By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.
For most coin collectors, the best approach to take when collecting 19th century series is the type approach. That is, instead of being deterred by all the rare and pricey date/mintmark combinations in an early series, it may be better to purchase a single, common date to illustrate each design type.
As an example, suppose you’re interested in Liberty Cap quarters minted between 1815 and 1838. Instead of trying to get a complete run of dates, some of which are incredibly expensive, a single example in the best condition you can afford may be preferable and a lot less frustrating.
In this article, I’m going to discuss a type set of Seated Liberty half dollars. These are coins minted between 1839 and 1891, an incredible span of 53 years. A complete run of all date/mintmark combinations would be a challenge for someone as wealthy as Bill Gates and an impossibility for a collector of normal means.
But a single example of each Seated Liberty half dollar design type seems eminently doable. To begin, let’s take a closer look at the basic design.
The Seated Liberty design first appeared on silver dollars before being adopted for half dimes, dimes, quarters, and, finally, half dollars. Based on drawings by portraitist Thomas Sully, Mint Engraver Christian Gobrecht created the Seated Liberty (or Liberty Seated) design.
The obverse shows a figure of Liberty sitting on a rock. Her right hand rests on a shield with LIBERTY spelled out on it. In her left hand, she holds a staff with a Liberty cap on its top. Liberty is looking over her right shoulder. The date appears below the rock, with 13 stars arrayed above and around Liberty.
The reverse design is essentially the same as that found on the earlier Capped Bust series. It shows an eagle with a shield on its breast poised for flight. The words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA appear above and around the eagle, with the coin’s denomination (HALF DOL.) below.
The design types I’ll discuss are taken from the 2nd edition of A Guide Book of United States Type Coins by Q. David Bowers.
1. Seated Liberty, No Drapery (1839). In the first half dollars of the Seated Liberty design, there’s no drapery at Liberty’s elbow. Fortunately for the type collector, mintage of this initial type was plentiful. Bowers estimates a mintage of 600,000, about a third of the 1,972,400 total mintage of 1839 Seated half dollars.
According to Bowers, the average collector should be satisfied with a circulated specimen of this type, as “Mint State pieces are rare.” Numismatic News “Coin Market” (CM) values range from $40 in G-4 to $125,000 in MS-65.
Bowers’ optimal collecting grades for the type are Fine to AU for the casual collector, or the collector with a limited numismatic budget. In F-12, the coin lists for $325, whereas an AU-50 has a CM value of $2,600.
In United States Coinage: A Study By Type, Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett note that there’s “. . .a considerable premium on this date” because this is the only possibility if you want an example of the No Drapery type. A more recent type of coin that shows this form of premium is the 1921 Peace dollar, which is pricey because it is the only option for collectors looking for a high-relief Peace dollar.
2. Seated Liberty, With Drapery, No Motto (1839-1866). Drapery was added later in 1839 by Robert Ball Hughes, creating a second type. Of course, the With Drapery type was minted over many years through 1866, which means that it’s a modestly priced type.
Bowers’ optimal collecting grades are VF to AU for the casual collector, MS for the specialist, and gem MS for the collector with a sizable budget. Guth and Garrett note that the most common coin for this type is 1861, but there are other dates with much higher mintages and somewhat lower values. One example is the 1858-O, with a mintage of over seven million pieces. In VF-20, Coins Magazine gives it a value of $70, and it’s only worth about $150 in AU-50. In MS-63, it’s a $920 coin.
It’s worth noting that Philadelphia coins tend to have better strikes than ones minted in New Orleans. Thus, in terms of detail, an 1861 piece may be preferable to a less expensive New Orleans half dollar.
3. Seated Liberty, Arrows at Date, Rays on Reverse (1853). In 1853, we encounter another one-year type coin in the Seated Liberty series, a coin with arrowheads on either side of the date and rays around the eagle on the reverse. The added design features indicated a change in the weight of the coin. Because of rising silver prices, the weight was reduced by nearly seven percent. The arrowheads and rays told the public which coins to turn in, and many earlier, heavier coins wound up as new half dimes, dimes, quarters, and half dollars.
Fortunately for the type collector, mintages of the new half dollars at Philadelphia and New Orleans were substantial. Values of the Philadelphia product range from $45 in G-4 to $20,000 in MS-65. Bowers’ optimal collecting grades are VF to AU for the casual collector, mint state for the specialist, and gem mint state for the well-heeled collector. In VF-20, the 1853 arrows and rays is worth about $115, whereas an AU-50 lists for $400. An MS-63 example should cost you around $2,750.
