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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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)
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.
I was thinking the other day about the cycles of availability that run through the coin market. Around ten years ago, the market was flooded with rare date Proof gold; today you almost never see it. In the late 1990's, there were a number of wonderful collections of Charlotte and Dahlonega sold at auction; today you rarely see more than a few interesting pieces scattered here and there. What are some of the other rare, interesting coins that have gone from being formerly available to currently almost unavailable? 1. 1861-D Gold Dollars and Half Eagles: A quick check of my records shows that I handled four 1861-D gold dollars in 2008, three in 2009 and exactly one since then. After sighing in frustration, I couldn't bring myself to check the numbers on the 1861-D half eagle but I'm sure they are similar.
Neither of these issues are truly rare but they are immensely popular and have a collector base that extends out of the core group of Dahlonega cultists that you'd expect would want to own them. This means that once a collector buys a "dream coin" like an 1861-D gold dollar he isn't likely to sell it; even though values have risen appreciably on this coin (and the similarly dated half eagle) in the last three years.
2. Really Nice AU55 to AU58 Dahlonega Half Eagles. Where exactly have these all gone? In the not-so-distant past I might have three to five different crusty AU55 to AU58 Dahlonega half eagles in stock, especially after returning from a major show or big auction. Today, it seems like months can go by before I am able to buy one or two.
I have a few theories as to these coin's sudden disappearance. many of the formerly crusty AU55 and AU58 coins have been dipped-n-stripped and are now bright, unappealing MS60 to MS61 coins. Many of the very nice crusty pieces that I sold over the years are in tightly-held collections and aren't likely to be sold any time soon. Prices have been flat for a number of years on these coins and collectors who might have bought, say, an 1852-D half eagle in crusty AU58 back in 2004 have no real reason to sell from a financial standpoint. So, the supply of nice DWN-quality Dahlonega half eagles is currently at the lowest level I can remember in years.
3. Rare Date Fat Head Fives: I used to be an active buyer of the half eagles struck between 1813 and 1834, I still am except for the fact that nearly all of my activity in this area, of late, has been focused on a small group of dates: namely the 1813, 1814/3, 1818 and 1820. Virtually all the other dates of this type have become unavailable in recent years.
Not that they were ever flooding the market, but a decade ago you could count on one or two examples of dates like the 1824, 1826, or 1827 to become available every year. Now, they seem nearly unavailable. Four 1826 half eagles half eagles have appeared at auction since early 2006, only two 1826's since 2005 and no 1827 half eagles since the middle of 2008. That's frustrating for collectors and dealers alike!
4. Uncirculated No Motto New Orleans Eagles. If you discount the small groups of coins found on the S.S. Republic and S.S. New York shipwrecks, the number of nice Uncirculated No Motto New Orleans eagles available in the last five years or so has been very small.
Looking back at my records, I've handled no 1841-O or 1842-O in Uncirculated, two 1843-O, no 1844-O, one 1845-O, no 1846-O, three 1847-O, one 1848-O, no 1849-O and so forth and so on. Yes, these coins are all rare (with the exception of the 1847-O) but it seems like the pattern of availability has changed. I'd attribute this to the fact that the majority of the coins that did become available in the late 1990's and early 2000's (which I'm now beginning to realize was a once-in-a-generation period of rare date gold fertility) were generally snatched up by serious collectors who are not currently in a sell mode.
5. Major Rarities. If you own truly rare United States gold coins, pat yourself on the back. You own something that many new collectors and investors would give (almost) anything to add to their collections.
Let's look at a few examples. The rare 1854-S quarter eagle suddenly became reasonably available in 2005 and three examples (out of around 12-13 known) were sold at auction. But since then, only three other appearances at auction have occurred with the last of these being in July 2009.
Another rarity in the quarter eagle series is the 1841 with around fifteen or so known in total. In 2004, there were three auction appearances and another two sold in 2005. Since then, only two have been offered at auction with the last record in July 2009.
