In the last few years, a number of Civil War coins have greatly appreciated in value and have become among the most sought-after United States gold issues by collectors. These include the 1861-D gold dollar and half eagle and the 1861-O and 1861-S Paquet Reverse double eagles. But, for some reason, the 1861-C half eagle has not achieved the cult status of these other issues from 1861; despite the fact that it is rare, interesting and historical in its own right. The 1861-C half eagle is the final coin produced at the Charlotte mint. It is the only Charlotte coin which bears the magical 1861 date and it has an original mintage of just 6,879. It is believed that 887 were struck in May, 1861 under the supervision of the Confederacy. If it were possible to determine with certainty which coins were struck by the Confederacy, I believe that they would among the most valuable and desirable of all the coins produced at this mint.
According to one theory, the coins produced by the Confederacy show a relatively extensive die crack on the reverse which begins at the rim over the first A in AMERICA and travels from the left serif of the M in AMERICA through the tops of the lettering to the middle of the I and then into the rim. These late die state coins also show scattered areas of rust on the reverse.
I have kept careful records of this date and in the past fifteen years or so, I have seen around 75 different pieces. Of these, I recorded ten that had this late state of the die break as well as die rust. Given that fewer than 10% of the original mintage are Confederate strikings, this survival rate is fairly plausible although by no means definitive.
As I mentioned above, the 1861-C half eagle has lost some of its appeal in the past decade or so. At one time it was considered to be one of the key dates in the Charlotte half eagle series and it was priced at a level fairly comparable to the 1861-D half eagle. Today, the 1861-D trades for considerably more and it appears on many more want lists. In my opinion, the 1861-C is now undervalued.
I estimate that there are around 125 or so known with most in the VF to EF range. I think there are 25-30 properly graded AU pieces and most of these grade AU50 to AU53. The 1861-C becomes very scarce in AU55 to AU58 and it is extremely rare in Uncirculated. I have only seen two or three that I regard as true Mint State coins. The finest is the ex: Elrod coin that has been graded MS63 by both PCGS and NGC. It last sold for $59,800 in the Heritage 2000 FUN sale and is owned by an Alabama collector.
The 1861-C half eagle is found with a good quality of strike which is interesting when one considers that the two half eagles made prior to this (1859-C and 1860-C) are the two worst struck coins ever produced by this mint. The reverse is the same as that used to make the majority of half eagles struck in 1858-C and it lacks the clogged appearance and extensive die damage seen on the 1859-C and 1860-C reverse.
The surfaces on most 1861-C half eagles are quite heavily abraded, leading me to think that nearly the entire mintage went directly into circulation and that most were used extensively in commerce. A number also show mint-made planchet flaws. The luster on higher grade 1861-C half eagles is mostly frosty with some satiny texture. It is almost impossible to find a piece that has original undisturbed luster due to the aforementioned surface abrasions as well as the fact that many have been dipped or cleaned over the years. The coloration seen ranges from deep green to a lighter yellow-gold shade. Very few remaining examples have natural color. Locating an 1861-C half eagle with good eye appeal is extremely difficult.
The population figures from PCGS and (especially) NGC appear to be highly inflated by resubmissions. NGC shows 23 (!) coins in AU58 as well as another 15 in AU55 while PCGS’s figures of nearly 50 coins in the various AU grades seems heavily inflated as well.
As I mentioned above, at current price levels the 1861-C half eagle appears to be good value. A nice EF coin, if you can find one, is going to run in the $4,500-5,500 range. I think the best value grade for this date is an AU53 which is worth around $8,000-10,000. In the higher AU grades, price levels jump to $12,500-15,000 for an AU58. I am aware of a few examples graded MS61 by NGC that have traded in the $30,000-40,000 range. I think a no-questions-asked Uncirculated example is a great value at this level but, as I mentioned above, I haven’t seen many in MS61 holders that I thought were legitimately “new.”
I’ve got to think that when (notice I didn’t say “if”) Charlotte gold coinage becomes popular again, the 1861-C will regain its place among the pantheon of popular Civil war related issues which are in great demand among collectors. It is a personal favorite of mine and it is an issue that I actively look to purchase when I am coin shows or examining auction listings.