Is it Time to Buy Indian Head Half Eagles?

I am generally not a participant in the generic gold market as I tend to favor scarce and rare dates over more common ones. But I like Indian Head half eagles a lot and a recent experience made me ask the question: “is it time to buy Indian Head half eagles?” I bought a nice, fresh deal of Indian Head half eagles about six weeks ago. All were in very old holders and I broke them out and sent them off to grading. My results were excellent and nearly every coin graded MS64 or MS65. As I got ready to cash in on my windfall, I did some price research and was shocked. Unless they stickered at CAC (more on this in a few moments) the levels I was going to have to sell them left me breathless…and not in a good way.

1908 Indian Head $5.00 PCGS MS65 CAC

If you are like me and you don’t really follow the generic market on a day-by-day basis, it can be mystifying to see how cheap most issues have become in the last few years. My non-CAC MS64 Indian head half eagles were worth around $1700 per coin if they were in NGC holders and a bit more in PCGS holders. I was more shocked at how cheap MS65’s have become: around $9,000 for NGC coins and a smidge over $10,000 for PCGS coins. And that’s not to mention the fact that you basically have to twist buyer’s arms to get them to buy any quantity of these even at these cheap, cheap, cheap levels.

Why are Indian Head half eagles so inexpensive in MS64 and MS65? There are a number of answers.

1. Traditional Sellers of Generic Gold Now Sell Other Products

Firms like Blanchard, Swiss America, and Goldline used to sell lots of better quality generic gold coins; items such as MS64 or MS65 Indian Head half eagles. Today, they either sell few generics or if they do, they are focused on those coins with CAC approval. The supply of MS64 and MS65 Indian Head half eagles has stayed consistent as coins are continually found in Europe or upgraded from current holders. The demand has not kept up with the supply, however, and this has resulted in plummeting prices.

1911 $5.00 PCGS MS65 CAC

2. Owners of Generic Gold Don’t Want to Cost Average Their Positions

Let’s say you bought a few nice MS65 Indian Head half eagles for $15,000 each back around 2006-2007. You are clearly not a happy with today’s prices so much lower than when you purchased your coins. But why not by a few more and use cost-averaging to lower your overall price point(s)? This logic makes sense to me, but for most coin investors it is exactly what they do not want to do. They feel “burned” by Indian Head half eagles and probably want nothing more to do with them. This lack of continuity in the generic market, due to poor price performance, has clearly not helped this market.

3. The CAC Effect

One of the primary reasons why CAC was created was to identify those generic gold coins, particularly in series such as Indian Head half eagles, where the perception was that many coins in MS64 and MS65 holders were over-graded or not, at the very least, “solid” for the grade. CAC has proven to be very tough on Indian Head half eagles, and only a small percentage of the MS64 and MS65 coins sent in for approval have received a green sticker. As a result, stickered MS64 and MS65 Indian Head half eagles sell for very strong premiums; in most cases 25-50% over non-stickered coins. The market perception of non-stickered MS64 and MS65 Indian Head half eagles is they are not “good” coins and, as a result, the price gap between non-CAC and CAC stickered generic gold coins is widening. My gut feeling is that non-stickered MS65 Indian Head half eagles could ultimately be worth half as much as their CAC’d counterparts.

4. The Plus Grade Effect on MS64

It is a matter of opinion whether coins graded MS64+ are actually “better” than coins graded MS64, but the market perception is such that plus-graded coins have begun to sell for significant premiums, even in the generic market. If you are a new collector and you are offered a “regular” MS64 Indian Head half eagle for $1,750, or an MS64+ example for $2,250, the chances are good that you will spend the extra $500 and get the “better” coin. This has clearly hurt the market for MS64 Indian Head half eagles, and it is likely that we will see further price separation between MS64 and MS64+ coins.

5. Changing Tastes Amongst Gold Coin Buyers

More than anything else, the generic gold coin market has been hampered by a lack of demand. Past generations of new collectors and investors were introduced to numismatics by the assembling of the basic 11 or 13 coin U.S. gold coin type set. Today, new collectors are more inclined to collect something which is rare. For $10,000, an AU 1864 half eagle (slightly over 4,000 struck and under 75 known in all grades) is a more sensible purchase than an MS65 1909-D half eagle (nearly 3.5 million struck and over 100 graded in MS65 at PCGS alone) in the minds of these new collectors. It will take a large marketing promotion and lots of re-education to get new collectors to re-think this.

