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From the September 2004 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:


Early Date Capped Bust Halves Undervalued Relative To Later Dates

By Mike Nourse

    Does anybody out there collect Capped Bust half dollars by date? Well, a few people do, but the vast majority of collectors are quite happy with just a single example in their type set, or possibly three examples if they want an expanded type set which would include a reeded edge example from 1836 or 1837 with "50 cents" on the reverse and another from 1838 or 1839 with "Half Dol." on the reverse. In any case, for purposes of this article, we will just be looking at the lettered edge half dollars produced from late 1807 through early 1836.

    A date set of Capped Bust half dollars is something that can be considered by many collectors, as there is only one key date, the 1815, and though it is expensive, it is still within the budget of many collectors in circulated grades. It is a good thing that very few collectors aspire to complete a date set, since the 1815 with it's mintage of 47,150 pieces is a very scarce item, and it would be prohibitively expensive if this series were more popular.

    What we want to focus on are the common dates, which really is every date other than the scarce 1815. Why are the common dates, well, common? There are two reasons for that: reasonably high mintages, usually over a million pieces produced each year, and a fairly good survival rate. The survival rate is quite high because banks often stored half dollars in their vaults as a reserve against paper money that they issued, as half dollars were the largest silver coin being produced from 1804 through the end of the 1830's. Another source was a religious group called the Harmony Society, who stashed over 100,000 of these coins in a hoard in Economite, Pennsylvania.

    However, once you start seriously looking at these coins, reading dealer advertisements in various numismatic publications and searching through displays of early halves at coin shows and coin shops, you will notice that not all of the common dates are equally common. What you will probably begin to see is a pattern developing in which the later dates, say 1826 to the end of the series, are readily available in a variety of conditions, right up to Uncirculated. That same level of availability just is not present among the earlier dates up through about 1825.

    I am not saying that the earlier dates are not available, just that they are not nearly as abundant as the later dates. If you go to a medium size coin show looking for specimens of the 1817 and 1832 dates for instance, you will probably have a dozen of the 1832's to choose from, and you should have little problem finding a decent one in whatever grade you desire for your set. As for the 1817, there may be one or two available, if any at all, and who knows what condition it (they) will be in. You can do the same analysis by looking through a few coin collecting periodicals and seeing which dates are most often advertised.

    Once you have established that the earlier dates are quite a bit less common than the later dates, it is time to look at the price structure and see if this is factored into their value. I would estimate that the earlier dates are at least five times as scarce as the later dates in circulated condition, based on my experience with the series. What that means is that a medium sized show might have a total of 100 coins available in dealer's cases dated from 1826 through 1836 compared to only about 20 coins available dated 1807 through 1825. When comparing prices, one will discover that the earlier coins are generally priced no more than double what the later ones retail for in similar condition. This represents possible opportunity for the investor!

    One thing to look out for in the Capped Bust half dollar series is what could be termed numismatic abuse. Such abuse generally takes the form of cleaning. Capped bust halves in Extra Fine and lower condition that have not been cleaned are almost always a nice silver - gray color, though they can also be tan or brown or dark gray approaching black. Harsh, abrasive cleaning can be spotted under a bright light as lots of parallel hairlines. Dipping is harder for the inexperienced eye to catch, but if you see a bright white VF Capped Bust half, it has been dipped. Sorry folks, there is no such thing as a white, circulated half dollar from over 167 years ago.

    So what is the advice for a collector based on this information? Well, if you are collecting a one-a-year set then this does not help you much, other than to inform you that the hardest dates to fill in will be the earlier years. If you are building a type set, then you are advised to purchase an attractive coin from earlier in the series rather than one of the more common later dates. They are a bit more expensive but well worth it. This recommendation holds true even if it means that you have to set your sights one grade lower to stay within your budget, because you will have acquired a much scarcer item.

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