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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Classic U.S. coins for less than $250 each, Part 2 – Half Dollars & Silver Dollars

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #154 …..

This is the second part of my series on classic U.S. coins that cost in the range of $250, or substantially less. In part 1, I discussed Indian Cents, Lincoln Cents, large cents and quarters. I also put forth general remarks and advice. For a definition of classic U.S. coins, please see my two part series on why 1933/34 is the dividing line between classic and modern U.S. coins (classic/modern 1; part 2). Herein, I discuss silver dollars and half dollars. Before putting forth my own views, I devote a section to John Albanese’s advice for collectors who are interested in half dollars.

I. Albanese on Half Dollars

Albanese is the founder and president of the CAC. He has been a major force in the coin business since the 1970s.

Given the topic of this discussion, coins that cost less than $250 each, John recommends collecting Capped Bust, Lettered Edge Half Dollars (1807-36) ‘by date’! “Many of the dates could be bought in Extremely Fine-40 or -45 grade for less than $250,” Albanese declares. “Most of the better dates could be found in Fine to Very Fine grades for well under $250,” he adds.

In regards to the Capped Bust, Reeded Edge (1836-39) type, Albanese states that “an 1837, an 1838 and an 1839 in Extremely Fine-40 or -45 grade could [each] be had for under $250.” Overall, Albanese recommends Capped Bust Halves, Liberty Seated Halves (1839-91) and Walking Liberty Halves (1916-47) in Extremely Fine grades, 40 to 45.

(“Extra Fine” and “Extremely Fine” are different names for the same grade category. Abbreviations “XF” and “EF” are often used. Although “Extra Fine” (XF) is more widely used than Extremely Fine (EF), I contend that the term ‘extremely’ makes more logical sense than ‘extra’ in the context of grading coins. Extremely is a positive term and clearly means more than ‘Very,’ while the word ‘extra’ literally indicates an additional amount of fineness, an addition to being just ‘Fine’!)

Albanese observes that “more than two thirds of the dates in the [Liberty] Seated Half series trade under $250 in EF-40 grade.” Collectors seeking these should “go to coin shops and smaller shows. Negotiate nicely with dealers, and be patient,” John advises.

Albanese continues, “a complete set of Barber Halves by date [by year, not including a representative of each Mint location] in EF could be done for under $250 per coin. A neat collection of Extremely Fine [grade] Capped, Seated and Barber Halves takes time and some money. Do not rush,” John says.

“Buy nice, original coins,” Albanese emphasizes. “Do not buy dipped white Extremely Fine grade Capped, Seated or Barber Halves. An obviously dipped, EF-40 or lower grade 19th century coin is usually considered offensive to advanced collectors,” John points out.

“There are a lot of people who collect dipped Walkers. But, collectors tend to prefer naturally toned 19th century coins,” Albanese concludes.

As for Extremely Fine-40 to -45 grade Walking Liberty Half Dollars, “most of the set could be done for under $250 per coin,” Albanese notes. Indeed, “you could probably get a lot of them for close to melt if you search hard enough,” John believes. “You can buy some of the better dates, like the 1921s, the 1919-D and the 1919-S” in grades lower than Extremely Fine, for much less than $250. “But, try to buy coins with full rims.” Overall, for collectors with a $250 per coin limit, John recommends Extremely Fine grade half dollars of most dates from 1811 all the way to 1947.

II. Half Dollars ‘By Type’

For collectors who are not planning to spend more than $250 per coin, I, not Albanese, recommend collecting half dollars in general ‘by type.’ I also recommend collecting Barber Half Dollars ‘by date,’ including U.S. Mint locations, all date and mintmark combinations.

Although 18th century half dollars are probably not obtainable for less than $250 per coin, a Good-04 to VG-08 grade Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Half Dollar dating from 1805 to 1807 could be found, without much waiting. I suggest buying one that is PCGS or NGC certified, though many coins in Good to Very Good grades tend to be not certified. Collectors who buy them like to hold them and these are not likely to be reduced in grade via mishandling. When a not certified Draped Bust Half Dollar is obtained, I recommend that it be submitted to the PCGS or the NGC.

For a type set, I suggest a certified, EF-45 to AU-53 grade Capped Bust, Lettered Edge (1807-36) Half Dollar, with mellow russet and maybe blue natural toning. Avoid white Capped Bust Halves.

As Albanese notes, an EF-40 or -45 grade Reeded Edge (1836-39) half is obtainable for a price less than $250. If a collector has trouble finding an Extremely Fine-40 grade piece that he or she likes, a PCGS or NGC graded VF-25 to VF-35 half of this type certainly could be found for a price well below $200.

