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Classic U.S. Coins for less than $500 each, Part 11: Standing Liberty Quarters


Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #256

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds

For less than $500 per coin, a set of Standing Liberty Quarters (SLQs) ‘by date’ (including U.S. Mint locations) can almost be completed, with many dates represented by choice (MS-63 grade) to gem (MS-65) quality coins. Standing Liberty Quarters were produced from 1916 to 1930. They were struck at mints in Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco. There is much discussion of mintmarks in last week’s piece on Walking Liberty half dollars.

Only two ‘dates’ that probably could not be acquired for less than $500 each, the 1916 and the 1918/7-S overdate. The rest of the dates, though, can be acquired without difficulty.

“Any common date in MS-65 grade with a CAC sticker, as a type coin, is a good value,” John Albanese maintains. “A collector could buy between fifteen to twenty different coins for under $500 each. For some of those dates, you could buy SLQs that are almost ‘full head’ without paying the ‘full head’ premium,” John adds. Albanese is the founder and president of CAC.

For simplicity, a Standing Liberty Quarter is referred to as an SLQ and the plural form as ‘SLQs.’ After all, it is tiring to say ‘Standing Liberty Quarter’ over and over again.

This discussion of SLQs is the eleventh in a series of articles on classic U.S. coins that cost less than $500 each. (Please click to read an explanation of the dividing line between classic and modern U.S. coins.) These articles are about forming collections of classic U.S. coins that are consistent with the traditions and evolved values in the culture of coin collecting in the U.S., without spending more than $500 for any one coin.

Although there are some controversial issues relating to which Buffalo nickels are needed for a complete set ‘by date’ (and U.S. Mint location), there are not such debates in regard to SLQs. The 1918/7-S is an overdate that is very apparent to naked eyes. All the other SLQs in a complete set are the standard ‘year and mint’ issues; there are no questionably defined varieties of SLQs that are seriously proposed as candidates for membership in standard sets, like the supposed 1936-D Buffalo nickel with “3½ legs.”

Most SLQs in the series could be obtained in Good-04 grade for less than $30 per coin, several for less than $6 each. A set in Good-04 grade, nonetheless, is beside the point here. All collecting strategies to build a set of SLQs cannot be covered in this one discussion.

For less than $500 per coin, collectors can be very selective in their pursuits of SLQs except for a few semi-key dates that are relatively expensive. Indeed, with a $500 per coin limit, a collector could consider many SLQs in a range of grades and could surely have a lot of fun, while nearly completing a set in a moderate amount of time, months rather than years!

What are Standing Liberty Quarters?

The Standing Liberty quarter was designed by Hermon MacNeil. It was preceded by the Barber Quarter, which was minted from 1892 to 1916, and was followed by the Washington Quarter, a form of which continues to be produced and circulate in the present. No quarters are dated 1931. The Washington Quarter came into beiHermon_Atkins_MacNeilng in 1932 in honor of the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington, the commander-in-chief of American forces during the Revolutionary War and the first president of the United States.

The SLQ, like most types of classic U.S. coins, features metaphorical and otherwise conceptual design elements. Indeed, most pre-1934 U.S. coin design types feature female personifications of the concept and spirit of liberty. Before 1916, MacNeil was best known for sculptures of American Indians, not for conceptual pieces.

Hermon MacNeil was born in 1866 in Massachusetts and died in 1947 in New York State. He lived in College Point, Queens, for much of his life. In 1966, an official New York City park in College Point was named after him. (Clickable links are in blue.)

Before 1916, MacNeil had designed a substantial number of noteworthy sculptures and medals. 1899, his first widely acclaimed sculpture, Sun Vow, was shown at an exposition in Paris and won a second-place award. Around the same time, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a ‘show’ of some of his works in honor of his return to New York.

slq1930In 1901, this same “Sun Vow” sculpture was awarded a first place prize at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. In the era before airplanes, radio and television, such an exposition, which lasted for months, was an event of tremendous importance. National governments spent large sums on their respective pavilions. Such an exposition was more than just an entertaining event for tourists, elaborate exhibits related to new inventions, advances in the arts, historical artifacts, national accomplishments and diplomacy.

Buffalo was then a major city and President McKinley spoke at this exposition during an extended visit. While there, McKinley was shot by an assassin and died a few days later.

