If you are looking for a collection that has one interesting coin after another in it, the Seated Liberty half dollar might well be the collection to consider. Issued from 1839 through 1891, Seated Liberty half dollar spanned a long and important time in American history and the issues reflect those interesting and troubled times.
Also, those of us who grew up in the circulation finds era tended to focus on the coins that were available to collectors within living memory. In the 1950s and 1960s, those designs included the Barber dimes, quarters and halves, which are the designs that replaced the Seated designs.
In those years, Seated coinage was too recent to be early American and too old to be remembered as contemporary. Since 1980, interest has been growing as collectors realize that their actions cannot be forever rooted just in memories.
Does it matter to you that you did not spend a Seated Liberty half dollar at a general store and get one in change at the haberdasher? It shouldn’t.
What is sometimes forgotten is that the Seated Liberty half dollar was really the largest silver coin seen in regular circulation during a large period of its history. The Seated Liberty dollar was introduced just about the time the first Seated Liberty half dollar was being made, but the Seated Liberty dollar did not see extensive regular use in circulation. The mintages prove the point as no Seated Liberty dollar had a mintage of 1 million pieces until the 1870s.
The general belief is that in many cases Seated Liberty dollars basically sat in banks as reserves with examples periodically being requested for use as gifts. Later, in the period after 1853 the Seated Liberty dollar appears to have had a role primarily as a coin for export, leaving the Seated Liberty half dollar as the largest silver coin most Americans would see on a regular basis for decades. That makes a collection all the more interesting.
The Seated Liberty half dollar made its debut in 1839 as one of the last denominations to feature the new Christian Gobrecht design. The new design was in some ways a signal that the Mint had finally turned the corner on coin production. Steam coining presses were chugging away since 1836 as progress was being made on resolving the national coin shortage and other issues which had limited the Mint's abilities in the past.
Finally the Mint had time to work on new designs and that process had begun a couple years earlier on the lower denominations.
By the time the half dollar was changed to the Seated Liberty design it was almost in its final form. That was seen in the 1839 production, which saw 1839 Seated Liberty half dollars appearing without drapery at Liberty’s left elbow and then with the drapery, which would remain in the following years of the design.
We cannot really be certain of the mintage of the 1839 Seated Liberty half dollar without drapery although the best estimates put it at perhaps 600,000 pieces. We know it is somewhat tougher than the “with drapery” 1839 as is seen in a G-4 price of $40 while an MS-60 is at $6,250, which are safely above the “with drapery” 1839, which show a G-4 at $32 while the available MS-60 would be $1,000. As is seen, the no drapery 1839 is especially tough in Mint State even considering its mintage.
What must be remembered in the case of the “no drapery” 1839 and all the Seated Liberty half dollars that followed is that initial saving by the public was for many issues not strong. The half dollar was an expensive coin for most at the time and what little collecting there was of half dollars was usually only by date.
In the 1890s Augustus Heaton would highlight the idea of collecting by date and mint, but by then it was far too late for the saving of top quality examples of most dates from change. While some better dates might be found in circulated grades in the 1890s, Mint State examples were not available and that makes many dates very difficult to obtain in Mint State today.
The “with drapery” type would last for almost 15 years with production at both Philadelphia and New Orleans.
The type is available with most of the better dates being varieties, such as the 1844/1844-O or the 1846 with a horizontal “6.” In most cases varieties and errors can be found in circulated grades but become extremely difficult if not impossible in Mint State as usually they were unknown for years and by the time they were discovered it was really too late to find any in top grades. If one happened to have been saved as a regular date it was simply good fortune.
The tough regular dates of the period come from the early 1850s. In the case of Philadelphia, the 1850, 1851 and 1852 with mintages of 227,000, 200,750 and 77,130, respectively, reflect the problem at the time, which was that the cost of producing silver coins had actually risen to above their face value. That saw massive hoarding of silver coins leaving the Mint in a real dilemma. Until Congress reduced the amount of silver in the silver coins, the Mint would lose money on any silver coins it made. That left it open to charges it was doing nothing to solve the coin shortage, but even if it had gone ahead with heavy production, the public was simply hoarding the coins anyway, so there was really nothing the Mint could do without help from Congress. The answer was lower mintages as are seen in the dates from 1850. That is reflected in the prices with the 1850 at $275 in G-4 while the 1851 is $335 and the 1852 $425 in the same grade. The prices do not perfectly follow the mintages and that may be a result of melting, which many suspect took place when the Congress finally reduced the amount of silver slightly in early 1853.
