First minted in 1839, the Liberty Head half eagle, sometimes called the Coronet Head because of the coronet worn by Liberty, is considered a continuation of the influence of Neoclassicism style first seen on the half eagle in 1834. The Christian Gobrecht modification of William Kneass’ Liberty portrait was to last almost 70 years nearly unchanged, until replaced by the Bela Lyon Pratt Indian Head style in 1908. The last significant change to the Liberty Head design occurred near the end of the Civil War. During that conflict religious feeling was ascendant; few families were untouched by the mayhem and uncertainty that accompanied the war’s prosecution. Just a few weeks before the euphoria of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, which was followed a few days later by the horror of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, The Act of March 3, 1865, mandated the placement of IN GOD WE TRUST on all coins large enough to accommodate the inscription. The year 1866 saw half eagles minted both with and without the motto.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Due to hoarding and general uncertainty regarding the nation’s future, hard money circulation had all but ended during the War. The scarcity continued afterward, minimizing the need for large mintages of gold coins. However, by 1878 banks and the government resumed specie payments, half eagles were in demand, and the Mint produced large numbers of the coins. Other than in 1873 (a year of high mintage apparently due to recoinage of worn and obsolete gold pieces deposited by the Treasury), in no year from 1866 through 1877 was the total half eagle output greater than 100,000 coins; in 1875 and 1876, each year’s output was fewer than 25,000 pieces. Production surpassed one million coins for the first time in 1880 when over 4.5 million pieces were minted. Though not consistently at that level in subsequent years, mintage of Liberty Head With Motto half eagles dated from late 1870s forward was high enough that the dates are considered reasonably common today, but scarce or rare earlier than that. Proofs were made in every year of the type, but not until the mid 1890s did production reach 100 or more coins. Only proofs were minted in 1887.
On the obverse a classical Liberty faces to the left, hair bundled at the back and secured with a beaded tie, but with two strands of hair cascading down the side and back of the neck. The word LIBERTY stretches across a coronet resting above her forehead. Thirteen six-point stars encircle just inside a dentilled rim, and the date is centered at the bottom. The reverse displays an eagle with outstretched wings and a shield over its breast. The eagle clutches an olive branch in its right claw (viewer’s left) and three arrows in the left claw, though fletching is visible for only two of the arrows. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, broken into three parts by the eagle’s wing tips, follows the periphery. The denomination of FIVE D. at the bottom completes the circle of text, separated from the U of UNITED and the last A of AMERICA by a centered dot on each side. Above the eagle, below STATES OF, is a curved banner displaying IN GOD WE TRUST. Liberty Head With Motto half eagles were minted at Philadelphia (every year except 1887), San Francisco (all years except 1889-1891, 1907-1908), Carson City (1870-1884, 1890-1893), New Orleans (1892-1894), and Denver (1906-1907); S, CC, O, and D mintmarks are located above FIVE D., below the eagle.
Several thousand business strike Liberty Head With Motto half eagles are listed in census/ population reports, more from 1878 forward, particularly those minted at Philadelphia from the late 1890s through the end of the type. Carson City, New Orleans, some San Francisco dates, and varieties are generally not as common. Several prooflike pieces have been certified. Most examples minted prior to 1878 are expensive as XF40 and finer, very expensive as MS60 and finer. With Motto half eagles minted at Carson City and New Orleans are expensive to very expensive, with some dates extremely expensive finer than MS64. With a few exceptions, Philadelphia half eagles minted later than 1878 are moderately priced through MS62, expensive to very expensive finer. Higher priced examples include 1870-CC, 1873-CC, 1875, 1878-CC, and most Gem and finer pieces. A few hundred Liberty Head With Motto proof half eagles have been certified, including Cameo and Deep Cameo examples. For many dates prior to the late 1880s fewer than 25 coins are listed in census/ population reports. Proofs from every year are expensive to very expensive, with a few extremely expensive as Gem and finer. Higher priced pieces include those proof half eagles minted prior to 1880, particularly the 1875 pieces, and 1887.
Designer: Christian Gobrecht; motto scroll by James B. Longacre
Circulation Mintage: high 5,708,802 (1881), low 200 (1875; none in 1887)
Proof Mintage: high 230 (1900), low 20 (1874, 1875, 1877, 1878)
Diameter: 21.6 mm, reeded edge.
Metal Content: 90% gold, 10% copper
Weight: 8.36 grams
Varieties: Several known including 1873 Close 3 and Open 3; 1881 Final 1 Over 0; 1901-S, Final 1 Over 0; and other minor die variations.
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
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