MacNeil designed sculptures for the U.S. government pavilion at this Pan-American Exposition, and some of his past sculptures were exhibited. Plus, MacNeil designed the medal that was awarded to winners in competitions at this exposition.PonyExpressMacNeil5

Though not quite as successful as Weinman, the designer of the Mercury dime and Walking Liberty half dollar, MacNeil was a major sculptor of the first half of the 20th century. Even now, his works can be seen at various public places and in museums around the United States. A statue of George Washington by MacNeil is at the north side of the east pier of the Washington Square Arch in Manhattan, an important cultural landmark. MacNeil’s Pony Express statue in St. Joseph, Missouri is particularly famous.

As for the subject matter of the design of the SLQ, it is often forgotten that, before 1916, the U.S. had already become an aggressive military power. The Spanish-American War and the policies of President Theodore Roosevelt are relevant.

Dolphins6On the quarter, a visibly strong Miss Liberty is walking forward, while looking East towards the large conflict in Europe. During the design process, MacNeil envisioned two dolphins, one at each of her sides. These were deleted from the final version. The two dolphins would have represented the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as the U.S. borders both major oceans. One important point was that the U.S. was no longer only concerned about the Western Hemisphere (the Americas.).

Indeed, the power and influence of the U.S. in the world was becoming greater. Miss Liberty holds an olive branch in one hand, which represents a quest for peace, and a shield in the other, which makes clear that the U.S. will not just defend national boundaries, but will defend the philosophical ideal of liberty as well.

The ‘flying eagle’ on the reverse (back) of the SLQ stems from the Gobrecht Dollar designs of the 1830s and the Flying Eagle Cents of the 1850s, though is artistically different from those. The importance of a ‘flying eagle’ in the 1830s is that the U.S. gradually ‘grew-up’ as a nation; this relates to the metaphor of a bird leaving the nest and flying, a child ‘growing up.’

By the 1830s, the U.S. had become an adult nation. Indeed, from 1776 to at least 1810, most prominent European politicians probably figured that the newborn U.S. would fail as a nation and North America would again become a battleground for forces stemming from European governments.

It is not a coincidence that there is also a flying eagle on the reverse of the Saint Gaudens Double Eagle, which was minted from 1907 to 1933. The flying eagles on the Double Eagle and the SLQ relate to the notion that U.S. was already flying to new heights in the 20th century, beyond levels achieved in the 19th century. The higher levels were thought to be idealistic, artistic, militaristic and/or industrial, depending upon the points of view of those interpreting the progress of the nation.

By the 1920s, the focus among most U.S. politicians and other influential people was more on business and industry, rather than on artistic, cultural or military pursuits. So, the SLQ is emblematic of the status and ‘outlook’ of the nation in 1916. Major events from the 1890s to the teens are pertinent. The following two decades are a different topic.

A difference in the two design types of SLQs is relevant to these concepts. Although there are several subtle differences, there are two main differences. On the obverse (front) of SLQs of the first type, which were minted in 1916 and 1917, Miss Liberty’s chest is partly exposed. While this might seem odd or inappropriate to people in 2014, given regulations regarding television and movies, partial nudity was very common in the forms of sculptures in past centuries. Partial nudity in the context of sculptures or coins was usually not considered lewd or harmful to children.

In 1917, the obverse was modified such that a thick metal garment, some kind of armor, covers Miss Liberty’s chest, which is likely to have a military connotation. The U.S. entered World War I in 1917. Throughout much of the history of Europe, though perhaps not during the first world war, it was not unusual for warriors to wear metal plates on their respective chests. Design elements on classic U.S.  coins are often symbolic representations of concepts, philosophical ideas, historical milestones or political practices.

On the type of 1916 and 1917, there are seven stars on the left of the reverse (back) design, six at the right, and zero underneath the eagle. In the changed design of 1917, three stars were placed under the eagle and there are five stars at each side. In both cases, there are thirteen stars on the reverse, in honor of the original thirteen States.

There are thirteen stars on the obverse, too. These are much better defined and bolder on the later design type.

