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The Incredible Gene Gardner Collection, Part 5: Finest ‘No Motto’ Liberty Seated Half Dollars

Coin Rarities & Related Topics #248: Special Saturday Edition relating to the all-time best collection of 19th century U.S. silver coins to ever be publicly auctioned

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds……….

As was reported on Wednesday in part 4 of this series of discussions, the second of four planned auctions of the Gene Gardner Collection was conducted by Heritage on Monday, Oct. 27, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. The coins discussed herein are particularly important and newsworthy, ‘No Motto’ Liberty Seated Half Dollars, some of which were earlier in other epic collections.

HD51obv1I have been emphasizing that Gardner assembled the all-time greatest collection of Liberty Seated and Barber coins overall, assuming bonus points for Proofs, and probably the best collection of 19th century U.S. silver coins in general. The entire Virgil Brand, Col. Green and Waldo Newcomer Collections were not publicly auctioned, so it is difficult to identify the specific silver coins in those. Brand, Green and Newcomer all had some excellent ‘No Motto’ Liberty Seated Half Dollars. This type is highly cherished.

‘No Motto, With Drapery, No Arrows’ Liberty Seated Half Dollars date from 1839 to 1853 and from 1856 to 1866, though the latter dates are of a slightly different subtype. Many dates are truly rare in all grades.

This discussion involves coins that are candidates for the finest known of their respective dates (and U.S. Mint location) and/or were previously in great, named collections. On average, though not nearly always, coins with important pedigrees will sell for more than the exact same coin would realize if it did not have an important pedigree. Also, the great collections of the past are central to the culture and history of coin collecting in the U.S.HD52Orev1

It is not clear as to whether Gardner had the all-time greatest set of Liberty Seated Halves. A few of his coins have serious problems. A set, though, must be judged as a unit.

John Albanese declares that “Gene Gardner had the best set of Liberty Seated Half Dollars that I remember seeing. The prices on Monday were very reasonable; some of these are amazing gems that are irreplaceable at any cost,” John adds. Albanese is the founder and president of CAC.

Though not part of the following discussion here, especially famous coins are central to the culture of coin collecting as well. In part 4, famous coins that sold on Monday were covered. In part 2, the topic was famous coins in the first Gardner sale that was held on June 23, 2014. In part 3, the focus was on stunning coins, which were not necessarily famous, in that same event. Future projects include an analysis of Gene’s Barber Quarters, the premier set of business strikes, of that series, ever assembled. (Clickable links are in blue.)

I. Basic Background

There are seventeen design types of silver half dollars:

  1.  Flowing Hair (1794-95)
  2. Draped Bust, Small Eagle (1796-97)
  3. Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle (1801-07)
  4. Reich Capped Bust, “Lettered Edge” (1807-36)
  5. Gobrecht Capped Bust, “Reeded Edge” (1836-39)
  6. Liberty Seated, No Drapery, No Motto (1839 only)
  7. Liberty Seated, With Drapery No Motto (1839-53, 1856-66)
  8.  Liberty Seated, Arrows & Rays (1853 only)HDWithMottoReverse
  9. Liberty Seated, No Motto, With Arrows, No Rays (1854-55)
  10. Liberty Seated, With Motto (1866-91 except 1874)
  11. Liberty Seated, With Motto, With Arrows (1873-74)
  12. Barber (1892-1915)
  13. Walking Liberty (1916-47)
  14. Franklin (1948-63)
  15. Kennedy-90% silver (1964 plus later Proof-only issues)
  16. Kennedy-40% silver (1965-70)
  17. Kennedy Bicentennial 40% silver (1976)

So, types from #6 to #11 are Liberty Seated Halves. This series can be collected ‘by type’ or ‘by date.’ Collectors with budgets may have to forego three to five dates, such as the 1878-S, which can cost a lot of money even in the lowest grades. Also, ‘MS’ grade Liberty Seated Half Dollars dating from 1839 to 1852 weigh more than those of the same design type that were minted from 1856 to 1866, as explained in a recent article on 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Halves.

