“1838-O 50C GR-1, R.7, Branch Mint PR63 PCGS. CAC. The 1838-O Reeded Edge half dollar is one of the rarest and most enigmatic issues in the U.S. federal series. Despite an auction history that dates back to 1867 and intense study by prominent numismatists ever since, the coin’s origin remains shrouded in mystery. PCGS CoinFacts estimates a surviving population of 10 examples, from an original mintage of 20 coins. PCGS and NGC have combined to certify nine coins between them, including a few crossovers and resubmissions (11/17). We have been able to locate only nine specimens still extant, with one coin included in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution. Heritage Auctions is privileged to present one of the finest examples of this classic rarity in this important offering.
The Coins Are Struck
Authorized by Congress in 1835, the New Orleans Mint only began coinage operations in 1838. As might be expected, things did not go smoothly during the first year of operations, and coinage was extremely limited, due to equipment malfunctions and extended closures during the yellow fever epidemic. According to the official Mint Report for 1838, only dimes were struck at the Southern facility that year. A small mintage of half dimes was also struck from 1838-dated dies and delivered just after the close of the year, but no half dollars were coined. This was a serious shortcoming, as dimes and half dimes were useful for everyday commerce, but they were clearly inadequate as a medium of exchange for the large amount of Latin American silver coinage that flowed into New Orleans every year. On January 17, 1839, Mint Director Robert M. Patterson wrote to Superintendent David Bradford, urging “no time should be lost in getting ready for the coinage of half dollars.”
Unfortunately, the coin press used for striking the dimes and half dimes was too small to strike large silver coins, and the half dollar press was not operational yet. Chief Coiner Rufus Tyler decided to try striking half dollars on a larger press that was intended to strike dollars. Why the New Orleans Mint had been supplied with such a press is something of a mystery, as that denomination was not struck in large numbers at any U.S. Mint until 1840, and would not be produced at the New Orleans Mint until 1846. Perhaps Mint officials noted the success of the Gobrecht dollar issues, which commenced in 1836, and planned ahead when equipping the New Orleans Mint. In any case, the dollar press was apparently on hand, and Tyler attempted a test run of half dollars in mid-January of 1839. Since no 1839-dated half dollar dies were available, he employed the leftover, unused dies from 1838. He found the half dollar dies were too short to be properly secured in the large press, but he improvised a support apparatus for the trial run. On February 25, 1839, he reported this striking in a letter to Patterson:
“I mentioned in both 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, spliced 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 above quote is the first mention in print of any 1838-O half dollars and it explains how they were not included in the official Mint Report for 1838, since they were actually struck early the following year. These 10 coins were struck as test pieces, and we believe they were distributed to interested parties, including Dr. Alexander Bache, per a letter from Tyler that surfaced years later, accompanying the 1838-O half dollar in Édouard Frossard’s Friesner Sale (6/1894). In that letter, Tyler noted:
“The enclosed specimen coin of the United States 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 twenty pieces were struck with the half dollar dies of 1838.”
Tyler’s figure of “not more than twenty pieces” is at odds with his earlier account, in which he told Patterson only 10 coins were struck in January. The discrepancy is explained by later correspondence, discovered in the National Archives by Kevin Flynn and John Dannreuther, that indicates another small mintage of 1838-O half dollars was struck for presentation purposes, after the half dollar press became operational in March 1839. Research by Edward Carmody indicates the presentation pieces were sent to Patterson, possibly with the Assay pieces in June of 1839. One coin was permanently placed in the Mint Cabinet, and the others were probably parceled out in exchange for desired specimens in later years, after coin collecting became widespread in this country. Most of the coins we know about today probably came from the presentation striking. It is unlikely that many of the test pieces were preserved by their owners, since numismatic interest was almost nil in the Southern United States in 1839 (possibly only the Anderson-Dupont coin survives from the test run in January).
Interestingly, the 1838-O reverse die (GR-1) was used again to strike the majority of the 1839-O half dollar mintage. The reverse on some 1839-dated coins is seen in an earlier state than most of the 1838-O half dollars, indicating some business-strike 1839-O specimens were actually produced before the presentation-strike 1838-O coins.
