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Item of the Week: The 1938 Washington Quarter

This 1938 Washington quarter is graded PR-64 by NGC. (Images courtesy Heritage Auctions)

A better date when it comes to a Philadelphia Washington quarter can be a relative matter. The 1938 Washington quarter is certainly better than the 1964 but with a total mintage of 564,341,347, it is probably easy to make the case that almost any quarter produced is better than the 1964.

In fact, it is not easy to make a case that any Philadelphia Washington quarter is especially good. The lowest mintage of the Philadelphia Washington quarters turned out to be the 1932, which had a total mintage of 5,404,000. You do not see many quarter mintages like that anymore but it is also fair to point out that it is no longer 1932.

Even the low total of the 1932 comes with questions since it was the first year of the design. That usually means some additional saving and that seems to have been the case for the 1932 as it is $45 in MS-60, while an MS-65 is $250. It does not bode well for other Philadelphia Washington quarters if the availability of the other dates is likely to go up and prices down from the level of the 1932.

Of course, there are some dates that would have much higher mintages and others where the totals would not be all that much higher. The 1938 is in that second group, as its mintage was a still-low 9,480,045.

Of course, it is not the mintage that actually matters in terms of price as the real issue is how many examples of a certain date still exist and in what grade. Unlike the 1932, there was no special reason to save the 1938 and there was probably very little saving at the time for a number of reasons.

It must be remembered that back in 1938, the coin collectors of the country were in the process of enormous change. The first holders to house complete sets were appearing and there was also vastly improved information about coins and their prices. It was an exciting time but there were certainly many more exciting coins to be found other than a 1938 quarter. The New York Subway Hoard, which was purchased by Littleton Coin Company back in the 1990s, actually began in the 1940s and it included examples of dates like the 1896-S, 1901-S, 1913-S and 1916 Standing Liberty quarters. Certainly, if they were found in the 1940s, they were circulating in 1938. No matter how nice the 1938 was, any of those dates and some others as well would have been a much better choice to save than a 1938.

It also has to be remembered that the nation was still emerging from the Great Depression. Perhaps more people could afford to set aside a quarter in 1938 than in 1933, but the fact is that if they had not started a collection back in 1932 during some of the worst economic times, they were not very likely to be saving quarters in 1938.

It all adds up to a situation where the number of Mint State 1938 quarters has to be seen as suspect at best. The current prices would seem to indicate that others have discovered that the 1938 might well prove to be better as it lists for $90 in MS-60, which is much higher than the lower-mintage 1932. In MS-65, however, the current price is $210, which is lower than the 1932 but, for a Philadelphia Washington quarter, it is actually a very high price for the grade; it is the top MS-65 listing for a Philadelphia Washington quarter.

Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has found 192 examples of the 1938 in MS-65, 97 in MS-66 and 20 in MS-67. At Professional Coin Grading Service, the total is 342 in MS-65, 178 in MS-66 and 20 in MS-67.

The totals sound high but, for a Philadelphia Washington quarter, they are not. In the case of dates in the 1940s and 1950s, totals in the thousands in grades like MS-65 are not unheard of. In other cases, the number of coins graded MS-66 is actually higher than the number in MS-65. The 1938 shows it is tougher by its small numbers and the fact that the numbers keep getting smaller the higher the grade.

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