Over time, the Washington quarter has frequently been overlooked. Even when we might have expected significant numbers of quarter collectors in the 1950s, it was still too expensive for many of the collectors of the time who were generally young and on very limited budgets.
Another reason for some probably overlooking the Washington quarter is that it was really seen as a two-coin set. The two were the 1932-D with a mintage of 436,800 and the 1932-S with a mintage of 408,000. There were no other dates that were even below 1 million for a mintage, making the 1932-D and 1932-S stand out. In many minds, virtually all other dates were basically equal.
Realistically, however, there are a number of differences in the other dates. There are mintages from less than 2 million pieces to over 704 million pieces in the case of the 1964-D. That sort of difference hardly makes dates equal yet that is the way many seemed to see the Washington quarter.
On the list of better dates is the 1946-S. The 1946-S had a very low mintage of just 4,204,000. That total does not make the 1946-S the lowest mintage Washington quarter other than the 1932-D and 1932-S. Actually, there are a few with lower total mintages like the 1937-S, 1939-S, 1940-D and even later the 1955-D.
Having a low mintage would prove to be a factor in terms of survival for the 1946-S, at least in lower grades. Circulating, the 1946-S, would not have been saved in most cases until the mid-1960s, because of the fairly limited collecting of Washington quarters. Even then, it would have been saved simply because it was silver and not because it was a better date.
As what happened with the dates from the 1960s that were pulled from circulation for their silver content, it would have been equally likely that the 1946-S would have been melted in some numbers as the price of silver moved towards $50 an ounce in the late 1970s. It was simply a case where those who had a 1946-S, unless it was an uncirculated example, were likely to see it as more valuable as silver than as a coin in their collection. If you sold your 1946-S or other 90 percent silver date, there was no way to replace it by finding another in circulation. Also, it was very possible to figure that if silver dropped in price, another could be found for much less money than they were bringing at the time.
A date like a 1946-S with that mintage might have caused some to think twice about selling their example, as 4 million was a seemingly lower mintage. In all probability, in any grade below uncirculated, the 1946-S was a coin that could have safely been sold for its silver.
Things get interesting in Mint State. In 1998, a 1946-S in MS-60 was just $4, which is awfully hard to understand in light of its mintage. Even an uncirculated roll was just $85 or barely over $2 per coin while an MS-65 was $24.
Since 1998, we have seen a lot of movement in uncirculated rolls including the 1946-S which was $375 in 2002 with an MS-60 just higher at $4.50. An MS-65 was at just $43. The increase in roll prices was not unusual at the time and even if someone had saved a few rolls of the 1946-S, it was hard to imagine them selling at the older price of less than $100.
Overall, the 1946-S has done relatively little in terms of price. In 2003, an MS-60 was $7 and then increased to $8.50 where it is today. In the case of an MS-65, it was $42 in 2003 and is now $26.00.
The price movement might be called lackluster, especially in light of the increases of some other dates including clads. A roll of the 1982-P Washington quarters is more than twice the price of a roll of the 1946-S. Everyone will say the reason is no mint sets in 1982 but there were also no mint sets in 1946.
There is, however, some indication of some saving of the 1946-S found in the grading services. PCGS reports more than 1,000 examples of the 1946-S in MS-65 while NGC reports 1,000 but in MS-66. The numbers are frankly high, suggesting the 1946-S was saved, making the 1946-S more available in upper grades than anyone would have expected.