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Hefty Capped Bust halves series an overlooked gem
By Mark Benvenuto
August 11, 2017

When it comes to collecting what might be called “hefty silver,” there are several series that are in the spotlight now, and that have been for as long as anyone can remember. Morgan dollars probably lead the way, followed closely by Peace dollars. Walking Liberty half dollars are always in the collective eye, as are Franklin halves. Classic commemorative silver also has had more than a day or two on center stage.

Any collector who claims they have not heard the buzz surrounding these five series and a few others might actually be either accused of having just landed from someplace like Mars, or be excused for having been in a years-long coma. These are undoubtedly some of the most noted, talked about, examined series in U.S. silver coinage.

So if these are the poster children for serious collectors, what might qualify as the most easily forgotten? I’m going to cast one vote for the Capped Bust half dollars, the design artistry of John Reich, issued at the beginning of the 19th century. Here’s my explanation why.

The early dates

For one thing, the Capped Bust series is such an early one that we can all be forgiven for thinking every one of them will be ferociously expensive. Issued from 1807-1839, the annual mintages are admittedly much lower than several other series, including even common dates among the Seated Liberty halves, which came right after.

But two important ideas should enter into play when we think seriously about the dates of this series.

First, there are several years, even the earliest ones, that saw mintages greater than 1 million halves. This is important both when viewed in terms of how many people were living in the United States at the time, and in view of how many collectors there are today. For example, let’s note that the mintage of the 1807 Capped Bust halves is 750,500, and that total for 1808 was just over 1.3 million coins.

It’s a fair bet that not all of them have survived the passage of two centuries, but many have. It’s also a fair bet that many of them saw use and have some wear. If we consider that the 1810 U.S. census listed just over 7.2 million people, it’s easy to believe virtually all of these half dollars made the rounds for several years, possibly for several decades.

Second, the mania that seems to exist among collectors today for mint-state coins is an idea we might want to rein in a bit when diving into Capped Bust halves as a collectible series. These 50-cent pieces were the biggest silver coins minted for almost all the years the series was in existence, because of a problem in our monetary system that President Jefferson tried to solve in 1803. Since each of the earliest silver dollars had enough silver metal in it that it was profitable to buy a trunk full, export them, melt them, then sell the metal back to the U.S. Mint, our nation’s third president halted the production of dollar coins. And it really wasn’t until the Seated Liberty dollars came out decades later that the problem had been solved.

This lack of silver dollars (from 1804 all the way to 1836) meant that half dollars pretty much were drafted to do the heavy lifting as it were, for those using any large silver U.S. coins. But the lack of silver dollars also meant that the halves (which were exactly half the weight of the exportable silver dollars)  were now in the cross hairs for those who would do that exporting and profiteering. What all that means for us today is that even though some of the earliest Capped Bust halves were made in large numbers, they are harder to find than might be expected, and thus more expensive.

So, with several early years that may have seen quite a few half dollars exported, and with the remaining ones having seen some use, collecting these beautiful early 50-cent pieces might be more practical if we look at grades such as Fine, Very Fine, or Extremely Fine.  Yes, such grades means there is some wear on a piece. But these grades tend to command prices of roughly $150-$350 per coin. Mint-state examples can be much more expensive.

The varieties

Another aspect of the Capped Bust half dollar series that might serve to keep some collectors at bay is the wide and wild field of varieties that exist within it. They seem to be everywhere. There are varieties of large dates and small within a year, dates punched over other dates, letters and dates with and without a knob or serif, large stars and small stars, even varieties that involve modifications of Liberty’s portrait.

Rather than letting varieties within the series become a problem, why not turn them into an advantage? I’ve already said that this series might prompt some new thinking when it comes to grade, and in finding good-looking coins vs. technically perfect ones. Now, instead of feeling we have to collect every variety in the arena, why not start with the very traditional date run—but as we buy, keep an eye out for the less common varieties? Certainly, if you are starting from scratch, the chances are very good that most of our purchases will be the most common variety for a particular year. Yet there might be some pleasant surprises for the patient collector.

The metal

An interesting aspect of the Capped Bust series, half dollars included, is that they were made over the span of years when our silver coins changed from the rather cumbersome 89.24 percent silver and 10.76 percent copper composition to the much easier to produce and easier to figure 90 percent silver 10 percent copper ratio. While this is not a situation that most of us worry about all that much, it produced an interesting break or shift in the series.

In 1836, when the new alloy was introduced, more than 6 million of the coins had already been made using the original alloy. Approximately 1,000 proofs were made in the new alloy that year, which are pretty expensive coins today. But 1837 saw just over 3.6 million halves produced, which means we could start this series with a short set at the tail end, meaning the 1837, 1838, and 1839 (I’ll ignore the rare 1838-O and scarce 1839-O).

Working backward from the end of the series to the beginning we can’t help but find that there are quite a number of dates for which the Capped Bust half dollars have high mintages and are affordable. All the way back to 1824, every year saw multi-million coin mintages, with the years 1827, 1831, 1833, 1834, 1835, and 1836 each sporting greater than 5 million. These six dates could form another short set, if we have indeed started with the 1837-1839 trio. Once again, it might be wise to focus on examples in grades such as VF-20 or EF-40, as these can look very good, yet still be affordable.

In pushing back farther into the Capped Bust series of 50-cent pieces, there is one rarity, one piece that is as much a key as the 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent or the 1916-D Mercury dime are for their series. That is the 1815. This one date, which is only listed as 1815/2, is basically the rarest in the series, with only 47,150 listed as the official total. The prices today reflect this rarity. Curiously though, this is the only date that reflects a degree of rarity. What we mean is that the 1820 is also a low mintage half within the series, yet at least one of its several varieties is basically priced about the same as the common dates. That’s good news for collectors, assuming we can find one of that variety.

So, as we finish this quick waltz through a truly classic series, we find that there actually is quite a bit that someone can collect. There are many dates with millions of coins from which to choose. There is a forest of varieties, some of them affordable, with which a new collector can beef up a growing collection. There are a couple of different possibilities for short sets toward the end of the series.

And through it all, the savvy collector is aware that these were the biggest silver coin the U.S. Mint issued while the problem of exporting silver dollars was being ironed out. When looked at in these terms, the 50-cent pieces of the Capped Bust design may be a lot less intimidating—and a lot harder to overlook. Plus, they are most likely more fun to collect. Happy hunting to any and all of us who take on the challenge.

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