If you have a numismatic budget of $2,000-10,000 per coin and you want to explore a series that is reasonably short in duration but long on challenges, I'd strongly suggest No Motto half eagles from New Orleans. Let's take a brief look at this area of collecting and see if it is for you. The New Orleans mint opened in 1838 and began producing silver coins. The first gold issue from this facility was the 1839-O quarter eagle. The next year, coinage of half eagles would begin. Half eagles would be struck, intermittently, until 1857 with a total of twelve issues (thirteen if you count the two varieties of 1843-O). Production did resume in 1892 and three With Motto issues were produced but we are not going to discuss them at this time.
To my way of thinking, No Motto New Orleans half eagles are a great collector-based series for a variety of reasons. These include the following:
*The coins are scarce and undervalued but they are affordable. If you can budget around $5,000 per coin for most of the issues (and $7,500-10,000 for the two keys) you can assemble a really nice group of coins with most of the pieces in the AU grades.
*The coins are well made. Unlike the sometimes poorly produced half eagles from Charlotte and Dahlonega, the New Orleans issues tend to be very well made. If you are a collector who finds strike to be a critical issue, this is going to be an important factor for you.
*There are no unobtainable issues. In both the Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagle series you have at least one very expensive issue (the 1842-C Small Date and the 1861-D). In the New Orleans series, there is nothing that will bust the budget of an average collector.
*There is a great book available on these coins which just happens to have been written by yours truly.
As I mentioned above, there are a total of thirteen different No Motto half eagles from this mint. There are two issues which I would call very scarce to rare, two issues which I would call common to somewhat scarce and nine which are scarce-ish to scarce but which can prove to be challenging if the collector is picky to very picky.
The two really challenging No Motto half eagles from New Orleans are the 1842-O and the 1847-O. The former has a mintage of 16,400 while the latter has a mintage of 12,000. Both have well under 100 known in all grades and both are usually seen in low grades. Despite the rarity of these two issues, they are still relatively affordable..
As an example, a presentable PCGS VF20 1842-O half eagle sold at auction for just $2,300 in Heritage's 8/11 auction. In 2010, two PCGS EF45 examples brought $3,881 and $3,738. While neither of these coins was what I'd call "PQ" for the grade, they represent amazingly good value at less than four thousand dollars for a date which has not been sold at auction in any AU grade since 2004.
The 1847-O is even rarer than the 1842-O and it is actually less available in higher grades than the far more pricey 1861-D half eagle. A nice, wholesome NGC VF35 brought $4,025 in the Heritage 12/11 sale and two PCGS EF examples (one in 40 and the other in 45) sold for $7,475 and $8,052 in Heritage's January and August 2011 auctions. In my opinion, a pleasing original EF or AU example of this date at current levels is a terrific value.
The next category of dates--the ones I called "scarce-ish to scarce" include the 1843-O Small Letters and Large Letters, 1845-O, 1846-O, 1851-O, 1855-O, 1856-O and 1857-O. These can actually be sub-divided into the classes: the dates in the 1840's (scarce-ish) and the dates in the 1850's (scarce).
The 1840's dates are all very affordable in the EF grades. The collector is looking $2,000-3,000, on average for nice quality pieces. In AU grades, the collector is looking at $3,000-6,000 depending on quality.
Here are some very brief comments on each of these dates:
*1840-O: This is the most common of the three first-year-of-issue half eagles from the southern branch mints. Varieties exist with a narrow mill (common) and a wide mill (rare).
*1843-O Small Letters: The rarer of the two varieties struck this year. Often seen with weakness at the borders from die lapping. Very hard to locate with original surfaces and color.
*1843-O Large Letters: The more common of the two. A reasonably available issue in EF; available in the lower AU grades but becomes rare in AU55. Generally well struck with good luster.
*1845-O: Available in EF grades but harder to find than many more expensive C+D half eagles of this era. Generally well struck but often very abraded. Worth a good premium with natural color.
*1846-O: Harder to find than the 1845-O but comparable in rarity below AU. For some reason, nice AU coins have become much more difficult to find than in the past. A really tough issue in crisp, wholesome AU55 and AU58.
*1851-O: Similar in rarity to the 1845-O and 1846-O so included with the 1840's issues. Not quite as well struck as the last two but the luster tends to be good. Often seen dipped and worth a strong premium with natural color.
Given their lower mintage figures, one would expect the 1855-O, 1856-O and 1857-O to be scarcer than their counterparts from the 1840's. All three of these are hard to find and, in my opinion, very undervalued in relation to Charlotte and Dahlonega issues from this era.
These three issues are comparable in rarity but I would rank them in this order: 1855-O, 1857-O and 1856-O.
The 1855-O, 1856-O and 1857-O are hard to find in problem-free, original EF grades but, when available, they can still be had to under $3,000 a coin. As an example, look at the 1855-O. Since 2009, there have been four EF45's sold at auction. Prices for these have ranged from a low of $2,302 to a high of $2,700. In my opinion, that is very reasonable for a coin as rare as this.
The two common date No Motto half eagles from this mint are the 1844-O and the 1854-O. The 1844-O had a mintage over 364,600 and it is reasonably easy to locate in grades up to AU55. The 1854-O had a much lower mintage of 46,000. It is less rare than the 1851-O (which has a mintage of 41,000) and can be found in the EF40-AU50 range. In properly graded AU55 and AU58, it is scarce and undervalued.
My ideal set construction for this series would be as follows:
For the collector with a budget of $2,000-3,000 per coin, I would focus on obtaining EF40 to EF45 examples of the scarce dates and AU50 to AU55 examples of the more available ones. The 1842-O is going to require an outlay of at least $3,000-4,000 for a decent high end VF to EF coin. The 1847-O will be a bit more expensive but it is possible, with some patience and luck, to find one for around $5,000-6,000.
For the collector who has a budget of $5,000-10,000 per coin, I'd look at AU55 to AU58 examples of all the dates with the exception of the 1844-O (where I would stretch for an MS62 at $6,00-7,000) and the 1847-O (where I'd hope I can find a nice AU50 or AU53).
For the collector with a big budget of $10,000+ per coin, the focus would be on Uncirculated coins. The majority of the No Motto issues from New Orleans have fewer than a dozen known in Uncirculated. Two issues, the 1842-O and the 1847-O, are exceedingly rare and might not be available above AU55 to AU58 while the final three (1855-O, 1856-O and 1857-O) are not as impossible but are not exactly slouches.
As I mentioned above, this is a series that I think has a ton going for it. It doesn't have the level of popularity which enshrouds the double eagles but it is easier to collect than the No Motto eagles from this mint and far more interesting than the gold dollars or quarter eagles.
No one--and I mean no one!--has handled more interesting No Motto New Orleans half eagles than I have. If this is a series which you want to collect, you should contact me by email at email@example.com and we can discuss it.