For many years, the Washington quarter series was a dull backwater. It woke up in 1980 because of the silver content of the pre-1965 quarters. Then 1999 and the state quarter series arrived to inspire a new generation of collectors.
The set formed by quarters struck from 1932, when the first Washington quarter was struck, to 1998, when the last Washington quarter with an eagle reverse was produced, make an interesting collection. Are average collectors waking up to it?
There is no doubt the 1932-1998 Washington quarter series offers a lengthy variety of dates. There was an influx of new collectors who became attracted to the series when the state quarter program began. There was no other way to explain how and why Washington quarter prices rose rapidly and seemingly across the board for a time.
The reasons for the sudden change in the interest in the Washington quarter probably can be traced directly to the state quarter program. Suddenly, Washington quarters seemed to be disappearing from circulation and when that happens people sometimes get interested in the older design that seems to be vanishing. It happened when the Flying Eagle cent appeared back in 1857 and it has happened at other times in our past and certainly the interest in Washington quarters seems to have suddenly appeared around the year 2000 just as people were beginning to see wave after wave of new quarters appear in circulation.
In fairness, the Washington quarter was certainly long past due for some new attention from dealers and collectors. Historically, the set had been little more in the minds of most than the 1932-D and 1932-S, the seemingly twin dates that are actually identical in price in lower grades but hardly twins in Mint State. For many years, however, no one seemed all that interested in the two or any other Washington quarter.
Realistically things seem to come slowly where the Washington quarter is concerned. Even the idea of placing George Washington on a circulating coin was not exactly something that happened quickly.
Back in 1792 there was interest in putting Washington as President on the first circulating coins and the Senate was all in favor of the idea, but the House of Representatives and Washington himself objected, seeing the notion as being too similar to the idea in England where the king was placed on the coins. As doing anything similar to the king of England was not wise politics at the time and even potentially dangerous to a long and happy life, the idea of using Washington or any other President on a coin was quickly discarded.
The idea of using anyone on a coin was simply forgotten for decades. In the Civil War it at least surfaced in the form of patterns. Both sides to the conflict were anxious to claim George Washington as being on their side and while any number of famous Americans including ones who were alive and on opposite sides in the conflict were used on the bank notes of the North and South, no one appeared on a coin as apparently that was seen as breaking too much with tradition.
It would take commemoratives to actually break with that tradition as Washington was used on the 1900 Lafayette dollar, which was one of the first commemoratives. That said, he was not alone being depicted with Lafayette and even that appearance did not exactly inspire a wave of new circulating coins. Other Americans were used on early commemoratives, but everyone always stopped short of putting a famous American on a circulating coin until Theodore Roosevelt arrived in the White House.
Teddy Roosevelt had boundless energy and many ideas including ideas about the coins of the United States. He wanted to change virtually every coin and while he did not want to turn them into a portrait gallery of famous Americans, he was convinced that the centennial of Lincoln’s birth was ample reason to make a change in the historic pattern of no Americans on circulating coins. The Lincoln cent was created in 1909 after Roosevelt had left office, and it received mixed reviews, but it did not create a wave of changes. Virtually all of the circulating denominations except gold were changed after the Lincoln cent, yet not a single one would feature another American.
The commemoratives would be a different story and there Washington appeared again, this time with Calvin Coolidge on the 1926 Sesquicentennial of Independence half dollar, an ironic pairing as Calvin Coolidge was President at the time and Washington had very specifically objected to the idea of using the President on circulating coins. We do not know how he might have felt about using the President’s image on commemoratives as that idea never came up in his time.
A few years later there was an anniversary that could not be ignored by Americans. The bicentennial of Washington’s birth required some action especially since the father of the country had never appeared on a coin of any type without someone else appearing with him.
A group including the U.S. Treasury, Commission of Fine Arts and the Washington Bicentennial Commission agreed on a proposal for a medal and coin of “commemorative design” to mark the anniversary of Washington’s birth. A competition was held to select a design based on the Houdon bust of Washington at Mt. Vernon and the winner of that competition was judged to be Laura Gardin Fraser, the wife of James Earle Fraser who had designed the Buffalo nickel.
In fact, Laura Gardin Fraser had a distinguished career herself and ultimately would be responsible for a number of commemoratives.
The whole thing took an unexpected turn on March 4, 1931, when the Congress voted to authorize not the expected commemorative half dollar but rather a circulating quarter. This action was probably a surprise to everyone and it gave the Mint an excuse to suggest that this represented an entirely new situation and it required a new competition. The Fine Arts Commission did not see it that way, suggesting that the competition had been held and Laura Gardin Fraser was the winner.
