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Old West flavors S-mint Seated half dollars

By the time the San Francisco Mint opened for business in 1854 the Seated Liberty half dollar had already been in production for almost 15 years. That did not keep San Francisco from producing some very interesting and in a few cases rare Seated Liberty half dollars. In a collection of the San Francisco Seated Liberty half dollars you can really assemble a set of the large silver coins in use back when the West was truly wild.

The San Francisco facility produced its first coins in 1854 but true to the situation in the region at the time the only coins the facility produced that year were gold and primarily they were large gold coins with eagles and double eagles being the only denominations with mintages of more than 100,000 pieces.

It must be remembered that the new San Francisco facility was not really a world class mint at the time. The government had basically taken over the building that housed a private mint and outfitted it with whatever equipment would fit. That was actually a major issue, as while three stories tall, the building was very small. From the start there were complaints about its size and the fact that the smell of acid and the sound of the machines made the place very uncomfortable.

Almost immediately officials were asking for a new facility, but that would take time. Back in the 1850s everyone had to get by with what they had and that meant that production was basically made to order as you brought in metal and that would produce whatever coins you might request. Eventually San Francisco would evolve into a first-class facility but at least in the 1850s the focus was on gold and very limited amounts of silver coins.

The half dollar was not a denomination that could be overlooked forever. The reason was that it was the largest silver coin in regular circulation. There were silver dollars being made, but not in San Francisco. In fact, what few silver dollars there were being made were primarily for export. That was the case in 1854. It would be the case for decades.
As the largest silver denomination in regular production in San Francisco, even half dollars were exported. We have proof as they were found in China and sometimes they had chopmarks from merchants there. The numbers of half dollars exported are unknown, but it is a factor to keep in the back of your mind when you consider the mintages as sometimes the totals may well not tell the whole story in terms of availability of a given date.

As the largest silver denomination in use, the half dollar was among the first silver coins to be produced at the new San Francisco facility with a 129,950 mintage in 1855. The 1855-S is not only historic as the first San Francisco half dollar, but it is also significant as the only year of the type to be produced in San Francisco. After 1855 the arrows at the date were removed. It makes for an interesting combination of considerations and these help to explain the $350 G-4 price of the 1855-S.

The listed price for an MS-60 is $19,500. That tells you something about the saving of half dollars in San Francisco. At the time there were virtually no collectors and as a result there are almost never significant supplies of Mint State San Francisco half dollars from the period. There are few of the 1855-S coins as PCGS has only graded 44 coins and of that total just one, ironically an MS-66 was called Mint State.

While other San Francisco dates might not be as low, the fact is Mint State San Francisco half dollars from the period are a significant problem when it comes to finding any Mint State examples.

The 1856-S had no arrows at the date but it did have a larger mintage of 211,000, which today produces a price of $85 in G-4 while an MS-60 is listed at $3,500. In fact, the 1856-S has at least been seen in Mint State as PCGS reports a total of three, although none was better than MS-63, so the current MS-65 listing of $19,000 may just be academic as there may be no MS-65 to buy at any price.

The 1857-S had a lower mintage of 158,000 and that results in a higher G-4 price of $100 with an MS-60 at the same $3,500 price as the 1856-S. The grading service total is slightly higher at five examples with one being an MS-66, but when so few have ever been seen it is hard to say the 1856-S should be more expensive than the 1857-S simply because there are two more coins graded as they could easily be coins submitted more than once. Even if the five are different coins, with so few around, the demand simply overwhelms the supply so the prices of both the 1856-S and 1857-S at least in Mint State are likely to remain similar and rising.

The remaining dates of the 1850s from San Francisco have higher mintages and similar prices. You can obtain a date like the 1858 or 1859 from San Francisco for about $38 in G-4 with MS-60 examples at between $750 and $1,000, making them all less expensive than the San Francisco half dollars from the first few years.

That said, there is really no such thing as a readily available early San Francisco Seated Liberty half dollar. The coins found tend to be well worn as they were not saved with any regularity. The only coins saved by collectors before they had seen heavy circulation were the few Mint State examples and their numbers no matter what the price today were very small. We see that as even dates priced at modest levels show PCGS numbers in Mint State of sometimes less than 20 examples  and frequently they are in lower Mint State grades.

The Civil War would have an impact on the production of some silver denominations but not really in the case of the half dollars. The reason goes to international dealings. There were silver dollars but mintages continued to be small. Half dollars were used in international trade as was seen in a 1996 Superior sale that included half dollars found in Hong Kong. The dates involved included every San Francisco date from 1860-1872 with some of the coins being chopmarked. The numbers in the sale were generally small, but the 1861-S, 1862-S and 1863-S were the most heavily represented dates with totals of 19, 20 and 15 examples, respectively, for the three dates. Clearly these coins were not even a small percentage of the coins exported, but the indication is very clear that San Francisco half dollars from 1860 through the early 1870s regularly sailed west to China and that makes their mintage suspect as indications of current availability.

The mintage for the period remained relatively high especially for San Francisco. After all, the troubles stemming from the Civil War were 3,000 miles away and even though specie payments were suspended and silver and gold coins vanished from circulation in the East, out in California it was basically business as usual as gold coins and silver issues were still in circulation, Most people in California and other areas far from the conflict were not the least bit interested in accepting bank notes or other substitutes for silver and gold.

It would be tempting to lump the dates from 1860-1865 into one group, but in fact at least in Mint State there are significant differences. The circulated grade prices and availability for the dates are similar but the 1860-S is at $850 in MS-60 and the 1861-S is at $975 while the other dates are $500 or less with the exception of the 1864-S, which is $675. Prices reflect this availability based on the PCGS totals. The 1860-S and 1861-S have been seen fewer than 25 times by PCGS in Mint State while the 1863-S is over 40 appearances. The sleeper might well be the 1864-S which has appeared just 10 times at PCGS in Mint State but which is just $675, so it may be a date to watch.