For those who wish to acquire half dollars for lesser sums than Gardner pieces realized, an article on Liberty Seated Half Dollars for less than $500 each is suggested. Gem quality coins in the Gardner Collection tend to cost multiples of representatives of the same dates (and U.S. Mint locations) in lower grades. By tradition, coins that grade 65 or higher are termed ‘gems’ and coins that grade 64 are ‘very choice.’ So called ‘mint state’ (MS) grades range from 60 to 70, and circulated coins are graded on a scale from 01 to 58, though not all numbers ‘in between’ are used.

Gardner collected both business strikes and Proofs. Business strikes were made via routine production techniques, the processes employed to mint large quantities of coins during the respective time period. Proofs and other Special Strikings are carefully made via different methods, which cannot be practically discussed here.

The difference between Proofs and business strikes stems from the method of manufacture and relates to the physical characteristics of struck coins. To identify a Proof or business strike, there is not a need to know or figure the intentions of the people who made the respective coins.

It is wrong to refer to all business strikes as circulation strikes, as many business strikes, including millions of Morgan Dollars, were not intended for circulation. Also, Proofs were made for multiple purposes, not just for sale to collectors. The current discussion is limited to business strikes. Gene’s Proof Liberty Seated Half Dollars will be covered in the future.

The same grading scale is used for Proofs and business strikes. Even intermediate level collectors should not expect to grade coins with a high level of expertise. Before spending amounts that the respective collector personally regards as ‘a lot,’ it is a good idea to hire an expert to view auction lots and discuss the details. A PCGS or NGC grader is likely to view more than 750 coins each day, sometimes more than 1200. Moreover, there are wholesalers who devote much time to submitting the same coins over and over again, often after doctoring them, with the idea of attaining upgrades. I find that it can often take more than two minutes to determine if a coin has been doctored.

II. Finest Known 1840-O

The Pittman-Stellar-Gardner 1840 New Orleans Mint Half Dollar has never been “processed”. It is the finest known 1840-O half. Further, it is the only 1840-O that is certified as grading above MS-64 and is a coin that scores very highly in the category of originality. It is NGC graded MS-66 and CAC approved.

HD1840Oobv1This 1840-O is one of the most famous and important halves that Gardner owned. It was earlier in the epic collection of John Pittman and was auctioned by the firm of David Akers in May 1998. It was later in the ‘Stellar Collection,’ as was the Eliasberg 1893-S Morgan Dollar. (Clicking on these two links will bring up articles that contain bits of information about the Stellar Collection.)

The second finest 1840-O that I remember at the moment was in the Richard Jewell Collection and was auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers in Aug. 2013 at an ANA Convention near Chicago. That 1840-O is PCGS graded MS-64 and has really neat natural toning, various shades of tan-russet with touches of bluish green especially about the periphery on the obverse (front). The reverse (back of the coin) has much mottled orange-russet, tan-russet and blue-green tones. The Jewell 1840-O sold for $10,575, a strong price.HD1840Orev1

The Pittman-Stellar-Gardner 1840-O is vastly superior. “Glorious coin, by far the finest 1840-O I have ever seen,” Albanese exclaims. It is also a great type coin! It could be included in a type set of all classic U.S. coins, half dollars, or 19th-century silver coins.

The orange-tan, russet and greenish-blue shades are even and pleasing. Moreover,this 1840-O scores very high in the technical category. On Oct. 27, the Pittman-Stellar-Gardner 1840-O sold for $36,718.75, a moderate price. It brought $33,000 at the Pittman II auction in May 1998. Also, the 1840-O is rare in all grades. The estimate of “700” survivors on PCGS CoinFacts is much too high. There could not be as many as 475.

III. Possible Finest 1842 Medium Date

The 1842 Medium Date is different from the 1842 Small Date in the sense that the numerals in the year, 1842, are unusually small on the ‘Small Date’ while of a size that would be expected on a half dollar on the ‘Medium Date’ issue. The difference is readily noticeable and such major varieties tend to be collected as distinct dates.

The Gardner 1842 ‘Medium Date’ Liberty Seated Half Dollar sold for $25,850 on June 23, 2014. It is PCGS graded MS-66 and CAC approved. While I like the colors, the mottled toning on this coin will not please all connoisseurs. The greenish silver sheen is distinctive, though different. The blue hues are unusual, too. The toning is natural, however, and this coin has much underlying original luster.

