1838-O 50C PR64BM PCGS....
Classic Rarity, Only Nine Examples Traced
None Certified in Higher Numeric Grades
The official report from the New Orleans Mint indicates no half dollars were struck at that facility in 1838. This lack of official documentation has resulted in much confusion over the years, with several ingenious theories introduced to explain the existence of the coins, which everyone agrees were not struck at New Orleans in 1838. Recent discoveries by several researchers have caused a change of thinking about the origins of the 1838-O and its fundamental nature. In the recently published monograph The Surprising History of the 1838-O Half Dollar, Heritage numismatists David Stone and Mark Van Winkle present evidence that the 1838-O was struck on two occasions, with Originals struck in early 1838 at the Philadelphia Mint as essais, to test the dies, and Restrikes made in January 1839 at the New Orleans Mint, to test a newly arrived coin press.
The design of the half dollar was constantly evolving in the late 1830s. The Reeded Edge design took over from the Lettered Edge type with the advent of close-collar technology, beginning in 1836. Modifications continued to be made until the Seated Liberty design was finally adopted in 1839. The reverse design was changed in 1838, with the denomination expressed as HALF DOL. instead of the 50 CENTS inscription of previous years. Thicker letters were used in the legend, and a few minor stylistic changes were made to the eagle as well. One of the most important changes took place on the obverse, where a prominent O mintmark was placed above the date.
The United States had never issued a coin with a mintmark before this time, as the branch mints were not ready to commence operations before 1838. Great significance was attached to the mintmark at this juncture, and we believe its importance was one of the key factors that led to delaying the adoption of the Seated Liberty design on the half dollar. The other silver denominations had already shifted to Gobrecht's popular design by this time, half dimes and dimes in 1837 and quarters in 1838. Apparently, the powers that be wanted to showcase the new mintmarks on the half dollar, as the highest silver denomination being produced at the time, and the gold issues, all of which have the distinctive obverse mintmark. The Seated Liberty design would not allow for the central placement of the mintmark above the date; it would have to be placed on one side of the central design element or the other. Therefore, the Mint decided to retain the Capped Bust obverse for another two years. By late 1839 the novelty of mintmarks had worn off, the Seated Liberty design was adopted on the half dollar to present a uniform design on silver coinage, and the mintmark was moved to the reverse on both silver and gold issues. We believe that 8-10 1838-O half dollars were struck in the early months of that year as prototypes, or essai pieces, to demonstrate the new design. Years later, when cataloging an example of the 1838-O for one of his sales, coin dealer Ed Frossard insisted the coins were "struck at Philadelphia as a pattern for the Orleans mint, which did not begin operations till the following year."
Once the design was finalized, two sets of half dollar dies were shipped to New Orleans, arriving there by May 3,1838. Unfortunately, there were crippling difficulties involved in the initial coinage operations there. The New Orleans Mint was initially supposed to be equipped with screw presses, but this was changed to steam-powered presses at the last moment. This move was undoubtedly the correct one in the long run, but for some reason, the staff experienced great difficulties in operating their new equipment.
The first coins delivered at the new mint were a tiny run of 30 dimes on May 8, 1838, after which the press promptly broke down. It took some time to fix the problem, and the press continued to break down at short intervals throughout the year. The New Orleans Mint closed down from August 2 to November 1, due to the annual outbreak of yellow fever. By the end of the year, the detailed mint report indicates only 402,434 dimes had been produced at the new facility, and no attempt had been made to use the half dollar dies during the year. A few half dimes may also have been struck, but they were not delivered until January 16, 1839.
A fascinating post by R.W. Julian on the Collectors Universe message boards in late 2010 disclosed the contents of several letters between Chief Coiner Rufus Tyler of the New Orleans Mint, and others, and Mint Director Robert M. Patterson in Philadelphia. The most informative letter includes the following passages describing how Tyler used the 1838-O half dollar dies to test a larger coin press that had recently arrived in New Orleans:
"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
The time frame for Tyler's striking is more precisely established in another letter to Patterson from Superintendent David Bradford on March 7, 1839, which reports, "About the middle of January Mr. Tyler struck a few pieces in the large press." Bradford indicated that 1839-dated dies had not arrived at the New Orleans Mint, explaining why Tyler used the 1838 dies for his press trial.
Tyler wrote another letter shortly afterward, accompanying an example of the 1838-O half dollar that he presented to Professor Alexander Bache, president of Girard College in Philadelphia:
"The enclosed specimen coin of the United States branch mint at New Orleans is presented to Pres. Bache by Rufus Tyler, the coiner. It may be proper to state that not more than twenty pieces were struck with the half dollar dies of 1838."