The list could go on and on and, by now, I'm assuming you get the point: really neat coins that we had become fairly accustomed to seeing during the late 1990's and up to the middle of the 2000's have become rarer than I would have imagined. With the demand for these really neat coins seemingly at its strongest point in a number of years, it will be interesting to see what, if any, important single coins or collections come to the market in the next year or two.
There are a few relatively unknown but numismatically significant varieties of early United States gold coinage that I think are likely to be included in comprehensive collections of these issues as they become more popular with collectors. Here are a few of the "secret" varieties that I would suggest collectors be on the lookout for. 1798 Close Date and Wide Date Quarter Eagles. Despite this date's low mintage figure, it remains undervalued in comparsion to the other 18th century quarter eagles. There are two distinct varieties known. The more avilable and better known of the two is the Wide Date (BD-2) on which the four digits in the date are quite widely spaced. An easy way to distinguish this variety is by the presence of five berries on the reverse. There are an estimated four to five dozen known in all grades.
The "secret" variety for this year is the Close Date. This variety has only four berries on the reverse. It is very rare in all grades with around two dozen or so known.
1825 Close Fraction and Distant Fraction Quarter Eagles. There are not many die varieties in the short-lived Capped Bust Large Size type of 1821-1827 but there are actually three varieties for the 1825.
Two of the varieties show a distant fraction on the reverse with the numerals relatively far from the fraction bar. The more common (BD-2) has a 5 in the date that leans far to the left and which is placed below the 2. The rarer variety (BD-1) and the 5 more upright and even with the 2. There are as many as 90-100 known of the former while the latter remains very rare and apears to have fewer than ten accounted for.
The third variety of 1825 quarter eagle (BD-3) has the same reverse as seen on the 1826 quarter eagle with a very close fraction where the numerals touch the fraction bar. It is also very rare, although not as much so as BD-1. I would estimate that around a dozen exist.
In the half eagle series, there are many interesting "secret" varieties; enough so that I am only going to mention a few here.
1795 Small Eagle Half Eagles. There are no less than dozen varieties of 1795 Small Eagle half eagles known. To me, the most interesting are the blundered reverse with the the final S in STATES erroneously punched over a D. There are two die varieties known that have this impressive reverse.
The first variety, BD-5, is recognizable by the left side of the 1 in the date touching the curl. It is extremely rare with fewer than ten known. The second variety, BD-6, has the date free of the curl. This is a much more available coin with as many as 75-90 pieces known. The S/D in STATES half eagles do not generally sell for a premium but they have a very high "coolness" factor due to the spectacular blunder on the reverse that is easily visible to the naked eye.
1798 Half Eagles. The 1798 Large Eagle half eagles are fertile ground for variety collectors. There are coins with a Small or "Normal" 8 in the date as well as those with a Large 8. The Large 8 coins exist with thirteen and fourteen stars on the reverse.
The "secret" variety is the 1798 Large 8 with fourteen reverse stars. While this variety already sells for a premium over the more common Large 8 with thirteen stars, what makes it interesting is that there is only one die variety known (BD-3). Only three dozen or so exist in all grades and the importance of this coin as a distinct naked-eye variety is only now being understood by specialists.
1799 Half Eagles. This is another very fertile year for variety collectors with an amazing nine varieties known. Seven of these have small reverse stars while two have large stars on the reverse.
The "secret" variety for 1799 half eagles is the large reverse stars. There are two die varieties known. The first, BD-5, is easy to recognize by the last 9 being too high and recut to the right. There are two to three dozen known. The second, BD-8, has the last 9 even with the first and there is no recutting. This variety is slightly rarer overall and it appears to be extremely rare in high grades.
There are a number of varieties in the half eagle series produced from 1800 through 1807 but these tend not to generate as much collector interest. In a future blog, I will be discussing the ones that have the greatest appeal to me.
As a specialist in rare United States gold coins, there are few series that I find more interested than the Capped Head half eagles produced from 1813 through 1834. I recently purchased (and quickly sold) a PCGS graded AU53 1823 half eagle. This date, by the standards of the type, is no big deal. But the more I researched the 1823, the more I realized that it is an underrated and enigmatic issue.
