If you have a numismatic budget of $2,000-10,000 per coin and you want to explore a series that is reasonably short in duration but long on challenges, I'd strongly suggest No Motto half eagles from New Orleans. Let's take a brief look at this area of collecting and see if it is for you. The New Orleans mint opened in 1838 and began producing silver coins. The first gold issue from this facility was the 1839-O quarter eagle. The next year, coinage of half eagles would begin. Half eagles would be struck, intermittently, until 1857 with a total of twelve issues (thirteen if you count the two varieties of 1843-O). Production did resume in 1892 and three With Motto issues were produced but we are not going to discuss them at this time.
To my way of thinking, No Motto New Orleans half eagles are a great collector-based series for a variety of reasons. These include the following:
*The coins are scarce and undervalued but they are affordable. If you can budget around $5,000 per coin for most of the issues (and $7,500-10,000 for the two keys) you can assemble a really nice group of coins with most of the pieces in the AU grades.
*The coins are well made. Unlike the sometimes poorly produced half eagles from Charlotte and Dahlonega, the New Orleans issues tend to be very well made. If you are a collector who finds strike to be a critical issue, this is going to be an important factor for you.
*There are no unobtainable issues. In both the Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagle series you have at least one very expensive issue (the 1842-C Small Date and the 1861-D). In the New Orleans series, there is nothing that will bust the budget of an average collector.
*There is a great book available on these coins which just happens to have been written by yours truly.
As I mentioned above, there are a total of thirteen different No Motto half eagles from this mint. There are two issues which I would call very scarce to rare, two issues which I would call common to somewhat scarce and nine which are scarce-ish to scarce but which can prove to be challenging if the collector is picky to very picky.
The two really challenging No Motto half eagles from New Orleans are the 1842-O and the 1847-O. The former has a mintage of 16,400 while the latter has a mintage of 12,000. Both have well under 100 known in all grades and both are usually seen in low grades. Despite the rarity of these two issues, they are still relatively affordable..
As an example, a presentable PCGS VF20 1842-O half eagle sold at auction for just $2,300 in Heritage's 8/11 auction. In 2010, two PCGS EF45 examples brought $3,881 and $3,738. While neither of these coins was what I'd call "PQ" for the grade, they represent amazingly good value at less than four thousand dollars for a date which has not been sold at auction in any AU grade since 2004.
The 1847-O is even rarer than the 1842-O and it is actually less available in higher grades than the far more pricey 1861-D half eagle. A nice, wholesome NGC VF35 brought $4,025 in the Heritage 12/11 sale and two PCGS EF examples (one in 40 and the other in 45) sold for $7,475 and $8,052 in Heritage's January and August 2011 auctions. In my opinion, a pleasing original EF or AU example of this date at current levels is a terrific value.
The next category of dates--the ones I called "scarce-ish to scarce" include the 1843-O Small Letters and Large Letters, 1845-O, 1846-O, 1851-O, 1855-O, 1856-O and 1857-O. These can actually be sub-divided into the classes: the dates in the 1840's (scarce-ish) and the dates in the 1850's (scarce).
The 1840's dates are all very affordable in the EF grades. The collector is looking $2,000-3,000, on average for nice quality pieces. In AU grades, the collector is looking at $3,000-6,000 depending on quality.
Here are some very brief comments on each of these dates:
*1840-O: This is the most common of the three first-year-of-issue half eagles from the southern branch mints. Varieties exist with a narrow mill (common) and a wide mill (rare).
*1843-O Small Letters: The rarer of the two varieties struck this year. Often seen with weakness at the borders from die lapping. Very hard to locate with original surfaces and color.
*1843-O Large Letters: The more common of the two. A reasonably available issue in EF; available in the lower AU grades but becomes rare in AU55. Generally well struck with good luster.
*1845-O: Available in EF grades but harder to find than many more expensive C+D half eagles of this era. Generally well struck but often very abraded. Worth a good premium with natural color.
*1846-O: Harder to find than the 1845-O but comparable in rarity below AU. For some reason, nice AU coins have become much more difficult to find than in the past. A really tough issue in crisp, wholesome AU55 and AU58.
