Building a Basic Type Set of Five Dollar Gold Pieces

The half eagle is the very first gold coin to be struck at the United States mint. This denomination was struck without interruption from 1795 to 1929, and it is the only U.S. gold issue to be produced at all eight United States mints. It is very popular with collectors, but the seemingly endless duration makes it very hard to collect by date. Because of this fact, it is an ideal set to collect by type. Let's take at the eight major types that constitute a half eagle set from 1795 to 1929. The beauty of this set is that while it contains some rare coins, it can be completed by most collectors; even in relatively high grades. While probably not realistic in Gem Uncirculated (although certainly feasible, albeit at a significant price), this set is very realistic in Uncirculated. In fact, many of the coins can be purchased in MS63 and MS64 grades for less than the price of far less rare 20th century gold issues.

1. Capped Bust Small Eagle (1795-1798)

1795 $5.00 NGC AU55

While this type is dated from 1795 through 1798, for most collectors the only two realistic dates for type purposes are the 1795 and the 1796/5. The 1797 is very rare and the 1798 is exceedingly rare with just eight known.

If I were going to be putting this set together, there is no doubt that I would select a 1795 as my Capped Bust Small Eagle type coin. Even though the 1796/5 is much scarcer and probably undervalued in relation to the 1795, the latter is a first-year-of-issue which gives it considerable numismatic significance.

A total of 8,707 1795 Small Eagle reverse half eagles were struck. There are hundreds of coins known, in grades that range from VF+ to EF all the way up to Gem. Depending on the collector's budget, I would suggest either looking for a nice AU50 to AU53 coin or a solid MS62 to MS63. A nice AU coin should be available in the $50,000-60,000 range while an MS62 to MS63 will cost $100,000-150,000.

Due to the price and significance of this coin, I regard it as one of the key members of the half eagle type set. Therefore, the collector should be patient and fussy in his quest for the "right" coin. I think it is important to find an example with choice surfaces and original color. Nice, cosmetically appealing 1795 half eagles used to be available with relative ease a decade ago, but they have become hard to find as so many have been dipped or lightened. A high-end, original coin is worth at least a 15-20% premium over a typical example.

2. Capped Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle Reverse (1795-1807)

1798 Large 8, 13 Stars $5.00 PCGS AU58

This is one of my favorite types of half eagle. It can be neatly subdivided into two categories: those issues struck prior to 1800, and those struck afterwards.

For the pre-1800 issues, there are two dates that make sense for a type set: the 1798 and the 1799. There are a number of varieties of 1798, but the most available (and the one that is best for a type set) is the Large 8 with 13 stars on the reverse. The mintage figure for the 1798 half eagle is reported to be 24,867, and it is likely that no more than 500-750 examples survive in all grades. A nice AU example of the 1798 half eagle should be available for under $25,000-30,000. An Uncirculated coin will cost $40,000-80,000+. In my opinion, the best grades for a type set are AU55 to AU58 and MS62.

The 1799 has a reported mintage of only 7,451 and I regard it as a real "sleeper" in the early half eagle series. It isn't that much more costly than the 1798, yet it is at least two times as rare. I recently sold a lovely PCGS MS62 with CAC approval for less than $45,000, and this seems like truly good value to me.

For most collectors, the best coin to seek for their Capped Bust Right Heraldic Eagle reverse type is going to be a half eagle dated from 1800 to 1807. All of these dates are relatively common, and each has its own merits for inclusion in the set.

If you are going to stick with an AU coin, you should be able to purchase a lovely, high-end example in the $10,000-15,000 range. In Uncirculated, an MS62 will cost around $17,500-20,000+, while an MS63 is $30,000+.

A few important factors to consider when buying this type are originality, color, nice surfaces and a lack of detracting marks. This is a common enough coin that you can afford to be quite finicky when pursuing it. If you don't really like a specific coin, wait until you find the "right" one.

3. Capped Bust Left (1807-1812)

1807 $5.00 NGC MS62

In 1807, Reich again redesigned the half eagle. The new design features a Capped Bust Left obverse and an entirely new reverse.

All six years of this design are basically similar in overall rarity. All six issues also tend to be well made and fairly easy to locate in grades up to and including MS63. This makes it among the easier types in this set to acquire.

