Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #255
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds…
For less than $500 per coin, a set of Walking Liberty half dollars ‘by date’ (including U.S. Mint locations) can be completed with circulated representatives of some ‘early dates’ and many ‘late dates’ represented by 65 or 66 grade, gem quality coins. With a $500 per coin maximum, there are multiple strategies that are practical.
Walking Liberty halves were minted from 1916 to 1947. All are specified to be 90% silver. For simplicity, Walking Liberty half dollars are referred to as “Walkers,” in the same way that Mercury dimes are often called “Mercs.”
Walkers are an appropriate topic for the tenth in a series of articles on classic U.S. coins that cost less than $500 each. (Please click to read a discussion about defining classic U.S. coins.) Walkers are popular, not rare, and very much affordable in the context of market prices for classic U.S. coins.
It is great that so many sets of classic U.S. coins can be completed or nearly completed without spending more than $500 for any one coin. Buyers of classic baseball memorabilia, classic cars, historical manuscripts, antique Chinese vases, or vintage European paintings are likely incur far more costs, if they are building collections that collectors in those respective fields regard as meaningful and impressive.
Of course, I realize that individual collectors will sometimes formulate their own strategies and define their own sets. Beginning to intermediate collectors, however, usually do not wish to creatively mold their own plan; they seek guidance and educational materials. Moreover, it makes more sense to complete sets that are meaningful to thousands of other collectors than to define a set in a way that no one else understands. There are rules and traditions in the culture of coin collecting in the U.S.
It does not make sense to oppose rules and traditions without first learning about them. Besides, though discussion, research, publications, and collector advocacy, rules can be changed and traditions can be modified. The advent and acceptance of PCGS and NGC were certainly part of a process that changed the culture of coin collecting.
Discussion about culture and rules may deflect attention from the important point that coin collecting is and should be fun. For most (not all) coin buyers, it is more fun to build a collection that fellow collectors understand and admire, than to build a collection that seems disjointed or illogical to most others.
It should be repeated that there is not a need to spend an amount near $500 for any one coin to build a meaningful collections of classic U.S. coins. All budget constraints and collecting strategies, however, cannot be covered in one discussion. An earlier piece suggests collecting 20th century half dollars that cost from $10 to $50 each. Furthermore, I have written articles for absolute beginners and about coins that cost less than $250 each. Also, collectors with very small budgets may benefit from attending small to medium size coin shows.
What are Walking Liberty Half Dollars?
The symbolism in the artistic design of Walkers relates to the concept of the United States then becoming a cautious world power and a nation focused on ideals rather than on empire-building. A patriotic Miss Liberty, wearing stars and stripes, is confidently walking towards a brighter future, radiated by the sun. A strong, confident eagle on the reverse (back) is letting the world know the that United States is ready to act for ideals, though this eagle is not threatening or particularly aggressive.
Miss Liberty carries laurel and oak branches in her arm. The laurel branches refer to the successes of America being carried into the future, not just ‘resting on laurels.’ The oak branches signify strength and independence, as they do on the Mercury dime.
Walkers and Mercs were designed by A. Alexander Weinman. Some aspects of his life and accomplishments are mentioned in my recent article on Mercs. A wealth of information about Weinman can be easily found via Google searches. Also, many people only become aware of the existence of half dollars by way of material on the Internet.
It has been decades since half dollars widely circulated in the Eastern United States. It has been more than sixteen years since I received a half dollar in change and a cashier then thought that Kennedy half dollars were quarters!
From the time U.S. half dollars were first minted in 1794 to the 1960s, they were often used in commerce. When I was a kid, my grandmother told me that she spent or received half dollars during most days of her life. In even earlier times, half dollars were roughly equivalent in value and use to the four reales pieces of the Spanish Empire and were thus consistent with the most widely used monetary system in the Americas, the Western hemisphere, from the mid 1500s to the early 1800s.
In 1916, Walkers replaced Barber half dollars, which were minted from 1892 to 1915. Walkers were followed by Franklin halves, which were minted from 1948 to 1963.
Kennedy half dollars date from 1964 to the present. Other than special issues for collectors, the Kennedy halves of 1964 were the last U.S. half dollars to be 90% silver. Curiously, Kennedy halves dating from 1965 to 1970 are 40% silver. A special variety of the “1976” bicentennial version of Kennedy halves is 40% silver as well.
Since 1992, 90% silver, Proof Kennedy Halves have been sold by the U.S. Mint. Proof Walkers were minted from 1936 to 1942, though these are a different topic, which will be addressed in the future. It would be awkward to collect Proof Walkers with a $500 per coin limit.
Both business strike and Proof, copper-nickel clad, Kennedy Half Dollars, which contain zero silver, continue to be produced each year, mostly for collectors. Do any of the business strikes circulate?
Also, Walkers were the last widely circulating U.S. coin issue to feature a female personification of liberty. Many bullion “coins” that have been produced by the U.S. Mint since 1986 do as well.
Indeed, the obverse (front) design of the Walking Liberty half dollar was revived for use on the so called ‘silver eagle’ bullion coins that have been produced from 1986 to the present, though the design was clearly modified and lacks many of the subtle characteristics of true Walkers. I am reminded of ‘prints’ of old master paintings that stem from digital photographs of such paintings that have been edited and ‘enhanced’ with computer software.
Between three million and forty-one million business strikes of such “silver eagles” are produced each year and wholesaled by the U.S. Mint as bullion products. A ‘silver eagle’ contains one ounce of silver. These legally, though dishonestly, carry a face value of one dollar, which is stated on each. In 1986, when “silver eagles’ were first minted, the market value of silver, as a metal, was more than five dollars per ounce and is currently around sixteen dollars. Collectors who are enthusiastic about Walkers tend to shun such “silver eagles.”
Late Dates (1934-47)
Collecting ‘late date’ Walkers is extremely easy, as these are plentiful. Walkers dating from 1934 to 1947 are ‘late dates.’ The 1938-D distinguishes itself as being relatively much scarcer than the other Walkers minted after 1933. Although I personally have more respect for the ‘early dates,’ most collectors of Walkers start with ‘late dates’ before deciding how much time and money to commit to this series. Generally, ‘late date’ Walkers are among the most popular of all U.S. coins.
“Walkers from the late 1930s and ’40s in CAC approved 66 grade are good values at less than $200,” John Albanese asserts. “You could buy most of the dates in 66 for less than $500. It is definitely a buyer’s market for Walkers, now. Collectors can be selective,” Albanese adds. John is the founder and president of CAC.
Prices for many ‘late date’ Walkers have fallen since 2013. It would have been hard during 2013, perhaps impossible, to buy a PCGS graded MS-66 1934 Walker for less than $550. Now, one could probably be found for less than $400.
PCGS or NGC graded MS-66 representatives of the following Walkers could probably be obtained, in Internet auctions, for less than $200 each: 1939, 1940, 1941, 1941-D, 1942, 1943, 1943-D, 1944, 1944-D, 1945, 1945-D, 1946, 1946-D and 1946-S. Prices for these, though, could bounce higher in the near future, depending on the extent to which these are promoted by telemarketing firms.
On Oct. 21, Heritage Auctions (hereafter HA) sold an NGC graded MS-66 1941-D for $141. On Oct. 14 and again in November, HA sold a PCGS graded MS-66 1943-D half for $176.25. Earlier this year, other PCGS graded MS-66 1943-D halves brought $164.50 each.
A PCGS graded MS-66+ and CAC approved 1943-D sold on Nov. 9 for $317.25. Although I have never seen this coin, my hunch is that it is much more impressive than the just mentioned PCGS graded MS-66 coins. This 1943-D is mildly brilliant with well balanced russet and blue tones. It may be true that it scores much higher in the category of originality than many of the PCGS or NGC graded MS-66 or MS-66+ Walkers that have been sold over the last dozen years.
PCGS or NGC graded MS-66 Walkers of all dates from 1939 to 1947 have been tending to sell for less than $500 each, except the 1940-S, 1941-S, 1942-S and 1944-S. MS-65 grade representatives of those four could surely be purchased for less than $500 each.
On Nov. 18, HA sold a PCGS graded MS-66 1939 Walker for $199.75. A PCGS graded MS-66 1940 Walker brought the exact same price on Oct. 12, in New York.
On Nov. 8, HA sold a PCGS graded MS-66 1939-S, with a CAC sticker, for $397.15. On Oct. 12, HA sold a PCGS graded MS-66 1939-S, without a CAC sticker, for $258.50.
As so many ‘late date’ Walkers have been dipped to be marketed to the general public by large firms, naturally toned pieces are relatively scarce. A nicely toned 1943-S, which is PCGS graded MS-66 and CAC approved, sold on Sept. 6 by HA for $381.88.
As Walkers dating from 1939 to 1947 are so extremely common, a challenge might be to find ones with pleasant, medium to deep toning, with shades of russet, orange and blue. Some ‘late dates,’ however, are not quite so common. For example, it is unlikely that a collector could find a PCGS or NGC graded MS-65 1937-D for less than $500. So, for a few ‘late dates,’ collectors must settle for MS-64 or even MS-63 grade coins to avoid breaking the $500 barrier.
The 1938-D is curious, as it so much scarcer than Walkers and other coins of the time period. Surely, it is the key to a run of ‘late date’ Walkers. I suggest a pleasing, naturally toned, AU-55 or AU-58 grade 1938-D, which may take a few months to acquire.
Mintmarks on the 1917-D and 1917-S
Before 1979, Philadelphia Mint coins never had mintmarks, except ‘war nickels’ minted from 1942 to 1945. So, I am referring here to the marks of Branch U.S. Mints. Walkers were minted in Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco.
In 1917, mintmarks were placed on the obverse (front) of Walkers produced for the first few months, as mintmarks were in 1916, and then, on Branch Mint Walkers made for the rest of the year, the mintmark was placed on the reverse (back). On most 19th century U.S. coin series that include coins with mintmarks, the mintmark is on the reverse (back or tail of the coin). The exceptions in the 19th century are 1838-O and 1839-O halves along with Classic Head Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles, which were also struck in the 1830s. To the best of my recollection, all other mintmarks on U.S. coins minted before 1909 are on the reverse.
After 1839, mintmarks did not again appear on the obverse until the Lincoln cent was introduced in 1909. On Standing Liberty quarters, which date from 1916 to 1930, the mintmark is on the obverse. From 1932 to 1964, however, mintmarks on Washington quarters were on the reverse. A mintmark did not appear on the obverse of a Washington quarter until 1968.
So, the dual 1917-D and 1917-S mintmark varieties are curious. A PCGS or NGC graded AU-55 1917-D Walker with the mintmark on the obverse would probably sell at auction for less than $500 in the current market environment. Less than a month ago, HA sold a PCGS graded AU-55 coin for $423. On March 2, HA auctioned an NGC graded AU-55 coin for $499.38.
The 1917-D with the mintmark on the reverse is relatively scarce, a much ‘better date.’ There is little hope of obtaining even an AU-55 grade coin for less than $500. In Oct. and in Aug., HA sold PCGS graded AU-53 representatives of this issue for $470 each.
The 1917-S with the mintmark on the obverse is a semi-key. A VF-20 or -25 grade coin could be found for less than $500, though months of waiting might be required to obtain a VF grade coin that most relevant experts would regard as definitely gradable.
It is easier to locate 1917-S coins with the mintmark on the reverse, though finding definitely gradable, Extremely Fine to AU level coins may be difficult. When true AU-53 to AU-55 grade coins are offered, they sell for less than $335 at auction. These are just not offered very often.
Early Dates In General
Regarding ‘early date’ Walkers for less than $500 each, John Albanese recommends “nice VF and EF examples. You do not necessarily have to buy certified coins. Get a copy of Photograde. Buy naturally toned coins, nice even gray colors.” Albanese tends towards advocating a “matched set” of early dates, rather than mixing Very Fine-20 grade and AU-58 or higher grade coins in the same set.
I point out that Photograde is now available online at the PCGS web site. For a collectors with a $500 per coin limit, PCGS or NGC graded AU-55 to AU-58 coins are options for many ‘early dates.’
On Sept. 6, HA sold a PCGS graded AU-58 1916 for $305.50. The online images suggest that this coin has violet-gray and russet tones, which are probably natural. I would have to see the coin in actuality to form a firm opinion. Usually, such colors on Walkers are natural.
Although, for quite a few ‘early dates,’ a PCGS or NGC graded MS-62 coin could be obtained for less than $500, certified AU grade coins tend to be more original. Moreover, some of the relatively original, certified “MS-62” grade coins are not really uncirculated. A coin that has the characteristics of a MS-64 or MS-65 grade coin except for the fact that it has some wear will often be certified as grading “MS-62.”
