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1838-O Half Dollar, PR64
1838-O 50C PR64 NGC. CAC. GR-1, R.7. The 1838-O Reeded Edge
half dollar is one of the most mysterious and valuable coins in
American numismatics. The 1838-O is believed to be the earliest
branch mint proof coin of any denomination and no official record
of its mintage exists. Researchers have traced only nine surviving
examples in all grades, with one coin impounded in the National
Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, and two
others in slightly impaired condition. Heritage Auctions is pleased
to offer one of the finest-known examples of this classic rarity in
our January 2014 FUN Signature Auction.
First Branch Mint Proof
Nine Examples Traced, Ex: Eliasberg
The official New Orleans Mint Report for 1838 makes no mention of any half dollars struck that year, although two pairs of 1838-dated half dollar dies were mailed from the Philadelphia Mint in April and received in New Orleans by May 3, 1838. Many problems beset the newly operational facility, which struck its first coins, a small run of 30 dimes, on May 8, 1838. The coin press promptly broke down, and coinage could not be resumed until May 22, when a somewhat larger mintage of 20,000 dimes was accomplished. The press was damaged again towards the end of May, and coinage was suspended until mid-July, when a really substantial mintage of 345,000 dimes was achieved by the end of the month.
The New Orleans Mint shut down from August 2 through November 1, 1838, due to the annual epidemic of yellow fever. When the facility reopened, operations were quite slow, and a small mintage of 35,000 dimes delivered on December 29 was the only coinage accomplished for the rest of the year.
The New Orleans Mint records clearly show there was no opportunity to strike half dollars in 1838, but at least nine examples of the issue are extant today, posing one of the most intriguing questions in all of U.S. numismatics: When and where were these coins struck? Recent findings by several researchers suggest that the 1838-O half dollars were struck on two occasions, in two different locations, and for two completely different purposes.
Conventional wisdom, based on a letter from Chief Coiner Rufus Tyler published in The Numismatist in 1894, states that "not more than 20" examples of the 1838-O half dollar were originally struck. Respected researcher R.W. Julian located records in the National Archives that reveal the two obverse dies for the 1838-O half dollar were destroyed on June 13, 1839, so all of the coins must have been struck before that date. Both Julian and Walter Breen concluded that the coins must have been struck early in 1839, possibly to test a new coin press before commencing half dollar coinage in earnest in April with the 1839-dated dies. This theory was accepted by most numismatists for many years, but a recent find in the Archives by Julian contradicts Tyler's mintage figure and suggests the coins may have been struck on more than one occasion.
Ironically, the new evidence originated with the same Chief Coiner Rufus Tyler who wrote the note that was reprinted in The Numismatist. Julian published the following newly discovered letter in a post on the Collector's Universe Message Boards in late 2010:
"U.S. Branch Mint New Orleans
February 25, 1839
I mentioned in both of my former letters that the half dollar dies sent us last year are unsuited for present use for, besides being out of date, the bottom ones are too short to reach the screws and consequently cannot be secured in the press. I have however, ... [illegible] ... to one of them in order to try the press and succeeded in making ten excellent impressions, the very first one struck being as perfect as the dies and entirely satisfactory. The piece on the bottom of the die became loose and I was unable to strike any more without further fixing.
[The rest of the letter deals with other matters.]
I am, sir, with great respect
This missive from Tyler confirms Julian and Breen's conclusion that 1838-O half dollars were struck early in 1839 to test a new press, but the mintage figure is only half the total reported in Tyler's other letter, which was addressed to Dr. Alexander Bache, president of Girard College in Philadelphia. Rufus Tyler died in the fall of 1839, a victim of the deadly yellow fever epidemic that plagued New Orleans every year. Even though his letter to Bache was not published until 1894, when it was found wrapped around a specimen of the 1838-O that appeared in Édouard Frossard's sale of the William Friesner Collection, he must have written the two letters within a few months of each other, if not just days or weeks. It is unlikely that he forgot how many coins he struck in such a short time, suggesting that there were actually two mintages of approximately 10 pieces each. Tyler reported on the 10 specimens that he struck himself in his letter to Patterson, but he must have known about the other mintage and included the coins from that emission in the 20-piece mintage figure he quoted to President Bache.
A possible source for the other mintage was suggested by David Proskey in the July 1880 edition of The Coin Collector's Journal, page 112:
"We will take exception to our erring brother when he speaks of an 1838 half dollar with mintmark 'O.' We can assure him it is no more a coin than is the flying eagle half dollar, but was and is merely a pattern of the rarest kind, such as the average collector may never expect to possess. We believe only the trial specimen in the mint cabinet is known to exist."
The idea that some of the 1838-O half dollars were struck as prototypes at the Philadelphia Mint before the dies were sent to New Orleans makes a great deal of sense in the context of the Mint's activities at the time. The advent of close collar dies and steam-powered coin presses in the late 1820s through mid-1830s inspired many design changes in U.S. coinage, and the half dollar denomination seems to have been the focus of experimentation in this field in 1838. The current edition of the Judd pattern reference lists 18 different half dollar patterns for the date. The reverse design of the Reeded Edge half dollars was materially changed in 1838, with the denomination expressed as HALF DOL. instead of the 50 CENTS inscription used in earlier years. The thickness of the letters in the legend was increased, and a few minor stylistic changes on the eagle were instituted as well. The obverse design remained basically unchanged on the Philadelphia coins, but a prominent O mintmark was placed between the date and the bust on the dies for the New Orleans Mint. This was the first time a mintmark was used on a U.S. coin, and great importance was attached to its appearance. It may be that the mintmark delayed the adoption of the Seated Liberty design on the half dollar until 1840, as that design was already in use on the other silver denominations by 1838. The desire to place the new mintmark in a conspicuous location on the largest silver coin then in production may have delayed the change-over on the half dollar design, as the Seated Liberty motif afforded no space to accommodate the mintmark above the date.
