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Collect Seated Half Dimes Ignored by Others
By Paul M. Green

If you are looking for an interesting set at a great price, the Seated Liberty half dime may be just the set for you. Right now the Seated Liberty half dime has a couple things working against it in terms of popularity, but they work in your favor if you want a good price on the coins you are buying.

Like any coins that have not been in production for a long time, the Seated Liberty half dime is basically overlooked by current collectors. It might not seem correct, but the evidence is clear that when a coin is out of sight, it is frequently out of mind when it comes to starting a collection for many. The Seated half dime has been out of sight for 137 years. Nobody recalls pulling them from circulation.

The other factor is that even if the half dime was still being produced and used, because it is a small denomination, it would probably not be very active in the marketplace. That is not to say that it is always that way with collector interests but in recent times there is no doubt that large denominations like the silver dollar have been more popular.

Sure, the quarter got a large boost in popularity with the 50 state quarter program but there can be no new design to wake up the half dime denomination.

In the 1830s the half dime was expected to be very active. In fact it had been through an interesting period. Despite the statements of officials dating all the way back to 1792 declaring that half dimes were needed for commerce, the mintages and regularity of production had not seemingly been in line with the views expressed by officials.

Even after 1804 when production of the silver dollar and gold eagle was suspended to free up more time and resources at the Mint to make lower denominations, the mintages of half dimes had not increased in the way many might have expected. In fact, it was the exact opposite with the 1805 having a mintage of just 15,600 pieces and then the next half dime was not produced until 1829.

The return of the half dime to production in 1829 was the start of a period of regular mintages. By the time the new design of Christian Gobrecht was ready in 1837, the mintage of the year, which was split between the new and old designs, would be 2,276,000 – a significant improvement over the old mintage totals.

The first Seated Liberty half dime, the 1837, came with either a small or large date with little difference between the two although the large date is more available in MS-60 at $640 and MS-65 at $3,650 although in G-4 it is a bit more expensive at $39 than the small date, which is $35.

The design at the time was evolving and would change in 1838 with the exception of the 1838-O which probably reflects the fact that New Orleans was just starting coin production and the very real possibility that there was a delay in getting the dies to New Orleans for the new design.

The mintage of the 1838-O was just 70,000 pieces, which helps to explain why the 1838-O lists for $110 in G-4, $2,500 in MS-60 and $29,500 in MS-65 where it is very scarce and as the only New Orleans issue of the type has slightly higher than normal demand.

The high prices for the 1838-O in Mint State would actually prove to be fairly typical as there were few collectors in the New Orleans area at the time to save nice examples of new coins as they were released. In fact, it would be decades before there was serious interest in collecting by date and mint, which meant that in the case of most coins from New Orleans they were simply placed in circulation and before anyone attempted to save them for a collection many times they were heavily worn.

The 1838-O also exhibits the sometimes indifferent New Orleans minting quality as Mint State examples do exist, but almost none meets the standards for a grade like MS-65 today as is seen by the fact that Numismatic Guaranty Corp. reports a single 1838-O in MS-65 while PCGS has so far not seen a single example it would consider MS-65 and that lack of quality would continue to haunt the sometimes sparsely saved New Orleans issues for decades.

Starting with the Philadelphia 1838 and the 1839 from New Orleans, stars were added to the obverse making a new type. The type, however, would also be short-lived as drapery would be added to Liberty’s left elbow in 1840. While short-lived, the type is available at $21.50 to $28.50 for non-error dates in G-4 while an available date MS-60 is $270 with an MS-65 at $2,275.

The addition of drapery in 1840 would finally complete the design. This addition started with some of the 1840 mintage and would last for over a decade. That makes type examples fairly easy to acquire with a G-4 at $16 while the most available MS-60 is $175 with an MS-65 around $1,250. In the case of Mint State coins, you have to be impressed by their modest prices as these issues now as much as 170 years old show the trend that there is limited demand for Seated Liberty half dimes and this relative lack of demand keeps prices very reasonable.

Although the type is available there are still some better dates. That is especially true in the case of New Orleans issues where you find dates like the 1844-O with a mintage of 220,000 at $80 in G-4 while the 140,000 mintage 1849-O is just $29 in the same grade.

