This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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There is no doubt that Walking Liberty half dollars are a very popular collection. Certainly at least part of their popularity comes from a design that can safely be called an American classic. A good design, however, does not by definition mean popularity. For a collection to be popular with collectors some good and even key dates are needed in a collection and when it comes to Walking Liberty half dollars it is the Denver Mint that was the source of most of the key dates that have helped to make Walking Liberty half dollars so popular and interesting.
The Walking Liberty half dollar made its debut in 1916 along with the new Mercury dime and Standing Liberty quarter. Americans had never seen anything quite like it as for the first time in history the designs of the dime, quarter and half dollar would be clearly different from each other. In the past except for the reverse of the dime, which had no eagle, the designs of the three denominations had been basically identical.
The first Denver Walking Liberty half dollar would be the 1916-D and it like some of the production in 1917 would be different as it would have a mintmark on the obverse below the word TRUST. It was a case where both the Walking Liberty half dollar and the Standing Liberty quarter would see modifications in 1917. There would be 1916 and 1917 Walking Liberty half dollars with an obverse “D,” which would be moved to the reverse during 1917.
The mintage of the 1916-D was 1,014,000, which does not sound large. In fact, it was high at least for 1916 as it was almost double the totals from Philadelphia and San Francisco, which stood at 608,000 and 508,000 respectively.
The amount of saving by collectors and the public of any 1916 Walking Liberty half dollar is suspect. Normally there would be added saving of a new design and almost certainly that was the case. How much added saving there was is another matter as we have learned that at the time dealers were unlikely to stock new issues as their customers would simply acquire them on their own from circulation or banks.
That meant that in most cases the 1916-D simply circulated. In fact, the 1916-D because of that obverse mintmark would regularly be pulled from circulation by later generations of collectors and that makes it relatively available in circulated grades today with a G-4 being priced at $48.50.
If there was any extra saving of the 1916-D it would be seen in Mint State supplies. The 1916-D does have a certain following because of that obverse mintmark, resulting in an MS-60 price of $360 while an MS-65 is at $2,500.
The extra saving, however, was not likely to have been large. We see that in the grading service totals as PCGS reports just 137 examples of the 1916-D in MS-65 along with 39 in MS-66 and two more coins in MS-67. In fact, such totals make sense as Q. David Bowers did some research on the dealer inventories at the time and found that only a couple had working inventories of the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter. If the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter with a mintage of just 52,000 was not being stocked by many dealers, it stands to reason that the 1916-D half dollar with a mintage of over 1 million would not be in many inventories either.
In the case of the 1917-D with the obverse mintmark, the mintage was significantly lower at 765,400. With the novelty of the new designs gone it would be expected that there would be lower saving. That would not show up in circulated grades and interestingly the lower mintage 1917-D is actually less expensive than the 1916-D at just $23.50 in G-4. In any grade above F-12 the situation changes with the 1917-D becoming the more costly at $625 in MS-60 and $7,900 in MS-65 – certainly well above the 1916-D. The price difference reflects a difference in numbers seen at the Professional Coin Grading Service, as well as the total for the 1917-D in MS-65 is just 57 and four more in MS-66. None is seen in any higher grades.
The rest of the 1917 mintage would have the mintmark moved to a location around 8 o’clock on the rim on the reverse. In fact, there was a number of other small modifications as well, suggesting that the design had really been rushed into production in 1916. The changes are primarily one to help enhance the design suggesting that the time situation in 1916 had just been too tight to give everyone the opportunity they might have liked to smooth over a couple rough spots in the design. That was natural as A.A. Weinman it must be remembered was working on two different designs (the Mercury dime being the other) and the Mint was working on three. As it turned out, the Standing Liberty quarter barely got out at all in 1916 so almost certainly things were just more rushed than was ideal.
The 1917-D with the reverse mintmark had a mintage of 1,940,000, making it an available date for the time with a price of $10 in G-4. It is, however, a much tougher date in Mint State where it lists for $940 in MS-60 and $18,500 in MS-65. The prices are backed up by low supplies with PCGS reporting just 28 in MS-65 and another four examples in MS-66.
The reverse mintmark 1917-D actually starts a trend of dates from Denver where the supplies of top quality examples are very low. The dates may not always be tough in circulated grades, but when you try to find them in MS-65 or better you find that the Denver dates of the period are really the keys to a Walking Liberty half dollar set.
The 1918-D is a typical example as it had a mintage of 3,853,040, which is high enough to make it an available date. That shows with a $10.10 price in G-4, but at $1,300 in MS-60 it is clear there are supply problems. Any Walking Liberty half dollar at $1,000 or more in MS-60 is a better date and if the date is not available in MS-60 the odds are that it will be very tough in MS-65 and that is seen in the 1918-D, which lists for $24,500 in MS-65 and with good reason as PCGS reports just 24 examples graded MS-65 and three more in MS-66. That makes the 1918-D one of the top five Walking Liberty half dollars in MS-65.
The 1919-D is even tougher. In fact, the 1919-D is the key Walking Liberty half dollar in MS-65 (though it is tied with the 1921-S). Again, it follows the pattern as it was not even the lowest mintage half dollar of 1919 with a mintage of 1,165,000, which makes it an $25 coin in G-4. In MS-60, however, it jumps to $6,000 and from there it soars to a price of $130,000 in MS-65. The reason for the high price is that PCGS has seen just nine examples in MS-65 and one more in MS-66.
