PART TWO: HALF EAGLES Part One of this article covered gold dollars, quarter eagles, and three dollar gold pieces from the San Francisco mint. This part will cover the Liberty Head half eagles.
LIBERTY HEAD HALF EAGLES (1854-1906)
No Motto (1854-1866)
Fifty Liberty Head half eagles were struck at the San Francisco mint between 1854 and 1906. These issues range from extremely common to extremely rare. Excluding the 1854-S, this is a completable set in circulated grades but it would be virtually impossible to assemble in Uncirculated due to the rarity (and cost) of many of the issues struck between 1858 and 1876.
1854-S: The 1854-S half eagle is the second rarest San Francisco gold coin, trailing only the unique 1870-S Three Dollar gold piece. The only example that has sold in the last twenty years is the Eliasberg coin, a nice AU now owned by a prominent Dallas collector. In some ways, the great rarity of this date works against it as many non-specialists overlook the 1854-S when mentioning the great U.S. gold rarities. Were the Eliasberg coin to appear at auction today, I think it would bring well over $1 million.
1855-S: The first collectable half eagle from this mint and an issue that seems to have become more available in the AU-50 to AU-55 grades in recent years. The only real Uncirculated example I have ever seen was the Bass II: 1077 coin, graded MS-62 by PCGS, that brought $17,250. Almost always found with excessively abraded surfaces.
1856-S: A harder issue to find than its original mintage figure of 105,100 would suggest but still the most obtainable of the early San Francisco half eagles. The survivors are well-spread between Very Fine, Extremely Fine and lower end About Uncirculated grades. Six to eight exist in Uncirculated. The best I've seen is an NGC MS-64 that brought $26,450 in the Heritage February 1999 sale. Varieties are known with Large S and Medium S mintmarks; the former is rarer. There were some included in the S.S. Central America cargo with the best a PCGS MS-62 that brought $12,650 in the Christie's December 2000 sale.
1857-S: Currently a bit scarcer than the 1856-S in lower grades but more available in Uncirculated; as many as 10-12 are now known in Mint State. There were a pair recovered from the S.S. Central America that were later graded MS-64 by PCGS. Both were in the Christie's December 2000 sale; they brought $20,700 and $36,800 respectively. Varieties exist with Small S and Medium S mintmarks; the former is rarer.
1858-S: Beginning with this issue, mintage figures for San Francisco half eagles drop appreciably. There were 18,600 1858-S half eagles struck and this is a very rare coin in all grades. An estimated 30-40 exist (all with a Small S mintmark) with most in the VF-XF range. I have only seen four or five AU examples and none that were truly Uncirculated. The best I am aware of is the Bass II coin, graded AU-58 by PCGS, which sold for $13,800 in October 1999. This is my favorite No Motto San Francisco half eagle and I believe it is significantly undervalued.
1859-S: A bit more available than once assumed but still a very scarce issue; around 40-50 are known. The 1859-S half eagle becomes hard to locate in high end EF and it is rare in any AU grade. There is a single Uncirculated example known. It was first offered for sale in the May 1995 Milas collection sale held by Stack's where it brought $34,100 and was graded MS-62 by NGC. It was reoffered in October 1999 in the Bass II sale (now in a PCGS MS-62 holder) and it realized $29,900.
1860-S: The mintage figure is 21,200; a bit more than the 1858-S and 1859-S half eagles. But it is another rare issue with an estimated 45-55 known. Most are very well-worn and an accurately graded EF-45 is about the best available quality. I am not aware of more than five or six AU's. The only Uncirculated 1860-S half eagle I have ever seen is the PCGS MS-62 that is ex Bass II: 1128 (at $27,600) and, earlier, was Lot 499 in Bowers and Ruddy's October 1982 Eliasberg sale.
1861-S: The 1861-S has a mintage figure that is nearly identical to the 1858-S but it is less rare, especially in lower grades. There are an estimated 50-60 known but nearly all of these are in EF-45 or lower. The 1861-S is extremely rare in full AU and unknown in Uncirculated. The NGC AU-58 Milas coin is the best I can recall seeing. Most 1861-S half eagles are very heavily bagmarked and unappealing due to a lack of originality.
