Half Dime Is a Rare Find

Invariably, whenever I write about a particularly expensive coin, I will hear from readers who think they have a bonanza stuck away in a dresser drawer. Their coin will fit the description of the expensive coin except for maybe just one minor detail, such as the date. Son of a gun, it's happened again.

I had mentioned an 1870-S half dime that sold privately in 1980 for $425,000. The coin is unique: There are no others. But, sure enough, several inquiries about half dimes have shown up in the mail. M.M. has one dated 1845, while R.G. has one dated 1860. Further, R.G. wants to know just what a half dime is.

Well, the subject is worth exploring.

Half dimes were minted from 1794 to 1873 and were among our earliest coinage. Slightly smaller than today's dime, they were not terribly popular because they would slip through holes in pockets and merchants would lose them through cracks in wooden cash boxes. They followed the mintage of the half disme in 1792 and were Americanized from the French dixieme (tenth).

According to "The Complete Book of United States Coin Collecting" by Norman M. Davis, five half dimes would buy a pound of maple sugar in Frankfort, Ky., in 1801. In 1852, three half dimes would buy a pound of tobacco at Fond du Lac, Wis., and in 1856, two half dimes purchased a pound of codfish in Lawrence, Kan.

While half dimes are not known today to the general public, collectors usually are familiar with them, especially those who are interested in type coins. Trying to accumulate nice specimens of the various designs is quite a challenge. The 1845 half dime is a Liberty-seated type, Variety 1, one of 1.5 million minted and worth $5 or more, depending on its condition. The 1860 is also a Liberty-seated type, Variety 4, with a total mintage of 1.8 million (coins were either from the Philadelphia or New Orleans mints) and worth $2 or more. Nice specimens are worth several hundred dollars.

Question: A friend and I have been investing in Maria Theresa silver thalers. We've been buying the coins from various dealers at prices ranging from $7.50 to $15 per coin, depending on condition and the prevailing silver market. We're now contemplating going in together on a bulk purchase. One local dealer has offered to supply as many coins as we would want. But where does he obtain the coins? I've heard they're readily available through any Austrian bank or an international currency exchange. What is your advice?--J.F.S.

Answer: The Maria Theresa is interesting because it's been minted for about 300 years. Essentially, it's a trade coin and, as you mention, the value is mostly in the silver. I don't know what your dealer's source is; I suspect he would buy them on the open market and sell them to you with a slight profit for himself. But the obvious question is: Why bother with the Maria Theresa? You might possibly do just as well or better with U.S. silver dollars. They are certainly just as plentiful, and if the bullion market goes on a spree, the dollars would probably respond as well as or better than the Austrian coins. Go ahead and collect the Maria Theresas if you enjoy them historically. Otherwise you might want to rethink your strategy.

Q: I have a Series 1969D dollar bill that apparently was crumpled as it was fed through the press. The result is that the seal of the Department of the Treasury on the right is off-center, and the serial number on the left does not appear at all in its usual position. As a misprint, does this bill have any value to collectors?--L.S.D.

A: Your bill may have slight collector interest, but probably not enough to make it worth a premium. Primarily, your bill is a conversation piece.

Coin News

Father Junipero Serra was honored with a silver commemorative medal (pictured) in 1963, authorized by President John F. Kennedy. Now, 6,000 of these medals have been discovered at the Santa Barbara Mission, which Father Serra founded. The brilliant, uncirculated medals, larger than a half dollar, are offered for $89 each from the Silver Dollar Collectors Club, 238 N. Indiana Ave., P.O. Box 1867, Vista, Calif. 92083. Bronze Father Serra commemoratives are also available for $24 each.

The 10th edition of Q. David Bowers' "High Profits From Rare Coin Investment" has just been released. The 272-page book discusses many aspects of coins as an investment and will serve as a good primer for those considering entering the numismatic market. Copies are available for $9.95 from Bowers & Merena, P.O. Box 1224, Wolfeboro, N.H. 03894.

Don Alpert cannot answer mail personally but will respond to numismatic questions of general interest in this column. Do not telephone. Write to Your Coins, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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