There are six types or subtypes of Liberty Seated Half Dollars: 1) No Motto, No Drapery (1839 only); 2) No Motto, With Drapery (1839-53, 1856-66); 3) Arrows & Rays (1853 only); 4) No Motto, With Arrows, No Rays (1854-55); 5) With Motto (1866-91 except 1874); 6) With Motto, With Arrows (1873-74).

Standard price guides imply that a Very Good-10 or Fine-12 grade 1839 ‘No Drapery’ half would retail for less than $250. Editors of most price guides, however, are underestimating market values for these. In my view, a collector would be lucky to find a clearly gradable, naturally toned Good-06 grade 1839 ‘No Drapery’ half for less than $250. To keep the per coin maximum cost below $250, it may be necessary to settle for a non-gradable representative of this one-year, ‘No Motto, No Drapery’ type.

As Albanese implies, it is easy to find a ‘No Motto, With Drapery’ Liberty Seated Half Dollar in EF-40 grade for less than $250. An 1845-O in EF-45 grade may be a realistic option at this price level. It is fun to obtain an early New Orleans Mint coin.

The 1853, with arrows on the obverse (front) and rays on the reverse (back), is a curious one-year only type. An EF-40 grade 1853 half may be available for around $250. A certified, Very Fine-25 to VF-35 representative of this type could certainly be found for significantly less than $250.

In 1854 and 1855, Liberty Seated Halves were minted with arrows and without rays. One of these in EF-40 grade would retail for less than $200. Arrows near the numerals of the ‘year’ (“date”) were not employed again, as part of the design, until 1873.

In EF-40 grade or higher, several different dates of the ‘With Motto’ type could be bought for significantly less than $250. Indeed, an AU-55 grade ‘With Motto’ half could probably be purchased for less than $250. An 1873 or 1874 ‘With Arrows’ half would certainly retail for less than $250 in VF-30 grade, though perhaps more than $250 in EF-40 grade.

For collectors who are not extremely wealthy, one of the great aspects of collecting Barber Half Dollars is that the series does not contain any issues that are rare overall, except the 1892 ‘Micro O’ variety, which is not needed for a complete set. Gradable representatives of all Barber Halves, including all year and mintmark combinations, are obtainable for less than $250 per coin.

Almost all dates can be acquired in Fine to Very Fine grades for less than $250 per coin, many for less than $100 per coin. At prices below $250 per coin, the following dates (including U.S. Mint locations) may not be available in Fine-12 or higher grades, though can be acquired in at least Good-04 grade: 1892-O, 1892-S, 1893-S, 1896-S, 1897-O, 1897-S, 1904-S, 1914 and 1915.

Yes, I realize that some price guides value an 1892-O at above $250 in Good-04 grade. I contend, though, that a PCGS or NGC graded Good-04 1892-O can be acquired for less than $250, in a reasonable amount of time, in less than twenty-four months for sure. Besides, an AG-03 grade 1892-O would retail for a price significantly below $250.

A true set of gradable Walkers (1916-47) could be completed for less than $250 per coin. Standard price guides to tend to overvalue the 1921 in Good-04 grade. I am certain that a PCGS or NGC graded Good-04 or Good-06 grade 1921 could be easily acquired for a price well below $250. The 1921 is the scarcest issue in the series, in circulated grades.

Generally, Walking Liberty Half Dollars are very common. Even the best dates are not rare. From a logical perspective, these are overvalued, in my view. For the budget-minded collector, I suggest just a single pre-1934 Walker for a type set. For example, a pleasant AU-55 grade 1917 could be bought for less than $105.

III. Liberty Seated Dollars

Collectors who wish to spend less than $250 per coin should probably forget about collecting Flowing Hair Silver Dollars (1794-95), Draped Bust Silver Dollars (1795-1803) or Gobrecht Dollars (1836-39). Certainly, Liberty Seated Dollars (1840-73), Morgans (1878-1904 + 1921) and Peace Silver Dollars (1921-35) are viable options.

Numerous Liberty Seated Silver Dollars in AG-03 or Good-04 grades could be acquired for under $250 each, including most of the earliest dates, 1840 to 1847. Even the first Branch Mint Silver Dollar, the New Orleans issue of 1846, could probably be obtainable at times for less than $250 in Good-04 grade.

All the Philadelphia Mint issues, 1866-73, of the ‘With Motto’ type in Good-04 grade are generally valued in the range of $250, surely less than $300 each. AG-03 grade, Philadelphia Mint issues of the ‘With Motto’ type are typically priced significantly below $250, when available. Also, some non-gradable Liberty Seated Dollars, of various dates, with the details of Very Good to Very Fine grade coins, are available for less than $250 each.