Sandwiched between a couple exceptional dates, the 1920-D is a natural for getting overlooked. The 1920-D, however, also fits the pattern as it had a mintage of 1,551,000, which is slightly higher than the 1919-D, but certainly not large. That total is enough to see the 1920-D at $10.40 in G-4, but once again in upper grades the supply simply dries up with the 1920-D listing for $1,485 in MS-60, although even that listing does not put it among the top Walking Liberty half dollar dates. Any date at $10,000 or more in MS-65, however, is one of the better dates and the 1920-D qualifies at a current listing of $17,500 in MS-65.
The 1921-D is perhaps the best known of all Walking Liberty half dollars in large part because of its mere 208,000 mintage. In the case of the Walking Liberty half dollar, the mintage totals were especially low with the 1921 from Philadelphia being slightly higher at 246,000 and the 1921-S was at 548,000. The combined total of the three facilities is barely one million.
With its record low half dollar mintage of 208,000, the 1921-D has received a lot of attention over the years. Even those not attempting a complete set of Walking Liberty half dollars would pull a 1921-D from circulation and that has provided a supply, although a small one, in almost every grade. Today a G-4 is priced at $310, which makes it easily the key Walking Liberty half dollar in that grade as the price is $145 more than the 1921, which is its major competition.
It is hard to know if there was a small amount of extra saving of the 1921-D because of that mintage. In all probability if there was it was very small as the 1921-D is among the top Mint State Walking Liberty half dollars. That said, it is still far from being a leader in terms of price with an MS-60 at $5,650 while an MS-65 is at $29,500.
The price actually seems to be right as PCGS reports 28 examples in MS-65 and another three in MS-66. That makes the 1921-D one of the top three Walking Liberty half dollars in terms of price and among the elite in terms of numbers graded in top grades as well.
After the low 1921 mintages there would be no Denver half dollar mintages until 1929. The logical question is why such a long gap in production?
It is certainly at least partially the lingering effects of the recession. All mints had production of other denominations suffer, but San Francisco saw no half dollar production in 1922 and then again from 1924 to 1927, but the Denver gap was much longer as was the Philadelphia gap, which would produce no half dollars after 1921 until 1934. Could our grandfathers in the 1920s been giving up on the half dollar, too, as we have done since the Kennedy half was introduced in 1964?
Certainly since 1879, the public was showing less and less interest in large coins and more and more interest in the handier paper money.
The return to production of Walking Liberty half dollars at Denver took place in 1929 with a mintage of 1,001,200, so it was hardly a case of making up for lost time. Few give the 1929-D much thought and in circulated grades it is definitely available at just $10.1 in G-4. It is, however, a better date than some realize at $390 in MS-60 and $3,350 in MS-65. Those prices don’t make it a top Walking Liberty half dollar, but it is also far from a readily available date.
After the 1929-D, Denver saw another production gap lasting until 1934 and the Great Depression hit all Americans. In the Denver Walking Liberty half dollars of 1934-1937 we find available dates but ones that still had low mintages. In G-4 they are $7.40 with their MS-60 prices showing the 1,676,000 mintage 1937-D as the most expensive at $220 while the 1935-D is the most expensive MS-65 at $2,450 with some 300 graded MS-65 by PCGS as well as 47 in MS-66 and a single MS-67.
In a way, the 1938-D would prove just how far interest in coins had grown since the beginning of the Walking Liberty series even though the nation had been in the middle of the Great Depression. Interest in coin collecting actually increased during the Great Depression despite the fact that virtually no one had any money to buy coins. That was seen in heavy hoarding of the low mintage 1931-S Lincoln cent and again when the mintage of the 1938-D Walking Liberty half dollar was put at 491,600.
The 1938-D, thanks to its low mintage, would actually be pulled from circulation and saved even though it was a half dollar. We see evidence today as a G-4 is $70 and that is not because none was saved in G-4, but rather because few ever circulated long enough to become G-4.
The 1938-D also shows signs of being saved when released with an MS-60 at $475 and an MS-65 at $1,750, which are low prices considering the mintage. The PCGS totals also support the idea of saving as it has graded 625 in MS-65, 250 in MS-66 and 21 in MS-67. For the third-lowest mintage Walking Liberty half dollar those totals are solid proof that much had changed in 20 years as the MS-66 total is larger than the MS-65 total of many earlier dates.
In the years that followed there would be no Denver mintage in 1940 but all the other dates from the 1939-D to the final Walking Liberty half dollar from Denver in 1947 would be considered more available. None of the dates had a mintage of even 12 million and some were much lower like the 1946-D at just 2,151,000. Even with the modest mintages an MS-60 is many times well under $50 and no MS-65 of the period is more than the $325 of the 1942-D and some are closer to $200 in MS-65. While certainly less expensive these dates may well surprise in the future especially in MS-65 and better.
Whatever your approach to the Denver Walking Liberty half dollars, the fact remains that in their ranks are found many of the key date Walking Liberty halves.That makes Denver Walking Liberty half dollars a tough group that is always in demand.
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