The so-called Fat Head series is typically divided into segments: dates that are obtainable (1813, 1814, 1818 and 1820) and those that range from virtually unobtainable to impossible. What's interesting about the 1823 is that it is really the only issue of this type that is clearly rare but which is not an extreme rarity. Let's take a more in-depth peek at this issue.
The 1823 has the lowest recorded mintage of any half eagle made between 1821 and 1834 with only 14,485 having been struck. There are an estimated 70-90 known and nearly all of these are in the AU58 to MS62 range. As with nearly all half eagles from the 1820's, the 1823 saw very little in the way of actual circulation and virtually all of the mintage was melted in 1834 when the weight of gold coins was lowered.
It should be pointed out that mintage figures of half eagles from the 1820's are probably highly inaccurate. I feel that many of the coins struck in 1820 were actually dated 1821, 1822 and 1823. At some point, it may be possible to breakdown these mintages more accurately but it is not currently possible.
There are a few very choice 1823 half eagles known. The finest that I am aware of is the one in the Bass core collection which is ex Norweb I: 774. It sold to Harry Bass for $52,800 all the way back in 1987 which is still an uaction record for this date (!) I grade the coin MS64+ to MS65 and it has superb original luster and color. The second best that I have seen is James Stack: 1069 that sold in October 1994 for $35,200. I grade this coin MS64 or better by today's standards.
NGC has graded one example of this date in MS65 (the Stack coin?) as well as one in MS64. PCGS has never graded an MS65 but does show five in MS64. My hunch is that this number is slightly inflated by resubmissions.
As with all half eagles from the 1820's, the 1823 is a well-produced issue. It is typically fairly sharply struck although I have seen examples that are weak on the curls above Liberty's eyes and a few of the stars lacked their radial lines. High grade 1823's show splendid rich, frosty luster and original uncleaned pieces have lovely rich orange-gold color.
One of the more curious facts about the 1823 half eagle is its current pricing structure. The most recent Coin Values has a value of $13,500 for this issue in AU50 (which seems about right) and a value of $14,500 in AU55. It is hard to imagine that the value of an AU55 would only be $1,000 than an AU50 but I'm assuming that part of this has to do with the fact that so few AU 1823's are known that a small jump in grade doesn't equate to a large jump in value. Right?
Every series has a date or two that fall through the cracks and in the fabulous Fat Head fives from the 1820's and 1830's it seems that the 1823 is (currently) getting the short end of the proverbial stick. This date does not sell for an especially large premium over dates like the 1813, 1814, 1818 and 1820 but it is many times scarcer. Obviously, few people collect Fat Head fives by date so prices for this series are not as carefully scrutinized as Indian Head quarter eagles. That said, it seems to me that the 1823 is a very undervalued issue and it is a coin that I look forward to owning more of in the future.
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.
A good client of mine recently asked me the question “are early gold coins overpriced?” As with most intelligent questions, I don’t think that this one has a pat answer. My feeling is that some early gold coins are poor value at current levels while others are good to very good values. Read on for my take on the current early gold market and my suggestions of where the best values are. Appearance and eye appeal are, obviously, critical factors in determining the desirability of any coin. In the area of early gold, I think these factors are especially important. The reasons are fairly obvious: these are hand-made coins that vary in quality literally from year to year, many survivors have been cleaned, abused or damaged and the third-party services tend to be inconsistent (to say the least) when it comes to grading early gold.
A fairly general statement that I think can be made about the early gold market is that only a small handful of the coins that exist have good eye appeal and a pleasing overall appearance. I personally feel that virtually every early gold coin that is choice and original remains a good value while most every good early gold coin that is low end for the grade and unoriginal is poor value. But this observation is fairly simplistic and needs to be expanded.
As with most markets, early gold issues can generally be divided into three categories: common or “generic” dates, better dates and rarities. And in the case of early gold we might even be able to create a fourth category: the “super-rarity.” How are each of these categories doing?