What year is "best" for this set? I like the 1812, given its historic association with the War of 1812, but I also like the 1807 for its significance as the first-year-of-issue for the Capped Head Left type. But none of these dates is really "better" than any other.

The best buying tips that I can give for this type are similar with the other early types discussed in this article. If you are purchasing a nice About Uncirculated coins, look for a piece that has the appearance of a Mint State coin but just a slight amount of friction on the high spots. On Uncirculated coins, try and stick with those that are original and those that are minimally abraded with good color and good overall eye appeal.

A nice AU Capped Bust Left should be readily available in the $10,000-15,000 range. A nice Uncirculated coin (one that grades MS62 to MS63) will cost in the area of $20,000-35,000+ depending on the date and grade.

4. Capped Head Left (1813-1834)

1813 $5.00 NGC MS60

The half eagles struck from 1813 through 1834 include some of the rarest and interesting issues of this entire denomination. Unlike some of the very rare half eagles from the 1860's and 1870's, these issues tend not to be rare due to low mintages but because of intensive meltings that began in 1834. The weight of the half eagle was lowered during this year, making the old issues worth more intrinsically than their face value. Most of the issues from the 1820's were almost totally wiped out in the process. The most extreme example is the 1822, of which just three survive from an original mintage of 17,796.

But not all the Capped Head Left half eagles are extreme rarities and it is from the small number of more available dates that the type collector will probably make his selection. The most common issues of this design are the 1813, 1814/3, 1818, and 1820. "Common" is a relative term here, though, as some of these dates, like the 1818 and 1820 are quite rare when compared to the last two types that we discussed in this article.

For type purposes, the 1813 is clearly the best date to choose for this set. It is easily the most available date and it tends to come better produced as well. A nice AU example can be found for less than $15,000 and an MS62 to MS63 is available for less than $30,000.

Let's say that you want to add some real "meat" to this set and decide to include a very rare issue. Is this possible? With patience and a large budget, it is. The 1824, 1825, 1826, and 1827 are all very rare coins but they do become available on average of once (or possibly twice) per year. These issues didn't circulate very much so just a few exist in grades below MS60. If a nice AU coin is available, a collector is looking at an expenditure of at least $50,000-60,000+ while a solid MS62 to MS63 will cost in the $80,000-100,000 range.

In 1829, an important change occurred to the design of this type: the diameter was reduced. Design changes that reflect this include smaller date, letter and star sizes. The 1829-1834 subtype could certainly be included in this half eagle set but it is not absolutely necessary. If it is included, this is a challenging hole to fill as all six issues are quite rare due to the wholesale meltings, mentioned above, that occurred in 1834.

5. Classic Head (1834-1838)

1834 $5.00 NGC PR63 Cameo

The size and weight of the half eagle was reduced in 1834 and this is reflected by an entirely new design by William Kneass. The Classic Head type was struck from 1834 through 1838. This is a popular and numismatically significant type as it includes the first branch mint issues for this denomination. The southern branch mints at Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans opened in 1838. The 1838-C and 1838-D issues are scarce and extremely popular, but as they are not readily available in higher grades they are not generally included in a half eagle type set.

Most collectors will select a Philadelphia issue. Due to high original mintage figures, Classic Head half eagles tend to be readily available in circulated grades and are not rare in Uncirculated until you reach the MS64 to MS65 range.

In the highest circulated grades, a common date Classic Head half eagle can be purchased for less than $3,000. Even though these coins are reasonably common, it is remarkable that a classic United States gold coin that is over 175 years old is still so affordable. In MS62 to MS63, a nice coin will cost $6,000-12,000 while an MS64, if it is available, will cost around $20,000+.

Here are some suggestions when buying a Classic Head half eagle. First, if you can, try and buy a date other than the 1834. While interesting as the first-year-of-issue, the 1834 is appreciably more common than dates such as the 1835, 1836, and 1838. Yet in spite of this, these scarcer dates sell for a small premium, even in comparatively high grades. Second, look for a coin with deep, rich natural color. This type is available with good eye appeal and a pretty example is clearly going to add more "oomph" to this set than a washed-out, average quality piece. Finally, try and find a well-struck coin. This design is often weak at the centers so avoid coins that show little central detail.

