Classic Rarity 1838-O Reeded Edge Half
1838-O 50C PR63 Branch Mint PCGS. CAC. JR-1, R.7. What
defines a classic American numismatic rarity? Is it an extremely
low mintage figure, or are certain coins considered classics
because of their combination of a beautiful design, historical
significance, and limited availability? Perhaps it is the mystique
surrounding special coins, such as the 1913 nickel, 1804 dollar, or
the 1933 double eagle that account for their status as classic
rarities and their accompanying multi-million dollar price tags. By
all of the above attributes, the 1838-O is a classic and,
unequivocally, one of the most celebrated and sought-after
properties in America's numismatic history. However, it is the
mystery surrounding the 1838 O-mint halves that tends to elicit the
most intrigue from collectors, dealers, and researchers alike.
Branch Mint PR63 CAC
The Atwater Specimen
First of all, how many were struck? The generally accepted mintage figure is 20 coins, based upon a handwritten note that accompanied the 1838-O half dollar sold as lot 583 in the June 1894 Friesner Collection by Edouard Frossard. As recorded in Breen (1988), the handwritten note was inscribed as follows: "The enclosed specimen coin of the U.S. branch mint at New Orleans is presented to Pres. Bache by Rufus Tyler the coiner. It may be proper to state that not more than 20 pieces were struck with the half dollar dies of 1838." Alexander D. Bache was the first president of Girard College in Philadelphia and, according to research by Karl Moulton, Tyler's prior chemistry professor at the University of Pennsylvania, thus providing a motive for the gift from Tyler. As a side note, Girard College was founded in 1833 but did not technically open until 1848. Nonetheless, Bache was president, in a limited capacity, of the college when he received the 1838-O half specimen. The current disposition of this particular specimen is unknown and not included in the pedigree roster below, suggesting that an additional example of this rare issue may be extant.
The 1838-O half sold as lot 655 in the June 1890 auction by New York Coin and Stamp Co., now identified as the Norweb coin, included the following note in that catalog: "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 ..." There are two problems with the aforementioned letter: Dr. John Riddell was never the superintendent of the New Orleans Mint, but rather the melter and refiner, and the term of that position did not commence until 1839, so it is likely that the letter referenced in the 1890 sale was referring to specially prepared 1839-O half dollar coins. Since we have traced 11 1838-O halves, the notion that only four coins were struck is obviously incorrect, therefore it is easier to accept the suggested mintage of 20 pieces. One went to Bache and another to the Mint Cabinet Collection, but what was the destination of the other 18 examples?
Researchers generally agree that the remaining coins were distributed as gifts or souvenirs by mint officials. So are the 1838-O halves proof coins, business strikes, or die trial pieces? If the 1838-O halves were distributed as proofs, several pieces were not handled as such over time. The Boyd, Empire, and Anderson-Dupont specimens are all considered circulated or impaired proofs, grading in the PR40 to PR50 range. Even the Smithsonian example from the Mint cabinet is a cleaned coin. Proof half dollars from prior years exist in Gem or better condition so it is curious that the finest 1838-O half graded is a PR64. Breen (1988) claims that his research in the National Archives in 1951 yielded a reference stating that "a few" halves were struck "to test a press." This seems logical, considering that the New Orleans Mint was merely months old when the 1838-O halves were struck in the first quarter of 1839. It is well known that the first coins struck at the new branch mint were dimes and half dimes, and the smaller press used for those issues broke twice. The challenges with the implementation of a new, larger steam press to strike the half dollars must have been considerable. However, everyone agrees that the first O-mint halves certainly look like proof issues and there is no official record that 20 pieces were struck for circulation. The fact that most of the extant examples display mirrored fields could be explained by the fact that the newly installed dies had been freshly lapped and neither proofs nor die trial pieces would have been recorded in 1839.
Interestingly, the reverses of all known 1838-O halves display some degree of die deterioration. In fact, the faint breaks visible on most of the known 1838-O halves are similar, if not identical, to the die breaks observed on the 1839-O JR-1 halves. In addition, the number of dentils, 140, and their orientation to the reverse lettering match perfectly. Further study is essential before making a definitive claim, but it is likely that the two issues share the same reverse. It is possible that the dentils were part of the master dies used to create the working dies, thus explaining the identical positional match. A mystery yet to be resolved is why a proof coin would be struck from damaged dies. Were the dies broken during the production of the master dies, or were some coins, whereabouts unknown, struck before the 20 die trial pieces mentioned by Tyler? The argument regarding the status of branch mint proofs is tiresome and will likely continue into the unforeseeable future. Sentiments converge, however, on the fact that any 1838-O half dollar is an extraordinary coin to behold, both in terms of beauty and absolute rarity.
