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10 O-Mint Treasures
new orleans mint coinsBy Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
January 22, 2009
new orleans mint coins

Like the city of which it is a part, the New Orleans Mint has a colorful history. Because of this history, selecting the 10 best coins it produced shouldn't be a problem, right? Actually, the problem is one of reducing the list to just 10 coins, as treasures abound. But I'm getting ahead of the story. Let me take a moment to trace the development of the mint, its first demise and resurrection, its second passing, and how it fares today.

The Act of Congress that resulted in the construction of the New Orleans Mint was passed in early 1835, during the last year of the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The construction of a mint in New Orleans was an extension of Jacksonian Democracy, which advocated the expansion of the country westward, beyond the Mississippi River. Jackson knew that the production of more hard currency would facilitate this expansion.

William Strickland was selected to be the architect for the building. As a result, Strickland, who had previously designed the Philadelphia Mint and who also designed the mints at Dahlonega and Charlotte, became the architect of the first four U.S. mints. His design for the facility in New Orleans was in the Greek Revival style, which was used in the design of most public buildings of the period.

Unfortunately, Strickland failed to take into account the unusual type of land (swampy, marshy, below sea level) on which the mint was to be constructed. As a result, structural problems have frequently beset the New Orleans Mint. In 1854, the government hired an engineering graduate of West Point for a variety of repairs including installing masonry flooring.

The man was P. G. T. Beauregard, who subsequently played a major role in the Army of the South, as one of Robert E. Lee's most able generals. In fact, it was Brig. Gen. Beauregard, as the commander of the Confederate forces in Charleston, S.C., who ordered the bombardment of Fort Sumter that was the beginning of the Civil War.

The New Orleans Mint was taken over by the Confederacy in 1861 but was recaptured by the Union Army the next year. According to Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, "One day before the rebel takeover, the Coiner delivered 330,000 regular O-Mint half dollars for the Union.… In March, the New Orleans branch struck 1,240,000 more for the State of Louisiana; in April, a final batch of 962,633 for the Confederacy." Unfortunately for coin collectors, the vast majority of these half dollars were struck from the same pair of Union dies, and there is no way to distinguish which coins were actually struck by the Confederacy.

As Breen notes, however, "the chances are 7 out of 8 that any given 1861 O was made for the rebels: 2,202,633 = 87% of the total 1861 O output [2,532,633]." A small number of coins were minted by the Confederacy that weren't made completely from dies supplied by the Union, but that is another story.

After the capture of New Orleans in 1862, coinage operations were shut down and the building was used by the Union forces as its headquarters in the city. After Reconstruction, in 1878 the New Orleans Mint reopened as a minting facility, and it continued in this capacity until 1909, when it produced the last coins bearing the O mintmark.

Since 1909, the mint has served as a U.S. Assayer's Office, a Federal prison, and a U.S. Coast Guard storage facility. The building was abandoned at the end of World War II, and then taken over by the State of Louisiana in 1965, with the proviso that the state would renovate and restore it within 15 years. In fact, the state accomplished this renovation between 1978 and 1980, and since 1981 the building has served as a museum of the minting operations, New Orleans jazz, and Newcomb pottery, among other things.

Hurricane Katrina was not kind to the building, causing significant roof damage and water damage to some of the exhibits. During renovation, the museum was closed to the public from the time of Katrina in 2005 until October 2007. According to Wikipedia, "The museum reopened on October 20 of 2007, with a traveling exhibit of gold coins and artifacts from the American Museum of Natural History. The exhibition of mint machinery on the ground floor has reopened as well. The jazz exhibit remains closed, with tentative plans to reopen sometime in 2009."

During its period of operation, it's fair to say that the New Orleans Mint was a workhorse facility, churning out more than 427 million gold and silver coins of nearly every denomination. The total face value of these coins was approximately $300 million. My choices for 10 treasures bearing O mintmarks run the gamut from small-denomination pieces to gold $20s. What they all have in common is that they are scarce and, for the most part, expensive.

O-Mint Treasure No. 1: 1838-O half dime.

This is the "no stars" variety, and I chose it because it was the first of a long string of half dimes minted in New Orleans. In addition, with a mintage of just 70,000 (or 70,000+, according to Breen), this is a genuinely scarce coin.

There are two varieties of this date, described as follows in The Complete Guide to Liberty Seated Half Dimes, by Al Blythe: "V-1 with level date, centered. V-2 with low date running uphill toward base of rock." Blythe writes that the second variety is much scarcer than the first. In most grades, Blythe rates the date at Rarity 5 ("Very Scarce. Only a few will appear at large shows or auctions in a year's time."). In uncirculated, he calls V-1 R7 ("Rare. Only a few exist."). The second variety is apparently unknown in mint state.

