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Take advantage of half dime

green1.jpgIf you are looking for an interesting set at a great price, the Seated Libetry half dime may be just the set for you. Right now the Seated Liberty half dime has a couple things working against it in terms of popularity ? but these things work in your favor if you want a good price on the coins you are buying.

Like many coins that have not been in production for a long time, the Seated Liberty half dime is basically overlooked. It might not seem correct, but the evidence is clear that when a coin is out of sight, it is frequently out of mind when it comes to starting a collection.

Another factor is that larger denominations have been more popular. That has changed lately, the quarter getting a large boost in popularity with the 50 states quarter program. It appears that nickels are also receiving a boost from new designs, and if that trend expands to half dimes, we just might see an increase in interest that could test what are very suspect supplies.

In the 1830s, the half dime was a denomination expected to be very active. It had been through an interesting period. Despite the statements of officials dating all the way back to 1792 stating that half dimes were needed for commerce, the mintages and regularity of production had not seemingly been in line with the views expressed by officials. Even after 1804, when production of silver dollars and gold eagles were suspended to free up more time and resources at the Mint to make lower denominations, the mintages of half dimes had not increased in the way many might have expected. In fact it was the exact opposite, the 1805 having a mintage of just 15,600 pieces ? and then the next half dime was not produced until 1829.

green2.jpgThe return of the half dime to production in 1829 was the start of a period of regular mintages. By the time the new design by Christian Gobrecht was ready in 1837, the mintage of the year would be 2,276,000, a significant improvement over the old totals even considering that the 1837 mintage was split between the new and old designs.

The first Seated Liberty dime, the 1837 came with either a small or large date with little difference in price listings between the two although the large date is more available in MS-60 at $625 and in MS-65 at $3,250 although in G-4 it is a bit more expensive than the small date which is $30.
The design was evolving and would change in 1838 by adding stars to the obverse ? with the exception of the 1838-O, which didn?t make this change until 1839 and probably reflects that New Orleans was just starting coin production in 1838, as well as the very real possibility that there was a delay in getting dies to New Orleans for the newer design. The mintage of the 1838-O was just 70,000 pieces, which helps to explain why the 1838-O lists for $95 in G-4, $2,500 in MS-60 and $25,000 in MS-65 where it is very scarce. As the only New Orleans issue of the type, the 1838-O half dime has slightly higher than normal demand.

green3.jpgThe high prices for the 1838-O in Mint State would actually prove to be fairly typical because there were few collectors in the New Orleans area at the time to save nice examples of new coins as they were released. In fact, it would be decades before there was serious interest in collecting by date and Mint, so most coins from New Orleans they were simply placed in circulation and many times they were heavily worn before anyone considered saving them for a collection.

The 1838-O also exhibits the sometimes indifferent New Orleans minting quality. Mint State examples do exist, but almost none meet the standards for a grade like MS-65 today. Numismatic Guaranty Corp. reports a single 1838-O in MS-65 while Professional Coin Grading Service has so far not seen a single example it would consider MS-65. That lack of quality would continue to haunt the sometimes sparsely saved New Orleans issues for decades.

Starting with the Philadelphia 1838 and the 1839 from New Orleans, stars were added to the obverse, making a new type. That type, however, would also be short-lived. Drapery would be added to Liberty?s left elbow in 1840, creating another type. While short-lived, the no drapery type is available at $15-$20 in G-4 while an available date MS-60 is $250 with an MS-65 at $2,100.

The addition of drapery in 1840 would finally complete the Seated Liberty design. This addition started with some of the 1840 mintage and would last for over a decade. That makes type examples fairly easy to acquire with a G-4 listing at $15 while the most available MS-60 is $160 with an MS-65 around $1,150. In the case of Mint State coins, you have to be impressed by their modest prices as these issues now as much as 165 years old show the trend that there is limited demand for Seated Liberty half dimes, which keeps prices very reasonable.

green4.jpgAlthough the type is available, there are still some better dates. That is especially true in the case of New Orleans issues where you find dates like the 1844-O with a mintage of 220,000 at $75 in G-4 while the 140,000 mintage 1849-O is just $29 in the same grade.