HD1842MediumDateO1Although some might not find this coin as appealing as some other coin enthusiasts, experts at CAC may be correct in determining its grade to be at least in the middle of the 66 range. In the past, Charlie Browne concluded that its grade is in the ‘high end’ of the 66 range, just about in the MS-67 range.

In his notes before the Jung sale in 2004, Charlie declared that he “loved the coin, superb original gem, 66+.” Browne has served four stints as a grader at PCGS and has worked as a grader for dealers who have spent millions on many high quality rarities.

This coin is the only 1842 Medium Date that is PCGS graded MS-66 and it is the highest certified. PCGS has graded two and NGC has graded four as MS-65, though these six may amount to only four different coins. It is likely that this Jung-Gardner coin is the finest known 1842 Medium Date, Philadelphia Mint issue.HD1842MediumDateR1

Before being acquired by Gardner, this 1842 Medium Date was in the epic type set of Oliver Jung, who recently began and sold another collection. When ANR auctioned Jung’s type set of classic U.S. coins in New York on July 23, 2004, it was probably the best such collection ever formed that was designed to be a type set of classic U.S. coins.

The “L.A. Type Set” that Stack’s auctioned in Oct. 1990 was excellent as well, though Jung’s set was superior. The Madison Type Set, which Heritage auctioned in 2008, was probably the all-time best to ever be publicly auctioned, though it was notably different from a standard type set. The privately held, High Desert’ type set is rumored to be amazing.

This 1842 realized $16,100 in 2004, a strong price at the time. The $25,830 price in June 2014 was a little strong.

IV. 1842-O Small Date, Small Letters

Relatively small letters on design of the reverse (back of the coin) were replaced by larger letters at some point in 1842. The ‘Small Letters’ reverse is often called the ‘reverse of 1839,’ as the design type started with this reverse until it was replaced by the ‘reverse of 1842’ with larger letters. The difference is readily noticeable. A magnifying glass is not required to identify this issue.

HD42OsdSmallLettersO1As it is NGC graded MS-63, the Eliasberg-Noblet-Osburn-Gardner piece is the highest certified. It does not, though, have a CAC sticker and it may be that experts at PCGS refused to grade it as MS-63 in the past. A 62 grade maight be more applicable. It exhibits some moderate friction and is otherwise a choice coin. In 1997, Charlie Browne graded this coin as AU-58, though Charlie would acknowledge that some coins that were graded 58 in the 1990s were PCGS or NGC graded MS-62 or MS-61 during the last fifteen years. Significant grade-inflation has occurred since the mid 1990s.

This coin has certainly been in some great sets of Liberty Seated Half Dollars. Eliasberg’s half dollars were auctioned in New York by Bowers & Merena (NH) in April 1997. This same firm auctioned Douglas Noblet’s half dollars in Jan. 1999, probably in Florida. Stack’s-Bowers offered Dick Osburn’s set of Liberty Seated Halves at the Aug. 2011 ANA Convention near Chicago. This coin did not then sell.

On June 23, it realized $29,375. Although this is apparently a weak price, I suggest that the result indicates that leading bidders were under the impression that this coin grades MS-62, not MS-63.

If relevant experts and/or the advisors of leading bidders really believed that this coin truly grades MS-63, it would have brought more than $40,000 at the auction in June 2014 and probably would have sold at the ANA Auction in Aug. 2011. This is the highest certified representative of a popular, major variety that is very frequently regarded as a distinct date.

V. Candidate for Finest 1848-O

Gardner’s NGC graded and CAC approved 1848-O is the only 1848-O that is PCGS or NGC graded MS-66. This coin is very attractive and does not reveal any notable flaws under five-times magnification. It exhibits nice shades of brown-russet with underlying original luster. Its grade is in or close to the high end of the 66 range.

I never saw the NGC graded MS-65 1848-O that Stack’s auctioned in Nov. 2008 in Baltimore. That coin realized $29,900, while markets for rare coins were sliding downward. The $25,850 result for the Gardner coin is not strong.