There was a similar situation in New Orleans during the period. The 1850-O had a high mintage of nearly 2.5 million pieces, but after that the total dropped significantly, with the 1851-O having a mintage of 402,000. That total was still high enough to produce no significant price premium for the 1851-O, but the 1852-O with a mintage of 144,000 is a different story as it lists for $70 in G-4 today.
The 1853-O is a special case. We do not know what the mintage was for the 1853-O as it was possibly included in the later 1853-O production, which was of a different type as to show that the silver content had been reduced arrows were added at the date and rays were placed on the reverse. There were, however, 1853-O half dollars without the arrows and rays, but there are certainly not many of them.
The 1853-O without arrows and rays had some small production, but with virtually no saving of new coins in New Orleans at the time it is no surprise that there are no supplies in Mint State. In fact, there are basically no supplies at all as at present there are only a few known examples of the 1853-O without arrows and rays. In fact, it is a major rarity which is rarely offered for sale. The 1997 Eliasberg sale saw an example only graded VG-8 sold for a price of $154,000. Another known example of perhaps three was last graded VF-20. Simply put, the no arrows and rays 1853-O was released into circulation, making it one of the few great rarities of the United States that can actually be said to have circulated.
In fact, considering the situation at the time, it is very possible some were melted. The situation leaves us with only a few known examples of an extremely important coin and they are circulated, making the no arrows and rays an interesting an unusual major rarity with the VG-8 listed at $250,000 and an XF-40 price of $450,00 appearing in the monthly Coin Market price guide.
To show the reduced silver content, the rest of the 1853 mintages would feature arrows at the date and rays on the reverse. The type would only be produced for part of 1853 as the rays were removed before the 1854 production, making the 1853 with arrows and rays half dollars important type coins. Fortunately the mintages were ample, but with the added type demand the arrows and rays half dollars of 1853 tend to be more costly especially in Mint State than would be expected based on their mintages. Currently the more available Philadelphia 1853 with arrows and rays, which had a mintage of over 3.5 million, is $31 in G-4 but $1,400 in MS-60 and $24,500 in MS-65, clearly reflecting the type demand.
The removal of the rays produced a type that would last for two years with arrows at the date. The bulk of the dates from those two years are available starting at $28 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $600 and an MS-65 at $8,000.
There is one special date of the type and that is the 1855-S. The 1855-S was the first Seated Liberty half dollar to emerge from the new San Francisco facility, which had opened the previous year for coin production. The first priority was gold, but the 1855-S half dollar had a mintage of 129,950, which was a pretty large mintage for a silver issue at San Francisco at that time. With its important place in history, the 1855-S commands a strong $350 price in G-4 while an MS-60 is $19,500. There are a few known Mint State examples with Numismatic Guaranty Corp. showing 4 out of 29 graded while the Professional Coin Grading Service reports just one out of 44 graded.
The arrows were removed for the 1856 production and that type would last for a decade with some dates being readily available at $30 for a G-4, $385 for an MS-60 and $5,150 for an MS-65.
The dates of the period are especially interesting as during the Civil War with the suspension of specie payments as well as hoarding of all silver and gold, the Philadelphia mintages for most denominations dropped significantly. This proved to be less true in the case of the Seated Liberty half dollar very possibly in part because it was being used to some degree as a trading coin.
There are assorted stories about hoards of half dollars from the mid 1800s being found in various countries. There is probably some element of truth in at least some of the stories, but the one case with clear evidence was in the 1996 Superior sale of the Irving Goodman Seated Liberty half dollars, which had been obtained in Hong Kong and which Q. David Bowers includes in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards. This collection featured a wide range of half dollar dates purchased in Hong Kong and a number were chopmarked, which is clear proof they were in China. San Francisco dates from the 1860s were especially numerous, including 19 examples of the 1861-S, 20 of the 1862-S and 15 of the 1863-S. The clear suggestion is that long before the Trade dollar, Seated Liberty half dollars were being sent to China and that sort of export use may help to explain why half dollar mintages during the period remained higher than other silver denominations.
For those who like history and especially the Civil War period, the 1861-O is a fascinating coin. The mintage of the 1861-O was put at 2,532,633, but interestingly enough only 330,000 were produced by the United States as after that January production, forces representing the state of Louisiana seized control of the facility and struck a reported 1,240,000 more and that was followed by an additional mintage of 962,633 under Confederate control.
The 1861-O is readily available thanks to the large mintage, although it is not really possible in most cases to determine what authority might have made a given coin. There are some 1861-O half dollars that exhibit an advanced die break from the bridge of the nose to the rim passing close to the 7th star and those pieces match a break found on the four original Confederate half dollars, so they are likely to be coins produced under Confederate control.
