To my way of thinking, early gold coins (i.e., those struck prior to 1834) and among the most collectible and interesting areas in all of American numismatics. No, these coins aren't cheap and they are, in reality, somewhat overvalued when you compare them to many mid-19th century Liberty Head issues. But there is a pride-of-ownership factor associated with owning a 200 year old gold coin that you get from nothing else. 1. An Overview
When we refer to "early gold," this typically includes quarter eagles, half eagles and eagles produced at the Philadelphia mint from 1795 through 1834. I'd also like to include the Classic Head coinage of 1834-1838 as these pieces are more affordable and this article will then be of greater relevance as it will cover a more broad scope of collecting budgets.
The various types of early gold are as follows:
Quarter Eagle: No Stars on Obverse, 1796 only Quarter Eagle: Capped Bust Right, 1796-1807 Quarter Eagle: Capped Bust Left, 1808 only Quarter Eagle: Capped Head Left Large Size: 1821-1827 Quarter Eagle: Capped Head Left Reduced Size: 1829-1834 Quarter Eagle: Classic Head, 1834-1838
Half Eagle: Capped Bust Right, Small Eagle, 1795-1798 Half Eagle: Capped Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle, 1795-1807 Half Eagle: Capped Bust Left, 1807-1812 Half Eagle: Capped Head Left Large Size, 1813-1829 Half Eagle: Capped Head Left Reduced Size, 1829-1834 Half Eagle: Classic Head, 1834-1838
Eagle: Capped Bust Right, Small Eagle, 1795-1797 Eagle: Capped Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle, 1797-1804
The total number of types that most collectors pursue are fourteen. This includes six each of the quarter eagle and half eagle, and two eagles. The rarest and most expensive of the individual types are the 1796 No Stars and 1808 quarter eagles, and the 1829-1834 Capped Head Left, Reduced Size half eagle. For each of these three types, "entry level" coins will approach six figures and choice, significant pieces can run into the mid-six figures.
2. What to Buy to Get Started
Before you begin an early gold collection, I think its a good idea to spend $500-1,000 putting together a library of reference works.
The best book for new collectors is the Bass/Dannreuther reference that is published by Whitman. While it is oriented more towards die varieties than general collecting, it is still an extremely useful book.
I have written some good general articles on collecting early gold and these can be found in both the "articles" and "market reports" section of my website.
There are not many other books that deal specifically with early gold. The Akers books on United States gold coins are out-of-date but still of use. And the Harry Bass Research Foundation website (hbrf.org) has wonderful images of extremely choice gold coins in all three denominations, including extremely rare Proofs and specimen strikes.
One of the best sources of information for collectors of early gold are auction catalogs. Some of the sales held during the last few decades that had very strong holdings of early gold include Eliasberg (1982), Norweb, Bass, Keston, the "Apostrophe" sales, Archdiocese of Buffalo, Ed Price and many of the Heritage FUN and ANA Platinum night sessions. Do a search on the web for coin book dealers (there are a number of good ones) and ask for their help in putting together a nice group of 15-20 catalogs that are essential additions to any early gold library.
3. Deciding What to Collect
After you've decided to collect early gold, your next question is what direction is your collection going to take.
Basically, there are two paths that a new collector can take: collecting by type or specializing in a specific series and collecting by date. The path you take will depend on your budget.
Collecting early gold coins by date is ambitious (to say the least) due to the number of very rare coins in each of the three denomination. A date collection can be modified and made less expensive by deciding to collect only by date and not by variety. As an example, a collector working on early quarter eagles might opt to purchase only an 1804 with 14 stars on the reverse due to the fact that the 13 star variety is very rare and very expensive.
The decision to collect early gold is, of course, predicated on a collector's budget. If the collector has a reasonably modest budget, my suggestion would be to focus on the half eagles struck between 1800 and 1812 in the Extremely Fine and About Uncirculated grade range. This is a great date run as there are no rare issues (except for varieties) and every coin will be available in the $7,500-12,500 range depending on grade.
If a collector has a healthy budget available, the possibilities are almost limitless. A high quality type set, featuring one example each of the fourteen issues listed above, would be challenging and numismatically significant.
Two sets that I have been able to work on for clients are date runs of quarter eagles from 1796 to 1834 and Capped Head Left half eagles from 1813 to 1829. These are both truly challenging. There is a tremendous amount of subtle strategizing inherent in both sets as they include many issues that might come up for sale once every three to five years. It can be hard to figure out what to pay for a very rare date whose last auction record was as much as a decade ago!
4. Where to Buy
As a collector you have two options on where to purchase your early gold coins: from a specialist dealer or at auction. As a dealer who specializes in early gold, I obviously would suggest that you buy from me, but the answer is not so cut and dry.
Early gold can be quite complex to collect. Many early gold coins have been cleaned or "doctored" and it takes an expert to determine which are nice for the grade and which are average. This is an area that a collector would be smart to deal with a specialist and he will need to do some research into who he should buy from, as there are only a handful of United States coin dealers who really know the intricacies of the early gold market.
