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A Record Price for a Relatively Common 1812 Half Eagle
By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink - May 15, 2007
Images courtesy of HeritageAuctions.com
1920-S Gold Eagle

Half Eagles dated 1812 never seem to warrant much discussion. They are among the least rare of all early Half Eagles ($5 gold coins). Indeed, with so many very rare Half Eagles, including several Great Rarities, minted before and after 1812, those of this date have not gotten much respect.

People are starting to pay attention, now that an 1812 Half Eagle just sold, on May 10, in the Heritage Central States 'Platinum Night' event for a record $149,500! It is graded MS-65 by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). It was a highlight of the “Palakika” collection that also included an 1858 Eagle that sold for $276,000 and an 1893-S dime that brought an incredible $63,250!

Will this $149,500 result mean that 1812 Half Eagles will now gain status as a date? It will not. The result probably relates to the combination of the quality of the coin and its status as a representative of the Capped Bust Facing Left Type.

Bust Left Half Eagles, for the whole type, are extremely rare in gem quality, MS-65 and higher grades. The PCGS and the Numismatic Guaranty Corp. (NGC) together have probably only certified twenty to thirty-two different Bust Left Half Eagles in MS-65 and higher grades! Although it is not noted in the catalogue, Heritage auctioned this exact same PCGS graded MS-65 1812 in July 2003. It realized $54,625 then, a little more than a third of the May 2007 price.

Prices for early gold coins have risen considerably since July 2003. Increases in pertinent market prices, though, would not entirely account for the same coin realizing almost three times as much. In January 2007, Heritage sold another 1812 that was NGC graded MS-65 for $63,250. It is plausible that the NGC MS-65 1812 that was sold in January is inferior to the Palakika 1812, though I would like to see both coins before commenting upon the $86,250 difference in price.

As more than one hundred and fifty 1812 Half Eagles exist, it is not an extremely rare date. There could even be more than two hundred. The PCGS and NGC data include numerous resubmissions of the same coins and cannot be taken literally in regard to the total number of surviving 1812 Half Eagles. The overall rarity of the 1812 date, however, does not seem to be relevant to the price realized. The key issue must be its condition ranking either among1812 Half Eagles or in the whole design type.

United States $5 gold coins are termed 'Half Eagles' largely because the $10 gold denomination is defined as an Eagle. Half Eagles minted from 1795 to early 1807 all have the same obverse design (front of the coin). This obverse design is usually called 'Draped Bust,' 'Capped Bust' or 'Capped Draped Bust.' It would be more accurate and clearer to say it portrays a 'Capped Bust [of Miss Liberty] facing to the observer's right,' or just 'Bust Right' for short. Two different reverse (back) designs were employed prior to 1807, the 'Small eagle' and the 'Heraldic' or 'Large eagle.'

During 1807, the first obverse design was replaced by a new and very different obverse design. Confusingly, many reference guides use the same terminology to describe the new obverse as the old, 'Draped Bust,' 'Capped Bust' or 'Capped Draped Bust.' It is really a substantively different Bust of Miss Liberty. The best concise description is 'Capped Bust facing to the observer's left,' and the best accurate term is 'Bust Left'!

The 'Bust Left' design was replaced by the Capped Head Large design in 1813. Some books and price guides wrongly refer to the Capped Head as a “Bust.” It is not; it is clearly just a head.

A complete type set of the Half Eagle denomination would thus comprise of one representative of each of the following design types: Bust Right Small Eagle (1795-98), Bust Right Large Eagle (1795-1807), Bust Left (1807-12), Capped Head Large (1813-29), Capped Head Small (1829-34), Classic Head (1834-38), Liberty Head 'No Motto' (1839-66), Liberty Head 'Motto' (1866-1907), and Indian Head (1908-29). Only nine coins are needed to complete a Half Eagle type set. Proof and non-proof commemorative Half Eagles that have been minted since 1986 are a separate topic.

Most demand for pre-1835 Half Eagles is for type coins as collecting Bust Right or Capped Head Half Eagles 'by date' is extremely difficult. Among Bust Right Half Eagles, the 1798 'Small Eagle' is a Great Rarity. Discussing the rarity of the some of the Bust Right varieties is complicated, as it is not clear which varieties should be deemed separate dates.

In all of U.S. coins, the most challenging set to even 80% complete is that of Capped Head Half Eagles. A date is a Great Rarity when there are twenty-five or fewer in existence, including both Proofs and business strikes plus all die varieties. There are more Great Rarities in the series of Capped Head Half Eagles than in any other series of U.S. coins.

In more than fifteen years, only one 1807 'Bust Left' Half Eagle has ever realized more than $100,000 at auction. The PCGS graded MS-67 Moore 1807 sold for $121,000 in 1999. I saw it. It is an amazing coin. It is the highest quality Bust Left Half Eagle that I have ever seen. I have heard that there is another 1807, of the same quality, in a private collection in Texas.

I have seen the one 1812 that the PCGS has graded MS-66. It is strongly believed to be from the Norman Stack type set. It was offered at auction in Illinois in August 1991. The top bid of $148,500 notwithstanding, my impression is that it did not sell. The fact that the underbid of $143,000 was not sufficient to buy it is an important point. It was later to sell privately for an amount unknown to me.

