Description

The New Orleans Mint was one of three branches of the United States Mint authorized to be opened by the Coinage Act of March 3, 1835. The same Act authorized the opening of an important assay office in New York City. The Louisiana facility was built on land donated to the federal government by the City of New Orleans, and the Mint building itself was designed by noted architect William Strickland in the Greek Revival style that he helped to popularize.

Construction began in September 1835 and finished in 1838 at a cost to taxpayers of $182,000 plus $118,000 for site improvements. Upon opening, Rufus Tyler was named Chief Coiner, causing some of the local employees to bristle at being told what to do by a “northerner”. Such was the geographical politics in America at the time.

New Orleans Mint.
New Orleans Mint. Original Image: Adobe. Illustration by CoinWeek.

The first coins struck at the New Orleans Mint were 30 1838-O Seated Liberty dimes. The Seated Liberty (or Liberty Seated) dime debuted in 1837 and underwent a number of design modifications over the course of its 54-year run.

In 1837, United States Mint engraver (and soon to be Chief Engraver) Christian Gobrecht’s design debuted with a fairly clean yet simple obverse that featured a seated Lady Liberty accompanied only by the date in the exergue. Midway through the 1838 production cycle, 13 stars (in a 7-1-5 configuration) were added to the obverse.

The dies shipped to New Orleans, dispatched from the office of Mint Director Robert M. Patterson on April 9, feature the No Stars obverse. The “O” mintmark, found on the reverse of the coin, was applied at the Philadelphia Mint. One set of dies featured a normal mintmark, while the other shows one that had clearly been repunched (more on that in our section discussing varieties).

The first 1838-O dimes were struck on May 8. In total 30 pieces were struck. These mark the first coins struck at the new branch mint. According to research conducted by R.W. Julian, we know that 10 of these dimes were laid in the cornerstone of the North American Theater. It is not entirely clear what happened to the remainder.

After the pomp and circumstance of the New Orleans Mint striking the first of what it hoped would be millions of coins for the Southern port city, production came to an abrupt halt due to mechanical issues with the small press. Coinage did not resume until May 22, and shortly thereafter the machines broke down again.

The hot and humid southern months provided ripe conditions for Yellow Fever outbreaks and the Mint closed operations to mitigate the risk to its workers. Coinage for 1838 did not resume until November. But between November and year’s end, the Mint produced 402,434 dimes with an additional emission of 3,600 pieces struck in early January using the 1838-dated dies. Combine the two numbers and you arrive at the accepted mintage of 406,034.

Strike Characteristics

Collectors have long viewed the No Stars variety to be the closest representation of Gobrecht’s original design concept. To create the timeless image of Liberty seated, Gobrecht interpreted the sketches of William Kneass, Thomas Sully, and Titian Peale. The design represented the first time that a full-figured Liberty was depicted on a U.S. coin and it was featured on all U.S. silver types for much of the rest of the 19th century.

Whatever the condition of the equipment that Philadelphia provided New Orleans, it is clear that the machinery wasn’t new. As was the case with coins from its sister branches in Charlotte and Dahlonega, the coins of the New Orleans Mint were typically inferior in strike to those struck at the Mother Mint at Philadelphia.

On the 1838-O Seated Liberty dime, weakness is typically evident on the face, shield, feet, and denticles. Although it is possible to find nicely struck examples where Liberty’s full feature set is apparent, coins that display sharply squared denticles throughout are another matter altogether.

1838-O Varieties

Gerry Fortin, at his excellent website seateddimevarieties.com, accounts for two die varieties of the 1838-O Seated Liberty dime.

Obverse Die Diagnostics of the 1838-O dime.
Obverse Die Diagnostics of the 1838-O dime. Coin photography courtesy of PCGS. Descriptions courtesy of Gerry Fortin.

The F-101 features a “medium level” date on the obverse, rim die cuds at the two and four o’clock positions (which advance to the eight and nine o’clock positions on F-101a) and a Repunched Mintmark on the reverse. The mintmark on the reverse was punched at the Philadelphia Mint before the dies were dispatched to New Orleans on April 9, 1838. Curiously, at the time the dies were shipped, the Philadelphia Mint’s engraving department had already put into production a modified version of the design that featured stars on the obverse. This would not be the only time that Philadelphia would ship outdated dies to the branch mints.

