Grading Capped Bust Half Dollars (1807-1836)
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As a general rule, early United States coins are not widely collected by dates and varieties. More often than not, collectors will seek just one or two examples for their type sets. The exceptions to this rule include large cents and half dollars, which have a long tradition of being acquired by both dates and varieties. The reasons for this popularity are twofold — these series are far more available over a range of grades than are the other denominations, and they also enjoyed a more regular coinage with few interruptions in the date sequence.
The most eagerly collected of the early half dollars are those featuring John Reich's Capped Bust Liberty of 1807-36. Nearly all dates are reasonably available in higher grades up to and including Uncirculated. While it was once thought that all dates in this series were common in mint state, this has proved to be true only of the later dates (roughly from 1820 onward). Until the past 25 years or so, any Capped Bust half dollar which looked more or less uncirculated was apt to be cataloged as such. With the rise of values in recent decades and the resulting adoption of more specific grading standards, many of these coins formerly classified as Uncirculated are now recognized as being About Uncirculated.
All it takes to reduce one of these handsome coins to the AU level from mint state is a bit of wear on the highest points of Liberty or the eagle. This is all too common, as Capped Bust halves were coined in an open collar and thus have shallow rims which did little to protect them from wear. Coins struck from worn dies in which repeated compression eroded the peripheral design elements, such as the legends and the stars, suffered even more from poorly defined rims. These are the examples most likely to have just a touch of light wear on their highest points.
There are two popular subtypes of the Capped Bust half dollar. The first was coined in 1807-08 only. Remodeled in 1809, differences are evident in the shape of Liberty's bosom and in the size and angle of the eagle's head. A side-by-side comparison will reveal several other distinctions less obvious. On the first subtype, the word LIBERTY on the goddess' headband is inscribed with shallow letters that have shading lines within them. As a result, this motto is a bit less distinct and wears more quickly than on later coins. This fact is noted in the book The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins and it should be included in any determination of grade for a circulated coin.
The bust of Liberty was modified again several times beginning in the 1820s and more obviously so during the early 1830s. The grading standards for this type remain the same for any date in the series, though these later pieces typically have more defined rims and superior strikes overall. Exceptions may be found in several varieties dating from the early 1830s, when mintages were high and the dies were used well beyond the point at which they began to erode.
Most dates in this series have more than a single die variety, and some of those with larger mintages have dozens of varieties. These will vary a bit in their relative striking qualities. For example, some varieties were coined from dies that were not properly hardened, causing the dies to sink at or near their centers. This gave the resulting coins a slightly convex quality and left these bulged areas softly struck. Learning to distinguish between weakness of strike and legitimate wear is a skill that can be acquired only from handling a large number of coins. This learning process may be accelerated by taking a grading course from experts such as those who teach at the ANA's Summer Conference or at its regional seminars.
Third-party grading services such as NGC receive quite a number of Capped Bust halves for grading and variety attribution. Some of these are returned without a grade for one or more problems with their surfaces. Perhaps the single most common reason for rejecting such coins is that they've been improperly cleaned or have artificial toning — oftentimes both. Capped Bust halves were recognized as being collectable as long ago as the 1850s. In the 19th Century it was common for both numismatists and the general public to clean silver coins with abrasives or harsh chemicals. Some such pieces have naturally retoned nicely enough to become certifiable, while many others have not.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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