US Coins

1854-S half eagle ‘discovery of a lifetime’

Identification of the fourth surviving 1854-S Coronet gold $5 half eagle, which the owner had believed might be counterfeit, is being touted as the “discovery of a lifetime.”

“It’s like finding an original Picasso at a garage sale,” says Mark Salzberg, chairman of Numismatic Guaranty Corp., the firm that authenticated the coin as genuine and graded it Extremely Fine 45.

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Since no example of one of the coins has sold since 1982, current values in the various price guides for on an 1854-S half eagle are speculative. NGC has placed a $3 million valuation online for an Extremely Fine coin, without making a specification for EF-40 or EF-45. With the addition of this fourth coin, Coin World’s Coin Values now assigns it a value of $1.75 million in EF-40 and $4.5 million in About Uncirculated 55.

The New England owner of the coin did not disclose to grading service officials how he came to acquire the coin, according to NGC, and the person’s identity is not publicly known. After learning that NGC determined the coin was genuine, the owner was said to be considering consigning it for public auction.

Three other examples are known from a mintage of 268 coins during the San Francisco Mint’s first year of production, and only one of them is privately held. One example is in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History; a Professional Coin Grading Service About Uncirculated 58+ example resides in the Pogue family collection in Texas; and a third coin has not been seen publicly since it was stolen during a daring armed robbery in 1967 at the Coconut Grove, Florida, estate of industrialist Willis H. DuPont.

In response to questions from Coin World, NGC President Rick Montgomery said April 18 that a comparison of diagnostics visible in photographs of the DuPont coin, which was sold by Stack’s in 1962 as part of the Samuel W. Wolfson Collection, against those of the newly certified coin, have convinced NGC officials that the newly certified piece is not the stolen and missing DuPont coin. NGC also compared the new coin to images of the Smithsonian and Pogue coins in checking diagnostics. The Smithsonian provided a photograph of its coin to NGC to assist with authentication of the coin owned by the New England man, according to Salzberg.

According to NGC’s website description of 1854-S Coronet half eagles, “Just a single die pair is known for the 1854-S half eagle, and it’s likely that all of this issue were coined in a single day. Curiously, two of the four survivors, including the coin pictured, feature a partial filling of numeral 4 in the date, this die cavity evidently becoming slightly clogged during the brief press run. Also seen is a die-clash impression on the reverse from Liberty’s neck.”

The newly discovered piece features the partial filling of the 4 in the date described by NGC.

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“Our initial reaction on examining the coin from New England was utter disbelief that a rarity of this magnitude could still be discovered in this era,” Montgomery said. “But upon seeing the coin in person for the first time it was apparent that the coin is genuine.”

In their 2005 reference 100 Greatest U.S. Coins, numismatic authors Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth rank the 1854-S half eagle No. 22.

Garrett and Guth speculate the likely reasoning for the low half eagle production is that depositors preferred large denomination coins like the $10 eagle and $20 double eagle as they were easier to store and count. The 1854-S eagle and double eagle have mintages in the low six figures. At the time, coins were being struck to order on behalf of depositors of gold bullion, according to Garrett and Guth.

As NGC notes at its website, “The [quarter eagle and half eagle] were included among the first delivery to depositors on April 19, but a mere 246 and 268 coins, respectively, were struck. Perhaps coined as just souvenirs of the new mint, it appears that nearly all were circulated and lost over time.”

The coin would not have been in collector demand in the 19th century until after the 1893 publication of Augustus G. Heaton’s Treatise on the Coinage of the United States Branch Mints. Before its publication, collectors paid little or no attention to Mint marks, and thus collectors had little incentive to seek and preserve low-mintage coins like the 1854-S half eagle.


The first auction appearance of an 1854-S half eagle came in the 1946 sale of the F.C.C. Boyd Collection by Abe Kosoff and Abner Kreisberg’s Numismatic Gallery. 

Renowned Baltimore numismatist Louis E. Eliasberg Sr. was the winning bidder at $5,250. The coin, offered as Extremely Fine, remained in Eliasberg’s collection until 1982 when Bowers and Ruddy Galleries sold the coin at auction for $187,000, which included the 10 percent buyer’s fee.

The auction was billed as The United States Gold Coin Collection without any reference to Eliasberg, though the identity of the consignor was widely known.

The coin was described there as choice About Uncirculated 55. That coin is now part of the Pogue family collection, portions of which have been sold in recent years.


Notable Fort Worth, Texas, dealer B. Max Mehl obtained another example privately and then sold it to prominent numismatist Col. E.H.R. Green. The coin changed hands privately several times until it appeared at auction in 1962 as part of the Wolfson collection.

The coin, whose condition was described as Extremely Fine, realized $16,500 in the 1962 sale by Stack’s. It is the DuPont coin whose whereabouts are unknown.


Mehl was involved in the handling of the third known example, which surfaced in 1919 and became part of the Waldo C. Newcomer Collection. The Newcomer estate sold the collection in the 1930s, with Mehl picking up the 1854-S half eagle and selling it to Green, making Green the only numismatist to own two examples at the same time.

The National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History contains the former Newcomer piece, which was donated in 1968 as part of the Josiah K. Lilly Gold Coin Collection pursuant to a congressionally legislated $5 million tax-write-off. 

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