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Collectors have options with Walker halves

The Walking Liberty half dollar has become an American classic. Everyone likes the design of the Walking Liberty half dollar to the point where it, along with the Saint-Gaudens double eagle and James Earle Fraser’s Buffalo nickel, have become the only designs to be used a second (or third) time. Of course, the popularity of the design makes it one which is in constant demand, especially in top grades. That makes the Walking Liberty half dollar a collection which can be assembled in circulated grades by most, but one which is very difficult and expensive if you want only the highest grades.

It is certainly no accident that the obverse of the Walking Liberty half dollar was dusted off and used again on the silver American Eagles when they were introduced in 1986. After all, the A.A. Weinman Walking Liberty half dollar had been one of the pleasant surprises to emerge from the 1916 design competition for a new dime, quarter and half dollar.

Just the fact that the design competition had worked was probably a pleasant surprise to many, as the previous attempt back in 1892 had resulted in what one official called a “wretched failure.” Chief Engraver Charles Barber was ultimately called on to produce the new designs. It had been a missed opportunity to not only have better designs, but also a change in pattern.

While not in the law, the tradition for U.S. coinage had been that the dime, quarter and half dollar, except for the reverse of the dime, had identical designs. There had been transitional periods where an old design was being replaced, so the denominations in some cases had the old design, while others had the new. However, except for the lack of an eagle on the dime, the designs had always been the same. That could have changed in 1892, but with the failure of that competition, the move to having three different designs on the three denominations would wait until 1916.

The 1916 competition could be called everything the 1892 competition was not. Three excellent designs emerged from the 1916 competition. A.A. Weinman would have to be seen as the real winner, since his designs were selected for both the dime and the half dollar.

The Mint Director’s report of 1916 had reason to be happy. In that report, the director described the new half dollar stating, “The design of the half dollar bears a full-length figure of Liberty, the folds of the Stars and Stripes flying to the breeze as a background, progressing in full stride toward the dawn of a new day, carrying branches of laurel and oak, symbolical of civil and military glory. The hand of the figure is outstretched in bestowal of the spirit of liberty.

“The reverse of the half dollar shows an eagle perched high upon a mountain crag, his wings unfolded, fearless in spirit and conscious of his power. Springing from a rift in the rock is a sapling of mountain pine, symbolical of America.”

The designs were excellent and certainly very different, meaning that the pattern which had held for over 120 years had been broken and the United States would have very different designs on the three denominations.

The challenge, however, after winning the competition, was to create coins that looked something like the original designs.

That process was not, by definition, at all easy or certain in the way of making the designs appear as originally intended, according to Chief Engraver Charles Barber. Even on his best days, Barber could be less than helpful. He did not like the idea of outside artist designing coins.

The results of the 1916 competition, however, were certain to produce something well short of a good day for Charles Barber. They were his designs which were being replaced, a fact almost certain to make him even more disagreeable than usual.

As it turned out, however, Barber was not much of a problem. Perhaps it was because his health was failing, or possibly because he had simply grown tired of fighting outside artists over their designs. We cannot be sure of the exact reason, but we do know that he left the bulk of the activity to his assistant, George Morgan, who, at least in this case, was apparently fairly easy to work with in the creation of the final designs.

The design of the Walking Liberty half dollar, not unlike the Standing Liberty quarter, seemed to evolve. That was probably natural, because with three new and completely different designs being released for the first time the same year, it is likely there was not enough time to devote to each.

The Walking Liberty half dollar would initially appear with a mintmark on the obverse below the motto, but in 1917 that would be changed to the reverse location where it would remain for the rest of the time it was produced. There would be other small changes involving more regularly shaped stars and a sharper border below the star field with more definition on the edges of the red stripes.

The leaves on the branch in Liberty’s hand would also be more clearly defined and there was a slight change in the ground line from the date to the sun with the base of the 8th ray moved slightly, as initially it was too close to the base of the 7th ray. A more subtle point is that the 1916 coins have a textured luster which can be seen only on high-end Mint State coins giving them a unique appearance.

While not by definition collected as different types, the 1916 and 1917 Walking Liberty half dollars with the obverse mintmarks are extremely popular with collectors. The least expensive is the 1917-D at $23.50 in G-4. The 1916-D, probably in part because of some small initial saving, is the least expensive in Mint State at $360 in MS-60 and $2,500 in MS-65. The most expensive of the dates involved is the 1916-S, thanks to a mintage of 508,000, which translates into a price of $110 in G-4. There might have been some extra saving initially, although it is not thought to be high because the 1917-S is the most costly of the group in Mint State at $2,300 in MS-60 and $22,500 in MS-65.

It is worth remembering that back at the time, there was not substantial saving of new coins by collectors or dealers. There was probably very limited collecting of the new Walking Liberty half dollar by hobbyists.

In his research, Q. David Bowers has found very few cases of dealers of the day stocking the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter. It is safe to assume that if dealers were not stocking a 52,000 mintage quarter, they were unlikely to be stocking much higher mintage half dollars, especially when the Philadelphia Barber half dollars of 1913-1915 all had mintages below 200,000.

We see proof of the situation in many cases. While there might be a couple thousand Walking Liberty half dollars from the 1940s dates graded MS-65 by the grading services, a date like the 1917-S shows fewer than 40 examples in MS-65 graded by PCGS.

In fact, the stories of any accumulations or hoards of the early dates are unusual. The one date Bowers mentions in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards is the 1919-S, with a report that dealer Art Kagin was able to purchase an uncirculated roll at one time. There were perhaps others never reported, but the evidence is clear that, if so, there were not many.

