The 1938-S Washington quarter is part of a group of branch mint Washington quarter dates that were seemingly overlooked. In recent times that has changed. Dates such as the 1938-S are not heavily saved and definitely are not available in large numbers in MS-65 or higher grades.
The coin situation in 1938 was a mixed bag. Surprisingly, coin collecting was booming as the country faced the Great Depression. Coin collecting gave hope of finding a valuable coin in circulation at a time when any financial windfall was more than welcome.
New coin dealers were actively promoting the hobby’s new accessories. For the first time there were holders and albums that housed an entire collection, making a major difference in the number of collectors and the approach to collecting. Collectors thought they might find every date and mintmark if they wanted.
Promotion of commemoratives during the 1930s created an active coin collecting period even with a weak economy. The activity, however, did not translate into heavy saving of Washington quarters like the 1938-S.
Evidence shows collectors and dealers saved large numbers of low-mintage dates. The 1938-D half dollar was heavily saved but had a mintage of less than 500,000. The 1938-S quarter had a relatively low mintage of 2,832,000. The fact that there had been three Washington quarters with mintages under 3 million since the first Washington quarter in 1932 made the 1938-S look far less significant in 1938 than it might look today.
The low mintage of the 1938-S does factor into the current G-4 price of 4.75, which is slightly higher than most dates of the period. It is not as clearly a better date in Mint State as it lists for $108 in MS-60 and $235 in MS-65. Those prices are higher than a date from the 1950s, but not that high compared to some of the other branch mint dates of the 1930s.
Grading services provide us with some clue as to the relatively modest prices. The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation and Professional Coin Grading Service report a combined total of just under 1,200 examples of the 1938-S in MS-65 or better.
In recent times, we have seen prices of top quality Washington quarters begin to move to higher ground. Interest in them grew as a result of state quarters.
Whatever reason, Washington quarters are in greater demand. There were adequate supplies of the 1938-S at one time, but the total in MS-65 is still far below dates from later years and far below potential demand. We cannot assume that demand will push the 1938-S higher, but for the first time in many years it is a strong possibility.