One of the most prolific U.S. silver coin designs is the Seated Liberty. It appeared on six denominations between 1836 and 1891.
The obverse, with variations over time, was used on half dimes (1837-1873), dimes (1837-1891), 20-cent pieces (1875-1878), quarters (1838-1891), halves (1839-1891) and dollars (1836-1873).
The design was sketched by portrait painter Thomas Sully and engraved by then second engraver Christian Gobrecht. Gobrecht went on to become the chief engraver of the United States Mint in 1840. After his death in 1844, his legacy of Seated Liberty coinage went on for another 47 years.
Gerry Fortin, owner of Gerry Fortin Rare Coins, Raymond, Maine, and president of the Liberty Seated Collectors Club, said the Seated Liberty coin market continues to attract interest.
“People who collect Seated Liberty coinage have a strong appreciation for early American history,” he said. “The reason I collect Seated Liberty coinage is I grew bored with 20th century modern coins because they were so plentiful. I looked at the Red Book of United States Coins and saw that during the time line of the Civil War, Seated Liberty coins were in commerce then. Since I enjoyed learning about the Civil War, I began to collect Seated Liberty coinage.”
Rich Uhrich, president of Rich Uhrich Rare Coins, Inc., Sebring, Fla., said collectors also appreciate the rarity and beauty of the coins.
“If you look at a 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent, there are thousands,” he said. “For a Seated Liberty coin, there are coins worth the same amount as a 1909-S VDB but fewer out there.
“People also like the representation of Liberty more so than the Presidents depicted on the coins through the 20th century.”
Because of their rarity, Seated Liberty collectors are creative with their collecting.
“Back in the old days, people tried to collect every one,” he said. “Now, it’s much more expensive to do so.
“I would suggest a collector look at a series and see how many coins there are in the set and in the grade you want to figure out what the total is going to be.
“For example, a Seated Liberty dollar set has 45 coins, but quite a few are very expensive, especially if you are looking for a coin in about uncirculated such as the 1851, the 1852, the 1871-CC, the 1872-CC, the 1873-CC and, of course, the 1870-S. With a Seated Liberty half dollar set, there are more coins to collect but fewer rarities and therefore more affordable.”
Collectors tend to customize their sets, he said.
“More people are working on Seated Liberty type sets than date sets,” Uhrich said. “They’ll want the first year of issue or the last or both. Others want the rarest or highest grade coin they can find.
“Some type set collectors go with one Seated Liberty half. Others collect the no drapery, no motto, arrows and rays, arrows and motto types. That’s one to five coins just for the one denomination.”
Fortin added there are people who collect only New Orleans and Carson City minted Seated Liberty coins.
“For New Orleans, it is a branch mint and the early dates are challenging,” Fortin said. “For instance, the 1843-O dime only has two known in uncirculated grades. You also have the transition years where they went with new obverses. There are plenty of cracked dies for those coins as well.
“During 1861, the New Orleans Mint went from Union control to the State of Louisiana and then to the Confederates, all in the span of four months. Some collectors focus on just collecting those types.
“With Carson City, it’s the allure of the mintmark, the Wild West, rarity and challenge that appeal to collectors.”
Popularity varies between denominations, he said. Both Uhrich and Fortin said Seated Liberty halves are the most widely collected.
“First, you have the Seated Liberty halves,” said Fortin. “They’re large, easy to see, available because mintages are high in most cases. The denomination is now seeing price pressure.
“Dimes are the second most popular, mainly because they are available. The prices there have been flat over the past three to four years.
“Quarters are the most difficult as mintages and the survival rates are low. Just finding a decent branch mint strike is tough. They continue to go up in price as the supply is very low and that can frustrate some collectors.
“Dollars have stabilized after going up in price over the past ten years. Their prices have scared some people away from the dollars.
“Half dimes are under appreciated and can be a bargain for collectors. Some are put off by how small they are. If a young collector wants to collect Seated Liberty coins, I’d suggest starting with half dimes. Your dollar will go far.”
When it comes to grading Seated Liberty coins, there are some key areas to look at on the obverse, said Fortin.
“Grading varies between denomination,” Fortin said. “The half dimes and dimes are very similar. I look to the scroll and the gown line, going from the pendant on the left shoulder to the neckline and the left breast. I don’t use the lower leg as an indicator because of strike variations. Coins can exhibit a flat lower leg while others have a rounded leg.
“Quarters and halves are similar. I look at the scroll and the edge around the RT in LIBERTY on the quarters. That’s the highest part of the coin. On the halves, it’s the E in LIBERTY along with the gown line. I check the gown, breast and shield as well.
“With the 20-cent pieces, they are very difficult to grade. The word LIBERTY is raised on the coin rather than incused. Thus, using the LIBERTY grading standards from other denominations won’t work.”
Uhrich said the most significant grading differences occur between very fine and about uncirculated Seated Liberty coins, which are also the most popular grades.
“I look at the neckline for those coins,” he said. “If it’s not complete, it’s very fine, not extremely fine. If it has a complete neckline, it’s extremely fine. If the neckline is complete and there is original luster remaining, it’s about uncirculated.
“Coins in very fine to about uncirculated are the most collected. In mint state grades, there aren’t many known in most cases and are very expensive. Collectors figure for the cost of one mint state coin, they could get six to seven about uncirculated coins.”
Quality Seated Liberty coins, especially scarce dates, sell well, he said.
“Really nice and scarce coins will sell quickly,” Uhrich said. “For example, an 1851 half will sell rapidly. In some cases, when we get them in, they won’t even hit the website because they’ll go off to a collector who we know needs one. The 1876 half is more common and will sell slowly.
“Coins like the 1870-CC, 1871-CC, 1872-CC and the 1878-S halves along with the 1851 and 1852 dollars will sell quickly. When you have a 110-coin set and are down to needing just six to seven coins, you’re not the only one. There are other collectors needing those coins.”
Fortin said collectors interested in the series should do research first before jumping in.
“Plan to collect a series by researching before you spend money,” he said. “Invest money in books and time on online resources.
“Someone who is going into Seated Liberty coins will need a mentor or group of friends knowledgeable on the series before jumping in. The Liberty Seated Collectors Club is an ideal place for that.”
Doing research and planning ahead will help prevent burning out while collecting Seated Liberty coins, he said.
“Set a reachable goal,” Fortin said. “I’ve seen people who jumped in to buy mint state coins and only purchase one every three to four months. After a year, they stop collecting the series.
“Create a plan where you can buy a quality coin once a month. When you have the coin in hand, it’ll add to your enjoyment.”
For more information on the Liberty Seated Collectors Club, visit: http://www.lsccweb.org/
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News Express.
>> Subscribe today
More Collecting Resources
• Liked this article? Read more by subscribing to Numismatic News.
• If you enjoy reading about what inspires coin designs, you'll want to check out Fascinating Facts, Mysteries & Myths about U.S. Coins.