One of just four or five that are believed to exist, this historic rarity is seldom seen or offered. Toned in deep russet-gold to blue at the rims, the centers are brighter silver with fantastic reflectivity over both the devices and the fields. Moderate hairlines and a scattering of reeding marks are present on the surfaces, and these account for the modest grade assigned. The reverse is of nicer quality, with fewer handling marks and the consistent high degree of reflectivity, along with perfectly matching toning to the obverse. A coin that carries its own credentials, a small number of coins struck by specially polished dies are known, including this piece in ANACS Proof-60 and another example certified as a Specimen by NGC. These two coins have not been certified as Proofs because no official records exist for Proof strikings of the 1861-O half dollar. The degree of reflectivity is much higher than seen on any circulation strike New Orleans coin of the period, furthermore there is an area within the left wing feathers near the shield where much of the definition was entirely polished smooth in the effort to prepare these dies to strike these rare coins. A similar coin from these same dies was sold in our (Stack's) auction of the George "Buddy" Byers Collection in 2006.
From 2004 to early 2011, this exact coin was on display at the New Orleans Mint in the Louisiana State Museum, but was returned to its previous owner for inclusion in our August 2011 Chicago ANA Auction as part of the Robert Leneve CSA Collection. Ron Guth used this same coin for his plate coin of the Liberty Seated half dollar series, since so many collectors have seen and know of the present coin and its historic background.
Although there are no definitive records, these were certainly struck under the auspices of the State of Louisiana or the Confederate States of America as the New Orleans branch mint slipped under the control of each of these entities in the early days of 1861 through April of that year.
As stated when this cataloger (Jim Matthews) wrote the aforementioned "Buddy" Byers catalog in 2006, and again here, branch mint Proofs are rare animals indeed. They were struck in very limited quantities when some event transpired that was worth commemorating. The New Orleans Mint seems to have produced the greatest number of such Proofs over the long span of its tenure. The San Francisco Mint produced its fair share while Carson City and Denver produced just a handful each. For the collector who appreciates rarity and history, the present piece would be hard to best.
Events unfolded in 1861 which rocked this country to its core, and the terrible Civil War raged on until 1865. At the official ceremonies where the Confederacy took control of the New Orleans Mint, these Proof half dollars were likely given to dignitaries of the Confederacy. One can only imagine the gallery of historical figures who examined the present piece.
Breen states that the official transfer of the New Orleans Mint took place at the end of February, 1861, the incumbent officials being confirmed in their offices by swearing an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. The officials were William A. Elmore, Superintendent; A. J. Guirot, Treasurer; Howard Millspaugh, Assayer; Dr. B. F. Taylor, Chief Coiner; M.F. Bonzano, M. D., Melter and refiner. Interestingly Bonzano remained on duty as a Union spy, transmitting reports to the Treasury Department throughout the war. As contemporary reports likely exist of the transfer of the New Orleans Mint, the officials present would likely have been recipients of these Proofs. When the Civil War finally ended in 1865, the New Orleans Mint was closed, but did reopen in 1879.
An important bidding opportunity, this rare, historic and well-pedigreed coin would serve as a highlight in any advanced collection.
From our (Stack's) Anderson-Dupont Sale, November 1954, lot 2168; and our sale of the Robert Leneve CSA Collection, Part II, August 2011, lot 10332.