Certain very rare early gold coins are almost never offered for sale except at auction, so the auction market is always going to be a factor for the collector. I suggest hiring a dealer and paying him a standard 5% fee for viewing and executing bids.
Be forewarned that you are never going to buy a good coin "cheaply" at auction. Auctions are best used to pursue very rare coins or very high grade coins. They may not be the best source for more run-of-the-mill pieces (and I am not saying this in a derogatory sense) which a specialist dealer will have access to at more reasonable prices.
Some auctions are great sources for early gold coins because they offer pieces with impressive pedigrees. I am an advocate of buying early gold with strong provenance when possible and, for better or worse, many such coins wind-up in auctions. I know of at least a few collectors who are as interested in early gold coins with pedigrees and they are in the coins themselves. They would consider buying a duplicate or even a triplicate of an issue they already own because it has a great pedigree.
5. CAC or non-CAC?
There are areas of the rare coin market that CAC has made strong inroads on and others where it has had little or no impact. In my opinion, early gold is an area where CAC has made a very strong impact. CAC typically rewards originality and as the vast majority of early gold coins aren't original, CAC examples are often selling for premiums that range from 5% to 20%.
I think the early gold coins that are most impacted by CAC approval are common date pieces in higher grades. So many of the Capped Bust Right and Capped Bust Left half eagles that I see in MS63 to MS65 holders have been played-around with that I think a CAC stickered coin is an important purchase for the inexperienced collector.
I think CAC stickers are not as important on very rare early gold coins and more common issues in lower grades.
If you are looking at an early gold coin with a total population of a few dozen coins, you are not able to be as selective as with an issue which has hundreds of coins surviving. While I would never suggest buying a very rare early gold coin with problems (such as damage, signs of harsh cleaning, repairs, etc) I would (and will continue to) buy a coin like an 1804 14 star reverse quarter eagle or a half eagle from the mid-1820's that was decent-looking but not nice enough to be approved by CAC.
I also note less of a premium being given to less expensive early gold coins with CAC approval but I wouldn't be surprised if this changes as buyers of these coins are becoming more sophisticated and want nicer quality pieces.
6. Value Plays/Best Value Grades
Every collector wants to buy coins that are good value. Collectors of early gold are no different. There are some issues that I think are very good values. (important note: I think that any properly graded, choice early gold coin with natural surfaces is a good value but the following list are coins that are the best values).
Virtually all pre-1834 quarter eagles are rare and until a few years ago, they were priced at levels similar to the far more available half eagles of this era. This isn't the case anymore and a nice example of a reasonably available date of the Capped Right design (such as the 1802, 1805 or 1807) is now a $15,000-20,000 coin.
Early quarter eagles that I find to be undervalued include the 1798 (the only relatively affordable 18th century issue) and the 1806/4.
I like the Capped Head Left type of 1821-1827 and find this to be the most undervalued early quarter eagle type. Survival rates tend to be low and the five issues of this design are often overlooked. My two favorite dates of this type are the 1821 and the 1826/5.
There are so many early half eagles that I feel are undervalued that instead of listing them by date and discussing them, I'm going to focus on "best value grades" instead.
For circulated coins, I like AU55 and AU58 grades. An early half eagle graded AU55 to AU58 is going to show minimal wear and have a decent amount of remaining luster. There isn't a huge price spread between an AU50 and an AU58 common date early half eagle (the spread right now is a few thousand dollars at most) and if you are collecting half eagles by type, it makes sense to me to go for an AU55 or AU58.
In the Uncircuated grades, I tend to shy away from MS60 and MS61 coins (which are often "rubby") and stick with MS62's which, for the most part, are actually "new."
For type collectors with higher budgets, a nice MS64 early half eagle typically makes more sense to me than an MS65 at multiples of the price. The last few common date early half eagles that I have sold in MS64CAC have been nicer than some of the low-end MS65 non-CAC coins that I've seen offered at auction.
Since there are not many early eagles, there are few coins that I regard as undervalued. Among the common dates, I actually prefer the 1799 to the 1801 or the 1803 given its 18th century origin.
7. Let's Not Forget Classic Heads....
I mentioned at the beginning of this article that I wasn't going to overlook the Classic Head quarter eagles and half eagles. These designs were produced from 1834 to 1838 at the Philadelphia, Charlotte and Dahlonega and New Orleans mints. The branch mint issues include the 1838-C, 1839-C, 1839-D and 1839-O quarter eagles as well as the 1838-C and 1838-D half eagles.
The great thing about Classic Head gold is its affordability. As an example, I just sold an absolutely beautiful 1834 Classic Head half eagle graded AU55 by PCGS and approved by PCGS for just a touch over $2,000. Nice examples of most of the Philadelphia quarter eagles and half eagles of this type can be obtained for $2,000-4,000. Even Uncirculated examples, at least in MS60 to MS62, are not out of the price range of most early gold collectors.
I would suggest that if you are purchasing a Classic Head gold coin for type purposes that you be extremely selective. These coins are not rare and really nice examples can be found with patience. Pay a little extra for original coins with great color and, if possible, buy a slightly better date like an 1837 quarter eagle or an 1836 half eagle for just a small premium over the common 1834.
