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HomeUS Coins1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime : History and Value | CoinWeek

1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime : History and Value | CoinWeek

1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.
1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..
 

The 1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime is a coin unique in private hands, undetected by the numismatic community until the late 1970s. This half dime is one of three issues from the entire series of United States federal coinage of which only one survivor is known (or one of four if you count the 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, of which there is only one legal-to-own survivor). As such, this diminutive silver coin is among the great trophy coins in American numismatics.

Historical Backdrop and Discovery

Before the start of the American Civil War, annual half dime production was handled by the Philadelphia and New Orleans mints, where the tiny silver denomination saw modest-to-moderate mintages annually. Within months of the war’s outbreak, coinage at all three southern branch mints had ceased. This left just two United States Mint facilities operational: Philadelphia and the recently opened branch in San Francisco.

Excerpt from Superior's auction listing. Auction '86, Lot 1053.
Excerpt from Superior’s auction listing. Auction ’86, Lot 1053.

For the San Francisco Mint, half dime production at levels at or exceeding 100,000 coins would occur on a nearly annual basis from 1863 until the denomination’s discontinuance in 1873. The mintages for these pieces and the resulting number of surviving pieces, made completing this subset of the Liberty Seated Half Dime series seemingly approachable for most collectors

The exception, of course, is the 1870-S, of which there is only one verified example that sold recently for $3.12 million. Why was this coin produced and why is there only one confirmed example?

Year: Mintage
1863-S 100,000
1864-S 90,000
1865-S 120,000
1866-S 120,000
1867-S 120,000
1868-S 280,000
1869-S 230,000
1870-S 1 known in private hands
1871-S 161,000
1872-S 837,000
1873-S 324,000

 

The circumstances of production are obscure. Not recorded in the Mint’s annual report, official reference to the coin’s striking was not discovered until the early 2000s, when researchers Nancy Oliver and Richard Kelly followed a breadcrumb trail of documents located in the National Archives. These documents confirmed that Coiner J.B. Harmstead struck an example of 11 coin denominations for placement in the cornerstone of the new branch mint facility. Included in that request were four denominations not yet produced: the 1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime, the 1870-S Liberty Seated Quarter, the 1870-S Liberty Seated Dollar, and the 1870-S Three-Dollar Gold Coin.

Contemporary reporting put the placement of the cornerstone in late May 1870. The Second San Francisco Mint building would not be completed until 1874.

Given the official nature of that striking and assuming the presence of these coins in the cornerstone, what necessitated the unrecorded striking of additional pieces? On this matter, there is no concrete record. It is conceivable that extra coins were struck in anticipation of the annual assay, but with no further coinage ordered, the San Francisco Mint may not have bothered to remit a handful of non-commercially available denomination specimens.

Whether these extraneous examples exited the Mint through Harmstead or other means remains unproven. The existence of any 1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime did not come to light until more than 100 years after its striking.

In the spring of 1978, a man walked into Orland Coin and Stamp in Orland Park, Illinois, with a small box of coins. Contained within the box–unknown to Phyllis Storm, wife of Richard Storm, the proprietor of the coin shop–was an 1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime. Storm, believing the coin to be an unremarkable 1870 Philadelphia strike, purchased the coins for what was described in William Burd’s June 1998 article in The Numismatist as a “fair price for the lot.”

When the couple could not find a listing of the coin in the standard references, they reached out to Ed Milas at RARCOA.

RARCOA Authenticates the 1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime

Jim Simeck and Dennis Forgue authenticated the piece for RARCOA. Ed Milas was offered the coin in early 1978 but did not want to purchase it without knowing if it was indeed genuine. Simeck turned to Charles Hoskins, Director of the International Numismatic Society Authentication Bureau in Washington, D.C., to inspect the coin under a stereo microscope, which they did at George Washington University Medical Center.

More sophisticated means than this were used to determine the authenticity of the 1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime. Image: CoinWeek / Adobe Stock.
More sophisticated means than this were used to determine the authenticity of the 1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime. Image: CoinWeek / Adobe Stock.

Under magnification, the coin was revealed to be genuine, and subsequent metallurgical tests revealed no indication of soldering or other deceptive manipulation. Hoskins issued the following certificate of authenticity on April 19:

Dear Mr. Milas,

On April 10, 1978 Mr. Jim Simek of your firm brought to the International Numismatic Society a silver coin purported to be a U.S. half dime produced in 1870 in the San Francisco Mint. We understood at that time that mint records do not indicate that half dimes were struck in San Francisco in that year, and that until this specimen was discovered no such half dimes were known to exist.

