By Dan Duncan – Retired, Pinnacle Rarities ……
The entire run of American coinage received a major overhaul and aesthetic upgrade between 1907 and 1921. Each and every denomination was redesigned, and with the exception of the two-and-a-half and five-dollar gold coins, each had its own unique appearance. These designs were a clear departure from the nation’s less artistic numismatic past, and remain among the most beautiful and beloved of all United States coin types.
This bronze cast is among the rarest artifacts related to the widely popular Standing Liberty quarter series, an original cast of Hermon MacNeil’s obverse design as it appeared in August 1916. Few other relics of the Standing Liberty quarter’s design production period survive in private hands, and arguably none harbor the appeal of this large bronze cast of the obverse design. Sold by Heritage Auctions on Jan 5, 2017 – LOT #5616
It was the beginning of the 20th century and to President Theodore Roosevelt’s thinking America’s coinage was unworthy of a first world power. Necessarily, he turned to talents of outside artists, as Mint engravers previously focused on the mechanical suitability of a design rather than its artistry. So departing from the Mint’s hundred-plus-year tradition, Roosevelt set America’s foremost sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to the task. In 1907, Saint-Gaudens produced his namesake 20-dollar and gorgeous 10-dollar gold designs. Bela L. Pratt was recruited to work on the two minor gold denominations. Victor D. Brenner and James Earle Fraser were also chosen outright for their respective designs for the cent and nickel, and it was not until 1915 a competition was held among prominent artists of the day for the dime, quarter and half dollar designs that would replace the Barber type.
According to the Law of 1890, coin designs could be changed after 25 years tenure. The Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars had been in use since 1892, so replacements were allowed in 1917, although not mandatory. As the public’s response to the other new numismatic designs was overwhelmingly positive, on December 28, 1915 the Treasury held a competition for these three denominations. For the first time in the history of the United States Mint, distinctive designs were going to be created for these issues. Adolf Weinman won the rights to the dime and half dollar, and the winner for the new quarter was prominent American sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil. He was well known for his works depicting Native Americans and historical events, and went on to create Justice, the Guardian of Liberty on the east pediment of the United States Supreme Court Building among a vast many other professional achievements.
MacNeil’s quarter features Liberty striding confidently through a waist-high gateway, carrying a shield bearing the national arms in her left hand. The sheath from her shield is being removed by her right hand, in which she also holds an olive branch. MacNeil stated that Liberty is “stepping forward in … the defense of peace as her ultimate goal.” (Of course 1917 was also the year that the United States entered World War I, after striving for years to maintain its neutrality.) Thirteen stars representing the original colonies are displayed on both the obverse gateway and flanking the eagle in flight on the reverse. The designer’s initial M is located to the right of the date, while the mintmark appears just to the left.
Standing Liberty quarters were struck at the Philadelphia Mint from 1916 until 1930 with the exception of only 1922, when no quarters were produced at any mint. Strikings at Denver and San Francisco were more sporadic. In 15 years of production, 226 million coins were struck. Interestingly, this is the only 20th-century regular issue U.S. coin for which no proof coins were produced. There are 37 regular issues as well as one overdate: a 1917-S Type 2 die, unused by the San Francisco mint, was recut and used to strike several thousand 1918-S coins, creating a rare variety and the most elusive issue in the series. While the series contains many challenges to the advanced collector, the two other most notable keys are the 1916, which saw a low production of 52,000 pieces and the 1927-S, one of the foremost condition rarities in all of 20th-century U.S. numismatics and the toughest date to find with a fully struck head.
Chief Engraver George Morgan, who replaced the late Charles Barber that February, made extensive changes to MacNeil’s design mid-way through 1917, creating a distinct Type 2 format. His modifications made the eagle higher on the reverse and moved three of the thirteen stars from its sides to below it. Liberty’s nude torso is covered with chain mail and her shield rivets are reduced from 30 to 16. Finally, a convexity was applied to the dies to aid in striking production. Unfortunately, the changes had the opposite effect, with Type 2 examples displaying poorer definition overall and notably to Liberty’s hair and face. Like Fraser’s nickel, the Standing Liberty quarter’s date was one of the highest features of the design and tended to wear quickly. A subtype (sometimes called Type 3) was created in 1925, at which time the date was recessed.
The Type 1 issues of 1916-1917 display straight sides on both the first and second numerals with very subtle serifs at either side of the top and bottom. Due to incomplete striking, these often appear to be sans-serif, having only subtle bulges at either end. The 9 had a loop that was not quite closed and a tail that pointed directly to the left, which is a contrast to the upwardly curved tail found in Hermon MacNeil’s original models. It’s probable that adjustments were made by the Mint’sengraving staff. With the Type 2 issues, the 9 pointed upward as originally intended and the loop of the 9 is larger.
