Eliasberg 1838-O Half Dollar and the Controversy over its origins
Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #201 …
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds ……….
The 1838-O is the first half dollar to bear a mintmark, an ‘O’ that referred to the New Orleans Mint. The 1838-O half dollar coin is a Great Rarity and the Eliasberg Collection, which was disbursed in multiple auctions, contained the all-time greatest collection of classic U.S. coins. The 1838-O half that was previously in the Eliasberg Collection will be auctioned by Heritage in Orlando on Jan. 9th. The Eliasberg 1838-O is NGC certified as “Proof-64” and has a green sticker of approval from the CAC. In addition to focusing upon this coin specifically, I discuss condition rankings for 1838-O halves are discussed and I dispute the theory by David Stone and Mark Van Winkle that most surviving 1838-O half dollars were struck in Philadelphia
From 1793 to 1838, all U.S. coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. Silver coins and gold coins began to be produced at the New Orleans (‘O’) Branch Mint in 1838. Gold coins were produced at the Charlotte (NC) and Dahlonega (GA) Mints, also beginning in 1838. The Stone-Van Winkle theory that most surviving 1838-O halves were struck in Philadelphia is challenged and criticized herein.
I. Quality of the Eliasberg 1838-O
I remember examining this coin, more than once, when I attended the Eliasberg ’97 sale. The U.S. quarters, half dollars, and silver dollars in the collection of the late Louis Eliasberg, Sr. were auctioned by the firm of Bowers & Merena in New York during April 1997. I have not, however, seen it recently and I am not asserting that this coin’s appearance is exactly the same as it was in 1997, though its appearance might very well be just about the same.
In 1997, I graded the obverse (front of the coin) as “63+,” and the reverse (tail) as a mid range “63.” Years later, Charlie Browne stated that he graded it as “63” in 1997. Browne has served four stints as a PCGS grader. During a career of more than three decades, Charlie, at various times, has worked for himself and has been employed as a grading expert for influential dealers of rarities. For years, Browne has been a co-instructor of an advanced grading course at ANA summer seminars.
Most experts are in agreement that there has been some grade-inflation since 1997. It is also possible that the Eliasberg 1838-O half might have further toned naturally, perhaps more attractively, during the more than fifteen years that has elapsed. Therefore, the current, certified grade of 64 is probably not controversial. Indeed, I have not heard anyone express reservations about this grade.
I note again that this coin has a CAC sticker. Experts at the CAC found its grade to be in the middle of the 64 range,
I do not know whether the Eliasberg 1838-O has ever been submitted to the PCGS. Andy Lustig owned it soon after the Eliasberg sale and he indicates that he never sent it to the PCGS. Although it was NGC graded as ‘63’ in 1997, I believe that it was NGC graded “64” before 2005.
John Albanese bought and sold the Eliasberg 1838-O during 2005. Albanese did not submit it to the PCGS.
In 1997, I found the obverse (front) to be a bluish-gray color, with green tones in some areas. I noted green and brown-russet colors about and on the letters on the reverse (back). There were some blue tones on the reverse, too.
Generally, this coin is somewhat brilliant, I noted in 1997. When this coin was tilted under a lamp, it really came alive and the obverse outer fields were (and probably still are) a bright blue hue. Moreover, it became very brilliant and strong reflective fields were apparent, when tilted. I then found it to be an attractive and exciting coin.
There is not a reason to be concerned about the fact that the Eliasberg 1838-O has too many hairlines on Miss Liberty’s face, and nearby, for a 65 grade to be awarded. A 65 grade or a higher grade 1838-O half probably does not exist, unless the Cox 1838-O or the Norweb 1838-O fulfills current criteria for a 65 ‘gem’ grade.
The Eliasberg 1838-O is an excellent coin. It was one of the highlights of the Eliasberg ’97 sale and is one of the most important coins in the upcoming FUN Platinum Night event, even though at least two other coins will sell for much more. Half dollars are among the most popular of all denominations and the 1838-O is a legendary rarity. When I was a kid, I dreamed about 1838-O halves, long before I considered the importance of a Brasher Doubloon.