The 1849-O has a good reputation especially as a tough date in Mint State where its MS-60 price is $2,350 and unpriced in MS-65. In Mint State there are just under 30 examples reported at the two grading services combined, but realistically almost none reached MS-65, with the best at Professional Coin Grading Service being an MS-64 while NGC reported one in MS-66.

The main story in terms of the better dates in the 1840s is the very low mintage 1846 with a production of just 27,000 pieces. That low total puts the 1846 at $410 in G-4 and $11,500 in MS-60. The interesting thing about the 1846 is that even with a low mintage we would expect some to have been saved as it was produced at Philadelphia, but that does not appear to be the case as NGC has seen only 19 examples of the 1846 and most were below AU-50 while the PCGS total of 40 shows only two pieces in Mint State with the best being an MS-63. Simply put, this is a much tougher coin than even its already high MS-60 price suggests.

There would be some interesting Seated Liberty half dimes in the early 1850s as like other silver coins the half dime stopped circulating. People were hoarding it. The reason was simple in that the discovery of gold in California had upset the traditional gold to silver ratio, making silver coins’ metallic value higher than face value. The Congress needed to act, but in 1851 instead of reducing the amount of silver in coins as was needed, the Congress instead authorized a 75 percent silver three-cent piece. That might have bought them some time, but did nothing to solve the problem with other denominations.

The public meanwhile had figured out the situation and had hoarded the silver coins there were in circulation, causing a national coin shortage. The problem for the Mint was that producing coins would actually cause the Mint to lose money, which is never a good thing, but not producing coins in the face of a national coin shortage makes it look like the Mint is not doing its job. Just to add to the difficulty, even if the Mint did produce more coins, the odds were that except for the 75 percent silver three-cent piece and copper or gold issues the coins would be hoarded, leaving the country still without circulating silver issues.

There was frankly no good solution and what the Mint seemed to do in some cases was to have lower than average production. We see that in the case of the 1852-O half dime, which had a mintage of 260,000 and the Philadelphia 1853 which was just at 135,000. Both could have been routine low mintages but the best guess is that in both cases they were simply trying to split the difference between two bad options.

With their low mintages, the two would probably be better today, but in both cases melting is very possible as the Congress did act in early 1853, reducing the amount of silver slightly. That naturally saw some melting of the older, larger silver issues but the 1852-O remains very reasonable at $25 in G-4 as does the 1853 which is at $40 in the same grade. In MS-60 the two are $885 and $850, respectively, with the 1853 being more available in MS-65 at $2,850 while the usually flatly struck 1852-O is a problem at $11,500.

The date that really shows evidence of melting is the 1853-O. It started with a low mintage of 160,000, but that is actually higher than the Philadelphia 1853. It is much less available than the Philadelphia 1853, however, with a G-4 price of $285 while an MS-60 is $6,450 with an MS-65 at $27,500. In fact, that MS-65 price is probably cheap as the 1853-O has been graded only once at MS-65 by PCGS while NGC has never graded an example higher than MS-64.

With the congressional action to reduce the amount of silver finally coming in early 1853, there were quick large mintages in an attempt to get a lot of silver coins into circulation. The new half dimes would have arrows placed next to the date to indicate the change and they would last for a couple years. Examples of the type are readily available with all but the 1855-O having a mintage of at least 1 million pieces, making an available G-4 just $16 while an MS-60 is $200 with an MS-65 at $2,100 and up. The 1855-O with a mintage of 600,000 is slightly better at $21 in G-4 while in Mint State it is typical of New Orleans dates at $545 in MS-60 and $4,950 in MS-65.

The arrows were removed in 1856 creating the next type of Seated Liberty half dime, which would last only through 1859. The type is also available with a G-4 at $16 while an MS-60 is $175 and an MS-65 is $1,250. There are better dates in the form of errors. The 1858 has both a doubled date and an inverted date with the doubled date listing at $45 in G-4 while the inverted date is just $30. Both are better in Mint State where the doubled date is $800 in MS-60 with the inverted date almost identical at $675.

In 1860 the design was changed with the stars on the obverse being replaced by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, which was an interesting decision on the verge of Civil War. The change, however, would last through the production of the final Seated Liberty half dime in 1873, although there was also a peculiar variation with the mintmark moving from 1870-1872 to a place just above the bow on the reverse as opposed to its normal place below the bow. All types are available at $16 in G-4 with an MS-60 as little as $145 while an MS-65 would start at $975.

