A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #173 .....
This discussion of bust half dollars follows part 2: dimes and part 3: quarters. There are many collectors do not wish to spend more than $500 for any one coin, yet seek to build meaningful, enjoyable and noteworthy collections of classic U.S. coins. This series examines the many options available, with the current focus being on bust half dollars, which were minted from 1794 to 1839.
All bust half dollars were struck at the Philadelphia Mint until half dollars began to be produced at the New Orleans (‘O’) Branch Mint in 1838. Half dollars each have a face value of fifty cents and each weighs the same as two corresponding quarters of the same respective time period.
From 1794 to 1836, half dollars were planned to be 89.243% silver (1485/1664). From some point in 1836 through 1964, all U.S. half dollars were specified to be 90% silver, 10% copper. Alloys used after 1964 are beside the topic of bust halves.
Half dollars have not circulated to a great extent during the last thirty years. They are, though, still made for collectors by the U.S. Mint.
Collecting pre-1840 half dollars for less than $500 each is easy. A very large percentage of the issues are available for modest prices. Capped Bust ‘Lettered Edge’ Half Dollars (1807-36) are among the most popular of all collecting specialties.
Flowing Hair Half Dollars were minted in just 1794 and 1795. These are bust half dollars. In the contexts of coins or sculptures, a ‘bust’ must include artistic representations of at least one shoulder and at least a portion of the subject’s chest, in addition to a head. The Flowing Hair design includes a part of Miss Liberty’s right shoulder and a modest part of her chest.
There would be no point in trying to acquire a genuine 1794 half for less than $500. A non-gradable 1795 with the details of a Fair, or Almost Good grade, could probably be obtained for less than $500, though there might be a need to wait for a while for such a piece to become available. In Feb., Heritage auctioned an NGC certified, non-gradable 1795 that is said to have “FAIR DETAILS” for $440.63. An NGC graded AG-03 1795 in the same event brought $763.75.
Draped Bust, Small Eagle Half Dollars were also minted for just two years, 1796 and 1797. There are no genuine U.S. half dollars dated 1798, 1799 or 1800.
Draped Bust, Small Eagle Halves are the rarest of silver U.S. coin types. For decades, market values for all of them have been well above $500 each.
I. Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Halves
On silver and gold coins with a ‘Heraldic Eagle’ reverse, an eagle with a shield on its chest covers a very large percentage of the surface of the back of each coin. In relative terms, the representation of an eagle in the ‘Small Eagle’ reverse design is notably smaller than the representation of an eagle of the Heraldic Eagle reverse design, a relatively ‘Large Eagle.’ Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Half Dollars date from 1801 to 1807.
Most Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Half Dollars are available in Very Good-08 or -10 grade for less than $500 per coin, including 1803-Small 3, 1803-Large 3, 1805/4 overdate, 1805 normal numerals, 1806/5 overdate, 1806 normal numerals, 1806/6 overpunched numeral, and 1807. There are no genuine U.S. half dollars dated 1804.
Kris Oyster recommends an “1805 or 1806 in Very Good-08” or -10 grade. These are “type coins that a lot of people have never seen, interesting conversation pieces. They are a part of U.S. history,” Kris states. Oyster is a managing director of the Dallas Gold & Silver Exchange, which owns Southern Bullion, Coin and Jewelry stores, among other stores.
Finding an 1801 half for under $500 might be very difficult or impossible. On June 4, the Goldbergs firm auctioned a PCGS graded Good-04 1801 for $978, though it was estimated to bring “$450 [to] $500”! In Nov. 2012, Stack’s-Bowers sold an 1801 that has been authenticated by the PCGS and has the ‘details’ of a Very Good grade coin. This non-gradable 1801, with some graffiti, brought $529. If an 1801 half sells for less than $500 in 2013, it might have severe problems.
Although price guides value Fair-02 grade 1802 halves at less than $300 each, most leading price guides have severely underestimated the market values of these. In Feb. 2013, Heritage sold a PCGS graded Fair-02 1802 for $705 and this is not a very strong price. Indeed, non-gradable 1802 halves, without much detail, have sold for from $500 to $1000 on several occasions. In Oct. 2012, however, Heritage did sell one in an NGC holder with “AG DETAILS” and ‘Graffiti’ for $440.63.