II. New Orleans or Philadelphia?
David Stone and Mark Van Winkle at Heritage have argued that most surviving 1838-O half dollars were minted in Philadelphia. In addition to detailed discussions in Heritage auction catalogues, their theory is put forth in a separate publication, The Surprising History of the 1838-O Half Dollar (Dallas: Ivy Press, 2012).
I cite the Jan. 2013 and Jan. 2014 FUN auction catalogues, along with Stone’s responses to my direct inquiries, as many readers may not have access to this monograph. The main components of their theory are addressed here.
A) Dishonest Strikes?
“Apparently,” says David Stone, “the powers that be [at the U.S. Mint in 1838] wanted to showcase the new mintmarks on the half dollar, as the highest silver denomination being produced at the time, and the gold issues, all of which have the distinctive obverse mintmark.” [Jan. 2013 FUN Catalogue, lot #5644]
This is not apparent. There is no solid evidence that any mintmarked coins were made at the Philadelphia Mint during the 19th century and there is no evidence that 1838-O halves were used as promotional pieces to ‘show off’ mintmarks. Furthermore, there is no evidence of Proof or other special strikings in Philadelphia of 1838-C or 1838-D Half Eagles ($5 gold coins). I have not heard of any Proof or Specimen 1838-O dimes or of any reason to believe that838-O dimes were made in Philadelphia
Perspectives relating to mintmarks in 1838 are not well documented, other than the reality that the ‘O’ mintmark was intended to really indicate that each ‘O’ mintmarked coin was struck in New Orleans. In the 19th century, Philadelphia Mint coins did not have mintmarks.
The especially large mintmarks on the obverses (fronts) of many 1838 and 1839 dated coins are justified because mintmarks had not previously appeared on U.S. coins and there were no Branch U.S. Mints before 1838. So, readily apparent mintmarks served to introduce the concept of mintmarks and to make people aware of the opening of Branch Mints.
A large number of coins, with mintmarks, would be needed for many people to became aware of mintmarks and Branch U.S. Mints in New Orleans, Charlotte (NC) and Dahlonega (GA). It is unlikely that a few mintmarked coins would have been made in Philadelphia to introduce or illustrate the concept. The small number of insiders who would then have received promotional pieces would not be able to communicate the nature of mintmarks and Branch Mints to thousands of people.
If it was really the intention of U.S. Mint officials to communicate the introduction of mintmarks and Branch Mints, then artistic sketches of mintmarked coins could have been delivered and/or mailed to newspapers in Philadelphia and elsewhere. As far as I know, there is no record of any promotional campaign in 1838 to educate people about mintmarks or to further the concept of a Branch Mint. The argument by Stone that officials in Philadelphia would have made ‘O’ mintmarked coins in Philadelphia to broadcast or even introduce the concept is just a conjecture, a thought that does not seem to be based on evidence.
Besides, making 1838-O halves in Philadelphia would have been obviously dishonest, as the point of an ‘O’ mintmark was to demonstrate that each ‘O’ mintmarked coin was minted in New Orleans. Officials at the Philadelphia Mint would have had more to lose than to gain by dishonestly making ‘O’ Mint coins in Philadelphia. Such an activity would certainly have aroused suspicions.
Indeed, the traditions and behavior patterns that characterized activities at the Philadelphia Mint throughout its history suggest that coins with ‘O’ mintmarks would not have been struck in Philadelphia. If such an activity was desirable, allowable and viable, ‘O’ or ‘S’ mintmarked coins would have been struck in Philadelphia at later times. It would have been fun and lucrative to make mintmarked Proofs at the headquarters facility. Probably, no one dared to even try; it would have been considered wrongdoing to produce mintmarked coins in Philadelphia and it seems that even those who were responsible for many clandestine strikings of rarities were fearful of doing so.
David Stone thinks otherwise. He graciously answered my questions and provided additional comments at the end of December. Stone says that the making of 1838-O halves in Philadelphia was “in keeping with the Mint’s activities in 1838, when a large number of half dollar patterns were struck and the reverse design was changed.”
Gobrecht ‘Reeded Edge’ Halves were struck in Philadelphia from 1836 to 1839. A slightly different reverse design was adopted in 1838. There would have been a reason to make patterns with the new reverse design in 1837, not in 1838. Besides, the new reverse design was not related to the establishment of a Branch U.S. Mint in New Orleans.
