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Affordable Capped Bust Silver
By Mark Benvenuto, Coins Magazine
August 26, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The Coinage Act of 1792 authorized coins from the half cent all the way up to the gold eagle, all as part of a package that would serve the people of the new nation in terms of transactions small and large. In the middle of this lineup of coins were five denominations that were all to be made of silver. The half dime, dime, quarter, half dollar, and dollar were all to be silver coins.

It took some time for all these denominations to make their way out of the gate, and many collectors today only focus on a few of the gorgeous designs that have been issued from the 1790s to 1964. While some of the series of the early 1900s are indeed beautiful, it can be enlightening to look back at the oldest silver the Mint has produced and see what might still be affordable enough to expand a collection.

Capped Bust Half Dollars

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It would be wonderful to start this list with some classic silver dollars of the Flowing Hair design, but there’s a problem with that idea. The mintages were never high, from 1794-1803, for any silver dollars, and then there were essentially none until 1836. So, let’s start with half dollars.

The earliest half dollars that won’t cost an arm and a leg are the Capped Bust halves, issued from 1807-1839. Since there were no dollar coins minted in virtually that entire span of years, it’s a pleasant surprise to find that plenty of these same years have relatively high half dollar mintages. Relatively high for the time means more than 1 million coins per year.

To go back as far as we can, and to keep ourselves from drooling over coins we’ll probably never afford, we need a dollar figure that we can associate with any of the silver coins we’re interested in. If you’re thinking that $20 to $25 will land you something in this category, you can be applauded for your thriftiness, but you won’t be applauded for any purchases. The ante in for even a Good-4 specimen of any Capped Bust half dollar is $60 to $75, and G-4 is hardly that impressive a coin. No, something like $200 will land Capped Bust coins in a grade that still has some detail, such as a Very Fine-20. Going higher will always cost more.

With this $200 figure in mind, the first of the Capped Bust 50-cent pieces we can reel in will be the 1809. While it may be tough to believe, in 1809 the Mint managed to pound out just over 1.4 million half dollars. The fine folks in Philadelphia did almost as well the year prior, but the 1808 remains a more expensive coin in the mid to high grades.

But the 1809 Capped Bust half is not a stand-alone coin when it comes to a highly produced half dollar. The 1810, 1811, 1812, and 1814 all come in about the same price, or lower, in the VF-20. Although that grade means none of these will have an uncirculated shimmer to them, all will still possess significant detail and elements of the original design. In short, we have the beginnings of a date run.

As the Capped Bust half dollar series gets old, the mintages increase until there are several years in a row in which 4 or 5 million coins were made. That translates to coins we can add to a collection, still at or around that $200 price tag, in grades as high as Extremely Fine-40. This could become a beautiful collection all by itself. But there’s more silver we can look at from this time frame.

Capped Bust Quarters

Moving down a denomination to the “two bits” of an early United States does not automatically move us down in price. That may be a bit disappointing, but let’s keep in mind that collectors don’t generally buy Capped Bust coinage, or any of the other early U.S. coinage, because of the silver content. These are quite firmly collector coins. That, though, means they can still be a lot of fun.

No quarters were minted until 1796. And since the output that first year was a paltry 6,146 coins, most of us will have to start any quarter collection with the Capped Bust series, which got off the ground in 1804.

The series ran from 1804-1807, then again from 1815-1838, with a few years missing in there. It seems it took some time for quarters to move up to the workhorse status they have acquired today.

The oldest Capped Bust quarters we will probably be able to land are those minted from 1818-1821. None of these have mintages anywhere near their half dollar siblings, but they still cost $150 to $200 a few notches down from the VF grade, in Very Good-8. Most likely this is a simple reflection of how few collectors really go for this series. The 1820, for example, has an official tally of only 127,444 coins, but can still be landed for this pretty reasonable price.

I had talked about VF-20 coins and higher, though, when we were looking at half dollars. There’s no real reason to step down in quality as we look at quarters, but we will have to take a gander at some of the earlier dates within this series if we wish to keep the VF-20 grade and the $200 price range connected.

Fortunately, the eight years from 1831-1838 all fall into this zone for us. It’s not as though the Mint ramped up the output all that much in this time frame. Indeed, only the 1835 has a mintage of 1.95 million, which is about the combined mintage of all the other years in this small run of dates. But even the less common dates carry the same price tag in VF-20. Once again, a person could assemble a good short set, in this case from these under-collected quarters.

Capped Bust Dimes

Moving down a denomination we find that there are several early Capped Bust dimes with price tags well below $200. But much like the quarter, there are plenty of years in which there simply was no production of them at all. Apparently, the half dollars were the lion’s share of the output early on in the Capped Bust series.

When the design switches to what is called the close collar production, in 1828, the Capped Bust dimes really open up as a series. The very good news for collectors today is that the prices drop significantly when this happens. From 1829 until the end of the series in 1837, almost every date can be had in VF-20 for $100 or less. The mint-state pieces are still expensive (as they are for all the other Capped Bust coins as well), but this is the first series we’ve seen where a person could honestly make a date run of good-looking coins. That doesn’t mean we should exclude the earlier dates within this set of dimes. But for the money, the tail end is where the frugal collector will want to start.

Capped Bust Half Dimes

If ever a coin has been produced for decades and yet still is forgotten by collectors, it’s got to be the half dime. Anyone who is serious about them will tell you that the very first coins made by the Mint were the half dismes of 1792. And yes, the denomination was coined all the way to 1873. But there is not really an affordable one in a decent grade until the Capped Bust half dimes. Like their bigger sibling, the quarter, half dimes were coined in an off-and-on manner for years. Unlike all the other Capped Bust denominations, the half dimes were issued only from 1829 to 1837.

The complete lack of half dimes through what we might call the early phase of the Capped Bust design is disappointing, but the mintages for this denomination, when it finally did get cranked up, were above 1 million each year in all but two years (and even those were close). That’s very good news.

Almost every date can be purchased at or below $200 in EF-40. We’re able to move up to better grade coins when it comes to Capped Bust half dimes, and stay in the price range I have established. There are, admittedly, some varieties within this series that are scarce enough that they will cost more, but not many. The 1834 3 over inverted 3 stands out as a perfect example of one such scarce variety. But a collector who is patient can land at least one of the common versions of each of the nine years in this short series without too much trouble.

In this informal survey I’ve conducted, I have lamentably not been able to include a single date that is older than the year 1800, or that goes back beyond the Capped Bust design. That’s no surprise really, as Mint outputs were notoriously low in the earliest years, and in that collector interest always seems to run very high. But still, we have found quite a few dates within the Capped Bust series that are nearly 200 years old, all of which are still affordable coins. We’ve spanned the denominations from some very small pieces of silver to the biggest that were issued in their time. If you’ve never thought of pushing the boundaries of your collection further back in time, now might be the time to consider it.

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