Originally published in the June 10th, 2011 edition of the CDN Monthly Supplement
By Kathleen Duncan
The United States didn’t always place a priority on its numismatic artistry. Early mint officials primarily focused on the mechanics of production and uniformity in design. Charles Barber’s designs, for example, were practical and easy to manufacture. According to Teddy Roosevelt, however, they were aesthetically unfit for our great nation. The coinage redesigns that began in his presidency vastly outshined the beauty of their predecessors. From 1907 to 1921, the appearance of every United States coin changed. Each was given a unique design with the exception of the Quarter and Half Eagles, which shared Bela L. Pratt’s innovative incuse design. This individuality was an appreciated departure from previous eras where all our silver coinage shared one design and our gold denominations another.
Design talent was recruited from outside the mint with competitions in 1907 for the gold and 1916 for the silver, with the Lincoln cent (1909) and Buffalo nickel (1913) in between. One of America’s best young sculptors, A. A. Weinman, who studied under Augustus-Saint Gaudens, won honors for both his dime and half dollar models. His Walker design portrays Liberty striding left toward the rising sun with her right arm outstretched and her left cradling an olive branch. She is draped in an American flag and wears a liberty cap atop her head. A majestic eagle perched on a mountain crag appears on the coin’s reverse. The design is so well loved, that for the last twenty-five years the mint has been using Weinman’s obverse to produce our Silver Eagle bullion coins.
The Walking Liberty Half was produced over a 30 year time span. No serious changes were made to any of the design elements. Mintmark position changes were made from obverse to reverse in the middle of production in 1917, providing two varieties from the branch mints. Other than minor mintmark size changes (1928-S, 1934-D, 1941-2-S), many dates saw mintmark repunching, including the Eliasberg 1916-D which now resides in a PCGS MS67 holder. Additionally, several dates from the 30’s and 40’s can be found with doubling on either obverse, reverse or mintmark.
The design, though unquestionably beautiful, caused definite striking problems for the mints. Problem areas are Liberty's left (right facing) hand and leg, her head and skirt lines and the eagle's breast and leg feathers. Sharply struck coins command and deserve substantial premiums. In an attempt to improve the striking characteristics of the design, some minor modifications were made by Chief Engraver George T. Morgan in 1918 and again by Assistant Engraver John R. Sinnock in 1937 and 1938. Unfortunately, none of the revisions helped.
While mintage numbers were high through 1918 due to economic expansion during the First World War, production declined sharply in 1919, and was erratic for the next fifteen years. No half dollars were produced at all in the years 1922, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1930, 1931 and 1932. Additionally, only San Francisco produced any in 1923, 1927, 1928 and 1933. These were coins with substantial buying power, enough to buy a loaf of bread, a quart of milk and a dozen eggs at the time. So it didn't take huge quantities to fill Americans' needs, especially after the onset of the Great Depression. The sporadic production and highly circulated nature of the coins lead to the creation of some serious numismatic rarities amongst the early dates.
Patient collectors with ample funds can pursue the entire 65 coin set. Purchasing the dates from 1916 to 1929 takes considerable financial resources in high-grades, as these issues saw extensive commercial use and are much rarer than the later dates in the series. Although we recommend both PCGS and NGC coins, it should be noted that NGC coins often trade at much lower tariffs than their PCGS counterparts. This can be to the buyer’s advantage if purchasing at market levels, as often great coins can be acquired at notable discounts. Because of the substantial difference in price between these two services, and potential confusion, prices within this article refer to PCGS coins exclusively.
The most popular and affordable collecting strategy is the Short Set, comprising the twenty issues between 1941 and 1947. Once finished with their Short Sets, collectors often expand to the Late Dates consisting of the final forty issues (1933 to the end of the series). Another option is a Date Set, providing one example from each year, regardless of mint. For the most numismatically ambitious, varieties can be collected on 12 different issues. And last, but not least, the gorgeous run of proof strikings from 1936 to 1942 is a short yet sweet way to pursue this design.
Early Years (1916-1929)
There are over a dozen dates that enter the five figure category in the MS64 or MS65 level; the 1919-D is a $15,000 coin even in MS63, and the 1921-S is expensive in all uncirculated grades. One strategy employed by many is buying before the major price jump. It’s usually a good idea to begin buying the most difficult issues, as over time the Key dates tend to experience the greatest price appreciation.
If attempting to buy the highest grades obtainable, finding many of the early issues above the MS65 level will prove difficult. MS67s are practically nonexistent, with the 1919 showing a population of 5, the 1916 a mere 4, the 1916-D only 3, the 1917 but 2, and six other dates sporting 1 lone MS67 apiece (1916-S, 1917-S Obverse, 1918-S, 1923-S, 1929-D and 1929-S).
