Seven Mints Struck Liberty Gold $5|
April 08, 2013
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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It is not possible for most hobbyists to seriously consider a collection of Coronet Head half eagles. There are simply too many of these $5 coins and they contain too much gold at nearly a quarter ounce apiece. That is partially a result of the fact that the design that was first introduced in 1839 ran all the way to 1908.
Over that stretch of time, the Coronet head half eagle was produced at Philadelphia, Dahlonega, Charlotte, New Orleans, San Francisco, Carson City and Denver.
In such a long run of dates with coins struck at so many mints, there are bound to be some better ones as well as a rarity or two and that does not even factor in the large quantity of metal involved let alone the numismatic premiums.
With too many different possibilities, the best approach for most is to assemble a set of Coronet Head half eagles with type examples from each of the mints that struck them. This would involve more coins that a simple type set, but it would be far fewer than a date and mint set. With this modified type set approach, you can literally trace the growth of the nation and its use of gold.
But let’s start at the beginning. You cannot go very far wrong with any Coronet gold half eagle as virtually every one has an interesting story. What we sometimes forget is that when the Christian Gobrecht Coronet Head design was introduced, the half eagle was really the workhorse gold coin of the United States.
For years stretching back to 1804 in an attempt to free up greater time and resources for lower denominations, the half eagle had been the highest gold denomination in production. Even for a few years beyond 1839 the gold $5 was the highest value they would routinely see.
A lesser observed fact regarding the gold eagle helps to point to the importance of the half eagle. Even when the gold eagle went back into production in 1838, the denomination was never produced at either Dahlonega or Charlotte and that was significant as those two facilities produced only gold coinage and somehow neither one ever saw a need for gold eagles, suggesting that at least in the gold fields of the South a $10 gold coin was too high a denomination for use.
In fact, that situation is worth remembering when it comes to collectors as well. Even the gold half eagle was a lot of money for the time. Most people never saw one. You just did not spend such a large sum on a new coin on a regular basis. Over the years that certainly hurt the supply of gold half eagles being saved.
That contemporary savings factor plays a role in a collection today as the most available gold half eagles of the Coronet Head design of 1839-1865 are priced around $500, which is less than a 30 percent markup from bullion value. This is worth remembering when you see the prices of the better dates. It pays to think of the prices of rarities in terms of how many multiples it is of the rock bottom price of the most common one. This helps to put things into perspective.
When you remember the high starting price of the gold content, the prices of the scarcer pieces start to look much more attractive.
With its role as an upper denomination, the Coronet half eagle was a coin that many times would pick up a surprising amount of wear. With only a small amount of saving, that means that the supply available for collectors today is sometimes not what we might like in terms of grade, but in this case we have to be thankful for any supply at all.
Approaching a Coronet Head half eagle collection, the first possible date is the 1839. It is the start of a long-running type that would last until a design modification as made in 1866. Under the circumstances, a type example is easily available with some higher mintage dates being $522 in F-12.
Some dates are available, but there are also some very interesting and difficult dates. In fact, there is one date that is truly special and that is the 1841-O. We do know that it had a listed mintage of just 50 pieces and that immediately raises all sorts of question. There would be no good reason to have a mintage of just 50 coins, which casts doubt on the total. There is always the possibility of a special order although that somehow seems unlikely.
The mintage raises doubts that are not solved by the situation today. There have been reports over time of examples of the 1841-O, but there are doubts about the reports themselves as the question is where are the coins? At most, there are two examples., but none can be confirmed in any collection today. Nor was the 1841-O in any of the greatest collections of the past. That raises serious doubt as to whether any exist as if there was no example in the Eliasberg or Norweb collections, for example, is there a real possibility there was one in another collection? The best guess is that the 1841-O if it ever existed at all does not exist now.
The most expensive of the dates of the period that can be confirmed with certainty is the 1842-C with a small date. The 1842-C came with both large and small dates. The larger date is more available. It is listed in Coin Market at $900 in F-12. The small date is $4,500 in the same grade. With the base value of $500 as a yardstick, if you can find an F-12 large date for $900, that would seem to be a relative bargain.
