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Registry Set Guide: Putting Together a Killer Civil War Era Set (Part 1: 1861-1862)

In the November 6th issue of the PCGS eCollector, Hubert and I discussed the numismatic legacy of Abraham Lincoln, covering the coin series of his presidency and subsequent coins issued to commemorate him. This week, we'd like to take a look at PCGS' Registry Set "Civil War Set, Circulation Strikes (1861-1865)" and offer you a coin-by-coin guide to putting together what is, perhaps, one of the 19th century's most interesting and challenging themed sets.

We start by looking at the set from three grade levels. For the discriminating collector, we select Mint State 65. The series offers a handful of conditionally-rare pieces where this grade is unobtainable; in that instance we select the best available coins.

The second tier, a set built at the Mint State 63 level, offers collectors of all levels a hearty challenge. This set brings together desirable and attractive coins, and avoids the multiplier effect of incrementally-better, conditionally-rare coins. Completing this set at the Mint State 63 level would be a crowning achievement for any numismatist. We offer guidance to help you get the most for your money.

Finally, we build the set in AU. This "everyman" set contains all of the rare dates and mints, but does so conscientiously. At this tier, collectors have the additional pleasure of seeking many of the coins in raw form, which adds to the difficulty and fun factor.

In Part one of our two part series, we break down issues from 1861 and 1862.

1861: A House Divided...

Total Coins: 11
Key Pieces: 1861-S dime and quarter, and 1861 dollar.
Easy Pulls: 1861 cent, trime, half dime, and quarter.
Notes: 1861-O half dollar; no known Unc. 1861-S quarters.
Civil War Set, Circulation Strikes: 1861 Issues – Estimated Cost to Complete
Tier I: AU-50 Set* Tier II: MS-63 Set* Tier III: MS-65 Set*
$9,140 $26,830 $134,800
(* 1861-S 25c in VF, XF, AU-50)

History:

The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was seen as the final straw to political leaders in several southern slave-holding states. In order to preserve the Union, members of the Thirty-Sixth Congress formed the Committee of Thirty-Three. It was composed of one representative from each state and charged with bridging the seemingly irreconcilable differences between northern industrial free states and southern agrarian slave-holding states. The committee failed to offer a workable solution. Ohio Representative Thomas Corwin proposed a constitutional amendment that would bar Congress from interfering in the domestic institutions of any state. Outgoing President James Buchanan endorsed it and incoming President Abraham Lincoln offered no objection in his first inaugural address.

A more severe proposal came from Kentucky Senator John Crittenden, who introduced six constitutional amendments which, if enacted, would have bound free states to not only abstain from hindering the slave trade, but also to render northern municipalities culpable if they made any effort to aid runaway slaves. These efforts also failed to stay the march towards dissolution. The Southern States, seeing no resolution that met their demands, acted quickly to establish a framework for secession and formed the Confederate States of America.

Before Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, secessionists seized federal court buildings, post offices, and the two southern U.S. mints. The New Orleans Mint ceased federal operations on January 26, 1861, when Louisiana seceded from the United States. The New Orleans facility operated briefly as a mint for the C.S.A., minting confederate half dollars (of which only a handful survive).

In late April of 1862, Union forces seized New Orleans and reclaimed the mint, though it wouldn't be used again for producing coins until after the Bland-Allison Act mandated the production of huge quantities of silver dollars in 1878.

One of the amazing pieces of numismatic history to come out of this period is the story of the 1861-O half dollar. Before the federal government lost control of it, the New Orleans Mint had produced 330,000 half dollars. Between January 26 and February 28, when the confederate government took over mint operations, the State of Louisiana minted 1.24 million half dollars using federal dies. From February 28 on, the Confederate States of America produced 962,633 additional half dollars - which means that a majority of the 1861-O half dollars that survive today were produced without the consent or authority of the federal government. Numismatist Randy Wiley has pinpointed 14 die marriages of the coin that can be attributed to production under the C.S.A., making this the only collectible coin struck by the Confederacy.

