HomeUS CoinsA Softly Spoken Great Rarity: 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Liberty Seated Half Dollar

A Softly Spoken Great Rarity: 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Liberty Seated Half Dollar

News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #246

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds…

1853oAt the upcoming Baltimore Coin & Currency Expo, Stack’s-Bowers will auction an astonishing collection of coins and related items from 1853, an extremely important year in the monetary history of the United States. A famous coin in this consignment is an 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Liberty Seated Half Dollar. While a true Great Rarity, no one ever seems to speak loudly about an 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Half Dollar. Indeed, it is not yelled about like 1804 dollars, 1894-S dimes or 1927-D Double Eagles.

The coin to be offered is PCGS graded Good-06, is CAC approved, and is one of just four reported to survive. This 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Liberty Seated Half Dollar has appealing natural, blue-gray toning, with tints of brown and russet, and is very attractive for a Good grade coin from the 1850s.

Liberty Seated Half Dollars date from 1839 to 1891. The various types or subtypes are discussed in an article about collecting Liberty Seated Half Dollars for less than $500 each.

Generally, there are six types:

1) No Drapery, No Motto (1839 only)
2) With Drapery No Motto (1839-53, 1856-66)
3) Arrows & Rays (1853 only)
4) No Motto, With Arrows, No Rays (1854-55)
5) With Motto, No Arrows (1866-91 except 1874)
6) With Motto, With Arrows (1873-74)

The drapery or lack thereof relate to Miss Liberty’s clothing though such terms here really refer to artistic changes in 1840 to the obverse (front) design. The motto, ‘In God We Trust,’ was added to the reverse (back) in 1866 for reasons that are not directly related to coins. Of all the design types of Liberty Seated Half Dollars, the 1853 with Arrows & Rays is the most important in terms of the history of money and monetary policy.

By 1853, there was a crisis in regard to U.S. silver coins; these had almost entirely disappeared from circulation. The value of silver, in terms of gold, had significantly risen because gold had become relatively much less scarce. The supply of gold and of U.S. gold coins had substantially risen.

Arrows and rays were added to quarters and to half dollars in 1853 to signify a reduction in weight and silver content. The four, reported 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Liberty Seated Half Dollars lack rays as well. These are coins of the With Drapery, No Motto type and were struck on the ‘old’ weight standard.

All U.S. silver coins minted from 1837 to 1964, except Type One Three Cent Silvers, were specified to be 90% silver and 10% copper. During 1853, the specified weight of each half dollar was reduced from 206.25 grains (0.43 Troy ounce) to 192 grains (exactly 0.4 Troy ounce). If these weights are multiplied by 0.9, the average quantity of silver in each can be determined. Generally, the weight was reduced by 6.9% (=14.25/206.25).

I. Great Importance of 1853 silver coins

Starting in 1848, vast quantities of gold were found in the West, especially in the San Francisco area. The California Gold Rush rapidly blossomed. The mandated government ratio of gold to silver, however, was unchanged. A dollar was still pegged at 371.25 grains of silver (.7734 Troy ounce) and at 23.22 grains of gold (0.048375 Troy ounce). As U.S. silver and gold coins usually were specified to be 10% copper, a dollar’s worth of silver cons weighed 412.5 grains and a gold dollar weighed 25.8 grains.

As gold became more plentiful in the U.S., the free market price of gold dropped, in terms of its purchasing power, though the government still mandated that 23.22 grains was necessarily worth a dollar. In contrast, silver became relatively less scarce and more valuable. A silver dollar, two halves, four quarters or ten dimes, all came to be worth more than one gold dollar in the marketplace. The free market values, in silver bullion, of U.S. silver coins became greater than the government mandated face values. A quarter became worth more than a quarter so why accept only twenty-five cents for it?

goldrushstampSo, from 1848 and to early 1853, people had a strong motive to spend U.S. gold coins; as the value of gold bullion fell, the face values of the gold coins remained the same. According to the law, a $10 gold coin continued to be worth $10 even though its gold content (intrinsic value) dropped. While people then gladly spent U.S. gold coins, they refused to spend U.S. silver coins.After all, as their intrinsic value rose above their respective face value, U.S.  silver coins were melted, exported, hoarded, or traded as silver bullion at rates above their respective face values (See Watson, History of American Coinage, 1899, pp. 103-104). People stopped using U.S. silver coins a money.