The original four Confederate half dollars are a great treasure but there are also 500 that used original 1861-O half dollars that had the reverse shaved off and then were restruck using the original Confederate die. These 500 coins were produced by dealer J.W. Scott in 1879 after he had obtained the original Confederate half dollar die from the Chief Coiner of the Confederacy, Dr. B.F. Taylor. While any of the 500 will bring thousands of dollars today, they are still much more affordable than what any of the four original Confederate half dollars would bring. That said, an original 1861-O at $35 in G-4 is the least expensive of all the interesting options when it comes to the New Orleans half dollars of 1861.
In 1866, the first full year of peace after the Civil War, the design experienced another change with the addition of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST to the reverse, but not before 60,000 1866 half dollars were produced in San Francisco without the motto. That low mintage makes the 1866-S without the motto a better date at $460 in G-4 and $5,400 in MS-60.
There was also a single Philadelphia 1866 produced without the motto. That coin appears to be part of a special group including a couple dollars also created without the motto probably for a favored collector or dealer. With the recent sale of one of the two known “no motto” Philadelphia 1866 dollars for over $1 million, the unique no motto 1866 half dollar if ever offered could be expected to produce a very high price.
The new type would last until 1873 with available dates at $31 in G-4 while an MS-60 would be as low as $350 and an MS-65 would be $2,800 and up with a number in a range from $4,500 to $7,100.
There are a number of interesting dates from the period starting with the 1870-CC, which was the first Carson City Seated Liberty half dollar. The 1870-CC had a mintage of 54,617, which makes it one of the more available coins from the first year of coin production at the Carson City facility. While available, the 1870-CC is certainly not common at $900 in G-4 today. Interestingly enough the first years of Carson City half dollars as a group are somewhat easier than other denominations with the 1872-CC at just $85 in G-4.
There would be some interesting issues in 1873. In that year the government had the reverse problem as compared to 1853. Silver prices were lower, so in 1873 the amount of silver in the coinage was increased slightly with stars being added to the date to show the change. Before the change, however, there was 1873 production, including open and closed “3” date varieties from Philadelphia.
The open “3” is extremely elusive at $2,650 in G-4. The no arrows 1873-CC is more available at $225 in G-4 and the no arrows 1873-S is a mystery as it had a listed mintage of 5,000 but no example is known to exist suggesting that the entire mintage was melted before being released.
The slight increase in silver saw arrows added to the date for the rest of 1873 and 1874. The type is available at $32 for a G-4 while an MS-60 is $850 with the least expensive MS-65 at $15,500.
The arrows were removed in 1875, resulting in the final type of Seated Liberty half dollar. The type can be found although the most available dates tend to be prior to 1879 as starting in 1879 the mintages declined to levels usually well below 20,000 as demand for new coinage dropped dramatically. The reason? Most of the Civil War hoards were dispersed after the Resumption Act took effect in 1879 when paper money was once again fully convertible into gold or silver coins at the stated face values. That hadn’t been fully the case since 1861.
The hoarders had held on for years because they could not believe that the federal government could wring out the Civil War inflation and make paper money as good as gold and silver.
The more common the type examples from prior to 1879 can be found for $32 in G-4, $360 in MS-60 and $2,700 in MS-65.
There was one especially difficult date prior to 1879 and that is the 1878-S, which had a reported mintage of 12,000. That low mintage would suggest a premium price, but not the current $27,500 listing in G-4 with an MS-60 at $70,000 and an MS-65 at $175,000. The 1878-S certainly did not survive in any numbers with NGC reporting just 9 examples although 6 of the 9 were called Mint State while PCGS reports 22 of which 13 were called Mint State, including an MS-65 and an MS-66.
In the period of low mintages from 1879 to 1890, the prices start around $260 in G-4 while an MS-60 of the more available dates of the period would be $700 with an MS-65 at $3,650. In fact, the prices are reasonable in large part because there are also proofs of the Philadelphia dates of the period and with those proofs all at $3,150 in Proof-65 that tends to keep the Mint State prices in check as if they go too high many buyers would simply opt for a proof of the same date.
The final Seated Liberty half dollar was the 1891, which saw a significant increase in production to 200,600 pieces. That figure is still low, but compared to the dates in the previous decade it was a definite increase. This mintage increase has the 1891 priced at $55 in G-4, $480 in MS-60 and $3,850 in MS-65. In many respects the 1891 is a fitting end to the Seated Liberty half dollar. With its mintage, the feeling has to be that it is a good value today and the same could well be said of virtually every date back to 1839 in what is a most interesting set.