Classic Head gold can be collected in a number of different ways. You can buy just two coins and have a complete type set, or you can buy eleven coins and have complete year sets of both denominations. The addition of the branch mint issues will add some cost to a Classic Head collection, but these issues are still affordable in the EF40 to AU50 grade range.
8. Some Final Words
Its hard to convey in 2000~ words the ins and outs of collecting early gold coins, but hopefully this article will serve as motivation to become involved in an aspect of the hobby that I find fascinating. If you have any specific questions about early gold, please feel free to contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to answer them.
For many collectors, the decision to focus on early United States gold coins is an easy one. These are some of the rarest, most historic and aesthetically appealing pieces ever produced by the United States mint. Once the decision has been reached to begin a collection of these coins, how do you start? This article seeks to focus on the steps required to begin an early gold collection, offers some suggestions on how to collect these coins and charts a course to help new collectors avoid some of the common mistakes that are often made with early purchases. The term “early gold” refers to those issues struck between 1796 and 1834. There are three denominations: the quarter eagle, half eagle and eagle. Breaking these down further, the following types are known:
Quarter Eagles: Capped Bust Right (1796-1807), Capped Bust Left Large Size (1808), Capped Head Left Large Size (1821-1827), Capped Head Left Reduced Size (1829-1834). Total of four types.
Half Eagles: Capped Bust Right Small Eagle (1795-1798), Capped Bust Right Heraldic Eagle (1795-1807), Capped Bust Left (1807-1812), Capped Head Left Large Size (1813-1829), Capped Head Left Reduced Size (1829-1834). Total of five types.
Eagles: Capped Bust Right Small Eagle (1795-1797), Capped Bust Right Heraldic eagle (1797-1804). Total of two types.
In all, there are a total of eleven major types of early United States gold.
Before we discuss suggestions on ways to collect early gold, there are a few important points that I would like to address.
The first is, not surprisingly, budget. Collecting early gold is not for the collector on a shoestring numismatic budget. Just about any decent quality early gold coin is going to cost in the $7,500-12,500 range. Many of the types listed above start at around $25,000 and quickly shoot upwards. If you are not able (or comfortable) spending this sort of money, than early gold is probably not for you.
The second is quality. As someone who has looked at a lot of early gold, I can tell you that only a small percentage of surviving coins are choice and original. I think it is hugely important to assemble an early gold collection that is oriented towards coins with choice, original surfaces. This is not always going to be possible. There are certain individual rare dates that are virtually impossible to locate with original surfaces and other very expensive issues that the collector may have to compromise his standards. That said, it is my belief that an early gold collection with a small number of lovely original pieces is more inherently desirable than a large collection full of mediocrity. This is one area where CAC certification is important as CAC- approved early gold coins tend to be well above average for the grade and, in most cases, represent what I would consider to be collector quality.
One last thing to mention is the “reality factor” of your collection. As I mentioned above, collecting early gold is not for the faint of heart. These coins are expensive and if you are collecting by date or by series, once you buy the “easy” issues, you’ll have to step up to the plate for some serious wallet busters. If you are not a patient, meticulous collector you won’t have the right mindset for early gold. Even a collector with an unlimited budget is going to have to wait a few years to find a very rare issue like a 1797 Small Eagle half eagle and if the collector is picky, the wait could be three, four or even five years. Collecting early gold is not like Peace Dollars where you can race willy-nilly through a set in thirty days; even if you have an ultra-aggressive dealer helping you through the process. If the thought of working on a challenging set for ten+ years gives you the Numismatic Willies, then stop reading here!
Now that we’ve gotten the warnings out of the way, let’s look at some suggested ways to collect early gold. I’m going to make a few suggestions and list the pros and cons for each.
1. Collecting By Type: For many collectors, the best way to collect early gold is to acquire one nice example of each of the major eleven types. Clearly, the stoppers here are the 1808 Capped Bust Left quarter eagle and the 1829-1834 Capped Head Left half eagle. The former is a one-year type with an original mintage of just 2,710 and a surviving population that is estimated to be in the area of 125-150 coins. Compounding this situation is the fact that attractive comparatively “affordable” examples are very rare and the few that do exist do not trade frequently. The Capped Head half eagles struck from 1829 to 1834 are rare not because of low mintages but due to wholesale melting in 1834 after the weight of gold coins was reduced. All six of the half eagles that feature this design are rare and most of the coins that exist are in comparatively high grades.
The other types in this set are fairly easy to acquire. The set can, of course, be made considerably more difficult to complete if the collector is seeking very high grade coins. But most of these types are comparatively affordable in the lower Uncirculated grades and most are within the reach of collectors of average means in circulated grades.
PROS: It is exciting to think that every coin in this set is different in design. There are only eleven coins and this makes it a realistic project for many collectors. Most of the types are available in higher grades.
CONS: Type collectors may not study early gold in enough depth to become experts. Collectors will have to purchase an 1808 quarter eagle which is an issue that some experts feel is overvalued.
