This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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When the 1838-O half dime was produced it was the first half dime to be issued at a mint other than the main facility in Philadelphia. It would be the start of an interesting group of frequently lesser known coins as the branch mint Seated Liberty half dimes are not heavily collected but they are a fascinating group to study and with limited collector demand they are also a collection of early silver coins that are usually at very affordable prices.
There was a very good reason why the no stars 1838-O half dime was the first half dime produced outside Philadelphia. Prior to 1838 there were no other facilities where they could have been made. It was an accident of timing that just as the design of the half dime was being changed the United States was also opening its first branch mints. The one where the new half dime could be made was New Orleans as the new facilities at Dahlonega, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C., would only produce gold coins, leaving only New Orleans as a possibility for the production of half dimes.
Realistically the 1838 production came at a time when the half dime was really getting established as a regular, annually produced denomination for what might be seen as the first time in its history. Historically, although officials had always complained that the half dime was needed in commerce, its production had never reflected the complaints. The half dime as the lowest silver denomination had simply never been produced in the numbers or with the regularity one might expect. In fact, the first regular production of half dimes had only begun in 1829. Prior to that year the most recent production of half dimes had been all the way back in 1805, so the half dime could hardly be called a regularly produced denomination.
The first Seated Liberty half dime was produced in 1837 in Philadelphia, but in 1838 New Orleans would produce the same type. In fact, the 1838-O along with the 1837 from Philadelphia would rank as the only two dates of the type that did not have stars around the rim on the obverse.
Ironically, the 1838 from Philadelphia would have stars, but it would take until 1839 for stars to appear on the coins from New Orleans. That situation was probably a result of the fact that the whole idea of branch mints at the time was new. The dies for the coins would be made in Philadelphia and then shipped to New Orleans for use. There was naturally a delay and that was probably compounded by the fact that the facility at New Orleans was new. It probably took added time for the workers there to receive the die and make it ready for use. As a result, there was something of an in-built delay when it came to changing designs.
The first New Orleans half dime, the 1838-O, had a modest mintage of just 70,000 pieces. That small mintage would normally suggest a high price, but at $110 in G-4 you have to feel that the historic 1838-O, which is low mintage as well as the first half dime produced outside Philadelphia, is a good deal. In Mint State the 1838-O lists for $2,500 in MS-60 and $29,500 in MS-65. If we check the Professional Coin Grading Service to see if those prices are also good values we find that PCGS has so far graded just 13 examples of the 1838-O as Mint State and of that total only one was called MS-65 or better. Under those circumstances the 1838-O in any grade looks to be a good value on a very historic and interesting coin.
In 1839 the dies would be ready for New Orleans to produce a half dime with stars around the rim. The mintage of the 1839-O was 1,034,039 pieces, which makes it a reasonably available date with a price of $26.50 in G-4. In MS-60 the 1839-O is $730 while an MS-65 is at $6,850. Those Mint State prices cannot be called available date prices simply because the amount of saving around New Orleans at the time and realistically throughout the history of the facility was very limited. Moreover, the collectors of the period did not as a rule collect by date and mint and that leaves us with a situation where the Mint State coins from the branch mints are usually much tougher than those from Philadelphia. In this case we find that PCGS reports only 16 examples of the 1839-O in Mint State and just two of them reached MS-65. That would seem to make any Mint State example but especially an MS-65 a great value at today’s prices.
The evolution of the Seated Liberty design is seen in the 1840-O, which had a mintage of 935,000. Most were of the old design, which had no drapery at Liberty’s left elbow, while the latter ones had the drapery. The latter ones with the drapery are tougher in circulated grades listing for $51 in G-4 while the no drapery type is $28.50. In the case of Mint State coins the type without the drapery is $1,250 in MS-60 while the with drapery type is $6,500 in MS-60. Both types are tough, with PCGS reporting 11 Mint State examples of the no drapery type and just one example of a Mint State 1840-O with the drapery.
