While not a great rarity, the 1866-S No Motto half dollar is an important issue of the era. It does not get much publicity, but it is a much tougher coin than today’s prices suggest, especially in top grades.
The situation back in 1866 was one of transition. A letter during the early part of the war had pointed out to the Secretary of the Treasury that there was no mention of God on the coins. The Secretary was impressed by the letter and a decision was made to add “IN GOD WE TRUST” to the coins. Times were tough so it was decided that the motto would be added in the routine course of business. By 1866 the time was right to add the motto to the half dollar among others.
There really was no pattern in the situation. Some issues were created without the motto and then with the motto, while others like the 1866 Seated Liberty half dollar were only created with the motto.
San Francisco had to get its dies from Philadelphia. Today that would not be an issue, but back in 1866 it was a terrible problem. Those dies did not simply get dumped on a plane for arrival the next morning. They had to make the long journey West via land or sea, and either way it was long, slow and potentially dangerous.
At the time Philadelphia was busily adding “IN GOD WE TRUST” to dies for all sort of denominations. Having half dollar dies shipped to San Francisco in a hurry was probably not a major concern.
Out in San Francisco they were probably not all that concerned about Philadelphia either. In fact, they decided to start 1866 half dollar production even though the new dies with “IN GOD WE TRUST” had not arrived. The mintage was 60,000 pieces. Then it appears that the dies arrived and another 994,000 1866-S half dollars with the motto were made.
The numbers tell the story. The No Motto 1866-S was going to be a better date simply because of that low mintage. In fact, with the usual poor survival rate, the No Motto 1866-S was likely to be very elusive in any grade and especially so in Mint State. There were basically no collectors in San Francisco at the time to save nice examples.
This is reflected in the prices today. The No Motto 1866-S is at $460 in G-4, while an MS-60 is at $5,400.
Numismatic Guaranty Corp has seen only 18 examples of which two examples, both MS-62, were called Mint State. Professional Coin Grading Service has seen 36 coins and just four were called Mint State, although a single example was called MS-65. Under the circumstances, that $5,400 MS-60 price suddenly looks awfully good.
In fact, when you realize that only 54 examples have been graded, you have to be even more impressed by the No Motto 1866-S in any grade. It is by any standard a scarce coin and a good buy at today’s prices.