Few American coins are as rare and celebrated as the 1822 Half Eagle. Despite an original mintage of 17,796 pieces, there are only three known survivors. Two of these permanently reside within the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, leaving just one example available to private collectors. The single privately owned piece has not been seen at auction for more than 25 years, adding to the allure and desirability of this famous issue.
Early American gold coinage consisted of three different denominations authorized under the Coinage Act of 1792. The quarter eagle with a value of $2.50 represented the smallest gold denomination issued by the United States Mint until the later introduction of the gold dollar. The half eagle with a value of $5 might have been considered the “work horse” gold coin of the era. It had the highest mintages and proved to be the most popular within commerce, both domestically as well as internationally. The largest originally authorized denomination was the eagle with a value of $10. It was introduced in 1795, but production ceased after 1804 and did not resume until the late 1830’s. Essentially, this left the half eagle as the largest denomination struck by the United States Mint for much of its early history.
The half eagle underwent numerous design changes during the early years of production. The initial design by Robert Scot featured a depiction of Liberty wearing a cap and with her bust visible and partially draped. The initial reverse featured a small eagle holding a wreath and perched on a branch. After a few years, the reverse design was replaced by a heraldic eagle, also designed by Scot. In 1807, a new obverse and reverse designed by John Reich were introduced featuring a new rendition of Liberty on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse. From 1813, the obverse portrait was altered to include only Liberty’s head and neck with some of the features modified.
Despite the fact that United States gold coins were denominated, most actual trading, particularly in overseas commerce, was based on the content and weight of the coins. While the United States did not issue any of its coins particularly for overseas trade, many were exported and subsequently melted for their gold content. When the intrinsic value of the $5 gold coin had risen to $6, the melting of early American gold coins became even more widespread. Even the recently issued gold coins were melted in massive quantities. This phenomenon served to enhance the rarity of many early gold issues, but none so much as the 1822 half eagle.