6. Liberty Head, No Motto Reverse (1839-1866)

1843 $5.00 NGC MS62

The Liberty Head design should be familiar to most collectors as it existed, in this basic format, all the way from 1839 until 1907. The coins struck prior to 1866 did not include the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the reverse.

Known to collectors as No Motto half eagles, these Liberty Head issues were made at the Charlotte, Dahlonega, Carson City, New Orleans and San Francisco branch mints as well as at Philadelphia.

For most collectors, a Philadelphia No Motto half eagle makes the most sense as a type coin. The more common dates from the 1840's and early 1850's tend to be readily available in the lower Uncirculated grades (MS62 and below) and can be obtained for under $5,000. A collector who wants a nice MS64 will have his choice between a few different dates and should expect to pay around $20,000. Gems of this type do exist, but they are expensive and hard to locate.

1839 $5.00 NGC AU55

The half eagles struck in 1839 are actually a distinct one-year type with a different rendition of the portrait as well as the mintmark on the obverse for the Charlotte and Dahlonega issues. The 1839 half eagle is not rare in circulated grades, but it is scarce in Uncirculated and quite rare in MS62 and above. Expect to pay at least $15,000-20,000 for a higher quality Uncirculated example. A nice AU piece can be found for less than $3,000.

7. Liberty Head, With Motto Reverse (1866-1907)

1893-O $5.00 PCGS MS63

The With Motto Liberty Head is among the more common types in this set. It was produced from 1866 to 1907 in prodigious quantity at the Philadelphia, Carson City, New Orleans, Denver and San Francisco mints.

For type purposes, most collectors will select a common date Philadelphia or San Francisco With Motto half eagle. The lowest grade that should be included in a better-quality set is probably MS63 to MS64 and a really nice coin is going to be readily available for less than $2,000. As a hint, I'd suggest that you look for a date struck prior to 1900, as that adds a "neatness" factor.

This type is actually easy to find in grades up to and including MS66. I'm not certain I'd commit spending a lot more than $10,000 on an example for a type set unless this set involved a "best of everything" mindset.

8. Indian Head (1908-1929)

1909 $5.00 PCGS MS65

The final type in the half eagle set is the attractive and popular Indian Head design. These coins were struck from 1908 to 1929.

This is an easy type to locate in any grade up to and including MS65. An MS64 would be the lowest quality coin I'd recommend for type purposes and these have come down in price to the point where you can buy a nice one for less than $5,000. In MS65, prices have dropped as well and what was once a $20,000-ish coin can now be found for around $12,500.

Here are a few hints when looking for an Indian Head half eagle. First, try to find a slightly better date (like a 1909 or a 1911) that used to sell for a premium, but which is now essentially a type coin. Secondly, be patient and wait for a coin with great color and choice, original surfaces. This is an easy coin to locate so you should wait for a coin that really "speaks" to you.

Assembling this eight (or ten) coin set is a real challenge and quite a bit of fun. Depending on your budget, you could include coins grading from Extremely Fine to Gem Uncirculated. Because of the rarity and cost of the 1795, this is never going to be an inexpensive set, but it is one that I think has the potential to be very desirable in the future.

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...

13 Interesting Gold Coins Priced Below $2,500

Is it possible to build an interesting collection of desirable United States gold without having a large per coin budget? I think the answer to this question is a resounding “yes.” There are plenty of extremely interesting pieces that are within the average collector’s price range and this includes a number of coins that are both scarce and in comparably high grades. Here are a baker’s dozen suggested areas for a collector with a budget of $2,500 (or less) per coin. 1. San Francisco Gold Dollars: The San Francisco mint produced seven different gold dollars. These include all three types. The 1854-S is a Type One issue, the 1856-S is a Type Two and the 1857-S, 1858-S, 1859-S, 1860-S and 1870-S are all Type Threes. With the exception of the popular (but somewhat overvalued) 1856-S, any of these dates can be obtained in AU50 to AU55 grades for $1,500-2,500. My personal favorite date in this group is the 1857-S. Did you know that from the standpoint of overall rarity, this date is actually rarer than the 1857-C or the 1857-D? The 1857-S has a current Trends value in AU55 of $2,500 which is very cheap for a coin of this rarity; the 1857-C Trends for $7,000 in this grade, while the 1857-D is listed at $6,500.

