When is a rarity not a rarity? The answer might well be a coin like the 1885 Seated Liberty half dollar. While certainly a tough and valuable coin, it is actually more available than its very low mintage would suggest.
Records show a total of 6,130 business strikes and perhaps another 930 proofs, making for a combined mintage of just over 7,000 pieces. In any era and denomination, that would make for a very scarce coin.
However, current pricing shows a G-4-condition example listing at $275, an MS-60 at $880, an MS-65 at $3,600, and a Prf-65 at $2,400. Your first reaction might well be to see if you can find an 1885 half offered at anything close to those levels, which are very affordable considering its extremely low mintage.
Of course, you have to keep in mind the relatively small number of collectors trying to complete a Seated Liberty half dollar set. That is why you cannot really compare the mintage and prices of the 1885 to, say, a 1916 Standing Liberty quarter. If you did, you would buy the 1885 every time. But those two coins have very different demands placed on their available supply for collectors today.
Back in 1885, there was no real need to produce half dollar coins. Silver mining interests had passed legislation requiring silver dollar production, and the country was flooded with Morgan dollars at a rate far beyond what was needed.
The proof that no half dollars were needed lies in the fact that, in 1885, mint facilities in Philadelphia, Carson City, New Orleans, and San Francisco all produced silver dollars. By comparison, only Philadelphia produced that small total of 1885 half dollars.
Despite this unusual situation, the decision was made to produce proof sets, and that meant striking 1885 Seated Liberty half dollars. However, just because a coin is produced for a proof set, there is no obligation to also produce it for circulation. There have been many proof-only issues in the history of the United States, but during the 1880s in particular, small mintages of business strikes were produced for a number of denominations along with the small number of proofs.
Precisely one decade earlier, the 1875 half dollar mintage had been over six million pieces at Philadelphia alone, with Carson City and San Francisco adding more than 4.2 million more halves to the total. Clearly the 1885 mintage had nothing to do with the needs of the nation.
Instead, it seems the government was concerned about producing low-mintage rarities. Striking fewer than 1,000 proofs in 1885 raised fears of creating a valuable coin. This sort of thing had never bothered officials in the past, who many times had deliberately created rarities and traded or sold them. But in the 1880s, there was a wave of concern over appearances, and it is now thought the small business-strike mintage was a way of preventing the 1885 half dollar from becoming too valuable.
Since there were fewer collectors back then, and the vast majority of them collected only by date, officials could easily have felt that the 1885 half’s mintage would create an ample supply. They were probably right at that time. Also, there being no need for the coin in commerce probably meant that more ended up in the hands of collectors than would normally happen.
While the 1885 half dollar certainly is not common – in fact, it is very tough – it is somewhat more available than we might expect. That makes it an extremely interesting coin, as well as a good buy.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.
More Collecting Resources
• The 1800s were a time of change for many, including in coin production. See how coin designs grew during the time period in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900 .
• Are you a U.S. coin collector? Check out the 2018 U.S. Coin Digest for the most recent coin prices.