It is hard to imagine a major American rarity that is virtually unknown, but the 1838-O half dollar might be just that.
In 1838 there would be a design change as the denomination would now be expressed as “Half Dol.” below the eagle on the reverse. That change would only last a couple years before the new Seated Liberty design was introduced.
Another thing happening at the time was that the New Orleans Mint was coming on line. In in May 1838 there was a ceremonial striking of dimes, and after that things seem to disappear into the haze of humidity that seems to descend on New Orleans about August of every year.
Somehow there was a production of the new “HALF DOL.” reverse type of half dollar. There would be a regular production of the type in 1839 with New Orleans reporting 178,976 half dollars that year. The problem is that the 1838-O also exists and that was never reported by New Orleans.
The 1838-O is important as it is the first half dollar produced at New Orleans. Probably even more important is the fact that it was proof, and that makes it the first branch mint proof.
The 1838-O is also rare. Just how rare is an interesting question. The long-standing mintage of the 1838-O is placed at 20 pieces. The reason for the estimated total of 20 goes back to a note written by New Orleans chief coiner Rufus Tyler who gave a figure of “not more than 20 pieces.” He did not say 20, he said not more than 20. Others have suggested the totals to be anywhere from three specimens to 12-15 pieces. The simple fact is that we don’t know the mintage and probably never will.
The best we can do is account for perhaps just under a dozen examples. That does not mean that all we think are known really exist, as historically our estimates have been less than perfect.
Whatever the total, the 1838-O is a great rarity with the Norweb Proof-64 to -65 bringing almost $100,000 back in 1988. The current listed price is $300,000 in AU-50, but don’t be fooled. The right 1838-O could bring much more than that price.