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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Special 1839-O Liberty Seated Dime

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #130 …..

Among classic U.S. coins, Branch Mint Proofs and Special Strikings are extremely rare. More than 99.9% of all classic Proofs were struck at the headquarters Mint in Philadelphia. Coins that are not business strikes are not necessarily Proofs; there exists a third category, Special Strikings, often termed ‘Specimen’ strikings or just ‘Specimen’! These do not qualify, in a technical sense, as Proofs, yet are substantially different from business strikes, which are coins manufactured by ordinary means.

Specimens are either coins that are similar to Proofs in technical terms or are coins that have distinctive finishes that are markedly different from those of relevant Proofs or business strikes. In October, Heritage will auction an astonishing 1839-O dime that fulfills important criteria of a Proof, yet fails to meet the minimum technical requirements of a Proof. It is NGC certified “SP-65” and is part of the “Greensboro Collection.”

I very much like this dime. The toning is definitely natural and is appealing. It may be true that it has never been dipped. Furthermore, the fields are fully reflective. Moreover, the die finishing lines, which were naturally imparted as raised lines on this coin, are really cool. While I am not commenting on the assigned “65” grade here, this 1839-O dime is more than attractive, scores very high in the category of originality, has really neat characteristics, and is very enjoyable to view.

I. Branch Mints

From 1820 to 1964, when Proof U.S. coins were made, these were almost always manufactured in Philadelphia. Indeed, from 1793 to the present, the headquarters U.S. Mint has been in Philadelphia. A new building opened in 1833, which is often termed the “Second Philadelphia Mint.” Operations began in a third building in 1901 and a fourth in 1969. In general, a very large percentage of U.S. coins have been manufactured in Philadelphia.

In 1838, Branch U.S. Mints were established in New Orleans (LA), Charlotte (NC) and Dahlonega (GA). I have never seen a Proof or Specimen Striking that originated at the Charlotte or Dahlonega Mints. There is an 1843-D Half Eagle ($5 gold coin) that is certified as a Specimen, a Special Striking. In my view, it is a business strike that is semi-prooflike. Dahlonega Mint Half Eagles of 1843 tend to have exceptional detail in comparison to other Half Eagles of the era. It just does not follow that a well detailed, glowing 1843-D Half Eagle, with somewhat reflective surfaces, is a Specimen Striking. To be a Specimen Striking, it is necessary, though not always sufficient, for a coin to possess substantial characteristics of a Proof and/or have a markedly distinctive, important finish.

That 1843-D Half Eagle has business strike luster. It is a wonderful coin, which is enjoyable to view. It is just not a Proof, nor is it a Specimen Striking.

It is likely that all 1838 New Orleans Mint Half Dollars were struck as Proofs, though a few later circulated. Experts at both the PCGS and the NGC recognize (or have recognized in the past) all submitted 1838-O halves as Proofs.

There are four 1839-O half dollars that are NGC certified as Proofs, though perhaps would not be recognized as such by experts at the PCGS. In my view, at least two of these are definitely Special Strikings, not business strikes. Whether an ‘SP’ designation or a ‘Proof’ designation is appropriate is debatable. I maintain that an ‘SP’ designation is applicable, though the traditional designation of Proof for these is understandable.

Researcher Breen and many prominent cataloguers, over the years, have recognized some 1839-O halves as Proofs. In March 2012, I wrote about one that was then auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers.

There are other Proof and Specimen New Orleans Mint coins. The Parmelee 1844-O Eagle ($10 gold coin) is, in my view, definitely a Proof. Reliable sources, including the late David Akers, indicated to me that the Parmelee 1844-O Half Eagle ($5 gold coin) is also a Proof. Not long ago, I examined a New Orleans Mint half dollar, dating from the 1850s, which I maintain is a Specimen, a Special Striking. There are several O-Mint Morgan Silver Dollars that are certainly Proofs or Specimens, including more than one 1879-O.

I have seen two or three 1891-O quarters that are Special Strikings. At least one of them is likely to be a true Proof, in my view. As for 1891-O dimes, one that is (or was) certified as being a Proof, which I saw in 2011, is definitely not a Proof. It is not a Specimen striking either, in my view. To the best of my recollection at the moment, I have never seen a Proof or Specimen 1891-O dime, though it is plausible that at least one exists.

There also exist Proof and Specimen San Francisco Mint coins. This Branch Mint formally began operations in 1854. An 1854-S Double Eagle ($20 gold coin) in the Smithsonian is reported to be very special. Researcher Breen maintained that it is an extraordinary Proof.