To resolve this problem, a law was passed, on Feb. 21, 1853, that reduced the weight of all U.S. silver coins (except silver dollars) such that people would have more of a motive to spend the new silver coins than to hoard or melt them. According to Neil Carothers, two half dollars ‘without arrows’ of the 1840 to 1853 type were worth $1.04 in silver on Feb. 21, 1853, the day the law was passed, and, conceptually, two 1853 ‘With Arrows’ Half Dollars (those of the new type) were worth $0.97 in silver on that day. As long as the value of silver did not rise much over the next few months or years, the idea was that people would continue to spend newly minted U.S. silver coins. Silver dollars were exempted from the new law and continued to be worth more than $1 each in silver.

The year 1853 in U.S. coinage and the meaning of the arrows relate to: a return to circulating U.S. silver coins, debates about monetary policy that greatly affected the history of the nation, and the whole meaning of the U.S. Dollar in the 19th century. From 1792, the stated policy was for both silver coins and gold coins to be worth their respective face values, approximately, in bullion; the U.S. dollar was pegged to a physical weight of gold and also to a physical weight of silver. A policy of bimetallism was official, though it was hard to maintain as the free market values of gold and silver, as metals, changed over time.

1853Additionally, this law that was passed in 1853 placed limits on the government’s obligations regarding silver coinage. Among other points, new silver coins were legal tender to a limited extent. “It was the first time in the history of the country that the Government exercised the right to control the coinage and deny to its citizens the free coinage of their bullion,” declared David Watson in his epic book, “History of American Coinage” (NY & London: G. P. Putnam, 1899, p. 104).

The arrows or lack thereof on coins of 1853 relate to major concepts that greatly affected the history of the United States and of humanity in general. Indeed, the role of silver and gold in monetary systems has been a very important issue for more than 2500 years. In 1896, the nominee of the Democratic Party for president of the U.S., William Jennings Bryan, focused his campaign on his proposal for ‘free coinage of silver’ and reviving bimetallism.

From 1793 to 1853, the U.S. had, unsuccessfully at times, officially been on both a gold standard and a silver standard, simultaneously, a policy of bimetallism. Was the crisis that lead to a new law in 1853 indicative of the end of bimetallism in the U.S.? Although the consequences of the coinage law of 1853 have been subject to intense debates by economists and historians ever since, it is clear that the underlying concepts are important as they relate to the history of the U.S. Dollar and economic development in general, along with the practicality of gold and/or silver standards.

To understand much of the history of U.S. coinage, there is a need to think about gold standards, silver standards and bimetallism. What were and what would be now the costs and benefits of pegging the U.S. Dollar to a physical weight of gold and/or silver? Do these topics mean that silver coins of 1853 have more historical significance than coins of many other years?

II. Four Reported 1853 ‘No Arrows’ Halves

There are zero known, AU or uncirculated, 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Liberty Seated Half Dollars. The finest known is the Garret-Queller-Byers coin, which is (or was) PCGS graded Very Fine-35, and probably was NGC graded Extremely Fine-40 at some point.

I was informed by David Queller that he bought this coin at the Garrett II sale in November 1979. It is believed to have earlier been in the collection of J. Colvin Randall. If so, this would be significant, as Randall was a very sophisticated collector and researcher. In addition to being more interested in Branch Mint coins than his contemporaries in the 19th century, Randall was a pioneer in understanding, researching and collecting multiple kinds of varieties. Indeed, Randall is a legend among collectors of early 19th century coins by die variety.