In my view, 1838-O halves are not patterns and are not related to patterns. Two or three coin enthusiasts, late in the 19th century, referred to them as patterns because they did not understand them or because they were fearful that potential buyers would question the legitimacy of Proof-only issues. They might have been afraid that 1838-O halves were restrikes, coins that were made in 1858 or later. During the late 19th century, some dealers went to great lengths to argue that 1804 dollars were actually made in 1804.
The Gobrecht Reeded Edge Half Dollar design had been adopted in 1836. By early 1838, it was clear that 1838-O halves were planned to be regular issues.
B) Taking Frossard Seriously?
“Years later, when cataloging an example of the 1838-O for one of his sales, coin dealer Ed Frossard insisted the coins were “struck at Philadelphia as a pattern for the Orleans mint, which did not begin operations till the following year.””
This statement by Stone does not provide even circumstantial evidence of an historical fact. Frossard had a reputation for writing in a very casual manner, often speculating and often insulting others. In addition, Frossard’s remarks were frequently both obnoxious and humorous. He was entertaining. Few coin enthusiasts interpreted Frossard’s statements in a literal manner.
As the New Orleans Mint did “begin operations” in 1838, Frossard is wrong about a fact that is central to the above statement and he is likely to have been wrong about other facts as well. Researchers who have read many issues of Frossard’s newsletter, which I have, would know not to take most of his declarations very seriously.
Also, the letter that Tyler supposedly wrote to A. Bache, president of Girard College, evidently did not have a date. Moreover, it was said by Frossard to be wrapped around an 1838-O half that was consigned to one of his auctions. Yet, Frossard did not mention this “letter” in his firm’s auction catalogue! Such a historical document may have increased bidding interest in the coin. The whole story about this undated “letter” is questionable, and it should not be relied upon as being indicative of some historical fact.
I insist that it just does not make sense to take Frossard’s remarks very seriously. If this “letter” that Frossard reports is the only piece of evidence that indicates a mintage of twenty 1838-O halves, then this mintage figure probably should not be taken too seriously either, though it does seem to make sense.
C) Steam Presses Only?
Historical records indicate that steam presses, not screw presses as originally planned, were shipped to the New Orleans Mint to be used when this Branch Mint began production. Is it fair to theorize that the New Orleans Mint had at least one screw press that could have been used to produce half dollars?
Given all the problems that plagued the New Orleans Mint in 1838 and 1839, it seems that the steam presses that the New Orleans Mint received were inadequate, were not being operated properly and/or were otherwise problematic. It might also be true that the New Orleans Mint Coiner and other key personnel were not performing their tasks well and/or were concerned that the Mint Director in Philadelphia might think that they were not doing their jobs adequately.
For more than one reason, there is certainly a good chance that they would sought to acquire or access a screw press. Suppose that the problems associated with the steam presses worsened; they would still have sought to produce coins.
In catalogue descriptions and in their monograph, Stone and Van Winkle cite R. W. Julian’s revelations on a public message board regarding letters by New Orleans Mint Coiner Tyler and Superintendent Bradford. On the same message board, in an earlier thread, Julian suggests that the New Orleans Mint may have had a steam press.
“Although the New Orleans Mint used steam presses for coinage, it is entirely possible that they had a screw press for special purposes,” R. W. Julian stated in Nov.2008. “Screw presses were not all that rare in 19th century America and I would be surprised if one or more were not to be found in private businesses in” New Orleans, Julian added.
New Orleans Mint officials or influential people may have wanted to make Proofs or other special coins for themselves. There is more than one reason why those operating the New Orleans Mint may have arranged to have a screw press on the premises.
D) Relying Upon Mint Reports?
“By the end of , the detailed mint report indicates only 402,434 dimes had been produced at the new [New Orleans] facility, and no attempt had been made to use the half dollar dies during the year,” asserts Stone in the FUN auction catalogue.