From this missive we learn that Tyler was aware of the earlier striking of Originals, or essais, in Philadelphia, as well as the Restrike issue of 10 pieces he struck in New Orleans. The Restrikes were apparently distributed to interested parties in 1839, most of them not numismatists, and few examples have survived. Die evidence indicates that the Anderson-Dupont specimen is the only surviving coin actually struck at the New Orleans Mint.
Adam Eckfeldt selected one of the Philadelphia Original coins for the Mint Cabinet, which was officially begun in 1838. The other examples were stored in the Mint, along with the 1804 dollars and other early patterns, until coin collecting became popular in the 1850s, when they could be profitably sold to collectors or exchanged for other pieces to improve the Mint Cabinet. Most of the coins we know about today are survivors of this essai mintage. Most essai pieces are collected as part of the pattern series, but information about the true nature of the 1838-O Originals has only become available recently, and none of the standard references list the 1838-O as a pattern. In any case, the rarity and fame of the 1838-O transcends traditional collecting boundaries, and the issue is avidly sought-after by enthusiasts from many disciplines.
The present coin 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 contact marks and tiny hairlines, and it is these few flaws that keep this piece from Gem quality. This specimen is one of the finest-known examples of this celebrated issue, with high technical grade, terrific eye appeal, and matchless historic interest. It has been more than four years since any 1838-O was offered at auction. The advanced collector should bid accordingly. Population: 2 in 64, 0 finer (11/12).
Roster of 1838-O Half Dollars
Although most recent rosters indicate 11 examples of the 1838-O half dollar are extant, we believe only nine specimens have survived.
1. Smithsonian Specimen. PR60 Cleaned. Mint Cabinet Collection, formed in June 1838; Smithsonian Institution.
2. Eliasberg Specimen. PR64 NGC. 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. Carl Carlson plate matched the R.C. Davis coin to the example in Eliasberg's collection, but other catalogers have suggested the Davis specimen is an earlier appearance of the Norweb piece, based on Thomas Elder's remarks in the James B. Wilson catalog. Elder made many incorrect statements in the Wilson catalog, saying the Davis sale took place in 1882, etc., so we believe Carlson's pedigree is probably more accurate. Both Carlson and Walter Breen pedigreed the Eliasberg coin to the Clapp Collection, because they knew Stack's sold Eliasberg his 1838-O in 1942, the same year he purchased the Clapp Collection intact in a blockbuster transaction via Stack's. However, the 1838-O was not part of that transaction, coming instead from Col. Green's holdings. See lot 4114 of the Philadelphia Americana Sale (Stack's, 10/2010) for sale records.
3. Norweb Specimen. PR64 NGC. Édouard Frossard, offered in Numisma, July 1882 edition, at $60; offered to T. Harrison Garrett on approval on September 11, 1882, but Garrett returned the coin; Édouard Frossard Collection (Frossard, 10/1884), lot 400, realized $63; James B. Wilson Collection (Thomas Elder, 10/1908), lot 346, realized $570; Albert Fairchild Holden; Emery May Holden (Mrs. R. Henry Norweb); Norweb Collection (Bowers and Merena, 11/1988), lot 3119, realized $93,500; unknown intermediary; Andrew Lustig; Legend Numismatics in 2002.
4. Atwater Specimen. PR63 PCGS. Col. E.H.R. Green; William Cutler Atwater Collection (B. Max Mehl, 6/1946), lot 555; unknown intermediary; Reed Hawn Collection (Stack's, 8/1973), lot 122, realized $41,000; Auction '79 (Superior's session, 8/1979), lot 1569, realized $62,000; James Bennett Pryor Collection (Bowers and Merena, 1/1996), lot 94, realized $104,500; Doug Noblet; ANA Sale of the Millennium (Bowers and Merena, 8/2000), lot 4117; offered by North American Certified Trading in the October 15, 2001, issue of Coin World; Heritage to Madison Collection via private treaty (9/2005); Heritage via private treaty (10/2007) to Sid and Alicia Belzberg Collection; Long Beach Signature Auction (Heritage, 2/2008), lot 600, realized $632,500.
5. Baldenhofer Specimen. PR64BM PCGS. Col. E.H.R. Green; W.G. Baldenhofer Collection (Stack's, 11/1955), lot 708, realized $3,200; Robert Pelletreau Collection (Stack's, 3/1959), lot 782; Jerome L. Cohen; Lester Merkin; Q. David Bowers; Charles Jay (Stack's, 10/1967), lot 181, realized $14,000; Dr. E. Yale Clarke Collection (Stack's, 10/1975), lot 253, realized $43,000; Julian Leidman; Bryan Collection (NASCA, 11/1977), lot 708; Julian Leidman; Auction '82 (Paramount session, 8/1982), lot 1689, realized $47,500; unknown intermediary; Long Beach Signature Auction (Heritage, 6/2005), lot 6244, realized $632,500; the present coin.
