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Tough dates in Standing Liberty collection

There are any number of tough sets of coins of the 20th century but certainly high on any list would have to be the Standing Liberty quarter. As it turns out, the Standing Liberty quarter would also be very high on any list of the best coin designs of the past century and that makes for a great combination for collectors.

It is sometimes forgotten that the Standing Liberty quarter was a part of what was perhaps the most successful design competition in the history of the United States back in 1916. That competition saw A.A. Weinman designs selected for the dime and half dollar while Hermon MacNeil was the winner for the quarter. Not only was the quality of the winning  designs exciting, but in selecting three different designs the United States was breaking with over a century of tradition of having the dime, quarter and half dollar feature essentially the same designs.

In the past, with the exception of transitional times from one design to another,  the dime, quarter and half dollar with the exception of the reverse of the dime would have the same designs. That might have changed back in 1892, but didn’t when officials attempted first an invited competition and after that did not work an open competition for new designs for the three denominations. Unfortunately, the whole thing ended in what one official called a “wretched failure.”

If anything the failure in 1892 probably made the success in 1916 all the more important. In fact it might well be suggested that the 1916 competition had its roots with the determined efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt to change the coin designs. While Roosevelt was no longer in office in 1916, the fact remains that he had established a momentum for change and that momentum seems to have continued well after Roosevelt was gone. Roosevelt’s legacy did not hurt when it came to deciding in 1916 that the designs should be changed as they had by then been in use 25 years, the required length of time for the secretary of the Treasury to simply order a change.

There was plenty of reason for officials to be happy with the results of their competition and that was seen in a report by the Mint director describing the winning quarter design where he stated, Liberty is shown as a full-length figure, front view, with head turned toward the left … the left arm of the figure of Liberty is upraised, bearing the shield in an attitude of protection from which the covering is being drawn. The right hand bears an olive branch of peace.”

In describing the reverse, the Mint director stated, “The reverse of this coin necessitates by law a representation of the American eagle and is here shown in full flight with wings extended sweeping across the coin.”

He also explained, “The design of the 25-cent piece is intended to typify in a measure the awakening interest of the country in its own protection.” Back at the time of World War I, it was certainly an appropriate sentiment, but in many respects it is a sentiment that remains to the present day, making the design a truly timeless one.

With the competition completed,  MacNeil had to turn his attention to making the basic design work as a coin. That can potentially be a much more difficult process than many might suspect and it requires working with the chief engraver,  or at minimum his staff, and the ability to work smoothly with the Mint staff at the time could not be assumed. Standing in the way, potentially, was Chief Engraver Charles Barber.

It is hard to portray an accurate picture of Charles Barber and his relationship with outside artists as his virtual war with Augustus Saint-Gaudens and President Theodore Roosevelt tend to color our views of him today. In fairness, Barber while not a great artist, was probably extremely able when it came to making workable coins as he had literally grown up at the Mint where his father had been chief engraver before him. Barber was also strong-willed and with his background it should come as no surprise that he did not like outsiders designing coins.

While his temperament and artistic ability might be questioned, there is little doubt that Barber knew what he was doing at least in technical matters. His objections to the Saint-Gaudens designs over their relief proved to be basically correct, but that struggle as well as other battles over the work of outside artists,  have made it fairly clear that no outside artist could expect a helping hand from Barber.

In the case of Hermon MacNeil and the designs of 1916, there was even less reason than usual to expect help as the designs being replaced were those Barber had created in 1892. He was certainly not likely to help replace his own designs and he did not. What was strange was that Barber basically did not get involved in the process at all and he certainly could have made life very difficult for both MacNeil and Weinman. It might have been his failing health or being tired from so many wars over designs, but whatever the reason, he left the bulk of the activity to his assistant George T. Morgan and that allowed things to go more smoothly than could have normally been expected.

As it turned out, the quarter design would need modifications, but time was a problem as it was the last of the designs to be prepared for 1916. Records suggest that even in early December of 1916 the final touches were still being made on the quarter.