This is a very misleading point. Up until the mid 1850s, Proofs and other special strikings were typically made ‘off the books.’ Most coin experts regard 1838-O halves as Proofs. If so, it would be logical to theorize that they were made ‘off the books,’ as were a large majority of pre-1860 Proof U.S. coins. Indeed, most or all Proof gold coins produced at the Philadelphia Mint in the 1840s were made ‘off the books’; usually, there were no records, not even letters about such Proofs. It follows logically that, if Proof coins or Specimen Strikings were made at the New Orleans Mint in 1838 and/or 1839, there were probably no formal records of them and perhaps no official letters written about them. Therefore, researchers should conclude that Proof or Specimen 1838-O halves would not be listed in mint reports and not necessarily mentioned in other documents either.
E) Tyler’s letter regarding Ten Halves
R. W. Julian, a famous researcher, found a letter from Chief Coiner Tyler of the New Orleans Mint to Mint Director Robert Patterson in Philadelphia, which is dated, Feb. 25, 1839. Evidently, Tyler said that he modified a pair of 1838-O half dollar dies “to try the [coining] press and succeeded in making ten excellent impressions, the very first one struck being as perfect as the dies and entirely satisfactory. The piece on the bottom of the die became loose and I was unable to strike any more without further fixing.”
This statement by Tyler does not provide much information and does not support a theory that 1838-O halves were minted in Philadelphia. Tyler strongly implies that more 1838-O halves could be struck WITH “further fixing.” So, he could have struck another ten at a later time. Tyler could have struck more than twenty and melted some problematic ones.
Alternately, these ten might not as been as impressive as Tyler suggests. In late Feb. 1839, he may not have wished to admit that he had yet to figure out how to make presentable half dollars.Those ten may have been problematic and have been melted. He could have made more in March or April with a steam press or he may have somehow accessed a screw press. Tyler could have struck 1838-O halves at various times; disappointing coins have been melted or spent. Researchers now will never know.
In the Sept. 13, 2010 issue of Numismatic News newspaper, R. W. Julian states that, “It is sometimes reported that the 1838 [New Orleans Mint] half dollars were struck in January 1839, but it is more likely that Tyler struck these pieces shortly before commencing regular half dollar coinage in early April.”
It does not make sense to assume that Tyler or anyone else at the New Orleans Mint would necessarily write letters to the Philadelphia Mint that entirely explain all 1838-O halves that were struck and how they turned out. If almost all pre-1858 Proof gold coins at the Philadelphia Mint were made ‘off the books,’ then Proofs or other Special Strikings could have been done ‘off the books’ in New Orleans.
Throughout history, in the U.S. and elsewhere, Mint officials were known to quietly produce special coins for their own personal collections or for influential people. R. W. Julian has revealed that “David Bradford as superintendent and Edmund Forstall as treasurer were among the worst possible choices. Both men were honest but also overly trusting of subordinates and did little to ensure that strict honesty prevailed in all transactions.” So, the Chief Coiner Tyler and other employees of the New Orleans Mint were not well supervised and could have minted 1838-O halves at various times before the dies were rendered unusable in the middle of June.
F) Tyler’s Estimate of Twenty?
For the moment, I assume that Chief Coiner Tyler really did later write that it “may be proper to state that not more than twenty pieces were struck with the half dollar dies of 1838.” Note that Tyler said that “it may be,” a phrase that implies that it might also be true that ‘it might not be’!
Stone and Van Winkle take this later statement to mean that “we learn that Tyler was aware of the earlier striking of Originals, or essais, in Philadelphia …”! It does not suggest that at all. More likely, this statement means that fewer than twenty 1838-O halves were struck in New Orleans. It could also have meant that the net mintage was fewer than twenty after some not do desirable 1838-O halves were melted.
In the 1830s or 1840s, there is never a reference by Tyler, or by anyone else, to any 1838-O halves having been struck in Philadelphia. R. W. Julian has publicly stated that the 1838-O half “dies are known to have been defaced on June 13, 1839.” So, Tyler could have made additional 1838-O halves after he wrote the above-cited letter on Feb. 25 and after a relevant letter by New Orleans Mint Superintendent Bradford was written on March 7, 1839. Indeed, maybe all of the surviving 1838-O halves were minted after March 7, 1839.
“Die evidence indicates that the Anderson-Dupont specimen is the only surviving coin actually struck at the New Orleans Mint,” says Stone in Heritage auction catalogues. This statement is puzzling and misleading. It is possible that “die evidence indicates that the Anderson-Dupont” 1838-O was struck at a later time than some or all of the other surviving 1838-O halves.