Generally, the scarcity of ‘early date’ Walkers varies. An amount between $400 and $500 may buy a MS-64 grade representative of one date and just a VF-20 representative of another, though will often be enough to buy a certified, AU-50 to MS-61 grade coin.
The 1919-D is a key. In Jan. 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded VF-30 1919-D for $402.50. It was from a collector-consignment. This 1919-D has gray toning with violet tints. This is probably the kind of wholesome coin to which Albanese refers, though again John and I warn that it is not a good idea to grade coins without seeing them in actuality.
The 1919-S is a semi-key. Although market levels for Very Fine grade coins are well below $500, these are not publicly offered very often.
“Some S-Mint Walkers come weakly struck,” Albanese points out. “A 1920-S in Extremely Fine may look like a VF to someone who does not have much experience grading circ Walkers,” John notes.
On Jan. 12, 2014, HA sold a NGC graded EF-40 1920-S for $211.50. Two days later, HA sold another NGC graded EF-40 1920-S for the exact same price.
Walkers, from all three mints, of the year 1921 are keys. Indeed, the 1921 is the queen of Philadelphia Mint Walkers. A Fine-12 or -15 grade 1921 could be acquired for less than $500. On Sept. 7, 2014, HA sold an NGC graded Fine-12 1921 for $258.50. In Nov. 2012, HA sold a PCGS graded Fine-12 1921 for this exact same price.
Although a PCGS graded Fine-12 1921-D recently sold at auction for $470, a collector should not count on being able to buy a Fine-12 grade 1921-D for less than $500. A fair retail price for one of these is still at least $565. A Fine-12 or -15 grade 1921-S, though, could certainly be acquired for a price below $500.
The 1923-S is a semi-key and is much scarcer in grades above Fine-12 than most experts realize. On Sept. 6, 2014, HA did sell an NGC graded VF-35 1923-S for $381.88 and another of the same certified grade in May for $411.25. VF-35 or -30 grade coins of this date do not, however, appear frequently. Plus, leading price guides tend to underestimate the market values of these.
Maybe a PCGS or NGC graded AU-50 1927-S could be purchased for less than $500. Surely, an EF-40 or -45 grade 1927-S could be, and the same is true of the 1928-S.
The 1929-D is the first Denver Mint issue of Walkers in eight years. A PCGS or NGC graded AU-58 1929-D would probably sell at auction for less than $300, unless competing bidders figure that it is likely to qualify for an ‘upgrade.’
An AU-58 1929-S would typically cost more than an AU-58 1929-D, though certainly less than $500. The 1933-S is the last of the ‘early dates.’ I suggest a PCGS or NGC graded AU-55 1933-S, with gray and/or russet toning. It seems that HA sold such a piece on April 26, 2014, for $305.50.
Building a Set
Some experts refer to the issues from 1933 to 1940 as “middle dates” and the extremely common issues of 1941 to 1947 as the members of a “short set.” These last Walkers are just so common that it does not make sense to assemble a ‘short set.’
Other than the 1938-D, all issues from 1934 to 1947 are very inexpensive and are widely available, though some are relatively much scarcer than the issues of 1941 to 1947. Even so, all from 1934 to 1947, except the 1938-D, are very common to extremely common. It is logical to refer to the whole group, fro 1934 to 1947, as ‘late dates.’
The concept of ‘middle dates’ should not be applied to Walkers. This concept makes more sense in the context of large cents.
To collectors building a set of Walkers, John Albanese provides advice. “The 1946 Doubled Die Reverse is very subtle. If I were building a set of Walkers, I would exclude that variety,” Albanese says. “The worst struck early Walkers are the 1918-S and the 1920-S.”
Curiously, Albanese notes that the “1940-S and ’44-S are often very weakly struck for unknown reasons. Other ’40-S and ’44-S Walkers are very sharply struck. For the 1919-D and the 1935-D, look for a well struck head as many have flat heads,” John adds.
As collectors view a large number of Walkers, they are likely to learn more about them. Although a set of Walkers is not very hard to complete, collectors should not rush to finish a set. A collector who takes time and learns about coins will enjoy collecting more than a collector who does not think much about the coins he or she acquires.
©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: