By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek….
We continue our guide to the Ultimate 20th Century Type Set by focusing on the century’s forgotten denomination, the half dollar.
For many Americans, the fact that the United States continues to produce a half dollar would come as a surprise. The coin hasn’t been a practical denomination for daily use since the early 1960s, and personally, neither of us have received one in change in what feels like years.
That doesn’t mean they’re not out there, of course. Banks still carry small quantities, likely the result of perceived demand caused by people buying boxes of coins in search of the few remaining silver coins in circulation.
But in 2014, the 50th year since the introduction of the Kennedy half, Americans will get a fresh look at the coin, even if it’s produced solely for collector sets and not for circulation.
For our Ultimate Set of 20th century coins, the half dollar offers tremendous challenge and some of the century’s most captivating coins.
Barber Half Dollar (1901-1916)
Rounding out the trio of Barber coins from the 20th century is the Barber half dollar. Like the similarly-designed Barber dime and quarter, it debuted at the end of the 19th century, in 1892.
934,000 circulation strikes and 1,245 proof Barber halves were struck in Philadelphia that first year. This robust output was more than the total mintage of every half dollar struck in the preceding 14 years.
The New Orleans Mint contributed an additional 390,000, while San Francisco’s production eclipsed a million coins, ending the year at 1,029,028.
The redesigned half dollar announced itself in a big way, but curiously, when it comes to the half dollar denomination, it isn’t Barber’s that most people think of when they hear the date 1892. Instead, many people might recall a commemorative half dollar struck to honor the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the “New World”.
That coin was sold for a premium over face and saved in massive numbers. The workmanlike Barber half, unremarkable save for the fact that it was the first issue of a new design, was largely spent, leaving only a tiny fraction of the original mintage in various degrees of Mint State.
Ultimately, those playing the mintage game to figure out which issues stand out as key dates will find out they’re looking at the series from the wrong perspective.
The 1892-S, which is supposed to be the most common coin of the series’ inaugural year, turns out to be the scarcest in Mint State. The 1892-O, with its lowly mintage, doesn’t even crack the series Top 10 list of most valuable coins. Such is the risk of relying on the total number of coins that rolled off the presses and not looking into surviving populations for coin valuations.
While the Barber half dollar is usually considered a 19th century coin, it isn’t until you get to 20th century issues that the series gets truly difficult.
Eight issues in today’s market command prices exceeding $2,500 in MS-63, while costs can reach into the $10,000 to $20,000 range for MS-65 or above. In a series known for its paucity of surviving gems, it’s the 1904-S that has become known as the key to the Barber half dollar series.
As with the 1892-S, it’s not the mintage that makes this issue so scarce. In fact, there are two other 20th century Barber halves with lower mintages.
Instead, it’s that nearly all 1904-S Barber halves struck were spent and then lost to time. A conservative estimate has fewer than 2,000 extant, with perhaps 100-150 surviving in Mint State, and those Mint State numbers are probably too high.
In MS-63 or MS-64, the 1904-S typically brings upwards of $20,000 in today’s market. At MS-65, the price jumps 50% to $30,000. Prices double at MS-66 and double again in MS-67.
These numbers are slightly softer today than they were five years ago.
When money is no object, we’d look for a beautifully-toned or fully-brilliant high-end 1904-S in the Barber half slot. The coin is highly sought after, especially in grades AU and above and is one of the top five or six most-sought-after half dollar varieties in all of American numismatic history.
For you contrarians who want a quality coin that may one day be every bit as coveted as the 1904-S, the 1901-S offers an interesting proposition, as by our calculations the coin is highly underrated and undervalued.
The 1901-S boasts a mintage of 847,044, but don’t let that number fool you. In terms of the marketplace, the 1901-S is almost as scarce as the 1904-S.
The market, apparently, hasn’t caught on.
In MS-63, you’re looking at $7,000. In MS-65, $13,000–PCGS has certified only five coins in that grade and three finer. The 1901-S tops out at MS-67+, given to a specimen that 19th century coin dealer George H. Clapp bought directly from the San Francisco Mint.
Walking Liberty Half Dollar (1916-1947)
Adolph Weinman’s iconic Walking Liberty half dollar design owes some measure of its timelessness to the Americanization of motifs borrowed from turn-of-the-century French Art. The coin, while beautifully sculpted, is a direct imitation of Oscar Roty’s portrayal of the Sower on the French franc.
