Every so often you come across a coin that is not costly or rare but is fascinating, historic and fun. The 1861-O half dollar has to be considered as a classic example of those fascinating, historic and fun coins.
There is no dispute, the 1861-O half dollar is not rare. It is priced at just $35 in G-4, which is an available date price for its type of Seated Liberty half dollar. It is at $450 in MS-60 and $5,150 in MS-65. The MS-60 level is a few dollars above some other dates, but realistically the 1861-O is treated as a common date.
In fact, the prices are correct. The 1861-O has been seen more than 100 times in Mint State just at Professional Coin Grading Service. As Seated Liberty half dollars go, that is more than enough to make it an available date.
It might well be suggested that the 1861-O is available but certainly not ordinary. The 1861 date suggests that the 1861-O was potentially not made only by the United States.
To understand the situation we must return to 1861 and those dark hours as the Union quite literally fell apart. In January of 1861 Louisiana was still technically in the Union and during that period of time it appears that there was a mintage of 330,000 1861-O half dollars. Then Louisiana seceded from the Union, and the facility was seized by the state.
Finding dies and silver, it appears that Louisiana was responsible for the production of an additional 1,240,000 1861-O half dollars. Then it joined the Confederate States of America and since there was still silver and the dies were still there, under Confederate control an additional 962,633 1861-O half dollars were produced. In the end, the 1861-O was produced under three different authorities.
The story doesn’t end there. In the 1960s a couple bags of Seated Liberty dollars dated 1859-O and 1860-O were found in the Treasury vault. They look to have been spirited out of New Orleans just prior to the seizure of the facility. That can be said because the Louisiana and Confederate forces clearly were doing all they could to create coins. Had those bags been in that facility the day the Louisiana forces took over, they would have clearly never made it to safety in the Treasury vault to be discovered a century later.
In addition, we know that the 1861-O half dollar became the basis for an attempt to make a Confederate half dollar of which four were known to have been produced. Those half dollars used the original obverse die and a special reverse.
Years later a fellow by the name of Mason from Philadelphia purchased the original Confederate reverse dies from the chief coiner of the Confederacy, Dr. B.F. Taylor of New Orleans. Mason then sold the die to J.W. Scott and Company, which promptly bought 500 1861-O half dollars, shaved off the reverses, then stamped them using the Confederate die. The original Confederate half dollars are now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars while the restrikes are worth thousands.
Just to make matters even more interesting, the original four Confederate half dollars do exhibit a die break from the bridge of the nose to the rim passing close to star seven. While in theory we cannot say with certainty that any specific coin was struck by any particular group, it seems likely that any 1861-O exhibiting that die break was a Confederate product.
On top of all that there is the fact that the 1861-O was the final Seated Liberty half dollar to be produced at New Orleans.
All things considered, it is hard to avoid the notion that the 1861-O half dollar is a historic and interesting coin that is available at very reasonable prices.