*1851-O: Similar in rarity to the 1845-O and 1846-O so included with the 1840's issues. Not quite as well struck as the last two but the luster tends to be good. Often seen dipped and worth a strong premium with natural color.
Given their lower mintage figures, one would expect the 1855-O, 1856-O and 1857-O to be scarcer than their counterparts from the 1840's. All three of these are hard to find and, in my opinion, very undervalued in relation to Charlotte and Dahlonega issues from this era.
These three issues are comparable in rarity but I would rank them in this order: 1855-O, 1857-O and 1856-O.
The 1855-O, 1856-O and 1857-O are hard to find in problem-free, original EF grades but, when available, they can still be had to under $3,000 a coin. As an example, look at the 1855-O. Since 2009, there have been four EF45's sold at auction. Prices for these have ranged from a low of $2,302 to a high of $2,700. In my opinion, that is very reasonable for a coin as rare as this.
The two common date No Motto half eagles from this mint are the 1844-O and the 1854-O. The 1844-O had a mintage over 364,600 and it is reasonably easy to locate in grades up to AU55. The 1854-O had a much lower mintage of 46,000. It is less rare than the 1851-O (which has a mintage of 41,000) and can be found in the EF40-AU50 range. In properly graded AU55 and AU58, it is scarce and undervalued.
My ideal set construction for this series would be as follows:
For the collector with a budget of $2,000-3,000 per coin, I would focus on obtaining EF40 to EF45 examples of the scarce dates and AU50 to AU55 examples of the more available ones. The 1842-O is going to require an outlay of at least $3,000-4,000 for a decent high end VF to EF coin. The 1847-O will be a bit more expensive but it is possible, with some patience and luck, to find one for around $5,000-6,000.
For the collector who has a budget of $5,000-10,000 per coin, I'd look at AU55 to AU58 examples of all the dates with the exception of the 1844-O (where I would stretch for an MS62 at $6,00-7,000) and the 1847-O (where I'd hope I can find a nice AU50 or AU53).
For the collector with a big budget of $10,000+ per coin, the focus would be on Uncirculated coins. The majority of the No Motto issues from New Orleans have fewer than a dozen known in Uncirculated. Two issues, the 1842-O and the 1847-O, are exceedingly rare and might not be available above AU55 to AU58 while the final three (1855-O, 1856-O and 1857-O) are not as impossible but are not exactly slouches.
As I mentioned above, this is a series that I think has a ton going for it. It doesn't have the level of popularity which enshrouds the double eagles but it is easier to collect than the No Motto eagles from this mint and far more interesting than the gold dollars or quarter eagles.
No one--and I mean no one!--has handled more interesting No Motto New Orleans half eagles than I have. If this is a series which you want to collect, you should contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can discuss it.
The Philadelphia mint began producing the familiar Liberty Head half eagle design in 1839. After a quick modification in 1840, this issue continued without change until 1866 when the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse. The branch mint No Motto half eagles from the 1840’s are very popular with collectors. But their Philadelphia counterparts have lagged behind, both in price and level of demand. I would not be surprised to see this change a bit over the coming years given the fact that the Philadelphia issues are much more affordable and a complete “by decade” set from the 1840’s is within the budget of most gold coin collectors.
Here is a date by date analysis of the Philadelphia half eagles from the 1840’s, to assist new collectors.
1840: Mintage: 137,822. This is one of the more common issues from this decade. There an estimated 400-500+ known and they are easily located in all circulated grades. In Uncirculated, the 1840 is scarce. I believe that there are around fifteen to twenty known with most in the MS60 to MS62 range. There is one Gem. It is originally ex Pittman I: 947 where it brought $41,250 as a raw coin. It last appeared as Heritage 2/06: 1853 where it sold for $43,125. It has been graded MS65 by both PCGS and NGC.
There are two varieties known. The more common has a Narrow Mill (or diameter) while the scarcer has a Broad Mill. The Broad Mill variety seems to be considerably harder to find in higher grades, especially in Uncirculated. The Broad Mill has an extremely distinct appearance and it is much easier to distinguish from the Narrow Mill than on the New Orleans and Dahlonega issues of this year.
