The Walking Liberty half dollar has become an American classic. Everyone likes the design of the Walking Liberty half dollar to the point where it along with the Saint-Gaudens double eagle and James Earle Fraser’s Buffalo nickel have become a trinity of designs to be used a second time.
Of course, liking the design makes it a design that is in constant demand especially in top grades and that makes the Walking Liberty half dollar a collection that can be assembled in circulated grades by most hobbyists but one which is very difficult and expensive if you want only the highest grades.
It is certainly no accident that the obverse of the Walking Liberty half dollar was dusted off and used again on the silver American Eagles when they were introduced in 1986. After all the A.A. Weinman Walking Liberty half dollar had been one of the pleasant surprises to emerge from the 1916 design competition for a new dime, quarter and half dollar.
Just the fact that the design competition had worked was probably a pleasant surprise to many as the previous attempt in 1892 had resulted in what one official called a “wretched failure” with Chief Engraver Charles Barber ultimately being called on to produce the new designs.
The 1892 episode simply was a missed opportunity to not only have better U.S. coin designs, but to also change a pattern. While not in the law, the tradition had been that the dime, quarter and half dollar except for the reverse of the dime had identical designs.
Sure, there had been transitional periods where an old design was being replaced where the denominations in some cases had the old design while others had the new, but basically except for the lack of an eagle on the dime the designs had always been the same. That could have changed in 1892 but with the failure of that competition the idea of having three different designs on the three silver denominations would have to wait until 1916.
The 1916 competition could be called everything the 1892 competition was not. Three excellent designs emerged from the 1916 competition and A.A. Weinman would have to be seen as the real winner with his designs being selected for both the dime and the half dollar.
The Mint Director’s report of 1916 had reason to be happy and in that report the director described the new half dollar stating, “The design of the half dollar bears a full-length figure of Liberty, the folds of the Stars and Stripes flying to the breeze as a background, progressing in full stride toward the dawn of a new day, carrying branches of laurel and oak, symbolical of civil and military glory. The hand of the figure is outstretched in bestowal of the spirit of liberty.
“The reverse of the half dollar shows an eagle perched high upon 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.”
The three designs were excellent. They were different. And the pattern that had held for over 120 years had been broken and the United States would have very different designs on the three denominations.
After winning the competition, the next challenge was to have the design actually become coins that looked something like the original designs.
That process was not by definition at all easy or certain as in the way of the designs appearing as originally intended stood Chief Engraver Charles Barber. Even on his best days Barber could be less than helpful as he did not like the idea of outside artist designing coins. The results of the 1916 competition, however, were certain to produce something well short of a best day for Charles Barber as they were his designs that were being replaced, a fact almost certain to make him even more disagreeable than usual.
As it turned out, however, Barber was not much of a problem perhaps because his health was failing or possibly because he had simply grown tired of fighting outside artists over their designs. We cannot be sure of the exact reason, but we do know that he left the bulk of the activity to his assistant George Morgan who at least in this case was apparently fairly easy to work with in the creation of the final design renditions that would maximize their coinability.
The design of the Walking Liberty half dollar not unlike the Standing Liberty quarter seemed to evolve. That was probably natural as with three new and completely different designs being released for the first time during the same year it is likely there was not enough time to devote to each.
The Walking Liberty half dollar would initially appear with a mintmark on the obverse below the motto, but in 1917 that would be changed to the reverse location most collectors are familiar with. There it would remain for the rest of the time it was produced. There would be other small changes involving more regularly shaped stars and a sharper border below the star field with more definition on the edges of the red stripes.
The leaves on the branch in Liberty's hand would also be more clearly defined and there was a slight change in the ground line from the date to the sun with the base of the 8th ray moved slightly as initially it was too close to the base of the 7th ray. A more subtle point is that the 1916 coins have a textured luster that can be seen only on high end Mint State coins, giving them a unique appearance.
While not by definition collected as different types, the 1916 and 1917 Walking Liberty half dollars with the obverse mintmarks are extremely popular with collectors. The least expensive is the 1917-D at $23.50 in G-4 while the 1916-D probably in part because of some small initial saving is the least expensive in Mint State at $360 in MS-60 and $2,500 in MS-65.
