Magnificent Finest Known Gem Proof 1839-O Half Dollar
The Robison Specimen
1839-O Capped Bust Half Dollar. Reeded Edge. HALF DOL. GR-1. Proof-65 (NGC).
Even a casual glance at this piece will confirm that it is something special and well beyond the ordinary for a Capped Bust, Reeded Edge half dollar. The surfaces shimmer with a satin to semi-reflective finish as the coin rotates under a light, the latter quality most readily evident in the fields. The strike is full with razor sharp definition to the devices and equally crisp delineation between all of the denticles that encircle the border. Expertly preserved, as well, with delightful toning in mottled steel-rose and olive-blue iridescence that leaves areas of silvery near brilliance on both sides.
In the 1830s, New Orleans was one of the most important port cities in the United States as well as one of the most populous. With its prime location on the Gulf of Mexico and at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi River, the city was well positioned to conduct extensive trade with Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Large quantities of foreign gold and silver coins flowed into New Orleans on a daily basis. To take advantage of the influx of foreign specie, on March 3, 1835, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill authorizing the establishment of a United States Mint in New Orleans. The bill also authorized branch mints at Charlotte, North Carolina and Dahlonega, Georgia that coined only gold. New Orleans was the largest of the three and also included silver coins in its repertoire. The new facility was built in the eastern corner of the French Quarter along the river bank on the foundations of Fort St. Charles, which had been razed in 1822. On March 8, 1838, the first deposit of silver was made to the Mint in the form of $32,408.01 in Mexican dollars. Coining began on May 7 with the production of 30 dimes. Because of the city’s location in a swampy area prone to yellow fever, the Mint temporarily suspended operations from August 1 to November 30 for the “sickly season.”
Hidden in the shadow of its much more famous sibling the 1838-O half dollar, the story of this enigmatic early Proof issue is sparse at best and only through recent appearances at auction has more knowledge been gleaned. The 1838-O half dollars were actually struck in January of 1839 and the reverse dies were also employed for the 1839-O Proof coins. To further complicate matters, the dies employed to strike the 1839-O half dollars were later utilized to make circulation strike coins. The strike characteristics on the confirmed pieces show varying degrees of sharpness in the details, though in all four cases, their Proof qualities are undeniable. One likely theory put forward by the catalogers for the present coin in Heritage’s Long Beach Signature Auction of February 2012 is that some Proof coins were struck with freshly polished dies which were then employed to produce circulation strikes. When the dies cracked early on in the striking process around the stars, they were relapped, a few additional Proof coins produced, then once again pressed into service for circulation strikes. Unfortunately, the New Orleans Mint did not keep detailed records on their Proof strikes. The reverse die that saw use for not only the 1838-O and 1839-O Proof half dollars but also circulation strike 1839-O coins was finally canceled on February 21, 1840 to prevent reuse. The Robison coin bears the markers of one of the first coins struck using these dies when they were fresh. It does not bear any evidence of the die lapping that some of the other examples show, in particular the lack of definition in some of Liberty’s hair and the thinner appearance of the stars.
In his 1988 Complete Encyclopedia of U. S. and Colonial Coins, Walter Breen stated that, “The 5 known proofs have dies aligned 180 degrees from normal, so that the date is nearest to HALF DOL.” Reportedly, Breen had examined such a piece in our sale of the Philip G. Straus Collection that was struck in medal turn and perplexingly assigned this attribute to the other Proof coins, as well. However, this coin has not turned up and all of the four confirmed Proof specimens in the roster are struck in the normal coin turn. It is now widely thought that this is an error in observation and that the Straus piece is one of the four Proof specimens.
The roster of the four confirmed examples is as follows:
1. The Robison Specimen. Proof-65 (NGC) – The present example.
Our (Stack’s) sale of the Ellis Robison Collection, February 1982, lot 1607;
our (Stack’s) sale of the Queller Collection, October 2002, lot 448;
Ira & Larry Goldberg’s Pre-Long Beach Auction, February 2008, lot 2177;
Ira & Larry Goldberg’s Pre-Long Beach Auction of January-February 2011, lot 1443;
Heritage’s Long Beach Signature Auction of February 2012, lot 3633
2. The Salisbury/Woods Specimen. Proof-64 (NGC).
Our (Bowers and Merena’s) sale of the Salisbury/Woods Collections, September 1994, lot 1214;
Heritage’s Baltimore ANA Signature Auction, July 2008, lot 1690
3. The Krouner Specimen. Proof-63 (NGC).
Lester Merkin’s sale of the Krouner Collection, February 1971, lot 736;
our (Stack’s) Public Auction Sale, September 1992, lot 358;
our (Stack’s) sale of the George Byers Collection, October 2006, lot 1098;
Heritage’s Long Beach Signature Auction, September 2008, lot 2164;
Heritage’s Los Angeles Signature Auction, July 2009, lot 1119
4. A fourth specimen. Proof-62 (NGC)
Heritage’s Long Beach Signature Auction, September 2008, lot 2163
In addition to the four coins mentioned above, two other appearances of pieces that have been variously identified as Proof specimens are also worth noting. First is the Philip Straus piece that Breen reported back in the 1950s as having medal turn. This coin has not been studied since and is presumed to be one of the four known pieces. Another purported Proof coin, the Cox Specimen from our (Stack’s) sale in April of 1962, shows a defective planchet with flaws noticeable on the reverse that is quite atypical of Proof coins and is most likely a circulation strike with prooflike surfaces. In that sale, the consignor indicated to the catalogers that this is the same coin offered in B. Max Mehl’s sale of the Christian Allenburger Collection in 1948, which in turn was part of the 1945 F.C.C. Boyd Collection Sale. This connection between the Cox piece and the Allenburger/Boyd coin, then as now, is unverified.
In the 1950s A.M. and Paul Kagin, trading as the Hollinbeck Coin Co. of Des Moines, Iowa, exhibited a Proof 1839-O half dollar at selected conventions where it attracted a lot of attention.
Only recently has this exceptional half dollar rarity gained the full appreciation it deserves. This represents a rare opportunity to acquire the finest exemplar of one of the most important early branch mint Proof half dollar issues.
PCGS# 6226. NGC ID: 27SS.
Pedigree: From our (Stack’s) sale of the Robison Collection, February 1982, lot 1607; our (Stack’s) sale of the Queller Family Collection of United States Half Dollars, 1794-1963, October 2002, lot 448; Ira & Larry Goldberg’s Pre-Long Beach Auction of February 2008, lot 2177; Ira & Larry Goldberg’s Pre-Long Beach Auction of January-February 2011, lot 1443; Heritage’s Long Beach Signature Auction of February 2012, lot 3633.
NGC Census: 1, none finer.
This coins is one of the Highlights of the Stacks Bowers Auction at the Portland ANA Money Show on March 6, 2015 as LOT # 245