2. Collecting By Denomination: As mentioned above, there are just three denominations of early gold: quarter eagles, half eagles and eagle. Many collectors decide to collect a specific denomination. There are pros and cons for each. For some collectors, the quarter eagles are too small and they prefer a larger, heftier coin. For nearly all collectors, the half eagles are extremely challenging as there are a number of extremely rare and expensive coins and at least one issue (the 1822) is unlikely to become available in our lifetime. The eagle denomination is short-lived but it contains a total of fourteen distinct issues produced from 1795 to 1804.
An early gold set that specializes in a specific denomination is generally focused on quality. It can prove difficult to be consistent with grades in such a set due to the rarity of many individual coins. As an example, in an eagle set most collectors will be able to purchase a 1799 in Uncirculated. But the rare 1798/7 issues are not only very expensive in Uncirculated, they are exceedingly rare. My advice when specializing in a specific denomination is to stretch on the key issues and not to overdo it on the more common dates. In other words, buy the nicest possible 1798/7 but don’t go crazy when it comes to the 1799 or 1801.
PROS: Focusing on a specific denomination allows a collector to become very well-acquainted with an area of the market and this will allow him to become a more informed buyer of coins. Most of the early gold denominations include a number of different types so this collection will have a good deal of variety over the course of time.
CONS: Collecting by denomination can prove to be very costly due to the extreme rarity of many early gold coins.
3. Collecting by Date: Perhaps the most ambitious way to collect early gold is to choose a denomination (or denominations) and to assemble a set that includes one example of each date that was produced. Depending on the resources and ambitions of the collector, this can include prominent varieties for each year as well (such as a Pointed 6 and Knobbed 6 half eagle from 1806).
I just mentioned that resources are a key when it comes to a date collection of early gold. This is especially true for the half eagle; a denomination that includes a host of coins that will run in the six figure range. However, what is interesting about this denomination is that if the collector pretends that the impossibly rare 1822 “doesn’t exist,” this set is actually completable. It isn’t easily completable, mind you, but it can be completed by the collector with lots of money and lots of patience. The other two denominations are easier to finish. The quarter eagle denomination has some rare individual issues but nothing that is impossible. The eagle denomination could even be completed in a reasonably short period (less than a year) if the collector gets lucky and finds the two rare 1798/7 issues.
PROS: A date set is a great way to carefully assemble a well-matched set. I believe that a complete or virtually complete date collection would gain value as a set and it could be well-marketed by a dealer or an auction house.
CONS: There really aren’t any cons except if the collector gives himself an incompletable project. If you are set on completing a date run of half eagles from the 1820’s and 1830’s you need to be wealthy and patient.
4. Exotic Collecting: There are some other ways to collect early gold that are a bit more on the “exotic” side. Some suggestions include a first/year last year set, an 18th century set, a pedigree set and a best-available-coin set. Here are brief descriptions of each.
A first year/last year set has coins made in the first and last years of each denomination and/or type. As an example, a first year/last year date set for quarter eagles would have a 1796 No Stars and an 1834. This could be expanded and it could include a 1796 With Stars and an 1807 to represent the first and last issues of the Stars Obverse type of 1796-1807.
An 18th century set would, obviously, focus on those issues produced prior to 1800. It might include a number of denominations and not be limited to just quarter eagles or half eagles.
A pedigree set would focus on early gold coins with important pedigrees. It might include coins from famous early gold collections sold within the last few decades (Eliasberg, Bass, Norweb, Ed Price, etc) or it might have coins that, through plate matching, can be shown to be from famous older collections from the 1950’s and earlier.
A best-available-coin-set is a group of coins that the collector buys just because he likes them. It might feature an assortment of early gold chosen for their originality or for their outstanding coloration.
PROS: These exotic sets are fun because they are unique to a specific collector. The parameters behind assembling them are not as rigorous as for some of the more clearly defined sets described above.
CONS: Don’t make a set so exotic that you are the only person that “gets” it. Run your idea(s) by your dealer and see what they think.
Collecting early gold is one of the really great areas in American numismatics. I would love to help you assemble a great set of early gold and have lots of experience in this area. For more information please contact me via email at email@example.com.
In the last five years, early United States gold has been one of the most active areas in the coin market. In this article, we will examine each of the major types of pre-1834 gold coinage and see how the market has performed. In addition, we will look at some future trends and make some predictions which may be of interest to the specialist. Early coinage has always been a popular area with collectors but all pre-1834 gold types have been just about the most avidly collected area of the coin market since the beginning of the current bull market. I think this is attributable to a number of factors including the following:
* In 2000, the oldest early gold coins became three centuries old which added a sense of age that was very impressive in comparison to more modern issues.
* Some excellent books and specialized research tools made these coins more accessible to new collectors.
* A number of dealers (myself included) steered many wealthy new collectors into this area of the market due to the "coolness factor" of these coins. The resulting spike in demand significantly reduced the already limited availability of these coins, resulting in an increase in price.
* Some important old-time collections (Pittman, Bass and others) came on the market, making a number of seldom-seen early gold pieces available to collectors. This spurred interest and a number of new collections were begun as a result.
