Grading Liberty Head $5 (1839-1908)
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Christian Gobrecht's Coronet Head of Liberty, created in 1838, appeared on no less than five coin denominations, including the half cent, cent, quarter eagle, half eagle and eagle. In fact, the last half eagles to bear this portrait were coined as late as 1908. The Coronet Half Eagle was also the only one of these five denominations struck at all seven of the USA's domestic mints.
With such an extensive series it's difficult to apply a single set of grading standards to so many date and mint combinations. After all, a Charlotte Mint half eagle of 1846 may display characteristics that would be alien to a coin struck at the Denver Mint in 1907. Still, while subtle changes were made this type's master hubs during its 70-year history, the same basic design elements and overall relief were employed throughout.
The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins describes the various grades of this coin type from Mint State through Fine and is quite accurate and useful. A notation appears, however, following the grade of Fine-12 stating that “Coins of this type are seldom collected in grades lower than Fine.” While that's basically true, there are a few exceptions. Rarities, such as the San Francisco Mint half eagles of the early 1860s and those struck at the Carson City Mint a decade later, are encountered quite heavily worn and remain desirable even in grades below Fine. Those who collect Coronet Half Eagles as a complete series, or even as a short set (such as the CC-Mint coins alone), may have to content themselves with circulated pieces for many issues. With a few notable exceptions, mint state examples of the early dates in the Coronet Liberty series simply don't exist at all or are prohibitively rare.
For the most part, collectors seek Liberty fives by type alone, being content to own a single piece in nice condition. As an alternative, the goal may be to acquire one displaying the motto IN GOD WE TRUST (1866-1908) and one of the earlier subtype lacking this motto (1839-66). There's a big difference in rarity between these two. Coins having the motto, particularly ones struck 1880 and later, survive in far greater numbers from overseas hoards that were later repatriated. Uncirculated examples ranging in grade from MS-60 through MS-64 are plentiful, while even MS-65 pieces may be found with some frequency for certain dates. Among the issues most often seen in gem condition are 1899(P), 1900(P), 1901-S, 1902-S, 1903-S, 1907(P) and 1908(P).
MS-65 specimens for these dates are more popular than they are truly rare, and the budget conscious collector will likely settle for one grading a point or two lower. This has the advantage of admitting some earlier issues to the mix, including coins dating back to the early 1880s. There is little demand for Coronet Half Eagles of this period and later years except in mint state, though worn examples meet the broad, largely non-numismatic demand for jewelry items and historic relics.
I've shied away from the subject of proofs, since such coins are rare and beyond most collectors' budgets. In fact, the highest mintage figure for a proof Coronet Liberty Half Eagle was just 230 pieces, a sales figure achieved in 1900 as Americans sought a keepsake of the new century. While proofs are thus not likely candidates for the typical type collection, the acquisition of a sharply struck and lustrous currency piece is an easily attainable goal. Regardless of date or mint, such pieces can be a delight to own.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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