The Liberty Half Eagle ($5) series was one of the longest running of all American coinage. First struck in 1839, the final example of Christian Gobrecht’s design did not come off the minting presses until 1908, almost 70 years later. Between those days there were a massive 201 issues released; needless to say this set is virtually impossible to complete. Some people still try, however, but due to the rarity of some of the pieces very few succeed. In this article we will take a look at some of the rarest and most storied of all Liberty Half Eagles, and we will see that even with all the money in the world this set would take pretty much a lifetime (or two) to complete.
1839-C & 1839-D
The issues struck in the first year of the Liberty Half Eagle series are somewhat different in appearance than the later issues (especially so on the obverse, although the reverse has smaller lettering as well), and some people make the case that these are separate types. This is especially true for the Charlotte (mintage 17,205) and Dahlonega (mintage 18,939) issues, the only two mintmarked coins for the year. On these coins only the mintmark is found on the obverse, between the date and the bust. On all subsequent issues the mintmark is located on the reverse below the eagle. Both issues are of roughly equal rarity in circulated grades, and both are very rare in Uncirculated condition. There have been a few Charlotte pieces certified in Mint State, but needless to say these are rarely encountered.
The New Orleans Mint struck Liberty Half Eagles for the first time in 1840 and did so until 1857, with two issues struck in the 1890’s when the Mint re-opened after closing during the early stages of the American Civil War. Of the New Orleans issues, the 1847-O is the rarest, despite having a relatively large (for the series) mintage of 12,000 coins. The issue must have been quietly released into circulation and attrition was high. Today around 50 surviving pieces are known, with pretty much all of them in circulated condition. AU examples are very rare, and even XF graded examples are encountered infrequently.
The 1854-S is the undisputed King of the Liberty Half Eagle series, and it is one of the rarest of all American gold coins. Its original mintage was a mere 268 coins and of this only three examples are known today, indicating that all were released into circulation and presumably lost.
Of the three known, one of these is permanently impounded in the Smithsonian Institution, and the other two are in the strong hands of collectors. In fact, the last auction appearance of this date was more than thirty years ago, at the Eliasberg sale in 1982 (selling for $187,000). That piece is also the finest known, estimated to grade AU+ according to today’s standards. A second piece reportedly emerged from a bank bag of some small gold coins back in the early 20th century, and is known as the Wolfson coin. That piece grades Extremely Fine. The third known example was found in NYC in the teens and was in the Norweb Family collection, who donated the coin to the Smithsonian Institution. That piece grades Extremely Fine as well but has numerous scratches and scrapes on the rim.
The 1861-D is a curious issue that is the final Half Eagle struck at the Dahlonega Mint, and also the rarest of the series for that mint. Details are a bit sketchy as to how many exactly were struck, as the date can be divided by two distinctive mintages. The first, under the United States of America, saw 1,597 pieces struck before early April, 1861. The Confederate States of America then took over control of the mint following the outbreak of the American Civil War, and an unknown number of additional Half Eagles were struck until the mint ran out of Half Eagle blanks (perhaps 1,000 coins or so). Unfortunately, unlike the half dollars, which saw a similar scenario, numismatists have not yet found a way to distinguish who issued which coin. Obviously, with such a small mintage, this is a rare issue that is infrequently encountered. Most show signs of circulation but a few Uncirculated pieces are known to exist. The finest, a PCGS MS-63, sold for $208,000 back in 2008.
The Carson City Mint, located in Nevada, is mostly known for the Morgan Dollars that it struck between 1878 and 1893. The mint opened in 1870 after huge amounts of silver had been found in the area, but it also struck limited quantities of gold coins, depending on how much gold was received from local mines. As a result, many issues are rare and the coins struck in the first year of issue are especially difficult to find.
The Half Eagle, the smallest gold denomination struck at the mint, had a mintage of just 7,675 coins. The issue circulated extensively throughout the West and is now very rare in all grades, with perhaps a few borderline Uncirculated pieces known to exist. Virtually all pieces are well circulated, and this is a date that is encountered infrequently at public auction.
The Philadelphia Mint barely produced any gold coins in 1875, and only 200 business strikes of the Half Eagle denomination were produced, even less than the 1854-S. An additional twenty coins were struck for collectors as well. Obviously, with such a small mintage, this is a very rare coin that is seldom seen. All known examples are circulated and most offerings are Proofs, indicating the true rarity of the business strikes of this date.
Collectors interested in acquiring an 1875 Half Eagle for their collection in 1875 usually bought a Proof, and the business strikes quietly disappeared in circulation. An NGC graded AU-55 brought $149,500 back in 2010, and is generally considered to be the finest known.
No business strikes of the 1887 Half Eagle were produced, and only Proofs are available to collectors. Only 87 were struck, and even if all of these had survived it would be an extremely rare issue. It is estimated that about half of the original mintage still exists, which would make it one of the more common Half Eagle Proofs of this period. Because there were no business strikes produced, however, demand for this date is high and it is one of the more expensive Liberty Half Eagles in existence (together with the ultra-rare 1875 discussed above).
Other Scarce Dates
With so many dates, there are many more scarce and rare Liberty Head Half Eagles that would prove difficult for the specialist to find. Any of the Charlotte and Dahlonega issues are rare and often plagued by quality issues, such as weak strikes and imperfect planchets. All of the Carson City issues are popular, and prices are high as a result. Some of the later Philadelphia dates have relatively low mintages but are generally available, with some searching. Many dates are unknown in Uncirculated condition, making AU coins often the best available to the specialist, which also poses a challenge. Certainly this is one of the most difficult of all series of American coinage to complete!