1838-O Half Dollar, PR64
1838-O 50C GR-1, R.7, PR64 NGC. CAC. Ex: Eliasberg. The
1838-O Reeded Edge half dollar is one of the rarest and most
celebrated coins in the U.S. federal series, and this specimen is
certainly one of the finest-known examples. The design elements
exhibit razor-sharp definition throughout, and the fields are
deeply mirrored, under attractive shades of golden-brown and
cerulean-blue toning. A small color spot above the drapery on the
bust can serve as a pedigree marker. Eye appeal is terrific.
Classic Early Proof Rarity
Nine Examples Extant, Ex: Eliasberg
Variety: GR-1, the only dies for the issue. The obverse shows doubling on the letters of LIBERTY, the eyelid, ear, and some of the hair. The reverse shows the mysterious die cracks through the leaves of the olive branch and the letters of the denomination that are found on most specimens of the 1838-O. Importantly, this coin also shows die breaks through the letters STAT of STATES, indicating a later die state than most of the other specimens. Of all the 1838-O half dollars that have been closely studied, only the Smithsonian example is from a later die state.
Population Data (4/15): The present coin is tied for finest with one other PR64 example at NGC. PCGS has graded one specimen in SP64BC and two coins in SP64BM. SP means Specimen, BC stands for Branch Mint Cameo and BM indicates Branch Mint. The two services have certified a combined total of four coins in lower grades, including an unknown number of resubmissions and crossovers.
Heritage Commentary: The 1838-O Reeded Edge half dollar is one of the most mysterious and valuable coins in American numismatics. The 1838-O is believed to be the earliest branch mint proof coin of any denomination, and no official record of its mintage exists. Researchers have traced only nine surviving examples in all grades, with one coin impounded in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, and two others in slightly impaired condition. Heritage Auctions is pleased to offer one of the finest-known examples of this classic rarity in Part III of our sale of the Eugene Gardner Collection.
The official New Orleans Mint Report for 1838 makes no mention of any half dollars struck that year, although two pairs of 1838-dated half dollar dies were mailed from the Philadelphia Mint in April and received in New Orleans by May 3, 1838. Many problems beset the newly operational facility, which struck its first coins, a small run of 30 dimes, on May 8, 1838. The coin press promptly broke down, and coinage could not be resumed until May 22, when a somewhat larger mintage of 20,000 dimes was accomplished. The press was damaged again towards the end of May, and coinage was suspended until mid-July, when a really substantial mintage of 345,000 dimes was achieved by the end of the month.
The New Orleans Mint shut down from August 2 through November 1, 1838, due to the annual epidemic of yellow fever. When the facility reopened, operations were quite slow, and a small mintage of 35,000 dimes delivered on December 29 was the only coinage accomplished for the rest of the year.
The New Orleans Mint records clearly show there was no opportunity to strike half dollars in 1838, but at least nine examples of the issue are extant today, posing one of the most intriguing questions in all of U.S. numismatics: When and where were these coins struck? Recent findings by several researchers suggest that the 1838-O half dollars were struck on two occasions, for two completely different purposes.
Conventional wisdom, based on a letter from Chief Coiner Rufus Tyler published in The Numismatist in 1894, states that "not more than 20" examples of the 1838-O half dollar were originally struck. Respected researcher R.W. Julian located records in the National Archives that reveal the two obverse dies for the 1838-O half dollar were destroyed on June 13, 1839, so all of the coins must have been struck before that date. Both Julian and Walter Breen concluded that the coins must have been struck early in 1839, possibly to test a new coin press before commencing half dollar coinage in earnest in April with the 1839-dated dies. This theory was accepted by most numismatists for many years, but a recent find in the Archives by Julian contradicts Tyler's mintage figure and suggests the coins may have been struck on more than one occasion.
Ironically, the new evidence originated with the same Chief Coiner Rufus Tyler who wrote the note that was reprinted in The Numismatist. Julian published the following newly discovered letter in a post on the Collector's Universe Message Boards in late 2010:
"U.S. Branch Mint New Orleans
February 25, 1839
I mentioned in both of 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, ... [illegible] ... to 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.
