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Look What I Dug Up! 1817/4 Half Dollar

1817/14 Bust Half DollarIt is always an exciting event when a newly discovered numismatic rarity is reported. Such was the case when an 1817/4 half dollar was unearthed (literally!) by contractor George Williams while raking fill in upstate New York. This is the eighth known specimen of this rare overdate, originally offered in our January 2006 FUN Auction, shortly after it was discovered, and now available again in our upcoming Central States Signature Auction.

News of the discovery appeared in the October 24, 2005 edition of Coin World. Williams said he ordered a load of fill for some foundation work he was doing. He was raking the soil when he heard a ‘cling.’ His son Nial, 19, turned the hose on the object and revealed an early date half dollar.

The Coin World article goes on to say that when Williams returned home with the coin, his 14-year-old coin-collecting son, Cullinan, looked it up in A Guide Book of United States Coins (the ‘Red Book’). The boy then printed a copy of bust half dollar specialist Sheridan Downey’s commentary on the 1817/4 half dollar in Collectors Universe’s CoinFacts.com web site that revealed more details about the rare overdate.

The entire family then became increasingly excited about the find. The coin would eventually certified by ANACS with XF Details and some corrosion. This made it the second finest known survivor behind an AU50 example that sold for $333,500 in November 2004 and the eighth known example of this rarity. (A ninth specimen was discovered after the 2006 offering of the present piece. The ninth known example is ICG graded VG8, with an obverse scratch, and appeared in our July 2008 auction, where it realized just under $90,000.)

Why is the 1817/4 variety so rare, i.e., why were so few apparently minted? Part of the reason may stem from Wallis’ thought above that the die may have broken when the 7 was cut over the 4, which had been partially effaced by Mint personnel. We might speculate that this effacing weakened the die, causing premature failure after just a few strikings. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the 1817/4’s cousin, the 1817/3, did not have the 3 effaced, and was produced with a considerably higher mintage.

This leads to another intriguing question: was the 1817/4 struck prior to the 1817/3? If the theory that effacement of the 1817/4 caused the obverse die to break is given credence, then perhaps Mint personnel, wanting to avoid a repeat of this problem, skipped the effacement process for the 1817/3 variety.

Downey presents additional information that may help to explain the shorter-than-normal life of the 1817/4 obverse die. In his April 1, 1997 catalog of the Alfred E. Burke 1817/4 specimen, he states:

‘I have seen and studied the Dosier, Overton, Burke and Meyer specimens. It is apparent that the obverse die was poorly prepared, either in 1814 or when it was reworked in 1817. Its face was ’sprung’ or warped, not flat. When brought down in the screw press it unevenly impressed the planchet. The high portion of the left side of the die, the fields, could not properly smooth the natural roughness of a raw planchet. The adjoining curls, struck from the low areas of the die, are noticeably flat. The absence of pressure on the obverse, of course, led to weakness on the reverse. Thus we see flatness along the right side of the shield, the claws below and the tip of the right wing. Two theories seek to explain the shorter life of the die. First, it was not properly hardened after the annealing process, leading to its early fracture. Second, its irregular shape subjected portions of the die to unusual pressure during the coining process, again leading to early deterioration.’

As mentioned earlier, this specimen was discovered by George Williams of upstate New York. One of the outstanding features of this new discovery is its detail. The design elements display remarkable definition. The star centers are sharp, and Liberty’s face, bust, and drapery are strong, as is the clasp. The eagle’s feathers and talons and the shield lines are also nicely delineated. Portions of the right (facing) sides of both obverse and reverse reveal minor softness (characteristic of the variety), but even these areas stand out. The motifs are fairly well centered on the planchet, and about three-fourths of the dentilation shows. Remnants of the underdigit 4 are clearly visible beneath the 7, including serifs and crossbar. The small notch on the final star, believed to be the trademark of engraver John Reich, is evident, and the vertical die crack that is diagnostic of the die state bisects Liberty’s portrait. Semi-bright, silver-gray surfaces take on a slightly darker gray appearance in the recessed areas. A few light corrosion patches are scattered over each side, but fortunately do not interfere with the design detail. Whatever surface roughness there is, it is primarily confined to the fields. All in all, this specimen is a strong contender for the second finest of the eight [now nine] known examples, despite the minor corrosion. We expect spirited bidding when this coin crosses the auction block.

