Where the %$#@ Are All the High Grade Dahlonega Half Eagles?

As I was reviewing my notes on Dahlonega half eagles this morning, I was struck by something very interesting as I updated Condition Census information: many dates haven't had a significant example sold in three, five or even eight years. This, in turn, made me ask out loud where the (naughty word) are all the high grade Dahlonega half eagles? Hence, the topic of this blog. Of the three primary denominations struck at the Dahlonega mint, half eagles are the most popular with collectors. It is easy to see why. The coins are comparatively large, the series is reasonably short and there are no impossible rarities to stop the collector of average means from attempting to complete a set.

As you might expect, even the common date Liberty Head half eagles from Dahlonega are rare in legitimate Uncirculated grades. If you discount the marginally Mint State coins that pop-up and the few higher grade common dates that have been available, the pool of available coins sold during the last few years has been shallow, at best.

Let's look at a few dates.

The 1841-D half eagle is a rare coin in high grades. There are around a dozen known in Uncirculated. Given that number of coins--and given the fact that this isn't an incredibly popular or numismatically significant issue--this would make you think that higher grade 1841-D half eagles should be available from time. Is this true?

Looking back at auction records from the past few years, the last high grade 1841-D to sell was Heritage 6/11: 4626. Graded MS63 by NGC (and approved by CAC) it brought $27,600. To find another high grade 1841-D (not including a few marginal MS61's and an S.S. New York example graded MS61) you have to go back to the Heritage 2008 ANA: 1965, also graded MS63 by NGC, that sold for a reasonable $18,400. And before this, you need to go back another three years to the Bowers and Merena 12/05: 2685, ex Bowers and Merena 1/05: 1554 coin, graded MS63 by NGC, that sold each time for $25,300.

And what if you only bought PCGS coins? How long has it been since a nice PCGS 1841-D half eagle was sold at auction? You'd have to go all the way back to the Green Pond: 1041 coin sold by Heritage in the 2004 FUN auction for $32,200. That's closing in on eight years (!)

Let's look at another date: the 1849-D. There are fewer than a dozen examples in Uncirculated and if you discount the marginal MS60 and MS61 pieces, the number of possible coins a high grade collector could pursue is around five or six.

The last significant 1849-D half eagle to sell at auction was the Bowers and Merena 2/08: 2544 coin, graded MS62 by PCGS, that sold for $24,150. Before this, there were two PCGS MS62 sales in 2004. Three coins in five years seems like a decent amount of availability UNTIL you do a little research and figure out that the 2004 appearances were the same coin and this piece was reoffered in 2008.

Here is one last example: the 1855-D half eagle. This is a tougher date than the 1841-D and 1849-D in higher grades, but it still isn't recognized as a rarity. There are around six or seven in Uncirculated.

There was a flurry of activity for this issue in high grades around 2004-2005. In fact, there were four auction trades for high grade pieces (three in PCGS MS63 and one in MS64) between the 2004 FUN show and the 2005 Summer ANA. That should have been a great opportunity for collectors, right?

Well, not really. You see, all four records are for the same coin and in the final appearance (Heritage 2005 ANA: 10356, at $38,813) the coin had now upgraded to MS64 (and lost its lovely original color in the process, but that's another story...)

But I digress. This blog isn't about coins re-appearing at auction. Its about coins not appearing for sale with much frequency.

So why don't nice Dahlonega half eagles show up for sale more regularly? I have a few suggestions as to why this is the case.

1. With few exceptions, really "new" Dahlonega half eagles are rarer than you think. You can throw-out the numbers in the population reports (especially NGC) as there are many resubmissions of these coins in Mint State. There isn't a single Dahlonega half eagle that isn't truly rare in MS63 and above and most are very rare even in properly graded MS61 and MS62.

2. The few nice coins that exist are in strong hands. The downward trend in the economy since 2008 hasn't brought more than a handful of significant Dahlonega half eagles onto the market. Clearly, these coins are owned by serious collectors who don't plan on owning their coins for a few years and then "flopping" them. And, surprisingly, this appears to be the case for both date and type collectors.

3. No great collections of Dahlonega half eagles have hit the market in at least five years. In fact, unless I'm forgetting something, the last really great collection to hit the market was Green Pond in January 2004. Contrast this with the prior seven to eight years, when you had James Stack, Milas, Pittman, Bass, North Georgia, Chestatee, Miller and others. Looking back at 1995-2003, this was probably the single most fertile time in the history of numismatics for advanced collectors of Dahlonega. Since 2004, we've seen almost nothing in terms of specialized collections.

(Oops. I am forgetting something: the Duke's Creek collection sale in 2006. But this was only dollars and quarters eagles, not half eagles. So my point #3 is still valid, at least as far as half eagles is concerned.)

4. As the supply of great coins has dried up, the number of avid collectors has increased. I can't think of any time that there was more serious collectors of Dahlonega half eagles than there is now. Clearly, the supply is not nearly enough to meet the current demand.

5. Dahlonega gold is one area where the auction companies haven't completely dominated the market since the mid-2000's. I've sold via private treaty considerably more high quality Dahlonega gold coins than what has appeared at auction. But in the case of half eagles graded MS62 and above, this is still isn't a ton of coins.

6. As I've stated countless times, the price reporting mechanism for rare date gold coins is broken and needs to be fixed. In most cases, published prices for higher grade Dahlonega half eagles are down since 2004 despite what most experts believe to be a strong(er) market. This is partly due to certain schlocky, overgraded coins dragging down levels on specific issues and partly due to published references being unable to keep up with the market.

I don't think we're likely to see many changes in the Dahlonega half eagle market, at least not if prices stay unrealistically low. There aren't a lot of good coins around to begin with and I see no hugely compelling reason(s) right now for owners of such coins to sell them.

So what do you do if you are a collector who is specializing in high grade Dahlonega half eagles? Be patient; the right coins will turn up sooner or later. And when they do, be prepared to pay up for them.

Do you have more questions about Dahlonega half eagles? If so, please feel free to contact me via email at dwn@ont.com.