The delay had already seen some 1916 Barber quarter production at both Philadelphia and Denver. Precisely when the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter was finally produced is not certain. What is certain is that it was so late there was no 1916 Standing Liberty quarter production at either Denver or San Francisco. The only production of the Standing Liberty quarter in 1916 was 52,000 pieces produced at Philadelphia.
The 1916, as one of the lowest mintage coins of the past century, has always been a very interesting coin to study. Certainly in the period prior to 1916 there had been increased interest in coin collecting and that would suggest a scramble to save examples of the 1916, sensing it would be a better date.

In fact that scramble does not appear to have taken place for a couple of reasons. The first is that a quarter was a higher denomination, which meant its numbers of collectors was relatively small. Those collectors might have saved an example for their collections, but with the high denomination (as the quarter was in 1916, an hour’s pay more or less) it is unlikely that any large numbers were saved.

The other group for saving a supply would have been dealers, but there too there is little evidence of this having occurred. In fact, Q. David Bowers did research on the matter and concluded that there was evidence of only a couple dealers having “working inventories” of the 1916 at the time. It was not a case where they could not find the 1916, but rather a case where they simply did not stock current issues. Moreover, that 52,000 mintage would not have been as impressive at the time because the 1913-S Barber quarter had just had a mintage of 40,000.

Another factor that sometimes influenced saving was that it was a new design and sometimes new designs are saved even by non-collectors. That also does not really appear to have happened as with the late release of the 1916 and the small mintage there is reason to question whether the first example of the Standing Liberty quarter seen by many was even a 1916 coin at all.

In fact, the odds are excellent that the first of the new Standing Liberty quarters seen by most Americans was the 1917. For that date there were over 12 million produced at Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco and these coins were released early in 1917. The odds are strongly in favor of most Americans seeing and potentially saving a 1917 as opposed to one of the 52,000 examples of the 1916.

Despite the assorted factors working against saving, the 1916 was saved in at least some small numbers. We can see evidence of that in the grading service totals today as while certainly not common, the 1916 is more available in top grades including MS-65 with a full head than might be expected based on its very low mintage.

It was not the sort of saving seen with the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent or later with the 1931-S Lincoln or 1950-D Jefferson nickel, but there does appear to have been at least some limited saving of the 1916 – just not the sort of saving we might expect.

The 1917 quarters would prove to be important as after an initial 1917 mintage there were design modifications. On obverse, the breast of Liberty was covered and three stars were placed under the flying eagle on the reverse. Over the years there has been a great deal of discussion of these changes as some have contended that the bare breast seen on the 1916 and early 1917 examples had caused moral outrage in the public and this promoted the changes. In fact, while an interesting story, there is really no solid evidence to support that notion.

If anything, the situation seems to point to the changes as being routine and already under way before the public would have even had a chance to be outraged.

Putting armor on Liberty at the time would not have been considered unusual at a time when much of the world was at war and America was just a few months away from joining the Allies. In addition,  the haste of 1916 needs to be remembered and a few slight modifications would not have been out of the question for technical minting reasons.

Supporting that idea, is the fact that 1917 also saw modifications in the Walking Liberty half dollar, so two of the three new designs were modified in 1917, making it seem unlikely that covering the breast was the major reason for the changes.

The modifications in 1917 did make for an interesting situation as the 1916 and some of the 1917 mintages are clearly a different type. The Type 1 Standing Liberty quarters are always in demand,  especially in top grades, and that results in higher than might be expected prices. The most available of the type, the 1917 is currently at $200 in MS-60, $750 in MS-65 and $1,500 in MS-65 with a full head. The others are higher, with the focus of demand for type collectors being on the most available Philadelphia 1917.

The new armored design would remain on the Standing Liberty quarter until it was replaced after the 1930 mintage. Certainly the second type is available, but specific dates can be a real problem as the Standing Liberty quarter in a number of case simply had bad strikes, making a top quality Mint State example a very real problem to find or afford. That is especially noticed in the very high prices noted in Coin Market under the MS-65FH designation, which stands for “Full Head.” To achieve a full head, the strike had to be good.