I. Quarter Eagles, 1796 to 1834
A. Draped Bust No Stars, 1796 Only
As one might expect, this celebrated one-year type has seen a huge increase in price and demand in the past five years. In 2002, it was possible to find a nice AU example in the $60,000-70,000 range. Today, a similar coin is going to cost a collector $125,000 to $150,000.
I wouldn’t have a problem with this price increase except for the fact that grading standards for this type have become very lax in the last few years. Most of the 1796 No Stars quarter eagles that I see in AU holders are very low-end, unoriginal coins that would have been graded EF as recently as a few years ago. I still love this type and would recommend it to a wealthy collector as a blue-chip investment vehicle but I think great caution has to be taken when buying $100,000+ examples of this type.
The high water mark for this issue was in June 2005 when a superb PCGS MS65 example sold at auction for $1.38 million.
B. Draped Bust With Stars, 1796-1807
Five years ago, it was still possible for the collector of slightly above-average means to purchase a respectable example of this type. Today, the rarity of the With Stars quarter eagle type has been widely acknowledged and it is almost impossible to find a problem-free example for less than $15,000-20,000.
That said, I still think that this type is a great value and that it is undervalued when compared to the half eagles and eagles of this era. I am especially fond of the 1790’s dated issues. They have clearly risen in value, although nowhere near as much as the 1796 No Stars. As an example, I purchased a decent PCGS AU53 1797 quarter eagle in an auction in 2003 for around $50,000. Today, this coin would sell for around $70,000-80,000. An AU 1798 was worth around $30,000 five years ago and today it might sell in the $50,000-60,000 range. My gut feeling is that nice quality examples of these two dates aren’t going to be available for much longer at these levels and they should be purchased if and when they become available.
The 1802/1, 1804 14 Stars, 1805 and 1807 are the more common dates of this type. All four of these have become nearly impossible to locate with original color and surfaces. A common “type” example of one of these dates in the MS61 to MS62 range was reasonably available five years ago for around $20,000. Today, such a coin would cost $30,000-35,000 but most of the pieces I see in MS61 and MS62 holders are very unappealing. I have been advising collectors for many years that this type is undervalued and, despite the price rise in the past five years, I still believe that this is the case.
C. Capped Bust Left, 1808 only
As with all significant one year early type coins, the value of the 1808 quarter eagle has risen dramatically in the past five years. Today, a solid AU example is worth in the $100,000-150,000 range. Five years ago, it was possible to find an AU priced in the $40,000-50,000 range.
I wouldn’t have any qualms with the new price levels for this date if I actually liked many of the 1808 quarter eagles that I have viewed in the past year or two. The days of finding choice, original pieces in EF and AU holders may well be over, although I have seen a few examples in the last year graded AU55 and AU58 that I thought were acceptable for the grade.
I would expect that there will be some leveling off on prices for this issue in the coming year or two, if only because levels have risen so dramatically since 2002-2003. That said, I think a choice, attractive 1808 quarter eagle is a great coin to purchase. As long as there are collectors assembling type sets of early gold, there always is a very strong demand level for this one-year type.
D. Capped Bust Large Size, 1821-1827
Five years ago, I was literally begging clients to purchase examples of this type. This was one area of the early gold market that $10,000 would go a long way and this figure would buy you an impressive example of a legitimately scarce coin. The rap against early quarter eagles back then was that the coins were “too small” and that they were “too rare for their own good.” I thought these were silly reasons for these coins to be undervalued and, today, they seem positively quaint, given the new level of respect and interest that early quarter eagles command. Nevertheless, I still feel that quarter eagles of this type remain the most undervalued early U.S. gold coins.
The sort of coin that was available five years ago for $10,000+ is now more realistically a $20,000+ coin; not to mention the fact that it has become very hard to locate. But I still feel that any date in this series is an excellent value. I especially like the underrated 1821 and the low-mintage 1826.
I don’t think that the future of this type is date collecting as these coins are simply too challenging for most collectors. I think that the future is as a type coin and I would anticipate that five years from now it will be very difficult to find a nice, problem-free Capped Bust Large Size quarter eagle for much less than $30,000+.
E. Capped Bust Small Size, 1829-1834
The quarter eagles produced between 1829 and 1833 have also seen a surge of interest in the past five years. In 2002, you could buy a nice AU example of any of these dates for $7,500 or so. Today, a similar coin will cost you $12,500-15,000. Five years ago, an MS63 example of this type could be purchased for around $15,000-20,000. Today, a similar coin is more likely to cost in the area of $30,000-35,000.
I’d like to think that at least part of the reason that this type has shown such strong price increases in the last five years is due to the continual urging I’ve given clients to buy these coins. I have often written that I felt these were the best values in the early gold market. I still feel this way, although I have been pretty disappointed at the quality of a number of the coins I have seen lately in MS60 to MS63 holders.
That said, I think the future of this series remains very bright. Despite small original mintage figures, these coins exist in large enough numbers to make collecting by date a possibility. The stopper in the series remains the 1834 which, curiously, has become impossible to locate. I am not aware of a single example of this date appearing at auction since October 2004 and only two separate problem-free pieces appearing at auction since 2000. The last piece to sell was a PCGS AU55 which brought $35,600. Today, the same coin could bring as much as $65,000-75,000.
