1817/4 Half Dollar, XF Details, O-102a
1817/4 50C -- Environmental Damage -- NGC. XF Details. O-102a,
R.7. We first offered this specimen in our January 2006 FUN
Sale, shortly after it was discovered, the eighth known example of
the rarity. At the time, we wrote:
One of the Great Rarities in 19th Century U.S. Numismatics
"It is always an exciting event when a newly discovered numismatic rarity is reported. Such was the case when an 1817/4 half dollar was unearthed (literally!) by contractor George Williams while raking fill in upstate New York. This is the eighth known specimen of the rare overdate."
News of the discovery appeared in the October 24, 2005 edition of Coin World. Williams said he ordered a load of fill for some foundation work he was doing. He was raking the soil when he heard a 'cling.' His son Nial, 19, turned the hose on the object and revealed an early date half dollar.
The Coin World article goes on to say that when Williams returned home with the coin, his 14-year-old coin-collecting son, Cullinan, looked it up in A Guide Book of United States Coins (the 'Red Book'). The boy then printed a copy of Sheridan Downey's commentary on the 1817/4 half dollar in Collectors Universe's CoinFacts.com web site that revealed more details about the rare overdate. The entire family then became increasingly excited about the find. The coin was certified by ANACS with XF Details and some corrosion. This may well make it the second finest known survivor behind an AU50 example that [in November 2004] for $333,500.
The 1817/4 half dollar was first announced to the numismatic community in the October 1930 issue of The Numismatist, under the 'Editorial Comments-Numismatic News' section. We quote the commentary entitled NEW VARIETY OF HALF DOLLAR OF 1817 REPORTED in its entirety:
'E. T. Wallis, of Los Angeles, Cal., writes that he has recently discovered a heretofore unknown variety of the 1817 half dollar, the last figure of the date being cut over a 4. A number of half dollars of 1817 over '13 are known, but this is the first one over '14 reported, Mr. Wallis says. He also says the coin is practically Uncirculated and the overdate can be seen plainly. The reverse is also an unlisted variety, as both I's in United and America have the lower ceriphs broken off diagonally toward the right, and the I in United also has the left side of the top ceriph broken off. The obverse shows a die break across the coin, starting from the border to the right of the figure 7 and through the ear and between B and E of Liberty to the top of the border. Mr. Wallis thinks the die may have been cracked when the 7 was cut over the 4 and the die may have been broken when the striking began. Howard R. Newcomb, of Los Angeles, and M.L. Beistle, of Shippensburg, Pa., both authorities on the half-dollar series, have examined the coin and pronounced it a hitherto unknown variety.'
Why is the 1817/4 variety so rare, i.e., why were so few apparently minted? Part of the reason may stem from Wallis' thought above that the die may have broken when the 7 was cut over the 4, which had been partially effaced by Mint personnel. We might speculate that this effacing weakened the die, causing premature failure after just a few strikings. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the 1817/4's cousin, the 1817/3, did not have the 3 effaced, and was produced with a considerably higher mintage. This leads to another intriguing question: was the 1817/4 struck prior to the 1817/3? If the theory that effacement of the 1817/4 caused the obverse die to break is given credence, then perhaps Mint personnel, wanting to avoid a repeat of this problem, skipped the effacement process for the 1817/3 variety.
Downey presents additional information that may help to explain the shorter-than-normal life of the 1817/4 obverse die. In his April 1, 1997 catalog of the Alfred E. Burke 1817/4 specimen, he states:
'I have seen and studied the Dosier, Overton, Burke and Meyer specimens. It is apparent that the obverse die was poorly prepared, either in 1814 or when it was reworked in 1817. Its face was 'sprung' or warped, not flat. When brought down in the screw press it unevenly impressed the planchet. The high portion of the left side of the die, the fields, could not properly smooth the natural roughness of a raw planchet. The adjoining curls, struck from the low areas of the die, are noticeably flat. The absence of pressure on the obverse, of course, led to weakness on the reverse. Thus we see flatness along the right side of the shield, the claws below and the tip of the right wing. Two theories seek to explain the shorter life of the die. First, it was not properly hardened after the annealing process, leading to its early fracture. Second, its irregular shape subjected portions of the die to unusual pressure during the coining process, again leading to early deterioration.'
