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Classic U.S. Coins for Less Than $500 Each: Liberty Seated Half Dollars

Coin Rarities and Related Topics: A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds

News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #175 …..

This is the fifth in a series of articles on classic U.S. coins that cost less than $500 each. This series is aimed at people who wish to build collections that are enjoyable, satisfying, and are meaningful in terms of the traditions of coin collecting in the U.S., without spending more than $500 for any one coin. Most of the discussions relate to coins that cost from $200 to $500 each. At prices in this range, a large number of Liberty Seated Half Dollars, including most dates, could be acquired.

As it is not practical to now cover all or even a substantial portion of the better dates (including U.S. Mint locations) in the long series of Liberty Seated Half Dollars, the purpose here is to provide guidance for the building of a type set of six Liberty Seated Half Dollar Coins which have historical significance and have long been recognized by collectors as being very important.

gr_lib_50c_group_thumbJohn Albanese and I assert that Liberty Seated Half Dollars are “terrific values” in Very Fine and Extremely Fine grades, provided that such coins display natural toning and have not very apparently been cleaned or dipped. In my words, collectors should seek coins that score very highly in the category of originality while accepting the reality that most 19th century silver coins have been at least lightly cleaned and/or dipped in the past. Coins that have naturally retoned are often desirable, though quite a few naturally retoned coins are not desirable.

Albanese says, “I feel the same way about Seated Halves as I do about Barber Halves. I strongly recommend them. It will take a lot of time and a lot of patience to find nice, never cleaned coins. I suggest Very Fine to Extremely Fine grades for collectors. A type set of Extremely Fines for less than $500 a coin is a great idea,” John insists. Albanese is the founder and president of the CAC.

Kris Oyster prefers Liberty Seated Halves to Barber Halves, and he recommends AU grade, relatively less scarce coins, “type coins,” Kris declares that Liberty Seated Halves feature a “fantastic artistic design, with a beautiful female Liberty. Buy halves that represent different U.S. Mints in AU,” Oyster suggests. Kris is a managing director at the Dallas Gold & Silver Exchange.

In my experience, Extremely Fine grade Liberty Seated and Barber Half Dollars score higher in the category of originality, on average, than corresponding AU grade coins. AU grade coins are more likely to be dipped, cleaned or otherwise modified, though I have seen more than a few, very much original AU grade, 19th century silver coins. Even so, dealers and collectors are far more likely to dip (in an acidic solution) an AU grade, 19th century half dollar than an Extremely Fine grade 19th century half dollar.

While it is easy to avoid bright white, 19th century halves, other issues are not so apparent. It is important to consult experts and to learn at least a little about the coins being sought. Collectors should not rely entirely on a seller’s description or on a certified numerical grade.

When I list auction records, it should not be assumed that I am recommending, endorsing or otherwise approving the specific coins cited. In this discussion, I am not recommending any specific coins. In many cases, I list auction results as part of an effort to provide an impression of market prices for the kinds of coins that I am discussing.

Auction prices often fall around the border of wholesale prices and retail prices for the respective coins sold, though auction prices are sometimes well below retail or, in other instances, reach astronomical levels. (Please read my relevant article,What Are Auction Prices?) Collectors should consult an expert before bidding in auctions.

I. Types of Half Dollars

The seventeen design types of silver half dollars are: 1) Flowing Hair (1794-95); 2) Draped Bust, Small Eagle (1796-97) ; 3) Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle (1801-07); 4) Capped Bust, “Lettered Edge” (1807-36); 5) Capped Bust, “Reeded Edge” (1836-39); 6) Liberty Seated, No Drapery, No Motto (1839 only); 7) Liberty Seated, With Drapery No Motto (1839-53, 1856-66); 8) Arrows & Rays (1853 only); 9) Liberty Seated, No Motto, With Arrows, No Rays (1854-55); 10) Liberty Seated, With Motto (1866-91 except 1874); 11) Liberty Seated, With Motto, With Arrows (1873-74); 12) Barber (1892-1915); 13) Walking Liberty (1916-47); 14) Franklin (1948-63, though 1964 Franklins may exist); 15) Kennedy-90% silver (1964 plus later Proof-only issues); 16) Kennedy-40% silver (1965-70); 17) Kennedy Bicentennial 40% silver (1976).