Weinman’s Walking Liberty, along with Herman A. MacNeil’s bare-breasted Standing Liberty quarter design of the same year, are but two examples of American Coin Art at its zenith. On these pieces, as well as on Saint-Gaudens’ $10 and $20 gold designs, Liberty is rendered as a sensual goddess, expressively posed.
That Weinman’s (or MacNeil’s, for that matter) high-concept art did not translate into a well-struck coin reveals the devil in the details.
The truth of the matter is that most Walking Liberty halves, even those with high numerical grades, are struck incompletely. Even proof strikes are often missing details in the highest points of the coin’s relief.
Metal flow was the main problem, and no amount of incremental change done to the working hubs was able to solve it. Because of this, key design details often fail to strike up completely. That’s why many Mint State examples look lightly circulated to the untrained eye–especially issues struck in the 1920s and branch mint releases from the 1930s and ‘40s.
Due to the popularity of Whitman Coin Boards in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Walking Liberty series is sometimes broken up into a Long Set (1916-1947) and a Short Set (1941-1947). This coincides with the fact that Whitman released two albums: 1916-1940 and 1941-1947. The latter remains popular due to how expensive the complete set is, especially in Mint State. Issues struck in the last 10 years or so of the coin’s run are easy to obtain, with but a few issues that cost more than a couple hundred dollars in choice grades.
As to which coin belongs in the Ultimate Set, we’re undecided. Because to us, there are two obvious choices, each with its own unique set of circumstances.
The logical decision for those looking for what is frequently considered the “key issue” of the series is the 1921-S. Mintage-wise, the ’21-S has the fourth lowest of the entire series, but it’s also the 1921 Walking Liberty issue with the highest original mintage!
Both the 1921 Philly and Denver strikes had fewer than a quarter million examples struck–less than half of San Francisco’s output–but both remain twice as common in Mint State. Don’t get us wrong; all three coins bring strong money in the marketplace. But in terms of “key datedness”, Philly and Denver don’t hold a candle to the 1921-S.
In MS-62, the coin brings $18,000 to $20,000. These numbers are softer than what the market bore two or three years ago. In MS-63, the price jumps to $30,000–a static value that hasn’t moved in about 10 years.
The same holds true for the coin in MS-64, except that the price jumps 33% to $40,000. Between the two major third party grading services, approximately 100 grading events have occurred for coins at this level. Keep in mind that an untold number of those are resubmits or crossovers.
At the MS-65 level, a total of 37 grading events have taken place. Both services have one coin apiece at MS-66. The NGC example sold at a November 2003 Heritage sale for $87,400. That coin has a stronger than typical strike for the issue, with creamy luster and a hint of yellow toning along the rims. The PCGS example–which CoinFacts claims is valued at $250,000–is lustrous, well struck and boasts attractive rose de sable and orange toning with a hint of grape. It’s a truly killer coin.
The second issue to consider is the 1919-D. The ’19-D has a mintage of 1,165,000. This number is beaten by 10 different issues (including the 1921-S), which we’ll discuss shortly.
Do you remember what we said about the estimated surviving population of the Barber half dollar key date issues, the 1901-S and 1904-S? Well, the 1919-D Walking Liberty easily has five times as many survivors in Mint State but is much more valuable due to the enduring popularity of the Walking Liberty series.
In lower Mint State grades (MS-61 and 62), the coin trades for about $6,500. Weak strikes, poor surface preservation and weak luster are hallmarks of the 1919-D in this grade. In MS-63, the coin more than doubles in price, with recent trends showing the coin holding at about $14,000.
The coin’s price doubles at MS-64. A slightly better than average example, though still weakly struck in MS-64+, sold for $52,875 at the 2013 Chicago ANA World’s Fair of Money. That coin CAC’ed.
PCGS has certified only 11 coins at MS-65; NGC has certified four. The right coin should bring strong bidding in the $140,000 range at this level.
Heritage auctioned the finest-known 1919-D at the 2009 Central States Show. That coin, the only MS-66 graded by either PCGS or NGC (PCGS Cert: 21736883) brought $253,000, down from the $270,250 it brought at the 2004 Heritage Auction at Palm Beach, Florida. Since then, that coin has CAC’ed.
So which to chose? Both are excellent. The important factor from an “investor” standpoint is how long the current lull in the Walker market will last. If the situation doesn’t improve, then all but the choicest examples at this level will continue to stagnate, i.e., lose value. Remember that strong coins bring strong prices in any market, and record-breaking prices in a strong market. We believe that while the 1919-D has more upside in grades MS-63 and above, it will never dethrone the 1921-S as the series “key”.