Anyone with a passing knowledge of United States gold coinage is aware of the three rarest issues from the San Francisco mint: the unique 1870-S Three Dollar gold piece, the exceedingly rare 1854-S half eagle and the very rare 1854-S quarter eagle. But not everyone realizes what the next rarest gold issue is from this mint. Read on for the answer. The rarest collectible gold coin from the San Francisco mint is the unheralded 1864-S half eagle. I regard this as the second rarest collectible Liberty Head half eagle after the 1875 and the 1864-S also has the added value of not being available in Proof as the 1875 Philadelphia half eagle is.
There were a total of 3,888 half eagles produced at the San Francisco mint in 1864. While this is certainly a low mintage figure, it doesn’t really stand out in the Liberty Head half eagle series. In fact, there are 11 issues with lower production figures (1861-D, 1863, 1865, 1869, 1871, 1872, 1874, 1875, 1876, 1877 and 1887). Unlike the majority of these ultra-low mintage issues, the 1864-S has an incredibly low survival rate. In my opinion, there are about 20 examples known in all grades.
Not only is the 1864-S rare in terms of overall rarity, it is also extremely rare in high grades. Of the 20 or so known, I estimate that at least half grade EF40 or lower. The 1864-S is extremely rare in properly graded EF45 and it is exceptionally rare in About Uncirculated with an estimated four or five known. There is also one remarkable Uncirculated 1864-S half eagle in existence which will be discussed in greater detail below.
According to the most recent population figures from PCGS, they have graded a total of 14 examples in all grades including three in AU (two in AU50 and one in AU53) as well as a single example in Uncirculated. NGC has a total population of ten coins with three in AU (one each in AU53, AU55 and AU58). I have personally seen two or three coins that I regard as AU. One of these is Bass III: 500 ($23,000; as PCGS AU53) which I am fairly certain is the same piece as the NGC AU58 which is now in an eastern dealer’s inventory. Another was sold back in the 1980’s in a PCGS EF45 holder but which would certainly grade AU50 or better by today’s standards.
The 1864-S half eagle is easily distinguishable by its obverse strike. This includes weakness on the stars at the left and considerable flatness on the hair at the top of the head, the bun and the tip of the coronet. The curls around the face are usually very weak as well. Interestingly, this weakness does not fully correspond to the reverse. The upper portion of the reverse is quite sharply detailed while the lower portion is not quite as sharp with weakness noted on the arrowheads and arrow feathers, the talons and the lower part of the mintmark. The surfaces are usually abraded and may show light mint-made striations in the fields. The luster tends to be dull and grainy and most are worn to the point that little—if any—natural mint luster is present. The natural color is a medium to deep orange-gold. As one might expect, this is an incredibly hard issue to find with original color and surfaces and I doubt if more than three or four original pieces remain.
As I mentioned above, there is one truly remarkable 1864-S half eagle known. This piece is graded MS65 by PCGS and I think the grade is extremely conservative as the coin is virtually “as struck.” This coin first surfaced in 1956 when it sold in the Melish sale for a whopping $70. It was purchased by the Norwebs and it remained in their collection until 1987 when it was purchased at auction by Harry Bass for $110,000. It was last sold in 1999 when it realized what I thought was, at the time, a very reasonable $176,000 in the Bass II auction. It was purchased by a Southern collector who, to the best of my knowledge, does not own any other San Francisco Liberty Head half eagles and, for that matter, may not have more than a handful of Liberty Head gold coins from any mint in his holdings. To his credit, he realized what a great coin this Gem 1864-S half eagle was and he was determined to purchase it, whatever it took.
In looking back at my Bass II catalog, I noted that my reaction when I saw the coin for a second time (in 1999) was “world’s coolest San Francisco gold coin.” This half eagle is certainly not worth anything close to an 1854-S but it is probably my single favorite San Francisco gold coin of any date or denomination. It is the only known Uncirculated example of an extremely rare issue and it just happens to be a Gem. One has to wonder how it survived. My guess is that it was an assay coin that was sent to Philadelphia and kept by someone there as a souvenir.
Despite the extreme rarity of this date, it is still relatively affordable. The last example to sell at auction was a decent PCGS EF45 which brought $19,550 when Heritage auctioned it as Lot 3489 in their 2006 FUN sale. Coin World Trends for an AU50 is $45,000 which, again, seems pretty reasonable when one considers that only six examples have been slabbed in AU50 or better between the two services combined.