1825/4 Half Eagle

Lost amid the hoopla of the recent Baltimore ANA and the numerous auctions that accompanied this show was the sale of one of the greatest United States gold coins in existence. Even more remarkable was the fact that in this day of “ho hum, another million dollar coin just sold,” this sale received relatively little publicity and the final price realized was, in retrospect, pretty reasonable, all things considered. There are two distinct varieties known of the 1825 half eagle. The more available is 1825/4 Unevenly Spaced Date (Bass-Dannreuther 1) which, for many years, was known as the “1825/1.” Recent research has shown that the underpunched digit is, in fact a 4 as it is positioned at the same angle as found on the 1824 half eagle.

1825 $5 N50

The second variety of 1825 half eagle (BD-2) has always been known as an 1825/4 overdate but it is more properly termed the 1825/4 Evenly Spaced Close Date.

For many years, the 1825/4 BD-2 half eagle was regarded as unique. The discovery piece was originally in the Col. Mendes Cohen collection and it was eventually sold to Louis Eliasberg after stints in the Earle and Clapp collections. In the 1982 Eliasberg sale, the coin was cataloged as Proof-60 and it sold for $220,000. I have never personally seen the Eliasberg 1825/4 half eagle but John Dannreuther states in his book on early gold that, in his opinion, it is not a Proof.

In 1978, a second example of the 1825/4 BD-2 half eagle turned up and this story of its discovery is almost as fascinating as the coin itself. In the early part of the 20the century, a collector named N.M. Kaufman was an active (but little known) purchaser of early gold rarities. His collection was exhibited at the Marquette County Savings Bank. Unfortunately, the curator of this exhibit was clearly not a savvy numismatist as he mounted them to a board using tacks (for those of you who just passed out after reading this, I will pause for a second...) Many of the Kauffman coins suffered rim damage from this procedure, ranging from very minor to rather severe.

The Kaufman example of the 1825/4 BD-2 half eagle was sold by RARCOA in their famous August 1978 auction where it realized $140,000. It later brought $148,500 in the B&M 3/89 auction and in 1992 it sold in another B&M auction for a very reasonable $105,600. The last time the coin sold it realized $241,500 in the Superior 2/99 auction.

The coin itself was housed in an old NGC holder and it appeared to be considerably better than its current AU50 grade. However, I’d be careful cracking it out if I were the new owner as the rim marks from the aforementioned display at the Marquette Bank will become more visible if the coin is unencapsulated (this is not intended to scare the new owner of the coin—in looking at the photo of it in the Kaufman catalog, it appears that the tack marks are minor and limited to the upper obverse and corresponding reverse. I have personally seen—and owned—coins from this collection that had significantly more visible tack marks).

Given the rarity of this coin (one of only two known) and the fact that it brought close to a quarter of a million dollars all the way back in 1999, I expected that this coin would be the object of considerable bidding and that it had a legitimately good chance to break the million dollar barrier.

The reserve for the 1825/4 BD-2 half eagle in the Heritage sale was $550,000. The coin wound up selling to a phone bidder for $600,000 plus the buyers’ fee, for a final price realized of $690,000. Why didn’t such a great coin bring more?

As I studied the history of this coin, there was something I learned that I found to be very interesting. On page 395 of his book, John Dannreuther explained the reason why Harry Bass never bought the 1825/4 BD-2 half eagle (he had at least three chances to do so between 1978 and 1992 and price, of course, was not an object for Harry...). Bass regarded this issue as a variety and he was not willing to pay an “excessive premium” for this particular variety.

The more I thought about this, the more sense it made to me. Bass realized before nearly anyone else that there was no such thing as an 1825/1 half eagle. Keeping this in mind, he already had a superb 1825/4 (the BD-1 variety that is plated in the Dannreuther book and which is regarded as a one-sided Proof). The bottom line is that he had an 1825/4 half eagle and a hell of a nice one at that. Given this fact, why pay such a large premium for what is technically a variety?

But not everyone is as sophisticated as Harry Bass and the 1825/4 BD-2 half eagle in the ANA seemed to me to be the kind of coin that would sell for “moon money.” I’m certainly not pooh-poohing $690,000 as this is a lot of money but it’s not the $1 million or so that I thought it would bring prior to the sale.

My best guess why it didn’t reach the magical million mark was the fact that it was “only” graded AU50. In order for two Masters of the Universe to go head to head in a bidding Battle of the Titans, my gut feeling is the coin would have had to have been Uncirculated.

So here’s a hearty congratulations to the new owner of this fantastic early half eagle. You have purchased a wonderful coin with a great pedigree and a great story and it will, no doubt, become an integral part of your collection. And if the circumstances had been just right, I’m certain that you would have had to pay a lot more for the privilege of owning your extraordinary 1825/4 half eagle!