An 1838 Small Stars

Forum for Liberty Seated Half Dime questions, hosted by Mrhalfdime
Expert Collector
Joined: 18 Aug 2007, 01:26

29 Jan 2008, 03:22 #1

Here's a new purchase, an 1838 Small Stars, V1. These seem to be readily available, but there are so many misattributed Large Stars coins being offered as Small Stars, that I'm not sure they are actually that easy to find. This one has some really good rust pits going on Liberty's forearm, and the crack from the rim to the first A of AMERICA. Stars 1-4 are weak. I don't see much, if any, recutting on the date. Anyone want to comment on which die state they think it is?

Joined: 03 Dec 2005, 04:28

29 Jan 2008, 18:16 #2

Your comment about the 1838 Small Stars half dime being frequently misattributed is right on the money. Perhaps due to the lack of specific attribution information in the available literature, I believe the 1838 Small Stars half dime to be second only to the 1848 Large Date in frequency of missed attributions.
I don't believe that it is widely known that the 1838 Small Stars half dime actually comprises two (2) different die marriages (V1 and V2), both with the same obverse die, but each with a different reverse die. They were struck in that same chronological order, or emission sequence, with the V1 struck first, and then the V2, with a new (perfect) reverse die.
In my opinion, one of the more significant contributions to the understanding of the Liberty Seated half dimes can be found in Al Blythe's die state descriptions for the 1838 V1 and V2 Small Stars half dimes. He describes the various progressive die states in minute detail, prompting the reader to ask "Why not continue with this degree of detail for the entire series?". Of course, that would have made his book a huge tome, and would have taken years to research, but it teases us, nonetheless.
1838 was the first year that the original Christian Gobrecht Liberty Seated design was 'messed with', with the addition of thirteen stars around the periphery of the obverse. In the opinion of many, this unnecessarily cluttered the otherwise beautiful obverse, but that is a subject for another day. From 1838 until November of 1840, the thirteen stars were punched into all of the working dies by hand, providing minute differences in the relative placement of the stars sufficient for identification of individual dies.
The term "Small Stars" is actually somewhat of a misnomer, since, unlike on the 1838 Small Stars dimes, which apparently used a small half dime star punch, the 1838 Small Stars half dime obverse die used the proper star punch. But the V1 Small Stars obverse die suffered from either die rust, or spalling, early in its life (before it was used to strike any coins), resulting in a somewhat hideous, pitted and distorted die, producing very early die state coins with pitting and rust pits evident at Miss Liberty's arm (holding pole) and body. Futile attempts were made by the die shop to efface the rust pits in the die through heavy lapping (abrasion) of the die, resulting in the near removal of the stars, particularly on the left (stars 1-7). If you picture in your mind the depression left in the die by a star punch, the very deepest depression would have only the high points of the stars, and the shallowest depression in the die would be the wide base of the stars. A six pointed star is actually made up of six elongated diamonds, arranged with one point of each diamond converging at a center point. On a fully struck coin, one can easily see these six diamonds, with dividing lines between them. However, when a die is heavily lapped, the details where a device such as a star intersects with the field are the first to be removed. Therefore, for the so-called "Small Stars" half dimes, with the excessively lapped obverse, only the highest points of the stars remain, looking more like asteriscs (*) than stars.
As Al Blythe correctly outlines, the very earliest die state of the V1 (the first-struck examples of the so-called "Small Stars" half dime) exhibit severse die rust, or spalling, with full stars. There is not yet any die clashing visible, nor any die cracks (not even at A2). This is his Die State 1.
[It is frustrating for me, and perhaps for many of you, that I have several beautiful high grade examples of each of the die states of these coins, but I do not have, at least at present, any means to photograph them or post images of them. Please .... no slings and arrows; I am working on that.]
Very shortly in its life, a die crack developed on the reverse die from the rim to the top of A2 (first A in AMERICA). Also, noticeable die clashing developed, most evident on the obverse die at Miss Liberty's arm holding the pole and above the date. This is still Die State 1.
Because of the horrible appearance of the obverse die, with its die rust and severe clashing, the die shop underwent a process of heavy lapping of the obverse die, to remove the defects. Unfortunately, they also removed much of the details of the stars on the left (stars 1-7). This is what is commonly referred to as the "Small Stars" half dime, and is Al Blythe's Die State 2. Late in Die State 2 a small die crack develops from the rim through C1 (C of AMERICA).
Al Blythe's Die State 3 is somewhat ambiguous, and asks more of a question than it provides information. He seems more preoccupied with evidence of doubling or 'recutting' of the date numerals, and less with any progression of deterioration of the dies.
Ironically, with such a badly deteriorated obverse die, the die shop elected to replace the reverse die, and not the obverse die, for the production of more 1838 half dimes. This can make significantly more sense to the student of the series when one considers that all of the dies were routinely removed from the coin presses at the end of each work day, and were secured in a vault for protection. Then, at the resumption of half dime production, either the next work day or at any subsequent time, a pair of dies were placed in the coin press and production was resumed. Apparently, the old, worn and heavily lapped V1 obverse die was paired with a new, perfect reverse die, producing the V2 die marriage, and production of 1838 half dimes resumed. During this V2 die pairing, the dies clashed, producing an inverse image of Miss Liberty's knee through ME of the denomination on the reverse. This is Blythe's Die State 4, the only listed die state of the V2 marriage.
Al Blythe and Dr. Valentine differ as to specifically when the obverse die crack through star 13 occurs. Dr. Valentine indicates that it occurs late in the V1 die marriage, while Al Blythe indicates that it occurs only in the V2 die marriage (Die State 4). I have examples of the V1, in Blythe's Die State 2, with the die crack at star 13, so I concur with Valentine on this detail.
It should be remembered that 'die states' are an attempt to describe in discrete verbal terms what is actually a continuum, or continuous progression of die deterioration. No matter how detailed one chooses to get, someone will always find a coin in between two published die states. It is often better to simply describe the range of die deterioration for a given marriage than it is to attempt to describe in minute detail each discrete 'die state'.
From the above, we can see that your coin is an example of the V1 die marriage, as you correctly stated. The die crack at A2 is most evident, but the die crack at C1 is not (at least not to my eye). Some of the weakening of the stars on the left can easily be seen, placing this coin in Blythe's Die State 2. I cannot see the die crack at star 13, but it may be there. I would, therefore, call your coin a V1 in Blythe's Die State 2.
One detail that has never (to my knowledge) been noted in any discussion of the 1838 Small Stars half dime is the "extra berry", or die pit in the wreath on the reverse, under the letters ER of AMERICA. This is easily seen on your coin, and appears early in the life of the reverse die. I have actually seen this die pit (or 'internal cud') discussed for the 1838 V14 die marriage, which apparently reused the same reverse die later in the year.