1912 $5.00 PCGS MS65 CAC

So what is my conclusion? Is it time to buy Indian Head half eagles in MS64 and MS65? I’d like to say yes, but I think that prices could easily drop another 20-30% on these coins in the next year or two. In my opinion, if levels get down to $1,500 for nice MS64’s and $7,500 for MS65’s, I would jump in the market, likely in a big way. For now, I’d avoid this coin unless you need one for a gold type set or if you are a contrarian with some tolerance for risk.

What’s your take on the Indian Head half eagle series and generic gold in general? I’d love to hear from you and encourage you to add your comment(s) in the section below.


Do you buy rare gold coins?

Do you have coins to sell?

Would you like to have the world’s leading expert help you assemble a set of coins?

Contact me, Doug Winter, directly at (214) 675-9897 or by email at

Buying the Jump Grade

A few recent  coin sales that were made by my firm have given me an idea for a blog that I think is interesting. I've written about this before so I'll try to approach what I think is an important concept from a new perspective. The concept of value is extremely important to me when I buy a coin for my inventory and I try and share this with clients of DWN. In a nutshell, my core belief in coin buying is that, with most coins, there is a point at which you can "overbuy" . There are obvious examples of this and not so obvious ones.

The basis of my concept is what I refer to as the "jump" grade for a coin. The jump grade is the point at which the value spread for a coin becomes out of whack and the higher grade(s) for a coin no longer make sense.

 Let's look at a hypothetical pricing structure for a coin in higher grades:

     MS63:  $2500

     MS64:  $5000

     MS65:  $90000

This seems far-fetched, right? In truth, this is the exact value spread chart for a 1920 St. Gaudens double eagle, an issue that I consider to be the poster child for buying the jump grade which is MS64.

In this case, an MS64 example at $5,000 seems to make alot more sense than an MS65 at $90,000, especially given the fact that the single PCGS MS65 1920 Saint that has ever been graded isn't all that much nicer than a number of the 64's that I've seen or sold. So why would anyone buy a $90,000 version of a coin that can be represented in a set by a nice $5,000 version?

The answer is more complicated than you think. Obviously, part of it is vanity. Very high end collectors demand the finest coins and if a finest known coin jumps nearly 20x in value over the next grade down, that's just the reality of the market. If you are putting together a set of Saints that is competing for the finest in the set registry, the opportunity to add a finest known population one/none better coin (and the huge number of "points" that come with such a coin) is far and few between.

But what about the rest of us; we coin buyers without unlimited funds?

I'd like to share a few of my personal philosophies about value in numismatics.

     1.  Most collectors overbuy common coins and underbuy key coins. This is especially true for gold collectors who focus on 20th century issues. Let me give you an example. If you are collecting high grade Indian Head half eagles by date, why spend $25,000-30,000 on a common date in MS66 when you can buy a perfectly acceptable MS65 for half that amount? I think I'd rather pocket the $12,500-15,000 difference and apply it to a truly rare coin like a 1911-D. Conversely, the same collector who is working on the killer set of Indian half eagles would be foolish to scrimp on a classic issue like a 1929 and buy a "details grade" cleaned example so he could save money.

     2.  Issues with large underlying populations are dangerous purchases. Let me give you an example, along with a chart:

     1879-S Double Eagle

     Grade          PCGS Population          Value Range

     MS61                        225                        4000-5000+

     MS62                         59                          11000-13000+

     MS63                           3                           40000++

This issue actually has not one but two jump grades. For many collectors, the choice will be clear: buy an MS61 because in MS62 the price of this issue jumps almost threefold. An important point to consider is how many of the 225 coins graded MS61 (the actual number factoring in resubmissions is probably still 125-150) could become MS62 someday? Even if the number is just 10-20% percent of the total, that's still potentially as many as 15-30 new MS62 coins. Is the market deep enough to handle that high an influx and still maintain current value levels?

But for collectors with deeper pockets, MS62 is the jump grade for this issue, especially given the fact that they are unlkely to have the chance to buy an MS63 ( considering that the PCGS population is just three  and none have traded at auction since 2006). My personal choice would be a nice MS61 but I would buy a high end MS62 at, say, $15,000 if it were an obvious "just miss" coin.

3.  "Boring" coins deserve "boring" grades in most sets.  To me, a coin like a Dahlonega quarter eagle is interesting. That's why I don't think you can really "overbuy" in this series. There are very, very few D mint quarter eagles graded MS65 (or even MS64) and just about any coin graded as such, unless its horribly overgraded, is worthy of consideration for an advanced Dahlonega specialist.