It is almost practical to complete a set of Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagles for less than $500 per coin. If an 1801 is never obtained, an indecent 1802 might be included. Even a partial set from 1803 to 1807 could still be very cool. These are scarce and important coins.
Given a $500 per coin maximum expenditure, it may make more sense, though, to focus on Capped Bust Half Dollars. These are much less scarce than Draped Bust Half Dollars.
II. Reich ‘Lettered Edge’ Half Dollars
Although it is true that edges of half dollars minted up to some point in 1836 are lettered and ornamented, and it is true that edges of some half dollars minted in 1836 and all those minted afterwards are reeded, it is misleading to refer to the 1807-36 type as ‘Lettered Edge’ and the 1836-39 type as “Reeded Edge.” The Capped Bust Half Dollar design type of 1807 to 1836 actually appears very much different from that of 1836 to 1839. The difference in the edge is just one of several differences. The portrait of Miss Liberty is quite different, very much evidently by a different artisan.
Researcher Breen refers to the 1807 to 1836 type as “Reich’s Capped Busts” and the 1836 to ’39 type as “Gobrecht’s Capped Busts.” John Reich and Christian Gobrecht were employed by the U.S. Mint during different time periods and both had a tremendous influence on the designs of U.S. coinage.
Until Breen’s names or other names become widely accepted, the “Lettered Edge” and “Reeded Edge” names will generally be used. I emphasize both sets of names here because these are two very different design types and it is confusing to refer to both as “Capped Bust Half Dollars.”
Many thousands of people collect Reich Capped Bust, Lettered Edge Half Dollars ‘by date’! More than one hundred people collect them ‘by variety.’ Unless a collector is sure that he or she wishes to devote a vast amount of time to studying the striking details of Capped Bust Half Dollars, it makes sense to collect ‘by date’ rather than ‘by variety.’ Besides, a date set can be expanded in the future.
A set assembled ‘by date’ includes coins of different years and includes multiple issues of the same ‘year’ that feature blatant differences in the numerals of the date (year). Among coins of the same design type, for there to be two different, widely collected ‘dates’ of the same ‘year,’ differences in the numerals must be very much readily apparent without a magnifying glass and be considered particularly important in the culture of coin collecting.
It is not particularly important whether a coin of a particular date has relatively large stars or relatively small stars. While many collect ‘stars’ varieties of 1807 Capped Bust Lettered Edge Half Dollars, as if these are two separate dates, it is not necessary to do so. Additionally, someone who is assembling a set ‘by date’ need not think about the ‘Small Letters’ and ‘Large Letters’ varieties, of 1832, 1834 and some other dates.
The more than one hundred different varieties of Capped Bust Half Dollars are primarily of interest to a small number of people who are are extremely dedicated and very knowledgeable about the dies employed to make these coins. The vast majority of interested collectors do or would enjoy collecting ‘by date.’
The following dates from 1807 to 1823 are needed for a complete set ‘by date’ of “Lettered Edge” Capped Bust Half Dollars. Dates from 1824 to 1836 are not listed here because all those are available in EF-40 or higher grades for well under $500 per coin.
In parentheses, for each date, there is listed a grade or recommended grade range that is consistent with the theme of paying less than $500 for any one coin, sometimes much less than $500: 1807 (Fine-15), 1808/7 (VF-20), 1808 (VF-30), 1809 (Extremely Fine-40), 1810 (VF-30 to EF-40), 1811/10 (VF-25 or -30), 1811 (EF-40), 1812/1 (VF30), 1812 (EF40), 1813 (VF30 to EF45), 1814/3 (Fine-12 to VF-20), 1815/2 (may not be available for less than $500 in any grade), 1817/3 (Fine-12), 1817/4 (definitely not available for less than $500), 1817 (VF-25 or -30), 1818/7 (EF-40), 1818 (EF-40), 1819 (EF-40 to AU-50), 1820/19-Square 2 (VF-20 to -30), 1820/19-Curled 2 (VF-20 or -35), 1820-Small&Script 2 (VF-30 to EF-40), 1820-Simple&FlatBase 2 (VF-20 or better), 1820-Fancy&Flat 2 (VF-30 to EF-40), 1821 (EF-40 or -45), 1822 (EF-40 to AU-50), 1823 normal numerals (EF-40 to AU-50), 1823-Broken 3 (VF-20 or -25), 1823-Patched 3 (VF-20 to -35).