The Present Coin
Traditionally, the Atwater 1838-O has been pedigreed to the fabulous collection of “Colonel” E.H.R. Green, but recent research suggests this coin has a different origin. The Green pedigree was attached to this coin because Wayte Raymond once told Walter Breen that Green owned an incredible seven examples of the 1838-O. When Breen began his pedigree research in the 1960s, he could find only one appearance of this piece, in B. Max Mehl’s 1946 Atwater sale. He logically assumed it was one of the “seven” coins Green had owned earlier (Breen assigned also the Green pedigree to several other 1838-O half dollars that he could not find an early provenance for). Breen’s assumption has gone unchallenged until the present time, but recent findings suggest the “Colonel” only owned four examples of the 1838-O, not including the Atwater specimen.
Green was a benefactor of Martin Luther Beistle, and provided much of the financial backing for his work on half dollar die varieties, which was published in 1929 and became the standard reference for the series for decades. In the Foreword to his book, Beistle thanked Green profusely for “loaning me his entire collection of Half Dollars for checking die varieties, which enabled me to make this work more complete than otherwise.” In his section on the New Orleans Mint, Beistle notes in his title, “Three Half Dollars Coined for Year 1838.” Despite having unrestricted access to Green’s collection, Beistle could account for only three examples of the 1838-O in 1929. Green almost certainly acquired at least one more specimen in 1932, when he purchased the bulk of Waldo Newcomer’s American coins from B. Max Mehl in a blockbuster private transaction. Newcomer acquired his coin from H.O. Granberg, via William Woodin, around 1915. Combining the coins Beistle knew about in 1929 with the acquisition from Newcomer, Green probably owned four examples of the 1838-O by 1932.
Green was widely known as a numismatic hoarder, and his collection included multiple examples of many rare and valuable issues, including the 1838-O half dollar. He is not known to have sold any duplicates during his lifetime. After his death in 1936, his collection was held intact by his estate until 1941, when Eric P. Newman gained the confidence of the executors and convinced them to sell him some colonial paper currency he was interested in. Newman subsequently went into partnership with his mentor, St. Louis coin dealer Burdette G. Johnson, to make many more purchases from the estate over the next few years. On June 30, 1942, Johnson purchased Green’s half dollar holdings from the estate and began liquidating them almost immediately.
Johnson’s invoices for this period have been preserved and imaged on the Newman Numismatic Portal. Saul Teichman has done extensive research with the invoices and found four entries that represent 1838-O half dollars from “Colonel” Green’s collection (two earlier invoices in the archive deal with a coin from Virgil Brand’s collection and an example Thomas Elder offered Johnson in partial payment for a large purchase in 1941). An 8/5/1942-dated invoice to F.C.C. Boyd includes an example of an 1838-O that was initially priced at $1,100, but reduced to $713. This almost certainly represents the specimen in Boyd’s World’s Greatest Collection that was sold through the Numismatic Gallery in 1945. The coin grades SP50 BM PCGS today. Another invoice, dated 8/20/1942, to Stack’s, undoubtedly represents the coin they sold to Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. in October of the same year for $1,400 (Stack’s paid Johnson $1,200 for the coin, a piece that grades PR64 NGC, CAC today). A final invoice, dated 9/9/1942, to James Macallister, included two specimens of the 1838-O, an XF specimen priced at $875, and a finer coin priced at $1,200. The XF example is obviously the Anderson-Dupont coin, which grades XF45 NGC today, and the finer coin, which can be plate matched to Mehl’s Newcomer plates, is the Neil-Pogue 1838-O half dollar, which grades SP64 BM PCGS today. Unfortunately, no invoice has come to light that can be reliably linked to the Atwater coin.
Perhaps even more telling is Mehl’s information about Atwater’s collecting activity. In lot 554 of the Atwater catalog, Mehl reports, “Mr. Atwater discontinued collecting in the 1920s.” The latest production date of any coin in Atwater’s collection belongs to a 1923 Saint-Gaudens double eagle, confirming Mehl’s time frame for the formation of the collection. This is obviously too early for purchases from “Colonel” Green. Atwater died on February 22, 1940, more than two years before B.G. Johnson began selling “Colonel” Green’s half dollars from his estate. Clearly, Green is a most unlikely source for Atwater’s 1838-O half dollar. The early history of the Atwater coin remains a mystery.