The 1849-O has a good reputation, especially as a tough date in Mint State where its MS-60 price is $1,950 and $14,000 in MS-65. In Mint State there are just under 30 examples reported at PCGS and NGC combined, but realistically almost none reached MS-65 with the best at PCGS being an MS-64 while NGC reported one in MS-66. With just a couple graded so far, that $14,000 MS-65 price may prove to be a great deal.

The main story in terms of the better dates in the 1840s is the very low-mintage 1846 with a production of just 27,000 pieces. That low total puts the 1846 at $375 in G-4 and $8,500 in MS-60. The interesting thing about the 1846 is that even with a low mintage we would expect some to have been saved ? it was produced at Philadelphia where there were some collectors ? but that does not appear to be the case. NGC has seen only 19 examples of the 1846 and most were below AU-50 while the PCGS total of 40 shows only two pieces in Mint State with the best being an MS-63. Simply put, this is a much tougher coin than even its already high MS-63 listing of $16,000 suggests.

In the early 1850s the half dime was not circulating much again. The reason was simple: the discovery of gold in California had upset the traditional gold-to-silver ratio, making silver coins cost more than their face value to produce. Congress needed to act but in 1851, instead of reducing the amount of silver in coins as was needed, Congress instead authorized a 75 percent silver three-cent piece. That might have bought them some time but did nothing to solve the problem.

green5.jpgThe public meanwhile had figured out the situation and was hoarding the silver coins there were in circulation, causing a national coin shortage. The problem for the Mint was that producing coins would actually cause the Mint to lose money, which is never a good thing, On the other hand, not producing coins in the face of a national coin shortage makes it look like the Mint is not doing its job. To add to the difficulty, even if the Mint did produce coins, the odds were that, except for the 75 percent silver three-cent piece and copper or gold issues, the coins would be hoarded, leaving the country still without circulating silver issues.

There was frankly no good solution. What the Mint seems to have done was in some cases simply lower its production. We see that in the case of the 1852-O half dime, which had a mintage of 260,000, and the Philadelphia 1853, which was at 135,000. Both could have been routine low mintages, but the best guess is that in both cases the Mint was trying to split the difference between two bad options.

With their low mintages the two would probably be better today, but in both cases melting is very possible. The Congress did act in early 1853, reducing the amount of silver in coinage slightly. That naturally saw some melting of the older, larger silver issues, but the 1852-O remains very reasonable at $25 in G-4 as does the 1853 which lists at $35 in the same grade. In MS-60 the two are each listed at $750, with the 1853 being more available in MS-65 at $3,000 while the usually flatly struck 1852-O is a problem at $10,000.

green6.jpgThe date that really shows evidence of melting is the 1853-O. It started with a low mintage of 160,000, but that was actually higher than the Philadelphia 1853. It is much less available than the Philadelphia 1853, however, with a G-4 listing of $250 while an MS-60 lists at $5,250 with an MS-65 at $25,000. In fact, that MS-65 price is again probably cheap as the 1853-O has been graded only once at MS-65 by PCGS while NGC has never graded an example higher than MS-64.

With the congressional action to reduce the amount of silver coming in early 1853, there were quick, large mintages in an attempt to get a lot of silver coins in circulation. The new half dimes would have arrows placed next to the date to indicate the silver content change, and the arrows would last for a couple years resulting in examples of the type being readily available. All but the 1855-O having a mintage of at least a million pieces, making an available G-4 just $13.50 while an MS-60 lists at $185 and an MS-65 at $1,850 and up. The 1855-O with a mintage of 600,000 is slightly better, at $15 in G-4 while in Mint State it is typical of New Orleans dates at $600 in MS-60 and $4,000 in MS-65.

The arrows were removed in 1856, creating the next type of Seated Liberty half dime, which would last only through 1859. This type is also available, a G-4 listing at $13.50 while an MS-60 is $170 and an MS-65 is $1,550. There are better dates in the form of errors. The 1858 had both a doubled date and an inverted date with the doubled date listing at $45 in G-4 while the inverted date is just $30. Both are better in Mint State where the doubled date is $700 in MS-60 with the inverted date listing very close at $675.

In 1860 the design was changed with the stars on the obverse being replaced by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, which was an interesting decision on the verge of the Civil War. The change, however, would last through the production of the final Seated Liberty half dime in 1873 although there was also a peculiar variation for pieces dated 1870-1872 in the form of the mintmark moving to a place just above the bow on the reverse as opposed to its normal place below the bow. All types are available, listing at $14 in G-4 and $125 in MS-60 while an MS-65 would start at about $1,150.

