Gem Proof 1839-O Half Dollar
1839-O 50C PR65 NGC. The 1839-O proof half dollar is a
mysterious, little known rarity from the second year of operations
at the New Orleans Mint. The issue is often compared to its more
famous predecessor, the 1838-O half dollar, which is one of the
marquee rarities in American coinage. The two issues have much in
common, as both were produced in proof format, ostensibly at the
newly established New Orleans Mint. The same reverse dies were used
to coin both issues, and both obverse dies featured the prominent O
mintmark, characteristic of this short-lived two-year design type.
The histories of these two issues diverged broadly shortly after
their production, however, as the 1838-O became one of the most
celebrated issues in the U.S. series, while the 1839-O languished
Extremely Rare Branch Mint Proof
Finest of Four Examples Known
This lack of recognition may stem from the fact that the 1839-O proofs were accompanied by a large business-strike emission, while the 1838-O was never struck in regular-issue format. The 1839-O proof is actually a much rarer issue, with only four confirmed survivors, compared to at least nine examples of the 1838-O. The 1839 -O is so rare that it has been out-of-sight, out-of-mind in the numismatic community for most of its history. Although the four confirmed examples have all appeared at auction in the last four years, precious little has been written about them, and much of the published information is ambiguous or questionable.
When Walter Breen studied this issue for his proof reference in the 1970s, he made mention of a specimen he examined in the Philip Straus Collection that was struck in medal turn, with the devices aligned in a 360 degree rotation. By the time he wrote his Complete Encyclopedia in 1988, he believed that all examples were struck in medal turn. This is definitely not the case for the four examples we have tracked in our roster below, all being struck in the normal 180 degree coin turn. The Straus example has never surfaced, and we are convinced Breen must have been in error about the die alignment.
It was always believed that the 1839-O proofs were all coined at the same time, since they were struck from the same dies. Comparing the four coins that have appeared at auction recently casts some doubt on that piece of conventional wisdom, as well. The coin in lot 2163 of the Long Beach Signature Auction (Heritage, 9/2008) shows incomplete detail in the hair around Liberty's ear, and the stars appear spindly and small when compared to the devices on the other specimens in the roster. The coin is sharply struck, but the dies themselves seem to lack the fine detail seen on the other coins. This is probably the result of lapping, to remove die cracks or clash marks. The proof dies were used to strike regular issue coins as well as proofs in 1839. It seems likely that some proofs were struck from newly delivered, polished dies. Then the dies were used in business-strike production, developing some cracks or clash marks, and subsequently lapped and polished before striking a few more proofs. No records were kept of specific proof strikings during this period, so it is impossible to say exactly when the 1839-O proofs were struck. We know the obverse dies were not delivered until March 1839, and the reverse dies were effaced on February 21, 1840, so there is no possibility of a restrike issue at a later date.
The present coin is a magnificent Gem, with a razor-sharp strike that imparts fine definition to each individual hair strand in Liberty's curls. All the stars have full centrils and the date is bold. The mintmark is double-punched, with the extra outline showing along the lower curve. The reverse is equally sharp, with exquisite definition on the eagle's feathers and talons. The surfaces are toned in iridescent shades of blue, champagne-gold, russet, green, and violet in a stunning play of colors. The fields are brightly reflective under the patina, and show only the most insignificant signs of contact. Visual appeal is terrific. This coin is the finest known specimen of this rare and important proof issue and it should find a home in the finest collection of Capped Bust, Reeded Edge half dollars. Census: 1 in 65, 0 finer (12/11).
Census of Proof 1839-O Half Dollars
This census contains the four distinct proof 1839-O half dollars known, as well as two earlier, untraced sightings that may or may not correspond with those below.
1. PR65 NGC. Ellis Robison Collection (Stack's, 2/1982), lot 1607; Queller Family Collection (Stack's, 10/2002), lot 448; Pre-Long Beach Sale (Ira and Larry Goldberg, 2/2008), lot 2177; the present coin.
2. PR64 NGC. Salisbury/Woods Collections (Bowers and Merena, 9/1994), lot 1214; Baltimore ANA Signature Auction (Heritage, 7/2008), lot 1690.
3. PR63 NGC. Krouner Collection (Lester Merkin, 2/1971), lot 736; Public Auction Sale (Stack's, 9/1992), lot 358; George Byers Collection (Stack's, 10/2006), lot 1098; Long Beach Signature Auction (Heritage, 9/2008), lot 2164; Los Angeles Signature Auction (Heritage, 7/2009), lot 1119. The Breen Proof Encyclopedia Plate Coin.
4. PR62 NGC. Long Beach Signature Auction (Heritage, 9/2008), lot 2163.
A. Proof. F.C.C. Boyd; World's Greatest Collection (Numismatic Gallery, 5/1945), lot 411; Christian Allenburger (B. Max Mehl, 3/1948), lot 1936; R.E. Cox (Stack's, 4/1962), lot 1875. Walter Breen believed these descriptions were all of the same coin, but the first two appearances were not plated, and the catalogers of the Cox specimen report that the consignor was told it was the Allenburger coin, but they could not verify that claim. The plate of the Cox coin shows an unsightly planchet void near the eagle's head. Considering the painstaking process employed in striking proofs of this era, it seems unlikely that the coiners would select a damaged planchet to strike a proof coin. The Cox specimen may be a prooflike business-strike.
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# 6253)
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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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