The current coin, the Atwater specimen, is not only special because of its rarity, but also because of its wonderful state of preservation. Some specialists believe that this coin is the finest known of the 11 traced examples, despite the grade assigned by PCGS. The fields are deeply mirrored and the strike is as strong as one would expect on a proof coin. Signs of cabinet friction are absent, and it is likely that the three obverse marks (right of star 5, left of star 9 and at the base of Liberty's throat) have limited the grade. Exclusive of the three marks, which shall forever serve as immediate pedigree markers, the Atwater specimen is awe-inspiring. This coin is perhaps best explained by the legendary B. Max Mehl in his June 1946 sale of the Atwater 1838-O half dollar, as quoted in the August 1973 Stack's sale of the Reed Hawn Collection, lot 122:
"Until last year I have not had a single specimen of this great rarity offered in any of my sales during all my numismatic experience of 45 years. In my sale of the Ryan Collection, June 1945, the first specimen I have ever offered at auction brought $1,875.00. It was a purple proof. The one offered here is a brilliant Gem proof, and in my opinion, and as far as I know, no finer specimen exists or could exist. According to my records, there are only seven specimens known. It is therefore considered, and rightly so, one of the very greatest of all United States silver coins - barring none - not even the 1804 dollar. It is a rarity which will add luster and much value and of course great pride of ownership to any collection of U.S. coins. It is a thrilling coin to look at and a still greater coin to own."
The "purple proof" that Mehl mentions in the above description is the Neil specimen which was most recently sold as part of the Queller Collection by Stack's in October 2002. It realized $184,000 in that sale. It is likely that the first U.S. half dollar coin to reach the million dollar mark will be an 1838-O half and, considering the current renaissance in classic U.S. numismatic rarities, it may happen sooner than later. The Baldenhofer specimen was sold at Heritage's June 2005 Long Beach sale for $632,500, and an impaired proof considered to grade PR40, the Boyd coin near the bottom of the condition census, realized a price of $220,000 at the October 2006 auction of the Byers Collection by Stack's. The specimen offered here provides a rare opportunity for the connoisseur to acquire a legendary coin that holds a permanent position on the landscape of classic American numismatic rarities and is perhaps unimprovable in terms of quality.
The following roster is a modification of the list included in our June 2005 sale of the Baldenhofer specimen. It is a continuation of the roster published in the 1997 catalog of the Eliasberg sale by Bowers and Merena, although we must note that the pedigree information provided here may be incomplete or include errors. With the aforementioned disclaimer being made, we are confident that the current roster is the most accurate and up-to-date list available. An in-depth study of 1838-O halves would be required to improve upon the list, and even then it would not likely be completely accurate. Errors found in previous catalogs have been propagated throughout the past century and some ownership information has simply been lost to time. The order of coins in the roster is an approximation of the Condition Census, not including the Smithsonian specimen, which would likely fall somewhere in the middle. Of course grading is subjective and specialists may have different opinions on the exact placements. It is also possible that the coins listed as "uncertified," such as the Cox and Neil specimens, may actually be encapsulated. As of the time of the current sale such information was not available. The combined data from the NGC Census Report and the PCGS Population Report of 1838-O halves indicates that five pieces have been graded at the PR64 level, with four achieving a PR63 designation and one certified as PR45. Based on the roster of known specimens, it is probable that the population data represents resubmissions of the same coin or coins.
Three of the coins in the roster are missing grades. To complete the list we should include the following:
Cox Specimen: Brilliant Proof.
Empire Specimen: PR40 Uncertified.
Guggenheimer Specimen: PR40 Uncertified.
1. Smithsonian Specimen. PR60 Cleaned. Superintendent, New Orleans Mint; Mint Director Robert M. Patterson; Mint Cabinet Collection, formed in June 1838; Smithsonian Institution.
2. Eliasberg Specimen. PR64 NGC. Stack's (1942); Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. (Bowers and Merena, 4/1997), lot 1911.
3. Norweb Specimen. PR64 NGC. J.N.T. Levick; W. Elliot Woodward; R. Coulton Davis; Lorin G. Parmelee (New York Coin and Stamp Co., 6/1890), lot 655; James B. Wilson (Thomas Elder, 10/1908), lot 346; Albert Fairchild Holden; Emery May Holden (Mrs. R. Henry Norweb); Norweb family (Bowers and Merena, 11/1988), lot 3119; unknown intermediary; Andrew Lustig.