It is very misleading that some leading guides itemize edge varieties of 1809 half dollars. There are such edge varieties, or related edge varieties, of many other dates in the series. It does not make sense for 1809 halves to be categorized, by themselves, in terms of edge varieties. Besides, such edge varieties are of interest to a small number of collectors, a small fraction of the number of people who collect Capped Bust Half Dollars.
When assembling a general ‘date’ set, it does not make sense to be very concerned about the precise characteristics of the letters and symbols on the respective edges of the coins. The edges of non-certified coins, however, should be carefully checked for nicks and other problems.
The difference between the 1811 ‘Large 8’ and the 1811 ‘Small 8’ is too minor for these to constitute two distinct ‘dates’ of the same year. I am surprised that they are often collected ‘as if’ they are two separate dates. A collector may obtain one or the other for a set. The same is true of the 1812/1 ‘Large 8’ and the 1812/1 ‘Small 8.’
Price guides tend to underestimate market levels for the 1817/3 overdate. Even so, these are not prohibitively expensive. Quite a few in Very Good-08, VG-10 or Fine-12 grade could be found for less than $500 each.
The so called “1822/1“ overdate, if it exists, is just too subtle to be collected as a distinct ‘date.’ The trace of a “1“ underneath the second “2” is faint at best. While this variety is curious, collectors of half dollars ‘by date’ should ignore these or regard them as 1822 halves.
The 1830 ‘Large Letters’ is an obscure variety with relatively large letters on the reverse (back of the coin). It is certainly not needed for a date set.
The 1836 Capped Bust ‘Lettered Edge’ Half with overpunched numerals (50/00) on the reverse (back of the coin) is a die variety that is of interest to collectors of die varieties. It is not needed by someone who is collecting Capped Bust ‘Lettered Edge’ Half Dollars ‘by date.’ Besides, it could be found in a Very Fine grade for less than $500.
On the whole, except for the 1807, the 1815/2, the 1817/3, the 1817/4 and maybe the 1814/3, representatives of all the ‘dates’ in the set could be purchased for less than $500 each in VF-20 or higher grade. In general, John Albanese recommends Very Fine to Extremely Fine grade Capped Bust Half Dollars.
The 1807, the 1814/3 and the 1817/3 could all be obtained in Fine-12 or -15 grade for less than $500 each. On April 27, 2013, Heritage sold a PCGS graded Fine-12 1814/3, with a CAC sticker, for $340.75. In March 2011, Stack’s-Bowers sold one with the same PCGS grade for $351.
The 1815/2 and the 1817/4 are really the only two ‘dates’ in this series that need be excluded by a collector who has decided not to spend more than $500 on any one coin. Few collectors ever hope to own an 1817/4, each of which has a retail value of more than $100,000. If the 1817/4 issue is ignored, a collector who has an otherwise complete set may wish to, someday, splurge and spend $3500 or so for a Fine-12 grade 1815/2.
Kris Oyster particularly likes “1809, 1810 and 1813” halves in EF-40 grade. “You get a nicely detailed, early, classic half dollar. You can buy some of the coins from the 1820s in AU-50 for under $500,” Kris continues, “1826, 1827, and 1828, [plus] some in the early 1830s for about $350 in AU-50.”
Oyster is referring to “PCGS or NGC [graded] circulated half dollars. I would not be afraid to buy a circulated Capped Bust Half in an ANACS holder either, though you should pay a little less for it,” he adds.
I disagree with Kris’ last point. When seeking half dollars valued at more than $200 each, collectors should only consider PCGS or NGC certified half dollars, though, of course, not all of them. (Please click to read my discussion last week, in part 3, about PCGS and NGC certification.)