6. Cox Specimen. Brilliant Proof. Col. E.H.R. Green; Burdette G. Johnson; Wayte Raymond; J.G. Macallister; Charles M. Williams (the likely owner); Numismatic Gallery; Adolphe Menjou Collection (Numismatic Gallery, 6/1950), lot 1073, realized $1,650; ANA Sale (Numismatic Gallery, 8/1953), lot 905, per Carl Carlson; R.E. Cox, Jr. (Stack's, 4/1962), lot 1873, realized $9,500; Empire Coin Co. (Q. David Bowers and James Ruddy); Hazen B. Hinman; Century Collection (Paramount, 4/1965), lot 1151; unknown intermediary; Bowers and Ruddy Galleries (Rare Coin Review numbers 17 and 18); Ellis H. Robison (Stack's, 2/1982), lot 1605, realized $70,000; Marvin Browder.
7. Neil Specimen. PR60 Uncertified. H.O. Granberg, displayed at the 1914 ANS Exhibition; Waldo Newcomer, plate matched to Mehl's Newcomer plates; Col. E.H.R. Green via B. Max Mehl circa 1931; Maurice Ryan Collection (B. Max Mehl, 6/1945), lot 936; Will W. Neil (B. Max Mehl, 6/1947), lot 580; James Aloysius Stack (Stack's, 3/1975), lot 415, realized $50,000; Julian Leidman; New York City Collection; 1982 ANA Sale (Steve Ivy, 8/1982), lot 2320, realized $37,000; Anthony Terranova; Kevin Lipton; George W. Vogt (Colonial Coins); Auction '84 (RARCOA session, 8/1984), lot 1666, realized $55,000; David Queller Collection (Stack's, 10/2002), lot 446. The enlarged reverse in the Queller Catalog is incorrect and is actually the 1836 Reeded Edge half dollar. This example was the plate coin for Wayte Raymond's Standard Catalog of United States Coins and Currency in the 1930s.
8. Anderson-Dupont Specimen. PR45 PCGS. Col. E.H.R. Green; Anderson-Dupont Collection (Stack's, 11/1954), lot 2104, realized $3,500; Mr. Gottschalk; 1957 ANA Sale (Federal Coin Exchange, 8/1957), lot 1535A, realized $4,450; "TAD" Collection via Stack's; Julian Leidman; Steve Ivy; Manfra, Tordella, and Brookes; 1983 ANA Sale (Kagin's, 8/1983), lot 2494, realized $29,700; Dr. Jasper Robertson Collection (Mid-American, 5/1985), lot 392, realized $32,500; 1986 ANA Sale (Kagin's, 8/1986), lot 4657A, realized $33,000; Ken Goldman; Public Auction Sale (Palm Beach Rare Coin Auctions, 11/1986), lot 318; H.W Blevins (Superior, 6/1988), lot 3567, realized $44,000; Four Landmark Collections (Bowers and Merena, 3/1989), lot 2000, realized $35,200; Pre-ANA Auction (Vintage Auctions, 8/1989), lot 202, realized $40,700; Lowell Yoder; Central States Signature (Heritage, 4/2008), lot 2310, realized $276,000; John Albanese; private collection (7/2012) via Al Pinkall for $325,000. The only surviving specimen actually struck at the New Orleans Mint.
9. Boyd-Guggenheimer-Empire Specimen. PR40 Uncertified. New Orleans private collection, valued at $40; Ferguson Haines; (S.H. & H. Chapman, 10/1888), lot 483, bought in by the Chapmans, per Carl Carlson; George Bauer; Turner, Hooper and Others Collection (S.H. & H. Chapman, 2/1903), lot 1149 in George Bauer's consignment, purchased by Virgil Brand for $250; Col. E.H.R. Green; Wayte Raymond; F.C.C. Boyd; World's Greatest Collection (Numismatic Gallery, 4/1945), lot 410, realized $1,600; Eastern collector; Stack's; F.S. Guggenheimer Collection (Stack's, 1/1953), lot 830; Charles A. Cass/Empire Collection (Stack's, 11/1957), lot 1344, realized $4,000; New Netherlands Coin Company; Jerome L. Cohen; Public Auction Sale (Kreisberg-Schulman, 4/1967), lot 1065; Mail Bid Sale (Abner Kreisberg, 6/1970), lot 1044; 1971 ANA Sale (Stack's, 8/1971), lot 805; Dr. George J. Oviedo (Stack's, 9/1983), lot 830; George Byers Collection (Stack's, 10/2006), lot 1097.