The 1866-S is an interesting story simply because there are two and that reflected the situation at San Francisco at the time. It was the year when the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse of the half dollar. The branch mints, however, had to wait for new dies to arrive and with an apparent demand in San Francisco the facility went ahead with an 1866-S production without the motto.

The reason for the production could have simply been to meet demand while the dies finally reached the facility. It could also have been a case where on a limited budget San Francisco officials simply decided to use the dies they had first and then use the new dies with IN GOD WE TRUST once the old ones were worn out. After all, extending die life was an old and honored tradition at the mints. Using older dies was certainly not an unusual practice.

Whatever the reason, there was a mintage of 60,000 San Francisco Seated Liberty 1866-S half dollars without the motto. That low total makes them better at $460 in G-4 today with an MS-60 at $5,400. That MS-60 price is interesting as sometimes a low mintage does not mean a high Mint State price as the real issue in Mint State is not the mintage but rather how many coins were saved when they were released. In this case, however, the saving seems to have been minimal as PCGS reports only four examples of the no motto 1866-S in Mint State.

The 1866-S with the motto had a much larger mintage of 994,000, which makes it a fairly available date at $33 in G-4 and $650 in MS-60. That MS-60 price is actually higher than other dates of the new type as PCGS reports just 17 seen in Mint State, which is actually a fairly low total.

The dates of the type, which lasted until 1873, are generally seen as available with G-4 prices of $31-$35 while an MS-60 is often under $500. There are even MS-65 examples available at prices of $7,000 an up for nearly all the 1866-S to 1872-S halves.

That said, there are difficult to explain situations like the 1869-S. The 1869-S had a slightly lower mintage of 656,000, but what really stands out is that in Mint State PCGS has seen only eight examples. In fact, despite the low prices some of the dates of the period from San Francisco show very low Mint State numbers. The 1868-S is just over 10, despite having a very low $350 MS-60 price and the 1870-S has just had 10 coins called Mint State at PCGS. The totals for other dates of the type are higher but in virtually every case the feeling has to be that in Mint State the San Francisco dates of the type are far tougher than their current prices suggest.

The type would see one mystery date that remains a mystery even today. The price of silver was falling and the decision was made in 1873 to increase slightly the silver content of half dollars and other issues. The half dollars with the slightly larger silver content would first be produced in 1873 and to mark the change they would have arrows at the date. Once again, however,  San Francisco made a reported 5,000 examples of the 1873-S to the old specifications, which meant they had no arrows at the date. To date, however, not a single example has ever been found, which is interesting as in other cases examples were at least saved for the Assay Commission. In San Francisco, however, it appears that the entire mintage was destroyed so while Mint records indicate no-arrows 1873-S coins were struck none is known to exist.

The 1873-S with the arrows would have a 233,000 mintage, which is low, and that results in a $55 G-4 price while an MS-60 is placed at $2,200 and that price is supported by the fact that PCGS has only seen seven examples in Mint State. There was only one other year of the type and the 1874-S also has a low mintage of 394,000, which puts it at $43 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $1,850 and that price is surprising as PCGS reports over 30 examples of the 1874-S as Mint State and that total in the case of other dates would mean a price of $500 or less not $1,600.

In 1875 the arrows would be eliminated, reverting to the pre-1873 design type of Seated Liberty half dollar. San Francisco would only produce this type through 1878 with those through 1877 being available at $28 in G-4 and about $360 in MS-60 with MS-65 examples being less than $3,000.

The final San Francisco Seated Liberty half dollar is a different situation. The 1878-S had a mintage of just 12,000 and it is even tougher than the low mintage suggests with a G-4 priced at $23,500 while an MS-60 is listed at $70,000.

There are all sorts of questions regarding the 1878-S, but very few answers. The low mintage was in all probability the result of the passage of the Bland-Allison Act, which meant required heavy production of the new Morgan dollar. Whatever plans there were for 1878-S half dollars could have easily been cut short to make the transition from Trade to Morgan dollars and to begin immediate heavy Morgan dollar mintages.

Those Morgan dollar mintages are probably why the 1878-S would be the final San Francisco Seated Liberty half dollar. After 1878 the facility was too busy with Morgans and that situation did not change until the arrival of the new Barber half dollar design in 1892.

We have no proof of any of that but it is logical based on the situation at the time. The 1878-S, however, remains a very mysterious date today as it is priced far above what we would expect even with its low mintage. Certainly it might be a couple thousand dollars in circulated grades, but $23,500 is a hefty price for a coin with its mintage in G-4. Additionally the $70,000 MS-60 price is also a surprise but this time because of the PCGS total, which shows only 22 examples of the 1878-S graded, which may support the high G-4 price, but the Mint State total is 13 and that is definitely a very high total for a $70,000 coin, especially when you consider 1870-S, which is $575 in MS-60 has a Mint State total of just 10. There is no good way to explain those prices except to say there seem to be any number of questions about the 1878-S from its mintage to its availability and price.
One thing is certain and that is that the 1878-S was the final Seated Liberty half dollar produced at San Francisco. In all probability that was because of the need for Morgan dollar production, but whatever the reason, it cut short what had been a very interesting series of half dollars to emerge from the San Francisco facility.

For the collector today, the San Francisco Seated Liberty half dollars make for an interesting story filled with sleepers and dates about which there are questions of all sorts. That makes a collection fun and educational as the San Francisco Seated Liberty half dollars really did reflect a frontier mint and the exciting times during the period.      

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