The Classic Head half eagle, along with its Classic Head quarter eagle sibling, were produced in response to a problem that reached a serious and unsustainable level in the early 1830s: circulating gold coins didn't actually circulate. Wars in Europe were putting continuous upward pressure on the world price of gold, but the price of U.S. gold was fixed at a silver-to-gold ratio of 15 to 1 by the Coinage Act of 1792. Because the same ratio was about 16 to 1 in Europe, it took fewer ounces of silver to buy one ounce of gold in the U.S. than it did by to buy one ounce of gold in Europe. Predictably, U.S. gold coins became a commodity, worth more than their face value in European silver, and thousands were exported and melted. The 1834 Mint Act addressed this problem by reducing the weight of gold coins, which lowered the gold content, thus removing the incentive to melt the coins for metal value.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
The task of changing the half eagle (and the quarter eagle) fell to Engraver William Kneass, who had also made modifications to the earlier John Reich/ Robert Scot Capped Head half eagle series. Kneass modified Liberty's profile, which was said to be copied from John Reich's design for the 1808 Classic Head cent, giving her a more youthful, classical appearance than displayed on the previous half eagle. An additional change to help the public distinguish new coins from old was the removal of the E PLUIBUS UNUM banner on the reverse. Coins for all five years of the series were minted in Philadelphia, adding branch mints Charlotte and Dahlonega in the last year.
The obverse of the Classic Head half eagle displays a left-facing bust of Liberty wearing a headband with the word LIBERTY running full length from front to back. Thirteen six-point stars encircle the head inside a dentilled rim, with the date centered at the bottom. D (Dahlonega) and C (Charlotte) mint marks lie between the date and the bottom of the bust. The reverse shows the outstretched-wing eagle design used on earlier Capped Bust and Capped Head half eagles, with a shield over the eagle's breast, and the eagle either perched upon or clutching an olive branch (viewer's left side) and three arrows (viewer's right side). The phrase UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, broken into three parts by the eagle's wing tips, follows the periphery inside a dentilled rim, and the denomination written as 5 D. centers at the bottom.
Mintages of the Classic Head half eagle are generous, at least in comparison to the preceding Capped Head version. To meet anticipated demand, 657,460 were minted in the inaugural 1834 year. Several varieties are known, include a rare "Crosslet 4" 1834 issue. Because half eagles circulated widely many samples are available in VF through lower Mint State grades but become rare at higher grades. Prices are fairly affordable below the XF grade, but double at each step from Choice AU, MS60, and MS62 through Gem MS65 grades, and triple from MS65 to the handful of Premium Gems above that. There is an abrupt drop in census/population reports above the Gem level. Of the Philadelphia issues, 1837 had the lowest mintage, though does not generally carry a price premium. Three coins are considered key in the series: the 1834 Crosslet 4, the 1838-C, and the 1838-D. All trade at four to eight times the price of others in the series at all grade levels, with the Charlotte coin topping the other two in price listings at anything above Choice AU, and Dahlonega edging the Crosslet 4 across the board. Proofs were made from 1834 though 1838, but all are extremely rare.
Designer: William Kneass, with modifications by Christian Gobrecht from 1836 forward.
Circulation Mintage: high 657,460 (1834), low 17,179 (1838-C)
Proof Mintage: high 10-15 (1834, estimated), low 1 (1837; none known for 1838-C and 1838-D)
Denomintion: Five cents (5/100)
Diameter: ±22.5 mm, reeded edge
Metal content: 90% gold - 10% copper
Weight: ±8.36 grams
Varieties: More than a dozen known, including overpunching and size of date characters, size of the Liberty head, and spacing and form of design elements. The 1834 Crosslet 4 is probably the best known variety.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins 1795-1933, Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth, Whitman Publishing.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.