In high grades, 1861 has several challenging coins. Three coins from the date are difficult even for collectors buying circulated examples. Two of these are products of San Francisco, and another - the 1861-S quarter - is one of the 19th century's great rarities. Here's what to expect from 1861:

The Coins:

The 1861 cent is one of the easiest coins to find in Mint State in the set. 10,100,000 of the copper-nickel cents were struck, all in Philadelphia. PCGS estimates that the population of uncirculated survivors is approximately 1,500, while they've graded over 950 coins in MS-60 or better with a single example grading MS-68. Collectors looking for exceptional quality have over 200 gem quality coins to choose from, more than 50 of them are in MS-66. The cost of an MS-63 example is about double the price of a problem-free coin in AU.

The silver trime has a mintage of a 497,000, with an estimated mint set survivor rate a hair under that of the 1861 cent. Prices for the diminutive denomination are in line with cent as well. Being a silver coin, most examples have some degree of toning, typically rim toning. Another coin that collectors should have little problem in obtaining is the 1861 half dime. Mintage for the piece is a hair under 3.4 million with fewer survivors than the trime. However, due to the general lack of popularity for the denomination all but the best known examples can be had for under $800.

Nearly half the number of dimes as half dimes were minted in Philadelphia this year. Surviving totals of Philly strike Seated Liberty dimes are in line with Seated Liberty half dimes relative to minted totals. Recent trends have this series doing quite well and in many cases selling for over bid. Several MS-65 examples exist but the coin is practically unheard of in MS-66 or higher. The 1861-S dime, however, is whole different story. San Francisco's output of dimes in 1861 was roughly 1/10th that of Philadelphia. Today, Mint State examples of the Philadelphia dime are 26 times more common. In fact, after 25 years, PCGS has only graded seven uncirculated examples with two of those meeting or exceeding MS-65. This is certainly the type of coin that a serious collector will have to be patient if they wish to put together a world class Civil War era set. It's our opinion that PCGS undervalues the coin in their Set Registry weighting system.

The Philly Seated Liberty quarter of 1861 had a mintage of 4,853,600, making it the most common denomination struck outside of the Indian cent. Uncirculated examples tend to fall in the MS-62 to MS-64 band, with 47 coins grading at MS-65 or better. The coin is relatively inexpensive in AU and is a good value at the quality grade of MS-64, which sells for 1/3 the cost of MS-65. The San Francisco 1861 quarter is one of the great rarities of the 19th century. A paltry 96,000 examples were struck and from that total not a single known example remains in uncirculated condition. Four pieces come close, grading AU-58. PCGS estimates no more than 60 examples survive and those looking to acquire one can expect to pay $2,000 or more for examples in VF-20 to 35.

The Seated Liberty half dollar was struck in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and in New Orleans (amazingly under the authority of three separate governments!). Recent scholarship has led to the possibility of identifying certain dies struck during the confederate period. For the New Orleans issue, mint state examples of the half dollar are scarce but do come onto the market a few times a year with very little movement in price in recent years with the exception of pieces with exceptional eye appeal and color. Gem quality pieces are extremely scarce and will require tremendous patience as PCGS has only graded 13 pieces in MS-65 or better. PCGS list price of $6,750 is likely an accurate projection of what this coin would sell for in MS-65 when one becomes available.

The San Francisco half dollar of 1861 has the highest mintage of all Civil War San Francisco halves. However, finding one in Mint State is much more difficult than its New Orleans counterpart. PCGS has graded five pieces in gem or better. The last one sold in 2008 for a hair under $30,000. An example in Mint State 64 sold in May at a Heritage Auction for $4,000. About Uncirculated examples are offered for sale a few times a year with prices inching up past $1,000 for grades AU-55 and better.

