• Gerry Tebben

    Five Facts

    Gerald Tebben goes behind the scenes and explores many offbeat trails in bringing to the forefront the long-lost information that makes coins so special in "Coin Lore."

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  • Thirty-three Ps

    Platinum was an exotic metal in the early 1800s, of uncertain utility and value. Crooks took to it, hollowing out the interior of genuine gold coins and replacing the gold with less expensive platinum. Platinum has a similar specific gravity to gold and the deceit was therefore not easily detected.

    In 1860 and again in 1878 the Philadelphia Mint experimented with extra wide gold pieces that were designed to be too thin to hollow out. Nothing came of the experiment, except for a few odd pattern coins.

    Russia, which became a prime source of the elusive metal in 1819, produced platinum 3, 6 and 12 ruble coins from the late 1820s through 1845. Platinum then was valued at six times the value of silver, or a little less than 1/3 the value of gold.

    The United States Mint played with platinum, too, producing two or three 1814-dated half dollars from the metal. Two examples – one is in the Smithsonian Institution – are known to collectors today. Researcher Walter Breen wrote about a third specimen in 1974, but it has not been confirmed.

    Andrew W. Pollock III, said in United States Patterns and Related Issues, the piece “was coined using the dies of Overton-107. This demonstrates that 1814, in all probability, was the actual year in which the platinum coins were made. If the pieces were made in a later year it is likely that they would have been struck from an incongruously matched pair of dies that had no counterpart in the regular issue half dollar series.”

    J. Ross Snowden, Mint director from 1853 to 1861, wrote about the coin in his 1860 book A Description of Ancient and Modern Coins in the Cabinet of the United States. He recorded “a platina piece struck from the dies for the legal tender half dollar of that year. It was an experiment, platina being a new metal.”

    The Smithsonian’s coin looks like the regular half dollar. The other coin, though, is markedly different. After striking, the letter P was punched into the obverse 33 times, and the world PLATINA was engraved on the reverse. That unique piece sold for $138,000 at auction in 2011.

    While a handful of other half dollars have sold for more, the 1814 platinum half dollar, which weighs almost twice as much as a silver half dollar, remains the ultimate half dollar.

    Next: The quarter million dollar dirt pile