1841: Mintage: 15,833. The number of half eagles produced at the Philadelphia mint in 1841 is the fewest of the decade. This is the second scarcest date in this subset but it has an interesting grade distribution. There are an estimated 125-150 known and this issue is generally seen in Extremely Fine or in the MS62 to MS64 range.
There was a hoard of 1841 half eagles that was found a few decades ago. Most are in the MS63 to MS64 range and are characterized by sharp strikes, excellent luster and rich golden coloration. I have personally seen at least four MS64 examples and believe that there are a few more known. In all, probably 10 to 15 exist in Uncirculated. The finest is Bowers and Merena 12/04: 2635, graded MS65 by NGC, which sold for a record-setting $27,600. PCGS has not graded any pieces higher than MS64 and their current listing of eight examples is certainly inflated by resubmissions.
1842: Mintage: 27,432. The 1842 is far and away the scarcest Philadelphia half eagle from this decade and it is an issue that is comparable in rarity to all but a handful of the branch mint half eagles from this era. There are two distinct varieties known: the Small Letters and the Large Letters.
Small Letters: This is the rarer of the two 1842 half eagles and it is by far the hardest coin to find in the Philadelphia half eagle series from the 1840’s. I regard it as one of the most underrated coins in the whole Liberty Head half eagle series. There are probably not more than fifty or so known with most in the VF to EF range. I doubt if more than ten exist in About Uncirculated. In Uncirculated, I am aware of just one piece, the Pittman I: 957 coin (which sold for a relatively cheap $17,600 back in 1997). I believe it appears as both an MS63 and an MS64 in the PCGS Population Report.
Large Letters: This is the more available of the two varieties but it is still a very scarce coin in all grades. There are as many as 75-100 extant with most in the VF to EF range. Properly graded AU examples are quite rare with probably no more than fifteen known. This variety is very rare in AU55 to AU58 and it appears to be unique in Uncirculated. The finest known is ex Milas: 442 and it is currently in a PCGS MS66 (it was once graded MS65 by PCGS). This is one of those “how the heck does that actually exist” coins and I would have to think it would be a six-figure item today if it came onto the market.
1843: Mintage: 611,205. Beginning with this issue, the half eagle mintage figures from Philadelphia increased dramatically and this denomination became a workhorse issue in commerce. The 1843 is actually a bit scarcer than its large mintage figure would suggest. There are at least 750-1000+ in all grades; possibly quite a bit more when one factors in low-quality or damaged pieces. In all circulated grades this date is easily available although choice, original AU58’s are becoming harder to find. In Uncirculated there are an estimated three dozen known. I have never seen a Gem and just two or three that I regard as MS64. The highest graded is an NGC MS65 that sold as Lot 3380 in the Goldberg 9/09 auction for $25,300. The nicest I can recall was the Milas coin.
This issue has a distinctive appearance with most displaying frosty luster which is typically interrupted by extensive surface abrasions. The natural coloration ranges from deep orange-gold to a medium green-gold shade. Most are well struck and well produced.
1844: Mintage: 340,330. This is a scarcer date than the 1843, which makes sense given its smaller mintage. There are at least 500-750+ in all grades but, as with all of these higher mintage issues from the 1840’s, there might be hoards overseas or large numbers of lower grade coins of which I am not aware. The 1844 is relatively available in Uncirculated with around three to four dozen known; mostly in the MS60 to MS62 range. This date is scarce in MS63, very rare in MS64 and exceedingly rare in Gem. By far the best I have seen is Stack’s 5/05: 1692, graded MS65 by PCGS, which brought $50,025. That coin, by the way, is one of the two or three best No Motto half eagles of any date that I am aware.
The 1844 half eagle is a well produced issue that can be found with excellent frosty luster, attractive rich green-gold color and a nice, sharp strike. Some pieces have excessive marks on the surfaces but the patient collector should be able to locate a really nice piece at an affordable price.
1845: Mintage: 417,099. The 1845 is similar in overall rarity to the 1844. There are an estimated 500-750+. This is a more common date in higher grades than the 1844 with as many as four to five dozen extant in Uncirculated. Most grade in the MS60 to MS62 range. This is a rare issue in properly graded MS63 and an extremely rare one in MS64 with perhaps as few as four or five known. I am not aware of any Gem 1845 half eagles. The two best that I can recall seeing are Bass II: 943, graded MS64 by PCGS, which sold for $16,100 in October 1999 and Milas: 458, graded MS64 by NGC, which sold for $17,100 all the way back in October 1995.
