Skip to main content

Just Who is Collecting That: Trade Dollars, Seated Liberty Dollars, Capped Bust Halves

When it comes to classic United States coin series that live constantly in the spotlight, there are a few that come quickly to mind. The Morgan silver dollars certainly seem to reside there, as do their Peace dollar kin. Likewise, the Walking Liberty half dollars always appear to be in the white-hot limelight, and the Franklin half dollars are not far behind, with auction prices for the best-of-the-best routinely getting a spot in the numismatic press. So, it may seem odd to think of any U.S. silver dollar or half dollar series as under-collected. But there might actually be three. Let’s have a look at this under-appreciated trio.

An 1874 U.S. Trade dollar. (Images courtesy of

An 1874 U.S. Trade dollar. (Images courtesy of

United States Trade Dollars

We have to start any discussion of trade dollars by stating clearly that we are talking United States trade dollars, simply because there are quite a few different coins from various nations that claim that title as well. The entire U.S. experiment with a trade dollar – a coin that could be shipped to the Empire of China and other oriental port cities and used as monetary transactions there – lasted only from 1873 to 1878, as far as circulating coins go. Yes, aficionados of the series know that there were a limited number of proofs made for seven years after that, the last two years in tiny amounts. And we might argue that the proofs actually discourage regular folks like us from collecting this series, since the nature of collecting is to get one of each year for any series. But then, there may be more to it than that.

Our trade dollar is a coin that was actually demonetized, meaning the government called it in and said they would not be used in domestic transactions. That announcement meant that plenty of the trade dollars took their final and fatal dive into a melting pot. And that in turn means that we really can’t be all that sure how much of each official mintage survives today. The end result of all this is that it can be tough to determine the value of trade dollars, even if they are considered common dates.

Speaking of common dates, there are eight dates or mint marks in this short series that saw mintages of over a million – including the front runner by a long way, the1877-S, which saw more than 9.5 million produced. Assuming that any and all trade dollars which met their fate in the proverbial melting pot did so in about the same amount or same percentage, the ’77-S still ought to be the easiest one to find.

In what might be a weird twist, the trade dollars are one of only a few series for which those pieces that came from the main Mint in Philadelphia tend to cost more than those with an ‘S’ mint mark. Since the idea was to send them to cities on the Pacific Rim, many more were made at the branches in Carson City and San Francisco. The collector love of all coins with the ‘CC’ mark on the reverse means that these will still be expensive, but those from the City by the Bay tend to be more reasonably priced. This series may be under collected, but there is some potential here for anyone who wants to get serious about these big dollars.

An 1857 silver Seated Liberty dollar.

An 1857 silver Seated Liberty dollar.

The Seated Liberty Silver Dollars

Another series that is very often overlooked is that silver dollar which ruled the roost before the Morgans we now think of as classic. The Seated Liberty dollars are the largest example of Mr. Christian Gobrecht’s artistry, one that got as small as the now-vanished silver, half-dime, and are a beautiful example of a classic, historic design. They are also a series of dollar coins that were minted in one form or another all the way from 1836 to 1873.

That last comment needs a bit of explanation In 1836 there were indeed some of these dollars minted, and in 1838 and 1839 as well, but always in tiny amounts. There are even some restrikes for each of these years. Today these earliest pieces are generally considered patterns, and they are often called Gobrecht dollars to distinguish them from what get called the Seated Liberty dollars, the latter of which were first issued in 1840. They also are all quite expensive. And yes, that might be one reason the entire series isn’t collected all that much. But there is another.

In a curious twist, an interesting fact of the entire Seated Liberty dollar series is that in all the years from 1840 to 1873 there are only two dates which saw mintages of over a million – 1871 and 1872. The flip side of this is that several years saw official mintage totals of less than 10,000, which means there are quite a few rare dates within this series. This fact alone may very well be why the series is under collected. Some of the mintages are so low that it’s tough to complete anything near a full set, or even a full date run. Plus, it’s worth remembering that prior to 1857, Spanish colonial coins such as the 8 reales were often used in the growing U.S. and were well accepted. It’s fair to assume that they were common in everyday commerce, so much that folks may have been more comfortable with them than with our own dollars.

Since the Seated Liberty dollars have quite a few low mintage years, any of us who want to get into this series might do well to start simply, with those two common years. Their price tags are not necessarily low, but in upper-level circulated grades they are not going to flatten a wallet either. From there, the entire series presents opportunities to see just what sort of “sleepers” are possible, meaning what dates are scarce or rare, and yet still come in at a decent price tag. Hunting for bargains like this can be a fascinating approach to building a collection.


Capped Bust Half Dollars

Our third candidate for a severely under collected series is not a silver dollar at all, but rather is the Capped Bust half dollars. Despite not having a huge collector fan base, this set of classic fifty-cent pieces has a lot to offer.

After President Jefferson put a stop to silver dollar production right at the beginning of the 1800s, there was a wide swath of time in which United States half dollars were the largest silver coins made by a young United States Mint. The Capped Bust design, the work of Mint Engraver John Reich, graced our big silver from 1807 up to 1839 and may qualify as a variety collector’s dream come true. There are numerous years with varieties based on the size of stars on the obverse, or edge lettering, or over-stamped dates. There are even two ‘O’ mint marked dates right at the end of the series, with the 1838-O being the sky-high rarity of the set, with only twenty pieces known to have been minted.

But the good news when it comes to Capped Bust half dollars is sky-high as well. There are numerous years with official Mint tallies in the millions – yes, millions, plural. In 1834, the Mint pounded out just over 6.4 million of them. In 1836 that number was beaten, with just over 6.5 million minted. And there are quite a few further years in which more than two million were coined.

When it comes to general costs for the Capped Bust half dollars, we’ll admit the mint state examples can be expensive. But this is because back in their day, these coins were made to be used, not stored away. As a consequence, many of them saw some use and show some wear. That makes surviving specimens in grades such as extra fine, EF-40, or very fine, VF-20, much more common and affordable. Such examples still often show good detail on both surfaces.

The person who wants to jump into collecting Capped Bust halves, or to expand their collecting, making this a new series for their attention, can make pretty good inroads at equally good prices. A full date run may become expensive but sticking simply to the multi-million-coin years may prove to be a good way to go in assembling a handsome set. Importantly, this entire set is much older than plenty of more popular United States coin series.

Above and Beyond

There are certainly other U.S. coin series that qualify as under collected. But the three we have turned our gaze to here are a trio that hold a lot of promise for anyone wishing to dive into classic United States silver.