The numerals of the year on the SLQ, often called ‘the date,’ tended to wear down fast. So, in 1925, the design was modified. The numerals were placed in ‘lower relief,’ not as high. There is not, however, much of a difference in the artistry. It would be wrong to refer to SLQs dating from 1925 to 1930 as a design type that is distinct from those dating from 1917 to 1924. There are just two design types of SLQs.


Seeking Full Heads?

Both PCGS and NGC designate some SLQs as having a ‘Full Head’ of Miss Liberty. The criteria for a ‘Full Head’ has been fervently debated among SLQ enthusiasts for decades. Moreover, a coin that was denied a ‘FH’ designation when first submitted to PCGS or NGC may have received a ‘FH’ designation from the same service at a later time. It is not logical to regard the presence of a ‘full head’ in ‘all or nothing’ terms!

There is often a substantial difference in market value between a coin of the same certified grade that has a ‘FH’ designation and one that lacks such a designation. For example, a PCGS or NGC graded MS-65 1929-D, without a ‘FH’ designation, would be likely to retail for less than $500.

On July 12, 2014, Heritage Auctions (hereafter ‘HA’) sold a PCGS graded MS-65 1929-D, without a ‘FH’ designation though with a CAC sticker, for $411.25. In contrast, less than a month earlier, HA sold Gene Gardner’s 1929-D, which is PCGS certified ‘MS-65 FH,’ for $4406.25 on June 23, 2014. In April 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a different PCGS certified ‘MS-65 FH’ 1929-D, from a collector consignment, for $7050. Therefore, a certified MS-65 1929-D with a ‘FH’ designation may very well cost eight to fifteen times as much as one without such a designation.

There is often a subtle difference between a SLQ that has a ‘FH’ designation and a similar coin that lacks such a designation. Besides, a ‘head’ that is two-thirds full is sharp enough. A collector who does not wish to spend more than $500 for any one coin should usually avoid SLQs with ‘FH’ designations.

 The first type: 1916-17

Unfortunately, there is little hope of obtaining a genuine 1916 SLQ for less than $500. It is best not to attempt to do so. A non-gradable 1916 SLQ could perhaps be obtained for less than $2000.

As for the 1917 Philadelphia Mint issue of this type, PCGS or NGC graded MS-64 coins tend to sell in Internet auctions for less than $400. Furthermore, more than a few dealers sell them privately. It should not be difficult to find one of these.

As 1917-Denver Mint issues tend to be sharply struck, paying a large premium for one with a ‘FH’ designation usually would not be a good idea, from a logical perspective. A PCGS or NGC graded MS-64, 1917-Denver Mint SLQ of the first type could be purchased for less than $500, probably.

About three months ago,  HA sold an NGC graded MS-64 1917-D for $340.75. In April 2014, HA auctioned a PCGS graded MS-64 1917-D for $470. Online images suggest that it might have nice, natural russet toning.

As for the 1917-San Francisco Mint issue, collectors may buy a certified MS-63 or MS-62 grade coin for less than $500. In Aug. 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded and CAC approved MS-63 1917-S for $419.48.

 The Second Type: 1917-30

MS-64 or -63 grade representatives of most dates in the series could be purchased for less than $500. It is unusual for an SLQ to be certified as MS-60 or MS-61 and these should not be acquired without first consulting an expert in the series.

The 1918/7-S and the 1916 are keys to the series. As the 1918/7-S is an overdate that is very much apparent, without magnification, by tradition, it is regarded as a distinct ‘date,’ rather than as just a variety. Unfortunately, collector cannot count upon being able to buy a genuine 1918/7-S for less than $500. At the moment, I do not remember ever seeing a non-gradable 1918/7-S with the details of a Fair to Good grade, though these probably exist and, if they do exist, the might sell for less than $500 each. The lowest price on record in a recent public sale is the $1527.50 price realized for a PCGS graded VG-08 1918/7-S in Jan. 2014.

The 1919-D is a semi-key. It may be practical to obtain a PCGS or NGC graded EF-40 1919-D for less than $500. Last winter, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS graded EF-40 coin for $446.50, though I doubt that it would qualify for CAC approval and might not be the best choice. Also last winter, Stack’s-Bowers sold an NGC graded VF-25 1919-D for $329, perhaps a good value.