Even if you know very little about early gold, you might guess that the area most prone to showing weakness in a downward market turn would be the common dates. An example of what I would term a “generic” early gold coin would be an 1806 Round 6 Half Eagle. There are as many as 1,000 examples known of this issue and it is fairly readily available in grades up to and including MS63 to MS64.
If you go to a major national coin show you are likely to see a decent number of 1806 Round 6 half eagles. These would generally be available in the AU55 to MS62 grade range. (Lower grade 1806 Round 6 half eagles are difficult to find because the nice, affordable examples tend to be closely held by collectors; the very high end MS63 to MS64 tend to either show up at auction or they are placed in tightly-held, high end collections and do not trade with frequency). The examples available for sale tend to be low end and unattractive. At current price levels, I think they are not especially good values. Why is this?
As recently as five to six years ago you could buy a nice, fresh AU 1806 Round 6 half eagle for $5,500-6,000. At this affordable level, this coin was a good value, despite the fact that it wasn’t really “rare” in the sense of most early gold. Today, a similarly graded coin will cost you at least twice this amount. The problem is that these coins now tend to not be nice for the grade and the new price range of $11,000-13,000 no longer qualifies as “affordable.” Are coins such as this overpriced? If they are typical low to middle quality coins, the answer is a fairly resounding yes. If they are accurately graded and solid, choice pieces I would say that they are really overpriced but that they are relatively marginal values at these levels.
An example of an early gold coin that I regard as a “better date” would be a 1799 half eagle. This issue is not truly rare but it is available with far less frequency that an 1806 Round 6 half eagle. I think the market for an issue like this has held up rather well; even if a 1799 half eagle in, say AU55 is currently valued at least twice as highly as it was five or so years ago. Collectors still expect an AU55 example of this date to have good eye appeal and ugly examples are harder to sell than they might have been a year ago but I think this area of the market is solid. Are coins like this overpriced? I would say, pretty resoundingly, in fact, that they are not; especially in the solid collector grades of EF40 to AU55.
A “rare date” early gold coin would be, as an example, an 1826 half eagle. This popular Fat Head issue has a surviving population of maybe three dozen and it tends to be offered for sale at the rate of one or two coins per year. This is another issue that has seen significant price increases in the last five years but the fact is that the supply of 1826 half eagles in virtually all grades is nowhere near the (current) demand. Yes, coins like the 1826 half eagle are currently expensive. But given their unquestionable rarity I would have to say that coins like this remain fairly priced.
And what about our fourth and final category—the so-called “super-rarity?” An example of this would be an 1815 half eagle; an issue that is extremely rare in all grades and which typically appears for sale at the rate of approximately once per three to five years. My gut feeling is that these major rarities, in all the various early gold series, are still reasonably priced. There is an 1815 half eagle coming up for sale in the 2009 FUN auction (graded MS64 by NGC and pedigreed to the Garrett collection) that is almost certain to shatter all price records for this date and which could be one of the highlights of the 2009 Numismatic Year.
What about issues like the 1796 No Stars quarter eagle or the 1808 quarter eagles; coins that aren’t “rarities” in the classic sense of the word but which are exceptionally popular and numismatically significant? I think, in theory, that these are overpriced given their big-picture rarity. Given their strong level of demand I would still buy them for inventory. However (and this is a BIG however) I think the market has become far more selective on coins like this. If they are not CAC-quality, they have become hard to sell unless discounted in price. And this scenario is likely to continue as long as decent 1796 quarter eagles command prices in excess of $125,000-150,000+.
Lost amid the hoopla of the recent Baltimore ANA and the numerous auctions that accompanied this show was the sale of one of the greatest United States gold coins in existence. Even more remarkable was the fact that in this day of “ho hum, another million dollar coin just sold,” this sale received relatively little publicity and the final price realized was, in retrospect, pretty reasonable, all things considered. There are two distinct varieties known of the 1825 half eagle. The more available is 1825/4 Unevenly Spaced Date (Bass-Dannreuther 1) which, for many years, was known as the “1825/1.” Recent research has shown that the underpunched digit is, in fact a 4 as it is positioned at the same angle as found on the 1824 half eagle.