The 1841-O would have a mintage of 815,000, which makes it a relatively available New Orleans date at $20 in G-4, $650 in MS-60 and $6,750 in MS-65. While relatively available in circulated grades, the 1841-O is still a tough date in Mint State even if the prices do not reflect that fact as PCGS reports only 10 examples with just a single MS-67 reaching the MS-65 or better designation.
The 1842-O with a mintage of just 350,000 is not as available with a G-4 price of $38. Realistically when you consider that mintage, a $38 price has to be seen as a good value and so is the $2,250 MS-60 price as PCGS reports only about a dozen examples and only one of them was called MS-65 or better.
There was no New Orleans half dime mintage in 1843 and that was followed by a very modest 1844 total of 220,000. Just compare that total to the 264,000 of the 1916-D Mercury dime, which is now $1,000 in G-4 and you see what a good value the 1844-O is at just $80 in G-4. Of course that price also shows how limited the demand is for Seated Liberty half dimes, but that could always change. In Mint State the 1844-O is $5,400 in MS-60 and $27,500 in MS-65 and the prices seem fair with only seven examples called Mint State and just one of those MS-65.
The next New Orleans Seated Liberty half dime would be the 1848-O, which is a relatively available date at $20 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $450 and an MS-65 at $2,450. The 1849-O, however, is another matter as it has a longstanding reputation as a tough date probably in part because its mintage of just 140,000 was the lowest stretching back to the 1838-O. The 1849-O has a price of $29 in G-4, which is really modest considering that mintage and $2,350 in MS-60. PCGS has yet to report an example in MS-65.
The situation regarding silver coins became complicated in the early 1850s because the discovery of gold in California upset the traditional gold to silver ratio in favor of silver. That meant that the cost of producing silver coins was passing their face value and that saw widespread hoarding resulting in a national coin shortage. In some cases we see lower mintages during the period, but the 1850-O and 1851-O had what might be called average New Orleans mintages with totals of at least 690,000 in the case of the 1851-O, which make the two dates relatively available at least in circulated grades.
The first indication of a possibly lower mintage was the 1852-O, which had a mintage of just 260,000, which produces a $25 G-4 price. In MS-60 the 1852-O is $885 but in MS-65 it is $11,500 as PCGS has seen only one example in that grade.
The 1853-O was even lower mintage at 160,000 and the expectation is that it and the 1852-O of the same type were possibly melted. The low mintage puts the 1853-O at $285 in G-4 and that price suggests that melting was very likely involved. The 1853-O is $6,450 in MS-60 and $27,500 in MS-65 where PCGS reports just one example.
The Congress took action in early 1853 to slightly reduce the weight of silver coins and that meant that the half dimes with the slightly lower silver composition were marked with arrows at the date. That would continue for the 1853-O mintage of 2,200,000 as well as the 1854 and 1855 totals. All are available, although the 1855-O did have a mintage of just 600,000, but that results only in a small premium in G-4 while in MS-60 and MS-65 the three dates are in basically the same price range, although the 1855-O is better in MS-60 where it lists for $545as opposed to $315 and $240 for the other two. In MS-65, however, the three are in a range from $3,950 to $4,950 and the most expensive is the 1855-O.
In 1856 the arrows at the date were removed and the type would last through 1859. Of the dates involved, the lowest mintage was the 1859-O, which had a mintage of just 560,000, which again produces a small premium in G-4 and circulated grades but not significantly higher prices in Mint State as in Mint State the toughest of the dates involved is the 1856-O which lists for $470 in MS-60 and $2,350 in MS-65. The slightly higher prices of the 1856-O seem to be supported by the fact that it has been graded just 21 times by PCGS. In reality the totals of examples seen in Mint State from New Orleans during this period show a slight increase over the numbers seen in the case of dates from the 1840s. It might have been a case of a small amount of additional collecting activity at the time in the New Orleans area as realistically these 1850s consistently show numbers of 40 and up in Mint State at PCGS where even in the early 1850s the number of Mint State pieces seen were roughly one-half that total.
