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The Much Acclaimed Standing Liberty
By Mike Thorne

Ask almost any long-time collector to name his or her favorite coin designs, and the answer is likely to be the following coins, not necessarily in the order presented: Saint-Gaudens gold $20, Walking Liberty half dollar, Buffalo nickel, and Standing Liberty quarter. And of those four designs, the first three have been used on modern reproductions, proving once again that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

The odd coin in this case is the one that some would consider the most attractive of the lot: the Standing Liberty quarter. As David Bowers puts it in Grading Coins by Photographs, “the Standing Liberty quarter was widely acclaimed from its first appearance.” Such acclaim also can be found in more modern numismatists, such as J. H. Cline, who wrote the following in Standing Liberty Quarters (4th edition): “Like no other coin or series, I loved the Standing Liberty quarter at first sight and that love still burns white hot!”

Now there may be a bit of hyperbole in that remark, but it’s probably not far off the mark. I, too, love the Standing Liberty quarter, although I wouldn’t say it’s with a “white hot” love.

The Standing Liberty quarter was part of the design renaissance that exchanged three great designs for the monotony of the Barber-designed dimes, quarters, and half dollars. Of course, the three Barber series have their fans, of which I am one, but most collectors don’t attribute to the Barber coins the phrase “design excellence,” which could easily be applied to their replacements.

Both the Mercury dime and the Walking Liberty half dollar were the work of Adolph Weinman, whereas Hermon A. MacNeil designed the Standing Liberty quarter. MacNeil was one of three sculptors (MacNeil, Weinman, and someone named Polasek) selected out of a larger group of 50 to submit potential designs for the dime, quarter, and half dollar. MacNeil’s obverse design, which at one point featured a pair of dolphins at Liberty’s feet, was chosen.

As for MacNeil’s reverse design, according to Cline, he “tried to capture the majesty of the American Bald Eagle in its glorious flight. However, many thought he failed; many claimed it had the wings of an eagle and the body of a dove and the beak of a hawk. Others view this Eagle in flight as a better proportioned [eagle] than [on] any other United States coin.”

The model for Liberty was long believed to have been Miss Doris Doscher, later Doris Doscher Baum following her marriage to Dr. William Baum. Doscher posed for other sculptors in addition to MacNeil and starred in several silent films under the name Doris Doree. Having overcome polio as a child, Doscher “was one of the first women to promote natural medicine and exercise for good health.”

Another possible model for Liberty put in her claim in 1972. At that time, Mrs. Irene MacDowell told “her family and closest friends …that she did indeed model for the Standing Liberty quarter. It was her beautiful statuesque figure that inspired Hermon MacNeil to design a coin that expressed the profound beauty of Liberty in art.…” According to Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, “Mrs. MacDowell’s name had remained a secret because her husband (one of MacNeil’s tennis partners) disapproved. Photographic evidence indicates a composite portrait, but beyond doubt Irene MacDowell was the principal model.”

Beyond the question of the model for the obverse, there’s also a controversy over the reason for the early design change that covered Liberty’s bare right breast with chain mail. According to both Breen and Cline, the “cover up” occurred because of contemporary prudery. Of course, this was not the official reason for the change. Cline writes:

“When the senators’ wives and representatives’ wives objected to the bare-breasted Miss Liberty on the quarter, the requests to change the design were worded in every conceivable way, i.e.: it would not stack properly. It was artistically incorrect. The design had lots of nooks and crevices and would catch a lot of germs. The mint could not strike up the design on the obverse as mechanical requirements were incorrect. Even the eagle’s feet were wrong! Anything and everything except a written request to cover Miss Liberty’s exposed breasts.”

Although the idea that prudery resulted in the breast covering is appealing and easy to accept, the truth may be more prosaic: The change was made to bring the design closer to that desired by MacNeil. In Robert R. Van Ryzin’s Twisted Tails, the author writes, “If there was significant public protest to the nudity on the Variety 1 design, it was well hidden.” In other words, Van Ryzin could find no contemporary evidence that the design change occurred because of a desire for modesty.

Collecting Standing Liberty Quarters
Collecting Standing Liberty quarters is really a story in three parts, as there are three different types. First, there is the bare-breasted design, with no stars beneath the eagle on the reverse. This was minted at the end of 1916 and the first part of 1917 and consists of four different coins: 1916 and 1917 P, D, and S.