This is another issue that is generally seen well made. Higher grade examples can show excellent thick, frosty luster and the natural coloration is often a very handsome medium to deep greenish-gold or canary yellow-gold.
1846: Mintage: 395,942. In my experience, the 1846 is a tougher date than the 1843, 1844 or 1845. It is typically seen in lower grades than these other three issues and it is quite a bit scarcer in higher grades. There are around 500-700+ known. Two major varieties exist.
Large Date: This is by far the more common of the two varieties. It is common in VF and EF grades and only slightly scarce in the lower AU range. It becomes fairly scarce in AU58 and it is rare in Uncirculated. I have never personally seen one better than MS63 and only one or two in this grade. There are a number of MS63 and MS64 examples from the S.S. New York which have seawater surfaces.
Small Date: This is the scarcer of the two varieties. It has only been recognized by PCGS for a few years so the population figures are a bit on the low side. I think it is at least two to three times scarcer than the Large Date in circulated grades and much scarcer in Uncirculated. The highest graded 1846 Small Date is Stack’s 7/08: 2068, graded MS63 by NGC. It is from the S.S. New York and has sweater surfaces. It sold for $18,975.
1847: Mintage: 915,981. The 1847 is the most common Philadelphia No Motto half eagle from the 1840’s by a fairly considerable margin. There are at least 1,500-2,500+ known in all grades and this estimate may actually be quite conservative. It is common in all circulated grades and fairly available in the lowest Uncirculated range with around 150-200 extant in Mint State. This date becomes scarce in MS63 and it is very rare in MS64. The finest known is a remarkable PCGS MS66 that is ex ANR 11/04: 1804 ($92,000), Pittman I: 981 ($110,000). A strong case could be made for calling this the finest No Motto half eagle of any date.
There are a number of interesting varieties known. A few exist with repunching on the date numerals, including one with a sharply repunched 7. There is also a fascinating misplaced date variety with a 7 located in the denticles well below the date. There is also a very interesting variety with the 7 punched in the throat of Liberty.
1848: Mintage: 260,775. The number of half eagles made in 1848 is significantly less than in 1847 and this date is much scarcer. An estimated 500-700+ are known with most in the EF40 to AU50 range. Nice higher end AU coins are somewhat scarce and this date in rare in Uncirculated with two to three dozen known. The two best I am aware of are Bass II: 986 (graded MS64 by PCGS) that brought $24,150 in October 1999 and Milas: 471, graded MS64 by NGC, that sold for $23,100 in October 1999.
The appearance of this date tends to be different than that seen on the 1846 and 1847 half eagles. The surfaces are more striated (mint-made) and the luster is less “pillowy” and a bit more satiny in texture. The natural color is often a rich reddish-gold or orange-gold hue, unlike some of the earlier dates from this decade which are more green-gold in hue.
The date run of half eagles produced at the San Francisco mint from 1858 through 1864 includes some of the rarest and most overlooked gold issues ever manufactured at any of the various branch mints. These were issues that had limited production runs and which were eagerly absorbed into commerce by the booming local and regional economies. I recently had the good fortune of handling one of just two known 1859-S half eagles in Uncirculated (an NGC MS61) and now that I am no longer actively marketing the coin, I thought it would be interesting to take a more in-depth look at this issue and what made it such a special coin.
There were 13,220 1859-S half eagles originally struck. In the October 2008 web article that I wrote entitled “The Ten Rarest Liberty Head Half Eagles,” I ranked the 1859-S as the ninth rarest issue overall of the entire design type and called it the third rarest half eagle from this mint, trailing only the exceedingly rare 1854-S and the 1864-S.
