Grading Indian Head $5 (1908-1929)
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Ask any experienced collector or dealer what is the most difficult coin type to grade, and there's a good chance that the quarter eagles and half eagles of 1908-29 will be named. These coins simply don't play by the rules. The distinctive treatment of their relief, being set below the fields, makes for a shortage of nice examples and for a real grading challenge. Since Indian Head half eagles are rarely collected in less than About Uncirculated condition, I'll limit my observations to coins in this grade and higher.
Boston sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt was commissioned to fill the vacancy left by the death of Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1907. President Theodore Roosevelt wished to continue his general redesign of the nation's coins along the same high standards established by the late sculptor. At the urging of William Sturgis Bigelow, a mutual acquaintance of Roosevelt and Pratt, the latter prepared his models in the so-called Egyptian relief. The devices were raised, as on conventional coins, but they were also set within cavities in the fields. This left the highest points of relief level with the fields. Only the coin's mintmark, if any, was higher than the field.
While most coin types are likely to reveal scuffs and contact marks on their devices, the Indian Head half eagle displays most of its flaws in the coin's fields. This can make evaluation of their impact on the coin's grade quite uncertain. When marks and abrasions appear on the Indian's cheek, there is no ambiguity; such marks are typically very damaging to the coin's grade.
The same problem exists in determining whether a particular coin is in mint state or is lightly worn. The book The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins directs the user to look for the first signs of wear on the "cheekbone, headdress, headband feathers; shoulder of eagle's left wing." These will indeed be the first points of relief to wear, but the initial signs of circulation may actually appear as dullness in the fields. Look for a loss of luster in either location to be certain that a coin is actually mint state.
Indian Head half eagles are generally well struck, though this same book warns that the following dates are "usually encountered with weak strikes:" 1909-O, 1910-S, 1912-S and 1915-S. Especially common with coins of this type are weak, ill-defined mintmarks. A clear 'S' mintmark on the San Francisco Mint coins dated 1908-16 is indeed rare. In fact, NGC includes a separate grading entry for most S-Mint issues displaying a "Weak S. Also problematic are 1909-O half eagles, which may be difficult to distinguish from the far more common 1909-D coins. These, too, includes separate grading entries described as having a "Weak O" mintmark.
The lack of raised rims on Indian Head half eagles has condemned most of the mint state survivors to the lower grades of MS-60 through MS-63. Without this protective feature, their exposed fields and devices were subjected to frequent contact with other pieces. As the first year of issue, more 1908(P) half eagles were preserved by collectors than were any other dates, so the number of choice and gem examples is proportionally higher.
As with all federal gold coins minted for circulation, Indian Head half eagles contain copper and sometimes silver as part of their alloy. They are thus subject to light toning. A pale orange tint is most common, though some pieces may be faintly greenish, particularly near their borders. Such toning typically does not affect a coin's grade at all. Concentrations of alloy, however, can result in very obvious spots of deep orange or russet color. These are considered undesirable by many collectors, though veteran numismatists often find them charming signs of originality. Also troublesome are tiny, black spots, commonly though erroneously called "carbon spots" or "fly specks." Depending on their severity, these may result in a slight downgrading of a coin.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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