2. Reconstruction Era Philadelphia Gold Dollars: The Philadelphia gold dollars produced from 1866 to 1872 all have mintages of 7,100 or below (except for the 1868 which had a mintage of 10,500) and all of these issues are reasonably scarce in all grades. This group of coins is not generally seen in circulated grades but very presentable Uncirculated examples (in this case in the MS62 to MS64 grade range) can typically be purchased in the $1,000-2,500 range. I like the 1865 and 1867 best. The former has a Trends value of $1,700 in MS60 and $2,500 in MS62 and is a great value at anything near these levels. The 1867 is listed at $2,000 in MS63 and if you can find a piece at this level, you’ve just bought a truly scarce coin at a most reasonable level.

3. Classic Head Quarter Eagles: If you have a limited coin budget, you won’t be able to buy any early gold as it has become too expensive. But you can still purchase a really nice AU55 to AU58 common date Classic Head quarter eagle for $2,000-3,000. Classic Head gold coinage is sort of a bridge between the pre-1834 “early gold” issues and the more familiar Liberty Head design which was employed all the way into the early 20th century. I personally like the Classic Head design and have seen some pieces in the AU55 to AU58 range which are really attractive. If possible, buy a date other than the ubiquitous 1834 as these issues are considerably scarcer. My “sleeper” date is the 1839 which considerably scarcer than the mintmarked issues of this year but priced much lower.

4. Philadelphia Quarter Eagles From The 1840’s: This group includes some dates that are well out of the price range of the $2,500 and lower budget but it contains a number of other overlooked issues that fall well within these parameters. Want some suggestions? How about the 1844. This is a low mintage coin with just 6,784 pieces originally produced. There are probably no more than 50-75 pieces known in all grades and this date is considerably scarcer than the mintmarked issues from this era. Despite this fact, Trends lists an AU50 example at $2,250. Other dates from this era that I think are very undervalued include the 1843, 1846, 1847 and 1848. Your $2,500 per coin budget will go a long way in this series and you should be able to buy some nice AU pieces if you are patient.

5. Nice About Uncirculated New Orleans Quarter Eagles: There are a number of scarce New Orleans quarter eagles from the 1840’s and 1850’s that the collector can buy in AU55 to AU58 grades for $2,500 or less. This includes the 1846-O, 1847-O, 1850-O, 1851-O, 1852-O, 1856-O and 1857-O. In this same price range it is also possible to purchase nice MS61 examples of the 1843-O Small Date and the 1854-O. I would strongly recommend that the collector looking at these coins familiarize himself with their peculiarities of strike (these are described in my book “Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint, 1839-1909”) and pay a premium for examples with original surfaces and color.

6. Low Mintage Quarter Eagles, 1880-1899: A collector with a budget of $2,500 per coin could put together a high quality set of Quarter Eagles dated between 1880 and 1899. With just two exceptions, every coin in this set would be Uncirculated and in some cases the coins could grade as high as MS64 or even MS65. What’s great about these coins is that they are well-produced and not hard to find with pleasing original color and surfaces. Some of the dates in this two decade production run are very challenging to find in Uncirculated (1880, 1883 and 1884 come to mind as the stoppers) while others (including nearly all of the coins struck in the 1890’s) are easy to find in Mint State. The real budget-busters in this set are the popular low mintage 1881 and 1885 issues. For $3,500-5,000, the collector will be able to find a nice AU 1881 should cost $4,000-5,000. This is a great set for the collector who wants to own some very high grade yet legitimately scarce gold coins.

7. Scarcer Date Three Dollar Gold Pieces: Three Dollar gold pieces have been a whipping boy in many “experts” recent newsletters but I think there is still great value in this series. For $2,500 you can buy a number of the scarcer issues from the 1860’s and 1870’s in Extremely Fine grades. These coins are not that easy to locate due to the fact that this denomination did not typically circulate enough to get word down to Extremely Fine detail. But when Three Dollar gold pieces are available in EF, they tend to be reasonably attractive and very affordable. All of the Civil War dates (except for the rare 1865) can be purchased in EF40 to EF45 for around $2,500 and a number of the tougher dates from the 1870’s (such as the 1870, 1871 and 1872) can be found in the same grade range for around the same price.

