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Unique 1870-S Half Dime

By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Legend Numismatics

Only one 1870 San Francisco Mint half dime is known to exist. It was on display on Oct. 27 & 28 at the first CoinFest, at the East Greenwich (CT) Civic Center. Please see my separate article about the CoinFest event. Most collectors have either never heard of the 1870-S half dime or do not know much about it.

The most famous coins are not the rarest. Almost all collectors know about 1909-S VDB and 1914-D Lincolns, 1877 Indian Cents, 1913 Liberty Nickels, 1894-S, 1895-O and 1916-D dimes, 1901-S and 1913-S quarters, 1916 and 1918/7-S Standing Liberty Quarters, and other key dates in series that are avidly collected. Moreover, 1804 silver dollars are the most famous of all coins. As fifteen 1804 dollars are known, there are quite a few other coins that are rarer. Most collectors are not familiar with the rarest U.S. coins.

There are three, privately owned U.S. coins that are each unique. Before itemizing the three, it makes sense to emphasize that I am referring to privately owned coins. There are unique pieces in the Smithsonian, and these are more complicated, for at least two reasons. Most unique pieces in the Smithsonian are patterns rather than true coins. Those unique pieces that are definitely true U.S. coins are not necessarily distinct dates. The issue of whether a particular die variety is a separate date is often controversial. There is no doubt that the three privately owned unique U.S. coins are true coins and are distinct dates.

There is only one 1873 Carson City (NV) Mint dime without arrows near the numerals on the obverse (front of the coin). On dimes, quarters, and halves, arrows were added at some point in 1873 and were also employed as part of the design in 1874. On all other 1873-CC dimes, there are arrows. The presence of arrows not only signifies additional dates for coins of the year 1873, the 1873-74 with arrows Liberty Seated coins are distinct subtypes for dimes, quarters and halves. As the arrows are near the numerals and are readily visible without a magnifying glass, this characteristic is definitely part of the ‘date’ and is even often thought of as being indicative of a separate design type. So, an 1873-CC without arrows is a date that is different from an 1873-CC with arrows coin. Curiously, there are a substantial number of both Philadelphia Mint 1873 without arrows dimes and 1873 with arrows dimes.

The unique 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ dime was, unsurprisingly, in the Eliasberg collection. Louis Eliasberg, Sr., had the all-time best collection of U.S. coins. It was the most complete and it contained many coins of tremendous quality. The Eliasberg 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ dime was auctioned in May 1996 in New York City by Bowers & Merena (New Hampshire). It is also unsurprising that it was owned for many years by Jay Parrino, who certainly has owned more Great Rarities in silver than any other dealer in the history of U.S. coin collecting.

There is also only one 1870-S $3 gold coin. It is easy to guess that it was in the Eliasberg collection, and such a guess would be correct. It is now in the collection of the late Harry Bass, and is on display at the ANA museum in Colorado Springs.

Those who have guessed that the 1870-S half dime was also previously in the Eliasberg collection are wrong. The 1870-S half dime was discovered in 1978, and Louis Eliasberg, Sr., died in 1976.

At some point in the mid 1980s, the 1870-S half dime was offered to Richard Eliasberg. After Louis Sr.’s death in 1976, Richard’s brother, Louis, Jr., inherited the U.S. gold coins, and Richard inherited all other parts of the Eliasberg collection. Richard Eliasberg declined to tell me why he did not buy the 1870-S half dime. When I asked again, he just smiled and walked away. As he is not a coin enthusiast himself, and none of his living relatives are extremely interested, maybe he could not bring himself to make such an acquisition?

At the 1991 ANA convention in Illinois, Jay Parrino acquired the 1870-S half dime when he bought Martin Paul’s collection of half dimes for “several million dollars.” Parrino owned the 1870-S half dime for a long time. Perhaps it should be called the Parrino 1870-S half dime. In the 1990s, he sold it to an investor and then bought it back again a few years later.

Bowers & Merena (CA) auctioned the 1870-S half dime in July 2004. A somewhat leading coin website incorrectly lists Jim Gray as the consignor. Gray never owned it.

Laura Sperber was the successful bidder, on behalf of the current owner. The 1870-S half dime realized $661,250. Sperber was prepared to bid a much higher amount, if necessary. It is certainly worth much more in 2007.