But a coin like an 1898-S half eagle is boring. There were nearly 1.4 million struck, thousands and thousands exist and most range from nice to very nice. I have a hard time getting excited about a nice 1898-S half eagle; even the direct-from-the-mint to-John Clapp piece, now graded MS68 by PCGS. This coin last sold for $81,600 and I can think of alot of U.S. gold coins at this price point that I'd rather own. The only real "function" that this MS68 example might properly serve is as a type representative in a knock-your-socks off set.

4.  Type collecting looks at jump grades differently than date collecting.  Type collectors just buy one example of a specific design unlike date collectors who buy numerous. So a type collector will look at a jump grade differently. Going back to our earlier example of the Indian Head half eagle, for type purposes an MS66 might make sense and this becomes the jump grade; given that the next grade up (MS67) is likely to cost $70,000 or more.

5. You can throw the book away when it comes to dual rarities.  There are coins that are rare because of their grade and there are coins that are rare because few are known. Then there is the "rarest of the rare." These are coins that I refer to as "dual rarities" because they check boxes on both sides. An example of a dual rarity is a coin like the Byron Reed 1864 quarter eagle, which is graded MS67 by NGC. This is a coin that is not only very rare in any grade, it is an amazing piece from a condition and appearance standpoint.

I'm going to write an article on dual rarities and it should appear in the next few days on my website

Whether you have a coin budget of $1,000 or $1,000,000, you want to get the best value you can every time you make a purchase. Understanding the concept of the jump grade can help you as you mull decisions for your collection.

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.

Why Don't More People Collect 20th Century U.S. Gold Coins by Date?

Why don't more people collect 20th century gold coins by date? The four major designs (Indian Head quarter eagles, half eagles and eagles and St. Gaudens double eagles) are clearly among the most beautiful United States issues ever released. They are relatively short-lived and none of them are impossible to complete due to fabulously expensive or incredibly rare individual dates. So why, then, do these series lag such non-gold 20th century designs as the Lincoln Cent, Buffalo Nickel, Mercury Dime and Walking Liberty Half Dollar when it comes to numbers of active set collectors? I can think of a number of reasons. Some are pretty obvious while some are pretty far-fetched and I'm throwing them out there only to encourage debate. Here are some of the reasons I came up with:

1. 20th century U.S. gold is typically marketed as type coins and not by date. Traditionally, people have viewed coins like Indian Head half eagles as something you just need one of, not dozens. Simultaneously, higher grade 20th century gold coins are frequently sold more as "investments" than collectible coins. Over the last two decades, I have seen many collectors burst on the scene in a specific 20th century series only to flame out and sell their coins back a year or two later. The Steve Duckors and Austin Fursts of the 20th century gold world are alot rarer than their quick-in quick-out counterparts.

2. "They all look the same." A new collector once told me this when he decided not to continue with the Indian Head eagle set that I was helping him build. Now, I don't agree with this. If you become a student of, say, the Indian Head half eagle series it becomes clear that a 1911-D looks a lot different than a 1916-S. Its struck differently, has a different texture and has different coloration as well. But these subtleties are often lost on novice collectors.

3. There's too much difference in value for barely distinguishable quality. For many key date 20th century U.S. gold coins, the difference in price between an MS64 and an MS65 can be huge. As an example, an MS64 1913 Saint Gaudens double eagle is worth $7,500 or so while a no-question asked MS65 is worth over $50,000. It takes a real leap of faith for a new collector to pay a 7x premium for a difference in quality that he not only doesn't see but probably doesn't understand. The creation of CAC has made it a little less scary for a new collector to pay huge premiums for MS65's but from personal experience I know that the value for Gem coins just isn't always there.

4. There is no up-to-date reference work. David Akers wrote a terrific book on 20th century United States gold but it was published in 1988 and the information is out-of-date (not to mention that the book is out-of-print and fairly scarce). If Akers or a new expert were to take this book and update it with information that was relevant to the current coin market, this would be a huge shot in the arm for 20th century gold.

5. There is no sense of nostalgia inherent with these coins. People buy coins like 1909-S VDB Cents or 1916-D Dimes because they couldn't afford one when they were ten years old and filling holes in their blue Whitman folders. No one is haunted by the 1927-D Saint that they couldn't save enough money from their paper route to afford when they were a kid.

