainly inflated by resubmissions.
1842: Mintage: 27,432. The 1842 is far and away the scarcest Philadelphia half eagle from this decade and it is an issue that is comparable in rarity to all but a handful of the branch mint half eagles from this era. There are two distinct varieties known: the Small Letters and the Large Letters.
Small Letters: This is the rarer of the two 1842 half eagles and it is by far the hardest coin to find in the Philadelphia half eagle series from the 1840’s. I regard it as one of the most underrated coins in the whole Liberty Head half eagle series. There are probably not more than fifty or so known with most in the VF to EF range. I doubt if more than ten exist in About Uncirculated. In Uncirculated, I am aware of just one piece, the Pittman I: 957 coin (which sold for a relatively cheap $17,600 back in 1997). I believe it appears as both an MS63 and an MS64 in the PCGS Population Report.
Large Letters: This is the more available of the two varieties but it is still a very scarce coin in all grades. There are as many as 75-100 extant with most in the VF to EF range. Properly graded AU examples are quite rare with probably no more than fifteen known. This variety is very rare in AU55 to AU58 and it appears to be unique in Uncirculated. The finest known is ex Milas: 442 and it is currently in a PCGS MS66 (it was once graded MS65 by PCGS). This is one of those “how the heck does that actually exist” coins and I would have to think it would be a six-figure item today if it came onto the market.
1843: Mintage: 611,205. Beginning with this issue, the half eagle mintage figures from Philadelphia increased dramatically and this denomination became a workhorse issue in commerce. The 1843 is actually a bit scarcer than its large mintage figure would suggest. There are at least 750-1000+ in all grades; possibly quite a bit more when one factors in low-quality or damaged pieces. In all circulated grades this date is easily available although choice, original AU58’s are becoming harder to find. In Uncirculated there are an estimated three dozen known. I have never seen a Gem and just two or three that I regard as MS64. The highest graded is an NGC MS65 that sold as Lot 3380 in the Goldberg 9/09 auction for $25,300. The nicest I can recall was the Milas coin.
This issue has a distinctive appearance with most displaying frosty luster which is typically interrupted by extensive surface abrasions. The natural coloration ranges from deep orange-gold to a medium green-gold shade. Most are well struck and well produced.
1844: Mintage: 340,330. This is a scarcer date than the 1843, which makes sense given its smaller mintage. There are at least 500-750+ in all grades but, as with all of these higher mintage issues from the 1840’s, there might be hoards overseas or large numbers of lower grade coins of which I am not aware. The 1844 is relatively available in Uncirculated with around three to four dozen known; mostly in the MS60 to MS62 range. This date is scarce in MS63, very rare in MS64 and exceedingly rare in Gem. By far the best I have seen is Stack’s 5/05: 1692, graded MS65 by PCGS, which brought $50,025. That coin, by the way, is one of the two or three best No Motto half eagles of any date that I am aware.
The 1844 half eagle is a well produced issue that can be found with excellent frosty luster, attractive rich green-gold color and a nice, sharp strike. Some pieces have excessive marks on the surfaces but the patient collector should be able to locate a really nice piece at an affordable price.
1845: Mintage: 417,099. The 1845 is similar in overall rarity to the 1844. There are an estimated 500-750+. This is a more common date in higher grades than the 1844 with as many as four to five dozen extant in Uncirculated. Most grade in the MS60 to MS62 range. This is a rare issue in properly graded MS63 and an extremely rare one in MS64 with perhaps as few as four or five known. I am not aware of any Gem 1845 half eagles. The two best that I can recall seeing are Bass II: 943, graded MS64 by PCGS, which sold for $16,100 in October 1999 and Milas: 458, graded MS64 by NGC, which sold for $17,100 all the way back in October 1995.
This is another issue that is generally seen well made. Higher grade examples can show excellent thick, frosty luster and the natural coloration is often a very handsome medium to deep greenish-gold or canary yellow-gold.
1846: Mintage: 395,942. In my experience, the 1846 is a tougher date than the 1843, 1844 or 1845. It is typically seen in lower grades than these other three issues and it is quite a bit scarcer in higher grades. There are around 500-700+ known. Two major varieties exist.
Large Date: This is by far the more common of the two varieties. It is common in VF and EF grades and only slightly scarce in the lower AU range. It becomes fairly scarce in AU58 and it is rare in Uncirculated. I have never personally seen one better than MS63 and only one or two in this grade. There are a number of MS63 and MS64 examples from the S.S. New York which have seawater surfaces.
Small Date: This is the scarcer of the two varieties. It has only been recognized by PCGS for a few years so the population figures are a bit on the low side. I think it is at least two to three times scarcer than the Large Date in circulated grades and much scarcer in Uncirculated. The highest graded 1846 Small Date is Stack’s 7/08: 2068, graded MS63 by NGC. It is from the S.S. New York and has sweater surfaces. It sold for $18,975.
1847: Mintage: 915,981. The 1847 is the most common Philadelphia No Motto half eagle from the 1840’s by a fairly considerable margin. There are at least 1,500-2,500+ known in all grades and this estimate may actually be quite conservative. It is common in all circulated grades and fairly available in the lowest Uncirculated range with around 150-200 extant in Mint State. This date becomes scarce in MS63 and it is very rare in MS64. The finest known is a remarkable PCGS MS66 that is ex ANR 11/04: 1804 ($92,000), Pittman I: 981 ($110,000). A strong case could be made for calling this the finest No Motto half eagle of any date.
There are a number of interesting varieties known. A few exist with repunching on the date numerals, including one with a sharply repunched 7. There is also a fascinating misplaced date variety with a 7 located in the denticles well below the date. There is also a very interesting variety with the 7 punched in the throat of Liberty.
1848: Mintage: 260,775. The number of half eagles made in 1848 is significantly less than in 1847 and this date is much scarcer. An estimated 500-700+ are known with most in the EF40 to AU50 range. Nice higher end AU coins are somewhat scarce and this date in rare in Uncirculated with two to three dozen known. The two best I am aware of are Bass II: 986 (graded MS64 by PCGS) that brought $24,150 in October 1999 and Milas: 471, graded MS64 by NGC, that sold for $23,100 in October 1999.
The appearance of this date tends to be different than that seen on the 1846 and 1847 half eagles. The surfaces are more striated (mint-made) and the luster is less “pillowy” and a bit more satiny in texture. The natural color is often a rich reddish-gold or orange-gold hue, unlike some of the earlier dates from this decade which are more green-gold in hue.