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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Specimen 1853-O Eagle, Duckor-Price 1893-O and 1895-S Barber Half Dollars

News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #12

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds

After covering rarities in the upcoming Boston auctions for weeks, I saved the most awestriking collection for last. Dr. Steven Duckor’s collection of Barber Halves is the greatest of all time for this series. Please read the two part series that I wrote about the importance and depth of this set. Click here to see Part 1, which was published yesterday. Part 2 will be posted soon. As those articles deal with the collection as a whole, with discussion of only a few specific coins, I will mention some additional Barber Halves in the Duckor collection in my columns, including commentary on the 1893-O and 1895-S below.

Just recently, I noticed that one of the most interesting Liberty Head U.S. gold coins will be in the upcoming Stack’s auction, which will be held on Sunday, Aug. 8 at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. It is an 1853-O Eagle that is NGC certified as ‘Specimen-61.’

I. Specially Struck 1853-O $10 Gold Coin

This 1853-O Eagle (U.S. $10 gold coin) is incredibly interesting. I very much enjoyed examining it. I have never seen another coin that very much resembles the texture and other characteristics of this 1853-O Eagle. I wish to thank Adam Crum of Monaco Rare Coins for enabling me to spend considerable time viewing this coin in 2008. It is one of five or so 19th century gold coins that has received a Specimen designation from the NGC, and the only Liberty Head Eagle to be so designated.

As far as I know, the only other Branch Mint gold coin that has received a Specimen designation by the NGC is the 1856-O Double Eagle that has been certified as SP-63 by both the PCGS and the NGC, and has a CAC sticker of approval. It sold privately for $1.8 million in March, as I reported in my inaugural column. It is important to point out, though, that 1856-O Double Eagles are Great Rarities overall, and any 1856-O Double Eagle is worth more than $150,000.

There is a unique Proof 1844-O Eagle, though that coin merits a separate discussion. Earlier this year, I wrote an article about the Proof 1907-D Double Eagle.

The late researcher Breen strongly believed that this 1853-O Eagle is a ‘Branch Mint Proof.’ Breen is probably the foremost U.S. coin expert of all time. In my view, however, it is not a Proof, but is fairly termed a “Specimen” striking.

Breen declared that this 1853-O Eagle is a Proof in two different books, which appeared more than ten years apart. In 1977, is encyclopedia of Proof coins was published, and, in 1988, a giant book was published that covered Proofs and business strikes, and other strikings, of all U.S. coins plus many colonial and territorial issues. Many of the coins that are listed as Proofs in 1977 are not listed as such in 1988. Breen never saw a good number of the coins that he listed as Proofs in 1977. Later, he changed his view of the status of some of these when he actually saw them or when he heard more about them from reliable sources. Moreover, between 1977 and 1988, he may have changed his mind about the Proof status of some coins that he had seen before 1977. Breen certainly did not change his mind about this 1853-O Eagle. He was certain that it is a Proof.

It is true that most experts now have come to believe that some of the coins that Breen labeled as Proofs in 1977 are really just Prooflike. Coins that are clearly not Proofs yet have mirrored surfaces are often termed ‘Prooflike,’ especially if such coins are well struck and/or have extra-smooth fields.

Prooflike coins are usually early business strikes from new dies or later business strikes that were struck from worn dies after they were extensively polished. Even though this 1853-O Eagle clearly has reflective surfaces, Prooflike would not be a correct attribution for it. The dies employed to strike it were not just polished; they were prepared much differently from the ways in which dies were prepared for routine strikings.

This 1853-O is very sharply struck. Quite a few other New Orleans Mint Eagles of the period are sharply struck as well. The characteristics of the design elements of this 1853-O, however, go beyond being sharply struck. Many of the design elements are in relatively higher relief than the corresponding design elements on business strikes.

