An Amazing Gem 1869 Half Eagle

If you are a regular reader of my blogs, it’s a pretty safe assumption that you are interested in United States gold coins. And if you like, I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to state that you probably like to see photos of and read about special pieces. Well, I’ve got the skinny on one of the more amazing 19th century issues I’ve seen in some time; a one-of-a-kind coin that recently passed through the portals of Douglas Winter Numismatics. The coin in question, shown below, is an 1869 half eagle that has been graded MS64* by NGC. I’m going to start out by giving you some background about this issue, then about the specific coin and, finally, some thoughts as to how and why this remarkable coin exists.

I think the 1869 half eagle can best be described in two words: “forgotten rarity.” There were a scant 1,760 business strikes produced of which perhaps as many as four dozen are known. This issue is generally seen in the EF grades and it is rare in properly graded AU50 or better. I believe that there are around a dozen known in AU. PCGS has graded a total of thirty-three with the finest a single coin in AU58; NGC has graded a total of thirty-five with two different coins in Uncirculated: the present example and another, which grades MS64PL.

The present example was first offered at auction in the October 1999 Bass II sale where it brought $33,350 as Lot 1166. At the time, it was housed in a PCGS MS64 holder and according to my notes in the original catalog I called the coin “amazing!” Harry Bass had purchased the coin via private treaty from a source identified in the catalog as N.K.S. on June 8, 1971. He had kept his ownership of it a secret as it was unknown to both Breen and Akers when they wrote their books on, respectively, United States coins and half eagles.

The Bass 1869 half eagle next appeared for sale as Heritage 5/00: 7668 in an NGC MS64 holder where it brought $22,425. After this, it was sold into the Ashland City collection where it remained until it was offered as Heritage 1/03: 4815 (still in an NGC MS64 holder) realizing $28,750. I recently resubmitted the coin to NGC where it was given a star designation because of its exceptional eye appeal. I also had NGC delete the Ashland City pedigree and reinstate the Bass pedigree as I felt it was far more appropriate to a coin of this stature.

If you study the photo above, you will note that the quality shown by this 1869 half eagle is quite amazing. The surfaces are mostly prooflike with more than enough frost to clearly indicate that this piece was made for commercial usage. It is extremely well struck and attractively toned in light orange-gold hues. A few small scuffs can be seen in the left obverse field with the primary identifying mark being a tiny mint-made strike-through near the southeastern point of star four.

How does such a remarkable 1869 half eagle exist? There were no date collectors of business strike half eagles in 1869 and any well-heeled collector of this denomination in the 19th century would have preferred a Proof to a business strike. My theory is as follows.

Every year, the Assay Commission met in Philadelphia to examine a group of current coins to determine whether or not they conformed to legal requirements. Although I can’t prove this for a fact, my belief is that, from time to time, someone on the Assay Commission (of which there were approximately two dozen members) saw an interesting coin and decided to “keep it” as a souvenir. I am assuming that if a commissioner chose to, he could trade an older “used” half eagle for a brand new one. There are a small number of gold coins from the 1860’s and 1870’s that are just so much nicer than any other example from this date/denomination that it seems highly possible that they originate from the Assay Commission.

There is another possibility, although it is not as glamorous as the one posited above. It is possible that this 1869 half eagle might have somehow been “put away” by a Philadelphia area collector or non-collector in 1869 and through random chance been passed down through generations without having been melted, sold, cleaned or lost. I have handled spectacular gold coins that have been rediscovered by a family member after fifty or a hundred years and I know that these things happen from time to time.

The Bass 1869 half eagle is a beautiful and fascinating coin that deserves more attention than it has received in the past. I know that collecting Philadelphia half eagles by date is not “fashionable” but it seems hard to believe that this coin is worth about the same as a High Relief double eagle in the same grade range despite the latter coin being dirt common in comparison.