II. Half Eagles, 1795 to 1834
A. Draped Bust Small Eagle, 1795-1798
This type includes two relatively obtainable issues (the 1795 Small Eagle and the 1796/5) and three rarities (the 1797 15 and 16 Stars and the 1798 Small Eagle).
The 1795 has become one of the most popular early United States gold coins and for good reason. It is one of the first two gold coins struck by this country, it is charmingly designed and generally well produced and it can be found in relatively high grades. Five years ago, a collector could expect to find a nice AU for around $15,000 and a properly graded MS62 for around $50,000. Today, a nice AU should cost in the area of $40,000-50,000 while an MS62 will run around $100,000. I still recommend purchasing this issue in nearly any grade, as I feel it is a coin that will always be in great demand. I would definitely caution the new collector to seek an example with good eye appeal, nice surfaces and as much original coloration as possible. Nice, original coins are becoming extremely hard to find and I think they will begin to command a huge premium in the coming years.
The 1796/5 half eagle is many times scarcer than its 1795 Small Eagle counterpart but it does not command as much of a premium as one might expect. This has to do with the fact that it is not a first-year issue and, thus, is not as “sexy” a date. The 1796/5 has proven to be very rare and it is generally only offered at major auctions. I highly recommend this issue and feel that it is still an excellent value at its current level of $50,000-60,000 for a solid AU coin.
The great rarity of this type is the 1798 Small Eagle of which only seven or eight pieces are currently known. The last example to sell was a PCGS EF40 that brought $264,500 at auction in June 2000. I think this coin would easily sell for $500,000 today and I think a slightly nicer example, if available, could break the $1 million mark with ease.
B. Draped Bust Large Eagle, 1795-1807
For most collectors this type is dividable into at least two groups: the issues struck from 1795 to 1799 and those produced from 1800 to 1807.
The 18th century Draped Bust Large Eagle half eagles have proven to be extremely popular with collectors in recent years. As one can readily guess, they became especially popular around 2000, once they turned three centuries old. The two reasonably available issues are the 1798 and the 1799. These have both seen dramatic price increases in the last five years. As an example, a nice AU 1799 half eagle was worth $7,500-10,000 in 2002. Today, such a coin is valued at $15,000+. The increase in value is more dramatic in higher grades. Five years ago, with some careful searching, it was possible to find an MS63 1799 half eagle for around $40,000. Today, if such a coin became available (good luck convincing the guy who bought one in 2002 to sell his today!) it would sell for $65,000-75,000. Despite the new, higher levels, I still like the concept of an 18th century half eagle and would advise collectors to be on the lookout for nice 1798 and 1799 half eagles in EF45 and higher.
The common date half eagles from 1800 to 1807 have also shot up in value. Five years ago, nice AU coins were easily located in the $4,000-5,000 range. Today, similar coins are worth $10,000-12,500. I have mixed feelings about the value levels of these coins. Clearly, at around $5,000 they were very fairly priced. At $10,000 they are no longer cheap, especially when one considers the relative availability of these coins. I will no longer buy these common date half eagles for inventory unless they are wholesome, choice original coins with very good eye appeal. If they are bright-n-shiny, riddled with adjustment marks or vastly overgraded, low end coins, I will almost always pass.
What about higher grade common dates of this type? Five years ago, you could have purchased a common date in MS63 for around $12,500-15,000 and an MS64 for around $20,000-22,500. Today, the former costs around $25,000 and the latter runs $40,000-50,000+. I have mixed feelings about these. I think a fresh, original MS63 in the mid-20’s is still an excellent purchase and would recommend it to a collector or an investor. I’m a little less excited about a common date in MS64 at around $50,000 unless the coin is extremely high end and looks like it could gradeflate to an MS65 someday.
C. Capped Bust Left, 1808-1812
The Capped Bust Left half eagles are the most available and affordable early gold issues. They have proven to be remarkably plentiful in the AU50 to MS62 grade range and this makes them popular with collectors. For some reason, this type has never really appealed all that much to me. I don’t really care for the design and the relative availability of these coins make them seem like the Morgan Dollars of early gold.
In spite of my obvious early gold snobbery, this type has proven to be popular with collectors. It is the only series of early half eagles that could be realistically completed by date and there are a number of interesting varieties as well. In 2002, a nice AU type example was easily purchased for $3,500-4,500. Today, a nice AU commands $7,500-9,000+. Five years ago, a really nice MS63 common date was worth $12,000-14,000. Today, this same coin is worth $20,000+.
My opinion has changed on the desirability of this type. I generally like the quality of slabbed AU examples more than I do for the earlier Draped Bust type and I think any nice, original AU example that can be purchased for less than $10,000 is pretty decent value in today’s market. I have mixed feelings about higher grade examples. If I’m going to buy a $20,000+ MS63 for my inventory, it had better be a high end, attractive coin with original color and surfaces. Same holds true for an MS64, especially since we’re talking $40,000+ for a common date.
