Let’s be blunt about coin collecting. Sometimes a set of coins we might like is simply out of our financial reach in the grade we might desire. That might well be the case with Walking Liberty half dollars as many would love to have a complete set of Walkers in MS-65 or better. The problem is that many and maybe most cannot afford $130,000 for the 1919-D or the 1921-S and that assumes you can even find anyone willing to sell one of those great rarities in top grades.
For those collectors who want at least some Walking Liberty half dollars in top grades there is an option. The Walker set breaks down rather neatly into two groups with the dates before 1941 being far tougher especially in top grades than those from 1941 until the final Walking Liberty half dollars were produced in 1947. That fairly neat division has given rise to the possibility of what is called a “short set” of Walkers, which is a set from 1941-1947.
The idea of putting together such a short set probably had a bad reputation for many years. After all, in the 1950s we hated to admit there was any coin we could not find in circulation. Since we did collect from circulation, the idea of a short set of Walkers would have seemed like a waste of time as all the dates from 1941-1947 were readily available from circulation. In fact, almost an entire Walker set would have been available from circulation if anyone had bothered to try to assemble it. It was simply a case where half dollars were beyond the budgets of many young collectors of the period and many simply continued to circulate even though they were better dates.
I never found a 1921 or a 1921-D, but I did find a 1921-S and that was not that unusual as not many hobbyists were collecting even the full Walker set and far fewer even bothered to attempt a short set.
Of course, back in the 1950s, we did not know about MS-65, or if we did, it was a grade applied to large cents and nothing else. Since large cents were not collected from circulation at the time, it is rather obvious why most of us didn’t have a clue about such a grade. As a result, we would have never considered what an MS-65 1919-D might some day bring at auction.
We weren’t stupid. We knew that nice uncirculated coins were something to cherish. We just did not take it to the level required to meet today’s MS-65 standard. For anyone who did so then, they either had a great eye for quality, or they just plain got lucky.
So, with the wonders for the 70-point grading scale beyond our daily experience, we definitely would have looked down our noses at the idea of a short set of Walkers just as we would have perhaps injured a muscle laughing over someone requesting full bell lines on their Franklin half dollars. Times change and along the way the short set of Walkers has gained a large degree of respect.
Realistically, everyone aspires to have the Walker in a grade like MS-60, or better still, MS-65. It is simply one of those great designs, which on a large coin like the half dollar you want to be able to truly appreciate. We are probably lucky there are the numbers available that there are today as to have nice Walking Liberty half dollars even from the 1940s means that someone at the time had to save the coins as they were released.
It might well be the case that the Walking Liberty design has simply inspired saving over the years even when people were not going to collect the whole set as the Walker design is certainly the most famous design to emerge from the famous 1916 design competition. This design competition turned out to be significant for a variety of reasons. The first is that it was held at all as the track record for competitions at least stretching back to 1892 had not been all that promising.
It has to be remembered that with the best of intentions officials in 1892 had invited the nation’s leading artists to participate in a competition. The artists were not happy with the competition and responded with a set of conditions causing the idea to be dropped in favor of an open competition that had ended up in what one official called a “wretched failure,’ and no one judged the winner, causing the officials to assign Charles Barber the task of designing the new coins.
It was a typical Barber effort, meaning no one was inspired, but the designs were functional. Of course, 25 years later when those designs could be legally changed under terms of an 1890 law, it was safe to assume that Barber, who was still chief engraver, was not going to be very enthusiastic about seeing his designs replaced.
As it turned out, Barber was surprisingly little trouble, turning the whole project over to his assistant, George T. Morgan (of silver dollar fame). Barber was old and would die the following year, so he simply might have had no more fight left in him, or perhaps he recognized it was at best a losing battle that he should not attempt.
Officials were determined to have changes and were delighted by the designs as the Mint director’s annual report in 1916 suggested in describing the new half dollar as a “full length figure of Liberty, the folds of the Stars and Stripes flying to the breeze as a background, progressing toward the dawn of a new day, carrying branches of laurel and oak, symbolical of civil and military glory. The hand of Liberty is outstretched in bestowal of the spirit of Liberty.”
The director said of the reverse, “the reverse of the half dollar shows an eagle perched high on a mountain crag, his wings unfolded, fearless in spirit and conscious of his power. Springing from a rift in the rock is a sapling of mountain pine, symbolical of America.”
While the design was a hit with virtually everyone, the fact remains it was a half dollar and there were very few half dollar collectors around at the time to save them for future collections. In addition, at the time dealers were not likely to have many as there were two other new coin designs in 1916, the Mercury dime and the Standing Liberty quarter.
Q. David Bowers discovered that only a few dealers in 1916 had working inventories of the new 1916 Standing Liberty quarter and it had a mintage of just 52,000. If there were few dealers saving a fairly low mintage quarter, the number who would have saved half dollars would have been lower still.
Of course, it was that lack of interest at the time of issue that has caused major problems in terms of supplies today of some dates in the Walker series in MS-65. The coins simply do not exist. We see this in the case of the 1919-D as it has been seen just four times in MS-65 by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation and nine times in MS-65 or better at the Professional Coin Grading Service. That is what produces the current $130,000 price tag.