The 1916 with its low mintage remains the focal point of most interest in Standing Liberty quarters. Available, but certainly not cheap is the way to best describe the 1916, which currently lists for $6,350 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $18,500. An MS-65 is $30,000 and an MS-65 with a full head is $37,500.

The rest of a Standing Liberty quarter set is available in circulated grades, although there is a major consideration and that is that the dates from prior to 1925 are uniformly tougher. The reason is that prior to 1925 the date was a high point on the obverse and it wore off quickly, causing officials to recess the date starting in 1925.

As the action was taken basically a decade after the first production it is clear that officials could examine wear patterns on numerous circulated examples and determine there was a major problem. That makes the dates from before 1925 much tougher regardless of their mintage simply because so many were lost because their dates simply wore away before any collectors decided to save them.

In circulated grades of the regular dates, not counting the 1916, the better dates include the 1923-S, which is now at $425 in G-4,  while the 1921 is $220 in the same grade. The 1919-D and 1919-S are $110 and $105, respectively, and in all cases the prices might seem high considering what similar mintage dates of other denominations of the period will now bring, but other denominations of the period did not have the problem of vanishing dates after just a decade in use.

One date that deserves special attention is the 1918/17-S and it is a special problem as it is an overdate from prior to 1925, meaning the place where people would look to identify the coin as a 1918/17-S is also the place which would have the greatest wear.

In addition, the 1918/17-S was not even discovered until the 1930s, which was far too late to start looking for nice examples and perhaps too late to even identify some examples that had already lost their dates. Moreover, the 1918-S had an unusually high mintage for a San Francisco Standing Liberty quarter, making it unlikely that there was any extra saving of the date at the time of issue. That combination of factors makes the 1918/17-S tough in any grade, with a G-4 at $2,250 and an MS-60 at $17,850. An MS-65 is $110,000 and an MS-65 with a full head is $320,000, although there are serious doubts that any exist as neither NGC or PCGS reports a single MS-65 with full head graded.

Without many quarter collectors at the time, the supply of Mint State coins is suspect. In MS-60 every date is at least $100, although a relatively small number top $500. The keys in MS-60 are the 1916, the 1918/17-S and the 1927-S, which had a low mintage of 396,000 and which seems to be especially difficult in Mint State with a current MS-60 price of $4,750.

In MS-65 the Standing Liberty quarter is very difficult, although all dates are at least known to exist. Many dates are over $1,000, with the most available dates being at least $500. The 1927-S is at $12,000 and the 1916 and 1918/17-S are even more. The other better dates tend to fall into a price range of $2,500 to $5,000 and in many cases they are excellent values when you compare their prices to the numbers reported from the grading services.

In MS-65 with a full head things become much more difficult. The 1918/17-S probably does not exist, although it is known in MS-65. The 1927-S is nearly impossible as is evidenced by its current $165,000 price and there is a group including the 1916, 1919-D, 1919-S, 1920-S, 1926-S and 1926-D which are all at $25,000 or more. Finding some of these dates offered for sale can be even more difficult than affording them.

In the case of truly exceptional coins, almost any price is possible. That was seen, for example, in 2003 when an MS-68 full head 1920-D sold for $132,500. The coin was clearly the finest known, but the price was still impressive especially when you consider the fact that at the time an MS-65 with full head 1920-D was listed at just $6,250. Such is the power and competitiveness of collectors putting together Registry Set of finest known coins.

With relatively few saved when they were released and the problem of disappearing dates and low mintages to make the supply in circulated grades lower than might be expected, the Standing Liberty quarter stands out today as a major challenge for collectors in any grade.

Another factor that might hold collectors back today besides difficulty is the passage of time. Fewer and fewer collectors remember when the design was in common circulation. By the 1960s, what supply was left in circulation was pretty much comprised of dateless slicks. Without a personal memory, there is less likelihood for an individual to begin collecting Standing Liberty quarters.

But if you are hunting for a challenge, and looking among the coins of the past century, Standing Liberty quarters are near the top in terms of difficulty.              

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