Of these four coins, the 1917-dated pieces are relatively plentiful and reasonably valued, whereas the 1916 is the key to the series. With a mintage of just 52,000 pieces, the 1916 is both scarce and always in demand, both of which mean that the value is great. According to the November 2009 edition of Numismatic News “Coin Market,” the date starts at $6,350 in Very Good-8, which is likely not to have a full date, jumps to $9,500 in Fine-12, is worth $13,000 in Very Fine-20, $14,500 in Extremely Fine-40, $16,500 in About Uncirculated-50, $18,500 in Mint State-60, $23,000 in MS-63, $30,000 in MS-65, and $37,500 in MS-65 FH (full head).

Although $37,500 sounds like a lot to pay for a 1916 with a good strike, there is another date in the series that lists for more than this in MS-65 FH. This is the date with the second-lowest mintage in the series, the 1927-S. With a mintage of just 396,000 pieces, which is less than either of the keys in the Washington quarter series, values of the 1927-S start at a low $48 in VG-8 and rise by leaps and bounds to $165,000 in MS-65 FH. In other words, the 1927-S is one of those “condition rarities” (common in low grade, decidedly uncommon in high grades) that you often read about.

A design feature that reduced the supply of early Standing Liberty quarters is that the date was raised above the rim, which means that it quickly wore away in circulation. Couple this with the fact that many of the early dates were so poorly struck that they didn’t have full dates to begin with, and you have a recipe for greater than expected scarcity. The problem of the raised date was not corrected until 1925.

In the latter part of 1917, Liberty’s breast was covered with chain mail, as indicated above, and the eagle was raised, with three stars inserted beneath it. This is the second design type, and it was minted from 1917 through 1924.

Beginning in 1925, the date was finally recessed to create the third design type. Most grading guides lump together the recessed-date pieces with the second design type, which is a mistake because Variety 2 coins are almost certain to have less of the date visible for a given grade than Variety 3 quarters.

In addition to the 1916, which is the “big key” to the circulated set, there are a couple of semi-keys: the 1921 and the 1923-S. It’s significant that both of these dates fall into the Variety 2 classification, as their mintages were not exceedingly low. In fact, there are several quarters with recessed dates that had either similar or lower mintages.

The mintage of the 1921 was 1.9 million pieces. It’s worth $220 in VG-8, jumps to $450 in F-12, is $625 in VF-20, $750 in EF-40, $1,100 in AU-50, $1,500 in MS-60, $2,150 in MS-63, $3,850 in MS-65, and $5,500 in MS-65 FH (full head). Relatively speaking, $5,500 is not all that high for a specimen with a full strike, as it is considerably less than some of the other, more common, dates.

For example, the 1920-S lists for $24,000 with a full head, despite having a mintage more than three times as great as the 1921. Then there’s the 1926-S, with a mintage of 2.7 million pieces. It’s worth $28,000 in MS-65 FH.

The other semi-key to the circulated collection is the 1923-S, which had a mintage of 1,360,000 pieces. This date starts at $425 in VG-8 and rises rather gradually to a top value of $6,500 in MS-65 FH. Although this value is $1,000 greater than the corresponding value for the 1921, Cline writes, “Since the inception of the major grading services in 1986, they have proven that the 1921 is a bit scarcer than the 1923-S particularly in MS65 FH.…”

Cline notes that he has “seen this coin with an added mintmark more than all other dates combined.” Although he describes how you can tell the difference between the 1923-S and a 1923 with an added mintmark, I would urge you to buy only pieces certified by one of the leading certification services.

Although Standing Liberty quarters were still often seen in circulation when I started collecting coins in the mid-1950s, the only pre-1925 piece that I can remember finding was a 1918 in F-VF. I no longer have the coin, but if I did, it would be worth about $30 in this grade.

Looking at prices in “Coin Market,” I see that in addition to the 1921 and the 1923-S, a couple of the early dates have crossed the $100 mark in VG-8, the 1919-D and -S, which are worth $110 and $105, respectively. It’s probably no accident that these two dates are also pricy in MS-65 FH. In that grade, the 1919-D lists for $28,500 and the 1919-S for $30,000. About the 1919-D, Cline writes, “This date is one of the most underrated dates and mintmarks in the whole series in MS65/67, Full Head. It is truly rarer than the 1916.” For the 1919-S, he notes, “Full Heads of this date are very rare and would be closely paralleled with the value of the 1916, and very difficult to locate.”

