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Philly Seated half set a doable challenge

For much of the 19th century, the largest silver coin seen regularly in circulation by ordinary people was the half dollar. The Seated Liberty half dollar was the design most were likely to see. The coins produced by the Philadelphia Mint neatly bookend this series, starting in 1839 and ending in 1891.

The Philadelphia Mint did not always have the highest mintage total, but year in and year out, it was the most consistent producer during the half century or so of production.

That makes the Philadelphia coins a fascinating collection of themselves and an interesting group to study as they really reflect their times in circulation and tell the story of the mint that made them.
The first Philadelphia Seated Liberty half dollar was created in 1839. It was an interesting year. Mintage was 1,972,400. This was divided between coins that show no drapery at Liberty’s left elbow and one that has it, which became the standard design. There also was an 1839 with the old Bust design, but that is a story for another time.

The 1839 with no drapery is a very significant type coin as it did not even last one year. One-year type coins are seen as special by many, but the no drapery 1839 was basically a few months issue. It is available in circulated grades at $45 in G-4 and that is actually well above average dates that run at $28. The version with drapery is valued at $38.

In MS-60 the 1839 no drapery is $6,000, while the drapery version is much cheaper at $1,000.

In MS-65 the price difference gets even wider. Without drapery the price is $178,000. With drapery brings $25,000, which puts even this one out of the reach of average collectors.

But there is nothing wrong with collecting nice circulated coins. In fact, some prefer coins that can be handled without fear of devaluation.

With the Mint still busily refining the design on all denominations, the 1840 Philadelphia mintage would see a number of varieties. One variety had small lettering while another used an old 1838 reverse, with the most available smaller letters variety being $36 in G-4 and $7,500 in MS-65,  while the variety with the reverse of 1838 is even more costly. Realistically any of these early Seated Liberty half dollars regardless of their mintage are rarely found in Mint State.

Although silver dollars were back in production, they were not really circulating in any numbers. That normally would mean higher mintages, but that was not the case in 1841 as the Philadelphia total was just 310,000 pieces. That makes the 1841 a better date at $50 in G-4 while an MS-60  is $1,200 and an MS-65 is $6,850 with PCGS reporting just a single coin in MS-65.

The 1842 came with either a small or medium date, with the medium being available at $30 in G-4 while the small is $38. In MS-60 the large is $750 while the small is $1,300. In MS-65 the medium is $8,800 and the small date is $13,500. At PCGS they have seen two MS-65 or better examples of the medium and none of the small.

The 1843 had a large 3,844,000 mintage and that makes it a more available date with a $28 price in G-4, a $500 price in MS-60 and it is $4,500 in MS-65. For the 1844, prices are similar at $30, $440 and $4,500, respectively. When you check PCGS, you find one example of the 1843 in MS-65 or better and none of the 1844, suggesting the two are really overlooked probably because they had what seemed to be large mintages.

The 1845 mintage would again drop to just 589,000, making it a better date at $35 in G-4 and $850 in MS-60. The 1845 is another in the string of dates where PCGS has yet to see a single example in MS-65.

The 1846 with a mintage of 2,210,000 was a case of a medium or tall date. In the case of the 1846, however, the difference in availability at least in circulated grades is not great. The medium date is $30 and the large or tall date is $35. In MS-60 the tall date is $650 while the more available medium date is $500.

There was an interesting and elusive 1847/1846 overdate which was included as part of the 1,156,000 mintage of the 1847. It is very tough listing at $2,000 in G-4 and PCGS has only seen six in all grades combined with just one of them being Mint State. The regular 1847 with a lower mintage brings small premiums in circulated grades at $35 while an MS-60 is $480 and an MS-65 is $9,000. In MS-65 or above PCGS reports five  examples.

The 1848 was another lower mintage date at 580,000. That produces a G-4 price of $45, with an MS-60 at $1,000 and an MS-65 at $9,000. This is a case where PCGS reports 24 examples in Mint State and four of them are called MS-65, so the 1848 while slightly more expensive is available.

The 1849 mintage of 1,252,000 suggests like the 1848 a lack of availability of circulated examples as it too brings premium price of $35 in G-4. It is $1,250 in MS-60 and $15,000 in MS-65. A small premium might be expected based on the mintage, but the current prices of these dates suggests that possibly they were exported or perhaps melted in the early 1850s when the increased price of silver saw a half dollar cost more than its face value to produce.

