The Howell Specimen. A new discovery example that was brought to our offices in Irvine, California just prior to this auction and confirmed as authentic. The initial examination of the surfaces finds the usual and expected handling marks from long service in the channels of commerce, with nothing particularly deep or detracting, and the color a pleasing blend of light silver with a dash of gunmetal blue. Traces of ancient surface build up are noted within the recesses of the design, evidence of long storage, and these are mostly confined to the reverse. The rims are full and complete, sharper on the obverse with full dentils, while the reverse rim is nearly smooth, although the tops of the letters are intact. For identification, there is a minor planchet flake missing from the field below Liberty's foot near the rim and a few nicks on the letter U in UNITED. The normal wear patterns for a coin at the Very Good-8 grade level are present, with the letters L and TY in LIBERTY on the shield visible, but the T a tad faint. Ample definition remains within the recesses of Liberty's dress folds and the eagle's inner wings and neck.
This newly discovered example takes its honorable place as roughly tied with the Eliasberg specimen in PCGS VG-8 in the census of known 1853-O No Arrows half dollars, although the Howell specimen seems to show slightly more wear on the reverse rim and the eagle's wings. Thus the Howell specimen becomes tied for the second finest for the issue, or just a shade below as third finest of the now four known examples. The updated census is now VF-35, VG-8, VG-8 and G-6, with all examples certified at these levels by PCGS. NGC in their Census notes a single example as EF-40, but this is almost certainly the Garrett coin or a mechanical error, as no rumors even exist of another example of this prized rarity having come to light in more than 100 years. The four known examples of this issue, in order of discovery, are as follows:
1 - The Randall-Garrett Specimen. The 1853-O No Arrows and Rays half dollar is one of the rarest and most desirable of all United States coin issues. Its existence was first announced by J. W. Haseltine prior to 1881, likely residing in the J. Colvin Randall Collection, that was auctioned in 1885 by W. Elliot Woodward in his 77th Sale as lot 421. This example has been certified VF-35 by PCGS and represents the finest known example of this rare die pairing. In 1885 at the Woodward auction it was acquired by T. Harrison Garrett, and remained in that collection for nearly 100 years until 1979, thwarting all other collectors who desired to own this coin.
2 - The King Specimen. In 1892 a second example was discovered and appeared in the Colin E. King Collection auctioned by the Chapman brothers that same year. This piece has since been graded Good-6 by PCGS. The particulars of its discovery have not been widely publicized. This coin later graced such famous collections as Anderson-DuPont, Cass, Cox, Clarke, Reiver and Barasch, and it is now in a Registry Collection.
3 - The Trolley Fare Specimen. The third known example appeared made its debut in the numismatic community in 1909, today grading VG-8 at PCGS. Recall that a well circulated Liberty Seated half dollar would still be in circulation in 1909 and not draw any attention, Breen for one having witnessed worn out Liberty Seated quarters and half dollars in church collection plates as late as 1950 (if Breen is to be believed). Someone spent this particular 1853-O No Arrows half dollar for a trolley fare on Chicago's Cottage Grove Avenue line in 1909. The conductor turned all the coins in at the trolley station barn, where the barn man noticed it and replaced it with another half dollar from his pocket. The barn man then sold it to Stevens & Co of Chicago for $5, and in classic coin dealing fashion, they sold it to Charles Wilcox of Chicago for $100 who in turn sold it to De Witt Smith of Massachusetts for $500. Smith refused to sell it for $2,500, but it soon ended up in the collection of H. O. Grandberg of Oshkosh, Wisconsin who displayed it proudly at the American Numismatic Association Convention in 1911. This coin later became the proud acquisition of famed collectors Waldo Newcomer, Col. E. H. R. Green, Adolphe Menjou, and Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr.