It is impossible to complete a set of Liberty Seated Dollars, including all issues of both ‘No Motto’ and ‘With Motto’ types, without spending far more than $250 on some coins. The 1851 and 1852 issues are rare. The Carson City, Nevada Mint issues (1870-CC to 1873-CC) are famous and expensive. The 1870-S is a Great Rarity. Budget-minded collectors may easily collect Liberty Seated Dollars ‘by type,’ as just two Liberty Seated Dollars, ‘No Motto’ and ‘With Motto,’ are required for a type set.

IV. Morgan Silver Dollars

Of all 19th century U.S. coin series, Morgan Silver Dollars are, by far, the most common. Hundreds of millions were minted and literally millions survive in the present. Among business strikes, there are no rarities in the series, and only a few issues are scarce. None are very scarce, though there are many, expensive condition rarities in this series.

Of the most common dates, PCGS graded MS-65 grade Morgans could easily be found for less than $250 each, currently around $160 each. NGC graded MS-65 Morgans are probably available for less than $150 each. There are many, very common dates from which to choose.

There are also plenty of other dates that are only slightly more expensive in MS-65 grade, still under $250. Additionally, many better dates could be acquired in MS-63 or MS-64 grades for less than $250 each. An 1879-O or an 1891-S in MS-63, plus an 1890 or an 1879-S in MS-64 grade come to mind. Coins of these dates are dramatically more expensive in MS-65 and higher grades.

In Good-04 or higher grades, usually much higher than Good-04 grade, an almost complete set of Morgans could be assembled for less than $250 per coin. The key 1893-S may cost more than $2000 in Good-04 grade, and an 1894 would certainly cost a lot more than $250 in Good-04 grade. The 1889-CC is also a key date and is generally priced at around $500 in Good-04 grade.

It may not be possible to acquire a gradable 1885-CC for less than $250. While it is possible to acquire a Good-04 grade 1895-S for $250, it could be difficult to do so. An AG-03 grade 1895-S would be very likely to cost less than $250. For most dates in the Morgan series, however, a buyer with a $250 per coin limit may choose among several grades well above Good-04. The Philadelphia Mint 1895 is a Proof-only date and is really in a different category.

For a total of less than $25,000, an entire set of business strike Morgans, PCGS or NGC certified as grading EF-40 or higher, could be assembled, including a PCGS graded EF-40 1893-S. I am surprised that more collectors do not adopt such a strategy in regard to this series. Such a total, for a complete set, would be less than the likely cost of a single PCGS graded MS-65 1879-CC Morgan, one common coin.

V. Peace Silver Dollars

Collecting Peace Dollars is very easy. There are no rarities. All issues are widely available in high grades. Really nice, lightly circulated Peace Dollars are often available for not much above their respective silver bullion values.

In the series of Peace Dollars, the 1928 Philadelphia Mint issue and the 1934-San Francisco Mint issue are the two keys. Other than these two, Peace Dollars of every date in MS grades could be bought for less than $250 each. I suggest AU grade Peace Dollars that have attractively toned as a consequence of being stored in albums or envelopes.

A 1928 probably would sell for a little less than $250 in Good-04 grade, though an NGC graded Good-06 1928 might sell for less than $250 as well. I would expect a 1934-S in Extremely Fine-45 grade to have a retail value of less than $250. An EF-40 grade 1934-S should certainly be priced below this threshold.

Overall, Peace Dollars in AU grades are good values for budget-minded collectors. As Peace Dollars are so common in general and gem quality Peace Dollars are poor values in relation to 19th century coins, I would not recommend that budget-minded collectors spend significant sums on Peace Dollars. Assemble a set in sub-60 grades or buy just two Peace Dollars for a type set.

©2013 Greg Reynolds

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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  1. Thanks! Greg

    For a wonderful series of articles.

    I love coins because of their art and history. They are truly history in ones hand. And I am so happy to be the temporary custodian for a while. But, I am a scientist, so I appreciate the data that you have published in well written articles.

    Thanks for your work and insight.

  2. Knowing that you posted this article three months ago, I am glad that it is still available. I am a lifelong collector but have always been in the “cheap” category when it comes to buying coins. I have never had the kind of “expendable income” that I need to have a really nice collection. This article helps give me some direction to go within my small budget. I am a school teacher and family man with a 30 yr mortgage. But I still buy when I can…just not very often. Thank you for the tips.

  3. The likely reason why collectors do not buy a set of Morgan dollars in EF-40 for $25,000 is likely financial. They probably view the financial prospects as below average because $25K is a lot of money for most collectors. I would never spend that much money for a set of circulated US coins of this type. I would rather own a smaller but higher quality set which is what most likely do now.


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