With the Congress unwilling to act quickly on the silver price problem caused by a rapid influx of California gold, reduced mintages were the outcome. With the Gold Rush making gold more plentiful, the result was a higher price for silver, pushing the value of the precious metal in a half dollar above face value.

In 1850, the mintage dropped to just 227,000. The 1850 is actually tougher than even the low mintage suggests in circulated grades. It is $275 in G-4 and $1,500 in MS-60. It is slightly less available in Mint State with about 17 graded, although only one coin was called MS-65 or better.

The 1851 would continue the low mintage trend with a total of 200,750. In G-4 the 1851 lists for $335 again suggesting they are tougher than the mintage suggests with an MS-60 at $2,250, although PCGS reports 18 in Mint State graded so far.

The Philadelphia half dollar mintage dropped even further in 1852 as the silver problem dragged on. The total was 77,130 pieces. That total puts the 1852 at $425 in G-4 and $1,700 in MS-60. PCGS shows the 1852 has been graded 44 times in Mint State, with 24 of them being MS-63.

The Congress finally took action in early 1853 to reduce slightly the silver content of silver issues. That change was indicated on the half dollar by arrows at the date and rays on the reverse.

The 1853 arrows and rays would become an important type coin as the design would only be used in 1853. Fortunately, there was a high mintage of 3,532,708 and that results in the 1853 with arrows and rays being available in circulated grades ($31 in G-4). The extra type demand for this one-year type is seen in Mint State prices as the 1853 with arrows and rays is $1,500 in MS-60 and $21,500 in MS-65 where competition is intense for the few examples. The impact of the demand is seen in the fact that PCGS has seen about 250 examples in Mint State, which is far higher than other dates and 23 have been called MS-65 or better

The production of 1854 and 1855 would have the arrows at the date but no rays on the reverse. The 1854 mintage would be larger at over 2.9 million while the 1855 total was just 759,500. That makes the 1854 more available at $28 in G-4 while the 1855 is $30. In MS-60 the 1854 is $675 with the 1855 at $700 and PCGS shows 44 examples of the 1855 in Mint State and about 91 for the 1854.

Starting with the 1856 mintage the arrows would also be removed returning the design to what it was in the years prior to 1853. For the years through 1861 there would be assorted mintages ranging from 303,700 in 1860 to over 4.2 million for the 1858. These pre-Civil War dates are basically available ones, with the 1860 topping the value list in G-4 at $38. In Mint State, the 1856-1858 are less than $500, with the lower mintage 1860 standing out at $1,000 in MS-60. Even the 1860 has numbers available as is seen in the PCGS supply of just over 50.

The Civil War started to make an impact on coin production in 1862. The suspension of specie payments and the loss of three facilities, Charlotte, N.C., Dahlonega, Ga., and New Orleans, to the Confederacy and the growing hoarding of all silver and gold presented officials with a situation where making large numbers of silver and gold coins became impossible.

The half dollar, more than other denominations even during the worst of times in the Civil War would continue to have more than token mintages. The totals certainly were not high but every year were in the hundreds of thousands. It is very possibly a suggestion that half dollars were being used in international trade or stockpiled for a similar use as they were not in circulation.

The dates from the period are not as expensive in circulated grades as might be expected. Despite the fact that all have mintages usually well below 1 million the G-4 prices are under $40. In MS-60 the 1862-1865 are all $750 and while they are not identical in numbers, the totals are large enough for each date to keep them in the same basic price range.

The 1866 was unique as it was in that year when the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse. There was, however, a single Philadelphia 1866 without the motto probably made for a favored collector or dealer. The rest of the 1866 mintage, which totaled 745,625, and the coins from the years that followed would have the motto. Until 1871 the pattern of mintage at Philadelphia was below 1 million.

The one date from 1866-1870 that stands out in circulated grades is the 418,200 mintage 1868. Today it is $48 in G-4, which is $10 more than the next most expensive date from the period.

The 1868 at $525 is also slightly more than the other dates in MS-60 while it and the 1870 at $7,000 or more in MS-65 are the most expensive Philadelphia dates in top grades. In fact the 1868 has only been seen once in MS-65 or better while the 1870 has been seen three times in MS-65 or better, so both are excellent values if you can find them for the listed MS-65 price.

The 1871-1873 all had higher mintages, although only the 1871 was over 1 million. The three dates are available for $32-$35 in G-4 and at $350-$545 in MS-60.