[The rest of the letter deals with other matters.]
I am, sir, with great respect
This missive from Tyler confirms Julian and Breen's conclusion that 1838-O half dollars were struck early in 1839 to test a new press, but the mintage figure is only half the total reported in Tyler's other letter, which was addressed to Dr. Alexander Bache, president of Girard College in Philadelphia. Rufus Tyler died in the fall of 1839, a victim of the deadly yellow fever epidemic that plagued New Orleans every year. Even though his letter to Bache was not published until 1894, when it was found wrapped around a specimen of the 1838-O that appeared in Édouard Frossard's sale of the William Friesner Collection, he must have written the two letters within a few months of each other, if not just days or weeks. It is unlikely that he forgot how many coins he struck in such a short time, suggesting that there were actually two mintages of approximately 10 pieces each. Tyler reported on the 10 specimens that he struck in January in his letter to Patterson, but he must have known about another mintage when he wrote to Alexander Bache, and included the coins from that emission in the 20-piece mintage figure he quoted to him.
The theory that 1838-O half dollars were struck on two occasions was first advanced in The Surprising History of the 1838-O Half Dollar by David Stone and Mark Van Winkle, Ivy Press, 2012. At the time, statements from several 19th century coin dealers and the extensive program of half dollar patterns produced at the Philadelphia Mint in 1838 seemed to indicate that the other 1838-O half dollars had been produced as prototypes in Philadelphia, before the dies were sent to New Orleans in April. New research by Kevin Flynn, John Dannreuther, and Richard Graham has established that the second striking period actually took place in New Orleans (see The 1838-O Half Dollar a Game Changer by Kevin Flynn and John Dannreuther, 2015).
In their groundbreaking study, Flynn, Dannreuther, and Graham found die evidence that some 1839-dated New Orleans Mint half dollars were struck before the Smithsonian specimen of the 1838-O. The same reverse die was used to strike both the 1838-O and the GR-1 variety of the 1839-O half dollars. A small number of 1839-O half dollars, which have customarily been called proofs but may actually be specimen strikings, are from an intermediate reverse die state, with more and further-advanced die cracks than those shown on the Eliasberg-Gardner specimen, but not as advanced as the cracks on the Smithsonian example. This means the Smithsonian example, and possibly some other 1838-O half dollars, were struck after the 1839-dated half dollar dies arrived in New Orleans on March 16, 1839. The coins struck during this second striking period were probably intended as presentation pieces for Mint Director Patterson to distribute to VIP's and the Mint Cabinet.
The 1838-O half dollar has been avidly collected since its first appearance in the famous collection of pioneer numismatist Joseph Mickley, which was sold by Massachusetts coin dealer W. Elliot Woodward in 1867. That coin, described in lot 1782 of the catalog, realized only $2.75. In contrast, recent sales include the present coin's appearance in lot 5249 of the FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2014), which realized $763,750.
The coin offered here traces its history to the collection of Robert Coulton Davis, the numismatist who wrote the first serious work on patterns in 1885 and suggested the 1838-O should be collected with the pattern series. It later passed through several famous collections, including those of eccentric millionaire "Colonel" E.H.R. Green and Louis Eliasberg, Sr. Accompanying the lot is an archive of 10 documents detailing the correspondence between Stack's, Eliasberg, and B.G. Johnson, concerning the acquisition of the coin out of "Colonel" Green's estate. These items make fascinating reading, giving a glimpse of the coin market at the highest level in 1942. The opportunity to acquire this classic early proof rarity will not recur any time soon. Advanced collectors should bid accordingly.
Provenance: Robert Coulton Davis Collection (New York Coin & Stamp, 1/1890), lot 655, realized $51 to the Chapmans per Carl Carlson; unknown intermediaries; Martin Luther Beistle; "Colonel" E.H.R. Green; B.G. Johnson; Stack's (1942); Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr.; Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. Collection (Bowers and Merena, 4/1997), lot 1911, to Andrew Lustig and Don Kagin; John Albanese; private collector. (NGC ID# 27SS, PCGS# 6226)
Weight: 13.36 grams
Metal: 90% Silver, 10% Cooper
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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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