The 1870-S half dime belongs to a collector who has been buying coins from Sperber for more than twenty years. He prefers that his name not be mentioned. As he is a lawyer, he decided to register his sets at the PCGS website under the name “Law.” He thus should not be confused with other recognized collectors who really are named ‘Law.’ He put himself through law school by buying and selling coins.

According to Sperber, “Mr. Law has always demanded the finest coins. Second best would never do for him.” In the PCGS registry, Mr. Law has the “All-Time Finest” sets of business strike Three Cent Nickels, business strike Three Cent Silvers, Proof Three Cent Silvers, business strike Capped Bust half dimes (1829-37), business strike Barber dimes, and Proof Barber dimes.

It is curious that ‘Mr. Law’s’ collection of Liberty Seated half dimes is not in the PCGS registry, as it is the only one that can possibly be complete in the present. Furthermore, it is disappointing that most of his registered sets are almost completely lacking in pedigree information. It would be helpful and fun to know which coins were earlier in some of the greatest collections of all time.

The 1870-S half dime is an attractive and interesting coin. It certainly left a strong, positive impression on me.

At first glance, from a distance, Miss Liberty and the other design elements on the obverse (front) exhibit a very light, consistent russet tone. The fields (bare areas) have a neat bluish-gray tint, and several moderate hairlines are noticeable, plus a few heavier ones.

The obverse die (used to stamp the design into the front) was very heavily polished at the San Francisco Mint, and the obverse of the coin features numerous raised die lines that are really only noticed by coin enthusiasts, but are, nevertheless, really cool. Any careful observer would notice that the obverse fields are fully reflective and dynamic.

The texture of the reverse (back) is very different from that of the obverse, though is also interesting and pleasantly distinctive. The wreath is very lightly frosted, from treatment of the reverse die at the Mint, and is toned a more subtle light russet color. The fields are naturally crisp. The reverse is slightly reflective, but nowhere near as much as the obverse. On the whole, the reverse is not as attractive as the obverse, but is still very appealing.
In a technical sense, the reverse is of a higher grade than the obverse. There are much fewer imperfections.

When tilted under a light, the obverse looks even more cool. There are touches of green and orange, plus various shades of russet about the fields and outer elements. The patches of a somewhat bright russet tone about the numerals in 1870 are enticing.

I strongly believe that all the toning on this coin is natural. Further, I did not see any evidence that it has ever been ‘dipped.’

The 1870-S half dime is not sharply struck. When seen in actuality, it is clearly better struck than it appears to be in pictures. It is better struck than many other uncirculated Liberty Seated half dimes that I have seen. Indeed, a large percentage of Liberty Seated half dimes are not well struck. Besides, even the best struck Liberty Seated half dimes, in general, lack detail in comparison to several other types of U.S. coins.

The coin does not have any wear or friction on the highpoints. There is no doubt that it is uncirculated. It has been graded MS-63 by both the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and Numismatic Guaranty Corp. (NGC). In 2005 or 2006, it was upgraded to “MS-64” by the PCGS.

I would tend to grade it a mid range to high end MS-63, though I understand why some experts may grade it as 64. In my view, it is definitely a business strike, not a specimen striking. Neither service has called it a specimen striking, but the topic has been mentioned to me in private conversations.

It is not unusual for business strikes from polished dies to have reflective surfaces. Raised die lines of the magnitude found on this coin’s obverse are much more unusual than the presence of reflective surfaces. Such raised lines are, however, found on a fair number of 19th century silver business strikes. It is impossible to explain all the reasons why I think that the coin’s texture is that of a business strike. The obverse could be plausibly determined to be prooflike, or maybe semi-prooflike?

How important is the 1870-S half dime? It certainly warrants more attention than it has received.

David McCarthy, senior numismatist at Kagin’s, is one of the more studious and reflective of coin dealers. He asserts that “Liberty Seated dimes and half dimes are woefully under-appreciated in general. The 1870-S half dime in particular has been overlooked. In terms of numismatic importance,” McCarthy concludes, “it is in the same category as the 1894-S dime.” There are ten known 1894-S dimes. Please see my very recent article regarding the sale of one.

I believe that Liberty Seated half dimes, dimes, and quarters are all ‘under-appreciated.’ These are attractive, rare, and, historically, very much a central part of the culture of coin collecting in the United States. The market for rare date, pre-1840 and 1907-33, gold coins boomed from 2002 to 2006 and is still hot now. Bust gold coins, in particular, have been intensely demanded for several years, and are often ‘in the spotlight.’ Moreover, post-1920 20th century coins have been receiving a disproportionate share of attention in the present and recent past. Furthermore, markets for Bust U.S. silver coins, generally dating from the 1790s to the 1830s, have been very active this year. So far this decade, people do not seem to be all that excited about Liberty Seated coins, even as type coins.