Why is the 1817/4 variety so rare, i.e., why were so few apparently minted?

Part of the reason may stem from Wallis’ thought above that the die may have broken when the 7 was cut over the 4, which had been partially effaced by Mint personnel. We might speculate that this effacing weakened the die, causing premature failure after just a few strikings. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the 1817/4’s cousin, the 1817/3, did not have the 3 effaced, and was produced with a considerably higher mintage. This leads to another intriguing question: was the 1817/4 struck prior to the 1817/3? If the theory that effacement of the 1817/4 caused the obverse die to break is given credence, then perhaps Mint personnel, wanting to avoid a repeat of this problem, skipped the effacement process for the 1817/3 variety.
Downey presents additional information that may help to explain the shorter-than-normal life of the 1817/4 obverse die. In his April 1, 1997 catalog of the Alfred E. Burke 1817/4 specimen, he states:

‘I have seen and studied the Dosier, Overton, Burke and Meyer specimens. It is apparent that the obverse die was poorly prepared, either in 1814 or when it was reworked in 1817. Its face was ’sprung’ or warped, not flat. When brought down in the screw press it unevenly impressed the planchet. The high portion of the left side of the die, the fields, could not properly smooth the natural roughness of a raw planchet. The adjoining curls, struck from the low areas of the die, are noticeably flat. The absence of pressure on the obverse, of course, led to weakness on the reverse. Thus we see flatness along the right side of the shield, the claws below and the tip of the right wing. Two theories seek to explain the shorter life of the die. First, it was not properly hardened after the annealing process, leading to its early fracture. Second, its irregular shape subjected portions of the die to unusual pressure during the coining process, again leading to early deterioration.’

A follow-up question is: why was a surplus 1814 die recycled in the first place, instead of preparing new dies? One answer to this question may lie in the early Mint’s practice of using dies from previous years until they wore out or broke. This was apparently done, to some extent, for economic reasons, as die steel was relatively expensive, and it took considerable time to prepare new dies, as Craig Sholley also illustrates in a series of articles on ‘Early U.S. Minting Methods’ in the John Reich Journal. However, Mint personnel were continually experimenting with the forging and hardening of dies. According to the author, the early Mint had not mastered these techniques, resulting in frequent die failures. This may also help to account for Mint officials wanting to extend die life as much as possible.

The War of 1812 and its economic aftermath, along with a fire at the Mint, may also have played a role, if only indirect, in the rarity of the 1817/4 half dollar. Half dollar mintages of one million pieces plus were the rule for most years prior to the war and through 1814. By 1814, an economic recession and an associated decline in silver and gold deposits drastically reduced the mintage of precious metal coinage. In the case of the half dollar, only 47,150 1815-dated coins were produced, which according to Mint records were delivered January 10, 1816. Right after this delivery, again based on Mint records, a fire destroyed the structure holding the rolling mills and other pieces of equipment. This put an end to silver and gold coinage for at least a year, even though bullion deposits were beginning to increase again. By May 1817, with new equipment installed, the Mint resumed the coinage of silver. The first denomination struck was the half dollar, in great demand as the ‘workhorse’ of U.S. commerce in that era. Mint officials, who were probably anxious to process built-up silver deposits into coinage, may have, for the sake of expediency, simply retrieved a left over 1814 die from the die storage area and repunched it with a 7, causing it to break after just a few strikes. This scenario, of course, still begs the question: why were Mint personnel unable to have dies ready for 1817 coinage, especially after the production of silver coins had been off line throughout 1816 and early 1817? Sheridan Downey (1977) states: ‘One might suppose that (John) Reich (Assistant Engraver) had plenty of time in 1816 to prepare working dies for 1817. Apparently not. The first two obverse dies used in 1817 were overdates (1817/3 and 1817/4).’
A registry of 1817/4 half dollars follows. It is derived from provenances provided in the Eliasberg Sale (Bowers and Merena), April 1997; the Burke Sale (Sheridan Downey), April 1997; the Dosier and Farley Sale (Sheridan Downey), October 1998; the Suros Sale (Superior), February 1999; and the Coronado Sale (David Lawrence), November 2004. They are listed (more or less) by order of discovery.

