Legend Numismatics

HomeUS Coins1838-O Capped Bust Half Dollar : A Collector's Guide

1838-O Capped Bust Half Dollar : A Collector’s Guide

1838-O Capped Bust Half Dollar. The Neil-Stack-Queller-Pogue Specimen. Image: PCGS.
1838-O Capped Bust Half Dollar. The Neil-Stack-Queller-Pogue Specimen. Image: PCGS.

The 1838-O Capped Bust half dollar is one of the greatest rarities in all of American coinage. Its origins are enigmatic. Ranked in the top 20 in Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth’s 100 Greatest U.S. Coins (5th Edition, 2019), the coin is believed by some to have been struck in early 1839 using leftover 1838 dies. After producing these antedated coins, the New Orleans Mint would go on to produce 116,000 half dollars bearing the correct date.

Mint records offer no clarity as to the total mintage, but it is believed that only 20 examples were struck – from which no more than 10 are known to have survived into the current era. The coins first began to appear around 1867, in a period when Mint rarities were highly sought after by a small and seemingly well-connected coterie of dealer-insiders and wealthy collectors.

Stack's invoice made out of Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. for the $1,400 purchase of an 1838-O half dollar. Image: Stack's Bowers.
Stack’s invoice made out of Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. for the $1,400 purchase of an 1838-O half dollar. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

In their book The Surprising History of the 1838-O Half Dollar (2012), numismatists David Stone and Mark Van Winkle propose a theory that the surviving 1838-O half dollars were actually struck in Philadelphia in order to show off the mintmarks that were to be used at the newly built branch mints. Numismatic writer Greg Reynolds disputes this, citing a lack of direct evidence and the suggestion that the Mint did nothing to communicate through the media anything related to the introduction of the C, D, and O mint marks on the forthcoming branch mint coinage.

Stone, however, points to the fact that Édouard Frossard purported that the coins were struck in Philadelphia as patterns in his 19th-century writings. He also pointed out that the coins were struck using screw presses and that the Philadelphia Mint had shipped steam presses to the new mints. This does not preclude the possibility that the New Orleans Mint did not have cause to acquire a screw press, but the presence of one at the New Orleans Mint is, to date, unclear.

Supporting Reynolds’ more conventional argument is a February 25, 1839 letter from New Orleans Chief Coiner Rufus Tyler to Mint Director Robert M. Patterson, wherein Tyler informs the director that the bottom dies sent to New Orleans were too short to be secured to the press. To resolve the situation, and to test the press, Tyler claims that he spliced one of the dies to make it work, and in doing so, succeeding in striking 10 coins – “the very first one struck being as perfect as the dies and entirely satisfactory.”

According to Tyler, his splicing Job failed after 10 impressions, requiring him to remove the reverse die and fix it. If Tyler’s 10 coins were half of the supposed 20 1838-O half dollars, then the remainder would have to have been struck later. Research by numismatists John Dannreuther and Kevin Flynn supports this and it is possible that the presentation pieces were of the later pressings as they exhibit Prooflike qualities and, presumably, would have been produced with greater care than test strikes.

Other stories regarding the coin have circulated over the years. One purports that these coins were struck as special presentation pieces and handed out to a small number of important people. According to this telling, one of these coins was presumably given to University of Pennsylvania President Alexander Dallas Bache (current status unknown). Another may have been presented to Frances Parke Lewis Butler, grand-niece of George Washington.

Market Data and Noteworthy Specimens

A total of nine examples are either accounted for (in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.) or have appeared at auction within the last 20 years. PCGS and NGC report that no examples have graded finer than 64, and it’s likely that the three grading events at PCGS and the two grading events at NGC concern the same coins. As for the terminology used to describe the 1838-O half dollar, PCGS has, in the past, graded the coins as Proofs, but then later adopted the nomenclature “Specimen” with the BM suffix for Branch Mint.

As for which of the three known 64 coins is the best, there is no clear consensus. The Norweb coin was considered by Greg Reynolds to be nicer than the Eliasberg coin. A Heritage Auctions cataloger has also put forward the Atwater example as the finest. We have no opinion to offer at this time.

Top Population: PCGS SP-64 (3, 2/2024). NGC PF-64 (2, 2/2024)

  • PCGS SP64BM #60051696: H.O. Granberg; Waldo Newcomer Collection, William H. Woodin, around 1915 (sold en bloc); B. Max Mehl, 1932 (sold en bloc); Col. Edward Huntington Robinson Green; Col. E.H.R. Green Estate, June 1936; to Burdette G. Johnson, by sale, June 1942; Johnson to James Macallister via private treaty, September 9, 1942 – $1,200; Maurice A. Ryan Collection, by sale; B. Max Mehl, June 1945, Lot 936 – $1.875; Will W. Neil Collection; “Will W. Neil Collection”, B. Max Mehl, June 1947, Lot 580; James A. Stack; “James A. Stack Collection”, Stack’s, March 1975, Lot 415; Julian Leidman; Steve Icy Numismatic Auctions, August 1982, Lot 2320; Anthony Terranova to Kevin Lipton; George Vogt; RARCOA, August 1984, Lot 1666; David Queller; “Queller Family Collection of United States Half Dollars, 1794-1963”, Stack’s, October 2002, Lot 446 – $184,000; D. Brent Pogue; “D. Brent Pogue Family Collection, Part IV”, Stack’s Bowers / Sotheby’s, May 24, 2016, Lot 4007 – $493,500. Pogue Collection novelty insert. The Neil-Stack-Queller-Pogue Specimen.
  • PCGS PR64BM #21895283: “Colonel” E.H.R. Green; “W.G. Baldenhofer Collection”, Stack’s, November 1955, Lot 708 – $3,200; “Robert Pelletreau Collection”, Stack’s, March 1959, Lot 782 – $4,000; Jerome L. Cohen; Lester Merkin; Q. David Bowers; “Charles Jay Collection”, Stack’s, October 1967, Lot 181 – $14,000; “Dr. E. Yale Clarke Collection”, Stack’s, October 1975, Lot 253 – $43,000; Julian Leidman; “Bryan Collection”, NASCA, October 1977, Lot 708; Julian Leidman; Paramount Auctions, August 1992, Lot 1689 – $47,500; unknown intermediary; Heritage Auctions, June 2005, Lot 6244 – $632,500; Heritage Auctions, January 10, 2013, Lot 5644 – $734,375. The Baldenhofer Specimen. Gold interiors, pleasing cobalt toning around the periphery.
  • PCGS SP64BM: “Robert Coulson Davis Collection”, New York Coin & Stamp, Co., Bangs & Co., January 20-24, 1890; “Lorin G. Parmelee Collection”, New York Coin & Stamp, Co., June 1890, Lot 655; “James B. Wilson Collection”, Thomas Elder, October 1908, Lot 346; Albert Fairchild Holden; Emery May Holden (Norweb); “Norweb Collection”, Bowers and Merena, November 1988, Lot 3119; unknown intermediaries; Andrew Lustig; Bruce Morelan (from 2001-2003). The Norweb Specimen.
  • PCGS SP63BM CAC #03055054: “Robert Coulton Davis”, New York Coin & Stamp, Co. January 1890, Lot 655 – $51; purchased by Chapman Brothers; unknown intermediaries; Martin Luther Beistle; “Colonel” E.H.R. Green; Burdette G. Johnson to Stack’s via private treaty, August 20, 1942 – $1,200, August 20, 1942; Stack’s to Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. via private treaty, October 1942 – $1,400; Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. As “PR63”. “The Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. Collection”, Bowers and Merena, April 1997, Lot 1911 – $121,000; Andrew Lustig and Don Kagin; John Albanese, purchased and sold in 2005; As NGC PF64 CAC #685827-001. “The Smoke Rise Collection”, Heritage Auctions, January 9, 2014, Lot 5249 – $763,750; Private Collector; Heritage Auctions, May 12, 2015, Lot 98459 – $646,250; The Eliasberg Specimen. Eliasberg on insert. Blue-gray toning, with hints of brown on the reverse. Spot on breast. Currently graded by PCGS. Downgraded one point.
  • PCGS PR63BM CAC #38283581: “Colonel” E.H.R. Green; Burdette G. Johnson; Wayte Raymond; J.G. Macallister; probably Charles M. Williams; Numismatic Gallery, June 1950, Lot 1073; Numismatic Gallery, August 1953, Lot 1873; Empire Coin Co.; Hazen B. Hinman; “Century Collection”, Paramount, April 1965, Lot 1151; private collector(s); Bowers and Ruddy; “Ellis H. Robison Collection”, Stack’s, February 1982, Lot 1605; Marvin Browder; David W. Akers; As PCGS PR63BM CAC #38283581. “E. Horatio Morgan Collection”, Stack’s Bowers, November 15, 2019 – Lot 7197 – $504,000. The Cox Specimen.