4. Atwater Specimen. PR63 BM PCGS. The present piece. Col. E.H.R. Green; William Cutler Atwater (B. Max Mehl, 6/1946), lot 555; unknown; Reed Hawn Collection (Stack's, 8/1973), lot 122; Auction '79 (Superior's session, 8/1979), lot 1569; James Bennett Pryor Collection (Bowers and Merena, 1/1996); Doug Noblet; Bowers and Merena (10/2000); Heritage to Madison Collection via private treaty (9/2005); Sid and Alicia Belzberg Collection.
5. Baldenhofer Specimen. PR64 BM PCGS. Col. E.H.R. Green; W.G. Baldenhofer (Stack's, 11/1955), lot 708; Robert Pelletreau (Stack's, 3/1959), lot 782; Jerome L. Cohen; Lester Merkin; Q. David Bowers; Charles Jay (Stack's, 10/1967), lot 181; Dr. E. Yale Clarke (Stack's, 10/1975), lot 253; Julian Leidman; Bryan Collection (NASCA, 11/1977), lot 708; Julian Leidman; Auction '82 (Paramount's session, 8/1982), lot 1689; unknown intermediary; Long Beach (Heritage, 6/2005), lot 6244.
6. Cox Specimen. Brilliant Proof. Col. E.H.R. Green; Burdette G. Johnson; Wayte Raymond; J.G. Macallister; Charles M. Williams (the likely owner); Numismatic Gallery; Adolphe Menjou Collection; R.E. Cox, Jr. (Stack's, 4/1962), lot 1873; Empire Coin Co. (Q. David Bowers and James E Ruddy); Hazen B. Hinman, Century Collection (Paramount, 4/1965), lot 1151; unknown intermediary; Bowers and Ruddy Galleries (Rare Coin Review #17); Ellis H. Robison (Stack's, 2/1982), lot 1605; Marvin Browder.
7. Neil Specimen. PR60 Uncertified. Waldo C. Newcomer; Henry Chapman; Col. E.H.R. Green; Maurice Ryan; B. Max Mehl (May 1945), lot 936; Will W. Neil (B. Max Mehl, 6/1947), lot 580; James Aloysius Stack (Stack's, 3/1975), lot 415; Julian Leidman; New York City Collection; 1982 ANA Sale (Steve Ivy, 8/1982), lot 2320; Anthony Terranova; Kevin Lipton; George W. Vogt (Colonial Coins); Auction '84 (RARCOA, 8/84), lot 1666; David Queller Collection (Stack's, 10/2002), lot 446. The enlarged reverse in the Queller Catalog is incorrect, and is actually the 1836 Reeded Edge half dollar.
8. Boyd Specimen. PR40 Uncertified. Col. E.H.R. Green; Wayte Raymond; F.C.C. Boyd; "World's Greatest Collection" (Numismatic Gallery, 4/1945), lot 410; 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.
9. Anderson-Dupont Specimen. PR50 Uncertified. Col. E.H.R. Green; Anderson-Dupont sale (Stack's, 11/1954), lot 2104; Mr. Gottschalk; 1957 ANA Sale (Federal Coin Exchange, 8/1957), lot 1535A; "TAD" Collection (Stack's); Julian Leidman; Steve Ivy; Manfra, Tordella, and Brookes; 1983 ANA Sale (Kagin's, 8/1983), lot 2494; Mid-American (5/1985), lot 392; 1986 ANA Sale (Kagin's, 8/1986), lot 4657A; H.W Blevins (Superior, 6/1988), lot 3567; Bowers and Merena (3/1989), lot 2000; Vintage Auctions (8/1989), lot 202.
10. Empire Specimen. PR40 Uncertified. New Orleans private collection; Ferguson Haines; (S.H. & H. Chapman, 10/1888), lot 483; Col. E.H.R. Green; Charles A. Cass/Empire Collection (Stack's, 11/1957), lot 1344; "Empire Collection" (Stack's, 11/1957), lot 1344; New Netherlands Coin Company; Jerome L. Cohen; Kreisberg-Schulman (4/1967), lot 1065; Kreisberg Mail Bid Sale (6/1970), lot 1044.
11. Guggenheimer Specimen. PR40 Uncertified. Fred S. Guggenheimer (Stack's, 10/1953), lot 830.
The present coin has light, even, pleasing steel-gray and pale blue toning over fully reflective surfaces. The devices on each side are intricately detailed. The coin is suggestive of a PR64 or even better coin. (Without the marks, which actually look slightly worse in the photo than in person, it would easily grade PR64 or PR65.)
(NGC ID# 27SS, PCGS# 6226)
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