D. Capped Bust, Large Size 1813-1829
It’s hard for me to discuss this series without getting passionate as Fat Head Fives are probably my favorite series in the early gold issues. Why? Well, it’s clearly not the beauty of the design as this is arguably the most homely United States gold coin ever struck. For me, it’s all about the rarity and these coins are amazingly rare. When you kick out the “common” 1813 and 1814/3, the coins in this series range from downright rare (1818, 1820 and 1823) to virtually impossible (1819, 1821, 1824-1829). And we won’t even begin to mention the classic rarities like the 1815, 1822 and 1825/4.
The really rare coins in this series are hard to monitor as they trade so infrequently. When I look back at what prices were like in 2002, they seem amazingly cheap by today’s standards. As an example, in February of that year, a PCGS AU58 1827 sold in the Goldberg’s Benson II auction for $19,550. Today, a properly graded example is worth triple this amount.
What about the common 1813? Five years ago, a nice AU example would have cost you $4,000-5,000. Today, you’d have to pay around $10,000. In my opinion, this date is still a great value at less than $10,000. In 2002, a nice MS63 1813 would have been priced at around $12,500. Today, the same coin is worth $20,000. Again, I think it is an excellent value as it is the only reasonably obtainable date of this rare type and properly graded MS63’s are far, far scarcer than common date Capped Bust Left and Capped Bust Right half eagles despite being similarly priced.
E. Capped Bust, Small Size 1829-1834
As rare as the Large Planchet type of Fat Head half eagles is, the Small Planchet is even rarer. At least with the earlier type, the collector has a chance to buy such relatively common and affordable issues as the 1813 and the 1814/3. But the Small Planchet type offers no such chance for collectors with limited budgets. This is a series with seriously rare coins with seriously high price tags. And rightfully so.
If you were smart enough to be purchasing 1829-1834 half eagles in 2002, give yourself a large pat on the back. You are smart and you made yourself a lot of money. Let’s say you decide that you want to start buying these coins in 2007. How does the future of your investment look? I’d say pretty good. Now that nearly everyone understands how rare these coins are and appreciates them, I think the levels for the series will continue to soar. I’d just give my usual warning on expensive coins: if you are going to pay $50,000+ for a fat Head half eagle, make certain you know what you are doing. Buy a coin that is attractive for the date and grade and which is original as possible.
So there you have it: the DWN State of the Market Report on early gold coinage. I doubt if anything I wrote in this article is terribly surprising to people who read my articles on a normal basis. I’ve always loved early gold and I will continue to be an active participant in this market for as long as I am a coin dealer.
In the first part of this article, we looked at early quarter eagles and half eagles struck prior to 1813. The second and final part focuses on half eagles struck from 1813 to 1834 and eagles produced from 1795 to 1804. HALF EAGLES (continued from Part One)
A. Capped Head Left (Large Diameter), 1813-1829
The obverse of the half eagle was significantly redesigned in 1813 by John Reich. It featured a corpulent head of Liberty facing left with a liberty cap on her head. The reverse is similar to that seen on the Capped Bust left design of 1807-1812. In 1818, the obverse was slightly modified by Robert Scot. Very few collectors distinguish between the two varieties.
The Capped Head Left half eagles offer an excellent illustration as to why mintage figures are not always good indications of a coin's rarity. By the late 1820's/ early 1830's, the price of gold had risen to the point that the intrinsic value of a half eagle was greater than its face value. Consequently, vast numbers of these coins were melted. Certain issues, such as the 1819, 1825, 1827, 1828 and 1829 had nearly their entire mintages melted and are extremely rare today.
The only issues of this type that can be considered relatively common are the 1813, 1814/3, 1818 and 1820. A pleasing About Uncirculated example of one of these four issues can be purchased for between $3,500 and $5,500. Uncirculated pieces in the Mint State-60 to Mint State-62 range are valued in the high four figure range.
The great rarities of this type include the 1815, 1822, 1828/7 and 1829 Large Date. Each issue is typically offered for sale only when a great "name collection" comes on the market. The 1822 is regarded as one of the great United States rarities with just three known and only one of these not in a museum.
Buying Tips: The 1818 and the 1820 are good type coins as they tend to have better luster and coloration than their 1813 and 1814/3 counterparts. Considering the rarity of these issues, they are extremely good values and the collector should consider adding at least two examples to his collection. An interesting approach to this would be to obtain one issue from the 1810's and another from the 1820's. Always look for coins that have nice luster and color and no serious marks. While examples of this type are rare in an absolute sense, survivors tend to be attractive and relatively high grade. Avoid unencapsulated examples as many of these have rim problems or have been cleaned.
B. Capped Head Left (Reduced Diameter), 1829-1834
In 1829, the design of the half eagle was modified by William Kneass. The diameter was reduced from 25 millimeters to 23.8 while the letter, date and star sizes were made smaller as well.
The small size Capped Head Left half eagle type contains two extremely rare issues: the 1829 Small Date and the 1832 12 Stars. As with the larger diameter issues from the 1820's, the mintages figures of these coins are very misleading. As an example, 193,630 half eagles were reportedly produced in 1833. Today, there are probably fewer than fifty known.