Considering the proliferation of half dollar patterns in 1838, it would not be strange if a few prototype pieces were struck with the adopted dies before they were shipped to New Orleans, to test the appearance of the new mintmark. If 10 coins were struck in this fashion it would certainly explain why they did not appear in the New Orleans Mint records and why Tyler would report 10 examples were struck in New Orleans in 1839, with 20 coins as the total production figure. Further evidence for this prototype origin can be found in the physical appearance of the coins themselves. Most surviving examples were obviously struck in proof format, with the sharply detailed design elements, squared edges, and reflective surfaces that would be expected of a 19th century proof. The fabric of the coins is entirely comparable to the finest examples of the half dollar patterns of other designs that were struck in 1838.
On the other hand, one of the surviving coins, the Anderson-Dupont specimen, shows some unique striking characteristics. Some of the design elements on the reverse, including the letters in the denomination and the arrowheads, are strongly doubled, as if the dies had bounced and the planchet shifted slightly between bounces, a phenomenon known as strike doubling. There is also a series of small curved gouges above the lower border on the reverse, as if the leading edge of the denticles had been dragged through the field. These effects would be consistent with the dies being secured in some unorthodox manner, as described in Tyler's letter to Patterson when he struck the coins to test the press. The Anderson Dupont coin also shows evidence of die rust that would be expected if the dies were stored in the humid climate of New Orleans for nearly a year before the coin was struck. The physical characteristics of the coins themselves support the dual origin of the coins, which was first postulated in The Surprising History of the 1838-O Half Dollar by David Stone and Mark Van Winkle, Ivy Press, 2012.
Further 19th century opinion about the prototype origin of the 1838-O can be found in the description of lot 400 in the Frossard Collection (Édouard Frossard, 10/1884), which was located in the pattern section of the catalog:
"1838 Half dollar. Draped bust of Liberty to left wearing cap with band inscribed 'Liberty'; O under the bust for Orleans. Rev. Eagle with shield grasping olive branch and three arrows. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. HALF DOL. Milled edge; brilliant proof. Plate IV. Struck at Philadelphia as a pattern for the Orleans mint, which did not begin operations till the following year. Of excessive rarity."
Finally, early pattern specialist Robert Coulton Davis listed 11 half dollar patterns in his seminal work that appeared in The Coin Collectors Journal in 1885, noting, "In addition to the above, the first coinage of the New Orleans mint should, perhaps, be mentioned. It is marked by the letter 'O' above the date."
Although the pattern explanation for the origin of the 1838-O was quite popular in the numismatic community in the 19th century, it was abandoned after Tyler's letter to Bache was published in 1894 and largely forgotten by later numismatists. It is likely that most of the coins we know about today, including the coin offered here, were struck as prototypes and retained in the Philadelphia Mint until a later date. One specimen was placed in the Mint Cabinet when it was formed in 1838, and the rest were probably sold or traded to favored collectors, along with the 1804 dollars and other early patterns, when numismatic demand for these pieces developed after 1858. Of the coins struck by Tyler in New Orleans in 1839, only the Anderson Dupont coin seems to have survived.
The 1838-O has been avidly collected since its first appearance in the famous collection of pioneer numismatist Joseph Mickley, which was sold by Massachusetts coin dealer W. Elliot Woodward in 1867. That coin, described in lot 1782, realized only $2.75. In contrast, recent sales include the PR64 PCGS example in lot 5644 of the FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2013), which realized $734,375.
The present coin traces its history to the collection of Robert Coulton Davis, the numismatist who wrote the first serious work on patterns in 1885 and suggested the 1838-O should be collected with the pattern series. It later passed through several famous collections, including those of eccentric millionaire Colonel E.H.R. Green and Louis Eliasberg, Sr. The coin is certainly one of the finest known examples, as none have been certified above the PR64 level by either of the leading grading services. The design elements exhibit razor-sharp definition throughout and the fields are deeply mirrored, under attractive shades of golden-brown and cerulean-blue toning. The reverse shows the mysterious die cracks through the leaves of the olive branch and the letters of the denomination that are found on all specimens seen. A small color spot above the drapery on the bust can serve as a pedigree marker. Eye appeal is terrific. The opportunity to acquire this classic early proof rarity will not recur any time soon. Advanced collectors should bid accordingly.
Ex: Robert Coulton Davis Collection (New York Coin & Stamp, 1/1890), lot 655, realized $51 to the Chapmans per Carl Carlson; unknown intermediaries; Martin Luther Beistle; Colonel E.H.R. Green; B.G. Johnson; Stack's (1942); Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr.; Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. Collection (Bowers and Merena, 4/1997), lot 1911, realized $121,000 to Andrew Lustig and Don Kagin; John Albanese; the present consignor.
From The Smoke Rise Collection. (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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