The Type 2 issues of 1917-24 display plain, block figures throughout, except in 1921. As with so many United States designs of this date, the 1921 had a distinctive appearance, in this case with broader numerals than the coins preceding or following it.
When the date was recessed for the coins of 1925-30, all numerals were altered. The previous san-serif style was replaced with curved, serif-style figures. The 1 began displaying a tilting left serif at the top and broad, straight serifs at the bottom. The 2 transitioned from flat to curved at the bottom. The uniform upper and lower loops seen on the 8 in 1918 were changed to a small loop above a larger on in 1928. The flat-topped 3 of 1923 was replaced with a curved one in 1930.
Particularly beginning with the Type 2 format, coins graded Full Head are much scarcer and more valuable than those lacking this feature. To qualify for this designation a coin must possess three attributes: the three leaves in Liberty’s hair must be visible; her hairline must be complete; and her ear indentation must be evident. Other areas that are prone to striking weakness on some but not all issues are Liberty’s right knee, the date, the eagle’s breast feathers, and the rivets as well as the center of the shield.
1916: By the time dies were finally ready, the year 1916 near its end and only 52,000 coins were minted. As such, it is among the premier rarities of 20th-century numismatics. That being said, examples in almost any condition are available up to MS66 if you are willing to pay the price. As with any new design, many were saved from circulation by collectors and the general public alike. While the 1916 and Type 1 1917 quarters share the same reverse design, there are subtle differences between the obverse designs used for the two years: Liberty’s hair detail is slightly different; her gown drapes a bit lower and is folded alternately; and the beading on the coin’s rim is cut to make room for her head. Other more subtle differences exist as well.
1917 Type 1: For those seeking a high-quality, inexpensive example of the Type 1 style, this is the coin. Over 12 million were produced by the three Mints in the first half of 1917, and roughly three-quarters of that number originated from Philadelphia. Unlike their Type 2 counterparts, Type 1 examples usually display solid definition on Liberty’s head and shield. Examining the population reports in gem and finer grades, the numbers are 5 to 1 in favor of Full-Head issues, so premiums are accordingly reasonable for well-struck examples.
1917-D Type 1: Although not as common as its P-mint sibling, this is still an affordable example of Hermon MacNeil’s beautiful design and relatively obtainable even up to MS67FH.
1917-S Type 1: Although 443,000 more pieces were struck of the S-mint Type 1 than the D-mint, the S-mint is the most challenging of the three Type 1 issues to locate with Full-Head detail.
1917 Type 2: The modifications made to Liberty’s hairstyle, the eagle, stars and added chain mail caused the obverse to be more weakly struck than the Type 1 examples. However, on this issue, the majority of mint state examples have fully struck heads and out-number the non-Full Heads about two to one. This is the most common of the 1917 to 1924 Standing Liberty quarters. The 1917-1924 dates, however, are notably rarer in all grades than their 1925-1930 counterparts.
1917-D Type 2: Fully struck examples are a bit more elusive for this Denver Type 2 issue and Full Head examples in gem and finer bring strong premiums.
1917-S Type 2: Although a bit scarcer than it’s Denver cousin in absolute terms, the Type 2 San Francisco examples are a bit easier to acquire at the MS67FH and higher level, with a dozen coins so graded between PCGS and NGC combined. Of course it is unknown just how many of these are resubmissions. As an aside, an important factor to consider when judging any coin’s rarity is the number and frequency of auction appearances, as some the population data for some issues is more accurate than others.
1918: The economy in 1918 was booming and the need for minor coinage had all three mints running at full capacity. The result was quantity (more than 32.5 million pieces were struck at the three Mints) over quality. The Philadelphia Mint did by far the best job in producing a high-quality product, and about 40% of mint state survivors have fully struck heads. Locating a high-grade, Full Head example is not overly difficult.
1918-D: Although often overshadowed by its San Francisco counterpart, this issue is conditionally scarce and infrequently encountered at the Gem level or finer. It is much rarer than you would guess from its almost 7.5 million coin production. Strike is usually a problem, with most examples displaying poor definition on Liberty’s left (facing) leg, the date, and the eagle’s breast feathers, as well as on Liberty’s face and hair.
1918-S: This is one of the great strike rarities in the series. This is also the case with the Mercury dime and Walking Liberty half dollar series, with the 1918-S being a high mintage (over 11 million) issue with abysmal availability of candidates with strong striking characteristics.
