There are a lot of interesting Seated Liberty half dollars. High on that list has to be the 1855-S, which is both historically important and a much more difficult coin than might be expected. It was the first half dollar produced by the San Francisco Mint. This facility had begun production of coins in 1854, but only gold issues were struck that first year.
The San Francisco Mint was not a world-class operation. The building was actually a converted private mint. It was far too small and a very uncomfortable place to be, due to the sound of machinery and being filled with the smell of acid.
Officials tried to pressure Washington for a new facility, but that would be years away. Meanwhile, the mint did the best it could, which in some cases meant limited mintages. That is why it took until 1855 for it to produce half dollars.
We can assume the half dollar denomination was a priority because they were the largest regularly circulating silver coin. Silver dollars were being struck, but they were not circulating in any numbers, and San Francisco did not have the luxury of making coins that would not circulate. Besides, there were also gold dollars, which were likely to be more widely used in the rugged West.
Mintage for the 1855-S Seated Liberty half dollar was 129,950 pieces. That was certainly a low mintage for the time, but not necessarily that low for San Francisco. In addition to being the first half dollar from San Francisco, the 1855-S was the only San Francisco half dollar of the type with arrows at the date, as the arrows were removed in 1856.
Not many of these half dollars were saved when they were issued. There were basically no collectors in the area, and what few Mint State coins we have from the period were probably set aside as souvenirs or novelties. Besides shipwrecks that had been carrying gold coins, there are virtually no numbers of Mint State San Francisco coins from the period.
Today, prices for the 1855-S half start at $400 in G4 condition, go up to $5,825 in AU-50, and top out at $32,000 for an MS-60 example. That last price sends a clear message that this date may be even tougher than its mintage suggests.
When prices and mintages do not seem to be in perfect agreement, grading services have become a great resource. The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation reports a total of 55 examples of the 1855-S half dollar, including one each at MS-62, MS-63 and MS-67. For the Professional Coin Grading Service, the total stands at 111, including one MS-62 and one MS-64.
Both grading services also report 13 examples of the 1855-S half in AU condition, along with 14 and 16 examples, respectively, in XF. That said, the 1855-S is clearly a date very rarely seen even in upper circulated grades.
As the first half dollar struck at San Francisco, the 1855-S clearly ranks as a historic issue. Additional demand lies in it having been the only San Francisco half struck with arrows at the date. Couple those factors with an already low mintage and it becomes easy to understand why this coin will bring prices that seem higher than expected.
A final consideration that can be added is the apparently poor survival of the 1855-S Seated Liberty half dollar. This results in a coin that is not only very desirable but one that could go even higher in price with any amount of additional demand.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.
More Collecting Resources
• Subscribe to our monthly Coins magazine - a great resource for any collector!
• Are you a U.S. coin collector? Check out the 2018 U.S. Coin Digest for the most recent coin prices.