The Indian Head gold pieces, including the Indian Head Half Eagle, are unlike any other coins produced before or since by Uncle Sam: their designs and inscriptions are sunken below the surface of the coins, rather than being raised.
Designer: Bela Lyon Pratt
Weight: ±8.24 grams
Diameter: ±21.6 millimeters
Composition: Gold (90%), Copper (10%)
Dates Minted: 1908-1929
In 1908, American consumers must have been truly surprised and baffled when they got a look at the new Indian Head $5 half-eagle gold coin (as well as its identical little sibling, the $2.50 gold piece). Instead of the standard Liberty bust which had adorned the face of $5 gold coins since 1795, there was now the bust of a Indian chief in full headdress. On the reverse was an eagle in repose, instead of the standard spread-winged eagle on the reverses of previous $5 gold coins. But what was more startling than the new designs, was just HOW the new designs were rendered: instead of the standard raised design common on all previous U.S. coins (and pretty much all world coins for that matter), the relief was incuse as in sunken BELOW the coin’s surface!
Yes, the incuse design of the Indian Head half-eagle was revolutionary, daring, innovative. But that was ok under the Teddy Roosevelt administration. After all, unsatisfied with U.S. coinage up to 1907, Roosevelt called for an artistic overhaul of U.S. coinage. No longer would U.S. coinage take a back seat to the great coin artistry of the European nations. In fact, President Roosevelt wanted coins that would compare favorably with the Greek coin classics of ancient times! So while Augustus Saint-Gauden’s super-bold relief Indian Head $10 gold coin and the Saint-Gaudens $20 gold coin of 1907 were ground-breaking pieces, Bostonian artist Bela Lyon-Pratt’s Indian Head quarter-eagle and half-eagle gold coins were ground-breaking in the low-relief sense!
Early on, there were indeed critics. It was said that the Indian chief on the face of the new half-eagle gold coin looked emaciated. There was also concern that the incuse design would be a haven for harmful bacteria lurking in the design crevices, just waiting to attack the fingers of all who held this new gold coin. So far as is known, no one became severely sick or died from handling an Indian Head half-eagle.
Like the previous Coronet Head $5 gold coin, the Indian Head $5 gold coin was 21.6 mm. and 8.3590 grams. In diameter, it was just a bit bigger than the U.S. nickel coin.
After 1929, the Indian Head half-eagle was never struck again. In fact, a circulating U.S. $5 gold coin was never struck again. By 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the United States off the gold standard, and indeed, it was illegal even to OWN a gold coin (unless its collectible status was apparent).
Mintages for the Indian Head half-eagle were robust from the beginning, only falling under 100,000 on three occasions. This coin was struck at the Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver and New Orleans mints. Only in 1909, however, was there production at the New Orleans mint, and it was a record-low production for the series with just 34,000 struck. It’s one of two key dates in the series, retailing at $2,000 in Very Fine, $3,400 in Very Fine.
Production was consistent from 1908 through 1915, but then the Indian Head half-eagle took a breather until 1929. When it returned, it returned with a vengeance: 662,000 were struck. So why then is the 1929 half-eagle the highest-priced date in the series, retailing $4,200 in Very Fine and $9,600 in Very Fine? Well, that shows how mass melting can affect the value of a particular coin– and the 1929’s were apparently melted in huge numbers as our nation entered the Depression Years.
Besides the 1909-O and 1929, the other dates in the Indian Head half-eagle series cost about the same: $330 in Very Fine, $355-$365 in Extra Fine, $385-$400 in About Uncirculated, and $460-$560 in MS-60. The trick is, grading a coin with an incuse design! After all, unlike the standard raised-relief coin, the design on THIS coin was “worn down” (below sea-level, so to speak) to begin with! Still, there are points on the coin’s design in which to look for wear: the Indian chief’s cheekbones, the headdress feathers, and the feathers on the eagle’s wings.