The most expensive of the dates involved is the 1916-S, thanks to a mintage of 508,000. This low mintage translates into a price of $108 in G-4. There might have been some extra saving initially although it is not thought to be high as the 1917-S is the most costly of the group in Mint State at $2,300 in MS-60 and $22,500 in MS-65.
It is worth remembering that back at the time there was not substantial saving of new coins by collectors or dealers.
There was probably very limited collecting of the new Walking Liberty half dollar by collectors and in his research Q. David Bowers has found very few cases of dealers of the day stocking the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter. It is safe to assume that if dealers were not stocking a 52,000 mintage quarter they were unlikely to be stocking much higher mintage half dollars, especially when the Philadelphia Barber half dollars of 1913-1915 all had mintages below 200,000.
We see proof of the situation in many cases as while there might be a couple thousand Walking Liberty half dollars from the 1940s dates graded MS-65 by the grading services, a date like the 1917-S shows fewer than 40 examples in MS-65 graded by the Professional Coin Grading Service.
In fact, the stories of any accumulations or hoards of the early dates are unusual as the one date Q. David Bowers mentions in his book, American Coin Treasures and Hoards, is the 1919-S with a report that dealer Art Kagin at one time was able to purchase an uncirculated roll. There were perhaps others never reported, but current evidence is clear that there were not many of the new coins saving by the collecting public.
While interesting, the obverse mintmarks do not rank as the key Walking Liberty half dollars. If you had to pick the key date, it would have to be 1921. That year saw a severe recession in the United States provoked by the end of a boom built on inflationary wartime demand.
The United States declared war on Germany in April 1917 and this dramatically increased spending and coin mintages went higher. The boom lasted beyond the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, but by 1921, the economy was in reverse as the country returned to Warren G. Harding’s normalcy and coin mintages dropped.
We see that in half dollars with the Philadelphia 1921 having a mintage of just 246,000 while the 1921-D was even lower at 208,000. The 1921-S was high for the year at 548,000. With the combined total of the three barely reaching 1 million pieces, the 1921 Walking Liberty half dollars have normally grabbed much of the attention of collectors and others as the key dates in the set.
In lower circulated grades the 1921 half dollars tend to follow their mintages with the 1921-D currently at $310 in G-4. The 1921 is at $165 and the 1921-S is at $45. The three really are the core of a circulated set as they along with the obverse mintmark dates and the 1938-D now at $70 in G-4 are the premium priced dates as many dates are still at prices under $10 in G-4 at small premiums over bullion value.
If you are interested in buying silver anyway, you might be able to kill two birds with one stone. Perhaps a friendly neighborhood dealer will allow you to search for specific dates among the Walking Liberty series.
Things change dramatically in Mint State where the 1921-S takes over as the key date. In MS-60 the 1921-S lists for $12,850, which is well ahead of the $5,650 1921-D and the $4,500 for the 1921.
The gap really widens in MS-65 where the 1921-S ties as the most expensive Walking Liberty half dollar at $130,000 while the 1921-D is $29,500 and the 1921 is $19,500.
The grading services help to shed some light on what would normally appear to be unusual pricing with the higher mintage date being more expensive. At PCGS there have been just under 60 appearances by the 1921 with the 1921-D total in MS-65 or better at 29 and the 1921-S in MS-65 or better has made 21 appearances.
At Numismatic Guaranty Corp. the totals show 29 examples of the 1921 in MS-65 or better while the 1921-D and 1921-S are both at 18 in MS-65 or better. The conclusion would have to be that the 1921-S is the best of the three in MS-65, but that the 1921-D may well be tougher than current prices suggest.
If you look at other dates in MS-60, the only other dates over $3,000 are the 1919-S and 1919-D.
If we drop down to $2,000, only adds the 1917-S with obverse mintmark. In MS-65, the dominant Walking Liberty half dollar in terms of price other than the key 1921 dates is the 1919-D, which is now at $130,000 and that price continues to rise.