1916-S: Although MS65s trade with some frequency, this is a coin that is much more difficult to locate in MS66 than the population numbers suggest. MS66s are currently trading at the $20,000 level, considerably above the published price guides. None have crossed the auction block for half a dozen years. The solitary MS67 was graded long ago during the “rattler” era.
1919-D: The undisputed key to the series in higher uncirculated grades and scarce in all grades. If you don’t want to pony up six figures for a gem example, expect to pay a considerable premium for a well-struck MS64 as this issue is notoriously poorly struck.
1919-S: This has the second lowest mint state survival rate of the series due to heavy circulation along with a reduced mintage, causing even MS63s to approach the five figure range. For those with ample funds, MS65s and MS66s are reasonably available.
1921-S: The key to the entire series and second only to the ’19-D in MS65 and higher grades. Even in XF condition, this coin commands $5,000 as it is scarce in all grades. One can conservatively estimate that fewer than 200 true mint state examples exist. MS65s are exceptionally rare and there is but a single MS66 graded by PCGS. Strike is a problem, and well-defined examples are valued at noticeable premiums.
Middle Years (1933-1940)
With the exception of the 1935-D, all of the dates in this subset exist in MS67, although five will be challenging to locate: the 1934-D has but 2 MS67s, the 1934-S only 5, the 1935-S just 2, the underrated 1936-S a mere 6, and the 1940-S but 3. If seeking out the very best, the 1939 and 1940 also have decent populations in MS68. Four other dates have 1 or 2 MS68s as well: 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939-S, but most of these have been put away by a couple advanced collectors and are unlikely to see the light of day anytime soon.
1935: Although MS66s are relatively common, this date is surprisingly difficult to locate in MS67. MS67s only appear in auction once every two to three years. Expect to pay north of $5,000 to obtain one, 25% above price guide estimates.
1935-D: This key to the Late Date set is the worst struck coin of the middle dates, with examples displaying a well-rounded thumb and significant detail to Liberty’s hair and cap being nearly impossible to find. Look for partial separation of the branches that Liberty holds and a bit of definition to Liberty’s head. Flatness in the central obverse design is the norm, even on MS66s, and is probably why no MS67s exist.
1940-S: With this date begins a run of San Francisco mint coins with abysmal strikes and as I’ve placed each of the 3 MS67s at one point, I can state that 2 of the 3 had very little separation between the thumb and index finger. One may have to settle for ample detail to Liberty’s head and a flattish hand on this one.
Short Set Dates (1941-47)
The 20 coin Short Set ranks with Carson City Morgan dollars as the most collected group of all US coins, and we don’t expect its desirability to diminish any time soon. Recent increases in population figures of MS67 grades have created especially affordable prices (around $1,000 or less) on high-quality examples on the more plentiful issues.
1941-S: Commonly referred to as the classic rarity of the Short Set, population reports indicate the ’42-S and ’44-S are nearly as scarce in MS65 and slightly rarer in MS66 and MS67. This is a date infamous for its poor striking quality. Expect some weakness to Liberty’s hairline, skirt lines and left (right facing) hand. A moderately good strike is about all you can expect here.
1942-S: This date has emerged as the condition rarity of the Short Set dates, with the lowest population in MS66 and a lone MS67 graded by PCGS. Like all 1940’s S-Mint Walkers, this coin suffers from a soft strike. Criteria for purchasing should include noticeable separation between Liberty’s thumb and index finger on her left hand along with good definition on her head, and on the eagle’s breast feathers. Again, a reasonably good strike is as good as it gets.
1944-S: Although some numismatists may quibble, the 1944-S is likely the toughest short set coin to find with a full strike, typically more problematic on the obverse than reverse. Separation of the thumb and index finger on Liberty’s left hand is a rarity. Strong definition on her head and some distinction between her hand, thigh and the stem of the olive branch is obtainable; full striking detail is not.
From its storied inception during the renaissance of America’s coinage, to its use on today’s silver eagles, the Walking Liberty has been a popular favorite. The series has it all, from a beautiful design, to multiple subsets providing a wide variety of challenges. It has the ability to keep even the most tireless collector occupied for a great many years. Whether pursuing circulated examples or museum quality gems, you are certain to be charmed by this classic design which collectors and numismatists have cherished for nearly a century.
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 Until 1990, the U.S. Mint used to manually punch the mintmark into each individual coin die. Due to human error, occasionally a die would get two or more punches of the same mintmark. Although the mint usually caught these defective dies before any coins were produced from them, on very rare occasions a die would strike coins with multiple impressions of the same mintmark letter.