General Merchandise Co. of Hammond, Louisiana sought to quickly double their money on the Atwater-Hawn specimen 1838-O Liberty Seated Half Dollar. Ad truncated by CoinWeek.
General Merchandise Co. of Hammond, Louisiana sought to quickly double their money on the Atwater-Hawn specimen 1838-O Liberty Seated Half Dollar. Ad truncated by CoinWeek.
  • PCGS PR63BM #03055054: “Colonel” E.H.R. Green; “William Cutler Atwater Collection”, B. Max Mehl, June 1946, Lot 555; unknown intermediaries; “Reed Hawn Collection”, Stack’s, August 1973, Lot 122 – $41,000; Offered for sale for $100,000 by General Merchandise Co. in the October 1974 issue of Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine;  Superior, August 1979, Lot 1569 – $62,000; “Hanes Bennett Pryor Collection, Bowers and Merena, January 1996, Lot 94 – $104,500; Doug Noblet; Bowers and Merena, October 2000, Lot 4117; Advertised for sale by North American Certified Trading in October 15, 2001 issue of Coin World; Heritage to Madison Collection, via private treaty sale, September 2005; Sid and Alicia Belzberg Collection; Heritage Auctions, February 14, 2008, Lot 600 – $632,500; “The Jenkins Family Collection”, Heritage Auctions, January 4, 2018, Lot 4861 – $444,000. The Atwater Specimen. Pewter Grey. Scratch to the left of eye. Scratch behind Liberty’s head. Rim hit above bust.
  • PCGS SP50 #25575144: “Ferguson Haines Collection”, S.H. & H. Chapman, October 1888, Lot 483; purchased by the Chapman brothers, according to Carl Carlson; George Bauer; S.H. & H Chapman, February 1903, Lot 1149 – $250 (purchased by Virgil Brand); “Colonel” E.H.R. Green, according to Carlson- but Heritage calls this into question due to the timeframe; Wayte Raymond; F.C.C. Boyd, purchased on August 5, 1942 for $713; “World’s Greatest Collection”, Numismatic Gallery, April 1945, Lot 410 – $1,600; Eastern collector; Stack’s; “F.S. Guggenheimer Collection”, Stack’s, January 1953, Lot 830; “Charles A. Cass / Empire Collection”, Stack’s, November 1957, Lot 1344 – $4,000; New Netherlands Coin Company; Jerome L. Cohen; Kreisberg-Schulman, April 1967, Lot 1065; Abner Kreisberg, June 1970, Lot 1044; Stack’s, August 1971, Lot 804; “The Dr. George Oviedo Collection”, Stack’s, September 1983, Lot 830; “George Byers Collection”, As “Extra Fine”, Stack’s, October 18, 2006, Lot 1097 – $253,000; Heritage Auctions, August 12, 2015, Lot 4057 – $293,750. The Boyd Specimen.
  • PCGS PR45 #12323807: “Colonel” E.H.R. Green; Burdette Johnson to James Macallister via private treaty, September 9, 1942 – $875; “Anderson-DuPont Collection”, Stack’s, November 1954, Lot 2104; Gottschalk Collection; Federal Coin Exchange, 1957, Lot 1535A; “TAD Collection”, Stack’s; Julian Leidman; Steve Ivy; Manfra, Tordella and Brookes; Kagin’s, 1983, Lot 2494; “Dr. Jasper L. Robertson Collection”, Mid-American, May 1985, Lot 392; Kagin’s, 1986, Lot 4657A; “H.W. ‘Woody’ Blevins Collection”, Superior, June 1988, Lot 3567; Bowers and Merena, March 1989, Lot 2000; Vintage Auctions, August 1989, Lot 202; “The Yoder Family Collection, Part One”, Heritage Auctions, April 17, 2008, Lot 2310 – $276,000. The Anderson-DuPont Specimen. Certification number no longer active. Likely now NGC PR45.
  • Proof Details – Cleaned: New Orleans Mint to Mint Director Robert M. Patterson; United States Mint Cabinet; National Numismatic Collection.

* * *

Coin Specifications

Country: United States of America
Year Of Issue: 1838
Denomination: Half Dollar (USD)
Mint Mark: O (New Orleans)
Mintage: Up to 20, Estimated
Alloy: 90% Silver, 10% Copper
Weight: 13.36 grams
Diameter: 30 mm
Edge Reeded
OBV Designer Christian Gobrecht
REV Designer Christian Gobrecht
Quality: Proof/Specimen

 

Additional CoinWeek Coverage

https://coinweek.com/eliasberg-1838-o-half-dollar-controversy-origins/

* * *

CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

Related Articles

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

PCGS Set Registry

Bullion Sharks Gold

Heritage Auctions March 4th