The grading services give us some indication of just how elusive the 1919-D is in top grades. Based on its 1,165,000 mintage, some might doubt the MS-65 price especially when the 1919-D was not even the lowest mintage half dollar of the year as the 1919 from Philadelphia had a mintage of just 962,000. Too a degree this argument makes sense because we find in lower grades that the 1919-D is not that special at a current price of just $25 in G-4. This helps illustrate the numismatic phenomenon called condition rarity. Condition rarity is where a coin might be relatively plentiful in lower grades but suddenly becomes quite rare in top grads.
As it relates to the 1919-D, we see that it jumps to $5,950 in MS-60. In MS-63 it rises still further to $18,650. The $130,000 price for the MS-65 is supported by grading service totals that show just four examples in MS-65 or better at NGC and just nine at PCGS along with a single MS-66. Compared to those totals only the 1921-S comes close, but realistically the conclusion has to be that the 1919-D is every bit as tough as its current high price suggests.
What can easily be overlooked with the high prices of the 1919-D and 1921-S is that there are other very tough MS-65 Walking Liberty half dollars especially from the period prior to 1930.
The 1918-D, for example, is a very tough date. It has a current price of $24,500 in MS-65 despite the fact that it had a mintage of over 3 million. The 1918-S is also tough with a mintage over 10 million but a price today of $17,750 in MS-65 and PCGS seems to support the price, reporting fewer than 30 examples in MS-65 or better.
In the case of dates after 1928 there is a significant drop in prices. Collectors in the 1930s actually began to collect coins by date and mint which had not always been the case in the earlier years. What we find is that in many cases from 1934 on is the MS-60 prices are in the $100-or-less range and in many cases even below $50.
For the 1928 dates onward in MS-65 dates are well below the earlier dates with no dates being more than $10,750 in MS-65. There are another 10 regular issues that fall below that value but are at or above $1,000. The grading services show why. All dates have at least 125 examples reported in MS-65 with dates from the 1940s in many cases showing MS-65 totals in the thousands. Contrast such figures to the 30 examples of the 1918-D or 1918-S and you suddenly see the reason for the vast price differences.
Although cheaper, the later dates feature some very interesting coins such as the 1938-D, which had a mintage of just 491,600, which was an extremely low total for the late 1930s.
It appears that with the greater attention being paid to collecting by date and mint, the 1938-D was spotted quickly and saved even though the economic times were not the best. We see evidence of this saving in the G-4 price of just $70 while an MS-60 is $475 and an MS-65 is $1,750 which is higher than most dates of the period, but still not terribly expensive.
The compressed price range of the 1938-D is probably a good example to point to to illustrate the opposite of a condition rarity. The price increases come in fairly gentle steps from one grade to the next.
For the Walking Liberty set as a whole prices in the highest grades are discouraging for some as they are simply beyond their budgets. But the attraction exerted on collectors by the Walking Liberty design is such that many want at least some examples in the highest grades. That has produced an alternative which is being taken more seriously with each passing year. This alternative is a so-called “short set,” which involves dates from 1941-1947. It is an affordable way to assemble at least a number of Walking Liberty half dollar coins in the top grades.
In MS-60 a short set would show no regular issue date even topping $100 while in MS-65 the set would be tougher especially because the 1941-S is now at $1,025 thanks in large part to notoriously soft strikes.
While the 1941-S and a couple other dates may present something of a problem, the fact is they still do not compare to many of the earlier dates in terms of price and that makes the short set a way for virtually everyone to have at least some top quality Walking Liberty half dollars in their collection.
The options for collecting Walking Liberty half dollars are many, and with a great design, the Walking Liberty half dollar remains a collector favorite. Many of today’s active hobbyists remember using the coins when they were in circulation even though the last pieces came off the Mint’s production lines in 1947. That only enhances the general appeal of the series.
Fortunately for them, supplies of some of the later dates are large enough in grades just below MS-65 to make assembling a nice looking set possible in one form or another for virtually everyone.
If you haven’t been a collector of this series before, perhaps now is the time to consider it. The Walking Liberty half dollar is a coin where there is always demand and interest. This is a perfect combination for collectors wanting a set they can always show off with pride to their friends.