1862-S: This is a very rare coin with just 9,500 originally struck and around 30-40 known. The majority are well worn and this is a major rarity in AU grades with four or five known. The best I've seen is the Bass II: 1141 ex Milas: 527 coin, graded AU-55 by both PCGS and NGC. The 1862-S is usually softly struck and extensively abraded. I put together a complete set of Condition Census quality Civil War half eagles two years ago and this issue was, along with the 1864-S, the hardest to locate.
1863-S: While nearly twice as many 1863-S half eagles were struck than in 1862, it is nearly as rare. I doubt if more than 35-45 are known; most are EF-40 or below. The 1863-S is another major rarity in AU with no more than a half dozen known and no Mint State pieces. The best I've seen was the NGC AU-58 Milas coin that sold for $19,800 in 1995. The Bass II coin, graded AU-55 by PCGS, went very reasonably at $9,775.
1864-S: This is the rarest collectable San Francisco half eagle and it is among the rarest Liberty Head gold coins of any denomination. An estimated 15 exist from the tiny mintage of 3,888. Most are very well worn. There is a truly remarkable PCGS MS-65 that brought $178,000 in the Bass II sale in October 1999 and $110,000 in the October 1987 Norweb sale. This is among my very favorite United States gold coins and it is currently owned by a Georgia collector.
1865-S: The 1865-S half eagle's mintage is a comparatively robust 27,612 and it is quite a bit less rare than the 1862-1864 San Francisco half eagles. Around 70-80 are known including as many as a dozen AU's. Interestingly, at least two or three nice examples have been discovered with metal detectors in recent years. The finest known is the PCGS MS-64 that was recovered from the Brother Jonathan shipwreck. Varieties are known with a Large S mintmark and a Medium S; the latter appears to be rarer.
1866-S No Motto: An important stand alone issue as it is the only Half Eagle dated 1866 that does not have the motto on the reverse. 9,000 were struck; an unusually high percentage have survived, albeit in very low grades. There are an estimated 80-90 known with the majority in the Fine to Very Fine range. AU coins are extremely rare with six to eight known. The best I have seen is the Bass II coin, graded AU-58 by PCGS, which realized $25,300. The James Stack coin, sold by Stack's in October 1994, brought $20,900 and it was also very choice.
With Motto (1866-1906)
1866-S With Motto: Nearly 40,000 were struck, but this variety is actually rarer than the 1866-S No Motto. Many of the 65-75 known are very well worn. The mintmark is so small and weakly impressed than it is easy to mistake these for Philadelphia coins. This is an extremely rare issue in AU and I have never seen one I graded higher than AU-53, although the grading services have encapsulated examples as high as AU-58.
1867-S: This rare and underrated issue is my favorite With Motto San Francisco half eagle. There are around 40-50 known but most are very well worn. I have only seen two or three that I grade About Uncirculated and none better than AU-53. Usually seen weakly struck and heavily abraded. Clearly, this was an issue that was heavily used in local commerce. An extremely good value at current price levels.
1868-S: The 1868-S is more readily available than the 1866-S With Motto and the 1867-S, especially in higher grades. There are at least a dozen known in AU including some reasonably choice pieces. I have only seen one I considered Uncirculated; a PCGS MS-61 that was sold by Heritage in their 1997 FUN sale for $14,950. Remarkably, this coin would probably sell for less today if available; showing what a good value high grade San Francisco half eagles from this era are.
1869-S: Similar in overall rarity to the 1868-S but scarcer in high grades. Most 1869-S half eagles are in very low grades and have extensively abraded surfaces. For some reason, nearly every piece I have seen has been cleaned. In AU grades, the 1869-S is a strong Rarity-7 issue with between six and nine known. I cannot recall one better than AU-55 nor do I not remember one ever having really good eye appeal.
1870-S: Another of my favorite "sleeper" dates and a coin that is almost always well worn. There are around 50-60 known and most are in the VF-EF range. In AU, the 1870-S half eagle is a major rarity with between five and eight in existence. The best I have seen was the Bass II: 1171 coin (at $14,950) that I thought was much better than its original PCGS grade of AU-55. This is an especially hard date to find with original color and clean surfaces.
