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The Mystery of the Only Known 1870-S Half Dime

The Mystery of the Only Known 1870-S Half Dime

By Bullion Shark LLC ……

In 1870, when a new United States Mint facility was being built in San Francisco, there was a plan to place a complete set of 1870 coins struck in San Francisco in the building’s cornerstone. The only problem is that not every denomination was issued that year–the “missing” denominations were the half dime, the quarter, the $3 gold coin, and the silver dollar. Apparently, officials there decided to strike what is believed to be single examples of those coins to add to the others for the cornerstone.

We know today that the idea was not followed through on precisely, since a dozen examples of the original mintage of 300 1870-S silver dollars are known to exist, as is one example of the 1870-S $3 Indian gold coin, but no quarters dated 1870-S have ever been authenticated. Until 1978, no example of an 1870-S half dime had ever been known to exist other than potentially one in that cornerstone, which to date has never been found.

The Value of a Half Dime

Half dimes–which have a 15.5-millimeter diameter, a weight of just 1.24 grams, and a melt value of just 67 cents (because its actual silver content is only 0.0359 ounces)–were not widely collected during the many years they were minted.

But today the coins are widely collected, especially those of the Seated Liberty motif that were minted from 1837 to 1873. A type coin runs from $125 in Fine 12 to $350 in XF-40, $800 in MS60, and jumps to $3,250 in MS65 as higher-grade coins were not saved in quantity.

All dates and mint marks are readily available today with the exception of the unique 1870-S half dime, of which there are no records of any coins struck for circulation. However, there are records showing that six die pairs for the coin were shipped west from the Philadelphia Mint on December 15, 1869. In addition, the reverse die for this coin was also used on the 1871-S half dime. And the mint mark on the coin is located within the wreath on the obverse, where it had not previously been placed. But on the 1871-S and 1872-S coins, it continued to appear there.

Mysterious Origins

We will likely never know the true origins of the one known example of an 1870-S half dime, though it is possible others could surface someday.

We also do not know why there are several different, mostly highly unplausible stories about how the coin was found, but they seem designed to mask the real origins of this coin. One holds that a collector found it in a junk box at a coin dealership, but that seems highly unlikely since the known example is a Mint State specimen.

What is known for sure is that, in 1978, a collector brought the coin to a dealer in Chicago who immediately knew what it was, purchased it, and exhibited the coin at the 1978 American Numismatic Association (ANA) Convention. After that, it was reportedly sold in 1980 to another dealer for $425,000 – a sum arrived at by taking the most recent price of an 1804 silver dollar sold for and adding $25,000.

Interestingly, the coin continued to trade hands after that for less than the amount of the 1980 sale, but it brought $661,250 at auction in 2004. Today, PCGS estimates that the coin–currently graded PCGS MS64–is worth $2 million. That amount is similar to what the dozen known examples of the 1870-S Seated Liberty silver dollar are worth, but is much less than the higher profile, unique 1870-S $3 gold coin – a coin that continues to be shrouded, like the 1870-S half dime, in a great deal of mystery and intrigue and which itself surfaced unexpectedly in 1907. And that coin, which has signs it was probably used in jewelry, was graded XF40.

The Vagaries of the 1870-S Half Dime Market

1870-S Half Dime. Image: PCGS.

The relatively low value of the 1870-S half dime, especially during the 1980s and ’90s, raises interesting questions about which uber-rare coins become the most valuable. Consider, for example, that all of the most famous American coin rarities–like the 1933 $20 gold coin, the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, and the 1804 silver dollar–are far from unique yet are worth many multiples of what the 1870-S half dime is valued at today, let alone the much lower prices it has sold for in the past.

The main reason for this situation is simply the enormous amount of publicity and media attention that has surrounded the more-well known American coinage rarities combined with the fact that those coins have been known to numismatists for a much longer period than the relative newcomer of the 1870-S half dime.

Another reason suggested by numismatic experts Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth in their book 100 Greatest U.S. Coins (Whitman, 2019), where they have included the coin in every edition of the book and currently rank it as #26 of the top 100 classic American coins, is that the half dime is so small. In their view, if the coin were a silver dollar with the same one-of-one census and backstory, then it would be much more valuable and more widely known.

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Bowers, Q. David. A Guide Book of Liberty Seated Silver Coins. Whitman. (2016)

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