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Civil War cut short

Large silver coins are always interesting, but that usually means large numbers of collectors and sometimes high prices. The New Orleans Seated Liberty half dollar may be an exception to that rule as there is relatively little collector interest and that translates into good values on what are historic and very interesting issues.

The New Orleans facility at the time that the new Seated Liberty design was being introduced was still new. New Orleans had been approved as a branch mint in 1838 at the same time as Dahlonega, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C., but there is no doubt that New Orleans was different from the other two.

New Orleans was not the scene of a major gold discovery, but it was already a center of commerce and transportation. In fact, virtually every moveable export west of the Appalachian Mountains had to go through it and that worked in its favor when it came to having a mint approved for the city.

It also worked in its favor that New Orleans happened to very much want a mint and was willing to offer a prime piece of real estate where the facility could be located. This kind of deal nowadays helps get mayors and governors elected because it meant more jobs and higher status for the city.

Apparently the offer of land worked as a New Orleans facility was approved and unlike Dahlonega and Charlotte, New Orleans was designed to be a more complete operation. It was authorized to produce gold coins, but more importantly, silver issues as well.

The fact that some of the first coins produced at the new facility in New Orleans were half dollars might seem a bit unusual today, but it must be remembered at the time there were technically no silver dollars or gold eagles being produced. Both denominations were just on the verge of being returned to production and although there had been Gobrecht silver dollars in 1836, regular silver dollar mintages were not yet ready to begin.

That situation made the largest silver coin in regular production the half dollar and consequently it is not at all surprising that a small ceremonial production took place in 1838 in New Orleans. The coins were not the Seated Liberty design as it was not yet ready for the half dollar, but rather the old Bust half dollar design. The mintage put at “not more than 20” by the chief coiner was significant as it was the first, but also because the coins were proofs, making them the first branch mint proofs to be produced in the United States.

That ceremonial production in 1838 was followed up by the mintage of 178,976 Bust half dollars in 1839. At the same time, the new Seated Liberty half dollar was making its debut, but it would only be produced at Philadelphia in 1839.

It must be remembered that the dies for New Orleans coin production came from Philadelphia and it is probably the case that 1839 was a trial for the new design. The first Seated Liberty half dollar dies from New Orleans were not struck until 1840. Those first dies were put to good use and a mintage of 855,100 examples of the 1840-O rolled off the coinage presses.

It is possible that the 1840-O was saved by some as an historic item although there is realistically little indication of much early saving occurring in the New Orleans area. That said, the 1840-O lists for $36 in G-4 and $450 in MS-60. The number in Mint State is slightly higher than average for a New Orleans date as the Professional Coin Grading Service reports a total of 14 examples in Mint State.
In 1841 New Orleans produced about one-half the 1840 total with a mintage of 401,000, but the 1841-O in circulated grades is still available at just $30 in G-4. The 1841-O was not, however, as likely to be saved in greater numbers at the time than the 1840-O and that shows in an MS-60 price of $600, although the number seen by PCGS in Mint State suggests that perhaps there was indeed more saving than sometimes thought as they have graded 27 examples in Mint State.

In 1842 like Philadelphia there would be both small and medium date examples of the half dollar. The combined mintage was 957,000, but it appears that the vast majority were the medium date, which is just $35 in G-4, but $1,250 in MS-60. The small date, however, is $650 just in G-4 and is rarely seen above XF-40.

The 1843-O continued the trend of high mintages with a total of 2,268,000. It must be remembered that there was probably demand both in the area and for export for these New Orleans half dollars as the facility had yet to make a  single silver dollar, so the half dollar was the largest silver coin seen in the area. Even if some were exported, the 1843-O is available at just $30 in G-4 with an MS-60 listed at $550 and there is a supply as PCGS reports 23 examples called Mint State.

The 1844-O would also top the 2 million mark for a mintage although just barely as its total was 2,005,000. That is still certainly enough to have some examples available as is seen by a $30 G-4 price while an MS-60 lists at $550, although the number seen by PCGS is down slightly as the grading service reports just 16 examples in Mint State.

The 1845-O was very similar with a mintage of 2,094,000 although a significant number had no drapery and they are slightly better at $35 as opposed to $30 for the regular variety while the no drapery is $750 in MS-60 as opposed to $550 for the regular 1845-O.

