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Scarcity makes Western mints a challenge

Some of the most interesting coins in U.S. history are still some of the lesser known by collectors and dealers. The Seated Liberty half dollar has quite literally been under the radar for most of the past century. That said, in an age where we have much better information of all types available it may prove to be a time when some hobbyists really look at Seated Liberty half dollars and discover that in their ranks are some very interesting coins that are great values.

The Seated Liberty half dollars where the real consistent pattern of potentially tougher dates can be found are frequently those that were produced far away from the 19th century collecting center, which was around Philadelphia. People back at the time of the Seated Liberty half dollar were rarely collecting half dollars as the face value was too high. If they were collecting half dollars, it was likely to be only by date. The likely source for a specific date was a coin from Philadelphia and that means that especially in upper grades the Seated Liberty half dollars of San Francisco and Carson City can be a real challenge for collectors in the 21st century.

There had been no Seated Liberty half dollar produced west of the Mississippi prior to 1855. Production in the first years after the 1839 introduction was in the main mint at Philadelphia and at the mint in the commercial port of New Orleans, through which much of the nation’s produce was shipped to the rest of the United States and to the world.

If the taming of the frontier has a numismatic timetable, it began with the location of a Mint on the West Coast in San Francisco.

The San Francisco Mint had actually opened its doors a year earlier in 1854, but the first year the small facility was able to produce only gold coins and even those mintages were primarily the large gold eagles and double eagles. Other than those two denominations, there were just under 20,000 gold dollars and token mintage totals of quarter and half eagles. The latter two denominations were both below 300 pieces.

In 1855 San Francisco made its first attempts at silver issues. There is an important fact seen in the early San Francisco silver coin mintages, which is that the silver dollar was not a priority. For the vast majority of Americans at the time, the half dollar was the largest silver coin they would regularly encounter.

In the case of silver dollars, the bulk of the coins produced either ended up as reserves or were shipped out of the country in international transactions. As a result, the half dollar was a much more important coin in circulation than we might expect.

The first attempt at Seated Liberty half dollar production in San Francisco came in 1855 and it totaled 129,950 pieces. That was a low mintage at the time, but was still large enough that there are examples today with a G-4 being priced at $350 while an AU-50 is $6,850 and an MS-60 is $19,500.

The Professional Coin Grading Service has only seen one example of the 1855-S in Mint State in the 44 coins of the date it has graded, so the 1855-S is as tough as the prices suggest.

So right off the bat, any collector interested in the San Francisco Seated Liberty half dollars gets nicked pretty hard.

The design of the half dollar would change in 1856 as the arrows were removed from either side of the date. The mintage at San Francisco would increase to a total of 211,000 pieces in this second year of production, although that still is relatively low, resulting in a G-4 price of $85 while an available date of the type from any mint is less than $30.

The 1856-S is listed at $3,500 in MS-60, although Mint State examples are not seen with any regularity as PCGS reports just three coins called Mint State. A nice XF-40 example will set you back $500.
A couple of factors must be remembered for Seated Liberty half dollars of this era. The first is to wonder how many were saved at the time of issue or shortly afterward. Even for circulated examples, large numbers of collectors for half dollars were decades away. That means many were never saved in any grade in any numbers in the first place. It also must be noted that in addition to silver dollars, the Seated Liberty half dollar was frequently exported and lost to American collectors.

In the mid 1990s there was an auction offering of half dollars returned from Hong Kong. Those half dollars were primarily 1850s and 1860s dates sometimes chopmarked and what they prove is that Seated Liberty half dollars did get exported, so we have to assume the mintages especially of half dollars produced in the West are sometimes misleading in terms of how many might be found today as in some cases there are far fewer than would be expected.

Realistically, the San Francisco facility was not capable of heavy mintages for all denominations. It continued to struggle to produce some half dollars each year as was seen in the 158,000-piece mintage of the 1857-S. That low total makes the 1857-S a $100 coin in G-4 and $3,500 in MS-60, but again there is virtually no supply with PCGS reporting just four examples called Mint State. There is an MS-65 price of $19,000 for this and the 1856-S, but realistically there is virtually no supply. In the case of the 1857-S, for example, the highest grade recorded is an MS-64.

