Early $5 gold pieces make pricey targets
By Paul M. Green
all probability you are not going to complete a collection
of the early half eagles of the United States. As a
group, they are simply too rare. Even if you can acquire
one of the better dates the numbers available are so
low, in some cases, that it would potentially be years
before a date you need wilt come on the market, even
if you have unlimited funds to spend. While a complete
collection might not be possible, it is possible for
some to acquire type examples. It is also possible to
learn about what was a fascinating early coin, which
is an excellent reflection of the condition at the time
- both at the Mint and in circulation.
When the first gold $5 coin appeared
it had a Capped Bust Liberty on obverse and what is
called a small eagle on reverse.
The early half eagle turned out to be a surprise
in terms of its role which was actually much greater than
many would have predicted on April 2, 1792 when the half eagle,
along with other denominations, was first authorized. At the
time, the half eagle was to be the middle gold coin between
the $2.50 quarter eagle and $10 eagle. Normally, being in
the middle tends to suggest a somewhat limited role, but as
it worked out the half eagle became the dominant gold coin
The $2.50 quarter eagle was not really popular
at the time, while the $10 gold eagle had little commercial
use as the denomination was too large. In 1804, the production
of gold eagles was suspended, making the half eagle not the
middle denomination, but rather the largest gold coin in production
in the United States at the time.
Being the largest gold coin and also being
a popular size saw the half eagle produced regularly. Although
the numbers were limited, the half eagle was still the most
heavily produced gold coin of its day. In fact, it took some
time before there was any production of gold coins. There
first had to be a Mint where they could be made and that took
until 1793. At that point officials had to post a bond before
there could be any production of gold or silver coins and
they balked at that requirement. It took until 1794 to settle
the bond matter and at that time the first emphasis was on
silver coins with dollars, half dollars and half dimes being
produced. The dollar and half dollar were produced in 1794
with the half dimes having examples dates of both 1794 and
1795, although there is some suspicion the production might
have been entirely in 1795.
The first steps toward gold coin production
came in July of 1795 when the first gold arrived in the form
of 128 ounces followed by another 100 ounces. The dies were
ready, having been prepared by Rob Scot. As was the case with
the other gold coins which would follow, there was no denomination,
just a Capped Bust obverse , and small eagle reverse. Production
apparently began fairly quickly as 744 half eagles were delivered
on July 31, 1795. Those first half eagles had little impact
n the commerce of the day as there were an assortment of gold
coins of other nations already being used. The mixture of
gold coins was at the root of the lack of denomination. Merchants
of the day were more; concerned about the amount of gold in
the coins, rather than their face value.
Before 1795 there would be additional half
eagle mintages putting the total for the year at 8,707 pieces.
In fact, we cannot really be certain of the accuracy of that
total. There was a reported 1796 mintage of 6,196 pieces with
the strong suspicion that at least some of them may have been
made with 1795 dies.
In fact, the matter of using old dies would
be one that would mark the first few years of half eagle production.
It takes time to make dies and that costs money which the
early Mint did not have. The small profits from producing
gold and silver coins at the time barely covered the cost
of all the activity and material involved with the only real
profit coming from the production of copper coins.
a result, the Mint was frugal when it came to dies.
If they were not completely worn out they would be used
again, even if the actual year and the date on the die
were not the same. This is proven by the fact that a
1795 is known with a large eagle reverse - which did
not even exist in 1795. What clearly happened is that
an old 1795 die was discovered and pressed into service
in a later year creating a variety dated before its
reverse even existed.
There are a host of questions with regard to the early
half eagle varieties. There is a 1796/5 with the regular
1795 being seen about eight times more by the grading
services than the 1796/5. There are about a dozen varieties
for the 1795 and only one for the 1796/5 suggesting
the overdate was very possibly a 1795 die used in 1796.
The Turban Head design commenced in 1807
and was used until 1812. The type is affordable for
The 1795 with the large eagle reverse is the best proof of
dies being used long after they were created. The large eagle
reverse did not appear on any denomination until 1796, although
experiments were possible but hardly likely to be used for
making regular coins back in 1795.
There is other evidence of the later date for the large eagle
reverse in that there are 16 stars while the small eagle reverse
has only 15. The addition of that extra star cre¬ates
the earliest date when a 16-star reverse would have been appropriate
- after June of 1796 when Tennessee was added to the Union.
Once that was official it would be natural to have 16 stars.
Prior to June of 1796 it would seem unlikely that there would
be any 16-star combinations.