Specimen number 9 was listed as three separate examples in pedigrees compiled by Breen and Carlson, but the grade of the coin, the timeline of appearances, and the history provided in the catalog descriptions convinces us that all these citations describe the same coin. In the Guggenheimer catalog, the coin is clearly attributed as being the example from the "World's Greatest Collection" but the plates do not match, causing much confusion. The promotional folder for the Empire Collection identifies the coin offered in lot 1344 of that sale as the Guggenheimer specimen, providing a link to the later pedigree. We believe the Guggenheimer plate is a poor-quality stock photo, and the information provided by the catalogers of the Guggenheimer and Empire catalogs is a more accurate guide to the history of this coin.
A. Joseph Mickley Collection (W. Elliot Woodward, 10/1867), lot 1782, realized $2.75; James Clemens Collection (Edward Cogan, 10/1878), lot 159, realized $15. Possibly the same as number 3 above. Breen attributes number 3 as ex: Levick; Woodward, because he knew Wilson bought the coin in October 1884, and assumed it was from Woodward's sale of 10/13/1884, with Levick as the major consignor. However, there was no 1838-O offered in that sale. Apparently, Breen was unaware of the Frossard sale of 10/1884 which did include an 1838-O. We consider the Mickley-Clemens connection a more likely early history for number 3.
B. Charles Besson Collection (John W. Haseltine, 12/1880), lot 833, realized $23.50: "1838; New Orleans Mint; uncirculated impression; slightly rubbed in the field; extremely rare; only six specimens known." Possibly an early appearance of the example in C below. Charles Besson was a resident of Philadelphia, as was Alexander Bache, and the descriptions of the coins are not incompatible. In order to make his reference more complete, Haseltine published an addendum to his famous Type Table catalog of 1881, in which he listed certain rarities he had handled in the past, but were not currently available for sale. The 1838-O was one of the issues included in the addendum, and the Besson specimen is likely the coin he referred to.
C. Chief Coiner Rufus Tyler of the New Orleans Mint; presented to Alexander Bache, president of Girard College in Philadelphia, per a note referred to in Frossard's article in the July 1894 issue of The Numismatist; possibly B.H. Collins, a Treasury employee and Washington, D.C., coin dealer, who may have sold the coin to William Friesner, retaining the note from Tyler until a later date; William Friesner Collection (Ed Frossard, 6/1894), lot 589; Augustus Heaton. Waldo Newcomer reportedly purchased the Heaton Collection intact, so he may have owned this coin at some time, in addition to the specimen he obtained from Granberg. Its later pedigree is uncertain, but the lot description in the Friesner catalog, "Sharp, dull proof surfaces" seems to match the description in the Heritage 2008 Central States catalog (number 8 above), "details of a nice AU coin, but cleaned and recolored".
D. Henry Chapman; purchased by Col. Green in 1928 for $2,000. A note with this information accompanied the coin in the Ryan Sale, number 7 above. We believe the note must refer to another example from Col. Green's collection, since the coin in the Ryan sale came from the Waldo Newcomer Collection, via B. Max Mehl in 1931, and was unavailable to Chapman or Col. Green before that date. It is easy to understand how the note might be matched with the wrong coin, since Col. Green owned so many examples of the 1838-O over the years.
E. New Jersey family, whose father obtained the coin in New Orleans before moving to New Jersey circa 1840; B.P. Wright Collection (Thomas Elder, 5/1923), lot 2209.
F. A specimen in the possession of William T. Anton, Sr. in June 1955.
G. A specimen claimed by Rodney A Mercur, of Towanda, Pennsylvania (b. 1851, d. 1933), in a letter published in Mason's Numismatic Visitor, October 1880 edition, "I have an excellent half dollar, 1838 with an O under the bust."
H. Several pieces referred to in Mason's Coin Collector's Herald, September 1880 edition, "... there is an 1838 half dollar, O Mint, in Nevada, another in Lynn, Mass, another claimed by C.H. Brenner, Jefferson, N.Y.; and a rubbing of one sent us from Texas, which dealers, in this city have been negotiating to purchase."
I. A specimen in the possession of Abner Kreisberg, offered to R. Henry Norweb on June 7, 1955, described as Uncirculated Gem. Norweb declined, as the collection already had a specimen. Possibly the Baldenhofer coin.
J. In United States Dimes, Quarters, and Half Dollars, Q. David Bowers reports a specimen of the 1838-O half dollar was lost in a tragic Philadelphia house fire, along with its owner, around 1960.
From The Greensboro Collection, Part II. (PCGS# 6226)
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