Unlike the New Orleans and San Francisco halves, the Philadelphia is relatively common, with AU or better examples typically being available on the market at any given time. MS-64 offers the best quality for the money as far fewer surviving mint state coins qualify as gem or better. To date, only 34 coins have met PCGS standards for MS-65 or above, which is about double the amount of 1861 New Orleans issues.

77,500 Seated Liberty silver dollars were minted in 1861 which is substantially less than the 515,000 minted in the preceding year. Unfortunately, for those putting together a complete collection of U.S. Civil War coinage, the 1861 dollar has the highest mintage of the 1861-1865 period. PCGS believes that 1,100 examples of this coin survive. To date, they have graded only 50 in Mint State. The coin comes up for auction once or twice a year in grades above AU. Two of these have sold recently, one example in MS-63 brought $5,200 in July and a rare gem example sold in August at Heritage's Signature Auction for $44,000.00.

1862: ...the Gracious Favor of Almighty God.

Total Coins: 10
Key Pieces: 1862-S dime and 1862 dollar.
Easy Pulls: 1862 cent, trime, half dime, dime and quarter.
Notes: The 1862-S dime is likely undervalued; the 1862 dollar's price premium influenced by low mintage, not by availability.
Civil War Set, Circulation Strikes – 1862 Issues – Estimated Cost to Complete
Tier I: AU-50 Set* Tier II: MS-63 Set* Tier III: MS-65 Set*
$8,150 $17,090 $98,710
(* 1862-S 10c in VF, XF, MS-63. 1862-S 25c VF, XF, MS-63. 1862-S 50c AU-50, MS-63, MS-64)

History:

President Lincoln removed General McClellan due to a lack of progress in the prosecution of the war. In March, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (originally the USS Merrimac) faced off in what some describe as the first naval battle of the modern era. By the end of the year, Confederate and Union forces had fought two of the war's most important battles: Shiloh and Antietam. Lincoln and his cabinet met to work on the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order stating that slaves in confederate territory not returned to Union control by January 1, 1863, would be declared free by the federal government. It provided rules of engagement for advancing Union armies in confederate territories and made explicit the government's determination to not only reunite the former Union but to do so while abolishing slavery.

Coin production in 1862 was significantly reduced as the government continued to issue greenbacks to pay for the war. The availability of precious metals began to dry up during this period. Private copper tokens were issued to aid with commerce, and high inflation gripped both the North and the South.

For collectors, despite instances where fewer coins are available, prices for 1862 issues tend to be slightly lower than those from 1861. There are exceptions of course, but collectors tend to "book-end" Civil War issues, creating slightly less demand for the middle-year releases.

The Coins

The 1862 cent is twice as common as the 1861. A couple thousand BU examples remain, with a healthy 216 graded by PCGS at MS-65. At MS-67, the coin is a conditional rarity, with eight known specimens. The price of the coin doubles from MS-64 to 65, triples from MS-65 to 66, and jumps significantly to the top pop grade.

150,000 fewer trimes were struck in 1862. Unexpectedly, they remain more prevalent than their 1861 counterparts. Quality control during production was spotty, as this year tends to yield a higher-than-average number of die clash images. Typical BU grades fall in the MS-63 to MS-65 range, with MS-66 being common enough to command only a slight premium over MS-65. Ten coins to date have been graded MS-67 by PCGS, and these coins come up for sale at a pace of roughly one a year, typically selling for around $3,000.

Production of half dimes was also off in 1862, with less than half the 1861 mintage produced. In terms of scarcity, however, the lower mintages have little effect as PCGS estimates that the total number of BU 1862 half-dimes is 40% higher than the year before. Again, even as Seated Liberty coinage is in demand, half-dime prices have lagged behind the larger denominations. MS-63 examples are quite reasonable, selling for $250 or below. Population totals decline above MS-65, but MS-67 examples do sell once or twice a year. PCGS has graded one piece in MS-67+, and three examples exist in MS-68.

