This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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The Walking Liberty half dollar was an exciting new design when it was introduced in 1916. It was also a coin with too high a face value for many to collect. That helped keep the survival rate for high grades fairly low. These factors make it a challenging collection especially in top grades.
Many examples that were saved were saved much later than their time of issue after they had circulated for years. That makes all early dates tough, but especially so in the cases of issues from branch mints like San Francisco. These are a real challenge for hobbyists today, but an interesting group to study and collect.
The Walking Liberty half dollar was introduced in 1916. It was designed by Adolph A. Weinman, who also designed the Mercury dime. The new half dollar like the other new issues of 1916 was a popular design among those who appreciated beauty, but it one which was still evolving.
The Walking Liberty half dollars of 1916 and part of 1917 would have their mintmark on the obverse below the word TRUST and that makes them different. The 1916-S Walking Liberty half dollar had a low mintage of just 508,000 pieces. Even though they were a high denomination for many people to afford some were saved at the time and many were saved as the years passed by collectors who simply wanted an example with the obverse mintmark.
The 1916-S today is a premium date in all grades, but a date that brings higher prices in some grades than might be expected. That is especially true in G-4 perhaps for an unusual reason as many may not have circulated long enough to become lower grades. The 1916-S with an obverse mintmark lists at $108 in G-4, which makes it the third most expensive G-4 behind the much lower mintage 1921 and 1921-D, but more than twice the price of the 1921-S, which actually had a similar mintage.
Where the 1916-S is at a premium price but perhaps not as high as might be expected is in Mint State. In MS-60 the 1916-S lists for $1,050, which puts it in the same class as a number of other earlier and higher mintage dates. In MS-65 at $6,250 it is a better date, but once again it is actually average or even below average in price for the coins of the period up to 1923. The two prices suggest there are some supplies and larger ones than might be expected based on the mintage and that is the case as the Professional Coin Grading Service shows 78 examples in MS-65 along with 12 in MS-66 and a single coin in MS-67 – all totals that suggests that the new design was saved by a foresighted few even though it was expensive.
The obverse mintmark would continue for part of 1917 and that saw an additional 952,000 Walking Liberty half dollars with the obverse mintmark produced at San Francisco. The mintage was higher, but the amount of saving of new examples was lower as the novelty was gone. The 1917-S with the obverse mintmark is much more available in G-4 at just $27. Where it becomes a significant challenge is in Mint State where an MS-60 lists for $2,300 more than twice the price of the lower mintage 1916-S and in MS-65 where it is $22,500, more than triple the price of the 1916-S. The grading service totals support the higher prices with an MS-65 having been graded by PCGS just 30 times along with 2 examples in MS-66 and a single MS-67, making the 1917-S obverse mintmark Walking Liberty half dollar a very rare and elusive coin in MS-65 and almost impossible in any higher grade.
The rest of the 1917-S mintage, which was put at 5,554,000 pieces, would have the mintmark in its new location on the reverse at about 8 o’clock near the rim. With such a mintage, the 1917-S with a reverse mintmark is actually a fairly available date especially considering it was an early date with a G-4 just $9.70. In MS-60 it is also very reasonable at $330, but in MS-65 it suddenly is much tougher with a current listing of $13,850. It appears to be a case of not being well struck and bad luck as the examples saved by collectors at the time were unlikely to have been carefully selected as Mint State was Mint State with no real emphasis by most on how nice an uncirculated example might be.
As a result, today they just do not measure up the way we might expect with PCGS showing over 150 examples in MS-64 but only 31 in MS-65 and 7 in MS-66 with none better. In fact, it appears that the reputation of being available may actually be keeping the MS-65 and higher listings of the 1917-S slightly lower priced than would normally be the case if based solely on the PCGS population numbers, because these appear to prove the coin is even tougher to find than its price indicates.
It appears that San Francisco was a place where large silver coins were in greater use than elsewhere. The 1918-S had a mintage of 10,282,000 and that total was much higher than either Denver or Philadelphia. The mintage makes the 1918-S an available date at just $9.70 in G-4. In MS-60 the 1918-S is $485 but again in MS-65 it becomes a much better date with a listing of $17,750.
With the large 1918 mintage it should be no surprise that the 1919-S total would be lower at 1,552,000. While lower than the 1918-S, it was still higher than the totals from Philadelphia and Denver, but it does make the 1919-S a more expensive date at $17.50 in G-4. There is real evidence of a lack of saving in the case of the 1919-S when they were released and interestingly enough the same is true of the 1919-D. In the case of the 1919-S it is $3,300 in MS-60 and $20,000 in MS-65. Interestingly, the numbers from PCGS show 34 in MS-65 and 11 in MS-66, which are slightly higher than some other less expensive dates.
