The Trompeter-DiBello Unique
1909 $5 PR67 Matte NGC. The decade of the 1900s was
characterized by a number of mostly unsuccessful Mint attempts at
"improving" (or at least altering) the quality of proof gold. The
first such change came in 1902 during the Liberty Head gold coinage
era, when the Mint changed from the former mirrored fields-frosty
devices format to a "semibrilliant," contrastless appearance for
proof gold, for reasons that are undocumented and forgotten today.
That format lasted through 1907, when the changeover to the
Saint-Gaudens designs provided the Mint personnel with another
opportunity (if they needed one) to change the surfaces of the
nation's proof gold coinage.
1909 Half Eagle, PR67 Matte
Only One Ever Recorded in Matte Format
Roger Burdette's Renaissance of American Coinage 1905-1908 describes the different methods that characterize proof gold (and other coins), paraphrased below (emphasis ours):
Brilliant Proof Gold 1858-1907 (Burdette does not mention the 1902 change). Polished mirrored surfaces and devices, struck on hydraulic press from new, carefully impressed dies. Dies and planchets usually polished.
Cameo Proof Gold 1858-1907. Polished mirrored fields and frosted devices (lettering, portrait). Struck on hydraulic press from new, carefully impressed dies. Only field of dies polished; planchets usually polished. Seen on proof coins sold to collectors as consequence of incomplete die polishing. Highly prized today.
Sandblast (or "Matte") Proof Gold 1908, 1911-15. Dull, nonreflective surfaces. Struck on hydraulic press from new, carefully impressed dies. Dies and planchets not polished. After striking, coins lightly sandblasted, like medals. Delicate, easily marred surfaces.
Satin Proof Gold 1909-1910. So-called Roman proof. Lustrous nonmirrored surfaces lacking mint frost commonly seen on circulation strikes. Struck on hydraulic press from new, carefully impressed dies. Hubs lightly buffed before annealing to remove stray metal. Planchets unpolished, no post-strike treatment. Easily confused with early circulation strikes made the same way on normal coining presses.
Burdette continues to describe sandblast vs. satin finish silver coins as seen on 1921-22 Peace dollars, a discussion that does not concern us here. The Mint went back and forth from 1907 through 1910, unable to satisfy all collectors' wishes regardless of whether a "dull" or matte finish were chosen (as for 1908 and 1911-1915), or a Roman or satin finish (for most coins produced in 1909 ad 1910). An Aug. 25, 1910, letter Burdette quotes from famous numismatist William Woodin to Assistant Treasury Secretary A. Piatt Andrew sheds light on the debate:
"Your letter of August 24th has just been received. Thank you very much for your letter to Mr. Landis. I certainly understand your position with regard to proof coin matters, but it seems to me that the difference between the dull proofs and the proofs that are now issued is so great and so obviously in favor of the dull proof coins, that I should think the Mint Dept. would be justified in making them, as certainly the most artistic results are desired for coins of this class that go into the hands of collectors. I can get quite a number of letters favoring dull proof coins from collectors, but I could not get all collectors to agree on anything. They are a very peculiar class of people as a rule, and you would be amused if you could hear some of their ideas."
To Woodin, the 1909 and 1910 so-called "proofs" represented little more than imitations of the circulating coinage.
The source for the present anomalous proof Indian Head half eagle dated 1909, but with matte proof finish, is unknown. Andrew had campaigned for consistency and a lack of favoritism at the Mint, and when he became director he ordered the destruction of all remaining experimental coinage dies, as well as those for 19th- and 20th-century pattern issues. This matte proof from 1909, of course, required no special treatment aside from sandblasting to produce a matte surface on a coin that otherwise would have featured a satin or Roman finish.
The coin is experimental in nature, and undoubtedly traces its pedigree to someone (now unknown) who was close to its production. Chief Engraver Charles Barber's antagonism toward outside designers is well-known and -documented, yet he recognized the inherent artistic worth of outsiders' coins (such as Indian Head half eagle designer Bela Lyon Pratt). Barber's estate contained at least six High Reliefs. It is likewise logical that Barber would have "collected" experimental strikings of the other coins struck during the later years in his tenure at the mint.
But the real story of this coin is not the story of Charles Barber (or whoever was the original source), but rather the story of Gaston DiBello, the collector who had a penchant for special strikings and spent time tracking them down. DiBello led an interesting life. He served in the Navy in World War I, was president of DiBello Motors in Buffalo, president of the Rochester Numismatic Society in 1952, attended the Farouk Sale in 1954, received the Howland Wood Award in 1962, and died of a heart attack at the FUN show in 1967. His U.S. coins were sold by Stack's in May 1970 and included several experimental finishes on coins from the American Renaissance period. These special coins include: 1909 matte proof half eagle, 1907 Roman Finish eagle, 1907 matte proof eagle, 1909 matte proof eagle, and proof MCMVII double eagle.
Garrett and Ron Guth wrote of this coin:
"A single matte Proof is known of this date; it was struck in the same style as the 1908 matte proof issue. Its existence was first reported in Stack's DiBello Sale; later it realized $17,000 in Stack's session of Auction '81, lot 1868. The coin was recently certified by NGC as PF-67. There was considerable experimentation with Proof finishes for the 1908 to 1915 half eagles. Public reaction to the matte and Roman surfaces was lukewarm at best; the brilliant Proofs of years past were much more preferred."
Earlier, Walter Breen recorded the DiBello coin as the only known matte proof of this issue. In cataloging the DiBello Sale in May 1970, and later when the piece reappeared in Auction '81, Stack's labeled the 1909 matte proof half eagle "unique." In 1909, Mint records show that 78 proofs were coined. Garrett and Guth speculated that 77 of those pieces are the Roman Finish proofs, and just one coin was minted with this matte finish. This is definitely the DiBello-Trompeter specimen, as seen by a faint, vertical flare of shininess just above star 2. Given the similarities of this piece to the earlier 1908 proof half eagles, we might speculate that this 1909 matte proof half eagle was the first piece struck that year.
The piece is essentially flawless, as one would expect from the Superb Gem grade, with rich orange-gold coloration and the surfaces are reminiscent of the deeper, coarser-grain finish seen on 1908 proofs. The remarkable state of preservation of this piece might lead the viewer to conclude that its original recipient was aware of its special status, as it has been lovingly preserved in the intervening years.
Ex: Gaston DiBello, Part II (Stack's, 5/70), lot 1004; Auction '81 (Stack's session, 7/81), lot 1868; Trompeter Collection, sold by private treaty, 1998; Pre-Long Beach Auction (Goldberg's, 2/06), lot 1216; plated on page 309 of the Garrett-Guth Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins.(Registry values: N10218) (NGC ID# 25ZS, PCGS# 8540)
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