The main ‘S’ Mint Proof that comes to my mind is the 1855-S Three Dollar gold coin that Heritage auctioned in August 2011 for $1,322,500. I spent some time examining it when Stack’s (New York) offered it in the past.

The Proof 1855-S quarter and a Specimen 1855-S half dollar, which I have seen, are really cool. I will write about these at some point.

I hypothesize that all 1894-S Barber Dimes were struck as Proofs. I have seen a few that are clearly Proofs, not just Special Strikings. Other San Francisco Mint coins are reported to be Proofs or Specimen Strikings.

Branch Mint Proofs and other Special Strikings constitute a topic for a book, not a discussion in passing. I aim here to provide an impression of the rarity of these and to provide links to past articles where I discuss a few of them.

There exist Proof or Specimen Carson City (CC), Nevada Mint coins. That Mint commenced operations in 1870 and closed in 1893.

I have examined only one ‘CC’ coin that is, indisputably, a Proof, the Parrino 1876-CC dime. I have seen at least two 1876-CC dimes that are Specimen Strikings, and are not Proofs. One of these was auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers on August 9, 2012.

There also exists an 1876-CC half that may be something special. Recently, I discussed an 1893-CC Morgan that is likely to be a Proof. (Please remember that clickable links are in blue.) There are other Carson City Mint coins that have fair claims to Specimen or even Proof status.

The Denver Mint first produced coins in 1906. Among classic U.S. coins, the only Denver Mint Proof that I have ever seen is a 1907-D Liberty Double Eagle ($20 gold coin). I have examined a 1906-D Double Eagle that barely qualifies as a Specimen Striking. That 1906-D Double Eagle does not have any of the powerful Proof characteristics of the just mentioned 1907-D. In response to my inquiries, David Akers asserted that at least one true Proof 1906-D Double Eagle exists, which Akers noted is similar to the just mentioned 1907-D.

Akers also said that he had never seen a Proof Denver Mint silver coin, either have I. Additionally, I have not had a chance to view the 1906-D dime that has been NGC certified as a Specimen. It sold in two Heritage auctions during the 2000s.

In 1977, researcher Breen declared that there exists a Proof 1906-D dime. I am not assuming that the 1906-D he saw is the same 1906-D dime that the NGC certified as a ‘Specimen.’

In some ways, Branch Mint Proofs and Specimen Strikings represent a frontier that is largely unexplored. In the past, coins purported to be such were often carelessly catalogued or deliberately mis-represented. Also, some truly special pieces were overlooked or ignored.

There are not many dealers who know the difference between non-obvious, pre-1934, Proofs and business strikes. Even fewer have really thought about the concept of a Specimen. The NGC tends to over-include coins in the Proof and Specimen categories and experts at the PCGS tends to rely, wrongly in my view, on historical and die data. In many cases, the same pair of dies was used to make Proofs and non-Proofs. Furthermore, many Proofs were made ‘off the books,’ sometimes without apparent reasons. Please see my recent series on 1841 Quarter Eagles.

II. Specimen 1839-O Dime

The Greensboro Collection 1839-O Liberty Seated Dime is a coin that has substantial Proof characteristics. It does not fulfill the minimum criteria to be a Proof, though it is not real far from being a Proof.

This 1839-O has very much reflective surfaces, though perhaps does not have the strong mirrors that would be expected on Philadelphia Mint Proof Liberty Seated Dimes of the era. While this dime has exceptional detail, many business strikes 1839-O dimes often have exceptional detail, much more so than typical Liberty Seated Dimes of the 1830s and 1840s. So, its level of detail does not really distinguish this dime from business strikes.

The relationships of the devices to the fields are the key to understanding the difference between a Proof and a prooflike business strike. On business strikes, the devices tend to slope into or flow into the fields. On most Proofs, however, at least some devices look more like they are resting on the fields. While ideally, the differences between a Proof and a business strike, in this respect, would be stark. In reality, such differences can be subtle and may require an experienced expert to analyze.

On a Proof, some outer devices, stars and letters, and also dentils, should seem squared. (Dentils are toothlike structures at the borders, before the rims.) The concept of a design element (or other device) being squared is hard to explain. The word ‘square’ in this context should not be taken literally.

