Half Eagles – Capped Head Half Eagle, 1813-1834
The half eagle was the only U.S. gold coin produced in 1813. Quarter eagles were last made in 1808, not to be minted again until 1821, and eagles had not been struck since 1804, with no further production until 1838. Gold dollars and double eagles would not be seen until 1849-1850, nearly a generation away. There were two reasons for the lack of circulating gold coins. First, the gold that was brought to the Mint for coinage came generally from banks, and bankers apparently preferred half eagles, using them for internal reserves and for international commerce. Second, a fixed silver-to-gold ratio in the United States was at a disadvantage to the international ratios of the two metals, meaning that it took less silver to procure an ounce of gold in this country than it did overseas. Investors would buy an ounce of gold here for 15 ounces of silver, then sell that gold in Europe (where it was often melted) for 16 or more ounces of silver, buy another ounce of gold stateside with that silver, and so on. The cycle continued until gold essentially disappeared from domestic circulation. As a result, even though mintages of half eagles of this type were relatively generous (except for 1815), most of the coins ended up as bullion. Thus, the series has been described as being comprised of the “greatest rarities in American numismatics”, “impressive for its rarity”, and “the most difficult of all half-eagle designs to obtain.”
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
No half eagles were minted in 1816 and 1817 because of a January 11, 1816, fire at the Mint that damaged machinery used to prepare coinage strips and planchets. In 1829 changes in technology resulted in the production of a new version of the Capped Head type. The introduction of the close collar, or collar die, not only standardized the coin diameter but improved striking quality as well. Under the previous method of production the planchet had room to expand during striking, resulting in slight variance in the finished coin diameter. The collar die also imparted a reeded edge to the coin. William Kneass made slight modifications to the Reich/ Scott half eagle design to accommodate the new technology, most notably adding a beaded border inside of plain rims, in contrast to the previous dentilled border which extended to the edge of the coin. However, the change of technology did nothing to address the disparity between the face value of the half eagle and its bullion value, and gold coins continued to be melted. Not until the June 28, 1834, Act reduced the weight of all gold coins was the incentive to melt those coins removed.
The obverse features a left-facing portrait of Liberty, slightly larger in size and more matronly in appearance than the previous version. Thirteen six-point stars circle the bust inside the dentilled border, and the date is at the bottom. Half eagles struck in the latter part of 1829 through the early part of 1834 have a beaded border inside of a plain raised rim. The reverse features a left-facing eagle, wings outstretched, clutching an olive branch in its right claw, and three arrows in the left. A shield covers most of the eagle’s body. Above the eagle is a simple curved banner, ends folded to the back, displaying E PLURIBUS UNUM. Inside the rim, dentilled through 1829 and beaded from that date forward as on the obverse, is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA which forms nearly a complete circle (with breaks on either side of STATES OF to allow for the eagle’s wing tips) with the denomination of 5 D. at the bottom. The obverse stars and date, and reverse lettering are smaller on the reduced diameter coins issued from 1829 through 1834.
Only the 1813 business strike Capped Head half eagle is represented by more than 120 coins in census/ population reports. Many dates and varieties of this type are known by fewer than 20 examples, some by fewer than five pieces. Coins at all grades are expensive, often very expensive at grades finer than Extremely Fine. Issues that are higher priced include 1815, 1819, 1819 5D/50, 1822, 1825/4, 1828/7, and 1829. The 1822 half eagle is considered one of the premier U.S. coinage rarities, with only three examples known, two of which are permanently housed in the Smithsonian Institution. Should this coin ever become available, it would likely sell for several million dollars, matching or exceeding the price of other famous rarities such as the 1913 Liberty Head nickel and the 1804 Draped Bust Dollar. The 1825/4 is the second most expensive example of the type, listing for several hundred thousand dollars at all known grades. Proof issues are likewise extremely rare, and have been certified only for the years 1830, 1832, and 1833, by no more than a half dozen coins for any one date. All proofs are extremely expensive, approaching prices of one million dollars as Premium Gem or finer.
Designer: John Reich (1813-1815), Robert Scot (1818-1829), William Kneass (1829-1834)
Circulation Mintage: high 263,806 (1820), low 635 (1815)
Proof Mintage: high 5 (1825-1832, 1834, estimated), low 2 (1833; none known prior to 1825)
Denomintion: $5.00 Five Dollars Half Eagle
Diameter: ±25 mm, reeded edge (23.8 mm from the latter part of 1829 forward)
Metal content: 91.67% gold, 8.33% silver and copper
Weight: ±8.75 grams
Varieties: Several are known, including overdates of 1814/3 (all of the 1814 issues), 1825/1 (or possibly a partial 4 instead of a 1), 1825/4, 1828/7; 1818 STATESOF, with no space between the two words; 1818 and 1819 5D over 50; 1820 Curved and Square base of the 2, Large and Small letters; 1832 with only 12 obverse stars; and 1834 Plain and Crosslet 4. There are additional varieties with small and large numbers/ letters, as well as other minor variations in the size or placement of device features. Some varieties are extremely rare, with only five or fewer pieces known.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties; A Study of Die States, 1795-1834. John W. Dannreuther and Harry W. Bass Jr. Whitman Publishing.
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.