I understand why McCarthy thinks that 1894-S dimes and the 1870-S half dime “are in the same category.” He believes both these two issues, and several other Great Rarities, were struck for special, though sometimes different, purposes.

In my view, it is best to place the 1870-S half dime in a category that is much different from that of the 1894-S dime. No one really knows exactly why this particular 1870-S half dime was struck. Moreover, in my articles on 1894-S dimes, I emphasize that the 1894-S and Barber dimes in general have an unusually strong and very distinctive appeal in the traditions of coin collecting.

Of all series that started in the 19th century, Barber dimes are among the easiest to collect, and are very popular with kids. Barber coins also appeal to adults, including those that are just starting out.

In low grades, many dates in the Barber dime series may be obtained for less than $2.50 each. A collector who is willing to spend up to $50 per coin could almost complete a set of Barber dimes. Only the 1894-S, the 1895-O and the 1893/2 overdate would necessarily cost more than $100 each. As the 1894-S is a ‘Proof-only’ date, and the 1893/2 is an esoteric overdate, an 1895-O would really be the only moderately priced coin needed to complete a set of business strike Barber dimes.

Consider that many adult collectors have fond memories of collecting Barber dimes as kids, and many who start as adults collect Barber dimes for years. There may be more than five hundred thousand collectors who have, at one time or another, dreamed about owning an 1894-S dime. Not nearly as many people have dreamed about owning the 1870-S half dime.

Liberty Seated Half Dimes are a more complicated series to collect. Scarce date Liberty Seated half dimes are not that expensive, but are more difficult to obtain, at market prices, than scarce date Barber dimes. There is less trading volume in Liberty Seated half dimes. In addition to the 1870-S, there are about seven dates in this series that would necessarily cost more than $100 each. Even finding decent examples of some of the relatively inexpensive dates would require considerable time and effort.

Liberty Seated half dimes are also more difficult to grade and otherwise interpret than Barber dimes. It may also be more difficult to find Liberty Seated half dimes with original surfaces. Indeed, many half dimes have been harshly cleaned by non-experts who kept them as novelty items or conversation pieces. So, there are several reasons why Barber dimes will always be more popular than Liberty Seated half dimes, and Barber dimes have a greater role in the culture of coin collecting.

I strongly agree with McCarthy’s insight that one reason why the 1870-S half dime is not thought of more often is that “it has never been in one of the great collections of all time,” nor even in a widely recognized collection until ‘Mr. Law’ obtained it. Had it been in the Cleaney, Mills, Earle, Newcomer, Boyd, Norweb or Eliasberg collections, it would be much more famous now.

While it will never have the emotional allure of an 1894-S dime to most coin enthusiasts, the 1870-S half dime is a very appealing coin and it is deserving of much more respect and acclaim. Liberty Seated half dimes, in general, are cute, fun to collect, and more challenging to collect and evaluate than Barber dimes. Collectors who make an effort to learn about them will find themselves intrigued.

©2007 Greg Reynolds

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About the Author

Greg Reynolds is a numismatic writer, researcher and analyst. Greg has examined almost all of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest type coins and patterns, He has extensively researched the pedigrees of important numismatic properties, and he has written about and analyzed numerous auctions, private sales and collections.

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  1. Thomas Turek | Oct 5, 2008 | Reply

    Sir, My husband found this coin on his deceased mothers farm, here in Nebraska. It is a 1870 half dime. He was wondering if it had any worth to it? Thank-you

  2. cindy collins | Apr 1, 2009 | Reply

    hello i was reading your article looking for information on a coin my great granmother had for years.. i was wondering if you knew anything about it.. it is gold and very small has lady liberty on the front with 13 stars aroung her head w/ liberty.. like a hairband in her hair the year says 1853 at the bottom of the coin.. and american eagle is on the back w/ the wings spread grasping i beleave an olive branch in its talons.. it has united states of america written all the way around the coin and at the bottom it says 2 1/2 D my great grandma always said this was her “lucky coin” any information you would have on this coin or if you could tell me where to look I would be greatky appreciated… this is a “family mystery
    Thanks cindy collins

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