US Coins

A shocking revelation about 1818 half eagle variety

Nearly 200 years since it was struck, and more than 130 years since the variety was discovered, the BD-3 1818 Capped Head gold half eagle reveals a secret that both surprised and astonished those who have studied early $5 half eagles throughout their numismatic careers.

The discovery was made during cataloging of 44 lots from Part 2 of The Hutchinson Collection of Early Half Eagles that will be presented at the April 26 to 30 Central States Numismatic Society Convention in Schaumburg, Ill. (Part 1 of the collection was sold by Heritage at the January, 2017 FUN Platinum Night auction in Fort Lauderdale.)

This collection of half eagles proved to be fertile ground for many interesting revelations, but none is more surprising than the exact nature of the overpunched denomination on the scarce Bass-Dannreuther 3 variety of the 1818 half eagle, previously known as the 5D over 50 variety. The upcoming Central States auction includes a scarce Mint State 63 Professional Coin Grading Service example of the BD-3 coin, a probable Condition Census coin with the blundered 5D denomination sharply visible.

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At first glance, Heritage catalogers saw what others must have seen since collecting by varieties became popular — the “0” is punched into the die in error, seemingly corrected by entering a proper “D.” But closer inspection reveals otherwise.

The D does not look exactly like the other D’s in the legend. It bulges out slightly at top and bottom, and when the eyes focus on the underlying 0, a nifty shortcut to correct a major Mint error becomes clear. The Mint engraver (perhaps Robert Scot himself?) entered a capital I into the die to form the upright of a D, leaving the 0 unaltered to form the rest of the letter. Presto chang0!

Heritage consulted die expert Ron Landis, who explained the process succinctly:

“My take is that the die sinker originally used the O punch instead of the D. To correct the mistake, he just used the I punch to add in the stem of the D, instead of trying to make the D punch work — which would most likely have caused some messy doubling. Quite a clever fix that saved them from scrapping the entire die.”

No effort was made to efface the mispunched 0, since the Mint was hesitant to risk an otherwise good die for anything other than the simplest solution to an engraving error. Such treatment is evident on many repunchings across different series, including the early half eagles (the 1795 Capped Bust half eagle with the second S over a D in STATES and numerous overdates come to mind).

Perhaps the engraver knew the “fix” would become less visible as the die aged from use, and as the coins received wear from circulation. Indeed, that seems to be the case, since the die was used in both 1818, to strike the BD-3 variety, and in 1819, for the BD-1 die pair. The anomaly is more evident on the 1818 coins, and with circulation wear the repunching is less noticeable.

Still, it is somewhat amazing that the overpunching has been misidentified for so many years. Most references cite the Chapman brothers’ May 1906 sale of the Harlan P. Smith Collection as the first documented appearance of the BD-3 variety (lot 205).

Thereafter, the variety went virtually unnoticed (or unappreciated) until it was “rediscovered” as lot 748 in the New Netherlands auction in April 1960, billed as the 54th Catalog of United States and Canadian Coins, described by Walter Breen:

Both were important events in the history of the 1818 half eagles, but Heritage research suggests the 1818 varieties were known much earlier, about 1880, and documented soon after John Colvin Randall and John W. Haseltine collaborated on variety research at that time (a relationship that came to an abrupt end in 1881 when Haseltine published his Type Table Catalogue without Randall’s knowledge or approval).

Haseltine’s June 1883 69th Sale listed two 1818 varieties.

Randall himself consigned two 1818 varieties to Woodward’s sale of June 1885, noting the two varieties simply as No. 1 and No. 2. Almost simultaneously, H.P. Smith described 1818 varieties in his June 1885 sale of the Douglas Collection.

First mention in print

Early catalog descriptions keyed on the position of the obverse stars, with little mention of the reverse diagnostics. Heritage believes the first reference to a BD-3 1818 half eagle described by the reverse die appeared in the New York Coin & Stamp’s sale of the famous Lorin G. Parmelee Collection, held in June 1890.

The sale was cataloged by H.P. Smith and his partner, David Proskey, and it is believed to be the earliest “in print” appearance of a BD-3 example, noting the repunched denomination (fully 16 years before the oft-cited 1906 H.P. Smith Collection description). H.P. Smith himself was certainly aware of the variety, but perhaps it was the studious Proskey who documented the reverse anomaly:

It is now certain that the 5 was never repunched, nor was a D ever cut over the 0. Rather, the incorrect 0 was modified with an overpunched “I” to create the illusion of a “D” — a bit of diesinking sleight-of-hand that has hoodwinked all who have studied the variety for decades.

Thanks to David Stone, Heritage cataloger, for his help in researching the early appearances of the BD-3 variety, and to Mark Borckardt, Heritage senior numismatist, for his assistance confirming the discovery with John Dannreuther, Kenneth Bressett, and Ron Landis. Cataloger John Sculley is credited with the finding.

Heritage Auctions now identifies the variety as “Repunched Denomination (I Over 0),” replacing the traditional 5D Over 50 designation.

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