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The 1838-O Half Dollar

Images courtesy usacoinbook.com.

Images courtesy usacoinbook.com.

Certainly rare and equally historic, the 1838-O half dollar is a coin that is not often offered for sale, making its price something of a question mark, especially at a time when a lot more available coins, although admittedly high in grades, are making the $1 million price barrier seem like less of a barrier and more of a routine benchmark on their way to far higher prices.

The 1838-O half dollar is part of the story of the New Orleans facility. Back in the mid-1830s, there was a drive to approve the first branch mints. There had been a major gold discovery in Georgia and North Carolina. Because there wasn’t an interstate system at the time, it was no small task to transport that gold to Philadelphia. It was much easier and safer to simply have a facility on the spot to process the gold and make it into coins. That saw the approval of facilities in Dahlonega, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C.

While Congress was in an approving mood, it voted to approve another facility as well: New Orleans. There had been no major gold discovery in New Orleans. The gold in New Orleans was the ground itself – the city wanted a mint and offered the government a piece of prime real estate. It was too good to refuse and, realistically, a New Orleans facility made sense. It was a transportation center that could not only receive precious metals, but also turn those metals into coins that could easily be distributed all over the country.

From the start, New Orleans was seen as different from Dahlonega and Charlotte. New Orleans would make both silver and gold coins, while the other two were only able to produce gold coins. Moreover, New Orleans served a much larger area, and even the gold coins of New Orleans would be more diverse. It would produce gold eagles and double eagles, while Charlotte and Dahlonega would never produce a denomination higher than a $5 half eagle.

There was apparently a great deal of enthusiasm in New Orleans for the idea of a mint. In fact, it appears that there were a couple ceremonial strikings to mark the mint’s opening as there was a May 7-8 release of 30 dimes in 1838. There was also a striking of some 1838-O half dollars, most likely to test the equipment.

We don’t know whether those half dollars were struck in 1838 or 1839 since there is no report of an 1838 mintage. The simple truth is we do not know the mintage. Back in 1894, there was speculation that it was only a few pieces while others contended it might be a dozen. The chief coiner at the New Orleans facility at the time, Rufus Tyler, is quoted as saying it was “not more than 20 pieces.” The problem is that total only sets a high end and still leaves room for debate. As a result, many have simply accepted the figure of 20, though we really are not certain.

The uncertainty as to the actual mintage does not hurt interest in the 1838-O. It is a proof, which is special since it was the first branch mint proof. It is also the first half dollar produced at New Orleans. Then, to top it off, it is rare. The best guess is that there is nine known today. An example came up for auction in 2019 and sold for more than $500,000.

The question is how high the 1838-O might go in the future. With nine known, $1 million might be slightly high, but there are other factors, such as its historical importance, that have to be factored into any potential prices. We have seen historically important coins with far more than nine examples known reach $1 million. It will be interesting to watch where the 1838-O half dollar goes from here.