Classic Head Gold: An Update

I frequently write about the state of the market as it pertains to early gold and Liberty Head issues but I haven’t commented on Classic Head gold in quite a while. So how is the market for Classic Head quarter eagles and half eagles and what do I expect the coming months to look like for these coins? To answer these questions, we need to turn the clock back a few years. Classic Head gold was dormant for what seemed like an eternity. Everyone thought these coins had “potential” but there was never much demand for Classic Heads and they snoozed away in their own little niche-like corner of the market.

This began to change around 2004-2005. A dealer in the Southeast had been quietly building a large position of coins (primarily in the EF-AU grade range) and he carefully began to raise his buy prices. Within a year or two, he had accumulated an impressive number of coins and, on paper, the value of the position had increased.

I never really understood what he did next. Instead of slowly marketing these coins, one day they showed up in another dealer’s inventory (apparently on a consignment) and for many months, the secondary dealer toted hundreds and hundreds of Classic Head gold coins to every major show. It was hard to get excited about this deal when it seemed like every Classic Head gold coin that had ever been slabbed was for sale. At once.

So now you had coins that doubled in price and were readily available. Would the market be able to sustain the new levels? The answer was “no, not really” but in some isolated cases yes.

Had the market for Classic Heads been properly developed, there would have been collectors lined-up for all the EF and AU common dates that were available. As I’ve written before, I think this series is begging for a collecting guidebook. Most dates have a number of very interesting varieties, the sets are completable by collectors on a relatively limited budget, the designs are great and the number of pieces that make up a set are not overwhelming (as with Liberty Head issues).

At the height of the Classic Head market run-up, it wasn’t unusual to see a common date quarter eagle in AU55 trade for $1,750 or so. Today, these same coins have dropped down to $1,250. That’s still a relatively strong level considering that these were $750-1,000 in the earlier part of the decade. How have the common dates in higher grades done? The current market for a common Classic Head quarter eagle in MS63 is around $7,000-8,000. These had been as high as $9,000-10,000 but only if the coin in question was exceedingly nice for the grade. Considering that common dates MS63’s had been around $4,000-5,000 for many years at the earlier part of the decade, I think they’ve held their value reasonably well.

The part of the Classic Head market that has always been the most interesting for me has been the branch mint issues: namely the 1838-C and 1839-C quarter eagles, the 1839-O quarter eagle and the 1838-C and 1838-D half eagles. Unlike the Philadelphia Classic Head issues these five dates have the added demand level caused by branch mint specialists, first-year-of-issue collectors and individuals who just like “neat” coins.

Values for the 1838-C and 1839-C quarter eagles jumped to what I believe were unsustainable levels. This is especially so for the 1839-C. There were suddenly oodles of AU55 and AU58 examples available for sale in the $10,000-20,000 range but the demand for such coins couldn’t keep up with the prices. I think you’ll see levels for these two dates in AU continue to drop but they will remain strong in the “collector grades” (i.e., VF and EF).

The two Classic Head issues that continue to exhibit very strong demand in all grades are the 1838-C and 1838-D half eagles. In the last thirty days, I owned three (!) 1838-C half eagles graded between EF40 and AU50 and, remarkably, every one of them sold within a week of being listed on my website. If I were able to purchase three nice 1838-D half eagles I believe the results would be the same. These are coins where the demand exceeds the supply and I won’t hesitate to continue to buy nice examples whenever they become available.

What are my expectations of the Classic Head market in the coming months? I think you’ll see some continued drops in prices for common date coins graded AU55 to MS63 with the exception of pieces that have nice original color and choice surfaces. I wouldn’t be surprised if the schlocky, processed shiny examples drop another 10-20%.

At new, lower levels I think choice, original common date Classic Head quarter eagles and half eagles are a good value. If you can buy a nice AU55 1834 quarter eagle in the $1,250-1,450 range that seems like a good deal to me. Same goes with a nice AU55 1834 half eagle at, say, $1,500 or so. As I mentioned above, I still love the 1838-C and 1838-D half eagles and I think both of these issues have real upside at current levels.

I think the “secret” dates in the quarter eagle and half eagle series are probably worth exploring right now. I like the 1837 quarter eagle and have always thought that nice 1839 quarter eagles were highly undervalued. In the half eagle series, I think that the 1837 is a good value.

One final thing before I end this article. I’m not going to be the person who does this, but I’d sure like to see someone properly promote the Classic Head series the next time around. By this I don’t mean manipulate prices and demand, but help take a slightly chaotic market and make sense of it. Write a good book, get collectors interested in these coins and gently “push” the market in the right direction by actively buying and selling. That would be a beautiful thing...