A follow-up question is: why was a surplus 1814 die recycled in the first place, instead of preparing new dies? One answer to this question may lie in the early Mint's practice of using dies from previous years until they wore out or broke. This was apparently done, to some extent, for economic reasons, as die steel was relatively expensive, and it took considerable time to prepare new dies, as Craig Sholley also illustrates in a series of articles on 'Early U.S. Minting Methods' in the John Reich Journal. However, Mint personnel were continually experimenting with the forging and hardening of dies. According to the author, the early Mint had not mastered these techniques, resulting in frequent die failures. This may also help to account for Mint officials wanting to extend die life as much as possible.
The War of 1812 and its economic aftermath, along with a fire at the Mint, may also have played a role, if only indirect, in the rarity of the 1817/4 half dollar. Half dollar mintages of one million pieces plus were the rule for most years prior to the war and through 1814. By 1814, an economic recession and an associated decline in silver and gold deposits drastically reduced the mintage of precious metal coinage. In the case of the half dollar, only 47,150 1815-dated coins were produced, which according to Mint records were delivered January 10, 1816. Right after this delivery, again based on Mint records, a fire destroyed the structure holding the rolling mills and other pieces of equipment. This put an end to silver and gold coinage for at least a year, even though bullion deposits were beginning to increase again. By May 1817, with new equipment installed, the Mint resumed the coinage of silver. The first denomination struck was the half dollar, in great demand as the 'workhorse' of U.S. commerce in that era. Mint officials, who were probably anxious to process built-up silver deposits into coinage, may have, for the sake of expediency, simply retrieved a left over 1814 die from the die storage area and repunched it with a 7, causing it to break after just a few strikes. This scenario, of course, still begs the question: Why were Mint personnel unable to have dies ready for 1817 coinage, especially after the production of silver coins had been off line throughout 1816 and early 1817? Sheridan Downey (1977) states: 'One might suppose that (John) Reich (Assistant Engraver) had plenty of time in 1816 to prepare working dies for 1817. Apparently not. The first two obverse dies used in 1817 were overdates (1817/3 and 1817/4).'
Roster of Known Examples:
1. E.T. Wallis-Louis Eliasberg specimen, O-102a, AU50 PCGS. Offered in a Fixed Price List by Wallis, said by Wallis to have been in a family collection since 1846; "rediscovered" in the Pratt Collection by Al Overton (1953), sold to Louis Eliasberg for $1,500; Eliasberg Collection (Bowers and Merena, 4/1997), lot 1735; purchased out of Eliasberg by Don Kagin and Andrew Lustig for $209,000; sold ca. June 1997 by Kagin and Lustig to Dr. Juan XII Suros for a reported $250,000; Juan XII Suros Collection (Superior, 2/1999), lot 180; sold to Jay Parrino and Don Kagin for approximately $184,000; ANA Auction (Bowers and Merena, 7/2003), lot 14430, unsold; Richmond II Collection (David Lawrence, 11/2004), lot 1388; sold to George "Buddy" Byers for $333,500; George "Buddy" Byers Collection (Stack's, 10/2006), lot 1031, to John Gervasoni; "Treasures from the S.S. New York" Sale (Stack's, 7/2009), lot 542, where it realized $356,500; Dr. Charles Link. The finest of the nine known examples.
2. Ed Johnson-Stewart P. Witham example, O-102a, VF20 PCGS. Discovered by Ohio coin dealer Ed Johnson in the 1940s; purchased by Witham May 18, 1966; last offered privately in 1983; sold with a group of 250 or so coins from the Witham Collection to a Philadelphia dealer; ANA Signature (Heritage, 8/2010) for $184,000, to Joe O' Conner who purchased the coin for a client.
3. Charlton Meyer specimen, O-102a, PCGS VF35. Purchased from a coin dealer in 1962 by Al Overton; sold to Empire Coin Company; sold privately to Hazen B. Hinman; The Century Sale (Paramount, 5/1965), lot 1112; offered in The Rare Coin Review (Bowers and Ruddy, issues #18-22, 1973-1975); purchased by Gloria Meyer as a gift for her husband, Charlton Meyer; sold to Sheridan Downey and Stu Levine, March 2008; Downey and Levine to an advanced Texas collection.
4. Overton example, O-102, Good 6, Repaired. Located in 1963 or 1964 by Ed Shapiro; sold to Dan Messer in 1964 or 1965; sold to John Cobb in 1965; sold to Steve Markoff in 1969; Al Overton bought the coin in 1969 and had a gouge on the reverse repaired (smoothed out); inherited by Donald and Bonnie Parsley (Al's daughter) in 1972; sold with the Al Overton Collection by Sheridan Downey in July 1993 to the current owner.
