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Mintage doesn’t tell full 1878-S story

Just when you think you have rare coin pricing all figured out, along comes the 1878-S Seated Liberty half dollar to throw you a curve. Actually, it is not certain whether the 1878-S is the half dollar with the unusual price, or the dates around it with similar mintages are not correctly valued.


For those who like answers for everything, this might not be the place to find one.

We do know one thing and this is the fact that the 1878-S half is a very, very tough coin. It commands high prices. In 1982, one brought $16,000. In 1988, the Noweb AU-50 brought a bid of $22,000. Although, these figures do not threaten to exceed the values of 1804 dollars or 1913 Liberty Head nickels, you realize that for three decades ago, those were significant prices.

There is a question as to how the 1878-S half became so tough. The way to begin to understand it is to take a look at the mintage. That number is 12,000. Back in 1878 in San Francisco, there were not many coin collectors to save them.

Certainly, when you combine a low mintage of just 12,000 pieces with the location and the year, there may be reason to question just how many of the original mintage might have survived.

Many coins could have been used, worn out and melted long before collectors searched their change for mintmarked coinage. Commerce could also have taken some of the coins to South America or China.

Under the circumstances, we can look at those old prices for the 1878-S and almost feel satisfied. If we check Coin Market today, we see a value of $24,000 in G-4. This is up form $8,500 in 1998.

If you happen to want an AU-50 example, that is likely to cost you $65,000. This is up from $24,500 in 1998. In MS-60 the price is $85,000, up from $30,000 in 1998.

If an MS-65 were to appear, its price guide value is $210,000, which begins to make it look like a coin that belongs in the company of the great rarities.

If we are satisfied with the story of the 1878-S, then what follows seems to make little sense. Not a single one of the half dollars that follow with mintages, like 5,900 for the 1879, 5,500 for the 1882 or 5,275 for the 1884, is priced in G-4 higher than $375.

Clearly there is something very unusual about the 1878-S as all the years that followed had lower mintages and now much lower prices. Part of the reason may well be that the later dates were produced in Philadelphia as opposed to San Francisco. Philadelphia was a stronghold of collecting. Many proofs were saved. A proof acquired by a collector in a place like Philadelphia had a far better chance of survival than a business strike in San Francisco.

Moreover, as the final half dollar strike for almost 15 years from San Francisco, the coins that did reach the streets probably circulated heavily.

We might be able to explain why the 1878-S would be a condition rarity. Whether we can truly explain why it is a significant rarity in any grade is another question and that question might not really have a good answer.

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News Express. >> Subscribe today

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