While interesting, the obverse mintmarks do not rank as the key Walking Liberty half dollars. If you had to pick the key year, it would have to be 1921. It was a simple case of the mints being busy working 12-hour shifts as opposed to 8-hour shifts to produce badly needed silver dollars. As a result, the production of other denominations suffered and we see that in half dollars from Philadelphia in 1921 having a mintage of just 246,000 while the 1921-D was even lower at 208,000. The 1921-S was the highest for the year at 548,000. With the combined total of the three barely reaching one million pieces, the 1921 Walking Liberty half dollars have normally grabbed much of the attention of collectors and others as the key date in the set.

In lower circulated grades, the 1921 half dollars tend to follow their mintages with the 1921-D currently at $325 in G-4 while the 1921 is at $185 with the 1921-S at $45. The three really are the core of a circulated set. They, along with the obverse mintmark dates and the 1938-D now at $75 in G-4, are the premium priced dates; many dates are still at prices under $10 in G-4.

Things change dramatically in Mint State where the 1921-S takes over as the key date. In MS-60 the 1921-S lists for $13,750, which is well ahead of the $4,350 1921 and the $5,300 1921-D. The gap really widens in MS-65 where the 1921-S is the second most expensive Walking Liberty half dollar at $116,000, while the 1921 is $19,200 and the 1921-D is at $28,000.

The grading services help to shed some light on what would normally appear to be unusual pricing with the higher mintage date being more expensive. At PCGS, there have been just under 60 appearances by the 1921, with the 1921-D total in MS-65 or better at 29 while the 1921-S in MS-65 or better has made 21 appearances. At NGC the totals show 29 examples of the 1921 in MS-65 or better while the 1921-D and 1921-S are both at 18 in MS-65 or better. The conclusion would have to be that the 1921-S is the best of the three in MS-65, but that the 1921-D may well be tougher than current prices suggest.

If you look at other dates in MS-60, the only ones at even $3,000 are the 1919-S and 1919-D and even dropping down to $2,000 only adds the 1917-S. In MS-65, the dominant Walking Liberty half dollar in terms of price is the 1919-D which is now at $130,000. That price continues to rise with the gap between the 1919-D and 1921-S seemingly growing larger with each passing year.

The grading services give us some indication of just how elusive the 1919-D is in top grades. Based on its 1,165,000 mintage, some might doubt the MS-65 price, especially when the 1919-D was not even the lowest mintage half dollar of the year, since the 1919 from Philadelphia had a mintage of just 962,000.

In fact, in lower grades, the 1919-D is not that special at a current price of just $25 in G-4. The situation becomes very different in Mint State where the 1919-D jumps to $5,950 in MS-60. The MS-65 grading service totals show just four examples in MS-65 or better at NGC and just nine at PCGS along with a single MS-66. Compared to those totals, only the 1921-S comes close. Realistically, the conclusion has to be that the 1919-D is every bit as tough as its current high price suggests.

What can easily be overlooked with the high prices of the 1919-D and 1921-S is that there are other very tough Walking Liberty half dollars, especially from the period prior to 1930 in MS-65 or better. The 1918-D for example is a very tough date with a current price of $24,500 in MS-65, despite the fact that it had a mintage of over three million. The 1918-S is also tough with a mintage over 10 million but a price today of $17,750 in MS-65. PCGS seems to support the price, reporting fewer than 30 examples in MS-65 or better.

In the case of dates after 1928, there is a significant drop in prices. Collectors in the 1930s actually began to collect coins by date and mint, which had not always been the case in the earlier years. This was the beginning of the heyday of Whitman coin boards and albums and similar products sold by other companies.

What we find is that in many cases the MS-60 prices are in the $100 range with a few cases where an MS-60 is closer to $50. In MS-65, prices are well below the earlier dates with no dates being more than $10,000 in MS-65 and relatively few even reaching $1,000. The grading services show why: all dates have at least 125 examples reported in MS-65 with dates from the 1940s, in many cases showing MS-65 totals in the thousands. Contrast such figures to the 30 examples of the 1918-D or 1918-S and you suddenly see the reason for the vast price differences.

Though cheaper, the later dates feature some very interesting coins such as the 1938-D which had a mintage of just 491,600. That was an extremely low total for the late 1930s. It appears that the 1938-D, with greater attention being paid to collecting by date and mint, was spotted quickly and saved even though the economic times were not the best. We see the saving in the G-4 price of $75 while an MS-60 is $485 and an MS-65 is $1,750, which is higher than most dates of the period.

The prices in the highest grades are discouraging for some, as they are simply beyond their budgets. Yet, the attraction of the Walking Liberty design is such that many want at least some examples in the highest grades. That has produced an alternative which is being taken more seriously by some with each passing year.

 A so-called “short set” involving dates from 1941-47 is an affordable way to assemble a number of Walking Liberty half dollars in top grades. In MS-60, a set involving the dates of the period would show no date even topping $100 while in MS-65 the set would be tougher, especially because the 1941-S is now at $1,025 thanks in large part to notoriously soft strikes. While the 1941-S and a couple other dates may present something of a problem, the fact is, they still do not compare to many of the earlier dates in terms of price. That makes the short set a way for virtually everyone to have at least some top quality Walking Liberty half dollars in their collection.

The options for collecting Walking Liberty half dollars are many and with a great design, it remains a collector favorite now more than 60 years since the last one was produced. In fact, the supplies of some of the later dates are strong in grades just below MS-65 which makes a set possible in one form or another for virtually everyone. It makes the Walking Liberty half dollar a coin which is always in demand and interest. That’s a perfect combination for collectors wanting a set they can always show with pride to their friends.           

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