4 - The Howell Specimen. After 1909 no additional examples of the 1853 No Arrows half dollar came to light until just now. From 1909 to 2012 the countless coin deals that have transpired failed to yield a new piece from these dies. Remarkably this new discovery coin was nearly lost were it not for one of the owners who inherited a small group of silver coins earlier this year. Long held in a Northwestern family, these silver coins were stored in a suitcase in the basement. When the owner's husband passed away in 1980, the wife kept them undisturbed. Recently the wife passed away and the coins were discovered and examined by the heirs, one person noticing an odd, old half dollar of 1853 and looked it up in a coin reference, where it was noted to be a "no arrows or rays" piece. The coin was taken to a local coin shop along with the additional silver coins and nearly sold for $15 with the balance of the holding. Numismatically insignificant bulk silver coin purchases are usually directed to one of the various smelters and sold for scrap silver value, then melted and turned into silver bars. The heirs wisely decided to keep this one particular coin, however, and after further examination made the fortuitous decision to contact Stack's Bowers Galleries, where Gene Nesheim of our staff had an opportunity to examine photos of the coin. The coin did not appear to be altered or even counterfeit as so commonly seen on such new discoveries, and he requested the opportunity to examine the coin in person. Numerous phone calls and several discussions later, Gene suggested that the coin be sent to our Irvine, California offices. Not comfortable with mailing such a potential treasure, the owners insisted on bringing the coin to Irvine personally. Upon close examination Gene determined it to be genuine and suggested getting the certified by PCGS, so off the family and Gene went to PCGS to submit the coin for further expert review. Days of waiting for the news seemed interminable for the owners. After examining the diagnostics and weight, the coin was indeed determined to be a new discovery example and the fourth known 1853-O No Arrows half dollar, and it was certified as VG-8 by PCGS. The owners have christened the coin "The Howell Specimen" in honor of the family members who passed them what turned out to be a truly remarkable find.
How did the 1853-O No Arrows half dollar issue come about, and why it is so rare? The Philadelphia Mint shipped new dies to the New Orleans Mint in late 1852, as was common practice, so the new coinage could begin in January. Shipping took time, as this era did not have efficient railroads and the safest route was by sea, which required several days passage from the East Coast to the Port of New Orleans. Research by Richard Kelly and Nancy Oliver recount a New Orleans newspaper article of January 2, 1853 which notes a "...silver half dollar laid on our table for examination, as the product of the massive stamping machinery on the first day of the year, 1853..." This article would seem to account for one of the earliest appearances of this rare issue, with the date of striking probably January 1, 1853. Recall that during this period the California Gold Rush was well under way, with gold pouring out of the fields, streams and valleys into boats for passage to the Philadelphia Mint and Eastern banks, the entire affair disrupting gold prices relative to silver. This caused the price ratio of gold to silver to drop on the gold side, making silver more valuable than before. When this happened, after 1850 it cost more than face value to strike silver coins. Accordingly, those that were made went into the hands of speculators and melters and mintages dropped. By early 1853 it cost 53 cents in silver to coin a half dollar. By that time scarcely any were seen in circulation. The end result is most of the silver coins of this period were lost in the ensuing years. Survival rates run around .0007 to .0033 of the original mintages, per our analysis below.
Congress, ever ready to pass laws after dutiful and thoughtful examination, finally addressed this crisis with the Mint Act of February 21, 1853, to be adopted on April 1 of that year. This Act reduced the amount of silver required for all coinage except the silver dollar, which for tradition's sake was left at the earlier standard. The half dollar was reduced in weight from 208 grains to 192 grains, a reduction of about 7%. This reduction would bring the silver value of a half dollar slightly below face value, thereby stopping further melting of new coins issued after adoption of the Mint Act. The Philadelphia Mint determined to announce this revised silver standard by placing arrows at the date of all silver coinage (other than the silver three-cent piece, which was already only 75% pure silver in content and was could not be melted profitably). The newly authorized quarters and half dollars of 1853 were further distinguished by the addition of a glory of rays on the reverse around the eagle. The Arrows and Rays type would stand to "announce" to the general public that these coins were struck to the new reduced weight standard for silver coins, thus they should not be melted as no profit could be made from this venture! As silver coins were in desperate demand across the nation, the new dies were prepared and shipped to the branch mints where coinage began in earnest on April 1 to the new standard. It would seem logical that older, heavier (and, hence, more valuable) silver coins struck before this revised standard would be gathered up and melted, including by the Treasury Department, to be coined again at the new lower weight standard. Today it seems hard to imagine that speculators would have so efficiently gathered up millions upon millions of silver coins and had them all melted for the modest spread, given the cost of transport, smelting costs and general risks of such an endeavor in a wildly fluctuating metals market. Regardless of who actually melted most of the old tenor silver coins, one fact is clear, not many of those earlier dated pieces exist today, especially those struck in 1850, 1851, 1852 and early 1853.