It could probably be said that it was about at this point that adults began acting like children although clearly the whole thing was something they cared deeply about based on their actions. The Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon was the next to jump into the fray, suggesting that he had not been a party to any deal over a competition and he wanted a new competition.
Mellon’s claims were suspect, but the Commission of Fine Arts had no choice but to go along with Mellon’s order as he had the power. The Commission of Fine Arts, however, paid at most lip service to Mellon, claiming that the new competition once again resulted in Laura Gardin Fraser’s designs winning.
Mellon, however, decided he did not care and announced the results of his own competition. This had John Flanagan as the winner, causing the Commission of Fine Arts to object, but as the decision was that of the Secretary of the Treasury, the Commission of Fine Arts was unable to do more than put its objection on the record.
At that point the Commission of Fine Arts got what it saw as still another chance as Mellon left office. As the new quarters were still not in production, the Commission appealed to the new Secretary of the Treasury, Ogden L. Mills, to reverse the Mellon decision. Mills, however, wanted no part of a dispute involving someone else and responded “My choice is the same as that of my predecessor.” That exhausted the options for the Commission of Fine Arts and the new Washington quarter was placed in production.
The new Washington quarter continued to be a topic of some dispute as the first mintages, which showed 5,404,000 produced at Philadelphia along with 436,800 and 408,000 from Denver and San Francisco, respectively, were low. Moreover, there was no 1933 production and left some confused as to whether the new Washington quarter was permanent or a one-time circulating commemorative.
Whatever it was called in the minds of the people, there was some saving of the new quarter. In fact, the 1932 mintage from Philadelphia while higher than the others is actually very low for a Philadelphia Washington quarter, but the price historically has been modest with an MS-60 today at just $25. In MS-65 the 1932 is at $300, which is up from $195 in 1998, suggesting that at least in MS-65 the supply of 1932 Washington quarters may be suspect.
The real focus over the years by collectors has been on the 1932-D and 1932-S pieces with their very similarly low mintages. The two were seen by many as basically twin key dates and for many years their circulated prices were very close. Today in G-4 they are almost identical in price at $115 and $125 in G-4. The San Francisco gets the premium in the lower grades but as you go up the grading scale, the higher prices switch to the Denver coin.
Price increases have been dramatic in Mint State. It must be remembered that back in 1932 in the heart of the Great Depression, a quarter was a lot of money and many of the nation’s collectors were still not collecting by date and mint. That meant a Philadelphia 1932 would suffice for a collection. There are reports of small groups of Mint State 1932-D and 1932-S quarters appearing over the years, but the numbers, which were generally of the 1932-S, were not high.
The fact is neither the 1932-S nor the 1932-D is readily available in Mint State, although the 1932-D is definitely the tougher of the two. Back in 1998 the 1932-D was $490 in MS-60 while the 1932-S was at $290. Since that time the two have both climbed with the 1932-D now at $1,150 while the 1932-S is at $465. In MS-65 the 1932-D was at $5,400 back in 1998 and it has definitely been on a roll since then moving to $12,500. The 1932-S has also done well but not quite as well starting at $2,250 in 1998 before reaching $4,000 today. Today’s prices are about the same as they were in 2002 after having been higher.
The grading services support the prices as the 1932-D has been seen just 16 times in MS-65 or better by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. while the Professional Coin Grading Service reports 54 examples in MS-65 and a single MS-66. The more available 1932-S has been seen 46 times in MS-65 by NGC and five times in MS-66 while PCGS reports 71 examples in MS-65 and four more in MS-66.
Historically, the 1932-D and 1932-S have dominated any consideration of Washington quarters and that is certainly justified. That said, some other dates especially from the 1930s without much fanfare have moved to what are definitely higher prices suggesting that they too are worthy of some consideration.
The 1934-D is at $1,350 in MS-65. It is the only other regular issue at $1,000 or more. The 1936-D in MS-65 is now $840 in MS-60 and $975 in MS-65.
The 1935-D which with very little notice is up to $595 in MS-65. Other better dates especially from the 1930s are between $300 and $500.
The price gains while more dramatic in the 1930s is not limited to that period as other dates have also posted solid gains especially in Mint State. The 1945-D with a mintage of 12,341,600 has jumped from a 1998 listing of $7.50 in MS-60 to $13.50 while the 1949 has moved from $19 in MS-60 to $36 today.
In MS-65 the 1940s show a string of dates at $30 or more. The 1942-S is at $135.
The 1941-D and 1941-S are $66 and $65, respectively. The key of the 1940s in MS-65, however, is the 1940-D which is now at $300.
The more recent dates from the 1950s and 1960s up to the final 90 percent silver Washington quarters of 1964 have also produced solid price gains. These dates like the 1964-D, which had a mintage of over 700 million and which has jumped from $6.50 to $12 in MS-65 are adding value as collectible pieces of silver. At some point, collectors will judge them more individually based on mintages and population reports.
It is also more than likely that with any added interest their supplies will prove to be far less than was anticipated based on their mintages. Back in the circulation finds era, collectors like me were not stashing MS-65 1964-D quarters for future price gains. They were simply so much silver.
These dates were among the most likely of all the 90 percent silver issues to have been melted in large numbers in the late 1970s and early 1980s as silver moved near the $50 an ounce mark. We cannot be sure how many of any particular date would have been melted, but realistically their $6.50 MS-65 price back in 1998 almost 20 years after the melting was still lower than their value when silver was $50 an ounce, so the possibility is they were melted in large numbers whatever their grade.
The clad quarter, which made its debut in 1965, has never been heavily saved for a variety of reasons. In fact, collectors derided the coin as nothing but clad junk. It didn’t help that the 1965 to 1967 coins lacked mintmarks. The clad Washington quarter simply got off on the wrong foot with collectors as it was seen as hopelessly common. Moreover, the lack of mintmarks discouraged collectors just as the government hoped. For years the clad was simply another coin in circulation and of very little interest to collectors.
Things could have changed in the 1980s, but with the beginning of the modern commemorative program and American Eagle bullion coins as well as other special issues from the government, the regular business strike quarter as well as other denominations simply did not seem very important.
There was no better example than 1982 and 1983 when there were no mint sets. The lack of mint sets was a budget-cutting measure of the time when the government was reducing expenses across the board.
The mint set was probably seen as the least important item to be offered every year, so it was sacrificed to free up capacity and other resources.
That created an unintended consequence. Saving new coins by the roll had fallen out of favor by the early 1980s, so collectors today have small supplies to draw on. For more years, the mint set provides the back-up supply of Mint State coins. For 1982 and 1983, this cannot happen. Prices have risen as a result.
The impact has been dramatic as there appear to be very limited supplies of top quality quarters from 1982 and 1983. We have seen the MS-65 1983-P produce a very unusual price surge going from just $4 back in 1998 to $16 in 2002 and then $30 in 2003 and now $45. The uncirculated roll price has also jumped.
The 1983-P is probably not finished as there are regular dealer offers to buy and frankly with the pattern of the past few years there is little or no incentive for any owners to sell as the pattern has been one of constantly rising prices. Under those circumstances, if you had a nice uncirculated roll that has increased by almost $1,000 since 1998 you too would be likely to hold on for a still higher price.
The 1983-P has done better than the other dates of 1982 and 1983, but they are all at premium prices. The 1983-D for example was $3.50 in MS-65 in 1998 but it has moved to $9 in 2002 and now to $30. The 1982-P is now up to $28 and the 1982-D is at $15.
Now a word of caution: to get MS-65 prices, coins have to be graded by the third-party grading services and in slabs.
Other dates have also posted gains in MS-65. The 1977, for example, was $1 in MS-65 in 1998 – not worth the cost of slabbing – and it is now $10 while the 1992-D went from $1.35 in MS-65 to $27.50. It proves that even coins in mint sets of those years might not universally make the MS-65 grade today.
Some dates were already thought to be better and at this point literally any MS-65 Washington quarter from the past 25 years is likely to be at least $7 and in many cases they are over $10.
It is not often the case but the soaring prices of the business strikes may well have obscured the fact that the proof- only San Francisco Washington quarters since 1968 are another group that has been seeing higher prices. We have seen a number of the proof-only dates move to higher ground in terms of price and that has included the 1995-S, which was just $3 in Proof-65 in 1998 and which is now $8.50 as is the 1998-S.
The other group that can be overlooked when silver isn’t in the headlines are the silver San Francisco proof-only dates from 1992. This group has even lower mintages than the clad proof-only San Francisco quarters and that gives them substantial potential as well and some are starting to realize that potential.
Simply put, if you looked at a complete Washington quarter set today especially in top grades you see rising prices and the expectation that the new higher prices might well move to even higher levels. For the Washington quarter, that is definitely an enormous change as finally after years of being overlooked the Washington quarter is having it’s time in the spotlight. For collectors who plan to stick with numismatics for another couple of decades, this series in the shadow of more popular coins might be the place to look for opportunities.
There are no guarantees, of course, but that uncertainty is what makes for unexpected outcomes and the profits that go with them.