Matt Kleinsteuber declares that “Extremely Fine to AU bust halves from the 1830s are everywhere. When you start collecting bust halves,” Matt advises, “search for the ones that are hard to find. Do not first buy up the ones [the least scarce dates] that are everywhere. Finding nice, Extremely Fine pieces from the teens and twenties can take a lot of time. Finding Extremely Fine or AU grade [Lettered Edge Halves] from the 1830s is easy.” For collectors with a $500 per coin limitation, Matt strongly recommends Capped Bust Halves from the 1820s.
Matt says further that he “would rather collect bust halves than small size [1831-38]bust quarters, in Extremely Fine (XF) to AU grades. Capped Bust [Lettered Edge] Half Dollars have a big following, the largest behind Morgan Dollars and large cents” among series of classic U.S. coins. Kleinsteuber is the lead grader and trader for NFC coins.
Matt directs attention to the fact that there are many thousands of people who collect Capped Bust Lettered Edge Half Dollars and these are extremely popular. It is relatively easy to make friends with people who are enthusiastic about these and markets for these are very active. Also, there are quite a few dealers who specialize in bust halves or at least inventory a significant number of them.
Oyster draws attention to the physical appeal of Capped Bust Half Dollars. “The design of the coin was beautiful, unlike the modern coins you see in circulation. Some real craftsmanship went into the design, engraving and stamping of these coins,” Kris emphasizes.
III. Gobrecht ‘Reeded Edge’ Half Dollars
The Capped Bust ‘Reeded Edge’ Half Dollars of 1836 to 1839 were designed by, or are directly related to designs by, Christian Gobrecht, who is best known as the designer of silver dollars that were struck during this same time period. As the Capped Bust Half Dollars attributed to John Reich have ‘lettered edges,’ the fact that these each have a reeded edge results in the standard “Reeded Edge” name, which is awkward.
“When I was a kid,” recollects John Albanese, “I would sometimes walk into a coin store and see a lot of bust halves in a display case. Most were circulated pieces from the 1820s or early 1830s. There would be just a few Reeded Edge Halves, or maybe none at all. I came to think of the Reeded Edge Halves as being cool and exotic.”
There are only six issues in the series: 1836, 1837, 1838, 1838-O, 1839 and 1839-O. It would be impossible to purchase an 1838 New Orleans Mint Half Dollar for less than $500.
Finding an 1836 Reeded Edge Half Dollar for less than $500 would be difficult, if possible. In April 2012, Heritage sold an NGC graded AG-03 1836 for $546.25.
In theory, it should be practical for a collector to buy an 1836 that is, or could be, PCGS or NGC graded Poor-01 or Fair-02, for under $500. I do not recollect, however, seeing such a coin offered at any price. If a collector finds a non-certified 1836 ‘Reeded Edge’ Half in this grade range, it may be very hard for the collector to tell whether it is gradable or whether it is even authentic.
Given a $500 per coin limit, it is probably not a great idea to collect the Gobrecht, ‘Reeded Edge’ Half Dollars of 1836 to 1839 ‘by date.’ It makes sense instead to acquire one or two as type coins.
There are minor subtypes. Gobrecht ‘Reeded Edge’ Half Dollars dated 1836 and 1837 feature “50 CENTS” spelled out on the reverse (back of the coin). On 1838 and 1839 Reeded Edge Halves, the face value appears differently, “HALF DOL.” Although this difference is not tremendous, many collectors seeks representatives of both subtypes.
For less than $500 per coin, a collector may buy an 1837 that is PCGS or NGC graded from EF-40 to maybe AU-53, depending upon the characteristics of the specific coin, and an 1838 that is graded from EF-45 to AU-53. Each 1838 has the just mentioned “HALF DOL.” reverse design element.
Given the theme of not spending more than $500 for any one coin, two such Gobrecht ‘Reeded Edge’ Halves would probably be satisfying. After all, it is practical and enjoyable to collect Reich ‘Lettered Edge’ Halves ‘by date.’ Also, it is worth repeating that most dates in the series of Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Half Dollars are available for less than $500 each.
©2013 Greg Reynolds
Readers who are interested in other types of classic U.S. coins, and do not wish to spend more than $500 for any one coin, may wish to click to read earlier parts of this series: