By Dan Duncan – Retired, Pinnacle Rarities ……
The long-running obverse design of the Washington quarter is currently in its final year and will be changed in 2022 to a yet undecided updated depiction of our founding father. We take this opportunity to look back on the series in grades Gem and better, dividing the article into decades discussing some of the better dates. For brevity’s sake, we are excluding the doubled dies as they are rare in any grade.
The Washington motif was originally intended to be a half dollar and a one-year commemorative to mark the bicentennial of the birth of George Washington. Approved in 1931 at the smaller denomination, the design competition met with heated debate. In 1932, a controversial decision was made and the designs by John Flanagan were chosen. His obverse work, with some small improvements, has endured for nearly a century.
Overall, the series is divided into three distinct eras – the silver, the clad, and the commemorative issues. The silver quarters were produced from 1932 until 1964 when they were replaced by their clad counterparts and eventually the commemorative issues of the last two decades. The entire silver era is extremely rare in MS68, with most dates scarce in MS67, obtainable with diligence in MS66, and readily available in MS65 and below.
All dates in the thirties are better in relation to the later issues.
The first year features the two keys for the series with the San Francisco and Denver Mint emissions. These two issues are exceedingly rare in Premium Gem and non-existent in MS67. The Philadelphia issue has a lower mintage than the following P-Mints of the series but is relatively available up to MS66. In Superb Gem, however, just 15 PCGS examples exist–likely due to collectors and dealers saving the presumed novelties.
The second year of production was 1934 after a one-year hiatus. The die was modified to improve the Motto inscription, which was weak in previous issues and wore to illegible in first-year circulated examples. The improvements created three motto varieties – Light, Medium, and Heavy. No coins were struck that year on the West Coast, and the Denver facilities used only Medium and Heavy Motto dies. The bulk of the examples were created in the Medium format across the two mints, with the Heavy Mottos the scarcer of the type. Both varieties of the 1934-D are considered semi-keys.
The 1936-D is also a semi-key with prices in Gem and better elevated. Traditionally the issue has been tough and current price guides for the date reflect that. With over 2,500 examples graded in all grades, the population for the issue is higher than some of the more common dates, but this is due to the overall value warranting certification and the statistical anomaly of regrades.
The bulk of the 1930s Philadelphia issues prove fairly available even in MS67. For the most part, 1935 – 1939 are found easily in all grades up to MS66, with eye-appealing Superb Gems on the market with some searching. 1939-P is the most common in high grade for the entire pre-1965 series with over 1,000 in MS66, over 325 in MS67, and a series-high 22 in MS68. The Denver issues of the decade are tougher but still obtainable in Premium Gem, with several hundred of each date in MS66. The San Francisco examples are well made and apparently have survived in good condition. After the key date ’32-S, quarters weren’t made on the West Coast until 1935. All of the S-Mint examples are available in grades up to MS67. Overall the bulk of the thirties have lower mintages than the remaining dates in the series and have market availability and pricing that represent this. The 1930s represent the most elusive part of the collection as a whole.
From the beginning of the series, examples were hoarded by a few dealers. These cherished examples are likely most of the Gem and better collecting pool represented today. Rarity still loosely follows the mintage figures, and the 1940s saw an increase in production across all three mints, including the war years.
The year the U.S. entered World War II, the denomination saw its first mintage to top 100 million. The Philadelphia Mint produced 102,996,000 in 1942, and approached this watershed in 1943 with 99,700,000. It eclipsed the first number in 1944 with 104,956,000 struck. It doesn’t come close to these numbers again until the sixties.
The 1940-D is the lowest mintage for the decade and prices reflect that inherent rarity. Conditionally they are affordable in relation to previous years even in superb gem condition. Outside of the doubled die varietals, the entire decade is obtainable in all grades up to MS67, with the superb gems requiring some patience.
Of course, as with the entire series, MS68 examples are extremely scarce and most issues have less than five in the lofty grade.
The fifties are considered a decade of prosperity. While much of the world was still digging out of the ravages of WWII, the U.S. saw intense growth and minimal inflation. As such, demand for specie remained high and mintage figures for most of the 1950s reflect this. The large quantities combined with hoarding results in most of the decade’s issues being common. Despite dealer hoards, heavy demand meant heavy use and much of the Mint’s production was circulated. Survivors in Superb Gem are rare considering the tens of millions produced.
Again, MS68 examples are scarce with less than 10 for any date and less than five for most.
There are a couple of interesting varieties with the over-mint marks of 1950. The Denver and San Francisco facilities punched their mark over the other’s creating both a D over S and an S over D. Both of these varieties are tough, with the D/S considerably scarcer in Gem and better grades. Both have less than 300 examples graded by PCGS in all grades. Neither have a MS68 example. In fact, finding an available Superb Gem would require some luck with a combined population in MS67 of only 12.
The lowest mintage for the decade belongs to the 1955-D with just 3,182,400 produced. The coins are difficult to find in higher condition, despite an overall population of 3,494 in all grades. The bulk of the population resides in MS63 and MS64 holders. The Premium Gem grades are scarce and to date, only six examples have garnered Superb Gem. There are no ’55-D examples graded MS68.
With the San Francisco Mint producing exclusively Proof examples from 1968 forward and clad issues taking over in 1965, the circulating dates from the sixties number at just 10 issues. All the issues saw heavy production with the final year representing over a billion coins across the two operating mints.
But surprisingly, the sixties offer population scarcity in MS67 despite these lofty mintages.
This is partially due to pricing and demand subduing earlier submissions to the services. And additionally, the silver boom of the early eighties saw them included in bags of 90% or simply dumped into the melting pots for their content. This loss to attrition and the overall series disregard due to pricing has left Superb Gems very difficult to find and to date, just three individual coins have been graded MS68 across the 10 issues.
Silver Washington quarters are great to collect in any grade, as they are affordable and still available raw in dealer boxes – perfect for enthusiasts to store in albums.
However, we suggest advanced collectors buy certified examples with the bulk of the dates in Premium Gem or better. The laws of supply and demand, coupled with the desire for quality, dictate the best potential lies in the upper grades. The bulk of the dates in MS66 and to some extent MS67 are readily available with the exception of a few semi-keys and the 1932 issues.
As stated, all the doubled die varieties are extremely rare, and these can be included or not at the collector’s discretion. The over-mint-marks of 1950 are also scarce and their inclusion in the set is not a requirement.
We hope you enjoy this primer to the series. This article is not meant as an end-all discussion of the series but rather a jumping-off point for interested collectors to begin fulfilling one of the great 20th-century numismatic adventures.
Our data were derived from the PCGS Population Report and we report exclusively from this. Nevertheless, we must note that the trends here are mirrored in the NGC reports. We are not suggesting any service superiority but working toward simplicity in overview. We acknowledge the data is not absolute and is tainted by value in obvious ways. The lower price for Gems in the series leads to lower submission quantities, thereby skewing data where numbers do not necessarily coincide with the overall rarity. Keep in mind that collecting at any level is encouraged but we stick to Gem and better grades catering to our specific clientele.