The dry weight of the coin was determined to be 1.26797 grams on a Mettler analytical balance. We arrived at a specific gravity determination of slightly less than 10.4. The obverse and reverse fields were observed to have a distinctly prooflike quality, and a wire rim extends part way around the coin. 107 reeds were counted on the coin’s edge.

Microscopic examination left the INS authentication staff with no doubt that the basic coin was a genuine product of the U.S. Mint. Further, no evidence of alteration of either the date or the mintmark could be discerned, even at 70x magnification.

Due to the rarity of the coin, scanning electron microscopic examination of the date, mintmark and other areas was undertaken to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that no alterations had been made on the coin. This study was performed at magnifications ranging from 80x to 2,000x. Five Polaroid microphotos were made and given to Mr. Simek for delivery to RARCOA.

Further, to establish that no solder materials were present at the base of the mintmark, that area was scanned for tin, lead, cadmium and zinc. None of these metals was found.

On the basis of the forgoing testing, the INS Authentication Bureau has concluded that this U.S. 1870-S half dime is both genuine and unaltered. We hold no reservations about this conclusion.

Sincerely yours,
Charles R. Hoskins

The collecting community was not made aware of its existence until the American Numismatic Association’s (ANA) 87th Convention, held in August 1978 in Houston, Texas. Ed Milas exhibited the coin at his table. Immediately following the show, the major trade publications reported the discovery.

Additional Information Gleamed from Inspecting the 1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime

Numismatists familiar with the 1869-S and 1871-S Liberty Seated Half Dimes knew that the Mint changed the mintmark placement from below the wreath to below the denomination. The presence of the mintmark below the denomination on the 1870-S issue reveals that this change was made in time for the striking of that piece.

In their recent catalog description, Heritage Auctions notes that the coin retains its wire rim and Prooflike fields (first observed by Charles Hoskins in 1978) while exhibiting the expected localized areas of strike weakness found on half dimes of the type.

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Market Data and Noteworthy Specimens

While the Orland Coin and Stamp Company bought the coin in early 1978 as part of a small lot of coins, they did so without realizing that they were making an offer on a potentially unique American rarity. The price that Ed Milas paid for the coin was also not publicly disclosed. Milas held the coin for two years before selling it on April 16, 1980, to dealer John Abbott for $425,000 on the basis of a $25,000 premium over the sale price of the Garrett 1804 Draped Bust Silver Dollar. For Abbott, the deal was a loser, as the coin realized only $176,000 when offered by Bowers and Merena in September 1985.

The coin faired better when offered by Superior in Auction ’86 but still sold for considerably less than what Abbott agreed to pay. The first reported sale that exceeded $425,000 occurred in July 2004, when Bowers and Merena sold it as a key highlight of Jim Gray’sNorth Carolina Collection” for $661,250. Collector Bob R. Simpson purchased the half dime for $1.4 million before privately selling it to Tom Bender. Heritage sold the coin as part of The Bender Family Collection on January 11, 2023, for a record $3,120,000.

Top PopulationPCGS MS64 (1, 7/2024), NGC N/A (7/2024), and CAC MS64 (1:0 stickered:graded, 7/2024).

  • PCGS MS64 CAC #06666625: Discovered in 1978; Suburban coin shop to Ed Milas (Rarcoa), April 1978; John Abbott, via sale, April 16, 1980 – $425,000; Bowers and Merena, September 1985, Lot 174 – $176,000; Martin Paul; “Auction ’86,” Superior Galleries, July 1986, Lot 1053 – $253,000; Goldberg Auctions, October 2000, Lot 1629 – Passed; Jim Gray; “The North Carolina Collection (Gray),” Bowers and Merena, July 2004, Lot 2065 – $661,250; Exhibited on October 27 and 28, 2007 at the first CoinFest, East Greenwich (CT) Civic Center; Law Collection; Bob R. Simpson, via Legend, July 2009 – $1,400,000; Tom Bender; As PCGS MS64 CAC #06666625. “The Bender Family Collection, Part II,” Heritage Auctions, January 11, 2023, Lot 3341 – $3,120,000. Simpson-Bender on insert. Darkly toned with a faint orange hue.

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Coin Specifications

Country: United States of America
Year of Issue: 1870
Denomination: Half Dime (USD)
Mintmark: S (San Francisco)
Mintage: 1 known
Alloy: 90% Silver, 10% Copper
Weight: 1.24 g
Diameter: 15.90 mm
Edge: Reeded
OBV Designer: Christian Gobrecht
REV Designer: Christian Gobrecht
Quality: Business Strike

 

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

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