There are a lot of interesting Seated Liberty half dollars, but the 1855-S is certainly high on the list. It is interesting and historically important, but also a much more difficult coin than might be expected.
The 1855-S was the first half dollar to be produced by the San Francisco Mint. San Francisco had begun production of coins in 1854, but it produced only gold that first year.
The situation was in part a reflection of the facility. The San Francisco Mint was not world class at the time. In fact, it was far from it. The building was actually a converted private mint. It was far too small and very uncomfortable with the sound of machines and the smell of acid. Almost from the start, officials tried to pressure Washington for a new facility, but that was years away.
We can assume the half dollar was a priority because they were the largest regularly circulating silver coin.
The mintage of the 1855-S Seated Liberty half was a total of 129,950 pieces. That was a low mintage at the time, but not that low for San Francisco. The 1855-S would also be the only San Francisco half dollar of the type with arrows at the date. The arrows were removed in 1856.
At the time there were basically no collectors in the San Francisco area. What few Mint State coins we have from the period were probably set aside as souvenirs or novelties.
Today?s 1855-S prices start at $350 in G-4 and go up to $6,850 in AU-50. There is no Mint State listing. The clear message is that the 1855-S may be even tougher than its mintage suggests.
Certainly the prices and the mintage do not seem to be in perfect agreement, and that is where the grading services have become a great resource. NGC reports a total of 29 graded examples. Of the 29, there was a single MS-61, but none better. At PCGS, the total graded stands at 44, and there is also just a single coin called Mint State. It is an MS-66, an extraordinary example since it would seem to be a full five points better than the next best example. With that sort of spread, the MS-66 would be certain to command a very high price at auction.
The grading services do report small numbers of the 1855-S in AU, along with a few more in XF. With that said, the 1855-S is a date very rarely seen even in upper circulated grades.
It must be remembered that as the only San Francisco half dollar of the type, there can be additional demand. Couple that with an already low mintage and its poor survival, and it is easy to understand why this coin brings prices that seem high. It is a very desirable coin that could go even higher in price if the number of collectors continues to grow.