1871-S: The 1871-S appears with much more regularity in higher grades than the 1870-S. It is similar in overall rarity to the 1868-S and I estimate that there are between ten and fifteen known in AU including some at the higher end of this range. I have personally seen two PCGS MS-61 pieces: the Bass II: 1177 coin (that went very reasonably at $9,775) and a coin that brought $9,680 in the 2/99 Kingswood sale. A variety exists with a noticeably double punched date.
1872-S: About as available as the 1871-S in terms of the total number known but scarcer in high grades. I have never seen one that I thought was Uncirculated and just two or three higher end AU pieces. It is usually seen with a tiny, faint mintmark and heavy surface marks. The example in the May 1993 Superior sale that was graded AU-55 by PCGS is the best I know of. Extremely undervalued in higher grades.
1873-S: Closed 3 only. Similar in overall and high grade rarity to the 1872-S. This is another date that is generally well worn and heavily abraded. Fewer than a dozen are known in AU and most are in the lower range of this grade. I have never seen an Uncirculated 1873-S half eagle and can not recall more than one or two accurately graded AU-55's. Like the 1872-S half eagle, this is a very undervalued coin in higher grades.
1874-S: Rarer than the 1871-1873 San Francisco half eagles as one would expect from its considerably lower mintage. There are an estimated 45-55 known with more than three-quarters of these grading EF-40 or lower. Most 1874-S half eagles are poorly struck, heavily abraded and have a faint mintmark. PCGS has graded a single example in AU-58 but the best I have personally seen was in the AU-50 to AU-53 range.
1875-S: The 1875-S is a curious issue as it is rarer than the 1870-1874 San Francisco half eagles in terms of its overall rarity but it is actually a bit more available in higher grades. There is a lovely Uncirculated example known (now in an NGC MS-64 holder) that was last sold as Lot 1204 in the Bass II auction (where it brought $27,600 and was graded MS-63 by PCGS). It had been purchased by Harry Bass for $46,750 in the October 1994 James Stack sale. I have seen at least five or six above average AU examples as well.
1876-S: Only 4,000 were struck, giving this the third lowest mintage figure of any San Francisco half eagle (trailing only the 1854-S and the 1864-S). It is also one of the rarest gold coins from this mint with just 30-40 known. While usually seen in low grades, there are some fairly nice pieces including a lovely PCGS MS-64 that is from Stack's 1976 Garrett sale (at a then-incredible $34,000). Always seen with a center punch in the earlobe of Liberty and a small, very weak mintmark.
1877-S: This date is often classified as "common," but it is actually quite scarce. Most survivors grade EF-45 or below and there are probably fewer than ten accurately graded AU's. The finest known is the PCGS MS-64 that was offered "raw" in the Bass II sale. It was purchased by Martin Paul for $24,150. I recently sold a nice PCGS AU-55 for $3,500; an exceptional value for its new owner when one considers it is solidly in the Condition Census.
1878-S: The mintage for the 1878-S is the highest of any San Francisco half eagle up to this date and it is one of the most common pre-1880 issues from this mint. In any grade above Mint State-62, the 1878-S is quite scarce and I have never seen or heard of a gem.
1879-S: By far the most common San Francisco half eagle from the 1870's with over 400,000 struck. This is the only date from this era that is sometimes available in MS-63 and MS-64, but I have never seen a gem. Usually with good color and luster and much better struck than the issues from the early 1870's.
1880-S, 81-S, 82-S: Mintages jumped to the 1 million range for these three dates. All three are seldom seen well worn, unlike their predecessors from the early 1870's. All are relatively common in grades up to and including MS-63, moderately scarce in MS-64 and very rare in MS-65. Uncirculated examples are generally characterized by excellent color and superb luster.
1883-S: One of the few San Francisco half eagles from the 1880's that appears to have circulated. Examples exist in grades as low as Extremely Fine-40. Scarce in Uncirculated and most are in the MS-60 to MS-61 range. The 1883-S half eagle is rare in Mint State-63 and I have not seen any better than this.
1884-S: More available than the 1883-S and usually seen in the AU-55 to MS-62 range. Somewhat scarce in MS-63, very rare in MS-64 and possibly unknown in Gem. Often with rich orange-gold and green-gold colors but with heavily abraded surfaces.