8. Classic Head Half Eagles: I like this series for the exact same reasons mentioned in Item #3, above. I’ve always looked at Classic Head half eagles as the “early gold for collectors who can’t afford early gold.” Think about it. You can still buy a nice Choice AU half eagle that is approaching 175 years in age for less than $3,000. The sleeper date in this series is the 1837 which is many times scarcer than the 1834-1836 issues but which commands just a 20-30% premium in AU. I’d suggest that the collector be fussy when looking at Classic Head half eagles as they are plentiful enough that he can wait for the “right” coin to come around.

9. No Motto New Orleans Half Eagles: This is an area where a collector with a budget of $2,500 per coin will be able to purchase some very scarce and desirable issues. One date that I feel is extremely undervalued is the first-year-of-issue 1840-O. I recently posted an example in NGC AU55 on my website (I priced the coin at $2,350) and received seven orders for it. For $2,500 or less, the collector will be able to purchase nice EF45 examples of such scarce dates as the 1843-O Small Letters, the 1845-O, 1846-O, 1851-O, 1856-O and 1857-O. All six of these dates are much harder to find in this grade than most of the Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles from this era yet they are priced at between $500-1,000 less per coin.

10. 1890’s Carson City Half Eagles: No, the four half eagles struck at the Carson City mint during the 1890’s are not rare coins. But how can you not be attracted to the history and allure of any gold coin struck at this legendary mint. For $2,500 per coin, you could put together a set that would include an MS62 1890-CC, an MS62 1891-C, an MS61 1892-CC and a high end MS61 1893-CC. Four nice Uncirculated coins with a great story for under $10,000. How can you not like this collection?

11. No Motto New Orleans Eagles: If you have a $2,500 per coin budget, you won’t be able to assemble a complete set of No Motto New Orleans eagles; the 1841-O and the 1859-O will prove just about impossible to find in that price range. But you can buy every other date in Extremely Fine or About Uncirculated grades. On the lower end of the grade range, you’ll probably have to settle for EF45 examples of the scarce 1852-O, 1855-O, 1856-O and 1857-O and on the high end, you might be able to go as high as AU55 on the more common issues like the 1847-O, 1851-O, 1853-O, 1854-O and 1858-O. I personally think this would be an extremely interesting set to assemble and when you are done you can take pride in having assembled a group of coins that is genuinely scarce and, in my opinion, extremely undervalued.

12. Type One Philadelphia Double Eagles: A collector on a limited budget is going to find double eagles to be a frustrating area to collect. A date run of Philadelphia double eagles from the 1850’s can be assembled by the individual with tight budgetary constraints and most of his coins will actually be attractive. With just a few exceptions, nearly every coin in this group can be purchased in AU53 to AU55 for $2,500 or less. This includes the 1856, 1857 and 1858 which I feel are much undervalued. The only two dates that will cost more than $2,500 for nice AU’s are the overvalued but popular 1850 and the rare 1859. For $3,500, the collector will be able to purchase a nice AU55 1850 while an AU50 1859 will run around $4,000 and be a very good value.

13. Type Three San Francisco Double Eagles: If you are on a tight budget, you can forget Philadelphia and Carson City Type Three double eagles…they are too expensive. But a collector of average means could assemble a complete set of San Francisco Type Three issues in Uncirculated for a reasonable amount per coin. In my opinion, I think the best grades for this set are the ones just before big price jumps. In other words, I like an MS62 1889-S for this set at $1,000 as opposed to an MS63 at $6,000. With the exception of the 1878-S, 1879-S, 1880-S and 1881-S, every coin in this set could be at least MS62 (with some MS63 examples of the common later dates thrown in for good measure) while the scarcer early dates would all grade MS61.

So there you have thirteen suggestions of collecting areas for gold coin collectors with a budget of $2,500 per purchase. If your budget is a bit larger (say $3,500-5,000) you could greatly expand this list or take some of the items already discussed and move up a grade or two.

