The NGC Universal ID is a four digit alphanumeric that groups coins based on a unique combination of date, mintmark, denomination and striking process (MS, PF, or SP). These IDs are a simple organization of all coins prior to variety attribution and grading.
The 1817/4 half dollar was first announced to the numismatic community in the October 1930 issue of The Numismatist, under the 'Editorial Comments-Numismatic News' section. We quote the commentary entitled NEW VARIETY OF HALF DOLLAR OF 1817 REPORTED in its entirety:
E.T Wallis, of Los Angeles, Cal., writes that he has recently discovered a heretofore unknown variety of the 1817 half dollar, the last figure of the date being cut over a 4. A number of half dollars of 1817 over '13 are known, but this is the first one over '14 reported, Mr. Wallis says. He also says the coin is practically Uncirculated and the overdate can be seen plainly. The reverse is also an unlisted variety, as both I's in United and America have the lower ceriphs broken off diagonally toward the right, and the I in United also has the left side of the top ceriph broken off. The obverse shows a die break across the coin, starting from the border to the right of the figure 7 and through the ear and between B and E of Liberty to the top of the border. Mr. Wallis thinks the die may have been cracked when the 7 was cut over the 4 and the die may have been broken when the striking began. Howard R. Newcomb, of Los Angeles, and M.L. Beistle, of Shippensburg, Pa., both authorities on the half-dollar series, have examined the coin and pronounced it a hitherto unknown variety.'
Why is the 1817/4 variety so rare, i.e., why were so few apparently minted? Part of the reason may stem from Wallis' thought above that the die may have broken when the 7 was cut over the 4, which had been partially effaced by Mint personnel. We might speculate that this effacing weakened the die, causing premature failure after just a few strikings. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the 1817/4's cousin, the 1817/3, did not have the 3 effaced, and was produced with a considerably higher mintage. This leads to another intriguing question: was the 1817/4 struck prior to the 1817/3? If the theory that effacement of the 1817/4 caused the obverse die to break is given credence, then perhaps Mint personnel, wanting to avoid a repeat of this problem, skipped the effacement process for the 1817/3 variety.
Downey presents additional information that may help to explain the shorter-than-normal life of the 1817/4 obverse die. In his April 1, 1997 catalog of the Alfred E. Burke 1817/4 specimen, he states:
I have seen and studied the Dosier, Overton, Burke and Meyer specimens. It is apparent that the obverse die was poorly prepared, either in 1814 or when it was reworked in 1817. Its face was 'sprung' or warped, not flat. When brought down in the screw press it unevenly impressed the planchet. The high portion of the left side of the die, the fields, could not properly smooth the natural roughness of a raw planchet. The adjoining curls, struck from the low areas of the die, are noticeably flat. The absence of pressure on the obverse, of course, led to weakness on the reverse. Thus we see flatness along the right side of the shield, the claws below and the tip of the right wing. Two theories seek to explain the shorter life of the die. First, it was not properly hardened after the annealing process, leading to its early fracture. Second, its irregular shape subjected portions of the die to unusual pressure during the coining process, again leading to early deterioration.'
A follow-up question is: why was a surplus 1814 die recycled in the first place, instead of preparing new dies? One answer to this question may lie in the early Mint's practice of using dies from previous years until they wore out or broke. This was apparently done, to some extent, for economic reasons, as die steel was relatively expensive, and it took considerable time to prepare new dies, as Craig Sholley also illustrates in a series of articles on 'Early U.S. Minting Methods' in the John Reich Journal. However, Mint personnel were continually experimenting with the forging and hardening of dies. According to the author, the early Mint had not mastered these techniques, resulting in frequent die failures. This may also help to account for Mint officials wanting to extend die life as much as possible.
The War of 1812 and its economic aftermath, along with a fire at the Mint, may also have played a role, if only indirect, in the rarity of the 1817/4 half dollar. Half dollar mintages of one million pieces plus were the rule for most years prior to the war and through 1814. By 1814, an economic recession and an associated decline in silver and gold deposits drastically reduced the mintage of precious metal coinage. In the case of the half dollar, only 47,150 1815-dated coins were produced, which according to Mint records were delivered January 10, 1816. Right after this delivery, again based on Mint records, a fire destroyed the structure holding the rolling mills and other pieces of equipment. This put an end to silver and gold coinage for at least a year, even though bullion deposits were beginning to increase again. By May 1817, with new equipment installed, the Mint resumed the coinage of silver. The first denomination struck was the half dollar, in great demand as the 'workhorse' of U.S. commerce in that era. Mint officials, who were probably anxious to process built-up silver deposits into coinage, may have, for the sake of expediency, simply retrieved a left over 1814 die from the die storage area and repunched it with a 7, causing it to break after just a few strikes. This scenario, of course, still begs the question: why were Mint personnel unable to have dies ready for 1817 coinage, especially after the production of silver coins had been off line throughout 1816 and early 1817? Sheridan Downey (1977) states: 'One might suppose that (John) Reich (Assistant Engraver) had plenty of time in 1816 to prepare working dies for 1817. Apparently not. The first two obverse dies used in 1817 were overdates (1817/3 and 1817/4).'
Description and Analysis courtesy of Heritage Auctions and may not be republished without written permission.
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