Legendary 1839-O Reeded Edge Half, Branch Mint PR63
1839-O 50C Capped Bust, Reeded Edge PR63 NGC. When
discussing the hidden jewels of the numismatic world, the subject
of the 1839-O proof half dollars is sure to arise. Unfortunately,
relatively little is known about this enigmatic issue. The written
contributions on the subject by noted specialist Walter Breen are
ambiguous and modern day researches have dedicated little time and
effort to unraveling the mysteries of the 1839-O proof fifty cent
pieces. However, two things are certain about this issue--they are
indubitably specially struck coins and there are only four
confirmed examples extant. The current auction is a landmark event
in that we are offering two pieces in the same sale! Considering
that only 10 or so examples have crossed the auction block in the
past century, this is an amazing occurrence. Having two proof
1839-O halves available for examination concurrently, coupled with
the fact that we sold yet a third specimen in our July 2008 sale,
affords us the opportunity to shed more light on this mysterious
The Krouner Specimen and Breen Plate Coin
Perhaps the biggest question regarding the 1839-O proofs relates to the quantity of coins minted. There are no Mint records pertaining to the issue and over the years as many as 10 different pieces have been reported, though not confirmed. Census information included in auction lot descriptions has varied from four to six examples, although the latter figure includes an erroneous duplication and an unconfirmed coin. Breen suggested the existence of five specimens in his 1988 Complete Encyclopedia, but only documents four halves in his revised Encyclopedia of Proof Coins (1989); although he makes it clear in the latter reference that he was uncertain about his census. The earliest evidence relating to the mintage of proof 1839-O halves can be found in New York Coin and Stamp Company's June 1890 description of an 1838-O proof fifty cent piece (now known as the Norweb coin). In that catalog the writer notes:
"We have seen a letter from Dr. Riddell, superintendent N.O. Mint, 1838, which accompanied a similar half dollar, in which it was stated that only four half dollars of this date and mintage were issued ..."
Dr. John Riddell was never superintendent of the New Orleans Mint. He was, however, the melter and refiner and in that position he would have been intimately involved with advanced coining operations at the new branch mint. Dr. Riddell was appointed to his position by President Martin Van Buren in 1839 (Doug Winter, 2006), although the exact date is unknown. Researcher David Lange notes that "a particularly severe outbreak of yellow fever caused the mint to suspend operations from July 1 to November 30, 1839," so we can safely assume that Dr. Riddell began work at the New Orleans Mint sometime during the first quarter of 1839. This fact is important in that the Riddell letter referenced in the June 1890 auction catalog must have been dated 1839 and, as such, was referring to 1839-O proof half dollars-not the 1838-O pieces, even though the latter pieces were also struck in the first quarter of 1839--not 1838. Carefully dissecting the 1890 catalog entry, we note that the letter "accompanied a similar half dollar." Since the cataloger associated the letter to the Norweb 1838-O proof half, the word "similar" is immensely significant. It is likely Riddell was referring to 1839-dated coins. To further substantiate this logic, consider that only four 1839-O proof halves are known, whereas 11 1838-O proof fifty cent pieces have been traced. Conveniently, as of (8/08) NGC has certified four different 1839-O proof half dollars and we have traced each piece to previously reported examples (see our census at the end of this description). That fact, together with the aforementioned Riddell letter, lends credence to the belief that only four 1839-O halves were struck in proof format.
Another bit of misinformation that has been propagated through the last several decades is the fact that 1839-O proof haves were struck in medal-turn orientation. Breen (1988) stated that the five known examples "have dies aligned 180 degrees from normal, so that date is nearest to HALF DOL." Since Breen cataloged the Krouner-Byers coin, the specimen offered here, which is also the plate coin in his Encyclopedia of Proof Coins, we are dumbfounded since this piece was unequivocally struck in coin-turn orientation. In fact, all four 1839-O proof halves that we have traced, including the three that we have handled within the past few months, have normal obverse to reverse positioning. Yet another mystery unraveled, thanks to the reemergence of all four specimens within the past year.
In terms of technical grade, the current offering is now ranked as the third finest of the four 1839-O proof half dollars thus traced, although the eye appeal of this piece arguably places it higher within the census. Variegated russet coloration is suitably complemented by electric-blue and sea-green toning at the peripheries on both the obverse and reverse. Unsurprisingly for a proof issue, the strike is bold and the fields are delightfully reflective. Scattered hairlines in the delicate fields are observed through close scrutiny, yet the aesthetically pleasing patina does well to conceal them. A minuscule dark spot above the eagle's head shall serve as a pedigree marker for the sake of posterity.
Census of Proof 1839-O Half Dollars
New information has come to light since our July 2008 offering of the PR64 piece, so we have revised our roster slightly from that catalog. We list four distinctly different pieces, along with two additional appearances that may be duplicates of the four individual specimens.
1. PR65 NGC. Robison Collection (Stack's, 2/1982), lot 1607; Queller Family Collection (Stack's, 10/2002), lot 448; Goldberg Coins (2/2008), lot 2177.
2. PR64 NGC. Bowers and Merena (9/1994), lot 1214; Heritage (7/2008), lot 1690.
3. PR63 NGC. The present specimen and the Breen Proof Encyclopedia Plate Coin. Krouner Collection (Lester Merkin, 2/1971), lot 736; Stack's (9/1992), lot 358; George Byers Collection (Stack's, 10/2006), lot 1098; Heritage (9/2008).
4. PR62 NGC. Heritage (9/2008).
A. Proof. F.C.C. Boyd; World's Greatest Collection (Numismatic Gallery, 5/1945), lot 411; Christian Allenburger (B. Max Mehl, 3/1948); R.E. Cox (Stack's, 4/1962), lot 1875. The Boyd-Cox piece may be the same as one of the above coins.
B. Proof. An unverified example that Breen reported in the Philip G. Straus Collection, circa 1951. The coin remains unseen since that time and is likely one of the four listed above. (PCGS# 6227)
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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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