Certainly the numbers known today strongly
favor the small eagle reverse as PCGS reports over 300 examples
of the small eagle reverse but fewer than 50 examples of the
1795 with a large eagle reverse. The NGC totals show the small
eagle reverse has been seen 173 times while the large eagle
is at just 23.
Interestingly enough, there are other indications
of dies being used later as there is also a 1798 with a small
eagle reverse. That was safely after the small eagle reverse
had been replaced. It appears the die did not last long as
the best estimates are the mintage might have been only 100
pieces. That number is supported by the fact that PCGS so
far has seen only two.
For those seeking an example of the 1795
with a small eagle reverse, the current price is about $11,500
for an F-12 while the tougher large eagle reverse is $8,800
in the same grade. The 1796/5 rounds out the possibilities
at $12,000. The prices actually reflect the demand and not
the supply. The price that a special example can bring is
seen in the $241,500 price of an MS-64 1795 with a large eagle
reverse in a 2003 Bowers and Merena sale. In all cases, coins
are likely to be fairly well worn as they did see active circulation
and adjustment marks from filing the planchet are likely as
are strikes which tend to weak in various areas. The same
can basically be said of the large eagle reverses, although
they are less expensive at $3,000 in F-12, while an MS-60
is possible at around $8,600. For the specialist there are
a host of options as might be suspected with the way dies
were used years after being produced. Those possibilities
are increased when different numbers of stars, different sizes
of numbers and other possibilities are added to the coins.
There are certainly a host of questions for
the dates from 1796-1807. A couple unique varieties exist,
including the 1797 with a 16-star obverse and a 1797 with
a 15-star obverse, both of which were thought to have been
produced in 1798. Both are basically impossible to obtain.
Add them to the 1798 with a small eagle reverse and you have
major rarities. In other cases, there is simply uncertainty
as the 37,628 mintage 1800 does not seem to appear in the
numbers expected from such a mintage raising questions about
The suspension of gold eagle production in
1804 would thrust the half eagle into the role of being the
largest gold denomination. That would mean potentially large
numbers being exported, although the 1807 Embargo Act shut
down most of the maritime commerce at the time. That also
means the coins were probably not melted in large numbers
as would happen later, but realistically the supply remaining
today is still very small and certainly not large enough to
meet demand without seeing higher prices especially in higher
was a design change in 1807 that saw the John Reich
Turban Head introduced - a design that would last until
1812. The short-lived design, thanks to larger mintage
and apparently relatively few losses from export, can
be found today with an F-12 at $2,400 and an MS-60 at
$8,000. The strikes are better and adjustment marks
less common than on the earlier issues making this type
somewhat easier to find in the form of a decently struck
coin without problems.
The design would change
again in 1813 with the new design having a capped head
and this design would last until 1834. In this type
we find some of the great rarities in U.S. numismatics
although at least some type coins can be found.
Mint marks appeared on early $5 gold
pieces in 1838 when Charlotte, N.C., and Dahlonega,
Ga., became home to federal mints that struck gold.
This one is a "D."
The fact that the type produced some of the
great rarities of U.S. numismatics is something that has been
traced to a number of factors. There were certainly some very
low mintages during the period and in addition there were
even fewer collectors who would attempt to save such a high
denomination. That did not change for decades which meant
that half eagles released into circulation could have any
number of potential fates and none of them were good in terms
of the surviving to the present day.
An additional factor was that circulation
losses were only part of the story. The ending of the War
of 1812 saw international trade resume. As the largest gold
coin of the United States at the time, the half eagle was
the natural first choice to be exported in foreign trade.
That situation was enhanced by the fact that
the American gold-to-silver ratio of 16-to-1 was slightly
different from the rest of world, so American gold coins could
actually be exported at a small profit. That was made easier
by brokers who would cheerfully buy the coins and take care
of the rest. There were virtually no gold coins in circulation
even though there were regular mintages.
The situation made for a perfect storm of
factors for any gold coin produced - especially the half eagle
- to end up being melted in Europe in a relatively short period
of time. That makes almost any date from the period extremely
The first of a number of rarities is the
1815, which had a mintage of just 635 pieces. With that mintage,
the 1815 did not need to be exported as it was going to be
very tough under any circumstances and that is the case with
less than a dozen examples known and many of them being housed
in museum. While not well known, the 1825/4 overdate is even
tougher with only two examples being known.