The most likely candidates for a type set are the 1830 and the 1833 Large Date. Both of these are quite rare but are slightly more available than the other dates of this design.
When available, small size Capped Head Left half eagles tend to be in the About Uncirculated-50 to Mint State-63 range. This type did not readily circulate and the few that survived the melting pot tend to have been reasonably well-preserved. A lightly circulated example, if available, is likely to cost $10,000 to $15,000. A coin in the Mint State-61 to Mint State-62 range should cost $20,000 to $30,000. There are some very high quality examples occasionally offered for sale and they tend to be priced in the $50,000-$100,00 range.
Buying Tips: This type will prove very frustrating for the collector on a limited budget as very few lower grade pieces exist. I suggest saving up for a nice About Uncirculated (or better) example. As very few of these are available, do not hesitate if you have the chance to acquire the "right" coin, even if it is priced at a level that seems high compared to published pricing guides.
A. Capped Bust Right, Small Eagle, 1795-97
The eagle was the highest denomination coin struck by the United States until the double eagle was authorized in 1849. The ten dollar gold piece was never used as extensively in commerce as the half eagle. The eagle did not match other foreign gold coins in value as did the half eagle and its level of demand was not as a great. As a consequence, the mintage figures for early eagles tended to be comparatively low.
The first design for the eagle was by Robert Scot and it was identical to that on the half eagle. The Small Eagle reverse coins were produced in 1795, 1796 and 1797. The 1795 is the most obtainable of the three dates , especially in higher grades. The 1796 is rare and undervalued with most survivors grading Very Fine and Extremely Fine. The 1797 Small eagle reverse ten dollar gold piece is very rare with an estimated three dozen known.
This is an extremely popular type, for obvious reasons. These coins are among the oldest United States gold coins. Their large size and age make them very appealing, even to collectors who do not ordinarily care for gold coins.
Buying Tips: The 1795 is the most popular issue of this type but the 1796 is a much better value. It is considerably more scarce but only commands a 20% premium in most grades. However, the 1795's significance as a first-year-of-issue ensures its continued high level of demand. Many eagles of this type show extensive adjustment marks. These are mint-made filings on the surface that are the result of overweight coins having excess gold removed by hand. Unless the adjustment marks are extensive and/or situated in obvious places, they are not considered detracting.
Many Capped Bust Right small eagle ten dollar gold pieces have been cleaned. The collector is urged to be patient as this type has survived in sufficient quantity to expect a nice, original piece becoming available at some point.
An Extremely Fine 1795 eagle should be priced in the $15,000-18,000 range while About Uncirculated coins range from $25,000 to $35,000. Uncirculated examples start at $40,000 and run to over $150,000 for the finest available quality.
B. Capped Bust Right, Heraldic Eagle, 1797-1804
The next type of eagle has the same obverse as the last but a redesigned reverse based on the Great Seal of the United States. It was struck from 1797 to 1801 and again from 1803 to 1804. The eagle denomination was discontinued (along with the silver dollar) on December 31, 1804 and it would not be resumed until 1838.
The survival rate of Heraldic Eagle reverse ten dollar gold pieces is considerably greater than for the half eagles described above. This is excellent news for today's generation of collectors. Attractive circulated examples of dates such as 1799, 1801 and 1803 are not hard to locate and they fall within most collector's budgets.
The 1799 has always been a favorite date of mine. It is the most affordable 18th century eagle and it is generally found with a good quality of strike. The 1801 and the 1803 are of similar rarity and are also excellent type coins. But the magical 18th century date of the 1799 has always made it seem like a more interesting issue, in my opinion.
The rarest date of this type is the 1798/7. Two varieties are known. One has thirteen stars on the obverse with nine on the left and four on the right while the other has the stars arranged seven left by six right. There are approximately two dozen known of the former and fifteen to twenty of the latter.
The 1800 is a scarce and underrated date that sells for much less of a premium over the 1801 and the 1803 than it should. The 1804 is scarce in all grades and very rare in accurately graded Uncirculated. A total of four Proof 1804 eagles are known. These have a Plain 4 in the date (unlike the business strikes that show a Crosslet 4). They were struck in 1804 for inclusion in sets presented to dignitaries. One is included in the famous King of Siam proof set.
Buying Tips: This is an easy type to acquire and the collector should be careful and deliberate about a potential purchase. I would suggest looking for a coin that is well struck and original with minimal marks. Many eagles of this type have adjustment marks but it is easier to locate pieces without these marks than on the Small Eagle reverse type. A nice Extremely Fine common date (i.e. 1799, 1801 or 1803) is currently worth $5,000 while a About Uncirculated is worth $6,500-9,500 depending on quality. A piece in the lower Uncirculated grades sells for $10,000-20,000. This type becomes rare and quite expensive in Mint State-63 and higher grades.
A nice addition to a type set would be to purchase two examples of this type: a 1799 and either an 1801 or 1803 to illustrate the two decades in which Heraldic Eagle reverse ten dollar gold pieces were struck.