6. High grade 20th century gold coins are very expensive. It is a pretty serious financial commitment to collect Saints in Gem or Indian half eagles in MS64 and up. This obviously limits the number of people who can collect these coins.

7. Affordable grade 20th century gold is ugly. OK, maybe not "ugly." But you'll have a hard time convincing me that an Indian Head gold coin in EF and AU grades is remotely attractive. This is not the case with Liberty Head gold coins which is really attractive with limited wear.

8. Pricing information for many 20th century gold coins is hard to come by. Yes, its easy to figure out what a common date Saint is worth in a PCGS MS64 holder. But its not so easy to determine what a 1913 is worth in an NGC MS65 holder versus a PCGS MS65 holder versus a PCGS MS65 holder with CAC approval. If someone published accurate pricing information on the 20th century series, I believe it would jump-start collector interest.

9. There are few "go to" retail dealers for better date 20th century gold. If you collect 19th century Liberty Head gold, there are some obvious candidates who to buy from (and I'd like to think that DWN is one of them). The person who, in my opinion, is the sharpest dealer for rare date 20th century gold is Kevin Lipton and Kevin is a wholesale dealer who probably is going to be hard for many collectors to deal with as he has no website.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog, 20th century gold coins deserve to have more date collectors than they currently do. These are attractive, interesting coins. They are within reasonably short-lived series and unless you attempt a Gem set, they are within the price range of many collectors. I'd be curious to know what your take is on why they are not as popular as Lincoln Cents or Mercury Dimes and invite you to send me an email at with your input.

Four 20th Century Gold Rarities and the Stories Behind Them

All four of the 20th century American gold types that were produced contain key issues that are very popular with collectors. This article takes a look at four of these: the 1911-D quarter eagle, the 1909-O half eagle, the 1920-S eagle and the 1921 double eagle. What do these four coins have in common? More than you would think. With the exception of the 1921 double eagle, each has a comparatively low mintage figure and is recognized as a key issue within its respective series. Each is very popular with collectors. And all four are relative “late discoveries” among collectors that have only recently been recognized as rarities within their series and have shown price appreciation befitting this status.

I. 1911-D Quarter Eagle

The Indian Head quarter eagle has proven to be one of the more popular of the four 20th century United States gold types. It is a short-lived set with just fifteen coins. Unlike its three counterparts, this series does not contain any impossible rarities and it can be completed in nice Uncirculated grades by a collector of reasonably average means. Because of this series brief duration and its relative ease of completion, it was a natural to be promoted on a large scale. And, unlike with other 20th century coinage, Indian Head quarter eagles have always been available in large enough quantities to make promotion readily feasible.

As soon as the first coin dealer realized that Indian Head quarter eagles were a great set to promote, the status of the 1911-D rose dramatically. Here was a coin that was an obvious candidate to be the superstar of the set. It had the lowest mintage figure by a huge margin and it was a legitimately scarce coin. As the Indian Head quarter eagle series became more and more popular, price levels for the 1911-D ran amuck. Today, many observers (including myself) feel that this is now among the more overvalued United States gold coins.

It is interesting to look at the numbers of 1911-D quarter eagles graded by PCGS and price levels. As an example, PCGS and NGC have graded over 1,200 1911-D quarter eagles in MS63 and MS64. Even assuming that a number of these are resubmissions, that is still somewhere in the area of 600-800 coins. According to the most recent Coin Dealer Newsletter, dealer bids for this date are $20,500 and $29,000, respectively, in MS63 and MS64. By the most optimistic standards, let’s say that there are currently 200 or so collectors and investors assembling high grade sets of Indian Head quarter eagles. That still means that the supply of these coins is generally more than enough to meet the demand. The bottom line is that while I think this coin has a great story behind it, it is wildly overvalued in the middle Uncirculated grades. (In MS65, the 1911-D is a truly rare coin and I think its current value of $80,000++ is legitimate). When and if the firms that are actively promoting Indian Head quarter eagles wind-down their marketing efforts, I can see MS63 and MS64 examples of this date losing a significant amount of their value.

II. 1909-O Half Eagle

The 1909-O has long been recognized as a key issue in the Indian Head half eagle series but its true scarcity in Uncirculated grades was not always recognized. This is true, of course, with most dates in this series. Before grading became as specialized as it is today, collectors who focused on Indian Head half eagles were unlikely to know—or care—if a coin was an MS63 or an MS64 or an MS65. The rarity of these coins in Gem really only became apparent once modern grading standards were applied to United States gold issues in the late 1970’s - early 1980’s.

