By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.
I have before me a massive guide book entitled A Guide Book of Liberty Seated Silver Coins. As the title indicates, the subject is Liberty Seated silver coins, which encompasses a variety of different series of varying lengths.
Like many of the volumes in Whitman’s Official Red Book series, Q. David Bowers is the author. Bowers has been involved with numismatics since his teen years more than 65 years ago, and as this book attests, he’s still going strong. Among his many honors, Bowers received the American Numismatic Association’s highest award, the Farran Zerbe Award. He’s also a member of the Numismatic Hall of Fame and the author of more than 50 books. When this book was published (2016), Bowers was the numismatic director of Whitman Publishing and chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries.
In his Introduction, Bowers gives a capsule description of his involvement in numismatics over the years. It is fascinating to read about his collecting interests, beginning with patterns and colonial coins. He also mentions some of his sales of Liberty Seated coins and notes, “Given the time and space, I could tell much more about my involvement with Liberty Seated coins, the collectors who sought them, and the dealers who handled them. . . .” Much of that knowledge finds its way into A Guide Book of Liberty Seated Silver Coins.
Because of his abiding interest in history, Bowers opens with the history of the Liberty Seated series. Christian Gobrecht is the major player in this story, and it is he who is responsible for the Liberty Seated design. According to Bowers, Gobrecht “. . . was recognized as an artist of high caliber.”
For a long time before being hired by the Mint, Gobrecht was interested in the Mint’s post as engraver, even going so far as to send a letter of appeal to then-president James Monroe in 1823. This was to no avail, and the post went to William Kneass.
Gobrecht remained in contact with the Mint, and when Kneass had a stroke in 1835, he was offered the post of second engraver (not assistant) with an annual salary of $1,500. Gobrecht’s initial efforts resulted in the Gobrecht dollars, which feature a Seated Liberty on the obverse and a flying eagle on the reverse. The flying eagle was reprised on the first small cents.
The history of the Seated Liberty design ends with a look at some of the complaints of the design by the 1870s. Near the end of the chapter, Bowers has a lengthy quote from an 1876 article in The Galaxy. At one point, the author asks, “Why is it that we have the ugliest money of all civilized nations? . . . The design is poor, commonplace, tasteless, characterless, and the execution is like thereunto.”
Of course, the agitation about the Seated Liberty design eventually gave rise to Charles E. Barber’s designs. They, in turn, came to be seen as incredibly pedestrian and were replaced by designs often claimed to be the best we’ve had.
In another chapter devoted to history, Bowers sketches major events during the years of Seated Liberty coinage, 1836-1891. He divides these events into those current to the year he’s discussing and the numismatic events. As an example of the latter, for 1844 he writes, “On July 23, 1844, engraver Christian Gobrecht, primary designer of the Liberty Seated coins, died.” He was replaced by James B. Longacre, of Indian cent fame. If you share Bowers’ interest in history, which I do, you’ll find Chapter 3 fascinating.
Chapter 4 begins the date-by-date examination of Liberty Seated silver coins with 55 pages of information on Liberty Seated half dimes (1837-1873). Bowers presents a section devoted to design changes throughout the series and another on grading Liberty Seated half dimes, complete with photographs.
Bowers ends his introductory remarks with a brief discussion of how to be a smart buyer. His opening statement carries through to the rest of the denominations: “First and foremost [,] and this is true of all Liberty Seated denominations [,] do not be a slave to grading numbers.” Two additional important factors are sharpness of strike and eye appeal.
The rest of chapter 4 and most of the remainder of the book are devoted to a date-by-date examination of the silver coins with the Liberty Seated design. To give you an idea of the type of information you’ll find in this examination, I’ll talk about a specific coin I once owned: an 1866 With Motto Liberty Seated quarter.
First, the mintage is reported: 16,800 for circulation-strike pieces and 725 for proofs. Next is availability in Mint State. First, Bowers mentions a sale featuring a coin in MS66. No price is given. After this, he gives estimates for the date in several different Mint-State grades. For example, in MS63, he estimates 10 to 14.
As to availability in circulated grades, he writes, “These are rare, but most have relatively little wear.” The one I had was a mid-grade piece, perhaps VF30 or so. I had bought it for less than $17 from a dealer in Oregon. I quickly sold it for about $23 to a colleague of mine. Later, I realized just how scarce the date was and had a chance to buy it back but passed. It appeared to have been lightly cleaned, and I just didn’t like the color.
Next, Bowers has notes about striking. In this section, he gives a quote from Larry Briggs: “I’ve only seen two or three sharp circulation strikes in my life.”
Like he did for Mint State coins, Bowers gives estimates for proofs. As an example, he estimates there are 225-300 1866s in PF60-62.
His notes about the date focus on the fourth digit of the date, which “. . . appears to be significantly larger than the third.” Finally, he presents a pricing chart, which begins at $600 for a coin in G4 along the way to $6,500 in MS65 and $2,500 in PF65.
Obviously, I have only scratched the surface of this nearly 600-page tome. There are several appendices covering topics such as a chronology of Gobrecht’s life, the mints operative during the Seated Liberty coinage time frame, and a visit to the Philadelphia Mint in 1861.
Bottom line: If you’re a serious collector of any of the Seated Liberty silver series, this book belongs in your numismatic library. You can find it for sale from the publisher at www.whitman.com or from online booksellers such as Amazon (www.amazon.com) and Barnes & Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com).
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