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‘S’ half dollar caught in motto transition

The 1866-S Seated Liberty half dollar is interesting as there were two different types. While both are good, one is definitely better.

The story behind the 1866-S Seated Liberty half dollar is a simple one. There was a change taking place on U.S. coins: “In God We Trust” was being added. This change remains a very important feature today. Sometimes there is a great deal of discussion or confusion about how the motto was placed on coins. With the 1866-S half dollars, you can actually see it happen.

As the Civil War was breaking out, someone mentioned to the secretary of the Treasury that there was no recognition of the Almighty on coins. The secretary of the Treasury felt it was something that should be added and ordered the change. The addition did not take place immediately as there was some discussion about just what words should be used. Moreover, it was the Civil War and everyone was up to their ears in problems of one type or another, so the change was to take place as new dies were prepared.

2012 U.S. Coin Digest: Half Dollars

This easy-to-search pricing and identification download is solely focused on U.S half dollars!

The whole thing took some time. The new 2-cent piece in 1864 had “In God We Trust” but other denominations took longer. In the case of the half dollar, it took until 1866 before the motto could be placed above the eagle on the reverse.

There is no Philadelphia 1866 Seated Liberty half dollar except for one that appears to have been a product made for a collector of the time. The situation in San Francisco was different.

Before anyone gets any ideas about San Francisco and why the city had a mint producing 1866 half dollars without “In God We Trust,” it must be known that it was all very natural and innocent. It was simply a case of normal delay. The new dies had to be sent to San Francisco and back then it was a slow and potentially dangerous journey.

This was not unusual. San Francisco and other branch mints would sometimes lag behind Philadelphia in design changes by a full year. It was all because of the delay in getting the new dies reflecting the change.

In fact, if anything, San Francisco appears to have rushed the new “In God We Trust” half dollars into production. The year started and the facility produced 60,000 half dollars without the motto. But then apparently the dies arrived and it produced another 994,000 half dollars with the motto instead of finishing the year’s production and adding the motto the following year.

The with-motto mintage was fairly high for San Francisco at the time, but the 60,000 total is another matter. The situation is complicated by the fact that San Francisco had almost no coin collectors and very little saving at the time.

Even if there had been saving, collectors probably wouldn’t have sought both the with-motto and without-motto versions. Very few were even collecting half dollars by date and mintmark.

It is different for collectors today, who definitely want both types. The more available 1866-S with the motto is currently priced at $35 in G-4, $650 in MS-60 and $5,000 in MS-65. In both MS-60 and MS-65, the with-motto 1866-S is priced at premium levels.

The no-motto 1866-S carries a low G-4 price of $460 with an MS-60 at $5,400. After all, it too was from San Francisco with a mintage of just 60,000. When a coin has that sort of mintage you expect to pay a premium, so the no-motto 1866-S half dollar’s G-4 price of less than $500 is an awfully attractive price.

The situation is also interesting in Mint State. Professional Coin Grading Service reports just 30 pieces and, of those, only four reached MS-60 or better with the best being an MS-65. The total at Numismatic Guranty Corporation is 18 with only two being MS-60 or better.
Those numbers are very small for any Mint State examples and that makes today’s MS-60 price look extremely interesting. It is possible that there are others in Mint State, but to have the services report just six coins suggests that the price is a good one for an underrated coin.

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