In an abstract sense, devices (design elements) emerge from the planchet when a coin is struck. Very squared devices give the optical illusion of resting on the fields, while sloping devices, appear to have sprung from the fields, which is true in a literal sense as metal from the prepared blank (planchet) is forced to move and flow into the crevices of the dies during the striking of each coin.

Although this 1839-O dime has, to an extent, important Proof characteristics. It just does not quite qualify. Many of the outer devices on this coin are very squared or at significantly squared, as are many (though not nearly all) of the dentils. The mintmark is in relatively high relief, though just slightly so.

If the devices were relatively more squared or more devices were squared, if the central design elements were of higher relief, or if the mirrors were thicker or fuller, then it would fulfill more criteria of a Proof than it actually does. I repeat that this 1839-O dime is not far from being a Proof, though it is not one. Even so, I am convinced that it is not a business strike, nor even a prooflike business strike.

In my view, the planchet (prepared blank) was smoothed prior to striking, probably due to hand polishing or light buffing. Further, the dies were extensively polished.The fields do not have the grooves, the imperfections, or the luster that characterize business strike Liberty Seated Dimes of this era. Extra work was done in relation to the preparation of the dies and the planchet before this coin was struck, more so than the work that would have been done in preparation for a press run of business strikes. The smooth fields, the very reflective surfaces, the special relationships of many devices to the fields, the many squared dentils, well structured rims, and the overall fabric of the coin all lead to the conclusion that this is a Specimen, a special striking, and thus not a business strike.

III. History of this coin

In October, in Dallas, this 1839-O dime will make its third auction appearance in less than five years. On July 31, 2008, it appeared in Heritage’s Platinum Night event at the ANA Convention in Baltimore. It was then in an NGC holder that was probably more than a dozen years old. The label, paper insert inside this holder, said ‘SPECIMEN’ on the second line and “MS 64” on the third. This 1839-O then sold for $63,250.

In August or Sept. 2008, this coin was upgraded by the NGC to 65. The new designation reads “SP 65.” It is typical for data and labels published by the PCGS and the NGC to refer to Specimen or non-Proof Special Strikings with two capital letters, ‘SP.’

In Oct. 2008, this coin realized $74,750. It is now in the same “SP 65” NGC holder. I viewed it in Philadelphia in August.

On the PCGS CoinFacts site, it is estimated that two “Special Strike” 1839-O dimes were minted and that one survives. Furthermore, this site seems to claim that the sole survivor is (or was?) PCGS certified “SP63BM.” The “BM” stands for Branch Mint, which is obvious enough, as it has an ‘O’ mintmark, which indicates that it was minted in New Orleans. The ‘SP 63’ certification is understandable, as that corresponds to Specimen 63, though experts at the PCGS seem to have stopped employing the term ‘Specimen’ and instead refer to a “Special Strike,” which is the same as a ‘Specimen’ in the present context.

Importantly, the ‘Special Striking’ 1839-O dime page on the PCGS CoinFacts site explicitly refers to the presently discussed coin and lists the $74,750 result in Oct. 2008 as the auction record. The mention of the presently discussed coin in combination with the notation that only one survives seems to imply that an 1839-O dime that the PCGS certified as SP-63 or estimated to grade ‘63,’ in the past, is the same exact coin that was upgraded by the NGC to SP-65 in 2008 and will be offered by Heritage in October, the “Greensboro Collection” coin that I am discussing here.

Heritage cataloguers refer to the epic F. C. C. Boyd Collection as containing an 1839-O dime that was catalogued as being a “Proof.” They, fairly, wonder whether the Boyd piece, which was auctioned in 1945, and the present coin are the same. The notion that this coin may be the only Specimen or Special Striking of an 1839-O dime should be considered.

©2012 Greg Reynolds

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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  1. Greg, with all due respect, what qualifies you (or anyone else) as an expert for attributing branch mint proofs or specimens? You often make vague, sweeping claims, yet not a shred of evidence to support them, other than junk science. I have bought and sold over half of all such certified Seated/Barber coins, and there is no question that each one was as described by NGC, PCGS, ICG, or even ANACS (with the 1894-S dime being the lone exception. I suspect that the services call them proofs merely to be politically correct.) As proven by documented BMP’s/specimens, such pieces are not always fully struck and/or have all other characteristics of contemporary Philly proofs. Coin buyers care only about what the big four grading services say, because they are legally required to stand behind their certifications. It is fine to speculate and guess, but please make it clear that you are not stating facts. Leave that to the four grading services who have to actually financially back their claims.


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