The Professional Coin Grading Service has seen just 36 examples of the small date and just two were in Mint State.
There are other dates where the prices might well be higher if there was greater demand. The 1846-C is a good example as it had a mintage of just 12,995. It has an F-12 price of $1,350 and an MS-60 price of $24,000. The feeling has to be when looking at those prices and that mintage that prices will go higher over time. At Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, they have seen just 46 examples of the 1846-C and only three of these reached MS-60 while at PCGS the total seen was 59 and the MS-60 or better total was just 10. With those totals, the 1846-C looks like an awfully good deal on a very tough issue.
It is only natural that the specialists focus on the issues of Charlotte and Dahlonega as the two were famous for producing small mintages of sometimes very low quality coins, making them a real test for the patience and the budget of collectors today. That said, New Orleans sometimes gets overlooked and while that mint usually had higher mintage totals than the others the average half eagle once released from there was not likely to be saved and that means that New Orleans issues in many cases are potentially better than current prices suggest.
The 1847-O is a typical example with a mintage of 12,000 and that apparently was a total that had a very poor survival rate as today it is $2,200 in VF-20 and $28,000 in MS-60. Those prices are right as PCGS reports only 37 examples and just like the 30 seen at NGC none was called Mint State.
The 1850s saw a major rarity emerge from the newly created San Francisco Mint, which began production in 1854. The facility, which once was an old private mint, was small, hot, loud and just to make matters worse, smelled of acid. Literally from the day it first opened, officials were asking for a new facility, but the request went nowhere for many years.
Under the circumstances, there were priorities at the new Western facility and it should come as no surprise that its priority was gold as it lay in the heart of one of the greatest gold discoveries in history.
The bulk of San Francisco’s 1854 production was of gold eagles and double eagles. The California Gold Rush and the huge quantities of bullion it generated prompted Congress to approve a new gold $20 as the highest denomination gold coin. It contained nearly one troy ounce of gold.
San Francisco also struck token mintages of other gold denominations in 1854. The quarter and half eagle totals were just 246 and 268, respectively. Those small mintages were going to result in major rarities under any circumstances, but out in the gold fields of California at the time there were virtually no collectors.
The 1854-S half eagle was apparently not saved by anyone as no Mint State example is known to exist. In fact, the 1854-S half eagle appears to have been barely saved by anyone at any time. It currently lists for $275,000 in AU-50, but with three known, the price guide price is just a guess until one sells at auction.
By comparison, no other half eagle of the period can really seem very tough, but some are much better than they might seem. The 1855-O for example is just $675 in VF-20, but it had a mintage of just 11,000 pieces and a low survival rate in any grade, but especially Mint State. New Orleans dates of any mintage from that time and to be difficult in Mint State.
The 1855-O has been seen by PCGS and NGC about 100 times and just a few of those were called Mint State, suggesting the 1855-O might well be better than its $20,000 MS-60 price. Even in the circulated grade of XF-40, at a price of $2,100, it has to be reasonable considering the mintage and the survival rate.
A couple of other interesting dates from the 1850s would be the 10,366 mintage 1859-D, which is $1,600 in F-12 and the 14,220 mintage 1859-S, which is $615 in F-12, but surprisingly more than the 1859-D in MS-60, $30,000 compared to $16,000. That is unusual. Dahlonega dates usually are more expensive in top grades, but in this case it is the 1859-S that is tougher with PCGS reporting just one example in Mint State as opposed to 10 of the 1859-D.
The comparison of the 1859-D and 1859-S helps to illustrate the point that realistically the number of branch mint gold half eagles in Mint State is extremely low even when their sometimes high MS-60 prices are considered. The simple fact is that if there was additional demand, some of the MS-60 levels would soar as there is virtually no supply.
When it comes to great stories, the Coronet Head gold half eagle also has its share of great coins like the 1861-C and 1861-D. The story of the two coins begins with the simple fact that the two facilities were deep in the heart of Dixie at the time when the Civil War began. The two mints were immediately targeted by state and then Confederate authorities in their turn.