In fact, PCGS does report an MS-65 1858-S, but only one and it lists for a cheaper $12,500. With a mintage of 476,000, the 1858-S is more available than the first dates at just $38 in G-4 and $950 in MS-60. In fact, it is seen more often in Mint State than the earlier dates with PCGS reporting 15 examples.

The 1859-S with a mintage of 566,000 is also more available  again at $38 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $750 while an MS-65 is listed at $12,500.

The 1859-S has a Mint State total of 19 at PCGS with a couple at MS-65 or better and two at an astonishing MS-68 and those two are the only recorded MS-68 examples of the type from all mints combined.

The 1860-S would have a similar mintage of 472,000 and a similar price in G-4 at just $38. In MS-60, the 1860-S is $850 and in MS-65 it is $12,500. Here the numbers show 18 examples in Mint State but none above MS-64.

The mintage rose in 1861 to 939,500 and that makes the 1861-S $35 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $975 and an MS-65 is $9,500. The numbers commercially graded are slightly higher in Mint State at 22 pieces, but the lack of top quality coins continued with PCGS reporting just a single example in MS-65.

There was a heavy 1862 mintage of 1,352,000 and this marked the Civil War era that saw mintages generally down, but primarily at Philadelphia, as out in San Francisco far away from the conflict the impact of the suspension of specie payments and the public hoarding was  not the same as in the East.

California, scene of the Gold Rush in 1849, saw its citizens try to stick to specie payments as much as possible when the rest of the country was running on a paper economy.

The 1862-S is available for $30 in G-4, $460 in MS-60 and $9,000 in MS-65 and, realistically, the numbers graded are higher except for MS-65 where only one has been seen. The Mint State total, however, is 35, which is a new high for a San Francisco date.

The mintages continued to hold at high levels in 1863 with the 1863-S having a mintage of 916,000, putting it at the same prices as the 1862-S and much the same is true of the 1864-S and 1865-S despite the fact that they had lower mintages.

There are, however, differences in Mint State where the 1863-S has been seen over 40 times, but the numbers seen by PCGS decline significantly for the 1864-S and 1865-S, which have been seen in Mint State  just 10 and 12 times, respectively. That justifies the higher MS-60 prices for the 1864-S and 1865-S.

The 1866-S would see a change in design as the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse. Before those dies were used, however, an older die without the motto was used to create 60,000 half dollars, making them the only 1866 half dollars without the motto except for a single 1866 struck in Philadelphia that was specially made as a proof.

The 1866-S without the motto was not a special creation, it was just a usual example of slow die shipments from out East and a tendency to economize by using older dies.

The no-motto 1866-S is tough with its lower mintage. It has a price of $460 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $5,400. The PCGS totals support the Mint State price as only four have been seen in Mint State and none was better than MS-64.

The rest of the 1866-S mintage would total 994,000 pieces with the motto IN GOD WE TRUST. That impressive mintage, considering it was not a full year’s production, makes the 1866-S available at a price of $33 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $650 and an MS-65 at $5,000. Actually the prices are somewhat low when you realize that PCGS has only seen the 1866-S 17 times and none of them was nicer than MS-64.

The 1867-S would have another high mintage with the total topping the one million mark and that would be the case in 1868 as well, making them fairly available dates at just $32 in G-4, $350 in MS-60 and $7,000 in MS-65, but for these dates PCGS has seen only a couple examples in MS-65. The 1868-S in particular looks to be a good value as PCGS reports only a dozen in all grades combined.
In the case of the 1869-S there was a mintage of 656,000, which puts the 1869-S at $35 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $600,  which is a premium level, although its MS-65 price of $7,000 is not and it is seen in the PCGS totals as the 1869-S is tough in Mint State where only eight have been seen, but an unusually high percentage of them were unusually nice as two were MS-64, two more were MS-65 and one was MS-67.

The 1870-S and 1871-S could be called available San Francisco dates with mintages over 1 million in the case of the 1870-S and 2 million for the 1871-S. As a result, prices in G-4 are $31, and $30, respectively, with the 1870-S at $575 in MS-60 while the 1871-S is $400 with both at $7,000 for MS-65.

There was, however, something new in 1870 in the form of an 1870-CC and it is a special coin. It was in 1870 when Carson City began coin production, but the facility was handicapped from the start as the expected large supplies of silver did not appear at the door of that mint as many of the local mine owners had a problem with the superintendent, Abe Curry, and decided instead to ship their silver to San Francisco.