In 2002, Stack’s auctioned David Queller’s collection of half dollars in New York. An associate of Jay Parrino was the successful bidder. This associate, who prefers that his name not be mentioned, may have been acting solely as an agent for Parrino or may have had a financial interest in the coin. If I had a full understanding of the circumstances then, I do not remember all the details now.

Garrett-Queller Specimen

Parrino consigned the Garrett-Queller coin to a Spectrum-B&M auction in July 2004. It is sometimes reported that Jim Gray was the consignor of this coin, which is not true. The unique 1870-S half dime, the unique 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ Liberty Seated Dime, and this Garrett-Queller half were all consigned by Parrino. Jim Gray never owned any part of these three Great Rarities, as far as I know.

The Garrett-Queller piece realized $161,000 in Oct. 2002, $310,500 in July 2004, and $368,000 in Oct. 2006. In 2004, George ‘Buddy’ Byers may have been the successful bidder or he may have bought it from the successful bidder. Byers definitely owned it. I am surprised that Byers did not bid more than $160,000 for it at the Queller sale in 2002. Byers bought many other halves at that auction.

In Oct. 2006, Stack’s (New York) auctioned Byers’ collection of half dollars. I covered that event for Numismatic News newspaper. A collector bought this coin and he adamantly asked that his name not be revealed and that the State, in which he resides, not be mentioned either. In 2012, this collector told me that he still owns the Garrett-Queller-Byers 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Half Dollar.

In 2012, the Howell piece was discovered. The family that owned it did not realize that they had a rarity.

The Howell piece is PCGS graded VG-08. Very Good grade, New Orleans Mint Half Dollars of the 1840s and 1850s tend to have many imperfections. They tend to be sort of dusky steel-gray, often with some brown-russet toning, and tend to have noticeable contact marks.

I have closely examined all four, reported 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Half Dollars. After reading through my notes, I have decided not to put forth my own grades. I suggest that interested collectors hire a relevant expert before actually buying one of the four. Interpreting these requires some analytical thinking.

Stack’s-Bowers auctioned the Howell piece in Aug.  2012, at the ANA Convention in Philadelphia. Rich Uhrich bought it for $218,500. Most experts found that result to be a modest price.

The Howell piece may have been overshadowed by some Carson City Mint rarities that Stack’s-Bowers auctioned earlier that same evening. The “Battle Born Collection” contained a complete set, literally, of Carson City Mint coins, including the unique 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ Liberty Seated Dime. The 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ Liberty Seated Quarter is in the same category of rarity as the 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Half, though is much more famous and highly demanded.

The currently offered, PCGS graded and CAC approved Good-06 coin was, apparently, in the collections of Charles Cass and R. E. Cox. Cass put together a phenomenal collection of U.S. coins, though his name was not mentioned, probably at his request, when Stack’s auctioned his collection in 1957, the “Empire” sale. R. E. Cox specialized in half dollars and assembled one of the all-time most comprehensive sets of this denomination. Stack’s auctioned Cox’s set of halves in 1962.

In 2012, the Stack’s-Bowers cataloguer indicated that the Eliasberg piece was PCGS graded VG-08, the same certification as the Howell piece. I was surprised by this revelation. In 1997, I spent several minutes carefully examining the Eliasberg piece and I really did not think that PCGS would grade it. This piece really should be examined with a microscope.

howell1853I note now that the PCGS CoinFacts site lists only one 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ half as grading ‘VG-08,’ presumably the Howell piece, and only three in total, which I trust are the Garrett-Queller, Howell and Cass-Cox pieces that I just discussed. So, the PCGS CoinFacts site now implies that the Eliasberg piece is not PCGS graded. NGC has not assigned a numerical grade to it, either.

