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Byers’ Capped Bust halves among top sets

The George Byers collection of half dollars had an incredible run of proof Capped Bust halves, one of the most impressive selections in this category of all time. Stack?s auctioned the Byers collection in New York city on October 17. In last week?s issue, I reported on the lively bidding and high prices for extremely rare business strikes and on the circulated, former proof 1838-O selling for $253,000!

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This toned 1834 proof restrike brought $83,375 at the Stack?s auction of the George Byers collection Oct. 17 in New York City.

The topic here is Byers? proof Capped Bust half dollars dating from 1820 to 1836, of the design that is usually called the lettered edge type. It would be better if this design type had another name as there are several design differences between the Bust halves of 1807 to 1836 and the reeded edge Bust half design type minted from 1836 until 1839. The edges are only one factor.

Proof Capped Bust halves are extremely rare. Numismatic Guaranty Corp. has certified a total, for all dates from 1818 to 1836, of 40 proof half dollars of the lettered edge type. The Dannreuther-Garrett auction compilation lists just 16 proofs of this type having been sold at auction from 2000 to 2004, only a few years after the long-hidden Eliasberg and Pittman pieces surfaced. In all, there may be less than 100 lettered edge proof halves in existence.

My conversations with experts in attendance, along with my own observations, suggest that the Byers 1818, Lot 1038, may not be a proof. I did not talk to the buyer. One of the underbidders, however, who is certainly a ?player? on the auction circuit, seemed sure that it is a proof.

Rick Sear, a leading bidder in many major sales, avoided this coin and said that he ?was not convinced it was a proof.? It may not, in his view, have the requisite striking characteristics and ?depth of mirrors.? I add here that the physical forms of the letters, numerals and border teeth (dentils) are issues in determining the possible proof status of a coin. For early coins, a combination of factors must be weighed to make a determination as to proof, prooflike or specimen status.

The Eliasberg 1818, later NGC certified as Proof-66, sold for $103,400 in 1997. The Byers 1818, Lot 1038, realized $40,250, in a stronger 2006 market. If the Byers 1818 were clearly a proof, supposing Proof-64 or -65, it would probably have realized more than $65,000 at the Stack?s auction on Oct. 17. The Eliasberg 1818 half just barely qualifies as a proof. Could it be the only pre-1820 proof silver coin?

In recent years, proof large cents dating 1817 and 1819/8 have been reliably reported to exist. In his 1977 book, Walter Breen wrote about proof large cents dating from 1817 to 1819. He indicated, though, that there are not even rumors about pre-1820 proof gold coins.

Breen provides ambiguous listings of proof 1817/13, 1817, 1818 and 1818/17 half dollars. The possibilities of a proof 1818 quarter and a proof 1819 half are also mentioned. Where are these possible pre-1820 silver proofs? Breen implies that he personally examined very few, if any, of them. So, if the Byers 1818 half is a proof, it is of tremendous importance.

The Hawn-Queller, Draped Bust 1807 half dollar is not a proof, though it has some proof characteristics. It may have been one of the earliest coins to have been struck twice. At some point, Breen theorized that the U.S. Mint did not have adequate equipment to make true proofs before 1817. He was not completely consistent about the pre-1817 rule, and it could be challenged.

Could even earlier silver coins be proofs? The Knoxville 1796 half and the Carter-Contursi 1794 silver dollar certainly have some strong proof characteristics. Could either be a true proof? It is unlikely, though such a case could be logically argued.

As for the Eliasberg-Byers 1820 half, Lot 1044, most experts at the Stack?s auction thought that it was a proof while a few did not. It realized $29,900, around the market value for a Proof-63 example.

All prices realized, and underbids, are adjusted here to reflect the 15-percent buyer?s premium.

The Hawn-Byers 1821 half dollar, Lot 1046, and the Eliasberg-Byers 1823, Lot 1050, are fascinating coins with cool features. Each warrants its own article. This 1823 realized $12,650. It went to a floor bidder whom I could not identify. Is it a prooflike business strike, a specimen striking, or a proof?

