US Coins

Confederate half dollars set to make history in 2015

One of the most remarkable things about a truly remarkable coin, the 1861 Confederate half dollar, is that not a single example sold at auction until October 2003. Even private transactions were rare; none have been known to have occurred since the 1970s.

Rarity alone (four examples are known) probably cannot account for the infrequency of the coin’s appearance in the marketplace. Examples of the 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coin, five known, sell with some regularity. Two examples of that coin have made three auction appearances in the past five years.

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This long history of infrequent availability is what makes the twin announcements from the nation’s two biggest rivals in the numismatic auction business — Stack’s Bowers Galleries and Heritage Auctions — that each will offer an example for sale in the first quarter of 2015 truly remarkable.

One has to look back more than a century, to the period from 1910 to 1912, to find a time when two pieces (the only ones then known) were offered for sale in close proximity. 

In January, Heritage Auctions will offer the coin currently owned by Donald G. Partrick, whose ownership of the piece was publicly revealed only on Oct. 30. That is when Heritage announced that coins from his collection would begin appearing at auction in 2015. 

Partrick’s coin is the former John J. Ford Jr. specimen, which in October 2003 became the first original Confederate half dollar sold at public auction. That coin brought $632,500 in Stack’s 2003 sale. 

The coin being offered by Stack’s Bowers Galleries in March 2015 disappeared between its striking in 1861 and its reappearance in 1970, when it surfaced in New Orleans. Until now, that example has never been offered at auction.

The other two examples of the coin are in institutional collections — the American Numismatic Society holds one, as does the Eric P. Newman Education Foundation. 

The ANS’s half dollar is a crown jewel of the society’s collection, undoubtedly a permanent fixture in collection at ANS headquarters in New York. 

As for the Confederate half dollar in the holdings of the Newman Foundation in St. Louis, collectors can speculate whether that piece will appear in a future auction of coins from that fabled collection. The fifth Newman Foundation sale is set for Nov. 14 and 15.

Changes in ownership for an original Confederate half dollar occur only rarely. That fact, plus the secretive nature of most transactions for the coin, have made determining value more difficult than for similarly rare coins that trade far more frequently (such as the aforementioned 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coins).

First coin surfaces

The existence of a Confederate half dollar was unknown to the collecting community until January 1879, when a former official of the New Orleans Mint wrote prominent coin dealer Ebenezer L. Mason to reveal that he not only did he have one, he also possessed the die that featured the Confederate design. The official related that in April 1861, four specimens were struck at the New Orleans Mint using a Confederate design on the obverse and a federal Seated Liberty obverse die for the reverse. The official, Benjamin F. Taylor, had served at the Mint both under U.S. and Confederate jurisdiction.

This first coin is the piece in the ANS collection, which received it as a donation in 1918. The donor was J. Sanford Saltus, who purchased it in 1918 before donating it to the ANS.

A few price points exist for this example: Mason sold it for $310 in May 1879, in a transaction that included the original Confederate die, to dealer John Walter Scott; it was offered at $1,000 in September 1879, but went unsold; it was offered at public auction in 1882 with a reserve price of $850, but went unsold; it was offered at public auction in March 1910 by Elder with a reserve of $3,750, unsold; sold to Saltus in 1918, along with the die, for $3,000.

Second coin revealed

At the time of the Saltus purchase, just one other example was known, and it had surfaced only in 1910. Dealer Elder announced that this second example was in the possession of a collector who claimed that he had obtained it in a roll of coins some 30 years earlier. Elder reported in 1910 that the coin was not for sale and that the collector owner “would in all probability not budge him in his determination not to part with it.” Whether Elder was exaggerating about the collector’s desire to keep possession of the coin is unknown. 

A value of $5,000 would have been an astounding price in 1910. In mid-1909, the publicly known record price for a coin was $6,200, paid for a 1787 Brasher doubloon (seven known). The $5,000 price would even had been strong if compared to the prices paid for two 1877 Coronet gold $50 half union patterns that were sold privately in 1909. The two gold coins were sold for $10,000 each, and while the transaction had been reported in 1909, the prices were not revealed until 1910.

Elder did buy the second known Confederate half dollar in 1912, though at an undisclosed price, and subsequent transactions were privately conducted at undisclosed prices. This second known piece is the example in the collection of the Newman Foundation. It was acquired by Eric P. Newman shortly after the end of World War II. He transferred it to his Mercantile Money Museum when he opened it in St. Louis in 1981; the coin has been held by his foundation ever since. 

Third known specimen

The coin in Heritage’s January auction at the Florida United Numismatists convention was purchased by dealer Ted Schnur in 1961 for $75, and then sold to Ford for a price of $425. If those prices seem low, that is because the coin was identified not as an original Confederate half dollar but instead as one of the restrikes struck in 1879 by J.W. Scott using the original Confederate die and genuine 1861 Seated Liberty half dollars with their reverse design planed off. 

After Ford determined the coin was an original, he reportedly offered Schnur some Confederate bonds as additional compensation. However, the position that the coin was an original and not a restrike was not universally believed, so Schnur declined. Later, though, Schnur changed his view and sued Ford. Schnur claimed Ford used his superior knowledge to acquire a genuine example at a bargain rate. The collector who sold it to Schnur sued him on basically the same grounds. The collector and Schnur eventually sued Ford jointly.

Ford did not gain full ownership of the coin until 1971, when a legal settlement granted him 75 percent ownership of the coin. He bought out the 25 percent ownership shared by the two other claimants. 

Ford placed his Confederate half dollar on the market in 1995 through Stack’s. Ford said several offers were made for the coin, but that a price could not be worked out. The half dollar remained in his collection until sold at auction by Stack’s in 2003, where Partrick purchased the coin.

The coin was exhibited at the American Numismatic Association’s National Money Show, March 2 to 4, 2014, in Atlanta. 

Fourth known specimen

The coin in the Stack’s Bowers auction, as noted, surfaced in 1970. It was acquired by New York City dealer Lester Merkin, either for cash or in trade for other coins. 

According to Stack’s in the 2003 Ford auction catalog, one story, presumably unsubstantiated, the trade involved a framed set of 1915-S Panama-Pacific International Exposition commemorative coins, including both the round and octagonal gold $50 pieces. One such five-coin set of Panama-Pacific coins sold for a reported $30,000 in a 1973 transaction, giving one a hint as to the potential value of the half dollar in the early 1970s.

Merkin sold this fourth Confederate half dollar in 1971 to an undisclosed buyer, and the coin has been unavailable since then, until its upcoming auction appearance.

What will the two coins bring if offered at auction without reserve? Will the former Ford coin exceed its 2003 price of $632,500 when offered by Heritage in January? Will the coin in the March Stack’s Bowers Galleries auction, which is in a higher grade than the Ford specimen, bring an even higher price? 

The results should be truly remarkable, just like the Confederate half dollars. 

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