As a result, Carson City had low mintages and it would stay that way throughout the history of the facility. The first year mintages might be expected to be low as that would happen at any number of facilities and that is seen in the Seated Liberty half dollar mintage of 54,617. With basically no collectors in the area to save examples, that puts the 1870-CC at $900 in G-4 with prices in Mint State in six figures as PCGS has seen only one example it called Mint State.

The 1871-CC is only slightly more available with a mintage of 153,950. That puts it at $225 in G-4 but again any example in Mint State is highly unusual although an MS-60 is priced at $15,000 as only three have been seen by PCGS.

In 1872 the Carson City half dollar mintage would increase to 272,000 while the San Francisco total would drop to 580,000. That makes the 1872-CC the first Carson City half dollar at under $100 in G-4 with a price of $85, although Mint State examples remain elusive at $8,000 in MS-60 with PCGS reporting half a dozen. The 1872-S is more available at $31 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $975 as PCGS reports 12 examples graded.

Imagine what the mintage totals for each might have been had the silver mine owners liked the Carson City Mint superintendent.

In 1873 with the declining price of silver, the amount of silver in the half dollar was increased slightly. Before the change Carson City had a 122,500 mintage, which results in a $225 G-4 price while an MS-60 is at $12,000 with 11 reported by PCGS.

There was also a mintage of 5,000 reported at San Francisco, but that entire mintage must have been destroyed as no examples are known today of an 1873-S without arrows at the date.

There was a San Francisco mintage of the new and slightly higher silver content half dollar in 1873 and that half dollar with a mintage of 233,000 would have arrows at the date. In fact, there was a similar total from Carson City with arrows at the date as that total was 214,560.

While close in mintage, the two are not close in price. The 1873-CC with arrows is $150 in G-4 while the 1873-S with arrows is at $55 in the same grade. The 1873-S with arrows is tough at $2,200 in MS-60 but the with arrows 1873-CC is even tougher at $5,700, although interestingly enough, PCGS reports 14 Mint State examples of the 1873-CC and just six of the 1873-S.

Both facilities produced 1874 half dollars with arrows. The 1874-S total is 394,000 and that puts it at $43 in G-4 and $1,850 in MS-60, although PCGS reports quite a few with the MS-60 total being just under 35. The 1874-CC story is different as it had a mintage of just 59,000 and that makes it a $400 coin in G-4 while an MS-60 is at $10,500 and in this case the PCGS total is just 10 pieces.

In 1875 the arrows were removed and for the 1875-1877 years there would be mintages of over 1 million pieces at both San Francisco and Carson City. The CC dates run generally at $50 in G-4, because of the appeal of this mint to modern collectors. The San Francisco pieces run $28 in G-4 .

MS-60 the San Francisco dates, which continue to be more available, start at $360 while the Carson City dates are between $560 and $650.

In 1878 the mintages dropped dramatically. At Carson City, the 1878-CC total was just 62,000 pieces, which in the numismatic marketplace produces prices of $450 in G-4 and $7,000 in MS-60.

The San Francisco mintage was even lower at just 12,000 coins and the 1878-S is legitimately scarce with a G-4 price of $23,500 while an MS-60 is $70,000. In fact, PCGS has seen about a dozen examples in Mint State, which is interesting as it has seen only 22 in all grades combined so more than 50 percent were Mint State.

The reasons behind the low 1878 mintages extend beyond 1878, but production at of the half dollars did not continue at the Western branch mints.

Carson City never again produced half dollars and San Francisco did not resume production until the Barber series commenced in 1892.

Demand for new half dollars fell as Civil War era hoards found their way back to the United States from hiding places in Canada and elsewhere.

The two facilities as well as other branch mints around the country were not dormant as they were suddenly forced by Congress into massive Morgan dollar mintages.

Over the years, Carson City and San Francisco produced some interesting and sometimes very tough Seated Liberty half dollars. For some of the dates, the prices, are reasonable today for anyone who wants examples of the Seated Liberty half dollar from the two Western mints.

Trying to buy all of the dates from each facility gets pricey, especially when you check the lows mintages and numbers graded for some of the dates. That makes the Seated Liberty half dollars from the two Western facilities a fascinating group to study and daunting to collect, but you are getting great values in terms of history for some scarce coins.

Prices taken from September Coin Market.

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