Made History, but no One Noticed
By Paul M. Green
The 1839 Seated
Liberty half dollar was the historic first year
of the new design, yet it appears that very few
took any notice. That presents something of a
problem today when collectors want top quality
examples of what was a most historic coin.
The problem is compounded by the fact that in
terms of half dollars 1839 was a very busy year.
The 1,392,976 half dollar mintage of 1839 was
split three ways starting with the old Bust half
dollar. Then there was a new 1839 Seated Liberty
half dollar with no drapery at Liberty’s left
elbow, and finally there was a new Seated
Liberty 1839 half dollar with drapery at the
The whole thing requires a bit of explaining. In
1836 a new steam-powered press was put into use
at the Philadelphia facility, so production was
increased. With new facilities opening in
Dahlonega, Charlotte and New Orleans, it seemed
that finally the national coin shortage would
rapidly become a thing of the past.
This all seemed to give officials the feeling
that it would be a good time for a design change
on the silver and gold coins. Christian Gobrecht
was assigned the task and his Seated Liberty
design had no drapery at Liberty’s left elbow.
As it would work out, the Seated Liberty design
would be something of a work in progress. The
design was used on other denominations
originally with the half dollar actually being
late to have the new design. In all cases, the
design appeared first without drapery.
After the production of what were believed to be
perhaps 600,000 examples of the Seated Liberty
half dollar without drapery, the drapery was
added. The addition was because of a
modification of the original Gobrecht design by
Robert Ball Hughes, and the change would be made
to all denominations.
The idea of having three different half dollars
in 1839 seems pretty interesting but apparently
the majority of collectors at the time did not
agree. In fact, it looks like there was little
or no interest.
It is normal when there is a new design to see
extra examples saved. It simply seems to be a
natural reaction, although that trend is
apparently more modern. There is very little
indication that there was any special saving of
the initial 1839 no-drapery half dollar.
The evidence is in the absence of Mint State
examples of the no-drapery 1839. It cannot be
seen as too surprising since realistically a
half dollar was a lot of money to many at the
time. What collecting there was tended to be in
The 1839 with the drapery added is $38 in G-4
while the no-drapery 1839 is $45. In MS-60 the
1839 with-drapery is at $1,000 while the
no-drapery is at $6,000. In MS-65 the 1839 with
drapery is $25,000 while the 1839 with no
drapery is listed at $178,000.
Trying to find an MS-65 is a real challenge for
either. The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has
seen just three examples of the with-drapery
1839 in MS-65 or better and just two examples of
the no-drapery 1839 in MS-65 or better. The
Professional Coin Grading Service totals are
similar and in fact identical in the case of the
no-drapery 1839, which would give us a grand
total of four examples in MS-65 at PCGS and NGC
The 1839 without drapery can be seen as a less
than one-year type coin and that makes demand
potentially high. As the historic first Seated
Liberty half dollar and a key type coin, the
no-drapery 1839 has a bright future.