Walking Liberty Set Tough Enough to be Fun

from NUMISMATIC NEWS February 11, 2003
Written by Paul M. Green

There are not many coins of the United States which really deserve to have their design used a second time, but few could question the decision to use A.A. Weinman’s Walking Liberty half dollar again for the obverse of the silver American Eagle. The design is simply that good, a timeless American classic, and a collection of half dollars that is at least as interesting and impressive as the design.

The Walking Liberty half dollar’s burst onto the scene in 1916 was not an isolated event. In fact, there you could say that A.A. Weinman had perhaps the best coin designing year of any American in history, for in 1916 both his Mercury dime and Walking Liberty half dollar appeared.

It was ironic that the Weinman designs were selected in a design competition held to replace the Barber designs on the dime, quarter and half dollar. The Barber design had been chosen after a design competition back in the early 1890s that had been dubbed a “wretched failure.” Artists had refused to submit designs without changes in the competition’s setup, and then works submitted to an open competition were viewed as not satisfactory by officials. Barber’s designs were used basically because he was already on the payroll as chief engraver and all attempts at a real competition had failed.

In another irony of the time, by 1916 Charles Barber was an aging and not always very helpful chief engraver being asked to help in the process of removing his own designs. Barber had a track record of being hostile to outside artists designing the coins he felt should be designed by him. With three new designs in one year, it could have gotten unpleasant.

Three new coin designs in any single year are bound to have some problems, but based on what records exist, Barber appears to have been on something perilously close to his best behavior. He may simply have been too old and tired to fight, or perhaps even he recognized that the three winning designs were excellent.

It is also possible that Barber, having been around for decades, recognized that fighting and stalling would do no good – the Mint director was delighted with the new designs. In his report he had described the half dollar as “a fulllength Liberty, the fold of the stars and stripes flying to the breeze as a background, progressing in full stride toward the dawn of a new day, carrying branches of laurel and oak symbolical of civil and military glory. The hand of the figure is outstretched in bestowal of the spirit of liberty. The reverse of the half dollar shows an eagle perched high upon a mountain crag, his wings unfolded, fearless in spirit and conscious of his power. Springing from a rift in the rock is a sapling of mountain pine, symbolical of America.”

For one reason or another, the Walking Liberty half dollar design was able to to move through the process with little trouble. In 1916 the first Walking Liberty halves were produced with mintages of 608,000 at Philadelphia, 1,014,400 at Denver and 508,000 pieces at San Francisco.

The mintages seem low today, given that about 7.7 million Kennedy halves were struck in 2002 and almost none of those were for circulation – more than five million for Mint bag and roll sales and more than two million for the annual mint sets.

In 1916 the half dollar circulated, but it was a more significant sum of money. Plus, mintages had been trending low in years prior to 1916. From 1913 through 1915 there were eight different Barber half dollars, and six of the eight had mintages under one million pieces. The 1916-S at 508,000 was the low-mintage date for the first year of Walking Liberty half dollar, but since 1913 there had been three dates with mintages not only lower than 508,000 but lower than 200,000, or less than one-half the total of the 1916-S. Moreover, the 1913-D Barber half had a mintage of 534,000, a mere 26,000 pieces more than the 1916-S, so at the time the mintages would not have seemed unusually low to a half dollar collector.

Certainly as the first year of a new design there was going to be greater saving than would normally be the case. If we look at the prices of the three Walking Liberty half dollars of 1916, we see some evidence of that. The 1916 from Philadelphia is $32.50 in G-4, $270 in MS-60 and $ 1,4250 in MS-65. The 1916-D is $25 in G-4, $275 in MS60 and $ 1,800 in MS-65 while the 1916-S is $95 in G-4, $1,000 in MS-60 and $4.700 in MS-65. When you look at the 1916 mintages and prices, especially in MS-60, and compare them to other Walking Liberty half dollars, it becomes very clear that for their mintages the 1916 Walking Liberty half dollars are not at all expensive. Even the 1916-S at $1,000 in MS-60 is not out of line, as there are eight other dates with prices equal to or greater than the 1916-S but it is the fourth lowest mintage Walking Liberty half dollar, making it clearly more available at a lower price than its mintage would indicate. The logical reason is they were saved at the time when they were initially released.

In fact, there is added demand for the 1916 and some 1917 dates as they are significant type coins. In 1916 and some of 1917 the mintmark was on the obverse, but starting with some 1917 and all later production it was moved to the reverse. Many type collectors want examples of both the obverse and a reverse mintmark Walking Liberty half, but of the four available only the 1916-D had a mintage of even one million pieces. The 1917-D obverse mintmark had a production of 765,400, and the 1917-S with the obverse mintmark checked in with a 952,000-piece mintage. That makes for added demand but a very small supply of available coins, even tougher in top grades.

With the mintmark moved from below the word TRUST on the obverse to near the rim at about 8 o’clock on the reverse, the Walking Liberty half dollar had a permanent design that would last until it was replaced in 1948 by the Franklin half dollar. Mintages grew to be higher than had been seen in the past with a few important exceptions.

Of all the Walking Liberty half dollar dates from 1918 through the last coins in 1947, only four coins had a mintage well below one million and a fifth, the 1919, came in at a total of 962,000. All other dates are safely over one million pieces and a significant number are over five million. Prior to the introduction of the Walking Liberty half dollar, five million pieces was about as high as most half dollar mintages would ever go.