VI. Maybe Finest 1849-OHD49Orev1

The Gardner 1849-O half that sold on Monday is NGC graded MS-65 and CAC approved. Neither PCGS nor NGC has graded an 1849-O as MS-66. Three, though, have been CAC approved as MS-65. Almost all relevant experts would probably agree that the Gardner piece does not grade less than MS-65.

I was so focused on other coins in the same ANA auction that I forgot to take notes about Richard Jewell’s PCGS graded MS-65 and CAC approved 1849-O that Stack’s-Bowers auctioned in Aug. 2013 for $28,200. Even so, this Gardner piece is ‘hard to beat’! A few contact marks on Miss Liberty are not immediately apparent and the natural toning is pleasant. A collector from the East Coast paid $15,275 for it.

VII. Pittman 1851, Finest Known

The Pittman-Gardner, Philadelphia Mint 1851 is extremely likely to be the finest known. Indeed, John Albanese asserts that “it is a great coin, by far the best”! It has terrific natural toning and is more than very attractive overall. The blue, russet and gray-tan tones are neat. The toning is especially even.HD51obv1

When auctioned in June, the Pittman-Gardner 1851half was PCGS graded MS-66 and CAC approved. The PCGS CoinFacts site suggests that it is now PCGS graded MS-67. Indeed, the “MS-67” 1851 half that is pictured is clearly the Pittman-Gardner coin. There are now two 1851 halves that are PCGS graded MS-65, zero PCGS graded MS-66, and this coin graded MS-67.

There is an 1851 that NGC graded as MS-66. The Goldbergs offered it in Jan. 2004. At some point, I saw that coin, though my recollection is not crystal clear. I do remember that the NGC graded MS-66 1851 does not have the enticing appearance of the Pittman-Gardner coin.

As of Oct. 30, there was not a MS-67 grade 1851 half listed in the CAC population report, though officials at CAC will not reveal whether the Pittman-Gardner 1851 was re-submitted to CAC after being upgraded by PCGS. When I saw this coin in May 1998, I graded it as 67.2. In June 2014, I graded it around 66.8. Again, grades to the tenth of a point should be taken too seriously. My immediate point is that the assigning of a 67 grade by PCGS to this coin is unsurprising, though some experts who I know would feel more comfortable with a ‘66+’ grade assigned to it.

Given the attractiveness and importance of this coin along with the fact that 1851 halves are rare in all grades,the $49,937.50 result in June seems fair enough. The same coin sold for $38,500 at the Pittman II sale in May 1998.

VIII. Pryor 1852-O

Only one 1852-O half has been graded as MS-65 by PCGS or NGC and Gene Gardner had it. Further, its PCGS grade of MS-65 has been CAC approved. I have not heard of an equivalent or superior 1852-O.

James Bennet Pryor formed an epic set of half dollars that was auctioned by Bowers & Merena (NH) in Jan. 1996. The Pryor 1852-O then sold for $14,300. In Feb. 1999, Heritage auctioned this same coin for $16,675. On Monday, it brought $36,718.75, a strong price.

HD52Oobv1This is a very rare coin. The estimate of “400” survivors on PCGS CoinFacts was not well reasoned. Perhaps 110 different 1852-O halves been PCGS or NGC graded and maybe as many as 190 exist. As there are so many rarities in the series, it is challenging to collect these ‘by date’ (and Mint location).

The most noteworthy sets of Liberty Seated Half Dollars to be auctioned during the fifteen year period from 1996 to 2011 are all represented in the Gene Gardner Collection: Pryor (1996), Eliasberg (1997), Pittman (1998), Noblet (1999), Queller (2002), Byers (2006), and Osburn (2011). Gardner was fortunate to have the opportunity to acquire coins from these sets during the period that he was very actively adding many coins to his own collection.

All these collections contained some 19th century half dollars that are not particularly expensive. Naturally toned, never doctored, technically strong, sub-50 grade Liberty Seated Halves are often excellent values for collectors. Also, budget-minded collectors may wish to consider circulated Capped Bust Halves (1809-36).

©2014 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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