The 1919-S is not as scarce as the 1919-D, though is a semi-key as well. Fortunately for collectors who are seeking to buy one, prices for circulated 1919-S quarters have drifted downward. On Oct. 12, HA sold a PCGS graded EF-45 1919-S for $411.25. On June 7, HA sold an NGC graded EF-45 1919-S $381.88.

Qu20ObvOn Dec. 7, HA sold a PCGS graded MS-66 1920 that probably scores very high in the category of originality, with neat mottled toning. Furthermore, this coin has virtually a full shield and around 80% of a ‘full head.’ It seems to have been a good value for $499.38.

The 1920-D and the 1920-S are not in the same league as the 1919-D and the 1919-S, though certainly are ‘better dates’ that command substantial premiums. A PCGS or NGC graded AU-58 or higher grade 1920-D could certainly be acquired for less than $400. On Oct. 12, HA sold a PCGS graded MS-62 1920-S for $397.15.Qu20rev

The 1921 Philadelphia Mint issue and the 1923-S are semi-keys, even more so than the 1919-D and the 1919-S. In July, a PCGS graded VF-20 1921 sold for $499.38, though I am very unsure about this coin. While staying under the $500 barrier, it might be better to purchase a Fine grade 1921 than a Very Fine grade 1921. In some cases, coins have problems that are not readily apparent.

Although a PCGS graded Fine-12 1923-S sold for just $381.88 on Oct. 12, the numerals of the date are barely discernible, if they are so. On the NGC graded Fine-12 1923-S that HA sold on Aug. 9, it is at least very clear that the last digit is a three. That coin, which is well struck for a 1923-S, brought $411.25, maybe a good value for a collector.

Each budget-minded collector who likes SLQs should be glad that there are not many semi-keys or much ‘better dates.’ Even the 1924-D is not particularly expensive. In March, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an NGC graded MS-65 1924-D for $376. In early Jan. 2014, this same firm sold a PCGS graded MS-65 1924-D for $352.50. A MS-64 grade 1924-D with at least 60% of a head might be more pleasing to some collectors, though, than the two just cited, MS-65 grade, flat-head quarters.

On June 7, HA sold a PCGS graded MS-65 1926-D that has more than two-thirds of a ‘head.’ On Jan. 9, HA auctioned a PCGS certified ‘MS-65 Full Head’ 1926-D for $19,975, which was not a surprising price. In my view, that coin does not quite have a ‘full head,’ not much more of a head than is found on the 1926-D SLQ that was sold on June 7 for $381.88. This is a rather large difference in value, mostly for just a slight difference in head detail.

The 1926-S is scarcer than the 1926-D and is certainly a ‘better date.’ An AU-55 or -53 grade 1926-S could be found for less than $400.

The 1927-S is the ‘queen of the late dates.’ It is scarce in grades above Fine-15. Although a VF-30 grade 1927-S may be obtainable for less than $500, it would be more practical to seek a VF-20 or -25 grade 1927-S. In May, an NGC graded VF-25 1927-S sold for $235.

The 1929, 1929-S, 1930 and 1930-S are the most common dates and are often purchased for type sets. In Jan., the Goldbergs auctioned a neat, PCGS graded MS-65 1930-S with natural gray-russet toning and much luster, for $423.

Indeed, for less than $500 each, a collector could acquire most dates in MS-65 or MS-64 grade, per PCGS or NGC certifications. Circulated coins would be needed to represent the already mentioned semi-keys and much ‘better dates.’ Excluding just two issues, a neat set of SLQs could be assembled for less than $500 per coin.

Those seeking more of a challenge, in the context of sub-$500 SLQs, may wish to avoid the many, unnaturally white SLQs that are often assigned high grades by PCGS and NGC. Most of these that have been recently dipped in acidic solutions. I suggest seeking SLQs with natural russet and/or gray toning. Small areas of blue and/or green are often natural as well. There are very pretty SLQs that are affordable.

©2014 Greg Reynolds

Collectors who are interested in other types of classic U.S. coins, and do not wish to spend more than $500 for any one coin, may wish read earlier parts of this series:

Buffalo Nickels | Mercury Dimes | Bust Half Dollars | Liberty Seated Half Dollars | Barber Half Dollars | Walking Liberty Half DollarsTrade Dollars |

Questions or private comments? insightful10 {a} gmail.com

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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