The final New Orleans half dime was the 1860-O, which had a mintage of 1,060,000. The 1860-O is an available date even in MS-65 where it lists for $1,375. The PCGS total for the 1860-O in MS-65 and up is 21, which includes a couple in both MS-66 and MS-67. It may be that a couple especially nice examples were saved by someone at the time sensing that with the looming Civil War the facility would be quickly closed and that was the case as by the time the New Orleans facility would resume coin production the half dime was no longer being produced.
While New Orleans was ending coin production because of the war out in San Francisco coin production that had begun back in 1854 was cranking up. The half dime, however, appears to have not been a priority for the San Francisco facility. There was some reason as the facility was small and probably not capable of the production desired, but even with that consideration it was odd that the first San Francisco Seated Liberty half dime did not come until 1863, virtually a decade after the facility had first opened. The 1863-S would have a mintage of 100,000 which results in a $35 price in G-4. As was typical of branch mints the issues of San Francisco would have little saving of Mint State examples as they were released and that results in a price of $1,250 for an MS-60 1863-S while an MS-65 is $3,450. The PCGS totals for the 1863-S do show nearly 40 Mint State examples with 13 of them being MS-65 or better so even with limited saving the trend of higher numbers available in Mint State continued.
The 1864-S had a slightly lower mintage of 90,000 pieces, but despite just a 10 percent mintage difference between the 1864-S and 1863-S the prices are significantly higher for the 1864-S with a G-4 at nearly twice the price of an 1863-S at $60. In Mint State the 1864-S lists for $785 while an MS-65 is at $3,750. The prices are justified as PCGS shows lower totals of just 28 examples called Mint State with a dozen being MS-65 or better.
The following three years saw three half dimes from San Francisco with identical mintages as the 1865-S, 1866-S and 1867-S all had mintages of 120,000 pieces. It should be no surprise that all are at basically the same levels in circulated grades. In MS-65, however, all three are very difficult with PCGS reporting just one example of the 1865-S, five of the 1866-S and four of the 1867-S in MS-65 or better.
The final years of San Francisco half dime production with a couple exceptions would follow the basic pattern of dates with mintages in the hundreds of thousands, which makes them available in circulated grades and tougher in Mint State, with some being especially difficult if you want an MS-65 or better. There were 1872-S coins, which in some cases had the mintmark in the wreath and in others it was below the wreath. It is an interesting variety, but with limited collector demand the two are at basically the same prices in all grades today.
The one major exception to the pattern came in 1870. It was the year when the cornerstone was being dedicated for a new San Francisco facility and it was decided to put an 1870-S of all denominations into it. As things worked out there was no plan to produce half dimes, quarters, Seated Liberty dollars or $3 gold pieces at San Francisco that year, so a special example of each was produced for the cornerstone.
Actually a few extra examples were made of the 1870-S dollar, but the assumption was that only one example of the half dime, quarter and $3 were produced and that those three coins were forever buried in the cornerstone.
Then an example of the $3 appeared much to the surprise of everyone. Neither the quarter nor half dime followed until the 1970s when RARCOA announced the discovery of an 1870-S half dime. The news stunned everyone and produced immediate questions about what a unique 1870-S half dime would be worth. According to Q. David Bowers in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards, a deal was reached where the 1870-S half dime would be sold for $25,000 more than the price of the 1804 dollar being sold as part of the Garrett Collection.
As it turned out that 1804 brought a stunning price of $400,000, which made the 1870-S half dime’s price of $425,000 really too high at the time and a weakening coin market did not help.
In a 1985 auction the 1870-S fell back to a price of $176,000. Since then the 1870-S has been rising, although as there is only one example it is rarely offered making it virtually impossible to determine just what a recent price would be.
In 2009 it sold for $1.4 million.
In 1873 the half dime was discontinued. It left an interesting legacy as over 35 years the Seated Liberty half dime had been produced at two branch mints and in those coins we have a number of interesting and tougher dates as well as one great rarity. For the collector today the values are obvious as the prices are low when you consider the mintages. It makes the Seated Liberty half dimes from New Orleans and San Francisco an interesting group to study and a group of great values to collect.