I went on to state that there are only 50 or so known examples of the 1859-S half eagle. I believe that this is a fairly accurate number and I can further state that the survival breakdown by grade is as follows:
Uncirculated: 2 About Uncirculated: 6-8 Extremely Fine: 11-14 Very Fine (and below): 25-30
The PCGS and NGC population figures would have you believe that AU’s are more available than I suggested above. I believe these numbers are inflated on account of resubmissions and I think some of the coins in AU50 and AU53 holders are optimistically graded. In my experience, a real AU 1859-S half eagle is very rare and I have seen many examples that were heavily worn; even down to the point of Very Good to Fine detail.
The two known Uncirculated 1859-S half eagles are an interesting story and I’d like to discuss them in greater detail.
The finest known 1859-S is the wonderful PCGS MS62 example (which also appears in the NGC population report as an MS62) that I first saw in the Milas sale that Stack’s conducted back in 1995 where it brought $34,500. At the time it was in a NGC MS62 holder and while I don’t know the previous history of the coin, I do know that it was a piece that Ed Milas was especially proud of. It was purchased by a dealer agent for Harry Bass who, in retrospect, was the ideal new owner. It remained in his collection until he died and was later sold as Lot 1118 in the Bass II auction where it realized $30,800. The coin bounced around for a few years and was last sold as B+M 1/02: 694 where it garnered a reasonable $25,300.
The second Uncirculated 1859-S half eagle is an NGC MS61 that I just sold to a private collector. I acquired it from a collector at the ANA show in Los Angeles this summer. The background of the coin is interesting.
According to the collector, it was bought over the counter at a coin shop and was accompanied by a small envelope of the sort that used to accompany gold coins when they were given as Christmas presents. The collector first showed me the coin around three years ago and asked me if I was interested in obtaining it. I replied that I was. It wasn’t going to be an easy transaction, though, as the collector wanted to trade it for something “really special.” I saw the coin once a year in the interim and the collector continued to hold out for the right coin in trade.
I finally bought a coin this summer that excited the collector and, luckily for us, we were able to agree on respective valuations. He walked away with an amazing one-of-a-kind piece for his type set while I was able to procure one of the more exciting No Motto San Francisco half eagles that I’ve handled in a number of years. It seemed like a “win-win” deal for both of us.
Given the relative unpopularity of San Francisco gold, this incredible Uncirculated 1859-S half eagle will likely never receive the attention that it deserves. But it is a truly remarkable coin and, as I mentioned above, one of just two known in Uncirculated. I was excited to handle it and it makes me realize that, every now and then, a truly great gold coin does, literally, come out of the woodwork!
I’m beginning to gain a new-found appreciation for --gasp!-- No Motto half eagles and eagles from the Philadelphia mint. Read on for some thoughts about these coins and why I’m beginning to see them in a new light. As I’ve mentioned more than once, No Motto half eagles and eagles from Philadelphia have never ranked high on the list of popular coins in the world of DWN. I’ve found these coins to be somewhat mundane and boring and haven’t really bothered all that much with them. So what’s happening to change my mind?
I love originality. It saddens me to see that such a large percentage of branch mint gold issues have been scrubbed and processed and now look like Frankencoins. Ironically, because of their lack of popularity, the major coin doctors have (temporarily) ignored No Motto Philadelphia half eagles and eagles. In essence, the connoisseur of truly original mid-19th century coins has almost nowhere to turn other than Philadelphia.
This was really clear to me when I was viewing the recent auctions in Milwaukee as part of the ANA festivities. I disliked most of the branch mint coins. But I saw a decent number of No Motto Philadelphia half eagles and eagles in the AU50 to MS63 range that were choice, original and quite attractive. Had my anti-Philadelphia gold prejudice begun to fall by the wayside?
Now, before you drop your jaw on the table and think that I’ve committed numisheresy, let me expand on what I just stated. I’m certainly not abandoning my strong interest in branch mint coins and starting to focus on Philadelphia coins; that’s far from the case. What I am realizing, though, is that these Philly issues may be more interesting than I thought.
Here’s a few reasons why I like these coins:
The collector of average means can put together nice date runs from the 1840’s and the 1850’s. As an example, there are really no rare Philadelphia half eagles struck between 1839 and 1861. Nearly every date can be found in nice AU55 to AU58 for well under $2,000 (in some cases under $1,000). If you can’t afford a nice collection of Charlotte, Carson City, Dahlonega or New Orleans gold, you can still participate in the Philadelphia gold market.