4. Seated Liberty, Arrows at Date (1854-1855). Half dollars the next two years, 1854 and 1855, retained the arrowheads at the date but not the rays around the eagle. Presumably the rays were removed to lengthen the life of the dies to strike the coins. The same thing was done in the second year of mintage of Shield nickels.
Again, type collectors are fortunate in that the mintages were quite substantial for the type overall. With the exception of an overdate (1855/4) and halves minted at San Francisco in 1855, values are relatively low. Bowers suggests the same optimal collecting grades for this type as for the previous one: VF to AU for the average collector, mint state for the specialist, and gem mint state for the collector with a large budget for coins.
Values range from $36.50 in G-4 to $6,750 for MS-65. In VF-20, CM gives a value of $70 for an 1854-O and $185 for the same date in AU-50. An MS-63 should cost about $1,250.
5. Seated Liberty, With Motto (1866-1891). 1866 brought the addition of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST to the reverse of the Seated half dollar. Presumably the horrors of the Civil War caused an increase in religiosity, which made its way onto our nation’s coinage.
As you can see from the time frame, these With Motto pieces were coined over an extended period. As a result, this is another relatively inexpensive type to acquire.
Guth and Garrett cite the 1877-S as the most common date, although it doesn’t have the highest mintage. Coins Magazine values range from $36.50 in G-4 to $3,000 in MS-65. The date lists for $70 in VF-20, $200 in AU-50, and $700 in MS-63. Bowers’ optimal collecting grades are the same as before.
About the type, Bowers writes, “Now, at long last, finding a well-struck Liberty Seated half dollar with good eye appeal will not be much of a problem!” He further notes that “Mint State coins are quite plentiful. . . .” In line with this, Guth and Garrett write, “Mint State examples can be obtained easily up through the MS-66 level [if you can afford them], but anything finer becomes extremely rare.”
6. Seated Liberty, Arrows at Date (1873-1874). There was a break in the preceding With Motto type in 1873 and 1874. In these two years, arrowheads were again placed on either side of the date to indicate a change in the coin’s weight. Unlike the situation in 1853, the weight of the coin actually increased, which resulted in the destruction of many of the earlier, lighter half dollars. The weight change was caused by the Mint’s conversion to the metric system.
Coins of this type were struck at three mints: Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Carson City. As you can probably guess, CC dates are both scarce and quite expensive. Guth and Garrett list the 1874 Philadelphia product as the most common date of this type, and its mintage is the largest of the group. Values range from $35 in G-4 to $1,300 in MS-65.
Actually, the MS-65 value in CM is too low, by a factor of ten or more. I looked at sales of the date by Heritage Auctions, and the most recent sale of a coin in MS-63 brought nearly $2,000. In MS-65, the most recently sold coin went for more than $14,000!
However, if you can’t afford the type in mint state, an 1874 in AU-50 lists for just $350. From my search of the Heritage archives, I found that if you can find a no-problem example in that grade, the price should be fairly close to the CM figure.
• • •
That’s my look at putting together a type collection of Seated Liberty half dollars. If you decided to put together a type set in Bowers’ optimal grades for a casual or typical collector, the most problematic coin is going to be the first one in the series, the 1839 No Drapery. At the lower end of Bowers’ range, F-12, the cost is likely to be around $325. As for the remainder of the type set, in VF-20, the cost would be about $395, which gives a total for all six coins of a little over $700.
If your budget is larger and you can afford the set at the other end of the scale, AU-50, then the total will be considerably larger, as the first type alone lists for $2,600. The rest are not too bad, however, and the Coins Magazine value is about $3,885.
I would strongly urge purchasing only coins certified by one of the major certification services, such as ANACS, Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, and the Professional Coin Grading Service. Also, steer clear of coins with problems. From my search of the Heritage archives, I found that most of the higher-grade circulated pieces had problems of one sort or another. Most of the problems involved cleaning in some form.
Any way you look at it, a set of the design types of Seated Liberty half dollars would be a worthy addition to your U.S. collection. Of course, there’s no law saying that you have to get the coins in one of Bowers’ optimal collecting grades. If you can only afford the coins in the grade of VG-8, it would still be a worthwhile project.
And best of all, it would be a fun set to assemble.
This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.
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