The die evidence cannot possibly show that none of the others were struck in New Orleans. If there were two or more press runs for minting 1838-O halves, these could have occurred at a variety of times under a variety of circumstances.
In a city near a large body of water, dies may rust very fast, even in a matter of weeks. Also, as Tyler asserts that he modified the dies and may do so again, the fact that the last 1838-O struck (if it was the last struck) has distinguishing Mint-caused characteristics does not support a theory regarding the locations of the strikings.
Dies sent to New Orleans “hard to be hardened by the coiner before they could be used,” R. W. Julian stated in the already mentioned article in Numismatic News. Thieves would probably not know how to “machine” and harden dies. This is another reason to doubt the Stone-Van Winkle theory. The use of dies in Philadelphia before shipping them to New Orleans would have been a violation of a very logical rule relating to security.
G) Testing ‘O’ Mint Dies in Philadelphia?
It has been reported that “two pairs of 1838-dated half dollar dies were mailed from the Philadelphia Mint in April and received in New Orleans by May 3, 1838.” Stone and Van Winkle argue that ten 1838-O halves were struck in Philadelphia before April 1838 and another ten were struck in New Orleans in January 1839.
Van Winkle and Stone suggest that the choice, 63 and 64 grade 1838-O halves that survive were struck in Philadelphia. They refer to all these as Proofs. They also say that these were struck to “test the dies.” No one would make Proofs on a screw press to test dies that are to be used to produce business strikes on a steam press. In general, the process of making a Proof is different from the process of making a business strike.
To me, Stone states that it “would have been very strange if the [Philadelphia] Mint did not strike a few prototype coins with the new reverse design and prominent mintmark to test the striking qualities before sending the dies off to New Orleans.”
The slightly different reverse design and the mintmark have nothing to do with each other. Half dollars with the ‘new’ reverse design were already in production in Philadelphia.
Generally, coins produced at Branch Mints during the 19th century were made from dies that were prepared in Philadelphia. I am not aware of any evidence of surviving business strikes or Proofs that were made in Philadelphia with mintmarks, during the 19th century. Yet, Stone and Van Winkle are asserting that 1838-O halves are somehow a glaring exception to this rule.
III. Rarity and Rankings
The Eliasberg piece is among the four finest known and could be the second finest of maybe ten known. In my view, the Norweb 1838-O is superior to the Eliasberg 1838-O. Indeed, in my catalogue in 1997, I stated that the Norweb piece is of higher quality. I then had a clearer recollection of the Norweb 1838-O than I do at the moment.
Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the January 2013 FUN Convention and was thus unable to view the Baldenhofer 1838-O, which Heritage then auctioned. The Baldenhofer 1838-O is PCGS graded 64. I would like to give it a precise slot within my condition rankings. So, I hope to be able to examine it, someday. Images suggest that it may have pleasant natural toning. A very reliable source, who is a leading grading expert, indicates that the Norweb and Eliasberg coins are each superior to the Baldenhofer 1838-O half.
The Norweb 1838-O was NGC graded as “64” soon after it was auctioned by Bowers & Merena, in the Norweb III sale, during Nov. 1988. Andy Lustig was the successful bidder at the Norweb sale. He was then representing another dealer, though Lustig eventually purchased the Norweb 1838-O for himself. Lustig reports that he never sent the Norweb 1838-O or the Eliasberg 1838-O to the PCGS.
The grading standards of the NGC in 1988 were much tougher than current NGC standards. There are many coins that were NGC graded 64 in 1988 that have been or would be NGC graded 65 or 66 now, though I am not certain that the Norweb 1838-O is one of them. I doubt that it would merit a 66 grade now. I do not know whether it would be regraded as “65” by the PCGS or the NGC, if it was submitted in 2014. Although it has a few hairlines in the obverse fields, the Norweb piece is wonderful, with very attractive natural toning and neat reflective surfaces.