There are a number of interesting dates from the period. One would have to be the 1863-S, which had a mintage of 100,000, putting it at $35 in G-4, $750 in MS-60 and $3,400 in MS-65. The 1863-S has not just a below average mintage, but also an interesting place in history as it was the first half dime to be produced in San Francisco.

What makes that interesting is that San Francisco had begun coin production back in 1854, but took nearly a decade to get around to producing half dimes. That tells us something about the situation at the time as certainly there were no half dimes shipped 3,000 miles from Philadelphia to California, suggesting apparently that making change involving the denomination was simply not a very high priority at San Francisco.

There are other better dates from the period as with the suspension of specie payments and the pressures of the war the Philadelphia mintages of 1863-1867 are all quite low with the highest total of the group being the 1864 at 48,470 pieces. The low was the 1867 at under 9,000. In light of such totals, the prices today are reasonable ranging from $200 for a G-4 1863 to $550 for the 1867 in the same grade. It is interesting in that in MS-60 the prices are in a range of $800 to $1,375, which is not very expensive when you consider the low mintages.

The prices in a grade like MS-60 are potentially influenced by the presence of proofs as at the time there was a small proof production each year as it was a popular method of collecting to acquire a proof example of every date. The proofs, while small in numbers, went to collectors and received much better care, meaning they have survived in sometimes surprisingly large numbers to the present day.

Those 450-600 proofs each year now priced at about $1,550 in Proof-65 may well keep MS-60 prices down as for the same money most would rather take the nice Proof-65 as opposed to an MS-60.

There is no way to avoid the arrival of the first Shield nickel in 1866 in a discussion of Seated Liberty half dimes. The first Shield nickel did not spell an immediate end to silver half dimes but it certainly did not help to prolong the life of the silver half dime as is seen by the fact that the two versions of the same denomination would last for less than a decade in production together.

The final years of the Seated Liberty half dime would see the creation of the most significant rarity in the set and that is the unique 1870-S. The story is simple in that to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of the new San Francisco Mint it was decided to put an example of every denomination in the cornerstone including denominations not being produced that year. That meant a special production of 1870-S half dimes, quarters, Seated Liberty dollars and $3 gold pieces. Some extra Seated Liberty dollars were made for presentation purposes, but in theory there would only be one example struck of the other denominations.

The theory was not reality as it was known in the early 1900s that there was a single 1870-S $3 gold piece. What that meant is that either the coin was not placed in the cornerstone or a second example was created. For decades, however, there was no known example of the other denominations until the 1970s when the Chicago dealer RARCOA announced the discovery of an 1870-S Seated Liberty half dime.

It was an extraordinary discovery and touched off an immediate discussion as to the value of the piece. Q. David Bowers explains in his book American Coins Treasures and Hoards how the price of the 1870-S was tied to the Bowers and Ruddy sale of the Garrett Collection 1804 with the agreed-on price being $25,000 more than the 1804 dollar. In fact, the 1804 sold for a stunning $400,000, making the 1870-S half dime $425,000.

As it turned out, the 1870-S could not hold that price as the market softened and the 1804 price of $400,000 at the time had been one of those moments when a rare coin simply goes way beyond the price anyone expected.

In 1985 Martin Paul was able to buy the 1870-S for $176,000. (It was valued at $1.4 million in a transaction in 2009.)

There are some slightly better Seated Liberty half dimes in the final years of production such as the 1871-S, which had a mintage of 161,000 and the 1873-S, which followed with a 324,000 total. Even with those lower totals neither is very costly with the 1873-S at just $150 in MS-60 showing the sort of good values still to be found in Seated Liberty half dimes as it is fairly low mintage and a product of a branch mint where any Mint State examples are usually tougher than might be expected.

The final production of the Seated Liberty half dime came in 1873. Since that time the Seated Liberty half dime has been increasingly overlooked as it drifts further and further into American numismatic history. As seen with today’s prices the Seated Liberty half dime deserves to be revisited by any collector seeking good values and interesting coins as a Seated Liberty half dime set offers both.

When will the series wake up? Interested buyers want to get in before this happens.


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