The rims are different from those on 1853-O business strikes. Most parts of the rims are unusually broad, more so than almost all business strike Eagles of this type. One other 1853-O comes to mind that has unusually broad rims, but not quite as broad as the rims on this coin and that 1853-O Eagle is not particularly special in other ways. Moreover, the rims on this 1853-O are broader, for the most part, than most (or all?) Proof Eagles of the 1838 to 1865 period. It seems that Philadelphia Mint personnel did not really intend Proof Eagles of this period to have very broad rims, which are a special characteristic and not a requirement for a Proof coin. So, the rims on this coin are different from those on business strikes and from those of Proofs of the era.

Here are reasons as to why this 1853-O Eagle NOT a Proof. (1) Generally, 19th century Proof Eagles have fields that are ultra-smooth or are characterized by an ‘orange peel’ effect. The fields of this 1853-O are not all that smooth and there is no ‘orange peel’ effect. (2) The reflective fields are alive, but are not covered by thick mirrors. Most (though not all) 19th century Proof U.S. gold coins have thick mirrors. (3) Design elements are not squared to the extent that they usually are on Proof Liberty Head Eagles, though many are somewhat squared, more so than on typical business strikes. (4) On this 1853-O, the design elements glow, but are not of the snow-white or beige-white textures that often characterize the devices of 19th century Proof gold coins.

(5) This 1853-O Eagle exhibits several mint-caused imperfections that are curious, but would probably not be found on a post-1840 Proof coin and would even be suspect on a pre-1840 coin that is purported to be a Proof. There is NOT one of these five factors that conclusively demonstrate that this coin is not a Proof. A combination of factors, including the overall fabric of the coin, that lead me to conclude that this 1853-O Eagle is not a Proof.

Why is it termed a ‘Specimen’? Special characteristics have already been mentioned, like (1) the relief of certain design elements, (2) the shapes of the dentils, and (3) the structure of the rim. Additionally, (4) the reflective surfaces and the glow of the central design elements stem from a special polishing technique and distinguish this coin from almost all Prooflike business strike Eagles.

(5) The extent and nature of the overall strike is exceptional. The detail in the hair between the headband and the bun is especially noteworthy. The eagle design element, on the back of the coin, is extremely well detailed. (6) The overall fabric is special, though it cannot be fairly described in words. Plus, (7) even though the head of Miss Liberty (the central obverse design element) and the eagle (the central reverse design element) are not snow-white (or beige-white), these design elements have a special finish nonetheless. These have a creamy, soft glossy texture and they glow! Indeed, (8) when this coin is tilted under a light, Miss Liberty glows and the surfaces are particularly dynamic; they really dance. While Prooflike business strikes can come alive, too, it seems that this coin has a special personality.

Why does it exist? There is no need to know the intent of the pertinent Mint personnel in order to properly designate a coin as a ‘Specimen’ striking. It is the physical characteristics of a coin that define it from a structural perspective. The physical characteristics of this 1853-O Eagle clearly distinguish it from business strike Eagles of the era. Even so, I have two theories.

I hypothesize that certain personnel at the New Orleans Mint were trying to make a Proof 1853-O Eagle and did not really know how to make a Proof. It had been nine years since the lone Proof 1844-O Eagle was made, and the people who made this coin may not have been involved in the creation of the Proof 1844-O.

Not only were the dies heavily polished in a way that is different from the way in which dies for business strikes were polished, the dies were ‘worked on’ in other ways. The dentils were modified and the numerals are a little different. Moreover, there is peculiar roughness and indentations in some areas of the dies; the results are particularly noticeable in the fields near the eagle on the reverse (back of the coin). This is not due to grease on the dies, as one cataloguer has suggested.

Efforts to ‘improve’ or ‘enhance’ the resulting coin by modifying the dies probably did not yield the features that were planned. There may have been an intention to make the fields smoother or to impart some special texture. Not only were these efforts not a total success, they may have partially backfired. Personnel at the Mint, additionally, may have had trouble preparing the planchet (modified blank disc) that became this coin.

Another possibility is that Mint Officials were experimenting with a pair of dies that already had substantial imperfections, and thus had license to ‘do what they wanted’ with this pair. After all, the obverse (front) die has some very small fractures. In spite of the fact that most dentils are unusually well formed on this coin, there are some that are markedly imperfect. Plus, there are raised areas in the fields, from indentations in the dies, which are mysterious. This is a coin that really should be examined under more than five-times magnification. It is extraordinarily curious.