Though it has less detail than the others, the currently offered Cass-Cox piece is more desirable in regard to surface quality. Yes, I realize that the currently offered Cox piece has many medium hairlines from a cleaning long ago, some of which are quite noticeable. Even so, it has honest and even wear, natural toning, and tends to lack the substantial interruptions in the metal that are found on two of the others. The numerous small abrasions present are probably normal for Good-06 grade Liberty Seated Halves, which, admittedly, I do not frequently examine.

The Cass-Cox piece has an appealing overall appearance. I feel relatively more comfortable about the Garrett-Queller and Cass-Cox 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Half Dollars than I do about the Howell and Eliasberg pieces.

III. Why Are These So Rare? 

Four is an unusually small number in regard to silver coins of 1853. I estimate that there exist 2700 1853 Philadelphia Mint, Liberty Seated Half Dollars, with arrows and rays. The PCGS CoinFacts site includes an estimate that 6000 survive. Even if my estimate of 2700 is too low, their estimate of 6000 must not be close to the true number. PCGS and NGC together have graded less than 2400 and these cannot all be different coins; perhaps 1750 of them are different. It is possible that there could be 1000 that are clearly non-gradable or have never been submitted for PCGS or NGC grading. There cannot be 3000 such coins.

I am not aware of any 1853 Philadelphia Mint Half Dollars without arrows and rays. There exist, however, a substantial number of 1853 ‘No Arrows,’ Philadelphia Mint Liberty Seated Quarters and Dimes. As for 1853 New Orleans Mint Liberty Seated Halves WITH arrows and rays, I estimate that from 500 to 700 exist.

Many 1853 ‘No Arrows’ silver coins were probably made before some or all of the workmen making coins were aware that there would be a new policy. Indeed, in a landmark reference on “History of American Coinage” (NY: 1899, p. 102), David Watson emphasizes that the Secretary of the Treasury had to plead with Congress on Jan. 15, 1853 so new coinage legislation would even be seriously considered. It seem unlikely that any order to not produce coins of the old weight standard would have been given before Congress seriously considered passing a new law.

Many 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Half Dollars could have been made before dies with arrows and rays arrived from Philadelphia. Most probably circulated heavily in the South or Southwest and were melted after becoming extremely worn.

There were not many coin collectors in New Orleans in 1853 and collectors then had little interest in current issues. Some collectors who were interested probably were not aware that 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Halves were minted.

In his epic book on coins denominated below one dollar, “Fractional Money,” Neil Carothers, a recognized economist and historian, states that the previous form, without arrows, of 206.25 grain (= .43 Troy ounce) half dollars was not “discontinued” until “Feb. 21, 1853.” Furthermore, Carothers, on p. 314, implies that those of the previous type could have been legally struck until this date in February. Indeed, according to Carothers, this law as amended soon after it was passed, “April 1, 1853, was designated as the time for the inauguration of the new system.”

R. W. Julian, a living historian who has extensively researched U.S. Mint archives, points out that “the February 1853 law did not take effect until a later date, June 1. The 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Half Dollars could have [legally] struck up until that time.”

Records relating to 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Half Dollars may have existed, yet do not currently survive. My understanding is that a large portion of the records of the New Orleans Mint were lost, discarded or destroyed. Some of those that remain may not have been thoroughly examined. It does not make sense to assume that there were never, New Orleans Mint records of 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Half Dollars.

Besides, at least one hundred 1853 ‘No Arrows’ Liberty Seated Quarters survive. There are even more 1853 ‘No Arrows’ Philadelphia Mint, Liberty Seated Dimes. For half dimes likewise, there are quite a few 1853 ‘No Arrows’ and 1853 ‘With Arrows’ coins around.

While 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Dimes or Quarters do not seem to exist now, there exist at least eighty 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Liberty Seated Half Dimes. These could have been made during the same time period as 1853-O ‘No Arrows’ Half Dollars, by the same people at the New Orleans Mint.

© 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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  1. Good day Sir,
    I think i have 1853 Seated Liberty Half Dollar No motto ,No rays, No arrows .. I will highly appreciate if you could advise if such coin was minted in Philadelphia .

    Best Regards



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