Classic US Gold Coins – The Enigmatic Proof-Only 1887 Half Eagle

By Doug WinterRareGoldcoins.com

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The half eagle denomination was produced virtually uninterrupted from 1795 through 1929. During this 130-year period only one issue--the 1887--was struck in only a Proof format. For reasons still unknown, no business strike half eagles were made in 1887 and a total of just 87 coins were made; all as Proofs. This gives the 1887 the honor of being the single-lowest-produced date in the entire half eagle denomination.

Despite this coin’s rarity, it is still not widely known. I recently purchased a lovely PCGS/CAC PR64+ that appeared as Lot 2452 in the recent Stack's Bowers March Baltimore auction. I paid $76,375 for this important coin and immediately sold it to a Southern collector who specializes in Proof Liberty Head half eagles. When he began his collection a few years ago, the 1887 was a date that we targeted but wondered if the “right” coin would come along.

1887 $5.00 PCGS PR64+ CAC. Images courtesy Stack's Bowers

1887 $5.00 PCGS PR64+ CAC. Images courtesy Stack's Bowers

I mentioned above that it is not known exactly why there were no business strike half eagles made in Philadelphia in 1887. Two things stand out to me as curious about this. The first is that mintages of San Francisco half eagles were huge in 1886 (a record-setting 3,268,000) and large in 1887 (1,912,000). This no doubt satiated Western demand for this denomination. Second, whether coincidental or not, the 1887 double eagle is a Proof-only issue as well with a mintage of just 121.

Of the 87 Proof half eagles struck in 1887, I believe that around half of these are known. What is interesting about this is that unlike other Proof half eagles of this era, the 1887 is often found impaired or mishandled and there are many known in the PR55 to PR62 range. Why is this so?

It is known that collectors in the early 20th century were aware of the rarity of this date. But the premium accorded to this date apparently was not high enough in the 1890-1910 era to keep collectors from spending Proof 1887 half eagles during times of economic uncertainty. There was likely a time when this issue was “too good” to melt but not worth enough of a premium to keep.

This is perhaps a reach but maybe a contemporary dealer or collector speculated on 1887 Proof half eagles and bought, say, 10 in the hopes of creating a market for this future rarity. Just as likely, he ran into financial hard times or was unable to generate interest in his position and bailed.

There appear to be around 40 or so Proof 1887 half eagles known, which would make the 1887 one of the more available Proofs of this era but one of the four rarest Liberty half eagles overall in terms of total known to exist in all grades, after the 1854-S, 1864-S, and 1875.

The single finest known 1887 half eagle is a PCGS PR65+ Deep Cameo was upgraded from PR65 Deep Cameo. The auction record is $126,500 for the Henry Miller coin, graded NGC PR65, which was sold in Heritage’s 2011 FUN event.

I have noticed that 1887 Proof half eagles typically come two ways: either impaired (see above) or in the PR63 to PR64 range and either with applied color or clearly over-dipped. There are probably not more than five or six Gems (or borderline Gems) and even fewer with natural color.

What really attracted me to the above-referenced coin was its blatant originality. This coin had been off the market since early 1979 and both the obverse and reverse display deep golden coloration indicative of that rare Proof gold piece: one that hadn’t been dipped.

Do you collect Proof gold? Why not let Douglas Winter Numismatics work with you; we’ve sold more rare date Proof gold than any other major retailer. Contact Doug Winter via email at dwn@ont.com.

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About Doug Winter

Doug_Winter2Doug has spent much of his life in the field of numismatics; beginning collecting coins at the age of seven, and by the time he was 10 years old,  buying and selling coins at conventions in the New York City area.

In 1989, he founded Douglas Winter Numismatics, and his firm specializes in buying and selling choice and rare United States coins, especially US gold coins and all branch mint material.

Recognized as one of the leading specialized numismatic firms, Doug is an award winning author of over a dozen numismatic books and the recognized expert on US Gold. His knowledge and exceptional eye for properly graded and original coins has made him one of the most respected figures in the numismatic community and a sought after dealer by collectors and investors looking for professional personalized service, a select inventory of impeccable quality and fair and honest pricing.  Doug is also a major buyer of all US coins and is always looking to purchase collections both large and small.  He can be reached at 214-675-9897.

Doug has been a contributor to the Guidebook of United States Coins (also known as the “Redbook”) since 1983, Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Coins,  Q. David Bowers’ Encyclopedia of United States Silver Dollars and Andrew Pollock’s United States Pattern and Related Issues

In addition he has authored 13 books on US Gold coins including:
  • Gold Coins of the New Orleans Mint: 1839-1909
  • Gold Coins of the Carson City Mint: 1870 – 1893
  • Gold Coins of the Charlotte Mint: 1838-1861
  • Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint 1838-1861
  • The United States $3 Gold Pieces 1854-1889
  • Carson City Gold Coinage 1870-1893: A Rarity and Condition Census Update
  • An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Type One Double Eagles
  • The Connoisseur’s Guide to United States Gold Coins
  • A Collector’s Guide To Indian Head Quarter Eagles
  • The Acadiana Collection of New Orleans Coinage
  • Type Three Double Eagles, 1877-1907: A Numismatic History and Analysis
  • Gold Coins of the Dahlonega Mint, 1838-1861: A Numismatic History and Analysis
  • Type Two Double Eagles, 1866-1876: A Numismatic History and Analysis

Finally Doug is a member of virtually every major numismatic organization, professional trade group and major coin association in the US.
 


Liberty Head Half Eagle Gold Coins Currently Available on eBay

eBay
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1895 LIBERTY HEAD HALF EAGLE $5 GOLD COIN - GREAT DETAIL ON BOTH SIDES Current Price: $316.0
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1900 $5 Liberty Head Half Eagle Gold Coin Current Price: $326.0
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1881 $5 Liberty Head Half Eagle Gold Coin Current Price: $326.0
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1905 S $5 Liberty Head Half Eagle Gold Coin Current Price: $306.0
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1881 S $5 Liberty Head Half Eagle Gold Coin Current Price: $326.0
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1847 Liberty Head Gold $5 Half Eagle - PCGS AU50 - Certified & Graded 22K Current Price: $650.0
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