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Monumental 1877 Copper Half Union Pattern
1877 $50 Fifty Dollar, Judd-1547, Pollock-1720, Low R.7, PR63
Gilt NGC. CAC. Large Head. Large Liberty Head design by William
Barber on obverse, reverse design similar to contemporary double
eagles except for the FIFTY DOLLARS at the bottom rim. Stuck in
copper, gilt, with a reeded edge. The half union or fifty dollar
pattern issues of 1877 are among the most storied and celebrated
patterns in all of American numismatics. Until the 1915-S
Panama-Pacific fifty dollar pieces they were the only U.S. coin
issues with a denomination of fifty dollars, and even today they
remain the only U.S. patterns of that denomination.
Struck in Copper, Judd-1547, PR63 Gilt
Seven to Nine Known Outside of Museums
They are also scandal-ridden issues with juicy stories of skullduggery and Mint shenanigans closely associated with them. While such tales neither increase nor decrease the coins' inherent beauty and considerable rarity, they certainly increase their cachet and marketability.
In 1877 the Mint created a remarkably variety of patterns, some of the most varied in the entire panoply of U.S. pattern issues. They include the long and interesting series of 1877-dated half dollars and silver dollars by George T. Morgan and William Barber and/or Charles Barber. But the fifty dollar or "half union" patterns (a "union" supposedly representing one hundred dollars) are by far the most remarkable. The Judd pattern reference, 10th edition, notes that Mint Director Henry R. Linderman (himself an avid coin collector and a highly conflicted individual) apparently ordered the patterns created, despite the apparent lack of any defined need. One piece each of the Large Head and Small Head fifty dollar patterns were struck in gold (Judd-1546/1548), along with perhaps a dozen or fewer examples of each in copper (Judd-1547/1549), some of which were later gilt, as in the case of the present example.
The Large Head pieces show the point of Liberty's coronet equidistant between stars 5 and 6, the neck truncation is much closer to the date, and the lowest hair curls end in a point, while the Small Head pieces show the coronet tip close to star 6, the truncation is distant from the date, and the lowest curls are rounded.
The www.USPatterns.com website estimates that from seven to nine specimens of the Judd-1547 exist today outside of those in museum collections, namely the Smithsonian, Connecticut State Museum, and Harry W. Bass, Jr. Research Foundation specimens.
The Large Head and Small Head gold half unions at one time were the center of a numismatic cause celebre, an uproar created when William H. Woodin exhibited the unique gold pieces, for which he had paid the unheard-of sum of $10,000 each, at the New York Numismatic Club in 1909.
In our FUN Platinum Night offering of a Judd-1373 gold 1874 Bickford eagle (Heritage, 1/2010, lot 2373) we discuss at length the circumstances surrounding William H. Woodin's acquisition of the piece and the trade that resulted in the return of the two gold half unions to the Mint. We reproduce edited portions of it here:
"One of the greatest stories in American numismatics involves the sale and recovery of the 1877 fifty dollar half union patterns by the Mint in the early 20th century. The fabulous trade William Woodin supposedly transacted with Mint officials to secure their return is almost certainly the conduit by which the gold Bickford pattern eagles entered the numismatic marketplace. However, like most good stories in numismatics, the details of Woodin's trade have been deliberately obscured to protect the guilty. Only in recent times have the full details of the transaction emerged from the shadows.
"The traditional story, as Edgar Adams outlined in an article in the July 1909 Numismatist, tells of Woodin purchasing the two half unions from Philadelphia coin dealer Capt. John W. Haseltine for $10,000 each, a record price for any coin at the time. The publication of the story resulted in much public dissatisfaction, as it was generally felt the coins were national treasures that should never have been sold to a private individual. The government threatened legal action to recover the coins and, after much maneuvering, a settlement was agreed to in which Woodin returned the half unions to the Mint in exchange for 'three crates' of pattern coins, with Haseltine acting as the middleman. William Woodin became the premier collector of patterns in the country at one stroke. His giant pattern windfall included specimens of many issues that were extremely rare or unknown before that time. As David Akers posited, the two Judd-1373s were undoubtedly part of this treasure. However, many details of this classic numismatic tale have proven to be false.
"Even though Adams named Haseltine as the seller of the half union patterns in his 1909 article, noted pattern researcher Saul Teichman has recently uncovered the true source of the half union patterns, and the identity of the individual who reimbursed Woodin when the deal was reversed. Haseltine was merely the front man acting as agent for former Chief Coiner A. Louden Snowden. Noting a gap in the Mint's pattern collection corresponding to Snowden's tenure there, Teichman believes Snowden acquired many patterns during his time at the Mint, essentially paying bullion prices for the rare pieces. As Teichman says:
'If one looks at the Mint collection, there is a gap with regard to coins from 1874-1877. This is probably not an accident. I believe all of the gold patterns from the 1872 Amazonian set, the two Bickfords, the two 1875 Sailors Head sets, the two 1876 double eagles in addition to the two 1877 half unions come from Snowden as well as most of the 1877 half dollars and the silver 1876 dollar patterns.'
"Teichman's research confirms that Snowden was the source for the coins. Having obtained the half unions in a questionable deal during his years of service at the Mint, he was the individual who had to restore them to the Mint and repay Woodin for his loss. The only means for him to do this was to hand over to Woodin all the patterns he had acquired over the years, including the Bickford eagle patterns in gold. Interestingly, there was even a cover story in place to explain the absence of the half unions after Snowden acquired them. Robert Coulton Davis was aware the gold coins existed when he published his seminal work on patterns, but he was told they had been melted:
'One specimen of each of these patterns was struck in gold and placed in the coin cabinet at the Philadelphia Mint. But afterward, as no appropriation had been made for them, they were melted up, much to the regret of those interested in coins, for they were the only coins of this denomination in gold that have ever come from the United States Mint.'
"Of course, Snowden later claimed he purchased the patterns to prevent them from being melted."
The legendary gold half union patterns are now national treasures, ensconced forever in the National Numismatic Collection of the Smithsonian Institution. As such, advanced collectors eagerly pursue the few examples of the copper and gilt patterns that appear in the numismatic market. Lot 1887 in the fabulous Lemus Collection, Queller Collection Part Two (Heritage, 1/2009), was a PR65 Gilt NGC example of the Judd-1547, a piece that brought $207,000.
The present gilt copper specimen is likely one of seven or eight specimens of the Judd-1547 available outside of museum collections, including both gilt and nongilt pieces. The surfaces show bold and generous luster on both sides, with yellow-gold central devices and lightly tinged mint-green-gold in the fields ceding to deeper orange-gold near the rims. Scattered hairlines appear on each side, with a minor curving scrape protruding from the rear of the curls at back of the head into the field near star 12. Prominent doubling is most pronounced on the date and lower stars on the obverse and the lower dentils, less so on the lower neck, curls, nose, and other features, with corresponding areas of doubling on the reverse: It appears that this coin was struck twice, with one strike slightly off-center from the other.
Ex: American Numismatic Rarities (6/2004), lot 1684. (NGC ID# 2AEW, PCGS# 61891)
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