The coins are well made and are found with original surfaces with greater frequency than their branch mint counterparts. For the collector who insists on originality, you will find many more attractive pieces than in the branch mint series.
This is a virtually uncollected area. Good news: you have very little competition. Bad news: when you go to sell your collection, no one may care.
If you like varieties, this is a very fertile area. Other than Harry Bass, almost no one has ever searched through these issues for major varieties and I’m willing to bet some very interesting coins are awaiting discovery.
No Motto Philadelphia half eagles and eagles are close to a century older than Indian head half eagles and eagles yet they offer the gold coin collector a lot more bang for the buck. $2,500 won’t buy you very much in the way of an interesting or rare Indian Head half eagle. But it will buy you a pretty scarce Liberty Head half eagle from the 1840’s.
Unlike some of the 20th century gold series, No Motto Philadelphia gold has never really been promoted or heavily marketed. Price levels have stayed flat for many years and there are some real sleepers in both the half eagle and eagle series awaiting discovery by the student of the series. As I stated above, I’m not planning on abandoning my focus on branch mint gold coins any time soon. But after some careful thinking, I’ve decided that maybe No Motto Philadelphia gold coins aren’t the Numismatic Pariah that I thought they were for many years.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to sell some high grade No Motto half eagles and this got me thinking about the rarity of this series in higher grade. I thought it would be interesting to look at the populations of the No Motto half eagle series and to give them a bit of statistical analysis. I also thought it would be interesting to take the No Motto eagle series and compare these numbers as the two series offer a good contrast. The No Motto half eagle and eagle series were produced between 1838 and 1866 with the eagles beginning in 1838 and the half eagles beginning in 1839. The No Motto type includes a one year subtype in the half eagle series (1839) and a two year subtype in the eagle series (1838 and 1839) that are collected alongside the issues produced in 1840 and later and whose numbers have been combined throughout the course of this study.
Mintage figures for both No Motto half eagles and eagles can be somewhat misleading. Some of the Philadelphia issues from the 1840’s and 1850’s have mintages that approach 1 million. All told, 9,114,483 No Motto half eagles were struck as well as 5,259,528 eagles. Given these figures, you would expect No Motto half eagles and eagles to be somewhat common. This is most certainly not the case, however, primarily because of massive meltings that began as early as the Civil War and which continued up through the 1960’s. In my experience, the survival rate for No Motto gold is well below 2% and in the case of high grade coins, it is a fraction of this.
In preparing this analysis, I’ve decided to use PCGS’ figures exclusively. I’m not endorsing one grading service over the other but merely feel that PCGS has a “cleaner” population report with more accurate figures. That said, it should be stressed that the figures used below include a number of resubmissions and they tend to become less accurate as grades increase (and values grow in spread). I will make note of this as we look at the numbers.
I. No Motto Half Eagles
Total Graded: 11,213 Circulated Grades: 9,952 (88.75%) Uncirculated Grades: 1,261 (11.24%) MS60 to MS62: 870 (7.75%) MS63: 230 (2.05%) MS64: 136 (1.21%) MS65: 19 (0.16%) MS 66 and better: 6 (0.05%)
So what can we learn from these numbers? The first thing that I find interesting is that only 11% or so of the No Motto half eagles graded by PCGS are Uncirculated. When we factor in resubmissions, the actual number is probably quite a bit lower; probably around 8% or so of the total coins. Given my experience, this makes sense. In comparison to early half eagles and the later With Motto Liberty Head issues, a very small percentage of the No Motto coinage survived in comparatively high grades.
The next thing that is noticeable is how the numbers drop off once the MS63 level is reached. PCGS has graded 391 No Motto half eagles in MS63 or better (just 3.47% of the total population graded) and my guess is that once you factor in resubmissions and other anomalies, the total number of PCGS graded No Motto half eagles in MS63 or higher is more likely 250 or so pieces.
These numbers get more interesting when we look at them a bit more carefully and note that three dates (the 1847, 1852 and 1861) have a combined population of 137 in MS63 and better. This works out to over 35% of the total population of all higher grade No Motto half eagles. If you remove these three dates from the total population, suddenly all No Motto half eagles in MS63 seem a lot scarcer.