1862 Philadelphia dimes are moderately more affordable in gem than the 1861 Philadelphia issue. Nevertheless, the coin is not common at this level by any means and a buyer must stay vigilant to find a quality piece. In 2012, three specimens were offered and each sold for just under $1,000. Most Mint State examples grade MS-64, and in this condition the coin commands $350-$400, depending on eye appeal and toning. Those looking for a nice AU coin will have to buy a nice raw example, since circulated pieces are not well represented in the population report.

As was the case with the 1861-S dime, the 1862-S is also very challenging. Despite a mintage of over 180,000 coins, precious few remain and to date, PCGS has graded only a handful in Mint State. Most collectors will have to settle for a nice VF or EF. If and when a Mint State example comes on the market (in all probability at a major auction at a national show), expect stiff competition. The PCGS-estimated price of $7,000 to $10,000 is based on auction figures that are more than eight years old. With the strength of the Seated Liberty series and the fact that additional pieces are not coming onto the market, we think that this price is probably conservative.

The Philadelphia Mint 1862 quarter had a mintage one fourth of its 1861 total. It's believed to be scarcer, but not sufficiently so that it commands a premium over what you'd expect for the 1861 piece. Quality is not a factor, as the Mint State spectrum is represented all the way up to 67, with nine to ten examples in MS-65 and MS-66. The coin crosses the $1,000 threshold once you get to MS-64, which is the most represented grade in BU. Fewer coins have been graded in AU to date, which means that you'll have to be persistent to find one already slabbed (though you could make your own, as most surviving circulated examples can be found raw). In most instances, AU should cost between $220-$250, depending on eye appeal.

Despite having a mintage one third less than its 1861 counterpart, the 1862-S quarter is more plentiful, though only by degrees. About a dozen or so Mint State examples have been graded by PCGS. Quality tends to be poor, with MS-62 being the prevalent grade. Prices for Mint State pieces steps up slightly as the grade improves. With two known examples in MS-64, we find a multiplier effect of times two in the PCGS CoinFacts price guide. This is a guess, however, as PCGS has no recently-listed auction values for this rarely-traded grade. Expect to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $30,000 or more, depending on the motivation of other buyers to secure this 19th century key date.

Half dollar production fell off by 90% as Philadelphia issued 253,000 halves in 1862. As a result, surviving populations are markedly lower, but not low enough to generate a premium over the1861 half dollar. Mint State populations are spread evenly through MS-65, though a handful of examples exceed this standard.

For San Francisco issues, a modest increase in mintage means the S-Mint 1862 half is slightly more accessible. Gem examples are basically non-existent, with PCGS grading a sole example above MS-65 (an MS-66 piece sold through Bowers & Merena in 2001). Assuming that one doesn't come on the market anytime soon, those wishing to put together a top-tier set will have to settle for a nice MS-64 example. In this grade, 1862-S halves come onto the market once every couple of years, recently going for $6,300 or more. A healthy sum for the top "collectible" grade.

A paltry 11,540 dollars were produced in 1862. Surviving totals are roughly equivalent to 1861, with most being AU or below and approximately 50 being Mint State. A slight premium for this issue is due to perceived scarcity of the date (based on mintage totals, not availability). In Mint State, distribution is centered in the MS-62 to MS-64 band. Three examples made PCGS MS-65; expect to pay multiples of the MS-64 price of $10,000 to $15,000 should one come onto the market while the Seated series remains hot.

**

We hope that you enjoyed the first part of our in-depth look at PCGS' Registry Set: Civil War Set, Circulation Strikes (1861-1865). We continue our breakdown of this challenging and historic grouping of U.S. Coins in the next issue of the PCGS eCollector, when we'll cover issues from 1863 through 1865. We'll also talk about the cent and its transition to a new metal composition, the introduction of the two cent piece, and the introduction of the nickel three cent piece. See you in two weeks!

Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker

PCGS Library