After its appearance in the Atwater sale, this coin mysteriously vanished until the early 1970s, when it found a home in the marvelous collection of Reed Hawn. Hawn recalls:
“I decided to concentrate on my half dollar collection around 1970, and I had put together a pretty extensive collection by the time of the 1970 ANA Convention. When I talked to Ben and Harvey Stack at the convention, and told them about my interest in the early halves, they said, ‘We might have something you would be interested in.’ We set up a meeting at my ranch shortly after the convention, where they proceeded to offer me a complete collection of early half dollars, including a beautiful specimen of the 1838-O. I bought that collection intact and integrated it with my earlier holdings, compiling one of the most complete collections of half dollars ever formed. I sold my duplicates, which included the Boyd specimen of the 1838-O (which I got from my friend and mentor Jerry Cohen), at the 1971 ANA Convention Auction, held by Stack’s. Unfortunately, I never learned any earlier provenance for the Atwater coin.”
Hawn sold his wonderful collection of half dollars through another Stack’s auction in 1973. The Atwater 1838-O sold for a remarkable $41,000 in that offering. Its subsequent history is well-documented, as it went on to be a highlight of such famous half dollar collections as the James Bennett Pryor Collection and the Sid and Alicia Belzberg Collection (see provenance below).
Despite the fact that a few PR64 examples have been certified, many numismatists believe the PR63 Atwater specimen is the most beautiful 1838-O half dollar. Its terrific eye appeal is truly undeniable. Razor-sharp definition is evident on all design elements, with exquisite detail on Liberty’s hair and the eagle’s claws, and fully formed star centers. The richly frosted central devices stand out in almost three-dimensional relief against the smooth reflective fields. Both sides are visited by attractive shades of light bluish-gray toning. The well-preserved surfaces exhibit three minor contact marks that have been used as pedigree markers for the Atwater specimen for decades. The first is a thin, slanting contact mark in the upper left obverse field, out from Liberty’s nose. The second is a smaller mark in the lower left obverse field, between the neck and star 2. The third is a horizontal tick in the right obverse field, between the bust and star 9. All these marks are camouflaged by the pleasing toning and easily lost in the mirrored, reflective fields. Although these flaws are all virtually invisible at certain angles, they probably account for the PR63 technical grade.
The 1838-O Reeded Edge half dollar has been one of the most sought-after coins in the U.S. federal series since the earliest days of the hobby. The Atwater specimen possesses a formidable combination of absolute rarity, high technical quality, and terrific eye appeal. This coin has been off the market for a decade and most of the other high-quality examples have sold recently, and are now in strong hands for the foreseeable future. It may be years before a comparable example becomes available.
Ex: William Cutler Atwater Collection (B. Max Mehl, 6/1946), lot 555; unknown intermediaries; Stack’s; Reed Hawn, purchased as part of a complete collection of early half dollars after the 1970 ANA Convention; Reed Hawn Collection (Stack’s, 8/1973), lot 122, realized $41,000; Auction ’79 (Superior’s session, 8/1979), lot 1569, realized $62,000; James Bennett Pryor Collection (Bowers and Merena, 1/1996), lot 94, realized $104,500; Doug Noblet; ANA Sale of the Millennium (Bowers and Merena, 8/2000), lot 4117; offered by North American Certified Trading in the October 15, 2001, issue of Coin World; Heritage to Madison Collection via private treaty (9/2005); Heritage via private treaty (10/2007) to Sid and Alicia Belzberg Collection; Long Beach Signature Auction (Heritage, 2/2008), lot 600, realized $632,500.
As a Branch Mint Proof, this 1838-O is a Classic US Rarity of the highest importance. The coin catalog description above is of LOT #4861 from the 2018 Heritage FUN US Coin Signature Auction in Tampa.
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