II. Duckor-Price 1893-O Half Dollar

Among the Barber Halves in the Duckor collection that I have seen, the 1893-O may be a prize that has not been fully recognized. Yes, it grades MS-66 and it is in a set where a large percentage of the coins are PCGS graded MS-67 or higher. The PCGS, however, has only graded three 1893-O halves as MS-66 and has graded none higher than MS-66. The NGC has also not assigned a grade of MS-67 or higher to an 1893-O half.

The Duckor 1893-O has an excellent pedigree. It was in the Thaine Price collection, which certainly contained second greatest collection of business strike Barber Halves of all time, after Duckor’s set. Earlier, it was in the James A. Stack Sr. collection, which is definitely one of the fifteen all-time greatest collections of U.S. coins and contained several tremendous Barber Halves.

Yes, I know this 1893-O was formerly NGC graded MS-65, probably in the early 1990s, when grading standards were much tougher than they were over most of the last decade. Moreover, in accordance with the criteria that prevailed in 1998, it was then undergraded. Dr. Duckor attended the Price sale and bought this coin as a floor bidder. In June 1998, he submitted it to the PCGS, along with many other coins from his collection, and it was then graded MS-66, unsurprisingly. Recently, it was given a CAC sticker of approval, which indicates that the experts at the CAC determine its grade to be in the middle or high end of the MS-66 range.

If a higher quality 1893-O half exists, I do not know about it. This coin is clearly of higher quality than the Byers 1893-O. Though that coin was impressive, it certainly does not score nearly as high as the Duckor 1893-O in the category of originality.

Though Dr. Duckor likes the Hugon 1893-O, which is also PCGS graded MS-66, I was not very impressed by it. Charles Browne, who is currently a PCGS grader, was active on the auction circuit in 2005 and he determined the Hugon 1893-O to be a ‘low end’ coin. Dale Friend had a PCGS graded MS-65 1893-O and Shireman has a PCGS graded MS-66 1893-O that appears, at a glance, to be different from the Hugon 1893-O. The Shireman 1893-O does not seem to have the aesthetic appeal of the Duckor 1893-O.

The Duckor 1893-O is more than very attractive. It has terrific, well balanced natural toning with underlying original luster. The orange-russet, tan-gray, cool blue, and fluorescent green tones developed nicely.

III. Duckor-Price 1895-S Half Dollar

The Duckor 1895-S is one of only two that the PCGS has graded MS-67 and these two are the highest graded. The NGC has graded one as MS-67 and it belongs to the collector who refers to his NGC Registry Sets as those of the “YeOldOne.” He acquired it in Oct. 2006. The Friend and Shireman 1895-S halves are PCGS graded MS-65. Also, this Duckor-Price 1895-S is CAC approved.

I find the reverse (back) of the Duckor-Price 1895-S to be awesome. Yes, the obverse is attractive too. The reverse, though, is nearly flawless and has really neat toning. If the reverse could be graded by itself, it would certainly merit a 68 grade. Barber coins tend to tone wonderfully when stored in coin albums of the kinds that were widely used during much of the 20th century. On this 1895-S, he orange-russet and apricot shades are very appealing. The blue hues in the inner fields and on the devices are pleasing and appear somewhat balanced. If my memory serves me correctly, there were evenly developed green, red-russet and purplish tones as well. Admittedly, though, it has been years since I have seen this 1895-S.

As I said initially, please see part 1 of my two-part series on the importance, evolution and meaning of Dr. Duckor’s set of Barber Halves. Further, I wrote an article on Dr. Duckor’s Barber quarters in 2009. Also, Dr. Duckor is cited in my three part series on collecting naturally toned coins (part 1, part 2, and part 3). Also, recent weekly columns feature discussions of other coins and collections in the Summer ANA auction in Boston, especially Column #8, Column #10 and last week’s column. (As usual, clickable links are in blue.)

©2008, 2010 Greg Reynolds

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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