The 1909-O has the lowest mintage figure of any Indian Head half eagle. In fact, it is one of just three issues in the series with an original mintage of less than 100,000 coins. There were 34,200 struck and this issue was clearly used in commerce as most of the survivors are in the EF40 to AU55 grade range. What is very surprising about this issue is that almost no examples were saved as souvenirs by local collectors or wealthy New Orleans residents who clearly must have found the 1909-O half eagle to be an interesting coin; after all, it was the first example of this denomination to be struck at New Orleans since 1894 and it was the first with the novel new incuse Indian Head design.

By the 1960’s, it was clear that this date was very rare in Choice to Gem Uncirculated and looking at auctions from this era, one sees some comparatively high prices realized for examples of the 1909-O half eagle that were described as Choice. But prices for this date really came into their own in the mid to late 1970’s when high grade rarities reached price levels that went unequalled for many years.

Today, specialists know that the 1909-O is rare in properly graded MS62, very rare in MS63 and extremely rare in MS64. The population figures for this issue appear to be very inflated as witnessed by the current PCGS population of 21 coins in MS64 (in my opinion, it is unlikely that there are more than four or five accurately graded MS64 examples known). There are two or three Gems known including the Eliasberg coin which is now in a PCGS MS66 holder and which is, without a doubt, the single most valuable business strike Indian Head half eagle in existence.

Is the 1909-O half eagle overvalued? I think the current prices that this issue fetches in AU55 to MS61 seem too strong, given the relative availability of such coins and the fact that most are dramatically overgraded. In MS62 and higher I don’t think this coin is overvalued. My reasoning behind this is the fact that the 1909-O is the only Indian Head half eagle that has multiple levels of demand. It is considered desirable by New Orleans gold collectors, one-year type coin specialists and Indian Head half eagle aficionados. These multiple levels of demand ensure that the 1909-O is likely to continue to be one of the key 20th century American gold coins.

III. 1920-S Eagle

Between 1916 and 1929, only one eagle was produced at the San Francisco mint: the 1920-S. This is a coin which is far rarer than its original mintage figure of 126,500 would suggest. It appears that virtually all of these coins were melted and that almost none of the 1920-S eagles that were struck were released into circulation. I can’t recall having seen more than three or four that showed signs of actual circulation (and these were, in all probability, pocket pieces that had been carried as souvenirs).

There are a number of features that are unusual about the 1920-S, besides the fact that it is the only San Francisco eagle of this design struck in over a decade. Most Indian Head eagles are exceptionally well struck and show very strong fine detail at the centers. The 1920-S is the most poorly produced Indian Head eagle of any date. It is the only issue that typically shows pronounced weakness of strike. Many examples are weak on the hair below the word LIBERTY and on the corresponding portion of the reverse. In addition to this, the luster is often inferior and the overall level of eye appeal is inferior to that seen on other San Francisco eagles of this type. I presume that the reason for this is the fact that the people making these coins at the San Francisco mint hadn’t had much practice on any eagles, given the fact that none had been struck since 1916.

The price history of the 1920-S is interesting as well. This was a relatively expensive coin in the 1940’s and 1950’s but its price flattened in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. It became popular again the 1970’s and early 1980’s but when the Indian Head eagle series dropped in popularity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the 1920-S flattened. In fact, prices for this date in almost all grades were remarkably stagnant throughout the 1990’s. It has only been during the past few years that prices have risen, especially in higher grades. As an example, in Heritage’s July 2006 auction, a high end PCGS MS64 example sold for a remarkable $172,500. As a mater of comparison, the last two PCGS MS64 1920-S eagles offered by Heritage brought $41,400 and $55,200, respectively, when sold at auction in 2002 and 1999.

Today, the 1920-S is recognized as the third rarest issue in the series, trailing only the 1907 Rolled Edge and the 1933. Interestingly, the 1920-S has proven to be a far scarcer coin than the 1930-S; a date with which it was historically paired. But third-party grading has shown that the 1920-S is actually not the rarest San Francisco eagle in Gem Uncirculated. This honor belongs to the 1913-S. And another date in the series, the 1911-D, is comparable in rarity to the 1920-S in Gem, if not even a bit rarer.