There was another variety in 1846 as the 1846-O appeared with both a medium and a tall date. The 2,304,000 mintage was enough to make the more available medium date a relatively easy coin at $30 in G-4 and $500 in MS-60, but the tall date is another matter listing at $165 in G-4 and $6,650 in MS-60 where PCGS reports just a single example as opposed to nine for the medium date.
The 1847-O continued the high mintage trend. The total of 2,584,000 makes the 1847-O a fairly easy date to find at a price of $30 in G-4 while an MS-60 is at $640 with 15 examples graded by PCGS.
The 1848-O would have the first New Orleans half dollar mintage of more than 3 million at 3,180,000, making it available at $30 in G-4, although an MS-60 is at $750. The PCGS total is lower than expected, explaining the higher than expected price as PCGS reports just 13 examples in Mint State.

The 1849-O and 1850-O would be similar with mintages of both between 2.3 and 2.5 million pieces. That makes them $30 and $35, respectively, in G-4 with both being put at $650 in MS-60. The PCGS totals in MS-60 are up especially for the 1850-O, which has been graded over 30 times in Mint State.

The 1851-O had a much smaller mintage of just 402,000 pieces. The likely reason is that by 1851 there was a problem with silver issues. The discovery of gold in California had upset the traditional gold-to-silver ratio and it was actually costing more to produce silver coins than their face value.

The public was aware of the situation and began to hoard coins, causing a national coin shortage. The Congress needed to slightly reduce the amount of silver in silver coins, but did not act quickly. As a result, New Orleans as well as Philadelphia were caught between a rock and a hard place. If they produced large numbers of silver issues to combat the coin shortage, they would lose money. Moreover, the coins would have just been hoarded, but if they had no production they could potentially be accused of not trying to help out during the coin shortage.

The compromise of sorts at least with half dollars in New Orleans was to have lower mintages and that is seen in the 402,000 mintage of the 1851-O. That low total puts the 1851-O at $40 in G-4 although an MS-65 is not unusually high at $700 reflecting the fact that PCGS has seen nearly 25 examples in Mint State.

The downtrend continued in 1852 as the 1852-O had a mintage of just 144,000 pieces. That low total results in a price of $75 in G-4 while an MS-60 is at $3,850 and in this case that price might be low as PCGS reports just four examples in Mint State.

The 1853-O is one of the great coins that receives almost no publicity. In early 1853 Congress would finally act to slightly reduce the amount of silver. The new half dollars that would result would have arrows at the date and rays on the reverse.

New Orleans, however, had a small half dollar mintage prior to the change. We do not know the size of the mintage because it was included as part of the mintage total for the new half dollars with arrows and rays. What we do know is that whatever the final number was, the 1853-O total was very small.

There were not many collectors to save examples at the time and whatever examples there were simply slipped into circulation where they were not even noticed for decades. Finally in the 1880s an example was reported and it was quickly followed by another with a third being reported in the 1920s.

If there were more, there were no reports, making the 1853-O without arrows and rays an extreme rarity. The problem is that it is almost never offered for sale. A VG-8 example in the Eliasberg sale back in 1997 brought a price of $154,000. A very fine was sold for $161,000 in 2002.

Just how much an 1853-O without arrows and rays might bring today is almost anyone’s guess. With the number known standing at just a few pieces, a price of $1 million or more would not be out of the question someday. The problem in reaching such a level is that the no arrows and rays 1853-O is not well known and the examples known tend to be circulated as is seen by the Eliasberg VG-8.

A coin that heavily worn struggles when it comes to bringing a high price. Buyers want Mint State coins even when they don’t exist. That said, the no arrows and rays 1853-O is so rare there are really no other choices and that would make the next offering a very interesting moment to see just what sort of price this great rarity would command today.

The Congress took needed action in early 1853 to slightly reduce the amount of silver in the silver issues. The new coins would have arrows at the date and rays on the reverse, but just for 1853, as the rays would be eliminated the following year.

That made the Philadelphia and New Orleans 1853 half dollars with arrows and rays important one-year type coins. The 1853-O with arrows and rays had a solid mintage of 1,328,000, putting it at $38 in G-4, but $2,350 in MS-60. An MS-65, which is in heavy demand by type collectors at $27,500. There is a supply. PCGS reports roughly 40 examples in Mint State, but only a single coin in MS-65 and whatever the supply it always seems to be inadequate to meet the demand and that is especially true in top grades as the 1853-O was made in haste and is not always well struck.