The 1920-S was somewhere in the middle in terms of mintages at 4,624,000 and that totals makes it a $9.70 coin in G-4. It is better in MS-60 at $850, but realistically many Walking Liberty half dollars of the period are $1,000 or more in MS-60, so it would have to be seen as a more available example from San Francisco for the period. In MS-65, however, at $14,500 it is another of the better dates and a total of 37 in MS-65 and just 4 in MS-66 graded so far at PCGS confirms that price.
The 1921-S emerged as one of the most interesting of all Walking Liberty half dollars. It has to be remembered that 1921. Demand for coins dropped because of a severe economic recession.
However, silver dollar production took up some slack as the Secretary of the Treasury was pushing the mints to heavy production of silver dollars, which were needed to retire short term notes that were being used as an emergency measure to back Silver Certificates that actually promised silver dollars. The goal was 270 million silver dollars to be produced as fast as possible to replaced those melted under the terms of the 1918 Pittman Act.
There would be no Walking Liberty half dollars produced anywhere in 1922, but in 1921 the mintages were all low with the 1921-S having a mintage of 548,000, which was the lowest San Francisco mintage since 1916. Interestingly enough the 1921-S was still the highest mintage of the three half dollars of 1921 as the Philadelphia 1921 was at just 246,000 while the 1921-D was lower still at 208,000. That makes the 1921-S the most available of the three at least in circulated grades where it is $45 in G-4 well behind the others, which are $165 for the 1921 and $310 for the 1921-D.
Things change completely in Mint State as it appears that for some reason there was virtually no saving of examples of the 1921-S. No one can be precisely sure why there was no saving, but a $12,850 price in MS-60 certainly suggests that there is basically no Mint State supply of the 1921-S as that price makes it the most expensive MS-60 Walking Liberty half dollar and by a significant margin. In MS-65 at $130,000 the 1921-S shares the most expensive honors with the 1919-D. At that price it might be expected that it is almost impossible to find and that proves to be the case as PCGS reports just 20 with a single example in MS-66. It is a very small number for a coin that many want and that seems likely to continue to keep the MS-65 price of the 1921-S moving to higher levels in the future.
There was no half dollar mintage at any facility in 1922 and then in 1923 only San Francisco would produce the denomination with a mintage of 2,178,000. That may well be another sign of the commercial need for large silver coins in the West as there has to be some reason for the regular higher mintages and in this case the only half dollar mintage of the three mints happening in San Francisco during the period.
If there was an isolated case of San Francisco having a higher mintage that could be dismissed, but the continuing pattern of San Francisco producing more half dollars than other facilities has to have a reason behind it and the best guess is probably the fact that the region was still very much partial to using silver and gold coins when the rest of the country was basically happy using bank notes.
The 1923-S with a modest mintage is found at $10.10 today in G-4. In MS-60 the 1923-S is $1,375, which suggests it is tougher than might be expected based on its mintage. Its MS-65 price of $16,500 also suggests that it is well above average in terms of difficulty and the 33 in MS-65, 10 in MS-66 and 1 in MS-67 graded by PCGS tend to confirm that the 1923-S has a place among the better Walking Liberty half dollars in top grades.
Still further evidence of a great need in San Francisco for half dollars than in other locations is seen by the fact that the situation repeated in 1927, which was the next time San Francisco would make a Walking Liberty half dollar. That was a long break in production for San Francisco, which had not made a half dollar since 1923, but the fact was that Philadelphia and Denver would make none in 1927 and had made none since the very low mintages of 1921.
The 1927-S was not high mintage at 2,392,000, but the fact is it was still in production. The 1927-S today is $9.70 in G-4, $990 in MS-60 and $9,750 in MS-65 where it has been seen 48 times in MS-65 by PCGS and 5 more times in MS-66. Those are slightly higher numbers than some of the earlier dates but they are still not enough to meet any growth in potential demand.
In 1928 the situation would repeat again as San Francisco would be the only facility to produce Walking Liberty half dollars with the 1,940,000 1928-S. That total is again not high, but the 1928-S is very similar to the 1927-S in price at an identical $9.70 in G-4, an almost identical $985 in MS-60 and a slightly higher $10,750 in MS-65.
In fact, the 1928-S is somewhat less available in top grades with a total of 38 being graded in MS-65 and another 6 in MS-66. That probably justifies the slightly higher price difference between it and the 1927-S of $1,000 in MS-65 but the two are seen as similar probably in part because they are the last dates in the series to command a roughly $10,000 MS-65 price.