Faced with an almost impossible situation in terms of cost and even in finding these early Walkers, suddenly the short set that was once seen as the easy and cheap way to have nice Walking Liberty half dollars takes on a very different appearance.
There is certainly no dispute over the fact that there are no great rarities in a set of Walkers from 1941 to 1947 as many of the dates were struck in very high numbers owing to the vast amounts of money the country needed to finance World War II. But there are some dates like the 1941-S that are much tougher than many would suspect especially in grades like MS-65 and up. The reputation for being available stems in large part from comparison with earlier dates and the fact that there were extremely large mintages especially from Philadelphia during the 1941-1945 period. If, however, you look at the dates from the other years, there is a surprise in the fact that no date except during the 1941-1945 period had a mintage of even 15 million and in many cases the totals were below 10 million. In addition, although it probably did not happen with examples in Mint State, in even upper circulated grades, there is a strong possibility that many coins were melted when silver reached record highs in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Another fact that has produced some appearance of being readily available for the 1941-1947 years is that there was some significant saving of coins prompted by the change in design to the Benjamin Franklin half dollar in 1948. The Walkers that were saved, however, in many cases were XF-40 to AU-50 coins with light circulation. Those coins, which later became “sliders” for many offerings of sets, made Walkers seem quite common, although those coins could not come back with a Mint State designation from grading services today.
What you find in the dates of a short set are a number of surprisingly inexpensive pieces. In fairness, there was saving, but the later 1940s dates in particular have low mintages, with some even falling below 5 million and that is a low mintage as the 1875 was over 6 million and the 1854-O was over 5 million. To have inexpensive Mint State half dollars in a set with a great design is not something to be taken lightly.
The grading services bear out this idea that while supplies appear to be strong, if you truly want an MS-65 or better example of some dates from the short set, they will not be as easily found as it would appear. The numbers of most dates in a grade like MS-65 will be in the thousands, usually in the 2,000 range, but if you factor in the number of repeat submissions where a coin receiving an MS-64 is sent in over and over again in the hope of it getting lucky and getting an MS-65 grade, the numbers might well be deceptive. Even if there were a couple thousand examples of a certain date, when you realize the popularity of Walkers and especially Walkers in upper grades, there is suddenly a very real prospect that supplies are not all that high.
In all probability, the supply in almost all dates in MS-60 is enough to meet current demand. Prices have dropped in recent years. In fact, for those on a tight budget, an MS-60 short set of Walkers has to be seen as a real opportunity. The most expensive MS-60 in the set is the 1941-S and it is currently just $70, and that price seems very reasonable when you realize the mintage was just 8,098,000.
Once you get beyond the 1941-S, the rest of the dates are very inexpensive. There are a few like the 1946-D 1947 and 1947-D that are currently around $50, but there, too, you are getting good value as the 1947 and 1947-D both had mintages below 5 million while the 1946-D had a mintage of just 2,151,000.
In MS-65, the most available dates tend to be in a range from $125 to $200. The supply and demand dynamic is changing as seen in the fact that many dates had solid increases in price followed by declines. The most expensive 1941-S was about $1,100 in 2003, but today it sets you back $925 in MS-65 after having exceeded $1,700 not many years ago. Even with the decline in price, there is good reason for the coin to be expensive as the 1941-S is well known for having soft strikes, giving the coin a flat appearance and a demanding collector will want a nice example of this surprisingly tough date.
In fact, there is a pattern of soft strikes from San Francisco. The 1942-S was about $600 in 2003 and it has fallen to $475 in MS-65 while the 1943-S is at $290 and the 1944-S has dropped to $500. Both the 1942-S and 1944-S have flirted with the $1,000 mark, but so far have been unable to get solidly over $1,000 on a consistent basis. Even the 1945-S, which is considered available has dropped from $175 to $135, so virtually every San Francisco date has shown price decreases in the past few years.
While the San Francisco dates have topped the list of short set Walkers in terms of price, there have been others posting gains and then retreating as well. The 1942-D and 1943-D were about $250 in 2003 before rising to $400 and now they are $315 and $240, respectively. The continuing fluctuations suggest a potential generational shift as older collectors get out and insufficient numbers of newcomers join the hobby.
The Philadelphia 1946 and 1947 dates are suspect when it comes to solid supplies in MS-65 or better. The two had been moving back and forth around the $300 level. Now the 1946 is just $155 while the 1947 is $220. The market for these coins coming from Philadelphia seems more and more to be taking its cue from the differences in mintage, with the 1946 at about 12 million while the 1947 was just at 4,094,000. It is also worth noting that for these two dates, there is no potential for hidden supplies coming to market by breaking up proof or mint sets as there were no proof sets in either year and no mint sets in 1946 with the sales of mint sets in 1947 being put at just 5,000.
With prices having retrenched for virtually all dates, it is probably safe to assume that now is a better time for discovering the short set as an option when it comes to Walking Liberty half dollars. Overall, prices are affordable for today’s average collector. The question has to be asked as to how long they will remain so. The days when the short set was basically taken for granted is becoming a thing of the past. When you consider flat strikes and added demand in the future there appear to be a number of dates in a short set that are looking better and better.
In any grade, the short set is certainly one set many more collectors can afford and while the short set does not have the great Walking Liberty half dollar rarities in it, it is a set you can complete and in the grade you desire and for many that is a winning combination.