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Working on a Standing Liberty Quarters Registry Set

A history of the coin that was generally disregarded, but has come to be appreciated for its artistry by most of today's collectors.
A 1916 Standing Liberty quarter (Courtesy of Stack’s-Bowers)

A 1916 Standing Liberty quarter (Courtesy of Stack’s-Bowers)

The late J.H. Cline, Standing Liberty quarter aficionado, had this to say about the coin in the introduction to the 4th edition of his book, Standing Liberty Quarters: "Like no other coin or series, I loved the Standing Liberty quarter at first sight[,] and that love still burns white hot!" I can't say that I was that enamored with the coin when I was a junior collector in the 1950s, but it was definitely one of my favorites.

After all, it was nothing like the staid Washington quarter that almost always appeared in my change. I say "almost," because Standing Liberty quarters and even the odd Barber quarter showed up from time to time.

My love for the series really began with a coin my father brought home that he had found in the "coffee change" at his office. It was a 1927-D quarter, which for many years had the highest grade that I had ever seen on a Standing Liberty quarter. I seem to recall that my father and I decided it was XF. Many years later a now-defunct grading service called it AU58. PCGS, on the other hand, certified it as AU55.

More recently, I submitted it to Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC), and it came back proudly sporting a "green bean." CAC will, for a fee, decide whether your PCGS or NGC coin is "solid" for the grade on the holder, that is, in the upper tier of coins of a particular grade. If it is, the coin earns a CAC acceptance sticker, or green bean.

Another reason that I like the 1927-D quarter is its 976,000 mintage, which makes it one of only three Standing Liberty quarters, not counting the overdate, with a mintage less than a million. The other two are the 1916 (52,000) and the 1927-S (396,000). Cline, by the way, didn't believe that the 1927-D had as low a mintage as reported.

The Standing Liberty quarter was designed by Hermon Atkins MacNeil, a talented sculptor born on February 27, 1866, near Chelsea, Mass. Trained as an art teacher at the State Normal School in Boston, he taught modeling at Cornell University before following the lead of many of his contemporaries by going to Paris for further training.

Returning to the U.S. in time to assist with the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, he became enamored with the Native Americans he saw in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show then in Chicago. A commission he received to do reliefs for Chicago's Marquette Building helped launch MacNeil's career. The reliefs depict Indians with the missionary Jacques Marquette.

MacNeil's work in Chicago led to the Rinehart scholarship to go to Rome, and it was there that he developed an international reputation for his sculptures in bronze of American Indians. His triumphant return to the U.S. led to the receipt of many awards and commissions. His effort on one of these commissions produced the art for which he's famous with numismatists, the Standing Liberty quarter. MacNeil died on October 2, 1947.

1927-D Standing Liberty quarter (Courtesy of Stack’s-Bowers)

1927-D Standing Liberty quarter (Courtesy of Stack’s-Bowers)

Although most of today's collectors appreciate the artistry of the Standing Liberty quarter, this wasn't always the case. For one thing, contemporary collectors and the public didn't like the fact that the dates on the coins, elevated on a pedestal, quickly wore away. This was finally rectified in 1925, when the date was recessed.

General disregard for the design was shown in the move to create a circulating quarter honoring our first president in 1932. Obviously, the Washington quarter would replace the Standing Liberty quarter, which had, according to David Bowers' A Guide Book of Washington and State Quarters, ". . . an unsatisfactory design now being issued."

As you probably know, a change was made in the coin's design early in its tenure. Specifically, coins minted in 1916 and part of 1917 are called Type 1, whereas those struck later in 1917 and the rest of the series through 1924 are Type 2s. Although not everyone agrees, I consider quarters from 1925 through 1930 a third type because of the recessed date.

Type 1 Standing Liberty quarters differ from the rest of the series on both the obverse and the reverse. On the obverse, the standing figure of Liberty has her right breast exposed, whereas the eagle flies lower on the reverse, with no stars beneath it. On all the Standing Liberty quarters following the Type 1s, Liberty's upper body is covered in chain mail, and the eagle flies higher, with three stars below it.

At some point in the history of the S-L 25c, some "authorities," chief among them the late Walter Breen, claimed that the reason for the change from Type 1 to Type 2 was public outcry over the salacious nature of Liberty's exposed breast. The 5th edition of A Guide Book of United States Coins Mega Red, called this idea "revisionist history" and further stated, "No contemporary articles or documents have been located to reinforce this assertion."

And yet the claim is still being made. According to an article in the August 2020 edition of CAC Magazine, "In the early 20th century, such a design was perceived as downright scandalous and was met with large scale disapproval." The author continued, "The uproar reached such magnitudes that even religious leaders spoke out against it; making it arguably the greatest controversy in the history of U.S. coinage."

That might be the case if there were any truth to the myth of the "obscene" quarter. Bob Van Ryzin, long-time editor of this magazine, published an article in 1988, ". . . which explored the background and re-examined the story behind the quarter's release, leading to the conclusion that the design change in 1917 was not due to public protest over nudity on the Type 1 quarter." This quote came from Van Ryzin's 2009 book, Fascinating Facts, Mysteries & Myths About U.S. Coins.