The rays were eliminated for the 1854-O mintage of 5,240,000 and the 1855-O mintage of 3,688,000. With those totals, both are available at under $30 in G-4, while the 1854-O is $600 and the 1855-O is $650 in MS-60. The PCGS totals for both are higher, with the 1854-O having been seen roughly 150 times in Mint State while the 1855-O is at a similar total.

The arrows were removed in 1856. The 1856-O had a mintage of 2,658,000, making it a relatively available date with a price of just $28 in G-4 and just $385 in MS-60 as there have been about 75 graded by PCGS.

The 1857-O would have a lower 818,000 mintage and that produces a slight premium in circulated grades, with a G-4 at $33. In MS-60, however, the 1857-O is a better date at $885 while an MS-65 is at $12,500, but like many cases of New Orleans silver issues from the period, PCGS has yet to grade its first example in MS-65. In Mint State, however, there have been 10 examples of the 1857-O graded, which suggests it’s a good value at its current price.

The 1858-O had a very large mintage of over 7 million, making it available at average date prices except for MS-65 but there the $12,500 is probably still low as PCGS reports only four examples.
The pattern continues for the 1859-O with a mintage of 2,834,000 and the 1860-O, which was at 1,290,000. Both are available. The prices in G-4 are $28 and $30, respectively, and $450 in MS-60, which is just a slight premium over the $385 price of the most available dates. In fact, they are available as the 1859-O has been seen by PCGS about 45 times in Mint State with the 1860-O having an even higher total.

The 2,532,633 mintage of the 1861-O is interesting as it suggests that the half dollar was still a high priority for production even as the clouds of Civil War gathered. It was interesting as New Orleans at the time appeared to be very busy possibly providing silver coins for export as it had two consecutive large silver dollar mintages in 1859 and 1860. Those totals were higher than Philadelphia and as silver dollars at the time were basically only being used for export it suggests that New Orleans was very busy producing issues for international trade.

The half dollar numbers indicate the economy was humming along fairly normally until the first shots were fired.

Trade was the lifeblood of the city until Union blockade and then capture in 1862 changed it.

Demand from international trade may explain the fairly sizable mintage even as war broke out. No one could have forecast events or the effectiveness of any blockade.

That may explain the very large 1861-O half dollar mintage as some of the total had to be completed early in the year. In fact, the best breakdown we can make of the mintage is that 330,000 coins were struck while the facility was still controlled by the United States.

After that, State of Louisiana authorities are believed to have produced roughly 1,200,000 examples of the 1861-O.

Once the state joined the Confederate States of America, it formally handing over control of the facility to the Confederacy and then an additional 962,633 half dollars are thought to have been produced.

That gives the 1861-O a decent mintage, making it available at $30 in G-4 and $450 in MS-60. Few coins at such low prices have such an interesting story to tell. The frustrating part is that we cannot tell from any individual coin who might have been in control of the facility at the time the coin was made, though efforts are being made.

There is at least a small clue and that comes from the fact that the Confederate States of America did produce four  Confederate half dollars which used a regular obverse die. That die had an advanced die break from the bridge of Liberty’s nose to the edge passing close to star number seven. A regular 1861-O with such a die break is usually assumed to have been a half dollar produced while the facility was under Confederate control. It might fall slightly short of proof,  but it is as close as we can come to a sure way to identify a Confederate coin.

The four Confederate half dollars were also produced at New Orleans with a different reverse. The four were given out to Jefferson Davis, one to Professor J.L. Riddell, one to Dr. E. Ames of New Orleans and the fourth was kept by chief coiner Dr. B.F. Taylor. Naturally all are very rare with a 2003 Stack’s sale of one of the four producing a price of $632,500. The later issues produced by J.W. Scott were made on genuine 1861-O half dollars, but had no direct tie to the facility otherwise.

With that 1861-O production, the Seated Liberty half dollar story at New Orleans would come to an end. The facility would later come back on line, but at that time it would produce Barber half dollars. The Seated Liberty half dollars of New Orleans, however, remain a fascinating group both to study and to collect.           

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