Book sheds light on great rarity: 1838-O Capped Bust half dollar

Guest Commentary from the March 9, 2015, issue of Coin World
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Published : 02/26/15
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Kevin Flynn is the author of many numismatic books, several focusing on die varieties of specific U.S. coin series.

The 1838-O Half Dollar, An Alignment of the Stars, by John Dannreuther and me, is now complete and has gone to print. 

To meet the increasing demand for coinage for commerce, Congress authorized three new Mints in 1835. One of the chosen locations was in New Orleans. The Philadelphia Mint supplied equipment vital to coinage production such as three steam-powered coining presses, each of a different size. 

David Bradford was hired as the New Orleans Mint superintendent with Rufus Tyler employed as the coiner. Robert M. Patterson was the director of the Mint from 1835 through 1851. 

The New Orleans Mint opened in 1838, and on Feb. 14, in anticipation of commencing coin production, Tyler requested working dies for the silver half dime, dime, and half dollar. 

These dies were not sent to New Orleans especially prepared or intended to strike Proof coins or to test the design or alloy. As stated by Patterson, these working dies were the same used at the Philadelphia Mint except for an O Mint mark added.

On May 8, 1838, Tyler struck 30 dimes on the small coining press before having mechanical problems. Additional dimes were struck up through July 1838. 

Between Aug. 2 and Nov. 1, the New Orleans Mint was closed because of yellow fever. 

Dimes and half dimes were struck in December and the beginning of January 1839. 

On Jan. 17, 1839, Director Patterson stated that no time should be lost in getting ready for the coinage of the half dollars. Between Jan. 17 and the end of January, Tyler was able to get the large coining press into operation to be used for the half dollars. Tyler found that the half dollar working dies were too short to be held in place by the screws, so he built a support system to raise the bottom working die to reach the screws that would hold it in place. He was able to strike 10 “excellent impressions” from a single set of 1838-O half dollar dies before the support system was crushed. 

The fields of these 10 coins exhibit a brilliant surface texture expected from a new pair of working dies. The striking characteristics of the design elements and rims are very strong. 

Between Feb. 26 and March 12, 1839, three pairs of 1839-O Capped Bust half dollar dies were sent to the New Orleans Mint. On March 29, Superintendent Bradford stated that Tyler was able to get the half dollar coining press into operation and commenced striking half dollars on March 27. 

The reverse used for the 1838-O half dollars in late January 1839 was moved from the large coining press to the half dollar coining press and used to strike some of the 1839-O Capped Bust half dollars. 

A few months after the January half dollar production, a second striking was conducted for the 1838-O coin. The key to recognizing a second striking of the 1838-O Capped Bust half dollar was found in the 1838-O half dollar in the Smithsonian Institution collection. This example exhibits the latest die stage of any of the nine known 1838-O half dollars. The fields on the reverse display mirrored surfaces that are equal to those on the Philadelphia Mint’s Proof 1838 Capped Bust half dollar at the Smithsonian. The striking characteristics of this 1838-O coin are also stronger than the Proof 1838 half dollar. 

Several 1839-O Capped Bust half dollars have been categorized as Proof coins. Two or three of these coins exhibit diagnostics that are later than any of the first eight known examples of the 1838-O coin, but earlier than the 1838-O Smithsonian example. The Smithsonian’s 1838-O Capped Bust half dollar also has stronger striking characteristics than the 1839-O half dollars that are called Proofs. 

A conclusion can be drawn that in late March 1839, Tyler was again able to get the half dollar coining press into operation. He first used an 1839-dated obverse with the reverse used for the 1838-O half dollars and struck several 1839-O half dollars. Tyler then replaced the obverse with an 1838-O half dollar working die, increasing the striking pressure and struck one or more 1838-O half dollars. He then resumed striking 1839-O half dollars.

The two 1838-O half dollar working die obverses were defaced on June 13, 1839. A note allegedly from Rufus Tyler published in 1894 stated that not more than 20 pieces were struck. Most likely, 11 to 15 were struck, with only one example known from the second striking. The Smithsonian 1838-O Capped Bust half dollar should be classified as a Proof, whereas the remaining coins should be classified as Specimen coins.

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