IV. 1921 Double Eagle

The fourth and final coin in our discussion of 20th century gold issues is the rarest, although it is not necessarily the best known. Although some experts might disagree, I would rank the 1921 as the rarest Philadelphia double eagle of this design. Unlike its closest competitor the 1932, the 1921 is most often seen in the AU55 to MS61 range and it is extremely rare in MS64 and above.

The true rarity of this date was not known to the early generation of St. Gaudens double eagle collectors. Back in the day, the issues that were most actively sought were the mintmarked coins from the mid-1920’s. But hundreds of these were eventually located in Europe and in all grades below MS64; most of these coins are now only moderately scarce. Unlike dates such as the 1924-D, 1925-S and 1926-S, the 1921 was not exported to Europe. The “story behind the story” of the 1921 is very interesting and the true rarity of this date can be better understood when this is discussed.

Two things conspired to make the 1921 double eagle a rare coin. The first was that most of the mint’s production capacity and efforts in 1921 went towards silver dollars. Millions of Morgan Dollars were produced after a near-two decade hiatus and these were followed by the new Peace Dollar which was a complex, hard to produce High Relief design. Secondly, the United States economy in 1921 was going through a post-World War One slump which would continue until the middle part of the decade. Few gold coins were circulating in the early 1920’s and there was not a great deal of demand for double eagles in 1921. As a result, many of the 528,500 1921 double eagles that were struck were melted.

In addition to being rare because of mass meltings, this issue is rare because of the way it was produced. The 1921 is among the worst struck St. Gaudens double eagles and it is generally seen with poor luster. This shoddy level of workmanship meant that most examples were of inferior quality before they were produced. Coupled with the fact that the survivors tend to show heavy marks from rough handling and copious hairlines from numismatic abuse, the 1921 is among the rarest dates of this type in the higher Uncirculated grades.

It is likely that somewhere in the area of 60-80 examples are known. The PCGS and NGC population figures are both inflated with the AU58 and MS62 numbers showing the greatest number of resubmissions due to attempts to garner upgrades. The 1921 becomes an extremely rare coin in MS63 and above. There are probably no more than four to six known that grade MS63 or higher.

In 2005, I had the honor of handling the finest known 1921 double eagle. At Heritage’s Morse sale, my ex-partner and I purchased a PCGS MS66 example for $1,092,500. At the same sale, an MS65 example sold for $805,000 while and MS64 realized $402,500. Today, all three of these coins have been placed in prominent collections where they will, no doubt, remain for many years.

If any other high grade 1921 double eagles become available for sale, I would expect to see them sell for record prices. This is one 20th century issue whose rarity can not be disputed and it seems highly unlikely that any hoard or accumulations of this date are going to appear at any time in the future.

A Collector's Guide To Indian Head Half Eagles

Among the various United States gold coins produced during the 20th century, Indian Head half eagles are sort of the red-haired stepchild. They do not get the respect accorded to the dynamic St. Gaudens Indian Head eagles or double eagles and have never been as actively collected as the Indian Head quarter eagle. There are a number of reasons why the Indian Head half eagle series is not as actively collected as its three 20th century gold counterparts. I believe that the major reasons are as follows:

    This is, by far, the rarest 20th century American gold coin in higher grades. Even the most common dates in the series are rare in MS65 and a number of dates are nearly impossible to find even in MS63 to MS64. Simply put, this set is a bear to collect in Gem condition.

    Indian Head half eagles are extremely hard to grade. I’ve met very few people who truly know how to grade this series and both PCGS and NGC can be wildly inconsistent when it comes to Indian Head half eagles.

    This series has, somewhat by happenstance, fallen through the cracks. Indian Head quarter eagles are an easy series to complete and have been actively promoted. Everyone loves Saints and the massive size and lovely design of these coins make them ever-popular. Indian Head eagles have gone through ups and downs in terms of popularity but they currently seem to be in strong demand and I know of at lest four or five collectors currently putting together Gem sets.

    Which leaves Indian Head half eagles…a series which, up to now, has been out of the limelight for many years. I do think this is going to change, as evidenced by the fact that prices for common dates have jumped considerably in the past two years and I believe that a number of collectors are beginning to assemble sets.

How should Indian Head half eagles be collected? I can think of a number of ways. Here are three which make sense to me:

By Date: Assembling a complete set of Indian Head half eagles, as I mentioned above, is very challenging. The higher grade the set, the greater the challenge. If the collector wants to put together a set with the coins in the AU55 to MS62 range, he will find the set to be fairly easy to finish.