Classic Head Half Eagles, 1834 - 1838

Through the 1820's, half eagles did not circulate. They were, instead, used by bullion depositors for export trade or melted by speculators due to their being worth more than face value. This problem was remedied with the passage of the Act of June 28, 1834 which lowered the weight of the quarter eagle and half eagle. A new design was rendered by William Kneass and the Classic Head half eagle series was born in the latter part of 1834. Classic Head half eagles are an interesting bridge between the "old gold" designs of the early 19th century and the Liberty Head issues which ran from 1838 until 1907. The Classic Head design was produced for only five years. The half eagles of this design are notable for including the first branch mint issues of this denomination.

This is an interesting series to collect. You can assemble a date set or a three piece mint set that contains examples from Philadelphia, Charlotte and Dahlonega. There are also enough interesting die varieties to consider specializing in Classic Head half eagles.

1834 Plain 4

This is the most common Classic Head half eagle. There are a few thousand known in grades ranging from heavily worn to Gem Uncirculated. Most are weakly struck at the central obverse, especially on the curls below BER in LIBERTY. The luster is often exceptional with textures ranging from frosty to satiny to almost fully Prooflike. The natural coloration is a rich orange-gold or yellow-gold. High grade 1834 Plain 4 half eagles can have extremely good eye appeal and there are some truly handsome pieces known. Varieties are known with a Large 4 and a Small 4 as well as two different styles of Liberty Head. The finest piece I can recall having seen was a PCGS MS-66 which brought $85,600 in the 1994 ANA sale. This issue makes a good type coin given its relative availability in high grades and the relative availability of attractive pieces.

1834 Crosslet 4

A small number of the nearly 700,000 Classic Head half eagles produced in 1834 show a Crosslet 4 in the date. This variety is also distinguished by having smaller arrows on the reverse than on the Plain 4 coins. It is usually found in the Extremely Fine-40 to About Uncirculated-50 range and has a better strike than the Plain 4 coins. The luster is often semi-prooflike and the surfaces show numerous marks below green-gold color. This is the rarest Classic Head half eagle in terms of its overall rarity and the rarest Philadelphia issue in high grade. Uncirculated pieces are quite rare and I have never seen or heard of one that graded higher than Mint State-63. It is still possible to "cherrypick" a piece from a dealer and I previously did this with some degree of regularity in the 1970's.


The 1835, while not a rare date, is many times scarcer than the 1834 Plain 4. It is generally fairly well struck with slight weakness noted at the central obverse and on the wing tips. The luster is not as good as on other Classic Head half eagles and original, higher grade pieces typically have a slightly subdued grainy texture. The natural coloration is often medium to deep green-gold. Many 1835 half eagles have been cleaned at one time and also show deep, detracting abrasions. This is a hard coin to find with good eye appeal and it becomes quite scarce in Mint State-62 and rare in Mint State-63 or above. I have never seen a Gem and have seen maybe half a dozen accurately graded Mint State-64's. There are three major varieties known. The first has a noticeably curved neck on Liberty, a single forelock and a small date. The second has a much more curved neck and a small date with the 3 nearly closed in appearance. The final variety, which is rare, has a head that is also distinguished by a curved neck on Liberty but with a more narrow end. On this variety, the date is large.


The Classic Head design was slightly modified in 1836 by Christian Gobrecht. There are numerous varieties known this year and the 1836 is, along with the 1834 Plain 4, the most fertile Classic Head half eagle for the die variety specialist. The most easily distinguishable varieties have a Small 5 and Large 5 in the valuation on the reverse. The 1836 is the second most common half eagle of this design. It is common in all circulated grades and only moderately scarce in Mint State-60 to Mint State-62. It becomes very scarce in Mint State-63 and rare in Mint State-64. Gems are extremely rare. The best piece I have personally seen was the Bass II: 848 coin, graded Mint State-64 by PCGS, that brought $29,900. Most examples show weakness of strike at the centers and are characterized by heavily abraded surfaces. The natural color ranges from medium orange-gold to deep green-gold. The luster is often satiny but tends to be impaired as the result of prior cleanings or dippings.