Bruce Morelan reveals that “I owned the Norweb 1838-O. It was old holder NGC-64 when I bought it and it crossed to PCGS-64-Cameo. I owned it for about two years, approximately 2001 to 2003.” Morelan is a leading collector and the owner of the incredible Carter-Lustig-Knoxville-Cardinal 1794 dollar, which is part of his acclaimed set of early silver dollars. (Clickable link are in blue.)
As far as I know, the Cox-Hinman-Robison 1838-O has not been publicly offered since Stack’s Robison sale in 1982 and I am not aware of it having been certified. In terms of formulating a condition ranking, the Cox piece does seem to be a wild card. Without consideration of the Cox piece, the Norweb 1838-O would seem to be the finest. The next two probably are the Eliasberg and Baldenhofer coins.
I have examined six different 1838-O halves. Although I have not seen the 1838-O in the Smithsonian, I am nearly certain that the Smithsonian 1838-O is inferior to the Norweb, Eliasberg, Baldenhofer, Cox, and Queller pieces.
I place the Atwater-Pryor-Noblet 1838-O far below the Norweb and Eliasberg coins. The Atwater-Pryor-Noblet 1838-O was PCGS graded 63 when Heritage auctioned it in Feb. 2008. It had been modified since Bowers & Merena auctioned the James Pryor Collection in Jan. 1996.
Personally, I would prefer the Neil-Queller piece to the Atwater-Pryor 1838-O. The Neil-Queller 1838-O scores much higher in the category of originality or at least it did when Stack’s auctioned David Queller’s set of half dollars in 2002. Has the Neil-Queller 1838-O been certified?
In sum, the Norweb, Eliasberg and Baldenhofer coins are the finest, currently known 1838-O halves. It is possible that the Cox 1838-O may rank among them, above them, or be the fourth finest known.
IV. Look of Philadelphia Proofs?
In the late 20th century, it became widely accepted to regard all 1838-O halves as Proofs, with sub-60 grade coins being impaired Proofs. It is not practical to analyze the details of the physical characteristics of 1838-O halves here. There is widescale agreement that 1838-O halves are not business strikes. It is also true that there are a few 1839-O halves that are not business strikes.
The fabric of the special 1839-O halves is similar to that of 1838-O halves, though 1838-O halves fulfill Proof criteria to a greater extent. David Stone maintains that the 1839-O halves that are certified as Proofs were struck with the same reverse die that was employed to strike all 1838-O halves. So, the “Proof” 1839-O pieces must have been made in New Orleans with equipment that was then available.
Stone and Van Winkle “believe the majority of the [1838-O halves] we know about today are from [a] Philadelphia striking. They look like patterns, with brilliant reflective surfaces and sharply detailed design elements throughout,” states Stone on Dec. 31, 2013, to me.
The patterns struck in 1838 do not always have “sharply detailed design elements throughout.” Some have a few fuzzy design elements. Quite a few 1838 half dollar patterns are ‘restrikes’ that were made well after 1838. Moreover, the patterns of 1838 and they are of designs that are dramatically different from the regular issue, Gobrecht Reeded Edge Half Dollars. In my view, 1838-O halves do not resemble patterns halves of 1838.
John Albanese declares that “1838-O halves are Proofs and do not look like 1838 Philadelphia Mint Proof silver coins. It is hard to believe that any were made in Philadelphia.”
The fabric of 1838-O halves is different from Philadelphia Mint products of the era. When I first saw the Norweb 1838-O, I was astonished that its reflective fields seemed so different from the mirrored fields of Philadelphia Mint Proof half dollars of the era, sort of mica-like. Indeed, I believe that 1838-O halves are characterized by a different ‘look,’ not like original 1838 patterns and not like Proof Philadelphia Mint half dollars.
In general, during the 19th century, Branch Mint Proofs and Branch Mint non-Proof Specimen Strikings are considerably different from corresponding Philadelphia Mint Proofs. It is not practical to attempt to detail the differences here.
The full story of the origins and distribution of 1838-O halves will never be known. Nevertheless, these will remain among the most famous and sought after of all Great Rarities. It is unfair, however, to disparage them as a dishonest issue, without significant evidence. The intriguing theory by David Stone and Mark Van Winkle has contributed to interest in this issue, as has R. W. Julian’s research. On the whole, the mysteries relating to 1838-O halves add to their allure.
©2013 Greg Reynolds