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Item of the Week: 1838-O Half dollar

1838-O half dollar. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.)

1838-O half dollar. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

Without a lot of fanfare except among specialists, the 1838-O half dollar is probably on a very short list of the most important coins of the United States and also on the short list of the most historic.

The story of the 1838-O dates back before 1838 to the agreement to establish a branch mint in New Orleans. At the time two other facilities in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Dahlonega, Georgia were also approved, but for a very different reason. They were in the heart of the newly-discovered goldfields and were needed simply to service the new discoveries in the area. Transporting the gold all the way to Philadelphia was seen as a long and potentially dangerous journey.

New Orleans was not, however, in the midst of the goldfields. New Orleans had the same attraction at the time that it has today in some respects; it was a busy port city serving as the transportation center of the south.

Its role as a transportation center, however, was not really enough to bring a branch mint to the city. New Orleans politicians, however, have long had a reputation of being great at getting things done even if not in the most conventional of ways and that is what happened at the time as the city offered the United States a deal which basically the U.S. could not refuse in the form of a prime parcel of land to use as the location of a mint which would make coins. It was not gold in the normal sense but it was gold as real estate in New Orleans went at the time and the United States agreed.

Things went a little slowly in terms of having the New Orleans facility ready for operation but that would prove to be far from unusual when it came to new facilities. By the time things were ready the project was a year late and far over budget, but this did not keep the good people of New Orleans from celebrating.

On May 7-8 of 1838, 30 1838-O dimes were produced and distributed as souvenirs with 10 reportedly going into the cornerstone of the New American Theater. Later that year, others were struck with still more being produced in January of 1839.

The other 1838 production in New Orleans was half dimes but there were also 1838-O half dollars yet they appear to have been made the following year. Why the 1839-O was produced is not really clear although it definitely appears to have been a ceremonial issue as it was the first proof ever to be made outside Philadelphia.

Certainly, as the first branch mint proof, the 1838-O half dollar has a very special place in the history of the United States, representing a direct historical line from the 1838-O to the San Francisco proof sets being produced every year.

Also, the 1838-O is just plain rare. The estimated mintage of the 1838-O is placed at just 20 pieces although all of them are not known today. While 20 is accepted, the Chief Coiner Rufus Tyler at New Orleans at the time suggested, “not more than 20 pieces.” Later, in 1839, Augustus Heaton suggested, “probably only a few specimen pieces were struck, as less than a dozen are now known.”

The 1838-O was quickly recognized as an important rarity. At one time, there were seven known examples and all of them were in the collection of E.H.R. Green. The 1838-O is rarely offered for sale. Recent appearances of the coin which features the “O” mint mark on the obverse and not reverse as was the case after 1839, have shown prices of $27,000 for an AU50 at the 1983 Kagin sale while the Norweb Prf-64 to -65 realized $93,000 back in 1988. The current pricing shows an AU-50 at $300,000.

The estimates of numbers known tend to be at perhaps less than a dozen. At NGC, they have seen a couple of examples while PCGS reports a total of four. Like other great rarities, it appears that the 1838-O is not sent to grading services in the numbers which might be expected for other more available issues.

Whatever the real total, with so few appearances, the 1838-O is a coin that can be expected to bring significant prices whenever it is offered. This is especially true if the example was a proof as at least a couple are thought to have been mishandled if not actually circulated.

Certainly, at today’s listing, you have to feel the 1838-O is a great deal. The rarity is one thing and that alone would put it perhaps a coin or two more common than an 1884 Trade dollar. The 1884 is currently trading in the $750,000 at Prf-65 but it is hard to make a case that it is as historic as the 1838-O. Actually, it is hard to make a case that many coins are as historic as the 1838-O, as you have not only the first half dollar from New Orleans but the first branch mint proof. Also, the very significant rarity makes it a truly great coin

This story was originally published in Numismatic News. To subscribe, click here.