As for Lot 1075, Byers? 1830 half, no bidder I asked seemed to want to go on the record about its status. So I will. I think that it merits a Proof-61 or -62 designation. It went to a floor bidder I could clearly see at the sale. The $17,250 auction result is around a retail price for a Proof-62 example. The Byers 1830 is a coin that appears much more impressive in reality than in its catalog pictures.

Byers? 1834, with large date and small letters, NGC Proof-63, quickly rose to $23,000 after opening at $11,500. Sear was the top bidder.

Moments later, the offering of Byers? proof 1834 restrike brought about some of the liveliest bidding in the sale. Sear exclaimed that it is a ?stunning coin,? with terrific ?original color.? He added that ?it is exceptionally well made? for a proof of this era. After a start above $30,000, several bidders joined the contest. Eventually, a bidder I?ll call ?JG? topped all. It went for $83,375!

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An 1835 NGC ?Proof-64? opened at nearly $14,000. After going against several competitors, including John Feigenbaum, Sear was the successful bidder at $34,450.

Sear was very impressed with Byers? proof 1836, Lot 1092, though he did not get this coin. An Illinois dealer beat Dan from Virginia and others to win this coin for a strong price of $37,375. As a date, 1836 proofs are perhaps the least rare of the lettered edge design type. For each date in the 1820s, there are usually from zero to three known. There exist more than 10 proof lettered edge 1836s!

My conversations with active bidders, and my own interpretations, indicate that the following dates in the Byers collection are proofs (or are proofs from the perspectives of Professional Coin Grading Service or NGC): 1820, 1830, 1834 original, 1834 restrike, 1835 original and 1836. As there are one to three others that might be proofs, it is fair to estimate that Byers had at least one more, for a total of at least seven. Such determinations are often not unanimous. Still, it seems that Byers had between 5 percent and 10 percent of all proof lettered edge half dollars in existence!

Louis Eliasberg had the best collection of U.S. coins of all time, and John J. Pittman was a specialist in pre-1860 proofs. Pittman was able to acquire many during an era when few collectors and dealers knew much about them.

I saw Byers bid on Eliasberg?s proof 1820 in New York on April 7, 1997. In that catalog, Q. David Bowers and/or Mark Borckardt graded this half as ?Proof-62.? It then realized $24,200. Silvano DiGenova was an underbidder.

On that incredible night in 1997, when Eliasberg?s proof 1832 came on the block, wild competition erupted. Bidding started at $11,000. Within seconds, there were more floor bidders than I could count waving their paddles. Several people were yelling. Eventually, it became a duel between two of the same bidders who were strong rivals at the Byers sale. Laura Sperber edged out ?JG?s? $220,000 underbid with a top bid of $225,500, which is probably the record for a proof lettered edge half dollar. Is this the 1832 half dollar that has been NGC certified Proof-68?

Eliasberg?s 1827 and his 1835 proof restrike each realized $121,000 that same night. These high prices are partly due to the fact that Eliasberg?s proof halves were of much higher quality than those in any other collection auctioned since the Earle sale in 1912.

It seems that Eliasberg had at least the following dates in proof: 1818, ?20, ?22, ?27, ?32, ?35 restrike and three lettered edge halves dated 1836. It could be said, informally, that Eliasberg beats Byers 9-to-7. But, Byers had at least two dates in proof that Eliasberg did not have, 1830 and 1834.

Pittman?s half dollars were auctioned by the firm of David Akers in May 1998 in Baltimore. Pittman had the following 10 dates in proof: 1820, 1821, 1822, 1826, 1829, 1831, 1832, 1833 restrike, 1834 restrike and 1835 restrike. The rarity, depth and quality of this run are just too amazing to even begin to describe here, though Eliasberg had the best individual proof halves.

It is true that the Norweb III auction in 1988 contained several proof Bust halves, including more than one gem. So, unless I am overlooking another, Byers definitely assembled the third- or fourth-best collection of proof Capped Bust halves, lettered edge type, to have been auctioned in many decades.

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