The 1859-S Half Eagle

The date run of half eagles produced at the San Francisco mint from 1858 through 1864 includes some of the rarest and most overlooked gold issues ever manufactured at any of the various branch mints. These were issues that had limited production runs and which were eagerly absorbed into commerce by the booming local and regional economies. I recently had the good fortune of handling one of just two known 1859-S half eagles in Uncirculated (an NGC MS61) and now that I am no longer actively marketing the coin, I thought it would be interesting to take a more in-depth look at this issue and what made it such a special coin.

There were 13,220 1859-S half eagles originally struck. In the October 2008 web article that I wrote entitled “The Ten Rarest Liberty Head Half Eagles,” I ranked the 1859-S as the ninth rarest issue overall of the entire design type and called it the third rarest half eagle from this mint, trailing only the exceedingly rare 1854-S and the 1864-S.

I went on to state that there are only 50 or so known examples of the 1859-S half eagle. I believe that this is a fairly accurate number and I can further state that the survival breakdown by grade is as follows:

Uncirculated: 2 About Uncirculated: 6-8 Extremely Fine: 11-14 Very Fine (and below): 25-30

The PCGS and NGC population figures would have you believe that AU’s are more available than I suggested above. I believe these numbers are inflated on account of resubmissions and I think some of the coins in AU50 and AU53 holders are optimistically graded. In my experience, a real AU 1859-S half eagle is very rare and I have seen many examples that were heavily worn; even down to the point of Very Good to Fine detail.

The two known Uncirculated 1859-S half eagles are an interesting story and I’d like to discuss them in greater detail.

The finest known 1859-S is the wonderful PCGS MS62 example (which also appears in the NGC population report as an MS62) that I first saw in the Milas sale that Stack’s conducted back in 1995 where it brought $34,500. At the time it was in a NGC MS62 holder and while I don’t know the previous history of the coin, I do know that it was a piece that Ed Milas was especially proud of. It was purchased by a dealer agent for Harry Bass who, in retrospect, was the ideal new owner. It remained in his collection until he died and was later sold as Lot 1118 in the Bass II auction where it realized $30,800. The coin bounced around for a few years and was last sold as B+M 1/02: 694 where it garnered a reasonable $25,300.

The second Uncirculated 1859-S half eagle is an NGC MS61 that I just sold to a private collector. I acquired it from a collector at the ANA show in Los Angeles this summer. The background of the coin is interesting.

According to the collector, it was bought over the counter at a coin shop and was accompanied by a small envelope of the sort that used to accompany gold coins when they were given as Christmas presents. The collector first showed me the coin around three years ago and asked me if I was interested in obtaining it. I replied that I was. It wasn’t going to be an easy transaction, though, as the collector wanted to trade it for something “really special.” I saw the coin once a year in the interim and the collector continued to hold out for the right coin in trade.

I finally bought a coin this summer that excited the collector and, luckily for us, we were able to agree on respective valuations. He walked away with an amazing one-of-a-kind piece for his type set while I was able to procure one of the more exciting No Motto San Francisco half eagles that I’ve handled in a number of years. It seemed like a “win-win” deal for both of us.

Given the relative unpopularity of San Francisco gold, this incredible Uncirculated 1859-S half eagle will likely never receive the attention that it deserves. But it is a truly remarkable coin and, as I mentioned above, one of just two known in Uncirculated. I was excited to handle it and it makes me realize that, every now and then, a truly great gold coin does, literally, come out of the woodwork!