Last week, I discussed types #12 to #17 in this list and I emphasized that these are very inexpensive. A complete type set of Liberty Seated Half Dollars consists of just six coins, #6 to #11 in the list above. Two weeks ago, I pointed out that EF-40 or higher grade representatives of type #4, Capped Bust “Lettered Edge,” and type #5, “Reeded Edge,” can easily be acquired for prices below $500 each.

In sum, a type set of silver halves, dating from the early 19th century to the present, is not difficult to assemble and could be done easily with all coins costing significantly less than $500 each. Collectors assembling such sets, however, may be limited to well circulated representatives of the Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle Half Dollar (type #3).

II. Liberty Seated, No Drapery, No Motto (1839 only)

‘No Drapery’ Liberty Seated Half Dollars of 1839 are, by tradition, designated as a distinct, one-year type. In reality, the corresponding ‘No Drapery’ Liberty Seated Dimes are really very much different from the ‘With Drapery’ Liberty Seated Dimes, while there is little difference between the ‘No Drapery’ Liberty Seated Half Dollars and ‘With Drapery’ Liberty Seated Half Dollars.

The term ‘drapery’ refers here to a additional material on Miss Liberty’s gown, about her left elbow and forearm, which appears on the right side of a coin to someone viewing. The distance between the ‘rock’ on which Miss Liberty is sitting and the first star in the field is closer on the ‘No Drapery’ 1839 design than on the ‘With Drapery’ design. According to Randy Wiley & Bill Bugert in their book on Liberty Seated Halves, “the rock was slightly reduced below Liberty’s foot and considerably reduced in the area of the first star.” (Clickable links are in blue.)

Because ‘No Drapery’ dimes and ‘No Drapery’quarters are distinct design types in their respective series, ‘No Drapery’ halves will always be classified as a distinct design type as well. Given a $500 per coin limit, a collector would probably seek a representative of this “type” that grades from Good-04 to Fine-12. Price guides suggest that a Fine-15 grade coin of this date could be purchased for less than $500, though it may be difficult or impossible to buy a truly gradable Fine-15 grade ‘No Drapery’ half for less than $500.

Coins that have serious problems are not gradable. A substantial percentage of surviving, ‘No Drapery’ Liberty Seated Halves are non-gradable. Unless a collector has a sound understanding of a particular non-gradable coin, he or she probably should not purchase it. Beginners, for sure, should limit their considerations of 1839 ‘No Drapery’ halves to PCGS or NGC graded coins, unless a non-gradable coin in a PCGS or NGC ‘details’ holder is available at a price that is obviously much, much less than a similar gradable coin would be worth.

In general, halves of the ‘No Drapery’ type are difficult to find for less than $500 each. It might not be practical to be especially selective. A ‘No Drapery’ half that does not have serious problems and has appealing, natural toning is a prize.

III. No Motto, With Drapery (1839-53, 1856-66)

A religious phrase, “IN GOD WE TRUST,” appears on most types of U.S. coins and is known, by tradition, as ‘the Motto’! This phrase first appeared on regular issue U.S. coins when Two Cent Pieces were introduced in 1864. On half dollars, this motto was added to the reverse (tail) design in 1866.

gr_50c_j1Liberty Seated Half Dollars of the No Motto, With Drapery type are easy to find in almost all grades. For less than $500 per coin, there are a substantial number of dates and grades from which to choose.

The 1841-O issue, for example, is not rare, though it is scarce. It has a special allure as an early issue of the New Orleans Mint, which began operations in 1838.