1918/7-S: To help meet the high demand of the San Francisco Mint and the wartime economy, an old Type 2 1917-dated die was re-engraved with an 8 over the final digit in the date. The mintage figure of this quarter is unknown, but obviously miniscule. These pieces circulated freely and were not discovered until nearly 20 years after they entered commerce. Accordingly, few mint state survivors are known today, and it is one of the key silver rarities of 20th century numismatics.
Two notable characteristics can be found on these coins, struck from a single obverse die: a die clash in the area next to Liberty’s right knee, from the E in E PLURIBUS UNUM on the reverse; and a small dot of extra metal above and to the right of the last digit of the date.
The 1918/7-S is so rare, it is relatively expensive even in the lowest grades. Mint state specimens are extreme rarities and specimens with fully struck heads are almost non-existent. Combining the populations, there are a total of 161 PCGS and NGC graded uncirculated examples. As a certain percentage of these are certainly resubmissions, it is likely less than 100 mint state survivors exist. The two services have graded only 12 MS65 or better specimens (again a number certainly inflated) and none that have received the coveted Full Head designation. The highest graded Full Heads are MS64s. There are only 26 Full Head uncirculated examples in all grades combined on the population reports of the two major services.
1919: This is one of the most available issues in the teens in high-grade due to its mintage exceeding 11 million. High quality examples with strong striking characteristics are among the most available for issues before 1925.
1919-D: For unknown reasons the Denver Mint coinage of 1919, across all denominations, was poorly made, creating Key dates for the nickel, dime, quarter and half dollar. Liberty’s head is almost always weak and the rivets along the left side of the shield are usually poorly defined. Like its sister 1919-S coin, there are often interesting die breaks on the obverse around the date.
1919-S: Like the 1919-D of similar mintage, the 1919-S is a key to the series and rare in high-grade, particularly with full striking characteristics. Rarity and price in high-grade examples with Full Head attributes run parallel with the 1919-D, both of which are quite a bit rarer than the more famous and coveted 1916.
1920: Even though the 1920 has the highest mintage of the entire series (more than double any other issue), its availability in the better grades of uncirculated is surprisingly low. The government’s need for 27.8 million quarters this year overwhelmed the usually competent production staff in Philadelphia making Full Heads surprisingly scarce. It was another situation where quantity ruled over quality.
1920-D: In high-grade, particularly with Full Head attributes, this ranks amongst the most challenging of issues in the series. Most examples display striking weakness at the top of the date and the third and fourth rivets are usually missing from Liberty’s shield.
1920-S: Taken as a whole, the Roaring Twenties witnessed some of the poorest produced coins in the history of the San Francisco mint. This is true not just of the quarters, but also of the nickels, dimes, and half dollars. Both obverse and reverse almost always display weak strikes, making it one of the top strike rarities in the series, eclipsing even the 1919-D and 1919-S. It is second only to the 1927-S in terms of the fewest high-grade survivors, with and without Full Head status. The elusiveness of Gem quality and finer Full Head examples has led to pricing pressure on non-Full Heads as well, particularly in the upper uncirculated grades.
1921: A relatively low mintage (1,916,000) may account for the fact that mint state survivors are usually well-struck. However, whereas many Standing Liberty quarters display striking softness through the top of the date, the 1921 displays this feature along the bottom of the digits. The first and second 1 in the date are slightly different when compared to other issues, leading some to believe that the design was again modified in this year, as was absolutely the case with the 1921 Walker.
1923: Albeit a high mintage issue, this date is quite scarce in Gem, Full Head condition. Although the San Francisco issue of this year gets much more recognition as a Key date, in gem and finer Full Head condition the Philly issue has far fewer examples graded. As it sells for a fraction of the price, this issue should be considered a sleeper. When found, high-grade survivors can be located with razor-sharp striking detail.
1923-S: This date is elusive from the standpoint of both absolute and condition rarity. It is more available than one would expect, however, and is perhaps one of the more over-rated dates in the series. Gem and finer examples, even with Full Head details, trade relatively frequently.
1924: As if foreshadowing the date modification the following year, the 1924 was one of the most poorly produced issues in the entire series. Furthermore, the obverse die cracked early in production, resulting in most mint state survivors missing the top portion of their dates. Although over 10 million coins were produced, Gem and better examples are not easy to acquire. Like the 1923, this is another relative sleeper in MS66FH and better conditions, although prices are beginning to escalate.
1924-D: As was the case in Philadelphia this year, this was also one of the worst produced in the series. Many examples come weakly struck, not only on Liberty’s head but on the date and shield rivets. It is not uncommon to find the top third or half of the date missing from a broken die. This issue has many survivors in uncirculated condition, even in very high-grade, but almost all are Flat Heads. Full Heads are quite rare in Gem and finer.
