From the September 2001 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:
Half Dollar I Like A Lot
A long, long time ago, in a place far, far away (Philadelphia, actually), our nation’s silver coinage was being redesigned, away from the old capped bust design to a new design showing Miss Liberty sitting on a rock hanging on to a shield and a pole with a hat on it. It was the second half of the decade of the 1830’s, and there was a lot of trial and error to get the design refined to what the mint considered to be just right.
The mint’s engravers tried tweaking various design elements on the seated liberty design of the various denominations that it was being used on. In some of the denominations you will find such varieties as small, medium, and large letters; small, medium, and large stars; small, medium, and large dates; small, medium… Well, you get the idea. Suffice it to say that early seated coinage is fertile ground for variety collectors.
One fairly major change that occurred in these early days was an overhaul of the main seated liberty figure itself resulting in a whole new type coin. Coins made prior to these changes are referred to as the ‘no drapery’ type, while those made after the changes are known as the ‘with drapery’ type because an obvious fold of drapery was added under Miss Liberty’s elbow. The only other significant difference between the two types is that the rock that Liberty is sitting on is quite a bit larger on the no drapery coins than it is on the later issues. As an interesting note, the half dollar is the only seated liberty coin that survived the transition from the no drapery type to the with drapery type with so few modifications. All other denominations using the seated liberty design also saw the shield tilted to a more upright position with a thicker ribbon draped across it, while Miss Liberty received a heavier dress and a bigger head!
Herein presents a reasonably priced one year type coin that does not command a lot of attention from the numismatic press. In the half dollar denomination, the transition from the capped bust design to seated liberty took place in 1839, with the switch from no drapery to with drapery also occurring that year, leading to three distinct type coins for this denomination in 1839.
Mintage of seated liberty halves in 1839 is fairly routine at 1,972,400 pieces, which is split between the no drapery and with drapery types. That mintage is a fairly even split between the two types although it seems that there is a slight imbalance leaning toward more with drapery coins. Now, we are all familiar with the fact that the first year of a new denomination tends to be heavily saved. You can buy an Uncirculated 1909 VDB Lincoln cent for about $10 while most common dates in the 1910’s and 1920’s with much higher original mintages cost more than this. Similarly, the 1883 no cents Liberty nickel can be had in Uncirculated condition for around $25 to $30, compared with double that amount or more for any other date in the series.
So, were the 1839 half dollars heavily saved too, as the first year of a new design? Well, no, they weren’t. To find out why not, you have to look at collector habits at the time. I had not yet started collecting coins when the 1830’s rolled around, and I doubt that any of you readers were coin collectors 165 years ago either, but I have read a bit about the early days of numismatics in the united States. We know that the hot sector in coin collecting today is modern coinage from roughly the 1950’s to date in slabs with numbers like 69 and 70 on the insert. Back in 1839, however, slabs had not been developed quite yet, and few collectors of the day were very interested in the modern US coinage minted in the last 47 years, from 1793 to date. (Actually, most US coins, even the earliest ones, sold for little above face value in Circulated condition well into the late 1800’s, but that’s another article…). Collectors in 1839 were much more concerned with filling their felt lined wooden coin cabinets with colonials, ancients, and medals and tokens depicting George Washington (no kidding!).
One more piece of evidence that proves the new seated halves were not saved is the condition of the survivors. Halves of 1839 are vastly more common in well circulated condition and quite rare in Uncirculated, with only about two dozen or so specimens currently in existence. Anybody at the time who wanted to save one of the new halves would have undoubtedly gone to the bank to get a nice new specimen. Obviously, few people bothered to do this.
Since few of the 1839 no drapery halves were set aside at the time, their survival is basically a matter of chance. If we assume a fairly typical one to two percent survival rate, and assume a mintage of 900,000 (exact figure unknown), that would give us somewhere in the range of 9,000 to 18,000 pieces available to collectors today.
Demand comes largely from collectors working on either type sets or date and mintmark sets. Few individuals are ambitious enough (or rich enough) to attempt the date and mintmark set, so I suspect that type collectors account for most of the demand. Many type collectors are content to just have two seated liberty half dollars, a no motto piece (1839 to 1866) and one with motto (1866 to 1891), but there are plenty of folks around that want all six types of seated halves including the 1839 no drapery, the 1853 arrows and rays, and the with arrows varieties of 1854 to 1855 and 1873 to 1874.
Luckily, the healthy original mintage has supplied us with enough coins that they have a reasonable price in circulated condition. According to Trends, the 1839 no drapery halves start at $40 in Good and $55 in Very Good and run up to $650 in Extra Fine. The numbers become quite scary after that, at $1400 in AU and $4000 up for Uncirculated pieces. I think the best value is to be had with a nice Fine at $125 or Very Fine for $275. Not bad at all for a one year type coin that nobody paid any attention to at the time of issue!
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