There is, however, an exception as the 1873 like the other coins of that year came with either an open or closed “3.” The open “3” is not available in any numbers, with a G-4 listing for $2,650. It is $30,000 in MS-60. The PCGS report shows why as it has graded only 16 examples in all grades combined and of that group only one MS-63 was called Mint State.

There is a second type of 1873 half dollar as it was in that year when the decision was made to slightly increase the amount of silver in silver coins as the price of the metal was declining and there was ever increasing pressure from mining interests for the government to buy more silver. That saw a mintage of 1,815,700 1873 Seated Liberty halves with slightly more silver and arrows at the date.
The arrows would also be used in 1874 when the mintage was over 2.6 million,  so while short-lived the type is available at $32 in G-4, $850 in MS-60 and $12,750 for the less expensive 1874 in MS-65. In fact there are solid numbers seen at PCGS in Mint State, although the 1874 is clearly the more available of the two.

Something that should be remembered for dates from the 1860s is that there were also small numbers of proofs produced each year. The proof mintages starting with the 1860 ranged from an estimated 450 to in some cases just over 1,000 pieces for a given date. With better care and a greater chance for survival, the proofs today are sometimes less expensive than Mint State examples and that is especially true for many dates where a Proof-65 even at more than $3,000 will be less expensive and much easier to find than an MS-65.

This pattern of less expensive proofs is not uniform as it can vary from date to date, but the with arrows 1873 and 1874 are the one case where there is no lower priced alternative as they are both $9,000 in Proof-65 while other earlier and later dates in Proof-65 are just $3,000 to $4,000, so these two dates are one case where if you want a top grade example you can expect to pay high prices.

In 1875 the arrows would be removed and from that year through 1878 you have a string of very available Philadelphia Seated Liberty half dollars. The mintages were high, with the 1878 being the low mintage of the group, but it still had a mintage of more than 1.3 million. In other cases the totals were over 8.4 million.

As a result, the dates of the period are $28-$35 in G-4,  and in some cases as low as $360 in MS-60 and $2,700 in MS-65, with the 1878 tending to be slightly more. In some cases the PCGS totals for a date like the 1876 is around 175 pieces in Mint State so there is little problem in finding an example for sale at a reasonable price.

In 1879 there was a huge change as the mintage of the Philadelphia 1879 half dollar stood at just 5,900 pieces. Moreover, from 1879 through 1890 no Philadelphia Seated Liberty half dollar would have a total higher than the 12,833 total of 1888.

Following implementation of the Resumption Act in 1879, for the first time since the beginning of the Civil War, gold and silver coins circulated at par with paper money. The paper money issues of the Civil War had caused an inflation that saw gold coins trading for as much as two and half times face value in paper in 1863.

It took 18 years for the monetary upset of the Civil War to be overcome, but once it was, coinage poured out of hiding places. Huge quantities came back from Canada, where they had been stashed just in case by nervous owners.

As a consequence, demand for new half dollars dropped sharply. Also, the silver supply was being diverted to Morgan dollars.

Realistically the mintage difference from high to low in the 1879-1890 period is very modest. The 1884 was the lowest mintage date of the period at 5,275 while the 1888 was the high at 12,833. That does produce price differences,  with the 5,710 mintage 1887 being the most expensive at $500 in G-4 while the lowest price is $260 for the 1880.

In MS-60 the price range is $700-$1,100.

In MS-65 the 1881 stands out as the most expensive at $4,000 while the others range from $3,650 to $3,900. A Proof-65 brings $3,150 for any date 1879-1890. In fact in the case of every date in MS-65 or better the PCGS total stands at 15 pieces or more while the Proof-65 or better totals are frequently more than 20 pieces.

Clearly if mintage totals were all that mattered in pricing, these dates would be great deals. Of course in this case limited demand also helps to keep prices low.

In 1891 there was suddenly a mintage of 200,600. As it turned out, however, the 1891 would be the last.

The 1891 while certainly higher mintage than the coins of the previous decade is still low mintage and that explains its price of $55 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $480. The MS-65 costs $700 more than the Proof-65 at $3,850.

Philadelphia Seated Liberty halves are reasonably priced, although what is also nice is that most of the dates can be found in some numbers in virtually all grades. That makes it a group you can collect on almost any hobby budget if you have the will and a little patience.

Prices are taken from the September Coin Market price guide section.


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