Lovely 1838-O Half Dollar Rarity, The Baldenhofer Specimen1838-O 50C Capped Bust, Reeded Edge. PR64 BM PCGS. The "BM" designation is for "Branch Mint," signifying that PCGS recognizes this coin as a Proof strike. This half dollar issue ranks among the most famous of all American coinage rarities. The inclusion of an example in a collection enshrines the owner among the ranks of American numismatics.
The New Orleans Mint was established by legislation dated March 3, 1835, along with two other branch mints, in Charlotte, North Carolina and Dahlonega, Georgia. The original Mint Act specified:
"That branches of the mint of the United States shall be established as follows: one branch at the city of New Orleans for the coinage of gold and silver; one branch at the town of Charlotte, in Mecklinburg county, in the state of North Carolina, for the coinage of gold only; and one branch at or near Dahlonega, in Lumpkin county, in the state of Georgia, also for the coinage of gold only. And for the purpose of purchasing sites, erecting suitable buildings, and completing the necessary combinations of machinery for the several branches aforesaid, the following sums, to be paid out of any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, shall be, and hereby are, appropriated: for the branch at New Orleans, the sum of two hundred thousand dollars; for the branch at Charlotte, fifty thousand dollars; for the branch at Dahlonega, fifty thousand dollars."
The legislation further stipulated that the Superintendent of the New Orleans Mint was to receive a salary of $2,500 while those of Charlotte and Dahlonega would receive a salary of just $2,000. It was likely assumed that the New Orleans Mint, which was to produce both silver and gold coinage, would have considerably more business to conduct. Based on appropriations for construction, the New Orleans building was expected to be larger in physical size as well.
It was not until 1838 that the New Orleans Mint was actually ready for operations. The first coins produced were dimes, with only a handful of pieces produced before the small press broke. After another run of a few thousand coins, this press broke again, and it was not until July that the next mintage of dimes was accomplished. It is generally considered the case that half dimes and dimes were the only coins actually struck in New Orleans during the year, although the half dimes may not have been struck until 1839.
Although two pairs of dies were received in New Orleans during the year, it was not until early 1839 that the 1838-O half dollars were actually minted. These coins were probably struck in the first quarter of the new year. Walter Breen has suggested that they were coined in January while R.W. Julian believes that they were not minted until March. Production of 1838-O half dollars was limited to approximately 20 coins. There is 19th century evidence of the total production. In June 1894, the Friesner Collection specimen was accompanied by a note that stated Rufus Tyler, Coiner of the New Orleans branch mint struck "not more than 20 pieces." A decade earlier, Edouard Frossard, cataloger of the Friesner Collection, stated in the catalog of his own collection that the 1838-O half dollars were actually struck in Philadelphia as die trials.
More recently, additional references have come to light that suggest these coins were produced as press trials to make sure the larger coining press was operating properly. New half dollar dies dated 1839 were received in New Orleans, and the assumption has been made that Rufus Tyler used the earlier dated dies to test the new press, for fear of breaking the dies bearing the 1839 date. Coinage of the 1839-O half dollars began in early April, thus accounting for Julian's belief that the 1838-O half dollars were coined in March 1839. It is known that the 1838-O obverse dies were defaced in June 1839, limiting the time of production to no later than that month.
The 1838-O Half Dollar was coined at or near the date on the coin, thus it is comparable to such rarities as the 1894-S Dime and 1870-S Silver Dollar. The exact number of surviving 1838-O Half Dollars is not specifically known, but it is generally believe to be in the vicinity of a dozen different coins, approximately the same number as the '94-S Dime and the '70-S Dollar.
The example that we are offering today is a pleasing Proof of Choice quality. Every detail is complete and fully defined, including hair curls and star centrils on the obverse, as well as individual feather details and leaf veins on the reverse. The fields have moderate reflectivity, similar to all of the known 1838-O Half Dollars. The central obverse and reverse have pale golden-yellow color with pale blue and iridescent toning near the borders. The surfaces have a few minor blemishes, including small abrasions and tiny scratches, and it is these few marks that keep this from Gem quality.
Because there is still a great deal to learn in numismatics, we pose the following question: If these coins were the first half dollars struck in New Orleans, and they were produced in early 1839 to test a new coinage press, why does the reverse die have several die cracks? There is no evidence of die cracks or other die damage on the obverse. The reverse; however, has the following: a jagged die crack from a dentil to the center of the lower left leaf and continuing to the inside of the wing left of the leaves, another from the tip of the lower right leaf through the centers of HA to the lower left base of L, a faint crack from the base of I in AMERICA to the wing below C, a crack from the right upright of this letter to the left side of C, and another from the crossbar of E in AMERICA to the upright of R. Very faint vertical and diagonal die lines appear in the field below the eagle's beak, left of the neck. Of course, it would be a thoroughly delightful situation if this same reverse die, in an earlier die state, could be found on an 1839-O Half Dollar. On the otherhand, it is possible that these cracks developed during the limited production of the 1838-O coins. When Jules Reiver published his notes on the Reeded Edge Half Dollars in 1988, he described 1839-O variety JR-1 as follows:
"Obverse. Heavy point up to right from band over I, with a curved crack into cap from this point. O doubled at bottom and lower left. Buildup under most stars. Reverse. Perfect." Reiver continued to describe several later die states with reverse cracks, each matching those found on this 1838-O half dollar. Eight different examples of the 1839-O variety in the Reiver Collection, all from this same reverse die, are all in later die states with the die cracks more advanced. Although Jules described the earliest state as being from a perfect reverse die, he did not have any such pieces in his collection.
