The remarkable year of 1815: Gold Capped Head half eagle a rare and expensive item

Though there was little activity at Philadelphia Mint, the legacy of the year 1815 lives on for collectors
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 01/20/15
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Editor's note: The following is a portion of Bill Eckberg's  Coin World  cover feature on U.S. coins in the War of 1812 era. See links to the rest of the series at the bottom of this post.

The year 1815 was a significant one for the United States of America, but one that saw little activity at the U.S. Mint. Yet what the Mint did in 1815 has an outsize interest for coin collectors and students of numismatics. 

1815 gold coinage

The 1815 Capped Head half eagle, or gold $5 piece, is an extremely rare and expensive coin; only the wealthiest and most patient collectors can ever hope to own one. The entire mintage of 635 coins was struck, probably in less than an hour, on Nov. 3, 1815, for Thomas Parker, Charles Kalkman, and the Bank of Pennsylvania, who deposited the gold bullion. Of that mintage, Walter Breen’s 1988 Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins identifies 12 to 14 survivors. Numismatic Guaranty Corp. has certified four, with the highest graded Mint State 64; Professional Coin Grading Service has certified only three with the highest graded MS-65. Coin World’s Coin Values lists a value of $100,000 in Very Fine 20 and $210,000 in About Uncirculated 50. 

The 1815 Capped Head half eagles are of a design by John Reich. Born in Germany in 1768, he emigrated to the United States in 1800. Hired as assistant engraver of the Mint in 1807 at a salary of $600 per year, Reich redesigned all denominations except dollars and eagles, neither of which was produced while he was employed at the Mint. He quit a decade later, after receiving neither a promotion nor even a raise since his hiring.

Silver coinage of 1815

The 1815 Capped Bust half dollars are somewhat scarce. They were all struck from a single pair of dies, which was overdated from 1812. Several hundred examples are known, but they are under heavy collector pressure, as the single variety is needed by both variety and date set collectors. 

PCGS has graded 354 examples, with the finest graded MS-65; NGC has graded 233 with the finest graded MS-66. With Coin Values prices of $2,000 in VG-8, $4,000 in VF-20 and $17,500 in MS-60, these are beyond the means of most collectors. 

It is unclear when the 47,150 half dollars were struck, but they were delivered on January 10, 1816. These are of a Capped Bust design by Reich. 

Interestingly, though the 1815 Capped Bust half dollars were delivered in 1816, no 1816-dated halves exist. Just hours after the Jan. 10 delivery, a fire at one of the Mint buildings destroyed the rolling mill used to make strip for the planchets. No silver or gold coins could be produced thereafter until the mill was replaced in 1817. 

Quarter dollar mintage resumed in 1815 after none had been struck since 1807. The initial bullion deposit at the Philadelphia Mint came from the Planters Bank of New Orleans, which specified that it wanted its bullion coined only into quarter dollars. 

The 1815 Capped Bust quarter dollars are scarce, but several are sold at auction each year. NGC reports having graded 157 examples with the finest graded MS-67; PCGS reports having graded 252 examples, with the finest grading MS-66. 

A total of 69,232 were delivered in 1815, and another 20,003 were delivered on Jan. 10, 1816. Since no 1816-dated quarter dollars have ever been seen, these latter pieces must have been dated 1815 as well, making the total mintage for the date 89,235. 

Coin Values lists these at $400 in Very Good 8, $850 in VF-20 and $3,000 in MS-60. 

Mysterious Counterstamps

A great mystery about 1815 quarter dollars concerns several that are found with either an “E” or an “L” counterstamp over the cap worn by Liberty. The positions of the counterstamps are always the same as illustrated. Despite years of research and speculation, nobody has come up with a convincing explanation of what they mean or why, when or by whom they were made. But they do give some collectors a reason to own three examples of the variety: no counterstamp, E counterstamp, and L counterstamp. 

Keep reading this series:

The remarkable year of 1815: War of 1812's end and the U.S. Mint

The only date since 1793 for which no cents can be found: The remarkable year of 1815

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