The 1916 Walking Liberty half dollar is a classic case of a coin that was saved since it was the first year of a new design, but it was probably not saved in the numbers that might be expected. That may sound a bit like trying to have it both ways, but it reflects the collecting situation in 1916.
It was certainly exciting to be around with the new issues in 1916. In fact, to have the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter with a mintage of just 52,000, the 1916-D Mercury dime at 264,000 and the new Walking Liberty half dollars all in the same year almost seems too good to be true to collectors today. However, collectors of the day were not all that interested beyond the fact that there were new designs.
At the time most were not collecting by date and mint, but rather by date only. Even with a low mintage, there was not much attention. Q. David Bowers tried to find if many dealers were selling and promoting the 52,000 mintage 1916 quarter and found that only a couple had “working inventories.” This wasn’t because they could not find the 1916 but because they could not find buyers.
Certainly if the 52,000 mintage 1916 quarter was not that big a sensation, then the 608,000 mintage 1916 Walking Liberty half dollar would be in much the same situation. There was no doubt that people were interested, but collecting half dollars was an activity for very few. Moreover, there would have been little attention since the previous three years of Barber half dollars from Philadelphia had mintages below 200,000. The 1916 Walking Liberty half dollar appeared to have a high mintage to collectors of the day.
The reason it was not saved as heavily as might be expected is best explained by the prices and numbers. Today the 1916 is $45 in G-4, which is the same price as the 1916-D. In MS-60 it is $350, and in MS-65 it is $1,800. Those Mint State prices are well below the other dates of the period except for the high mintage 1917 and the 1916-D.
The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation totals are very instructive. Ignoring the 1917, the 1916 is the highest MS-65 total of the period at 130 coins, which is just five coins more than the 1916-D. In fact, the 1916 and 1916-D are extremely close in all Mint State grades.
What is interesting about their numbers in MS-65 is that the rest of the dates up to the 1930s have MS-65 totals of less than 100. Then suddenly in the 1930s the MS-65 totals jump to the hundreds, and in the 1940s they jump again to the thousands. For the 15 years that followed, the 1916 was seemingly heavily saved, but when compared to later dates it is not very available.
At today’s prices, the 1916 is a good deal. It’s lesser known as a low-mintage date. Even less known is the fact that there were slight changes in 1917, but they were not enough to call later dates a different type. This makes it an interesting and historic low-mintage issue.