1924-S: Nearly 3 million were minted but the vast majority were poorly produced. Full Head examples are rare, but the striking problems did not stop with Liberty’s head, as the shield detail is also typically abysmal, as are the eagle’s feathers. The lack of availability of Full Heads has led to Flat Heads in the higher uncirculated grades commanding strong prices.
1925: The date positioned on the first step of the passway was one of the design’s highest features and wore away quickly, leading to the entire area of the first step being recessed in 1925. This was a high production issue with a mintage of over 12 million, so not surprisingly examples grading up to MS66FH are readily available.
1926: This issue is poorly produced by Philadelphia standards. Although over 11 million were minted, a low percentage of those display strong striking characteristics. Finding Gem and finer examples in Full Head, while not especially difficult, is harder than one would think given the high mintage, the Philly Mint’s usual better attention to detail, and the previous year’s design change.
1926-D: This is one of the rarest issues of the series in Gem Full Head and finer conditions, although locating an example that is high-grade with a Flat Strike is extremely easy. Indeed, it was branded as the classic Flat Head of the series by Standing Liberty Quarter specialist, J. Cline. The reverse strike also proves problematic, with typical examples displaying few if any feathers on the eagle’s wings.
1926-S: This issue is several times rarer than its already elusive Denver cousin. The San Francisco mint had problems striking up any coin designs in the twenties, and the 1926-S quarter is no exception. Besides displaying weakness on Liberty’s head, her shield and the eagle’s breast feathers are notoriously soft. The third and fourth rivets are always missing from the shield.
1927: Although not as common as the 1929 and 1930, this issue was well produced in high numbers, with a mintage of nearly 12 million. Finding a high-quality example, while not necessarily easy, is not overly challenging. However, finding a superb Gem with Full Head details, is a feat, as it is with nearly all but a handful of dates in this challenging series.
1927-D: Although this issue and its famous San Francisco sibling are the only ones in the series boasting mintages of less than a million besides the 1916, it is surprisingly easy to locate a high-quality example, up to and including coins at the Gem, Full Head level.
1927-S: With only a paltry 396,000 produced, the 1927-S is the premier rarity among the regular issue Standing Liberty quarters. It is even rarer than the 1916, even though almost eight times as many coins were struck since it wasn’t saved in the substantial way witnessed by the first date of the series. The 1927-S is one of the foremost condition rarities in all of 20th century U.S. numismatics and aside from the overdate, the most expensive of all Standing Liberty quarters. Even Flat Head examples in mint state command considerable sums.
1928: This date is amongst the most common and is readily available in all grades up to MS66FH. The obverse and reverse of this issue are amongst the better struck in the series. As with nearly every Standing Liberty quarter, it becomes rare at the MS67FH level.
1928-D: This issue was poorly produced, and the striking characteristics tend to be weak in all of the usual problem areas. Accordingly, Full Head examples bring strong premiums and are fairly elusive.
1928-S: Large and small mintmark varieties of this year exist, with the small mintmark being three to five times rarer according to J. Cline. The small mintmark is further to the right and down toward the date and does not touch the star. This issue is relatively common and easy to acquire up to the MS67FH level.
1929: This is the second most common issue in the series behind the 1930. All grades up to MS66FH are readily available and reasonably affordable, making it a popular choice for type collectors.
1929-D: The mintage of 1,358,000 coins was the fourth-lowest of any date and mintmark issue in the entire Standing Liberty quarter series. The low production in combination with the typical poor strike of Denver Mint issues during the ‘20s makes the 1929-D is an important condition and strike rarity. Gem and higher examples with Full Head details are elusive, although not as rare as several of the Denver and San Francisco issues from earlier in the decade.
1929-S: This issue was better produced than any other San Francisco issue from the ’20s and finding high-quality examples is not usually a problem.
1930: This is the most readily available of all issues in the series, except for the 1917 Type 1. Strike is not a problem, nor is finding an example in any condition. It is most often the type collector’s issue of choice.
1930-S: While not as well produced as its Philly counterpart, this date is still easy to acquire in any condition, albeit with weaker striking attributes, particularly on Liberty’s head and the inner shield, as well as the third and fourth shield rivets.
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The Standing Liberty quarter was discontinued in 1931, a year in which no quarters were struck. Although the Law of 1890 mandated that coinage designs should not be changed more often than every 25 years, the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth in 1932 seemed an important enough event to issue what was conceived as a one-year commemorative quarter. The Washington quarter, obviously, ended up continuing as a regular issue.
MacNeil’s Liberty, carrying both shield and olive branch, is a poignant reminder of a time when the United States was on the brink of joining the Allied Forces in the World War that had begun in 1914. Although it was produced for a mere 15 years, it remains one of American numismatics most beloved designs and is universally considered one of the most beautiful.