1. Eliasberg. PCGS AU50. O-102a. Downey considers this specimen to be the Wallis discovery coin described in the October 30 The Numismatist. It is the highest grade of the known examples, and sold in the Bowers and Merena 2003 ANA Sale.

2. Johnson/Witham. Fine 15. O-102a. Purchased by coin dealer Ed Johnson of Wooster, Ohio from a New York dealer in early 1940. Johnson sold it to Stewart Witham in May 1966. It now resides in an anonymous collection.

3. Meyer. VF25. O-102. Acquired by Al Overton in 1962 from an Oakland, CA coin dealer. After several transactions, it is now in the Charlton Meyer, Jr. collection.

4. Overton. Good 6, Repaired. O-102. Discovered by New York dealer Edwin Shapiro in 1963-64. After several intervening transactions, Al Overton bought the coin in 1969, and had a scratch in the eagle’s wing repaired (smoothed out). It is now in a private collection.

5. Farley. VF20. Discovered by Pennsylvania collector Thomas Pfeffer in 1967. The present owner is Floyd Farley.

6. Burke. NGC VF20. O-102a. Bought by Alfred E. Burke of Philadelphia from dealer Robert Dando as a ‘Punctuated Date’ (O-103). It was recognized by Burke as an 1817/4 in 1973 or 1974, after he acquired the 1970 (2nd) edition of Overton’s reference book.

7. Dosier. ANACS Fine 12. O-102. Bought by Milton Silverberg from an upstate New York collector in 1976 ‘as is.’ Silverberg did not reveal the existence of his piece to the numismatic community until 1985. Downey indicates that the Dosier coin is considered to be the most ‘original’ of the known examples, exhibiting smooth surfaces with natural gray toning and no signs of mishandling.

8. Williams. ANACS XF Details, Corroded. O-102a. The present specimen.

[9. A ninth specimen was discovered after the 2006 offering of the present piece. The ninth known example is ICG graded VG8, with an obverse scratch, and appeared in Heritages July 2008 auction, where it realized just under $90,000.]

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RSS Feed for This Post1 Comment(s)

  1. Olden Atwoody | Apr 29, 2009 | Reply

    A case can be made for the poor homeowner, who contracted for, and subsidized the foundation work though payments to the General Contractor, as being part owner of this discovery piece. Found in soil that was specifically ordered for this job, under contact, there’s every reason to believe that the homeowner acquired title when the soil was delivered.

    I have seen several articles about this, with no mention of the homeowner, but based on my knowledge of contract law, this is now a stolen coin.

    There is a recent presence in the discovery, a few months back, of a cache of old, but pristine, US small currency, found hidden in the walls of a home being remodeled. There was a significant court battle over ownership, wherein the Contractor claimed he “owned” the numismatics items found secreted in the home, in spite of the homeowner occupying the very residence! Further the former home’s owners’ descendents also sued for the cash!

    http://www.fourwinds10.com/siterun_data/entertainment/drama/news.php?q=1226343451

    breakingnews.nypost.com/dynamic/stories/H/HOUSE_HIDDEN_MONEY

    **************
    Nov. 9, 2008

    CLEVELAND (AP) — A contractor who found $182,000 in Depression-era currency hidden in a bathroom wall has ended up with only a few thousand dollars, but he feels some vindication. The windfall discovery amounted to little more than grief for contractor Bob Kitts, who couldn’t agree on how to split the money with homeowner Amanda Reece.

    It didn’t help Reece much, either. She testified in a deposition that she was considering bankruptcy and that a bank recently foreclosed on one of her properties.

    And 21 descendants of Patrick Dunne – the wealthy businessman who stashed the money that was minted in a time of bank collapses and joblessness – will each get a mere fraction of the find. “If these two individuals had sat down and resolved their disputes and divided the money, the heirs would have had no knowledge of it,” said attorney Gid Marcinkevicius, who represents the Dunne estate. “Because they were not able to sit down and divide it in a rational way, they both lost.”

    **************
    It would behoove Heritage Auction Galleries to insist on a release of title from the homeowner, lest they be sued.

    I have notified Heritage of my opinion.

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