5. Floyd Farley specimen, O-102a, VF25 NGC. Discovered or first reported by Thomas Pfeiffer in 1967 or 1968 and sent to Don Taxay for authentication and sale; sold to Stewart Witham in early 1968; sold privately by Witham to Floyd Farley in March 1968, where it remained until 2002; Floyd Farley Collection (Sheridan Downey, 7/2002), lot 8, where it brought $132,000.
6. Alfred E. Burke example, O-102a, VF20 NGC. Acquired in 1965 by Burke of Philadelphia from Robert Dando as a "Punctuated Date" (O-103) in 1970 for $28; recognized by Burke as an 1817/4 in 1973 or 1974 after he bought the 1970 edition of Overton's reference Sheridan Downey Mail Bid Sale (4/1997), where it brought $135,000; Oregon Collection of Capped Bust Half Dollars (Downey, 7/2005), where it realized $193,359; crossed over from NGC VF20 to PCGS VF20 at ANA show in August 2009.
7. Leonard Elton Dosier specimen, O-102, Fine 15 PCGS. Discovered by Milton Silverman in 1976. Silverman did not reveal the existence of this piece until 1985. Sold to Leonard Elton Dosier; sold privately by Elton Dosier to Sheridan Downey in 1988; Mail Bid Sale #22 (Downey, 10/1988), lot 268, to John Crowley for $90,860; Crowley Selected Rarities Sale (Downey MBS, 8/2001), lot 4, to Jonathan Tidwell for $116,771; sold privately by Sheridan Downey from the Tidwell Collection (8/2004), for $135,000; sold privately by Anthony Terranova on December 6, 2004 to Dr. Charles Link for $155,000.
8. George Williams example, O-102a, XF Details, Corroded ANACS; subsequently crossed over to an NGC XF Details, Environmental Damage. The current example. Reported in Coin World on February 13, 2006, page 10; discovered by George Williams in some fill dirt in upper New York in 2005, dipped in Tarn-X; FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2006), lot 3184; Central States Signature (Heritage, 4-5/2009), where it brought $109,500. .
9. Unnamed, O-102, Good 6 PCGS. Found by a Colorado woman in a family inheritance in 2007. Reported in December 17, 2007 Coin World that an anonymous woman had received the coin from her father's coin collection left to her and her three siblings 10 years before; source unknown. Sold from the Colorado woman in the ANA Signature (Heritage, 7/2008), lot 1680, where it realized $87,499 to Chris Merril; crossed by Chris Merril from ICG VG8 Obverse Scratch to PCGS Good 6. The scratch extends from the clasp to the left of the date. The coin displays VG detail.
10. Only recently discovered in 2012, O-102a, PCGS VG8. Solid coin for the grade and problem-free. Currently part of an advanced Capped Bust half dollar collection in Louisiana; purchased on July 3, 2012.
As mentioned earlier, this specimen was discovered by George Williams of upstate New York. One of the outstanding features of this new discovery is its detail. The design elements display remarkable definition. The star centers are sharp, and Liberty's face, bust, and drapery are strong, as is the clasp. The eagle's feathers and talons and the shield lines are also nicely delineated. Portions of the right (facing) sides of both obverse and reverse reveal minor softness (characteristic of the variety), but even these areas stand out. The motifs are fairly well centered on the planchet, and about three-fourths of the dentilation shows. Remnants of the underdigit 4 are clearly visible beneath the 7, including serifs and crossbar. The small notch on the final star, believed to be the trademark of engraver John Reich, is evident, and the vertical die crack that is diagnostic of the die state bisects Liberty's portrait. Semi-bright, silver-gray surfaces take on a slightly darker gray appearance in the recessed areas. A few light corrosion patches are scattered over each side, but fortunately do not interfere with the design detail. Whatever surface roughness there is, it is primarily confined to the fields. All in all, this specimen is a strong contender for the second finest of the ten known examples, despite the minor corrosion. We expect spirited bidding when this coin crosses the auction block.
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The Draped Bust Half Dollars of 1796-1797 by Jon Amato is the culmination of more than 10 years of research into the Draped Bust Small Eagle half dollar series, one of the most coveted type coins in American numismatics and one about which remarkably little has been written.
This work will be the premier reference for 1796-1797 half dollars for years to come. Institutions having an extensive numismatic library or coin cabinet will find it a valuable complement to their holdings, and catalogers charged with writing up specimens for auction can now have an indispensable source of background and pedigree information. Likewise, coin dealers seeking to purchase one or more '96 or '97 half dollars for a client or for inventory, and collectors who own, have owned, or desire to own one will want this important reference work for their libraries.
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