The specific grade that I think is most inaccurate in the PCGS population report is MS64. In looking through the report, I see such figures as eight 1841’s having been graded, eight 1845’s, eight 1858’s and forty (!) 1861’s. Given the fact that a PCGS MS64 1861 half eagle is worth around $12,500 and an MS65 is worth over $30,000 it is no wonder that at least a few very high end coins have been resubmitted over and over in an attempt to graduate to a higher grade. My guess is that the PCGS figure in MS64 (a total of 136) is inflated by at least one-third and that the actual number is more likely in the 75-95 range.
Ironically, I think the PCGS MS65 and MS66 numbers are pretty accurate. Once someone gets a No Motto half eagle in an MS65 or MS66 holder it is clearly to their benefit to get the population figure accurate for a specific date. There are supposedly three 1847 half eagles graded MS66 by PCGS and I think this seems high by at least one but I can account for nearly every other MS66 and most of the 19 coins graded MS65 as well.
Now, let’s look at the figures for No Motto eagles:
II. No Motto Eagles
Total Graded: 7,155 Circulated Grades: 6,832 (95.48%) Uncirculated Grades: 323 (4.51%) MS60 to MS62: 236 (3.29%) MS63: 46 (0.64%) MS64: 34 (0.47%) MS65: 3 (0.04%) MS 66 and better: 4 (0.05%)
Given the ratio of original mintage figures, the total numbers graded for the two No Motto types makes sense. It also makes sense to me that well over 90% of all No Motto eagles are circulated. In fact, I think that once you look at the resubmission factor for this type, the actual number of unique PCGS graded Uncirculated No Motto eagles is less than 250 coins. And when you take this a step further and consider that many of the coins graded MS60, MS61 and even MS62 show rub and may not be considered “new” by conservative specialists, you are probably talking about a pool of 125-150 No Motto eagles in PCGS holders that are unequivocally Uncirculated.
I have long believed that virtually any No Motto eagle is rare in Uncirculated. Take a coin like the 1847. This issue has a mintage figure of 862,258. I personally doubt if more than 1,500-2,000 are known but the great majority are well-circulated. PCGS has graded twenty-six in Uncirculated but five in MS60 and four in MS61 (grades that may or may not be truly Uncirculated) as well as thirteen in MS62 (which is clearly inflated by resubmissions). This supposedly “common” coin is actually quite rare in Uncirculated. I doubt if more than four or five are known that accurately grade MS63 or better.
In MS63 or better, No Motto eagles are very rare; far more so than their half eagle counterparts. My best estimate is that only a few dozen are known in properly graded MS63 and MS64 combined. Gems are incredibly rare. PCGS has graded just two coins in MS65 and another three in MS66 (remarkably, each of these is an actual coin and not just a bunch of resubmissions!). In my experience, No Motto eagles (and half eagles) are rarer in MS63 and higher grades than Heraldic Eagle reverse issues of these denominations.
I also think that high grade No Motto gold coinage is extremely cheap right now, especially when compared to the older half eagles and eagles. As an example, you can buy a nice common date PCGS MS63 half eagle from the late 1840’s or early 1850’s now for around $7,500-8,500. A common date MS64 should be available for $12,500-15,000. No Motto eagles in this grade range are more expensive but they are still not out of the price range of many collectors. A PCGS MS63 “common date” should be available for $15,000-20,000 and an MS64 will run $25,000-30,000+. When you look at what other far less rare types are selling for these days, I think these levels seem very reasonable!
One of the most ambitious collecting projects ever undertaken was the No Motto half eagle set assembled by Chicago dealer Ed Milas. Not only did Mr. Milas attempt to assemble a complete set of these rare coins (struck between 1839 and 1866) but he did it, for the most part, in the highest grade possible. After working on this set for the better part of two decades, Milas sold his coins at auction through Stack’s in May, 1995. The Milas set included 98 coins and was lacking only the 1842-C Small Date, 1854-S, 1863 and 1864-S to be totally complete. The coins ranged in grade from mid-AU to MS66 and included a host of individual pieces that were either Finest Known or high in the Condition Census for that specific issue. I would still rate this as one of the single greatest specialized U.S gold collections ever formed and it was one of the most interesting auctions that I ever attended.
