Possibly the First 1839-O Capped Bust Half Dollar, PR641839-O 50C PR64 NGC. CAC. The similarly designed 1839-O proof halves are substantially rarer than the 1838-O proof half dollars. Perhaps 11 1838-O proofs are known, versus about six 1839-O proofs. While the 1838-O is a celebrated rarity in American numismatics, the 1839-O proof is only recognized by a small number of specialists. The present coin is the first proof 1839-O half dollar that we have offered in any of our auctions.
The 1838-O and 1839-O proof halves show a remarkable number of similarities. Both were apparently struck in proof format at about the same time in early 1839. Both have the popular Obverse Mintmark style only produced in those two years, making them a two-year subtype. There is no record of proof coins struck for either year, in keeping with typical Mint practice of the era. Of course, an obvious difference is that, while the 1838-O proof halves were only struck to the extent of about 20 pieces, with 11 known today, the 1839-O halves are even rarer in proof format, with only five or six pieces known. Despite their greater rarity, the proof 1839-O halves are relatively unknown to the numismatic community, perhaps because of a fairly large production of 1839-O business strikes.
Variety and Die State
The obverse has a doubled mintmark that was repunched north of its original position. The mintmark is nearly centered over the space between the 8 and 3, slightly favoring the 3. There are no visible die cracks on the obverse, unlike at least two other proofs that are known with faint cracks connecting some stars and the date. A tiny engraving or polishing line connects the upper point of star 13 to the lowest hair curl. Other faint die lines are evident in the right obverse field. All of these die lines are observed on the known proofs.
The reverse has several similar fine, nearly invisible die cracks connecting most of the letters. Perhaps the easiest to view is the segment of a die crack through AMERICA that connects the left upright of the R to the crossbar of the E. The ER crack, along with several others, exactly matches die cracks observed on the reverse of known 1838-O half dollars.
Sharing a common reverse die in nearly identical die states, the 1838-O and 1839-O proof half dollars were produced at about the same time, probably circa January 1839 in both cases. Some have suggested that the 1838-O half dollars were test coins, struck as press trials before the proof 1839-O pieces were minted. In his Complete Encyclopedia, Breen cited a note in the National Archives that he located in 1951, suggesting that a "few half dollars were coined to test a new press."
The die state of the obverse is earlier than any other observed 1839-O half dollars, and the reverse is essentially the same state as the known 1838-O half dollars, suggesting that this specimen may have been the very first 1839-O half dollar ever coined.
Walter Breen reported in his Proof Encyclopedia that the Straus coin he examined in 1951 had the dies aligned in medal turn orientation, and questioned the others, writing: "is this constant for these proofs?" A decade later in his Complete Encyclopedia, Breen reported that all five known proofs have medal turn alignment. More recent examination shows Breen's error in his 1988 reference. In the George Byers catalog , Stack's notes that the Byers coin has normal alignment, and we observe that the present piece also has normal alignment.
The strike is incredibly sharp, as it should be for a proof. There is no evidence of weakness on either side. The fields are fully mirrored beneath outstanding gold, green, blue, and iridescent toning on both sides. The surfaces have a few tiny marks that are expected for the grade, but the overall aesthetic appeal is much finer than expected for the grade.
Census of Proof 1839-O Half Dollars
1. PR64 NGC. CAC. The present specimen, different from any of the others. Coin turn alignment.
2. PR62 NGC. A specimen this cataloger recently examined, different from any of the others. Coin turn alignment.
3. Choice Proof. Krouner Collection (Lester Merkin, 2/1971), lot 736; Stack's (9/1992), lot 358; George Byers Collection (Stack's, 10/2006), lot 1098. Coin turn alignment.
4. Proof. Robison Collection (Stack's, 2/1982), lot 1607. Unknown alignment.
5. Proof. The reverse has an obvious planchet defect above the eagle's head. F.C.C. Boyd's "World's Greatest Collection" (Numismatic Gallery, 5/1945), lot 411; Allenburger Collection (B. Max Mehl, 3/1948); R.E. Cox Collection (Stack's, 4/1962), lot 1875. Unknown alignment.
6. Proof. An example that Breen reported in the Philip G. Straus Collection circa 1951. No similar coin was offered in either auction of Straus coins (New Netherlands, 6/1959, or Stack's, 5/1959). Medal turn alignment, according to Walter Breen. This piece may be the same as one of the other five.
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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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