1875 RARITY REPRESENTS IMPORTANT OPPORTUNITY FOR ADVANCED U.S. GOLD COLLECTORS
By David Stone
The 1875 Liberty half eagle is listed among the 100 Greatest U.S. Coins, and only a handful of specimens are known to numismatists today.
No business-strike examples are included in the great institutional collections at the Smithsonian Institution or the American Numismatic Society. Most of the celebrated old-time collections that have come on the market over the years have lacked a business-strike specimen, as contemporary collectors preferred to update their collections every year by purchasing proofs from the Mint. If not for the existence of about a dozen proof survivors (from a reported mintage of 20 pieces), the 1875 half eagle would be virtually unobtainable today.
As it is, the 1875 is a classic, if somewhat underappreciated, rarity in the U.S. gold series. Only 200 business-strike coins were minted, the second-lowest production total of any regular-issue U.S. coin, regardless of denomination. Small mintages were the norm for gold coins during the Reconstruction Era, as the U.S. government had suspended specie payments at the start of the Civil War and paper money did not circulate at par again until 1879. According to noted numismatic writer Walter Breen, most stores had two price lists for their goods during this time, one for payment in gold and another (a much higher priced) list for green backs. Under the circumstances, precious-metal coinage was widely hoarded and seldom appeared in circulation. Accordingly, the Philadelphia Mint struck limited numbers of gold coins, usually for specific purposes, like the yearly proof offerings, the customary supply of small denomination gold coins for Christmas gifts, or in return for gold deposits.
Philadelphia Mint business-strike gold production hit its lowest point in 1875, when only 400 gold dollars, 400 quarter eagles, 200 half eagles and 100 eagles were struck, all delivered on Dec. 18. Double eagles still had an important role to play in foreign trade and as currency reserves, so the mintage of $20 coins was a more robust 295,740 pieces, struck throughout the year. As might be expected, all 1875-dated lower denomination gold coins from the Philadelphia Mint are rarities today and none are more difficult to locate than the half eagles.
Among Liberty half eagles, only the legendary 1854-S (four examples known) is more elusive than the 1875. All specimens seen have spent some time in circulation and none grade finer than AU58. Numismatists at Heritage Auctions could only trace seven examples of this sought-after series key until an eighth specimen recently surfaced in Canada.
In March 2019, Heritage researcher Jacob Lipson received a call from a Canadian dealer who had acquired a previously unknown specimen of the 1875 Liberty half eagle in a group of otherwise unremarkable U.S. gold coins. Images of the coin looked authentic, with the diagnostic low placement of the date that identifies the business-strike issue. The coin had unusually sharp design elements and showed just a trace of actual wear. The pleasing surfaces displayed the expected number of minor abrasions and retained traces of original mint luster. Despite some faint hairlines and a slightly flat aspect from a light cleaning, the coin possessed stronger eye appeal than most examples of this landmark issue, which is unknown in Mint State. The coin was submitted to NGC for certification, where it was graded AU Details–Cleaned. The newly discovered example caused much excitement when it was exhibited at the Central States and Long Beach conventions and it has been consigned to Heritage’s 2019 ANA Signature® auction scheduled for Aug. 13-20 (HA.com/1298a).
Many gold specialists believe the Liberty half eagle series is under-collected and ripe for rapid increase in collector demand, which translates into higher prices. Liberty double eagles have been extremely popular in recent years and there are few bargains left in the series for numismatists to take advantage of. Many experts expect collector interest to spill over into the half eagle series in the near future, raising the visibility of key issues, like the 1875, to new levels. In any case, this exciting newly discovered example represents an important opportunity for the advanced U.S. gold collector.
DAVID STONE is a numismatic cataloger at Heritage Auctions who has written for The Numismatist and Coin World.
This article appears in the Fall 2019 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.