On March 17, 2013, Heritage sold an NGC graded Very Fine-25 1841-O for $152.75. In Jan. 2013, this same firm auctioned an NGC graded EF-40 1841-O for $258.50, which is a fair retail price. Although I have never seen the coin, the online images suggest that its brown-gray toning is natural and mildly appealing. Also, in July 2012, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded EF-45 1841-O, with a CAC sticker, for $446.20.

The 1856 issue is a coin of the same type and is not as scarce as the 1841-O. Acquiring an 1856 is another easy option for adding a ‘No Motto’ half to a type set.

Within the last three weeks, Heritage sold a PCGS graded EF-45 1856 for $193.88. In March of this year, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded AU-50 1856 for $212. In March 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded AU-53 1856 for $190.

It is true that ‘No Motto’ halves that grade from Good-04 to VG-10 could be found for less than $100 each, though these are besides the theme of this discussion. A pertinent point is that really special EF-40 to AU-50 grade ‘No Motto’ halves are available for less than $300, maybe even for less than $200 each!

IV. Arrows & Rays (1853 only)

On the obverse (front) of each coin of this one-year type, an arrow is to the left of the numeral ‘1’ in ‘1853’ and another arrow is to the right of the numeral ‘3.’ The rays on the reverse, back of the coin, are a little hard to explain, though are very much apparent on the actual coins and in photographs. There is a Philadelphia Mint 1853 and an 1853 New Orleans Mint issue. There are thus just two ‘dates’ of this one-year type.

RaysReverseAn 1853 or an 1853-O in Good-04 grade usually retails for a price in the range of $40 to $60. In some higher grades, 1853 New Orleans Mint Halves are considerably more expensive than halves of the 1853 Philadelphia Mint issue, which is well suited for a type set.

In June 2012, Stack’s-Bowers sold an NGC graded AU-53 1853 for $494. In Sept. 2012, the Goldbergs auctioned an NGC graded EF-45 1853 half for $288. In May 2013, Stack’s-Bowers sold an NGC graded EF-40 1853 for $162. My hunch is that this $162 coin has notable imperfections. It is important to actually see the coins sold, or have access to expert opinions about them, before drawing conclusions about them or analyzing prices realized.

So far in 2013, Heritage has publicly sold four 1853 halves that are PCGS or NGC graded EF-40 for: $258.50 and $282 on Jan. 13, $260.85 on Feb. 12, and $246.75 on April 14. A retail price for an 1853 so graded that is offered with a return privilege may be as much as $300, at most $335. A retail price for an AU-50 grade 1853 is likely to be above $500.

V. No Motto, With Arrows, No Rays (1854-55)

Rays were part of the design of Liberty Seated Half Dollars for only one year. In 1854 and 1855, halves were minted with arrows and without rays. The 1854 and 1855 Philadelphia Mint issues are a little less expensive than the 1853. For less than $500, a collector could easily buy a PCGS or NGC certified AU-50 to AU-55 grade coin.

gr_50c_j2On April 21, 2013, Heritage sold an NGC graded AU-50 1854 that probably has a natural mix of brown, russet, gray and green tones. I repeat, however, that it does not make sense to draw conclusions about coins from viewing images.

That 1854 brought $246.75. Online images suggest that it may be much more appealing than the NGC graded AU-50 1854-O that Heritage sold in January for $223.25.

On Sept. 8, 2012, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded EF-40 1854, with a CAC sticker, for $141. On the same day, at a Long Beach Expo, this same firm auctioned a PCGS graded AU-55 1854-O, with a CAC sticker, for $305.50. An overall point is that, for much less than $500 each, there are many coins of this type available, in a range of grades.


VI. With Motto (1866-91, except 1874)

The Liberty Seated, With Motto type is common in terms of the availability of type coins. Collecting ‘by date’ is a separate topic.

A very large percentage of the coins of this type were struck in Philadelphia. None were minted in New Orleans. A large number were produced at the San Francisco Mint and a few S-Mint dates are not very scarce. As for Carson City Mint dates, some are very scarce or truly rare, while others, particularly the 1876-CC and the 1877-CC, can be found for less than $500 each, without much difficulty.

