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    Description

    1838-O Capped Bust Half, GR-1, SP50
    Classic Reeded Edge Rarity
    Nine Examples Traced

    1838-O 50C GR-1, R.7, SP50 PCGS Secure. The 1838-O half dollar is a legendary rarity that has mystified collectors for more than 150 years. The detailed New Orleans Mint Report for 1838 makes no mention of coining half dollars that year, but examples began appearing at auction as early as 1867 and present-day numismatists have traced nine examples, including one coin in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution which has been there since at least 1839. Heritage Auctions is privileged to offer the present coin, which was once included in F.C.C. Boyd's World's Greatest Collection, in its first appearance in nine years.

    The explanation of the origin of the 1838-O half dollar seems to lie in a February 25, 1839-dated letter found in the National Archives from Chief Coiner Rufus Tyler of the New Orleans Mint to Mint Director Robert M. Patterson. Tyler informed Patterson that he had struck 10 half dollars in January, using the unused leftover dies from 1838, to test the large coin press that had not been used before. The letter reads, in part:

    "I mentioned in both my former letters that the half dollar dies sent us last year are unsuited for present use for, besides being out of date, the bottom ones are too short to reach the screws and consequently cannot be secured in the press.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, spliced 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."



    This message from Tyler clearly explains how ten specimens of the 1838-O were struck without appearing on the Mint Report, since they were coined in 1839 from 1838-dated dies. Researchers like Walter Breen and R.W. Julian surmised something like this must have happened to account for the discrepancy. Recent research by Heritage numismatists David Stone and Mark Van Winkle indicates that 1838-O half dollars were struck on more than one occasion, and Kevin Flynn and John Dannreuther established that a second striking period probably occurred in March of 1839, with the coins from that delivery struck as presentation pieces (see The Surprising History of the 1838-O Half Dollar and The 1838-O Half Dollar An Alignment of the Stars). Another note from Rufus Tyler was published in The Numismatist in 1894, indicating that the final total of coins struck was "not more than twenty pieces."

    The present coin first appeared in lot 483 of the Ferguson Haines Collection (S.H. & H. Chapman, 10, 1888):

    "New Orleans Mint, O over date. Very fine. Excessively rare. We know of but two other specimens - one in the Mint collection at Philadelphia, the other a proof. Cost $40 in New Orleans. The Mint report omits to mention the issuance of this coin, and we believe but a few were issued as proofs, the present specimen having a slight trace of proof surface on rev."


    The question of whether or not the 1838-O half dollars were struck in proof format is a controversial one, but all the coins exhibit razor-sharp definition on the design elements and the unworn specimens have the reflective mirrored fields characteristic of proof issues. Clearly, they were something more than casual business-strikes. Although it is hard to justify a proof designation for the coins that were struck to test the coin press, the later specimens were almost certainly intended for presentation purposes and may have been struck as proofs. The 1838-O may well be the earliest branch mint proof in the U.S series.

    This coin claims an illustrious pedigree, as it was owned by such famous collectors as Virgil Brand and Frederick C.C. Boyd. It last appeared in the collection of George "Buddy" Byers (Stack's, 10/2006), where it realized $253,000. The prestige of the 1838-O has steadily increased in recent years, with the current record price realized standing at $763,750, brought by the Eliasberg-Gardner specimen in lot 5249 of the FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2014). Heritage has now auctioned five of the eight specimens of the 1838-O half dollar that are available to collectors.

    The coin offered here exhibits intricate detail on the strongly impressed design elements, despite the slightest trace of high-point wear. The pleasing gray surfaces are highlighted with shades of champagne-gold toning and show only a few minor abrasions, including a short nick to the right of Liberty's eye that provides a good pedigree marker. The reverse devices show strike-doubling, most easily seen on the arrow heads and the letters in DOL. This effect may be the result of a wobbly die, caused by the unorthodox "splicing" Tyler resorted to when he secured the die in the large coin press. It was probably one of the last coins struck in the January striking period, before Tyler's improvised support system collapsed (the Anderson-Dupont 1838-O also shows this doubling). The overall presentation of this piece is quite attractive and its historic interest and importance is unsurpassed. The 1838-O is listed among the 100 Greatest U.S. Coins. Population: 1 in 50, 3 finer (6/15).
    Ex: New Orleans private collection, valued at $40; Ferguson Haines Collection (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 per Carl Carlson, but the window of opportunity for Green to buy coins from Brand's collection was brief, creating some doubt about this citation; 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, realized $253,000.

    Coin Index Numbers: (NGC ID# 27SP, PCGS# 6226)

    Weight: 13.36 grams

    Metal: 90% Silver, 10% Cooper


    Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    August, 2015
    12th-16th Wednesday-Sunday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 18
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 4,184

    Buyer's Premium per Lot:
    17.5% of the successful bid (minimum $14) per lot.

    The Draped Bust Half Dollars of 1796-1797 by Jon Amato

    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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