The following roster of known specimens is not necessarily complete, although it is believed accurate. The names of each specimen are the same as published in the 1997 Eliasberg catalog by Bowers and Merena. In addition to the roster below, several other auction records are of specimens that cannot be matched to this listing:
1. Smithsonian Specimen. Superintendent, New Orleans Mint; Mint Director Robert M. Patterson; Mint Cabinet Collection, formed in June 1838; Smithsonian Institution.
2. Eliasberg Specimen. Stack's (1942); Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. (Bowers and Merena, 4/1997), lot 1911.
3. Cox Specimen. Col. E.H.R. Green; Burdette G. Johnson; Wayte Raymond; J.G. Macallister; Charles M. Williams (a likely owner); Numismatic Gallery; Adolphe Menjou Collection; R.E. Cox, Jr. (Stack's, 4/1962), lot 1873; Empire Coin Co. (Q. David Bowers and James E Ruddy); Hazen B. Hinman (Paramount, Century Collection, 4/1965), lot 1151; unknown; Bowers and Ruddy Galleries (Rare Coin Review #17); Ellis H. Robison (Stack's, 2/1982), lot 1605; Marvin Browder.
4. Norweb Specimen. J.N.T. Levick; W. Elliot Woodward; R. Coupon Davis; Lorin G. Parmelee (New York Coin and Stamp Co., 6/1890), lot 655; James B. Wilson (Thomas Elder, 10/1908), lot 346; Albert Fairchild Holden; Emery May Holden (Mrs. R. Henry Norweb); Norweb family (Bowers and Merena, 11/1988), lot 3119; unknown; Andrew Lustig.
5. Neil Specimen. Waldo C. Newcomer; Henry Chapman; Col. E.H.R. Green; Maurice Ryan; B. Max Mehl (May 1945), lot 936; Will W. Neil (B. Max Mehl, 6/1947), lot 580; James Aloysius Stack (Stack's, 3/1975), lot 415; Julian Leidman; New York City Collection; Steve Ivy (ANA sale, 8/1982), Lot 2320; Anthony Terranova; Kevin Lipton; George W. Vogt (Colonial Coins); RARCOA (Auction '84), lot 1666; David Queller (Stack's, 10/2002), lot 446. The enlarged reverse in the Queller Catalog is incorrect, and is actually the 1836 Reeded Edge Half Dollar.
6. Atwater Specimen. Col. E.H.R. Green; William Cutler Atwater (B. Max Mehl, 6/1946), lot 555; unknown; Reed Hawn (Stack's, 8/1973), lot 122; Superior (Auction '79), lot 1569; James Bennett Pryor (Bowers and Merena, 1/1996); Doug Noblet; Bowers and Merena (10/2000).
7. Baldenhofer Specimen. The coin presently offered. Col. E.H.R. Green; W.G. Baldenhofer (Stack's, 11/1955), lot 708; Robert Pelletreau (Stack's, 3/1959), lot 782; Jerome L. Cohen; Lester Merkin; Q. David Bowers; Charles Jay (Stack's, 10/1967), lot 181; Dr. E. Yale Clarke (Stack's, 10/1975), lot 253; Julian Leidman; NASCA (Bryan Collection, 11/1977), lot 708; Julian Leidman; Paramount (Auction '82), lot 1689; unknown; the present example.
8. Boyd Specimen. Col. E.H.R. Green; Wayte Raymond; F.C.C. Boyd; Numismatic Gallery ("World's Greatest Collection," 4/1945), lot 410; Stack's (1971 ANA sale), lot 805; Dr. George J. Oviedo (Stack's, 9/1983), lot 830.
9. Anderson-Dupont Specimen. Col. E.H.R. Green; Anderson-Dupont sale (Stack's, 11/1954), lot 2104; Mr. Gottschalk; Federal Coin Exchange (1957 ANA sale), lot 1535A; "TAD" Collection (Stack's); Julian Leidman; Steve Ivy; Manfra, Tordella, and Brookes; Kagin's (1983 ANA), lot 2494; Mid-American (5/1985), lot 392; Kagin's (1986 ANA sale), lot 4657A; H.W Blevins (Superior, 6/1988), lot 3567; Bowers and Merena (3/1989), lot 2000; Vintage Auctions (8/1989), lot 202.
10. Empire Specimen. New Orleans private collection; Ferguson Haines; (S.H. & H. Chapman, 10/1888), lot 483; Col. E.H.R. Green; Charles A. Cass (Stack's, Empire Collection, 11/1957), lot 1344; Stack's "Empire Collection" sale, November 1957, Lot 1344; New Netherlands Coin Company; Jerome L. Cohen; Kreisberg-Schulman (4/1967), lot 1065; Kreisberg Mail Bid Sale (6/1970), lot 1044.
11. Guggenheimer Specimen. Fred S. Guggenheimer (Stack's, 10/1953), lot 830. (NGC ID# 27SS, PCGS# 6226)
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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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