With the exception of the 1927-S in higher grades, none of the dates after 1924 are all that expensive, particularly in circulated grades. In fact, most of them list for less than $10 in grades less than VF.

One of the few exceptions to this is the 1927-D, which has a published mintage of just 976,000 pieces. This mintage is the third lowest in the series, behind only the 1916 and the 1927-S. As you would expect given its low mintage, the 1927-D is worth $19 in VG-8 and $32 in F-12, both values well above $10. Surprisingly, in MS-65 it’s only worth $600.

According to Breen, the reason for the low value for this date in MS-65 and also for the 1926-D in the same grade ($545) is that bags of these dates were recovered from banks in the early 1930s. Thus, both are relatively plentiful in MS-65, but this doesn’t mean that they are similarly common with Full Heads. In fact, Cline writes about the 1926-D, “it almost never comes with a Full Head.” “Coin Market” values it at $22,500 in MS-65 FH.

Based on his experience, Cline has difficulty accepting the listed mintage of the 1927-D. He writes, “1927-D is one of those dates upon which your author would challenge the reported mintage figures.… This date is found at least ten to 25 times more often than its sister coin, the 1927-S, yet the reported mintage figures are not even three times as high.…”

One of the best coins my father and I found in circulation (he retrieved it from the “coffee change” at his office) was a 1927-D. I always graded it EF until I submitted it to a certification service and it came back with an AU-58 grade. The current AU-50 value is $210, and it’s worth $250 in MS-60. Not a bad coin for 25 cents. I would also have to add that it holds a lot of sentimental value for me, as it’s one of the few coins I still own from my collecting days with my father, who’s been deceased for many years.

As you may have noticed, I haven’t talked about the most valuable Standing Liberty quarters of all in MS-65 and MS-65 FH and the second most valuable date in all other grades. It’s the series overdate, 1918-S, 8 over 7, or 1918/17-S, as it’s sometimes written. Current values for the overdate start at $2,250 in VG-8 and end at $110,000 in MS-65 and a whopping $320,000 in MS-65 FH.

As with most varieties, the mintage of the 1918/17-S is unknown, and one reason for the date’s scarcity in higher grades is that it wasn’t discovered until many years after it was produced. According to Cline, “The first appearance of the overdate at public auction was the Barney Bluestone sale on December 4, 1937, as Lot #741. It sold for the unheard of figure of $26.25. The coin was brilliant Uncirculated.”

Cline also writes, “Although some do not consider the overdate a part of the set, your author considers that any date struck by the mint, overdate or not, is needed to complete the set. After all, the coin was struck at the mint and was not an error. It was planned.” Given the value of this coin in any grade, I suspect that most people who are trying to put together a set of Standing Liberty quarters treat the overdate as optional to the completion of their set.

It’s amazing how few varieties there are in the Standing Liberty quarter series. “Coin Market” lists only the overdate and large and small mintmarks on the 1928-S. In Cherrypickers’ Guide, Fivaz and Stanton concur with this limited number of varieties, writing, “For some unknown reason, there are very few varieties in the Standing Liberty quarter series.” They describe only five varieties, one of which is the overdate. Surprisingly, they fail to list the two different size mintmarks on the 1928-S.

Fivaz and Stanton do, however, list two 1928-S varieties: an inverted mintmark and a repunched mintmark. The other two varieties described are a 1929-S with a clashed die on the obverse and a 1930-S that probably has a repunched mintmark.

Cline pictures several different dates with interesting die breaks. He does not list the die-break variety that I found, however, and now I wish that I had kept it and submitted it for inclusion in future editions of his book. It was a die break at the top of the obverse on a 1927-D that made it appear that Liberty had an arrow through her head. In fact, I referred it to as my Steve Martin variety, because the famous comedian sometimes appeared early in his television career wearing a hat made to look like an arrow was going through his head.

In terms of collectibility, the Standing Liberty quarter series has a lot going for it. The coin has a great design; the series is relatively short, with only 37 different date/mintmark combinations; and most of the dates are reasonably priced in circulated grades, if you can find them.

There are, however, some drawbacks to the series. One of the biggest problems is that the series begins with a major stopper, the 1916. In any decent grade, the coin will cost you several thousand dollars. Also, the 1921 and 1923-S are pricy in all grades, if you can find them. I’ve looked for a nice, full-date 1923-S off and on for years, with no success.

Still, if you have a deep pocketbook for coin purchases, this is a great series to tackle.


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