The situation in Charlotte started out in 1861 with a regular production of 3,948 Coronet Head half eagles before the state troops arrived to take over the mint. Finding gold and dies, they made an estimated 2,931 more half eagles. At some point the facility technically fell under control of the Confederate States of America and at that point it is estimated that an additional 887 half eagles were produced for a total mintage of about 8,000 1861-C coins.
The problem of the coins struck under three flags is there is no way to tell which coin today belongs to which jurisdiction. There is a suggestion that on coins that exhibit a die crack through “AMERI” and rust that the coin was probably produced under Confederate control. It makes sense but falls short of real proof.
Whoever was in control when they were made, any 1861-C $5 gold piece has to be seen as an interesting coin that is easily worth its current $1,500 F-12 price or $25,000 MS-60 value. PCGS reports grading just three in Mint State.
The situation at Dahlonega in that opening year of the Civil War was similar. There appears to have been a mintage of 1,597 half eagles before forces from the State of Georgia arrived on the scene April 8, 1861. It was believed at that time there was approximately $13,345 in gold still in the vault and while we know some of that total was used to create gold dollars, there would still have been more than enough to allow these new masters of the mint to strike more half eagles.
Estimates of gold dollar production are generally in the 1,000 to 1,500-coin range and based on the numbers of 1861-D gold dollars known, it appears if anything that the lower number is the correct one. That would have left $10,000 in gold for further half eagle production, although no one today suggests that total was actually used up.
That said, the suspicion is that some half eagles were produced, but once again they cannot be distinguished from those coins produced under U.S. control. Any 1861-D is a tough coin as indicated by its F-12 price of $3,000.
Comparing the 1861-C whose mintage is probably around 8,000 with the relatively uncertain mintage of the 1861-D, we find that NGC has graded the 1861-C 73 times with four being called Mint State. NGC has seen the 1861-D 26 times with three being called Mint State.
At PCGS, the total for the 1861-C is 95 coins with three being called Mint State while the 1861-D was seen only 65 times, but a total of 13 were called Mint State.
The significantly higher totals of the 1861-D in Mint State are hard to explain, although the overall total suggests that the mintage of the 1861-D was definitely not close to the roughly 8,000 total of the 1861-C, although we might suspect that someone in Dahlonega was either collecting or saving souvenirs as the Mint State total is otherwise hard to explain.
In 1866, there was a change to the Coronet Head half eagle. The national motto “In God We Trust” was added to the reverse. That made a new type, which is readily available for as little as $462. MS-60 examples can be found for hardly more money at $495 each and MS-65 pieces are $3,400.
There are a number of tougher dates for the new type like the 1867-S, which seems to have not survived based on its VF-20 price of $1,400. In MS-60 it is $34,500. In fact, as usual with the products of the branch mints, finding even a single coin in Mint State can be a real test.
In 1870 another facility began producing the Coronet Head $5, Carson City. Half eagles from this mint would prove to be every bit as tough as those from other facilities, with most being difficult or nearly impossible.
The first of the CC output, the 1870 is in the nearly impossible group. Its VF-20 price is $5,250.
Approaching the 1870-CC is scarcity is the 1878-CC, which had a mintage of 9,054 and that produces a price of $3,100 in VF-20.
The 1870s produced other key dates, such as the surprise 220-coin mintage of the Philadelphia 1875. No one can really explain that total, of which 20 are believed to be proof, but the mintage certainly explains the $34,000 VF-20 price and the $190,000 MS-60 listing.
The decades that followed saw higher total output from the mints, with Carson City ceasing production after it struck the 1893-CC issue. New Orleans returned to production in 1892. Denver joined the mint parade with its 1906-D issue.
There continued to be tough dates like the proof-only 1887, which is listed at $120,000 in Proof-65, although the majority of dates are available.
The choices are many and for the collector with an interest in history, the Coronet head half eagle is a great collection to consider with a variety of possible ways to assemble a collection and a large number of interesting and sometimes tough dates.
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