Under normal circumstances, other tough dates
would be much better known. In a virtual galaxy of rarities
a date such as the 1819 of which there are fewer than 20 pieces
known simply does not stand out the way it might if it was
The real export began in the early 1820s
and that has produced a number of very tough coins. The first
year of significant export was probably 1821. The 1821, mintage
34,641, is much tougher than the mintage suggests with a $5,800
price listing in F-12 of $7,000 and $70,000 in MS-60. The
two major grading services report a mere six examples each.
A couple were Mint State, but there is no way a collector
desiring a nice 1821 can assume one can be found quickly at
The overdates headed by the 1825/24, which
sold for $148,500 in a 1989 Bowers and Merena sale, are also
very tough. Currently there is relatively little recognition
or demand and their prices are lower than might normally be
The regular dates are not by definition available,
either. The 1829, which came with a small or large planchet
as that was the year the planchet size was reduced, gets a
certain amount of attention as an interesting date. The mintage
was put at 57,442, divided between the old and newer planchet
sizes. Few of either are known with perhaps seven examples
of the large-size planchet being accounted for, primarily
in Mint State. The number of smaller-size planchets known
is placed at six, meaning we cannot account for the remaining
57,429 pieces. A couple might turn up, but basically it's
a terrible survival rate and it leaves any 1829 at high prices.
In 1985 Superior offered a large-size planchet in MS-65 and
it realized $104,500. An XF-40 small planchet in 1992 brought
$89,000 while the Norweb small planchet in Proof-64 to Proof-65
managed a price of $352,000 back in 1987.
The key date of the 1820s remains the 1822,
which is a classic rarity. The 1822 had a reported mintage
of 17,796. In all probability, not all were dated 1822 because
we know of only three examples today, and two of the three
are in the Smithsonian. It suggests the mintage was not all
dated 1822. The number exported may also have been very large,
with saving almost unknown.
With two examples in the Smithsonian, that
makes the one other 1822 the only example that can be privately
owned. It's an interesting coin that brought a price of $687,500
in the Eliasberg sale. The price would have been higher but
the coin only graded VF-30. Although being circulated does
not help its price, it does help its charm, as it means that
an extremely valuable coin was circulating for its $5 face
value. Should it ever be offered again, it is certainly likely
that the 1822 $5 will command a price in the millions, as
it will be the only chance anyone will have to own one of
the great rarities in US. numismatics.
Technically, the large and small planchet
types can be considered different types, although the difficulty
in finding just a single example from the period especially
in Mint State sees many content with just a single example
of type. Those looking for a Mint State coin will find the
challenge is very real, although the long period of production
has helped, even if only a small number of Mint State coins
survived most years that does represent a limited supply.
The supplies today put the type at $2,400 in F-12 for the
most available dates, typcially from prior to 1821, while
an MS-60 is listed at about $7,800 for the most available
In 1834 there would be a significant change
as the William Kneass Classic Head design was introduced.
In fact, the design was to mark coins made with a new composition
involving slightly less gold. There was some debate over what
to do in 1834 when the old type and the new type would both
be produced. There was also concern that the public be aware
that the new type contained less gold. There was thought of
putting the date Aug. 1, 1834, or the word NEW on the Classic
Head 1834 half eagles, but eventually it was decided that
the new design was enough.
The new Classic Head half eagles that contained
less gold could circulate and made it possible to have much
larger mintages, making the type readily available. In VF-20,
an available-date Classic Head half eagle lists at $300 while
an MS-60 lists at as little as $2,950. There are better dates,
starting with an 1834 having a crosslet "4," which
is $ 1,650 in VF-20 while a plain "4" is at available-date
In a sense, the Classic Head half eagles
were truly transitional half eagles. They included the first
half eagles to be produced outside of the main facility in
Philadelphia. The Charlotte, N.C., and Dahlonega, Ga., facilities
would produce their first half eagles in 1838. The 1838-C
had a mintage of 17,179 while the 1838-D was at 20,583. The
two are certainly historic with the 1838-C listing for $2,200
in VF-20 while the 1838-D is at $2,000 in the same grade.
In MS-60 the 1838-C is $38,500 and the 1838-D is at $25,000.
The grading services support the prices as the 1838-C has
been seen in Mint State just once at NGC, while the 1838-D
was seen 10 times. At PCGS, the 1838-C is at two Mint State
coins graded, while the 1838-D is at six graded.
With the introduction of the Coronet Head
design, the era of the early half eagles came to an end. While
a complete set is basically impossible, even being able to
own a single example of the early h' If eagles is a special
opportunity. They were the most important gold coins of their
day, and since that day they have attained a place as one
of the most important and difficult of all U.S. coins.