In 1929 Denver would return to half dollar production while the modest mintages would continue at San Francisco. The S-mint produced 1,902,000 examples of the denomination. The 1929-S is a $9.70 coin in G-4 with an MS-60 at $400, suggesting Mint State examples are much more available than even the 1928-S. The MS-65 price of $3,750 is also far lower than the 1927-S and 1928-S even though they both actually had higher mintages. There had to be greater saving to explain the price difference, which seems unusual as the first signs of the Great Depression would be seen when the stock market crashed in 1929. The numbers, however, do not lie and there is a big increase in the number of available coins with PCGS reporting 126 examples of the 1929-S in MS-65 and another 36 in MS-66.
Perhaps the 1929-S sat unused in bank vaults because the economy was in free fall and people general were very careful with what little money they had.
The Great Depression would see much less commercial demand for half dollars. San Francisco as well as the other facilities would make no Walking Liberty half dollar until 1933 and that year as in the past it would be only San Francisco. The 1933-S had a mintage of 1,786,000 pieces, which puts it at $10.10 in G-4, $590 in MS-60 and $4,500 in MS-65. It is interesting as the 1933-S is actually more available than the less expensive 1929-S with PCGS reporting 139 in MS-65, 65 in MS-66 and even 7 in MS-67.
With the worst crisis of the Great Depression easing, Walking Liberty half dollar production would return in 1934 at all facilities while the mintages in San Francisco would start to rise. The 1934-S would have a mintage of 3,652,000 and while it and the other San Francisco dates of the 1930s are available in circulated grades for prices usually at $7.40 in G-4, the 1934-S is a date that stands out from the period because of its $385 MS-60 price and especially its $4,800 listing in MS-65. That MS-65 would be nearly twice the price of any date from any facility that followed and in fact the grading services support it. The 1934-S has been graded 160 times in MS-65 by PCGS and 70 times in MS-66 with 5 appearances in MS-67. Compared to earlier dates those numbers seem high but they are not for later San Francisco Walking Liberty half dollars number in the thousands in MS-65 no matter what the facility.
The 1935-S with a mintage of 3,854,000 would also prove to be better in MS-65 where it is currently $2,850. Once again it is a case of modest numbers, which are not that surprising, as although the worst of the Great depression was past the nation was still in tough economic times. In addition it was a time when collectors with money to spend were being approached by an ever increasing wave of commemorative half dollars so the saving that might have taken place was probably reduced by too many other ways to spend your coin buying funds.
It could safely be suggested that after the 1935-S even in MS-65 the bulk of the San Francisco Walking Liberty half dollars until the final one in 1946 are generally available even in MS-65. The 1936-S at $1,000 in MS-65 is somewhat more difficult and the 1937-S at $785 in MS-65 is not too far behind. There was no production in 1938 and that was followed by a much more available string of dates starting with the 1939-S.
In fact, there is one tougher date in the 1940s in MS-65 in the form of the 1941-S. The 1941-S had a mintage of 8,098,000, but it has a well-deserved reputation as the key date of the short set of 1941-1947 coins. In MS-60 it is $105 and in MS-65 it is $1,025.
The 1941-S is available but it was softly struck in many cases and has a flat appearance. As a result it does not come back from grading services in the numbers which might be expected in MS-65. For example PCGS has graded 6,630 examples of the 1941-S but only 231 were called MS-65 and only 5 were called MS-66.
If you want a sleeper in the San Francisco Walking Liberty half dollars of the 1940s that date is the 1944-S. It had a mintage of 8,904,000, which is similar to the 1941-S, and that results in a price of $36 in MS-60 and $575 in MS-65, which is about one-half the price of the 1941-S. At PCGS they have graded 7,162 examples of the 1944-S but in MS-65 the total is 199. This is actually lower than the more expensive 1941-S and it clearly suggests that the 1944-S might well be a date to watch in the future as realistically there is not much attention paid to these 1940s Walking Liberty half dollars as the general assumption is that all are available.
Another date worth watching is the 1942-S, which at $610 in MS-65 is also seen in lower numbers than the 1941-S, but appears to be slightly more available top grade than the 1944-S.
With the 3,724,000 mintage 1946-S the years of San Francisco production of Walking Liberty half dollars came to a close. Having been produced a number of times when no other facilities were making them, the San Francisco Walking Liberty half dollars make for an interesting collection and a good reflection of what were sometimes troubled times in terms of the economy in the United States. With already recognized key dates like the 1921-S and potential sleepers like the 1944-S, it can safely be said that San Francisco Walking Liberty half dollars are already a good collection, but one which may well increase in price and respect in the future.