Although I've admitted to liking the design of the Standing Liberty quarter early in my collecting life, for many years I worked on other coin series. Perhaps the knowledge of the scarcity and expense of the 1916 held me back. At any rate, all this changed when I attended the 2019 ANA convention in Rosemont, Ill. There, I found myself at a table on which the dealer had a variety of PCGS-certified S-L 25c. I was particularly fascinated by an MS64 1923-S and an MS65 1921.

For many years, I had casually looked for a 1923-S, which I knew to be a scarce date in the series, in a high enough grade that it would have a full, 4-digit date. I typically looked for coins with a grade of XF or better, but even these sometimes had weakness in the first couple of digits. Now I was looking at a coin with full mint luster, a solid date, and few marks that I could see with my unaided eye. I wanted it, and I also wanted its companion piece, the 1921.

Amazingly, the dealer was quite willing to work out a trade, as he wanted my XF45 1911-D Indian Head quarter eagle, the big key to the series of which it's a part. Soon, I was the proud possessor of a couple of better dates in the S-L 25c series.

I picked up several other uncirculated S-L 25c at the convention and immediately began to think about starting a PCGS Registry Set of the series. PCGS has Registry Sets that allow you to list all the PCGS-graded coins you own in a particular series. Your set receives a ranking based on factors such as completeness and the grades of the coins, and you can use the ranking to compare your set with others of the same series.

I wrote an article about my S-L 25c Registry Set efforts in December 2019. At that time, I had 15 different quarters, and my set was ranked number 45 in the category of Basic Set, Circulation Strikes. In the category of Standing Liberty Quarters With Major Varieties, Circulation Strikes, the same set was ranked number 20. There's only one major variety, by the way, the 1918/7-S overdate, so the set with varieties requires 38 coins for completion, without varieties, 37.

As I write this, I have 26 different, having picked up an additional 11 coins since my December 2019 report. My set with the overdate is now ranked number 41 out of the 88 sets being assembled. Without the overdate, it has moved from number 20 to number 19 out of 38 sets.

One of the nicest of the 11 coins is a 1917-D Type 1, which grades MS65FH. The FH stands for Full Head, which is an indication of the sharpness of the strike. It's analogous to the Full Split Bands on the Mercury dime or the Full Bell Lines on the Franklin half dollar. I paid $900 for the coin, which has a wholesale value of $1,000. Numismatic News "Coin Market" (CM) assigns it a value of $1,650 with Full Head. In other words, I got a bargain on this addition to my set.

Of course, any bargains I get usually only partially make up for the coins I buy that aren't bargains. A good example of this is a 1924-S that I purchased. When I bought it, it was in an NGC holder, with a grade of MS65. I paid $1,575 for the coin, which was $175 below its MS65 wholesale value.

With bated breath, I fired it off to PCGS, hoping the coin would "crossover" to a PCGS MS65. As you can probably guess, it came back graded MS64. It's still the same great coin it was before I submitted it to PCGS, but the wholesale value for the date in MS64 is only $1,300. From this, you can see why I need bargains to offset coins like my MS64 1924-S.

Another of my bargains was a 1927 PCGS MS65FH that I got for $695. "Coin Market" says it's worth $1,150 in this condition. It's a common date, to be sure, but still a nice coin.

I paid $1,050 for a 1918 in MS66 condition. This is the wholesale price for the date and grade if it has CAC approval. Mine doesn't, but I plan to submit it in the not-too-distant future. PCGS gives it a retail value of $1,500.

I bought a couple more MS65FH quarters: 1929 and 1930. The 1929 also has a CAC sticker, which gives it a wholesale value of $760. That's significantly more than the $525 wholesale value of the MS65FH without the sticker. I paid $660 for the coin, which "Coin Market" values at $795. No matter what pricing guide I consult, I feel like I got this coin at a great price.

The 1930 MS65 FH set me back $534, with its wholesale value at $485, according to Heritage Auctions. This is another coin that I'll send to CAC. Again, CM says it's worth $795.

For some reason that's unknown to me now, I paid a whopping $545 for a 1924 quarter in MS65. It does have a CAC sticker, which increases its wholesale value from $320 to $340, considerably less than I paid for it as you can see. Its CM value is just $432, which is supposed to be retail. What was I thinking? I purchased the coin in August 2020, so perhaps the boredom of "sheltering in place" had gotten to me.

The remaining four coins I've added are 1923, 1926, 1928, and 1929-D. I don't think I've paid too much for any of these, but I haven't gotten any bargains either.

The pace of my additions has slowed considerably, as my most recent purchase was the 1924-S more than two months ago. Most, but not all, of the dates I lack are big-ticket items.

One example of a missing date that's not expensive is the 1925. With a mintage of more than 12 million, 1925 has the same wholesale values as the 1924, for which I paid an arm and a leg. If I ever do find a 1925 that I like, I hope I won't be as eager to buy it as I apparently was the 1924.

In addition to the 1925, I also lack the 1916 (of course!), 1917-S Type 1, 1917-D and S Type 2, all the 1919s, 1920-D, 1926-S, and 1927-S. Considering the CM values, the only ones of these I consider problematic pricewise are the 1919-D and S and the 1927-S. Even in MS63, the 1919s are $2,450 and $2,640, respectively, whereas the 1927-S is $7,000 in that grade. I can see looking for a nice AU 1927-S, but from what I've seen online, they are few and far between.

I consider that I've progressed too far with my Standing Liberty quarter set to give up now. I just hope that when I write another report on my Registry Set, I'll have made some progress worth noting.