There are a number of interesting dates from the period. One would have to be the 1863-S, which had a mintage of 100,000, putting it at a listing of $35 in G-4, $700 in MS-60 and $2,500 in MS-65. The 1863-S has not just a below-average mintage, but also an interesting place in history. It was the first half dime to be produced in San Francisco. What makes that interesting is that San Francisco had begun coin production back in 1854 but took nearly a decade to get around to producing half dimes. That tells us something about the situation at the time. Certainly no half dimes were shipped the 3,000 miles from Philadelphia, suggesting apparently that making change involving the denomination was simply not a very high priority at San Francisco.

There are other better dates from the period. With the suspension of specie payments and the pressures of the war, the Philadelphia mintages of 1863-1867 are all quite low with the highest total of the group being the 1864 at 48,470 pieces while the low was the 1867 at under 9,000. In light of such totals the prices today are reasonable, ranging from a listing of $225 for a G-4 1863 to $575 for the 1867 in the same grade. It is interesting in that in MS-60 the prices are in a range of $1,200 to $1,400, which is not very expensive when you consider the low mintages.

The prices in a grade like MS-60 are potentially influenced by the presence of proofs. There was a small proof production each year at this time as it was a popular method of collecting to acquire a proof example of every date. The proofs, while small in numbers, went to collectors and received much better care, meaning they have survived in sometimes surprisingly large numbers to the present day. Those 450-600 proofs each year now listed at about $1,750 in Proof-65 may well keep MS-60 prices down. For the same money, most would rather take the nice Proof-65 as opposed to an MS-60. They also may keep the MS-65 levels, currently around $2,500, from getting too high as well.

There is no way to avoid the arrival of the first Shield nickel in 1866 in a discussion of Seated Liberty half dimes. The first Shield nickel did not spell an immediate end to silver half dimes, but it certainly did not help to prolong the silver half dime as is seen by the fact that the two versions of the same denomination would last for less than a decade in production together.

The final years of the Seated Liberty half dime would see the creation of the most significant rarity in the set, and that is the unqiue 1870-S. To celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of the new San Francisco Mint, it was decided to put an example of every denomination in the cornerstone, including denominations not being produced for circulation that year. That meant a special production of 1870-S half dimes, quarters, dollars and $3 gold pieces. Some extra Seated Liberty dollars were made for presentation purposes, but in theory there would only be one example struck of the other denominations.

The theory was not reality. It was known in the early 1900s that there was an available 1870-S $3 gold piece. What that meant is that either the coin was not placed in the cornerstone or a second example was created. For decades, however, there was no known example of any of the other theoretical one-off 1870-S denominations ? until the 1970s when Chicago dealership Rarcoa announced discovery of an 1870-S Seated Liberty dime. It was an extraordinary discovery and touched off an immediate discussion as to the value of the piece. Q. David Bowers explained in his book American Coins Treasures and Hoards how the price of the 1870-S dime was tied to the Bowers and Ruddy sale of the Garrett collection 1804 dollar, with the agreed on price for the dime being $25,000 more than the 1804 dollar. In fact, the 1804 sold for a stunning $400,000, making the 1870-S half dime $425,000.

As it turned out, the 1870-S could not hold that price as the market softened and the 1804 dollar price of $400,000 at the time had been one of those moments when a rare coin simply goes way beyond the price anyone expected. In 1985 Martin Paul was able to buy the 1870-S dime for $176,000. Whatever the price, the fact remains the 1870-S is easily the most important and most valuable Seated Liberty half dime.

There are some slightly better Seated Liberty half dimes from the final years of production, such as the 1871-S, which had a mintage of 161,000, and the 1873-S, which followed with a 324,000 total. Even with those lower totals, neither is very costly with the 1873-S listing at j ust $150 in MS-60, showing the sort of good values still to be found in Seated Liberty half dimes. This one is fairly low-mintage and a product of a branch mint where any Mint State examples are usually tougher than might be expected.
The final production of the Seated Liberty half dime came in 1873. Since that time the Seated Liberty half dime has been increasingly overlooked as it drifts further and further into American numismatic history. As seen with today?s price listings, the Seated Liberty half dime deserves to be revisited by any collector seeking good values and interesting coins. A Seated Liberty half dime set offers both.

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