Walking Liberty Half Dollars by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
Walking Liberty half dollars are widely considered among the most beautiful coins the United States Mint has ever produced. The coin, designed by noted sculptor-engraver Adolph A. Weinman, was struck from 1916 through 1947 and has remained beloved by collectors since the coin was in production. The obverse features a youthful Lady Liberty in a flowing gown and striding gracefully with her left arm cradling an olive branch and her right arm outstretched toward the sunrise. Meanwhile, the reverse depicts an eagle perched upon a craggy rock formation bearing a pine, symbolizing American strength.
The Walking Liberty half dollar, hailed by noted 20th-century American art critic Cornelius Vermeule as “one of the greatest coins of the United States – if not of the world,” is by every measure a popular coin. Among the many design highlights of the Walking Liberty half dollar is the fact that in 1916 it became the first United States coin to carry its mintmark on the obverse since the release of the first mintmarked coins of the late 1830s by the New Orleans Mint. By the mid-19th century, it had become conventional for mintmarks to be placed on the reverse of most United States coinage of denominations higher than the one-cent coin.
But the Walking Liberty broke from that particular tradition when the mintmark was placed on the obverse of all coins dated 1916 and some bearing the 1917 date. For those issues, the coin’s mintmark, signifying the striking of half dollars at the Denver (D) and San Francisco (S) mints, is placed just below the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” in the right field of the obverse behind Miss Liberty.
Production of 1916 Walking Liberty half dollars began very late in the year, around Thanksgiving, and they were released early the following year, on January 9, 1917.
While all 1916-dated Walking Liberty half dollars saw mintmarks on the obverse of the coin, changes came soon after the new half dollar’s official release. On February 14, 1917, just weeks after Walking Liberty halves began filtering into public hands, Director of the United States Mint Friedrich Johannes Hugo “F.H.” von Engelken verbally ordered the mintmark be relocated from the obverse of the coin to the reverse. He stated that “the obverse mintmarks had the appearance of a defect in the die and were entirely too prominent.”
However, von Engelken did not get to see his directive carried through as director of the United States Mint. Having been installed in his United States Mint post by President Woodrow Wilson in September 1916, von Engelken resigned from his leadership role at the Mint just six months later in March 1917 to take a role as president of the Federal Land Bank of the Third District. Following the departure of von Engelken from the U.S. Mint, Raymond T. Baker became the next director of the United States Mint.
In April 1917, just weeks after the change in leadership at the United States Mint, Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Adam Joyce messaged Baker to confirm that von Engelken’s order regarding the relocation of the mintmark on the Walking Liberty half dollar was still to be carried out. Baker confirmed the move in writing on April 14, 1917, and the dies were redone to accommodate the relocation of the mintmarks to the reverse of the coin a short distance from the left of the “H” in “HALF DOLLAR” around the seven o’clock position near the coin’s rim.
While Walking Liberty half dollars are not exceedingly rare in the absolute sense, the various mintmarked 1917 halves are considerably scarce as a class. The toughest is the 1917 Walking Liberty half with the obverse mintmark, with the Denver-minted obverse “D” issue struck to the tune of only 765,400 pieces, while San Francisco’s obverse “S” has a mintage of only 952,000 halves. The reverse mintmark issues saw much higher mintages, with 1,940,000 struck at the Denver Mint and a whopping 5,554,000 coming from the San Francisco Mint in 1917.
All examples are reasonably affordable in G4 and VG8, trading for less than $50 in those well-worn grades. However, moderately and lightly worn examples of all but the more common 1917-S Reverse Mintmark trade for hundreds of dollars apiece. All four mintmarked 1917 half dollars are conditional rarities in the more desirable Choice and Gem Uncirculated range, where they sell for four-figure prices or higher.
Regardless of the grades desired, collectors should emphasize seeking examples with the best strike they can find, as many of the earlier branch-mint Walking Liberty half dollars exhibit strike weaknesses. Well-struck examples are certainly obtainable. However, they can be challenging to locate. As with buying any high-quality coins, finding choice-quality Walking Liberty half dollars requires persistence and patience.