With the 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, it would take decades for the U.S. economy to recoup from the effects of the California Gold Rush. At a time in history when the gold to silver ratio was already impacting the United States Mint’s operation, the discovery of gold would once again upset this fragile balance. With the circulation of gold flooding the markets, the price of silver went up so high silver coins were worth more as bullion than actual face value. This further caused an influx in individuals hoarding their silver and gold, exporting it to other countries, or melting it down for their own profit. With the inflated price of silver, the United States Mint struggled to make a profit because the actual face value of a silver coin was outweighed by the cost of its production. Therefore, by 1851 the Mint reduced silver coin production significantly across all denominations.
The abrupt decline in Seated Liberty Half Dollar mintages witnessed in the early 1850s at the New Orleans Mint is the perfect example of how the price of silver drove down production. In 1849, the New Orleans Mint coined 2.3 million silver half dollars, followed by 2.4 million in 1850. In 1851, however, the output had dropped to only 402,000 at that facility. Furthermore, a remarkably high rate of attrition through heavy circulation has left us with a paucity of high-grade specimens. Indeed, only 8 examples have been certified by PCGS and NGC at grades of MS65 or higher– with the best example being a single NGC MS66+.
It should come as no surprise, then that this stunning MS65 1851-O half dollar certified by NGC realized $5,640 during the recent Stacks Bowers Official Auction of the Whitman Coin & Collectibles Baltimore Expo in June, 2017. An opportunity that crosses the auction block once only every several years, this scarcely seen coin would no doubt thrill any New Orleans Mint enthusiast or Seated Liberty aficionado.
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