1877 Half Union, Copper Gilt Striking
1877 $50 Fifty Dollar, Judd-1549 Gilt, Pollock-1722, Low R.7,
PR64+ Cameo NGC. CAC. Ex: Simpson. The second of William
Barber's designs for the fifty dollar gold piece, or half union.
This is the Small Head version; however, the smallness of the head
is only apparent when viewed next to the Large Head variant. The
head of Liberty is a familiar one, and seen on other patterns
through 1880. Thirteen stars surround Liberty (facing left) and the
date 1877 is below. Both the date and stars are from double eagle
punches and are noticeably smaller than one would expect from a
coin of such size (50 mm). The reverse is essentially a Type Three
twenty dollar in larger format with FIFTY substituted for TWENTY.
However, the devices appear to have been punched into the working
die individually. This is most apparent on the motto. IN GOD WE
does not describe a perfect arc, and the D is double-punched and
tilted to the right. Struck in copper and gilt with a reeded
Judd-1549, PR64+ Cameo
Small Head Variant
The design and execution of this denomination is obscure. The idea was to create a new denomination base. There were cents and half cents, dimes and half dimes, dollars and half and quarter dollars, eagles and the various fractions and multiples of that denomination, and two years after this pattern was struck another denomination was proposed, the stella, or four dollar gold piece. The union was proposed as a $100 gold piece. The union never made it past the sketch phase; however, silver rounds have been recently struck with Barber's design and are quite impressive. The half union was struck in copper, copper-gilt, and gold. There are only two gold pieces, one each of the Large Head and Small Head variety. Both of the gold pieces are now in the Smithsonian, but the coins took a circuitous route to get there, via William Haseltine, Stephen Nagy, and William Woodin. That is an oft-told story that need not be repeated here.
The union denomination was unprecedented in U.S. numismatic history. The fifty dollar gold piece, or half union, had a relatively recent precedent in the 1851-52 "ingots" valued at fifty dollars from Gold Rush California. While there was a need for such a large-denomination gold coin in early California, there was no apparent need for such a federally authorized coin in 1877. The impetus seems to have come from Mint Director Henry Linderman, a coin collector himself and creator of many exotic patterns and rarities. Linderman's excesses finally came to the attention of Congress and he was slated to go before a Congressional committee in late 1878, but was too ill to attend. He died in January 1879, leaving many unanswered questions about his two terms as Mint Director.
Fewer than a dozen pieces of the Small Head half union are known, including examples in the Smithsonian and Connecticut State Library. Approximately half of the known pieces have been gilt, but it is not certain if the gilding was applied in the Mint or afterward. The gilding on this piece effectively simulates a gold striking. The layer of gold is almost complete over each side, just the slightest spotted chipping can be seen on the reverse. The fields show significant brightness from the proof finish on the underlying copper; so much so that the devices are noticeably contrasted against the mirroring in the fields. The orange-gold color is uniform throughout, and apart from the tiny chips in the gold finish on the reverse, there are no noticeable contact marks. Light hairlines are all that prevent an even higher grade. This is a rare opportunity to acquire this seldom-seen pattern denomination. (NGC ID# 2AEY, PCGS# 61894)
Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.
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