The two most expensive coins in the lower grade range for this set are the 1909-O and the 1929. The 1909-O is relatively plentiful in AU grades but because it is a very popular one-year type it is in great demand. Expect to pay between $7,500 and $12,500 for a nice AU coin and $35,000-40,000+ for an MS62. The other expensive coin in this set is the 1929. This date doesn’t really exist in grades lower than MS62 to MS63.

You’ll be looking at $15,000-20,000 for a nice example in this grade range. You should be able to assemble a complete set of Indian Head half eagles in AU55 to MS62 grades in a fairly short period of time for $75,000.

Moving up to an MS63 to MS64 set is a much more challenging and expensive proposition. Even the common dates are going to run around $4,000 for a nice MS63 and $6,000 for an MS64.

The 1909-O is extremely hard to find in MS63 and if you can locate one it’s going to set you back $60,000 or more. In MS64, this date is generally offered at the rate of once per year to year and a half and I would expect that the next nice PCGS example that shows up will sell for close to $200,000. The 1911-D is a very hard date to find in MS63 to MS64 grades. The former will cost at least $10,000 while the latter is easily a $50,000 coin.

The San Francisco dates produced from 1911 to 1915 are common and inexpensive in AU55 to MS61 grades but they become scarce in MS62 and very scarce to rare in MS63 to MS64. The most expensive of these is the 1913-S which is generally priced at around $10,000 in MS63 and $35,000+ in MS64. The 1914-S is a little less expensive but every bit as hard to locate, especially in MS64. And the 1915-S is extremely hard to find in MS63 and higher grades. You can expect to spend around $20,000 for a nice PCGS MS63 and close to $50,000 for a high end PCGS MS64.

To assemble a set of Indian Head half eagles in MS63 to MS64 you are probably going to have to spend $250,000+ and can expect the project to take at least two years.

Putting together a Gem Uncirculated set of Indian Head half eagles is one of the real challenges in all of numismatics. In fact, it is a harder set to assemble than the Indian Head eagle or St. Gaudens double eagle set.

Let’s say that you want your set to include only coins graded by PCGS in MS65 or higher. The 1909-O has a population of one in MS65 and one better. The 1909-S has a population of one in MS65 with three better. The 1910-S has a population of three in MS65 and one better. The 1911-D has a population of one in MS65 and none better. Still not intimidated? How about the 1914-S and the 1915-S which still have never had a single example graded above MS64 by PCGS? Even if you have an unlimited budget and a tremendous amount of patience, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to assemble a complete set in MS65. If you are willing to compromise somewhat by including a few MS64’s, then it might be possible to assemble a world-class set over the course of three to five years with an expenditure of well over $1 million. Obviously, this is a “big boy” set that isn’t for everyone. But with most of the current specialists in 20th century gold focused on other denominations, this set seems like a great opportunity.

By Year: An easier and more affordable way to collect Indian Head half eagles is by year. This series was struck for ten different years between 1908 and 1929. For most of these years, the collector has the option of including a Philadelphia issue which is inevitably cheaper than a branch mint counterpart. In addition, the Philadelphia coins tend to come very well struck and most have nice eye appeal. This set can be spiced up a bit by throwing in some of the more affordable branch mints. As an example, the 1908-S is surprisingly affordable in grades up to and including MS64 and it usually sells for just a small premium over a common Philadelphia coin.

A number of the Denver issues are also very affordable. The 1908-D and 1910-D are very scarce in higher grade but do not sell for a premium in the MS62 to MS63 range. The 1909-D is one of the more common dates in the entire set and can be found even in MS65. The 1914-D is similar to the 1908-D and the 1910-D in that it has a much lower population than the Philadelphia half eagles from these years but it typically has just a very small market premium in grades up to and including MS64.

The two most challenging dates in a year set are the 1916-S and the 1929. In 1916, the San Francisco mint was the only facility that produced Indian Head half eagles. This issue is actually not all that rare in MS63 and MS64 and for $5,000-10,000 the collector will be able to find a nice piece without a great deal of effort. The 1929 is the final year of issue for this design and it is a date that is far rarer than its original mintage figure would suggest. It is almost never found in grades below MS62 to MS63 and, as I mentioned above, a nice example in this grade range is currently valued at around $15,000-20,000.

An MS62 date set should cost around $30,000 with well over half of the price attributable to the 1929. This is an easy set to assemble.

