The 1838 Proof Capped Bust half dollar has always been overshadowed by its more famous 1838-O cousins, but the Philadelphia Mint issue is actually much rarer. Only five Philadelphia bust half dollar proofs are known to numismatists today, and two of them are forever off the market in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution.
Of the three remaining coins, the John Jay Pittman / D. Brent Pogue specimen is by far the finest, grading PR66+ PCGS, with CAC approval. The other two pieces both grade PR64 PCGS. Heritage Auctions is pleased to present the finest-known example of this rare issue as a part of the August 14-20 ANA Signature Auction.
The design of the bust half dollar was evolving rapidly in the late 1830s, to better suit the new technology that became available with the advent of the steam press. The Reeded Edge, applied by a collar, replaced the Lettered Edge, applied by the Castaing device, in 1836. The denomination on the reverse was changed from 50 CENTS to HALF DOL. in 1838, to conform closely to the other denominations. Finally, the Capped Bust half dollar design was phased out by Christian Gobrecht’s beautiful Seated Liberty motif in 1839.
Amid all these design changes, it was natural that a few proofs would be produced to demonstrate the new designs to Treasury officials and other interested parties. Mint records indicate Mint Director Robert M. Patterson sent 20 “specimens” of the new Seated Liberty quarter design to Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury in September of 1838 for inspection.
A similar request may account for the small mintage of the 1838 proof bust half dollar, although no documentation has come to light. Alternatively, the bust half dollar proofs may have been struck on request for influential collectors, like Robert Gilmor. In any case, the mintage was certainly small and the details of the original distribution remain a mystery.
Two die varieties are known for the 1838 proof half dollar, indicating the proofs may have been struck at different times and perhaps for different purposes. This coin is an example of the GR-1 die marriage, from an extremely early state of the dies that shows none of the prominent die cracks seen on most examples of this variety. This coin is the only 1838 proof half dollar struck from the GR-1 dies.
The other four were all products of the GR-14 die marriage and both of the other specimens in private hands show heavy die cracks on the reverse.
This Plus-graded Premium Gem is one of the great rarities among early American proof coinage, and was considered by David Akers to be “one of the greatest and most important rarities among of all of John Jay Pittman’s proof coins.”
It is a sharply struck piece with every hair detail neatly and completely delineated. The stars are sharp and show every individual radial and center. The reverse has each feather fully defined with a sharp shield, fully defined claws, and complete veins in the leaves. The fields are deeply mirrored and the devices are fully lustrous, imparting a wonderful cameo appearance, although the toning precludes such a designation.
Both sides are deeply toned with lovely blue, violet, russet, and gold color. The right obverse field has a large lint mark and each side has a few smaller ones. The obverse has a few faint hairlines on Liberty’s cheek and neck, and a few light ivory-colored “water spots.”
The reverse is virtually flawless. The visual appearance of this piece is exactly the same as it was when David Akers offered it in the Pittman sale, and it is probably identical to its aesthetic beauty when owned by Howard Newcomb more than half a century ago.