1817/4 50C VF20 PCGS. O-102a, R.7....
The Johnson-Witham Example
Not only is the 1817/4 one of the rarest American coins, it is also one of the "greatest," earning it the number 57 ranking in Jeff Garrett's and Ron Guth's 100 Greatest U.S. Coins (second edition, 2005). In addition to its rarity, this overdate possesses other attributes considered by Garrett and Guth to make a coin great, namely value, popularity, and history.
With respect to value, the 1817/4 displays one of the highest prices in representative grades of all U.S. coins listed in the 2011 Guide Book of United States Coins (the "Red Book"). And while not as "popular" or appreciated by as large an audience as the 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent (another of the "100 Greatest"), the 1817/4 is still one of the top favorites (if not the favorite) among Bust half dollar collectors. What Bust Half Nut Club member does not dream of having this classic rarity in their collection?
Finally, the 1817/4 half dollar, like other truly great coins, is steeped in history. One only has to speculate on the factors underlying its origin, or why it escaped the attention of numismatists for more than 100 years, or on the circumstances surrounding the discovery in 2005 of the eighth known example by a non-numismatist contractor raking fill in upstate New York. It was only when his 14-year-old coin-collecting son looked the coin up in the Guide Book and then printed a copy of Sheridan Downey's commentary on the 1817/4 half dollar in Collectors Universe CoinFacts.com website did the significance of the discovery become apparent.
Two die states are recognized for the 1817/4 half dollar: O-102 and O-102a (Don Parsley and Al Overton, Early Half Dollar Die Varieties, 1990). Parsley and Overton indicate that the latter state displays a die crack spanning the entire obverse, from edge above upper peak of cap and running downward across cap, lobe of ear, lower curl and just right of 7 to edge.
Discovery of the First 1817/4 Half Dollar
E.T. Wallis of the California Stamp Company in Los Angeles is credited with the discovery of this variety of 1817 half dollar. He reported the discovery in the October 1930 issue of The Numismatist, under the "Editorial Comments--Numismatic News" section, and titled the commentary NEW VARIETY OF HALF DOLLAR OF 1817 REPORTED. Wallis called the coin "practically Uncirculated." He also referred to the coin on the back cover of his November 14, 1930 auction catalog under the title WE JUST DISCOVERED AN 1817 OVER 14 U.S. HALF DOLLAR. Parsley and Overton indicate the coin then disappeared from public record. Downey writes on the Busthalfprices.com web site that Overton uncovered the coin in 1952 and sold it to Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. for $1,500.
Roster of Known 1817/4 Half Dollars
The following roster of 1817/4 half dollars, listed (more or less) in order of discovery, is based in part on previous rosters provided by Sheridan Downey and Mark Borckardt:
1. E.T. Wallis-Louis Eliasberg specimen, O-102a, AU50 PCGS. The finest of the nine known examples. Its most recent appearance occurred in the Treasures from the S.S. New York sale (Stack's, 7/2009), lot 542, where it realized $356,500.
2. Ed Johnson-Stewart P. Witham example, O-102a, VF20 PCGS. The present example. Discovered by Ohio coin dealer Ed Johnson, who owned it since the 1940s. Purchased by Witham in 1966. Last offered privately in 1983.
3. Charlton Meyer specimen, O-102, VF25-VF30. Located in California by Overton in 1962. Gloria Meyer purchased it in 1975 as a gift for her husband.
4. Overton example, O-102, Good 6, Repaired. Overton bought the coin in 1969 and had a gouge on the reverse repaired.
5. Floyd Farley specimen, O-102a, VF25 NGC. Witham acquired the coin for Farley in 1968, who then consigned it to Downey (7/2002), lot 8.
6. Alfred E. Burke example, O-102a, VF20 NGC. Acquired in 1965 by Burke of Philadelphia as a "Punctuated Date" (O-103). Recognized by Burke as an 1817/4 in 1973 or 1974 after he bought the 1970 edition of Overton's reference.
7. Leonard Elton Dosier specimen, O-102, Fine 15 PCGS. Discovered by Milton Silverman in 1976. Sold privately by Sheridan Downey to Dosier in 1988.
8. George Williams example, O-102a, XF Details, Corroded ANACS. Also cleaned in an attempt to remove the corrosion and grime. The corrosion does not severely impact the design elements, which exhibit relatively strong XF detail.
9. Unnamed, O-102, Good 6 PCGS. Found by a Colorado woman in a family inheritance in 2007. Originally graded VG8 Obverse Scratch by ICG. The scratch extends from the clasp to the left of the date. The coin displays VG detail.
The Johnson/Witham Specimen
The circumstances surrounding Johnson's acquisition and its later sale to Witham are recounted in a "Memo to File" that Witham typed for himself on May 27, 1966. This memo is presented here in its entirety, courtesy of Sheridan Downey who reprinted it in the previously mentioned Busthalfprices.com web site:
"Ed Johnson, of Wooster, Ohio bought this coin which is considered to be Overton 2, Grade Fine to VF, with a typical weak reverse, from a New York dealer in the early years of World War II. The dealer sold Ed several coins as overdates, including this 1817/14. It was sold as a punctuated date 1817, but Ed was sure that it was not such a coin. It wasn't until further contingent study that he realized that it was 1817/14, which at that time had not been completely reported in the coin press. The coin had actually been discovered and was first reported in the October 1930 NUMISMATIST, verified by Newcomb and Beistle, but it was never carried on from there and not entered into the standard catalogue of the day. Thus Ed took the coin with him to the West Coast and conferred with Abe Kosoff, who had known about it or had seen one of these coins. He (Ed Johnson) was offered $500 for it on the spot; Adolph Menjou was interested but Ed would not sell. He retained the coin as a symbol of his business, using it on his stationery and on his cards for all of the ensuing years. I bought the coin from Ed on May 18, 1966 for $4,850."
This piece shows attractive light tan patination over both sides, taking on slightly deeper hues in the recessed areas and around the peripheries, the latter also displaying accents of reddish-brown and bluish-purple. The design elements, generally well centered on the planchet, exhibit strong definition for the designated grade level. Liberty's drapery and clasp are sharp, as are all letters in LIBERTY, and the eye and eyelid show clearly. The eagle's plumage is about two-thirds delineated, and all horizontal shield lines are separated. Portions of the right sides of both obverse and reverse reveal minor strike softness, a typical characteristic of the variety, but even these areas stand out on the present coin. The dentilation is complete except on the upper-right obverse. Remnants of the underdigit 4 are clearly visible beneath the 7, including serifs and crossbar (see enlarged date area). The small notch on the final star, believed to be the trademark of engraver John Reich, is evident, and the vertical die crack characteristic of the die state bisects Liberty portrait. Uniformly distributed light contact marks are no more numerous or severe than what would be expected of a coin that experienced moderate circulation. This problem-free specimen is sure to capture the attention not only of Bust half dollar specialists but of advanced numismatists in general.
From The Witham Collection of Capped Bust Half Dollars.(Registry values: N14284) (NGC ID# 24F8, PCGS# 6112)
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