I had seen a number of Ed’s coins on a piece-meal basis and had even sold him a few high-end Charlotte and Dahlonega coins indirectly. But it was with real excitement that I went to New York to view a collection that had attained true cult status among rare gold coin collectors and dealers alike.
I remember being very surprised to see that the Milas Collection had been sent to NGC to be graded. Stack’s, in the mid-1990’s seemed to sell far fewer encapsulated coins than their competitors and my initial reaction on viewing the coins in their holders was that NGC had gotten a little bit carried away in grading them. Of course today, these same coins in the same 1995 holders would seem almost quaintly undergraded.
What I remember most about this collection, nearly a decade and a half after the fact, was the wonderful quality of the coins. They were the sort of No Motto mint half eagles that you almost never see today. Most had wonderful original color, blazing luster and had never been enhanced. A number traced their origin to famous collections that had been sold in the 1980’s and early 1990’s including Eliasberg, James Stack, Jimmy Hayes, Bareford and Garrett.
From the standpoint of appearance and overall grade, the Philadelphia half eagles were the highlight of the collection. Coin after coin graded MS63, MS64 or even MS65 and I remember a number of the ex: Eliasberg coins having absolutely sensational fiery orange-gold coloration. Two coins that I really loved were the 1850 (graded MS65 by NGC) that was so amazingly fresh and crisp in appearance it looked like it had been made last week and the MS66 1852 that, to this day, rates as one of the single finest No Motto half eagles of any date that I have seen. As I recall, many of these Philadelphia pieces were purchased by dealer Steve Contursi.
The Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles in the Milas collection included some of the most famous (and most mind-blowing) high grade pieces known. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite as there were so many fantastic single coins. I remember the amazing MS65 1841-D that Ed Milas had bought a year earlier out of the James Stack collection for a record $88,000. In the Stack’s sale, a year later, it went for a relatively low $68,750. The Dahlonega half eagle in the sale that I liked the best was an 1853-D in MS64. While this date is relatively common in Uncirculated, this particular example (ex: Auction ’84 and Bareford) had absolutely superb color and surfaces. It brought $55,000 which I remember being a TON of money at the time. Most of the Dahlonega coins in the sale (as well as a majority of the Charlotte pieces) were purchased by dealer Winthrop Carner. Ironically, Carner ran into financial problems soon after the sale and many of the Milas coins were re-offered at the Numisma ‘95 auction where they brought considerably less than what Carner had paid for them earlier in the year.
The one Charlotte coin that everyone wanted to see in the sale was Milas’ 1859-C which NGC had graded MS66. Formerly from the Eliasberg collection, this coin remains the only Charlotte half eagle ever graded above MS65. I remember being a bit underwhelmed by the coin when I first saw it in 1995 (I saw it again a few years ago and was blown away by it...) and thought it had been the beneficiary of a push by NGC. It sold for $104,500 and it became the first Charlotte gold coin to eclipse the six-figure mark at auction.
What really excited me in this collection, though, were the New Orleans half eagles. They were amazing; probably the finest set ever assembled. The one coin that I really, really wanted to buy was the 1842-O graded MS63 by NGC. It is the finest known of three examples in Uncirculated and it has a fantastic pedigree (ex: Eliasberg and Earle collections). This was a rare instance where I liked a coin so much that I wanted to buy it to stash it away. In the end, I was the underbidder and it brought $31,900 which seems very, very reasonable today. I was able to purchase a number of the other New Orleans half eagles in the sale and I’ve handled a few of these two, three or even four times since the Milas auction in 1995(!)
If someone wanted to replicate this collection today, I’m certain it could not be done. Many of the Milas coins have, in the ensuing years, been processed and no longer show the superb, original look they had back in 1995. The number of very high grade, totally original Charlotte and Dahlonega half eagles has greatly diminished since 1995 and I’m not certain that many of the high quality Philadelphia and San Francisco half eagles in the Milas collection could be replicated today either.
I hate to sound like Grandpa Winter but they just don’t have sales today like they did with the Milas collection back in 1995...