United States 1840-(O) Medium Letters Half Dollar

1840-(O) Seated Liberty Half Dollar

When it was opened in 1838, the New Orleans Mint adopted the “O” mintmark in order to differentiate its products from that of the Philadelphia Mint. In an exchange of letters spanning from February to April of 1840 between Robert M. Patterson, Director of the United States Mint, and Philos B. Tyler, the New Orleans Branch Mint Coiner, it becomes evident that the local staff was inexperienced in the production of coins. In one particular letter from February 6, Tyler cites his “want of experience” in reference to the tempering of dies (Bugert, 22). This is important, because the 1840-O half dollar is well known for the frequent occurrence of die cracks.

To produce 1840’s total mintage of 855,100 pieces, the New Orleans Mint received 17 dies (seven obverse and 10 reverse dies) from Philadelphia. This quantity was intentional since, as Patterson informed Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury, these dies were capable of striking around 90,000 coins. It is known that the New Orleans Mint used six of these obverses dies and an extra reverse die (a left-over 1839 Capped Bust reverse was used), making a total of 14 die marriages (Bugert, 22). One of these pairs is what has come to be known as the 1840-O with no mintmark, medium letters, and large eagle – WB 101.

Because this die marriage has no mintmark, it was thought for years that it was in fact struck by the Philadelphia Mint. Instead, it was just an old reverse die. This was first noted by the late numismatist David W. Lange when he discussed how this type has a slightly smaller diameter – a characteristic of early half dollars struck in New Orleans. A few years later, in the March 1987 issue of the Gobrecht Journal, Bill Bugert and Randy Wiley published an article in which they identified the specific die pairing now known as WB-101. This is taken from the WB identification system, which stands for Wiley/Bugert.

The 1840-(O) Medium Letters, Reverse of ’38 Half Dollar in Today’s Market

While Bugert described the standard 1840-O as “one of the most interesting and challenging to collect in the entire Liberty Seated half dollar series,” this marriage is even more challenging to acquire (Bugert, 22). Of the total mintage of 855,100 half dollars struck in New Orleans as reported by the Red Book, an estimated 112,000 specimens of this die marriage were produced. However, PCGS and NGC report a total combined population of only 199 graded and certified examples.

Unlike many conditional rarities, this die marriage is rare up and down the grading scale. The type’s importance went unrecognized for many years, and as a result, it is most commonly seen today in VF grades.

Between VF 20 and VF35, these coins are known to fetch roughly $1,000 to $2,000 USD, though some are known to sell for less. In fact, Heritage Auctions sold a relatively unattractive VF25 example in 2021 for $780 while Stack’s Bowers sold a VF 20 with blue and gold toning for $960 only four months later. Most recently, David Lawrence Rare Coins (DLRC) sold two VF 30 examples with nice eye appeal on eBay for between $1,300 and $1,500 each.

In all grades between AU 50 and MS 60, there are no recent auction records. And the last example sold, an AU 55, was auctioned by Heritage during their 2019 FUN Signature Auction for $5,040. Low Mint State examples, what few there are, sell for $5,500 to $7,000. It is here, though, where the price begins to skyrocket, with some mid-Mint State examples (MS 64) selling for upwards of $19,000. One nearly perfect example sold for this price.

The auction record–an astounding $56,000–was set by an MS 65 during a 2014 Heritage sale. Not only was this coin owned by the famous Eric P. Newman and is the single-finest graded example, but the bold design is complemented by “outstanding blue and gold peripheral toning”. A comparable example will probably not hit the market for a long time.

Design

Obverse:

On the obverse, a full-length representation of Liberty wears long, flowing robes and is seated on a rock, her head turned back to her right. Her left arm is bent and holds a pole topped by a Liberty cap. The right arm extends down at her side, hand supporting a Union shield, across which is a curved banner displaying LIBERTY. Surrounding Lady Liberty are 13, six-pointed stars. Seven are to her left, one is between the cap and her head, and the last five are to her right. These stars represent the 13 original U.S. states. The date is centered at the bottom in the exergue, below the rock upon which Liberty rests. A circle of dentils lies inside the raised rim. The remaining field is clear of design elements.

Reverse:

The reverse is carried over from the Capped Bust design. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA circles clockwise along the inside of the denticled rim, with no interruptions. At the center of the design is a heraldic eagle with the U.S. shield in front of its breast. The defiant eagle clutching arrows in its left claw and an olive branch in its right with the abbreviated denomination (HALF DOL.) is below.

On the medium letters reverse, the legend and denomination are slightly larger, (approximately .068 inches) – hence the demarcation as “medium letter”. Also, while the eagle and the shield are slightly larger, its claws are not clenched. Most importantly, since the 1838 “O” mintmark was on the obverse and in 1840 was moved to the reverse, there is no mint mark on this mint die marriage.

Edge:

The edge of the 1840 Seated Liberty half dollar is reeded.

Designer

Born in 1785, Christian Gobrecht began working for the United States Mint in 1823 and became the Mint’s third Chief Engraver in 1840. He served in that position until he died in 1844. Gobrect designed the Flying Eagle cent (1857-1858), Seated Liberty type coins, and the Liberty Head quarter eagle gold coin (1840-1907). A tinkerer, he invented a medal-ruling machine, created his own musical instruments, and developed a camera-lucida, which projected images onto pieces of paper.

Coin Specifications

Country:  United States
Year Of Issue:  1840 (Reverse of 1839)
Denomination:  50 Cents (Half Dollar; USD)
Mint Mark:  None (New Orleans)
Mintage:  Est. 112,000
Alloy:  90% Silver, 10% Copper
Weight:  13.36 grams
Diameter:  30.60 mm
Edge  Reeded
OBV Designer  Christian Gobrecht
REV Designer  Christian Gobrecht
Quality:  Business Strike

 

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Sources

Bugert, Bill. (2011) – http://www.lsccweb.org/BillBugertBooks/Bugert-Vol-III-NO-Part1.pdf

Lange, David W. (2007) – https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/874/

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