The 1919 being barely below one million in mintage is basically just a better Walking Liberty half dollar, with a G-4 listing of $18.50, an MS-60 listing of $1,000 and an MS-65 listing of $5,000. It’s not the key Walking Liberty half dollar.

The three Walking Liberty half dollars from 1921 are very different. It must be remembered 1921 was an unusual year. Massive silver dollar production was resumed in 1921, in addition to the introduction of the new Peace dollar design late in the year. The silver dollar production strained the Mint, and that is seen in vastly lower mintages for all silver coins of that year and for a couple years following. It is no accident there were no 1922 Walking Liberty half dollars – the facilities were simply too busy making silver dollars.

The 1921 half dollar mintage was perilously close to a token level of production. The Philadelphia mintage was 246,000, Denver produced 208,000 and San Francisco held an unusual place as the highest mintage of the three at 548,000. Historically, those mintages were not low for half dollars, but for the Walking Liberty half they would prove to be unusually low – the Philadelphia and Denver totals would stand up as the two lowest mintages in the history of Walking Liberty half dollars.

The Walking Liberty halves of 1921 are tough today. Unlike the 1916 coins, they were not heavily saved. The Philadelphia starts at $110 in G-4 and rises to $3,200 in MS-60 and $12,000 in MS-65. The 1921-D with the lowest mintage has the highest price in G-4 at $160. In MS-60 the 1921-D is $3,400 and in MS-65 it is at $15,000. The 1921-S had the highest mintage of the three, reflected in its current $29 G-4 price, but it is very tough in upper grades as seen in a $11,000 MS-60 price and an MS-65 price of $60,000.

As a group, the three 1921 dates have been a key group of Walking Liberty halves, along with the 1916 and 1917 obverse mintmark coins. If you were attempting a collection of Walking Liberty halves from circulation, there was not really one key coin like a 1916-D Mercury dime, but rather two groups you needed, and even if you could find a 1917-D with an obverse mintmark you might have a terrible time finding a 1916-D. It was true with the 1921 dates as well – you might find a 1921-D and 1921-S but would seemingly never find the Philadelphia 1921.

The one lower mintage Walking Liberty half dollar that could be found at least for a short time was the 1938-D, which had a total mintage of 491,600. In some respects the 1938-D was similar to the 1931-S Lincoln cent and the later 1950-D Jefferson nickel: all had low mintages but all were quickly discovered and saved in far greater numbers than was normally the case. As a result, they sometimes seemed tough if you sought to find one in circulation because their already low numbers had been reduced by heavy saving. If, however, you sought to find an example in uncirculated or upper circulated grade, they were relatively available. Even though 1938 was still a tough period in terms of the economy, the 1938-D was quickly identified and saved. That is why the 1938-D is $30 in G-4 today but $240 in AU-50, $400 in MS-60 and $950 in MS-65. They are premium prices, but there is not a significant price spread between AU-50 and MS-65. By comparison, a 1918 with a mintage over 6.6 million is almost the same AU-50 price at $240, but in MS-65 it is $3,500, far higher than the 1938-D and with a much greater price difference from AU50 to the uncirculated grades. The 1918 had a higher mintage and is priced just lower than the 1938-D in AU-50, but it is more expensive in any grade above AU-50 because it was not saved.

There is a great deal of focus on MS-65 prices today because the Walking Liberty half dollar design is so popular. In MS-65, however, the Walking Liberty half requires both a good deal of money and patience. Any MS-65 Walking Liberty half is at least $110, but many are not hundreds but rather thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, especially from before 1936, as the demand is great but the supply of top-quality examples is limited.

The key Walking Liberty half dollar in MS-65 is the 1919-S, currently priced at $100,000. It is virtually impossible in that grade and the 1921-S at $60,000 in MS-65 is not much easier. There are also a host of dates at $10,000-$21,000 in MS-65, topped by the $21,000 1918-D and including the 1917-S with obverse mintmark, the 1917-D with reverse mintmark, the 1919-S, 1920-D, 1920-S all 1921 mints and the 1923-S.

The high prices in MS-65 have caused some to focus on a grade like MS-60, but the Walking Liberty half dollar set in MS-60 is still a significant undertaking. The 1921-S is $11,000, but for many dates it makes a big difference. The 1919-S is only $3,400 in MS-60, while it is $100,000 in MS-65. In fact, in MS-60 there are roughly 10 dates at $ 1,000 or more but a significant number as low as $30-$50.

Another approach some have taken over the years is what is called a “short set,” which includes all the Walking Liberty half dollars from 1941-1947. What a short set offers is the chance to complete a set in high grade but at a more reasonable expense. There are some low mintages in this short set, but during much of the 1940s, especially at Philadelphia, the mintages were high and sometimes very high. There are also available supplies, so while a 1941-S in MS-65 is $1,100, only the 1942-S and 1944-S, both at $625, join the 1941-S at a price above $500 in MS-65. Most others are below $200. In MS-60, not a single date from the period is more than $75, making a very nice-looking set of coins possible at prices almost everyone can afford.

Whatever your budget can bear may be the best slogan for the Walking Liberty half dollar, whether it is a complete circulated set or a short set in the highest grade. Whatever your possibilities, Walking Liberty halves make for an interesting collection and one that, thanks to the design, is virtually impossible to resist. With that great design and some very tough dates, it’s a set for virtually everyone who likes coins of the United States.