The 1870-CC and the 1878-S are truly rare. In Oct. 2011, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded AG-03 1878-S for $28,750. Certainly, less than one hundred 1878-S halves survive.

In March 2010, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded Fine-12 1870-CC for $2,888. Fewer than two hundred 1870-CC halves exist in all grades.

gr_50c_j4Regarding circulated coins, the small number of better dates are exceptions. Most of the dates (including U.S. Mint locations) of this type are available for considerably less than $500 each. For a type set, only one ‘With Motto’ Liberty Seated Half is needed.

Among the least scarce dates are the 1875, the 1875-S, the 1876, the 1876-S, the 1877, the 1877-S and the 1891. As 1876 is the year of the nation’s centennial, it may be a noteworthy choice for a type set.

On June 25, Heritage sold a PCGS graded Very Fine-25 1876 for $74, a fair retail price. On April 27, this same firm auctioned a PCGS graded AU-58 1876 for $352.50. For Liberty Seated Halves, a naturally toned AU-58 grade coin is often a much better value than one of the same date (and U.S. Mint location) that is certified as grading MS-61 or MS-62, as 61 or 62 grade silver coins often have problems or have an unnatural ‘white look.’

Back in October, Heritage sold a PCGS graded MS-62 1876 for $588.68. There would be no point in even attempting to acquire a PCGS or NGC graded MS-63 Liberty Seated Half Dollar for less than $500.

On July 14, 2012, Heritage sold a PCGS graded EF-40 1876-S, with a CAC sticker, for $138. On Sept. 8, Heritage sold a PCGS graded EF-45 1876-S, also with a sticker of approval from the CAC, for $199.75.

Many dates, often in a wide range of grades, are available. When seeking a ‘With Motto’ half for a type set, collectors should take their time and be selective.

VII. With Motto, With Arrows (1873-74)

For just two years, Liberty Seated Half Dollars were struck with arrows on the obverse (front) and the motto on the reverse (back). The two Philadelphia Mint dates of this type are typical choices for type sets. In addition, the 1873-S is not rare and is generally available in grades below AU-50. Overall, finding a gradable and appealing coin of this type is easy.

gr_50c_j3On March 26, 2013, Heritage sold an NGC graded VF-35 1874 for $141, which is more of a wholesale price than a retail price. A collector may have to pay more than $160 if he or she wishes buy such a piece from an established dealer. A Fine-12 or -15 grade 1874, though, has a retail value below $100.

On May 28, Heritage sold a PCGS graded Extremely Fine-40 grade 1874 for $217.38. On March 24, Heritage sold a PCGS graded AU-50 1874 for $411.25. This is clearly a retail price and a strong auction result. As for whether certified AU-50 grade Liberty Seated Halves are worth the current premiums that these command over VF-30 to EF-45 grade coins, each individual collector must decide for himself or herself.

John Albanese likes the idea of “matched sets” where all the grades of all the coins in a set fall into a narrow range. If one coin in a set grades VF-20 and another grades AU-55, the set would not be “matched” in the sense that John is employing this term.

Excluding an 1839 ‘No Drapery,’ which is barely distinguishable from the With Drapery type, a type set of five naturally toned, Liberty Seated Half Dollars in EF-40 grade could be assembled for well under $500 per coin. Also, a type set of Liberty Seated Halves may be enhanced by additions of coins from U.S. Branch Mints in New Orleans, San Francisco and Carson City, Nevada.

©2013 Greg Reynolds


Readers 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 to click to read earlier parts of this series:

1) Copper

2) Dimes

3) Quarters

4) Bust Half Dollars

5) Liberty Seated Half Dollars

6) Barber Half Dollars

7) Trade Dollars


* * *

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. I tend to buy coins with nearly the same grade, rather than the same price. Some of the more common ones will allow me to save money for the more rare and pricy ones in that grade. I learn a lot from your articles.

  2. Does the historical significance of Civil War era Seated Liberty half dollars translate to increased numismatic value?


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