Still, as scarce as this coin is in all grades, it isn't particularly expensive in lower grades, with one in Good-4 listing for just $110 in the latest Numismatic News "Coin Market." It goes to $130 in Very Good-8, $250 in Fine-12, $475 in Very Fine-20, and is still under $1,000 ($975) in Extremely Fine-40. Above EF it's beyond most collectors' budgets, hitting $29,500 in Mint State-65.

These values appear fairly realistic: In the Heritage Auction Archives, I learned that an 1838-O in MS-65 sold for $28,750 in 2004. At the other end of the grading scale, one in G-4 brought $115 in 2006.

O-Mint Treasure No. 2: 1895-O dime.

With an original mintage of 440,000 pieces, the 1895-O is considered the key to the Barber dime series. Of course, the 1894-S has a lower mintage, but this is a coin that is so rare that it's not really collectible. The 1895-O is eminently collectible, although its price, even in low grades, has risen enough in recent years to make it almost prohibitively expensive for the majority of collectors.

About the date's scarcity, David Lawrence, writing in The Complete Guide to Barber Dimes, notes that it is "available for a price in G to F. Difficult to locate in VF and in great demand in XF and above." In mint state, Lawrence assigns it a rarity rating of R6 ("Extremely scarce. Almost never available.").

In "Coin Market," the values for this key date are as follows: G-4, $385; VG-8, $575; F-12, $880; VF-20, $1,250; EF-40, $2,500; About Uncirculated-50, $3,800, MS-63, $8,500; and MS-65, $19,500. Heritage auction prices are somewhat consistent with these values, although the obtained prices vary considerably with the different certification services. For example, a G-4 specimen certified by ANACS sold for $322 in mid-2008. A Numismatic Guaranty Corp.-certified VG-8 brought $517.50 in September 2008, whereas a Professional Coin Grading Service VG-10 realized $1,035 in the same month.

The highest-grade 1895-O sold by Heritage was a PCGS-certified MS-66 that sold for a whopping $52,900 in 2006. The three MS-65 pieces auctioned by Heritage sold for between a little over $20,000 and $29,900. The latter coin was sold in 2005.

In 2006, I paid $750 for an ANACS-graded F-12 1895-O. Heritage sold a similar coin for $747.50 the year before.

O-Mint Treasure No. 3: 1838-O half dollar.

This is actually one of those super rare pieces that only the most well-heeled collectors can afford. According to Breen, "20 proofs dated 1838 with mintmark O above date, struck in Jan. 1839 ostensibly to test a press.…The 1838-O is one of the most famous of American rarities; for long the quantity minted was controversial. Beistle claimed that only three were struck; this is manifestly absurd, as his backer Col. E. H. R. Green owned seven.…"

As for value, "Coin Market" assigns it a price of $250,000 in EF-40 (PR-40?) and $300,000 in AU-50 (PR-50?). These listed values seem about right, as an 1838-O in PR-45, graded by PCGS, went for $276,000 in an April 2008 Heritage auction. Heritage auctioned two other examples in June 2005 and February 2008. The 2005 piece was graded PR-64 by PCGS; the 2008 coin, also PCGS-graded, was listed as PR-63, CAC (a designation meaning that the coin is extremely nice for its grade). Both pieces realized the same amount: $632,500.

O-Mint Treasure No. 4: 1853-O "no arrows or rays" half dollar.

Breen calls this "one of the most famous of American silver rarities." The mintage is unknown, and Breen was able to account for just three pieces, although he noted that a fourth is rumored. The grades of the three he traced were G, VG, and F. "Coin Market" assigns a value of $250,000 to one in VG-8 and $450,000 to one in EF-40(!), while noting the sale of a VG-8 from an Eliasberg Sale in 1997. The price realized was $154,000.

Not surprisingly, Breen cautions that "authentication is essential.… Forgeries are numerous, mostly alterations from 1858-O; these have date elements grossly different in shape from the genuine, and are necessarily lightweight.… Others could be made by grinding off arrows and rays from genuine 1853-O coins; these …would show abundant evidence of monkey business at date and in fields."

O-Mint Treasure No. 5: 1846-O dollar.

This is the first silver dollar minted in New Orleans. With a Seated Liberty design, the coin had a fairly substantial mintage of 59,000 pieces. Values in "Coin Market" range from $270 in G-4 (only $20 above the common-date price) to $20,000 in MS-63, with no higher grade listed. Quite a few Seated Liberty dollars have higher values than this in MS-63.

In Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States, David Bowers writes:

"The 1846-O has always been relatively easy to find in circulated grades below Extremely Fine (but EF or better pieces are quite rare). I suspect that this issue circulated widely and saw use in the channels of commerce up and down the Mississippi River Valley, especially riverboats…and casinos.… As the first branch mint silver dollar and as an issue of the New Orleans Mint, the 1846-O has always occupied a place of affection in collectors' hearts."

Nearly 100 1846-O dollars are listed in the Heritage archives of more than 1 million pieces sold at auction, but most are in low grades, which reinforces Bowers' comment above. Also, the highest grade listed for the date in "Coin Market" is the highest grade in which the coin has been sold at Heritage auction. The better of the two pieces sold in this grade realized $25,300 in July 2006.

O-Mint Treasure No. 6: 1895-O dollar.

The New Orleans Mint churned out millions and millions of silver dollars, with most dates having rather high mintages. Quite a few of the O-mint dollars are good examples of condition rarity: common in lower grades and decidedly uncommon in higher grades. The 1895-O is interesting in that it combines relatively low mintage (450,000) with extreme scarcity in high grades. In "Coin Market," the date starts at $275 in G-4 and tops out at $225,000 in MS-65.

In A Guide Book of Morgan Silver Dollars, Bowers writes:

"The 1895-O is often seen in circulated grades, and among higher-level pieces, AU examples are encountered with frequency.… 'Mint State' coins do exist, including some that should be designated AU. To obtain a decent one, look at the MS-63 grade, at least, and be prepared to spend a lot of money. No matter the grade, most are casually if not lightly struck and have dull, insipid luster. The 1895-O emerged as the single circulation strike variety that is not known to have been a part of any Treasury releases via bags."

If you take Bowers' advice, how much is an MS-63 1895-O going to cost you? "Coin Market" assigns it a value of $57,500 in this grade. Interestingly, there are nine listings in this grade in the Heritage archives. The two most recent sales, both in 2008, involved PCGS-graded coins. Both sold for, are you ready for this, $57,500!

In MS-65, there are three listings in the archives. All were deep mirror prooflike coins, and the most recent sale was in 2005. This last coin was graded by PCGS, and the price realized was $253,000.

O-Mint Treasure No. 7: 1854-O gold $3 piece.

I selected this coin because it is one-of-a-kind: the only gold $3 piece minted in New Orleans. With a mintage of 24,000, it is relatively common (for a gold $3 piece) and not prohibitively expensive unless you're looking for a mint-state example.

Of course, many collectors would consider any gold $3 piece prohibitively expensive, as they're all valued at more than $1,000 in EF-40. In "Coin Market," the 1854-O is worth $700 in F-12, $1,000 in VF-20, $2,000 in EF-40, and $20,000 in MS-60. It's not priced in any higher grade. If you're wondering what the date is worth in G-6, keep reading.

I looked on eBay to see if any 1854-Os were listed and found just two certified examples, both offered for fixed prices. One AU-50 graded by NGC was offered for $5,500, whereas another with the same grade from ANACS was listed at $5,995.

In the Heritage auction archives, 168 examples of the coin have been sold since about 2001. Many of these had problems, such as cleaning, removed jewelry mounts, scratches, and the like. Of the 168 examples, very few were in mint state. In coins sold in the last two or three years, all have brought well over the $20,000 value in "Coin Market" for an MS-60 piece. To be fair, none of the 1854-Os listed in the archives actually graded MS-60. Most, in fact, graded MS-62.

One of the most surprising listings was of an AU-58 (PCGS) coin that sold in 2008 for $34,500. Two NGC-graded MS-62 specimens brought $63,250 and $54,050 in 2006 and 2007, respectively. The highest price I found for an 1854-O went in 2006 for a PCGS-graded MS-61: $86,250.

At the other end of the grade spectrum, an 1854-O gold $3 in G-6 (ANACS) sold in a Heritage auction in 2001. This "gem," which actually appeared overgraded to me, brought $287.50.

O-Mint Treasure No. 8: 1909-O gold $5.

This is the only O-mint Indian Head gold $5, and with a mintage of just 34,200 pieces, it is one of only two Indian Head gold $5s that is worth more than $1,000 even in lower circulated grades. In "Coin Market," it lists for $2,150 in VF-20, $3,350 in EF-40, $7,250 in AU-50, $27,500 in MS-60, $64,500 in MS-63, and $475,000 in MS-65. The other key date in the series, 1929, is worth considerably more than the 1909-O up through AU-50, and then much less thereafter.

Of course, when a coin is as scarce and valuable as this one, there is motivation to try to "create" one to fool the unwary. As Breen puts it, "some of the rarer dates like 1908 S and 1909 O come so weak that mintmarks are difficult to read with certainty, and occasionally the ungodly either affix an O to a genuine Philadelphia coin or alter 1909 D to simulate the rarer mintmark."

In A Handbook of 20th-Century United States Gold Coins 1907-1933, David Akers writes, "In terms of overall rarity, this is the premier issue of the series although it is just marginally more rare than the 1911-D.… Even in MS-60 to 63 condition, the 1909-O is seldom available and above that level, there are probably fewer than 10 specimens in all.… This is one of the major rarities of 20th-century gold, especially in gem or near gem condition."

In the Heritage auction archives, quite a few 1909-Os have been sold over the years. Most were circulated, as you would expect. One common grade that I saw was AU-58, that is, coins with just a hint of circulation. The going price for these was around $12,000.

Six MS-63 pieces have sold at Heritage auction since 2005, with no higher grade offered. Of these six, two sold for $92,000, one in January 2008 and the other a year earlier. The most recently sold piece, graded MS-63 by PCGS with a CAC designation, went for $86,250 in April 2008.

O-Mint Treasure No. 9: 1841-O gold $10.

This is the first O-mint gold $10. With a mintage of just 2,500 pieces, Breen writes, "Usually F to VF, Ex[tremely] rare EF, prohibitively rare AU, unknown UNC." "Coin Market" prices it as follows: F-12, $1,750; VF-20, $3,450; EF-40, $6,950; AU-50, $19,500, with no prices in higher grades. If Breen was right, and the coin is prohibitively rare in AU, then $19,500 seems way too low. Of course, the problem may be to find one for sale.

Heritage has sold eight pieces of this date since 1999, with none grading higher than AU-53. All of the prices seem low to me, given the rarity of the date. The most recent sale, in January 2008, was of an 1841-O graded VF-35 by PCGS. The coin sold for $7,475, which is actually slightly higher than the EF-40 value in "Coin Market." An NGC EF-45 sold in November 2007 for $10,350.

The two AU-53 specimens, both graded by PCGS, were auctioned by Heritage in 1999 and 2003, with the one sold in 1999 bringing $12,075. The coin sold in 2003 realized just $10,637.50, despite having a strong strike for the date. The earlier coin had a typical strike, with some weakness in the center of the coin. Given the "Coin Market" value of nearly $20,000 for an AU-50, I would say that the buyers of the two AU-53s got their coins at a steal.

O-Mint Treasure No. 10: 1856-O gold $20.

This is one of two great gold $20 rarities from New Orleans, the other one being the 1854-O. There were just 2,250 minted of this date, and Breen calls it extremely rare, with "possibly 10-12 known." Values in "Coin Market" reflect this rarity, starting at $97,500 in VF-20 and ending at a whopping $750,000 in MS-63.

Heritage records 10 sales of this date between 2001 and 2008, with at least two of the sales involving the same coin. The most recent 1856-O sold by Heritage, graded AU-58 by NGC, brought $575,150. "Coin Market" gives values of $300,000 and $525,000 for the grades of AU-50 and MS-60, respectively.

The best example of an 1856-O gold $20 sold by Heritage was graded Specimen-63 by NGC. According to the catalog description of the coin, "Many specialists believe that this is the single most important New Orleans double eagle in existence.… This 1856-O double eagle is the finest example known by a wide margin. It is also a specimen striking and certified as such by NGC."

When this coin sold the first time, in January 2002, it brought $310,500. A little over two years later, the same coin sold for $542,800. Given the enormous rise in value in less than three years time, the "Coin Market" value of $750,000 may be pretty much on target if the coin were sold today.

Well, that's my list of 10 treasures from the New Orleans Mint. This list doesn't exhaust the roster of great New Orleans' coins by any means. Other possibilities for the list of winners from New Orleans include the 1892-O "micro O" Barber half dollar, Morgan dollar condition rarities such as the 1886-O and 1893-O, the 1841-O and 1892-O gold $5s, and the 1854-O gold $20.

If you're planning a trip to New Orleans, be sure to check out the mint, as it was the site of some of our most important coins.

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