Like the quarter eagle of this year, the 1837 half eagle is a scarce and very underrated issue. A lower than average percentage of the original mintage figure of 207,121 has survived and most are well worn. This date is not easily found in the higher About Uncirculated grades and it is very scarce in Uncirculated. It becomes rare in Mint State-63 and it is very rare in any grade higher. The best example I can recall seeing was the sensational PCGS MS-66 that brought $97,750 in the Bass II sale. Varieties are known with a Large Date and a Small Date; the latter is considerably scarcer. The 1837 half eagle usually has a decent strike with some weakness on the hair below BE in LIBERTY and at the corresponding reverse. The surfaces are often very heavily abraded and it is hard to locate a piece that has not been cleaned or dipped. The luster is typically frosty but some impressive semi-prooflike or even fully prooflike pieces exist.


This issue is unusual for the type as it is scarce in terms of its overall rarity but fairly available in higher grades. This suggests that a hoard existed at one time and this observation is given further credence by the fact that most of the Uncirculated pieces have a similar appearance. The 1838 makes an ideal Classic Head type coin as it is among the best produced issues of this type. It is often seen with a very sharp strike, attractive rich orange-gold color and frosty, bold luster. Two major varieties are known. One has large arrows and a small 5 in the value while the other has small arrows and a large 5. The 1838 is not hard to locate in the higher circulated grades and Mint State-60 to Mint State-63 coins can be found without much difficulty. Gems are rare but do surface more often than any other Classic Head half eagle.


The 1838-C is the rarest Classic Head half eagle in high grades. It is also one of my favorite branch mint gold coins. Its popularity is due to its status as the first half eagle from this mint and its status as a one-year type. Unlike the 1838-D, there are very few examples known in high grades. Of the estimated 150-175 pieces in existence, most are in the Fine to Very Fine range. Accurately graded Extremely Fine coins are quite scarce and About Uncirculated-50 to 53 coins are rare. In the higher AU grades, the 1838-C half eagle is very rare and there are just two Mint State pieces currently known. The best is a PCGS MS-63 that was most recently sold in the Bass II auction (in 1999) for $86,250. This issue is typically found with poor detail, extensive abrasions and unoriginal color. Two varieties are known. The more common has a repunched 5 in 5 D. while the rarer has a repunched 5. The great majority of 1838-C half eagles have massive die cracks on the reverse; examples with no cracks are extremely scarce.


The 1838-D is popular for the same reasons as the 1838-C. Unlike its Charlotte counterpart, this is an issue that is relatively available in higher grades There are 200-250 pieces known from an original mintage of 20,583. While most often seen in Very Fine and Extremely Fine, there are enough About Uncirculated pieces around that the collector should be able to find one without difficulty. In Uncirculated, this is a rare issue but it is much more available than the 1838-C. Nine or ten Uncirculated pieces exist with most of these in the MS-60 to MS-61 range. The 1838-D is a much better struck issue than the 1838-C and it shows considerably more detail on the hair and the feathers. Most higher grade pieces have nice luster but it is hard to find coins with original color. There are a few exceptionally attractive 1838-D half eagles known and when they are offered for sale, they tend to sell for strong premiums over typical quality pieces.


Bona-fide Proofs are known for a number of dates in this series. The 1834 is the most "common" issue in Proof. These coins were probably made for dignitaries to commemorate the new design. A number of very deceptive fully prooflike business strikes exist, so it is imperative to buy an example that has been "blessed" by a reputable grading service. There were Proofs dated 1835 (two examples) and 1836 in the Pittman sales. The 1835's brought $264,000 and $308,000 respectively while the 1836 brought $198,000. I have never seen a Proof 1837 half eagle but an example is located in the Smithsonian. A controversial 1838 Proof was sold in the Bass II auction for $115,00 and was earlier in the October 1996 Byron Reed sale.

CLASSIC HEAD HALF EAGLE RARITY RANKINGS Overall Rarity High Grade Rarity 1. 1834 Crosslet 4 1838-C 2. 1838-C 1834 Crosslet 4 3. 1838-D 1838-D 4. 1837 1837 5. 1838 1835 6. 1835 1838 7. 1836 1836 8. 1834 Plain 4 1834 Plain 4