While I very much liked the coin, and I was thrilled to closely examine it, I was not convinced that the Norman 1812 really merited its MS-66 grade. I thought that it was a mid-range to high end 65, not far from being a 66. The satiny luster and light green-yellow color are appealing. Further, it is sharply struck. It has too many hairlines in the fields and few too many contact marks on the face, however small, to grade MS-66. At the time, PCGS had never even graded an 1812 as MS-65. They were probably so overwhelmed to see this gem coin that the graders overlooked a few significant imperfections. Besides, there will always be legitimate differences of opinion among experts.

Is it plausible that a serious bidder concluded that the Palakika 1812 is superior to the Norman 1812 and is the finest known of the date? The $149,500 price is hard to understand, as in recent years, no other coin of whole Bust Left Half Eagle type as sold for nearly as much.

My impression is that an 1808 Half Eagle has never sold at auction for more than $85,000 and only three have broken the $50,000 barrier. Among overdates, only one 1808/7 has sold at auction for more than $50,000, and just two 1809/8 Half Eagles have so sold. The 1808/7 is certainly much rarer than the 1812 Half Eagle.

As far as I know, a mere two 1810 Half Eagles have sold for more than $50,000 at auction. Four varieties of 1810 Half Eagles are typically regarded as separate dates in most major references. In my view, the 1810 'Large Date' and the 1810 'Small Date' are clearly separate dates as the digits in the year are clearly of different sizes. Each of these is subdivided, however, into Large 5 and Small 5 varieties relating to the '5' digit on the reverse in the '5 D.' (Five Dollar) denomination identifier.

The differences among the denomination identifiers is not blatant, and, in my view, should be referred to as die varieties, not dates, of interest to those who collect or study die varieties. If the 1810 'Large Date - Small 5' and 1810 'Small Date -Small 5' are truly dates of their own, then these would be the rarest two dates of the Bust Left Half Eagle type; and they would both be Great Rarities that are undervalued in general. I do not believe that most gold coin collectors view them as separate dates. Louis Eliasberg certainly did not think that they were.

I am not aware of an 1810 'Large Date - Small 5' has realizing as much as $30,000 at auction. The record for an 1810 'Small Date - Small 5' was set when Stack's auctioned an NGC graded AU-58 coin for $65,550 in October 2005. Only one other 1810 of any variety has sold for more than $50,000. A PCGS graded MS-65 1810 'Large Date - Large 5' sold for $60,375 in a Jan. 1999 Heritage auction.

Of all die varieties, only two 1811 Half Eagles have sold for more than $50,000, and both of those are NGC graded MS-65 coins that realized between $60,000 and $70,000. It is possible, however, that one or more Bust Left Half Eagles realized more than $50,000, or even more than $100,000, during the market booms of 1979-80 or 1989-90. I would have to do further research before putting forth a list of all Bust Left Half Eagles that have been auctioned for more than $50,000 each.

It does seem that the Palakika 1812 has set an auction record for the whole type even though 1812 is not significantly rarer than any other date of the Bust Left Half Eagle series. Either there was special demand for this particular coin, or there has been a dramatic increase in the demand for gem quality (MS-65 and higher) Bust Left Half Eagles. A contributory factor may be that some of the leading bidders were demonstrating a preference for PCGS over NGC.

I have also concluded that Bust Left Half Eagles are overlooked as a collectible series! If the two 1810 'Small 5' varieties are not deemed to be separate dates, and I do not think these should be, then a set of all the dates in the series could be completed in a relatively short period of time without that much difficulty. In circulated grades, all nine dates could be purchased for less than $5000 per coin, sometimes significantly less. Even MS-62 or MS-63 grade examples of all nine dates could probably be had for between $12,000 and $35,000 per coin?

Suppose that the two 1810 'Small 5' varieties are included as separate dates. One of each could probably be obtained within five years, for prices that are reasonable by coin market standards. I do not remember any examples that grade Very Fine or lower. An Extremely Fine to Almost Uncirculated (AU) 1810 'Small Date - Small 5' may cost at retail anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000. Auction prices in the 'not too distant past' tended to be lower than this range. The 1810 'Large Date - Small Five' may be more expensive than its 'Small Date - Small Five' fraternal twin.

The difficulties involved in collecting Bust Right and Capped Head Half Eagles have caused the Bust Left type to be overlooked. Without the unnecessary Small 5 varieties, it would be an easy and fun set to finish.

If the $149,500 result for the Palakika 1812 is analyzed as that of a supergrade type coin, then it is still puzzling. There must be at least one other PCGS graded MS-65 1812 and possibly ten to twelve different PCGS graded 65s for the type. Although I mentioned the PCGS graded MS-66 1812 above, there are three other PCGS MS-66 Bust Left Half Eagles of different dates, and the two above-mentioned MS-67 1807s.

It is, or was before now, plausible that a PCGS graded MS-66 Bust Left Half Eagle could be purchased at auction for less than $150,000, or not much more. Besides, within the last twelve months, three NGC graded MS-65 Bust Left Half Eagles, two 1811s and an 1812, have been auctioned for between $60,000 and $70,000, less than half as much as the price of the Palakika 1812, which I really wish I had seen.

CoinLink - May 15, 2007


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