An MS63 date set should cost around $60,000 with around a third of the price due to the 1929. It is a fairly good challenge to assemble this set and a few coins might prove hard to find but it should be completable in six months to a year.

An MS64 date set should cost around $90,000. This set is fairly challenging but can generally be assembled within a year.

An MS65 date set will cost at least $300,000. It will be a very hard set to assemble. The 1916-S and the 1929 are both very rare in MS65 and some of the supposedly common Philadelphia and Denver years will prove to be harder to find than expected.

By Type: Most people collect Indian Head half eagles as a type coin. The beauty of this series is that there is only a single type.

The easiest way to fill a hole in your type set with an Indian Head half eagle is to pick a common date. In higher grades, the most common issues are the 1908, 1909, 1909-D, 1911, 1912, 1913 and the 1915. All seven of these dates have hundreds of examples known in MS64 and, in the case of the 1909-D, there are thousands and thousands of pieces known in MS63.

There are a few scarcer date Indian Head half eagles that do not bring a large premium over a common date but which are appreciably harder to find in MS63 and higher grades. These include the 1908-D, 1908-S, 1910-D, 1914 and 1914-D. These “semi-scarce” dates are favorites of mine for type collectors as they offer excellent value for the savvy collector who is willing to stretch a bit to buy a rarer coin for his set.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, all Indian Head half eagles are rare in properly graded MS65. PCGS has graded only 573 examples of this type in MS65 and this number is unquestionably inflated by resubmissions. By far the most common date in the series in MS65 is the 1908. The two next most available are the 1909 and the 1909-D. After these three dates, the rarity level jumps appreciably. As recently as a few years ago, dealers had a hard time selling PCGS graded MS65 common date Indian for $10,000. Today, they are very liquid in the low-to-mid $20,000 range.

I feel that the real sweet spot in this series is in the MS64 grade (I would not be surprised to see these jump in price to $7,500-8,500 in the next few years) and for lower population issues in MS65.

I also stated earlier that one of the reasons this series is not as popular as other 20th century gold issues is that it is extremely difficult to grade. Here are a few tips to make buying these coins easier:

Every Indian Head half eagle I have ever seen has friction on the Indian’s cheek bone. Many new collectors are confused as to why the grading services will call a coin MS64 or even MS65 that seems to be AU based on wear. Because of the nature of the design, these coins are always going to show friction in this area. When you are looking at an Indian Head half eagle, ignore the cheekbone and look, instead at the eagle’s breast feathers and the left obverse field. These are areas that are much more telling when it comes to true wear.

It is important to learn each issue in the series in regards to luster, surface texture and strike. As an example, did you know that the early San Francisco issues tend to come very well struck while the issues from 1912 through 1915 are often poorly struck and show peculiar die deterioration around the borders? It is important for the collector to work with a dealer who really knows these coins, especially if he is working on a higher grade set.

In my opinion, the two most important factors when considering the grade of an Indian Head half eagle are coloration and luster. If a coin shows some scattered marks but it has wonderful original rose-gold or rich orange coloration, it is likely that this piece will be bumped up a point or two by the grading services. Similarly, an Indian Head half eagle with dynamic, booming luster is considered very desirable by specialists and such coins are often accorded high grades.

There are a number of potential factors that are considered negatives when considering an example of this design. Coins with dark, dirty coloration are undesirable—which is one reason why many collectors do not purchase Indian Head half eagles in grades lower than AU55 to AU58. Coins with very weak mintmarks should be avoided. A number of the San Francisco issues in the 1910’s are sometimes seen with mintmarks that are so weak they can be hard to detect with the naked eye. There is never any good reason to buy a coin such as this.

When examining population figures for higher grade coins in this series, there is quite a bit of consistency between PCGS and NGC. In my opinion, NGC does a very good job grading Indian Head half eagles and I do not think that coins in their holders (especially rare and very rare dates) should be penalized. As with most of the 20th century gold series, the popularity of the PCGS Set Registry has given many collectors a pro-PCGS bias which has occasionally forced them into making bad decisions in the assembling of their collections.

The Indian Head half eagle series is a wonderful group of coins for the collector who seeks a challenge and who wants to be involved in a set that currently is out of favor. I believe that this series will become considerably more popular in the coming years and that rarities such as the 1909-O, 1911-D, 1914-S and 1915-S will be accorded the same level of respect that the key issues in the $10 Indian and $20 St. Gaudens series currently hold.