1855-S Branch Mint Proof Half Dollar, PR65
1855-S 50C PR65 NGC. WB-1. The obverse lacks drapery at the
elbow, a sign that the dies were polished prior to striking. In
A Register of Liberty Seated Half Dollar Varieties, Bill
Bugert writes: "Proofs and early business strikes have no clash
marks; the no drapery characteristic resulted from the special die
preparation for proof strikes." The bottoms of all four digits in
the date are weak, especially the 8 and first 5. That weakness is
noted on this piece and is visible in the plate of the Smithsonian
specimen illustrated in Bugert's reference.
One of Just Three Possible Proofs
The Only Currently Available Example
Numismatic literature discusses three different proof 1855-S half dollars, including: one that is now part of the Smithsonian Institution Collection; a second piece that has not been seen since the 1950s; and this specimen, the only example currently available to collectors. Four die varieties are identified for the 1855-S half dollars, and the WB-1 marriage appears to be the first minted. Die state evidence shows that the proofs were the first half dollars minted in San Francisco, prior to any business strikes.
The Smithsonian Institution specimen has been part of the National Numismatic Collection since the time of issue, when San Francisco Mint Superintendent Robert Aiken Birdsall preserved the piece and sent it to Mint Director James Ross Snowden. Walter Breen notes that the 1855-S proof half dollar was held in Division V, Number 79, of the Mint Cabinet, commenting: "an odd place for it, as this section consisted mostly of patterns and pioneer gold." Bill Bugert examined the 1855-S half dollar at the Smithsonian Institution in May 1989. At the time he graded the coin 63+, noted its bright proof surfaces, and observed a die crack between the D and S in the legend.
Walter Breen wrote of an example that appeared in a March 1956 Bolender sale. However, numismatist Scott Rubin checked the catalog and found that no such coin was offered. He checked further and found that Bolender did offer an 1855-S proof half dollar in his April 1953 sale. Lot 87 in that 1953 catalog was described as: "1855 San Francisco mint, half-dollar, Proof. Bluish and golden toned. The finest piece known to me, and lists uncirculated at $150 in Guide Book. This specimen should be worth much more and cost $167 several years ago." The coin was offered as part of the Louis L. Lincoln half dollar collection.
The third known proof, the piece offered here, has appeared in several auctions since its first appearance in 1955. This piece has brilliant proof surfaces with razor-sharp design motifs and no signs of weakness on either side. The obverse is bright silver with a splash of faint lilac toning near star 13, while the reverse has a delicate golden tone. There were no plates in the Bolender catalog, and the timing is such that the Lincoln specimen may be the same coin offered here. In fact, there is a high probability that it is the same coin, reducing the population from three coins to two, making this piece the only 1855-S proof half dollar available to collectors.
This coin is a numismatic showpiece in any collection and belongs in the cabinet of a numismatist who will appreciate its beauty, rarity, and historical importance.
Ex: Farish Baldenhofer (Stack's, 11/1955), lot 723; Reed Hawn (Stack's, 8/1973), lot 188; Matthew Bryan Collection (NASCA, 11/1977), lot 549; David K. Carnegie (New England Rare Coin Auctions, 11/1980), lot 751; Auction '86 (Paramount, 7/1986), lot 1646; The Rarities Sale (Bowers and Merena, 8/1998), lot 180; Richmond Collection (David Lawrence, 3/2005), lot 1797; Chicago Signature (Heritage, 8/2011), lot 7176. (NGC ID# 26CY, PCGS# 6421)
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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.
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