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1839 half made history, but no one noticed

The 1839 Seated Liberty half dollar was the historic first year of the new design, yet it appears that very few took any notice. That presents something of a problem today when collectors want top quality examples of what was a most historic coin.

The problem is compounded by the fact that in terms of half dollars 1839 was a very busy year. The 1,392,976 half dollar mintage of 1839 was split three ways starting with the old Bust half dollar. Then there was a new 1839 Seated Liberty half dollar with no drapery at Liberty’s left elbow, and finally there was a new Seated Liberty 1839 half dollar with drapery at the elbow.

The whole thing requires a bit of explaining. In 1836 a new steam-powered press was put into use at the Philadelphia facility, so production was increased. With new facilities opening in Dahlonega, Charlotte and New Orleans, it seemed that finally the national coin shortage would rapidly become a thing of the past.

This all seemed to give officials the feeling that it would be a good time for a design change on the silver and gold coins. Christian Gobrecht was assigned the task and his Seated Liberty design had no drapery at Liberty’s left elbow.

As it would work out, the Seated Liberty design would be something of a work in progress. The design was used on other denominations originally with the half dollar actually being late to have the new design. In all cases, the design appeared first without drapery.

After the production of what were believed to be perhaps 600,000 examples of the Seated Liberty half dollar without drapery, the drapery was added. The addition was because of a modification of the original Gobrecht design by Robert Ball Hughes, and the change would be made to all denominations.

The idea of having three different half dollars in 1839 seems pretty interesting but apparently the majority of collectors at the time did not agree. In fact, it looks like there was little or no interest.

It is normal when there is a new design to see extra examples saved. It simply seems to be a natural reaction, although that trend is apparently more modern. There is very little indication that there was any special saving of the initial 1839 no-drapery half dollar.

The evidence is in the absence of Mint State examples of the no-drapery 1839. It cannot be seen as too surprising since realistically a half dollar was a lot of money to many at the time. What collecting there was tended to be in lower denominations.

The 1839 with the drapery added is $38 in G-4 while the no-drapery 1839 is $45. In MS-60 the 1839 with-drapery is at $1,000 while the no-drapery is at $6,000. In MS-65 the 1839 with drapery is $25,000 while the 1839 with no drapery is listed at $178,000.

Trying to find an MS-65 is a real challenge for either. The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has seen just three examples of the with-drapery 1839 in MS-65 or better and just two examples of the no-drapery 1839 in MS-65 or better. The Professional Coin Grading Service totals are similar and in fact identical in the case of the no-drapery 1839, which would give us a grand total of four examples in MS-65 at PCGS and NGC combined.

The 1839 without drapery can be seen as a less than one-year type coin and that makes demand potentially high. As the historic first Seated Liberty half dollar and a key type coin, the no-drapery 1839 has a bright future.

More Resources:

• Subscribe to our Coin Price Guide, buy Coin BooksCoin Folders and join the NumisMaster VIP Program

2010 U.S. Coin Digest, The Complete Guide to Current Market Values, 8th ed.

State Quarters Deluxe Folder By Warmans

Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money, 1928 to Date

Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition



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