1885-S, 86-S: Both are common and readily available in grades up to and including MS-64. The 1886-S is much harder to find in very high grades. These two issues often show superb color and thick, frosty luster.
1887-S: Very common in grades up to MS-63. Gems are rare. Often found with deep orange-gold color and slightly dirty surfaces.
1888-S: Until a small hoard of Uncirculated pieces was discovered a few years ago, this date was essentially unknown in Mint State. Still a scarce issue in Uncirculated and probably unknown above MS-63.
1892-S: Coinage resumed in 1892 after a three year hiatus. Until recently, the 1892-S was very rare in Uncirculated but a few small hoards have made it available in MS-62 and, on occasion, MS-63. Still a rare coin in MS-64 and currently unknown better.
1893-S: Common in circulated grades and easily obtainable in Uncirculated up to the MS-63 level. Very scarce in MS-64 and extremely rare in grades higher than this. A PCGS MS-66 is evidently the finest known. Another issue that is often seen with excellent color and luster.
1894-S: Like the similarly dated Eagle, the 1894-S half eagle is a deceptively scarce coin, although I expect more to be discovered in the coming years. Around a dozen are currently known in Uncirculated and nearly all have been found overseas in the past decade. The finest known is the incredible NGC MS-69 (last sold at auction in 1990 for $264,000) which is ex Eliasberg/Clapp. It was obtained by John Clapp Sr. from the San Francisco mint at face value in 1894 and it is the single best Liberty Head half eagle of any date that I have ever seen.
1895-S: Another date that is currently very rare in Uncirculated but whose curiously low survival rate suggests the existence of a potentially sizable group overseas. The NGC MS-65 Eliasberg coin is the finest known.
1896-S: Around ten years ago, the 1896-S was considered quite scarce but it is now relatively easy to find in circulated grades. It is still very scarce in Uncirculated and it is quite rare above MS-62. I have seen just one better than MS-63, the PCGS MS-67 Eliasberg coin that was obtained from the mint at face value in 1896 by John Clapp Sr. This is another date that could, in my opinion, become more available in higher grades in the coming years.
1897-S: Similar in overall rarity to the 1896-S but a little less rare in the higher Mint State grades. There are a few truly superb pieces known including a pair of MS-66's and MS-67's at NGC and three PCGS MS-67's and a single PCGS MS-68.
1898-S, 99-S, 00-S: These three issues become progressively more available but all are currently quite rare in gem. There are a very small number of superb examples of each date including a PCGS MS-68 1898-S, an NGC MS-69 1899-S and a PCGS MS-69 1900-S. These are all from the Eliasberg collection and were obtained directly from the mint at face value by John Clapp, Sr.
1901-S: Far and away the most common San Francisco half eagle and easily located even in gem condition. High grade examples make nice type coins because of their good color, strong detail and excellent luster.
1902-S, 03-S: Both are common in all grades up to MS-65 and gems are sometimes seen. There are a handful of really incredible 1902-S half eagles known including a PCGS MS-69 example from the Eliasberg/Clapp collection; the 1903-S from this source is "only" in an NGC MS-67 holder.
1904-S: The lowest mintage San Francisco Liberty Head half eagle from the 1900's and a (currently) scarce and underrated issue. I would not be surprised if a quantity awaits discovery overseas. The finest known is the exceptional PCGS MS-67 from the Bass II sale that realized $29,900.
1905-S: The 1905-S is the only 20th century Liberty Head half eagle from San Francisco that appears to have seen some degree of circulation. It is somewhat scarce in Uncirculated and becomes rare in MS-64. A few truly superb examples exist including solitary MS-67's from NGC and PCGS (the same coin?).
1906-S: The final Liberty Head half eagle from the San Francisco and an issue that is seldom seen below AU-55. Moderately scarce in the higher Mint State grades but a few truly superb examples are known including two graded MS-67 by PCGS.
The San Francisco half eagles are currently out of favor with collectors. This means that there are some exceptional values available. As an example, important Condition Census quality pieces from the 1860's and the early 1870's are available for a fraction of their Carson City counterparts. If the San Francisco coins were to be properly promoted in the coming years, the supply would dry up quickly and prices could rise accordingly.