The second variety of 1825 half eagle (BD-2) has always been known as an 1825/4 overdate but it is more properly termed the 1825/4 Evenly Spaced Close Date.
For many years, the 1825/4 BD-2 half eagle was regarded as unique. The discovery piece was originally in the Col. Mendes Cohen collection and it was eventually sold to Louis Eliasberg after stints in the Earle and Clapp collections. In the 1982 Eliasberg sale, the coin was cataloged as Proof-60 and it sold for $220,000. I have never personally seen the Eliasberg 1825/4 half eagle but John Dannreuther states in his book on early gold that, in his opinion, it is not a Proof.
In 1978, a second example of the 1825/4 BD-2 half eagle turned up and this story of its discovery is almost as fascinating as the coin itself. In the early part of the 20the century, a collector named N.M. Kaufman was an active (but little known) purchaser of early gold rarities. His collection was exhibited at the Marquette County Savings Bank. Unfortunately, the curator of this exhibit was clearly not a savvy numismatist as he mounted them to a board using tacks (for those of you who just passed out after reading this, I will pause for a second...) Many of the Kauffman coins suffered rim damage from this procedure, ranging from very minor to rather severe.
The Kaufman example of the 1825/4 BD-2 half eagle was sold by RARCOA in their famous August 1978 auction where it realized $140,000. It later brought $148,500 in the B&M 3/89 auction and in 1992 it sold in another B&M auction for a very reasonable $105,600. The last time the coin sold it realized $241,500 in the Superior 2/99 auction.
The coin itself was housed in an old NGC holder and it appeared to be considerably better than its current AU50 grade. However, I’d be careful cracking it out if I were the new owner as the rim marks from the aforementioned display at the Marquette Bank will become more visible if the coin is unencapsulated (this is not intended to scare the new owner of the coin—in looking at the photo of it in the Kaufman catalog, it appears that the tack marks are minor and limited to the upper obverse and corresponding reverse. I have personally seen—and owned—coins from this collection that had significantly more visible tack marks).
Given the rarity of this coin (one of only two known) and the fact that it brought close to a quarter of a million dollars all the way back in 1999, I expected that this coin would be the object of considerable bidding and that it had a legitimately good chance to break the million dollar barrier.
The reserve for the 1825/4 BD-2 half eagle in the Heritage sale was $550,000. The coin wound up selling to a phone bidder for $600,000 plus the buyers’ fee, for a final price realized of $690,000. Why didn’t such a great coin bring more?
As I studied the history of this coin, there was something I learned that I found to be very interesting. On page 395 of his book, John Dannreuther explained the reason why Harry Bass never bought the 1825/4 BD-2 half eagle (he had at least three chances to do so between 1978 and 1992 and price, of course, was not an object for Harry...). Bass regarded this issue as a variety and he was not willing to pay an “excessive premium” for this particular variety.
The more I thought about this, the more sense it made to me. Bass realized before nearly anyone else that there was no such thing as an 1825/1 half eagle. Keeping this in mind, he already had a superb 1825/4 (the BD-1 variety that is plated in the Dannreuther book and which is regarded as a one-sided Proof). The bottom line is that he had an 1825/4 half eagle and a hell of a nice one at that. Given this fact, why pay such a large premium for what is technically a variety?
But not everyone is as sophisticated as Harry Bass and the 1825/4 BD-2 half eagle in the ANA seemed to me to be the kind of coin that would sell for “moon money.” I’m certainly not pooh-poohing $690,000 as this is a lot of money but it’s not the $1 million or so that I thought it would bring prior to the sale.
My best guess why it didn’t reach the magical million mark was the fact that it was “only” graded AU50. In order for two Masters of the Universe to go head to head in a bidding Battle of the Titans, my gut feeling is the coin would have had to have been Uncirculated.
So here’s a hearty congratulations to the new owner of this fantastic early half eagle. You have purchased a wonderful coin with a great pedigree and a great story and it will, no doubt, become an integral part of your collection. And if the circumstances had been just right, I’m certain that you would have had to pay a lot more for the privilege of owning your extraordinary 1825/4 half eagle!