Mint records do not provide a distinct mintage figure for the 1853-O No Arrows half dollar issue. We must therefore back into the estimated number struck based on the number of examples that survive today. We can safely assume that these 1853 No Arrows half dollars were struck between January 1, 1853 and late February when the Mint Act was passed. Thus the coinage of these No Arrows coins certainly occurred in this two month time frame. It was common practice to use old dies for coinage until the dies broke or were no longer serviceable, not just by cracks in the dies but by actual pieces falling out of the dies before they were replaced. In several cases coins are known of a particular year, but none were recorded as being struck, such as 1824 dimes, which apparently were struck and released in 1825 with other dimes of that date. So the striking and release of the 1853 No Arrows half dollar is certainly not entirely unusual or without precedent for the United States Mint of the early to mid 19th century.
Many years of study have been devoted to the Liberty Seated half dollar series by numismatic scholars Bill Bugert and Randy Wiley. Together they have systematically studied each date and mintmark combination, noting not only the die pairings used, but the frequency of their appearance among surviving coins. From this wealth of research which they have publicized over the last generation, much can be discerned about the 1853-O No Arrows half dollar. Continuing the use of serviceable dies on hand in one year for coinage of the next year was standard mint practice. Research by Bugert and Wiley shows that the 1853-O reverse is the same as their WB-2 reverse of 1852. Diagnostics include a small die line under the right wing of the eagle from the high to the crook in the wing above. Breen's research shows that 19 reverse dies were in New Orleans in 1851, with production somewhat limited by the silver price advance, and by 1852 these dies were not being used as rapidly due to the decrease in production. There were certainly several potential reverse dies available, and with the new obverse dies arriving in late 1852 or early 1853, coinage could have begun as normal for the period, and apparently did so.
The research published by Wiley and Bugert and given below shows estimated survival rates for the silver half dollar, then the highest denomination federal silver coin in widespread use in the United States, dollars being in the minority:
Date Mintage Estimated Survival Survival Rate
1850-O 2,456,000 1,750 to 4,350 .00070 to .00175
1851-O 402,000 500 to 1,300 .0012 to .0033
1852-O 144,000 150 to 400 .001 to .0028
1853-O unknown 4 .001 to .003
From these numbers it is reasonable to assume that given the survival rates of New Orleans Mint coinage of this period the estimated mintage of the 1853-O No Arrows half dollar was likely between 1,400 and 4,000 pieces, a very wide range, but useful in the context to show a low production. Given the roughly consistent survival rates of prior New Orleans Mint half dollars dated 1850 to 1852, and the number of coins known today at just four examples, this is a logical estimate of the original production for the 1853-O No Arrows. Of course the balance of the specimens were melted long ago, and this new discovery just missed this similar fate before coming to light years later. As it has been more than 100 years since the last example of this incredibly rare and important issue was discovered, it is unlikely that more examples remain unverified, although it is always possible that another piece will turn up at some point in the future. Such is the excitement of numismatics!
The popular book 100 Greatest U.S. Coins by Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth ranks the 1853-O No Arrows half dollar as #58. This historic rarity was previously considered uncollectible due to having three or fewer examples available to collectors. This fourth specimen now breaches that barrier and the issue now falls into that category of collectible, if only for the well heeled specialist.
Stack's Bowers Galleries is proud to present to the numismatic public the Howell Specimen of the famous 1853-O No Arrows Liberty Seated half dollar rarity.
Numismatic Reflections by Q. David Bowers
After reading the preceding description there is not much I can add! As to whether a coin is collectible or non-collectible, this is strictly a value judgment. Many federal gold coins of which only four examples are known generally are considered to be in that category, due to the wide demand for them. On the other hand, an early 19th-century store card of which just three pieces are known would be considered exceedingly rare, but probably not labeled non-collectible.
The 1853-O No Arrows half dollar has always been a classic, and it is certainly an honor for the Stack's Bowers Galleries organization to introduce to the world this new discovery. How impressive it is!