Reverse Die Diagnostics of the 1838-O dime. Coin photography courtesy of PCGS. Descriptions courtesy of Gerry Fortin.
Reverse Die Diagnostics of the 1838-O dime. Coin photography courtesy of PCGS. Descriptions courtesy of Gerry Fortin.

The F-102 variety features the same “medium level” date on the obverse but does not show the die cuds that are plainly visible on the F-101. The reverse is different as well in that the mintmark does not exhibit signs of being repunched. Fortin describes the reverse as having the “normal mintmark”. Based on our observations, it appears that the mintmark on the F-102 is slightly canted to the right, whereas the F-101’s doubled mintmark orients upright.

The F-101 is the more common of the two varieties, but Fortin’s research suggests that the advanced F-101a is encountered even less frequently than the F-102.

The 1838-O in Typical Grades

The 1838-O dime is typically found in circulated grades with less than 10% of those that survive likely exceeding PCGS or NGC standards for About Uncirculated. With more than 30 years of grading under their belts, both grading services combine for a total population of 93 examples in AU and 71 examples in Mint State. Obviously, these numbers overlap somewhat due to resubmissions and crossovers.

A problem-free example in VF-20 typically will bring between $350 and $400, which is a good entry point for the issue. That price doubles as you reach About Uncirculated, and as you approach the slider grades of AU58 and MS62, the price one should expect to pay for a CAC-quality piece is $3,500 and up.

In higher Mint State grades, the issue appears with less frequency, but a collector is likely to have the opportunity to choose between a few examples each year. In 2018, Goldberg Auctioneers sold an evenly toned example with streaks of gold and light blue toning for $8,100 – in line with the firm’s pre-sale estimate.

Gems are much harder to come by. To date, PCGS accounts for four examples in MS65 along with one example in MS65+. NGC reports four in Mint State 65 and two in 66.

The record price paid for an 1838-O Seated Liberty dime is the $32,900 that the sole PCGS MS65+ coin brought at an April 2015 Heritage Auction. That coin was a CAC-approved Fortin-101 that features obverse and reverse toning of yellow, orange, and purple. The coin also featured a stronger-than-typical strike with just the faintest hints of weakness on the coin’s highest points. Sadly, Heritage Auctions’ low-quality photography for the coin is not flattering.

Heritage also records two discreet sales prices of $18,400 for one of the two coins graded MS66 by NGC. The most recent sale took place at Heritage’s 2009 Central States sale. The coin presents just a hint of yellow toning and is an otherwise brilliant example of the Fortin-102.

1838-O Seated Liberty Dimes Recovered from SS Central America

1838-O Seated Liberty Dime from the SS Central America. Image: PCGS
1838-O Seated Liberty Dime from the SS Central America. Image: PCGS

The famous SS Central America, dubbed “The Ship of Gold”, sank in 1857 while carrying tons of California Gold Rush gold and coin. In a 2014 recovery expedition, thousands of silver coins, along with millions of dollars worth of gold ingots and coins, were recovered. Among the silver coins were a number of examples of the 1838-O Seated Liberty dime, 40 of which were graded by PCGS in 2018.

Ranging in grades from F02 to XF40, the recovered coins provide a time capsule into the distance the New Orleans Mint’s first coinage traveled and the degree of wear our silver coinage experienced in just 20 years’ time. The dimes photographed by PCGS exhibit the diagnostics of both Fortin-101 and 102 varieties, showing the degree to which these distinctly different variants circulated side-by-side.

The coin illustrated above represents the finest graded example from the 2014 recovery.

Design

Obverse

On the obverse a full-length representation of Liberty wears long, flowing robes and is seated on a rock, 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. 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 legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA circles clockwise along the inside of the dentilled rim, broken at the bottom by the ribbon that ties the ends of two branches. The branches form another circle inside the text, though the ends are separated at the top. The denomination ONE DIME is in the very center, each word on a separate line. The “O” mintmark is located below DIME and above the bows of the ribbon.

Edge

The edge of the 1838-O dime is reeded, as are all Liberty Seated dimes.

Designer(s)

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: USA
Year Of Issue: 1838
Denomination: 10 Cents (USD)
Mint Mark: O (New Orleans)
Mintage: 406,034
Alloy: .900 Silver, .100 Copper
Weight: 2.67 g
Diameter: 17.90 mm
Edge: Reeded
OBV Designer Christian Gobrecht
REV Designer Christian Gobrecht
Quality: Business Strike

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