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The 20th Century's Most Beautiful Silver Coin

Adolph Weinman's stunning design debuted in 1916.
Adolph Weinman's stunning design debuted in 1916.

Reprinted with permission from the INSIDE VIEW.

United States coinage design reached an aesthetic high point just after the turn of the 19th Century. It started in 1907 with the introduction of the $10 Indian and $20 St. Gaudens. The $2 ½ and $5 Indian design came in 1908. The Buffalo nickel replaced the Liberty nickel in 1913. In 1916, three of our most beautiful coins were first issued, the Mercury dime, Standing Liberty quarter, and Walking Liberty half dollar. All of these coins are considered great examples of the coining art. And they all replaced much more conservative (some would say dull) designs. It was truly the Golden Era of U.S. coin design.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. The Washington quarter replaced the Standing Liberty quarter in 1932. Franklin Roosevelt stopped the minting of all U.S. gold coins in 1933. The Jefferson nickel replaced the Buffalo nickel in 1938. The Roosevelt dime replaced the Mercury dime in 1946. And the Franklin half dollar replaced the Walking Liberty half dollar in 1948, and was itself replaced by the Kennedy half dollar in 1964. We now have heads of dead Presidents on our coins. While these men deserve historical respect, their coins are definitely not the artistic achievements of their predecessors.

Buffalo nickels, Mercury dimes, Standing Liberty quarters and Walking Liberty half dollars have been extremely popular with collectors since the early 1950s. In the 1950s and 1960s, the focus was on the lower mintage, scarce dates and they were sought in all grades.

In the 1970s, the focus was on the high quality Mint State examples. It was also at this time that acquiring fully struck dimes and quarters, i.e., Mercury dimes with "Full Bands" and Standing Liberty quarters with "Full Head," became important.

In the 1980s, third party grading (PCGS) revolutionized the rare coin market and coin buyers became obsessed with the highest end of the quality scale. Quality premiums expanded greatly.

In the 1990s, Buffalos, Mercuries, Standing quarters, and Walkers moved contrary to the general coin market. The general coin market was down sharply from 1990 to 1994 and then was basically flat (with some minor ups and downs) from 1995 to 2000. But during the 1990s, all but a few Buffalo nickels were up in price. Many Mercury dimes and Standing Liberty quarters were up in price. And while the lower priced Walking Liberty half dollars came down in price, the rare dates actually were up for the decade.

The underlying factor in the relatively stellar performance of these four during the 1990s was tremendous collector demand. People love to collect these coins! As the new Century begins, collector demand for classic 20th Century coins is as strong as ever. There is a tremendous amount of set building in these four series and prices are on the move again. In this issue of the INSIDE VIEW, we are going to take a close look at one of the "big four" of the first half of the 20th Century. We're going to look at the great opportunities in the now hot again Walking Liberty half dollar series.

Our Most Beautiful Silver Coin

Walking Liberty half dollars were minted from 1916 to 1947. Many numismatists consider the Walking Liberty half dollar to be one of the most beautiful coins ever minted. Adolph Weinman designed both the Mercury dime and Walking Liberty half dollar. Here is the description of his half dollar design from the Breen Encyclopedia.

"Weinman's design, replacing Barber's stolid Germanic conception, embodies a remarkable conceit: Ms. Liberty wears the American flag, anticipating a rebellious counterculture fad by 50 years. Striding eastward (toward war-torn Europe), she points into the sky at nothing visible; in the crook of her left arm is an oversized bundle of oak and laurel branches, said to be for military and civilian honors. On her feet are Roman cross-thonged sandals; on her head is the same kind of close-fitting cap as on Weinman's dime, though here apparently wingless. On reverse, the gnarled tree nearest the eagle's forward talons is said (in Mint Director Robert Woolley's Annual Report, June 1916) to be 'a sapling of Mountain Pine, symbolic of America.'"

Walking Liberty half dollars are spectacular looking! And their beauty is undoubtedly a contributing factor to their extreme popularity with collectors. Note that the U.S. Mint revived this classic design in 1986 by using Weinman's exact obverse design for U.S. Silver Eagles.

A Work of Art in Three Parts

Most collectors mentally divide the Walking Liberty half dollar series into three sections;

  1. The Early Dates (1916-1929). The early dates are the rarest Walkers. Very few were saved at the time of issue. Most collectors of the time preferred the more affordable lower denomination coins, especially cents and nickels. The examples of Mint State early dates that survive today owe their existence to the farsightedness of three hoarders, A.C. Gies, William Pukall, and visionary dealer, Wayte Raymond, all of whom accumulated a handful of original uncirculated rolls in the 1930s.

  2. The Middle Dates (1933-1940). The Mint did not issue half dollars in 1930 through 1932, undoubtedly due to the Depression's lack of a need for additional circulating coins of higher denominations. Half dollar production was resumed in 1933 and the 1933 through 1940 issues were saved in much larger quantities than earlier issues. There are many budget minded collectors who only collect the less expensive 1941 to 1947 "short set" dates. And a good number of collectors are working on the complete 1916 to 1947 set. Collectors occasionally work on the 1933 to 1947 issues as a set, and very rarely just the 1933 to 1940 issues. Nonetheless, the 1933 to 1940 middle dates are an important part of the Walking Liberty half dollar series. Additionally, I feel the biggest bargains are currently in the middle dates, especially the scarce Denver and San Francisco issues.

  3. The Late Dates (1941-1947). There's no magic reason why 1941 to 1947 is considered a "set." Actually, the old Whitman coin albums (which were heavily marketed during the coin collecting boom of the late 1950s/early 1960s) divided the series into two albums due to space considerations. Album One was the 1916 to 1940 issues, while Album Two was the 20 1941 to 1947 issues. So the 1941 to 1947 Walking Liberty Half dollar "short set" became a "set" because Whitman coin albums didn't have room for the entire Walker set in one album. This "short set" collecting tradition continues to this day and numerous collectors buy these coins and work on this set. The 1941 to 1947 Walkers have come way down in price from 1990 to 2000. Lately, prices have been moving up and the market looks like it's making a strong comeback.

So, the Walking Liberty half dollar series has something for everyone; rare early dates, scarce middle dates, and fairly available late dates. This is a series that is challenging and fun, and for those who limit their purchases to the late dates, affordable to almost everyone.

The Long and Short Term Outlook

For both the short and long term, the outlook for the Walking Liberty half dollar series is very bullish. Here are the reasons why Walkers are currently one of the rare coin market's highest potential coins and why they should continue to do extremely well long into the future;

  1. Huge collector demand. Walking Liberty half dollars have been a collector favorite for over three decades. Collectors love these coins. In addition, the PCGS Set Registry has added fuel to the fire as hundreds of collectors compete for the top spots.

  2. Extreme beauty. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but everyone agrees that this is one of our most beautiful coins. Beauty is timeless, and in coins, beauty creates collector demand.

  3. Numismatic and historical importance. Walkers are historically important coins that tie into major events of the 20th Century. The series is a result of President Theodore Roosevelt's dream for American coinage, and the series runs from World War I, to the Great Depression, to World War II, and ends at the beginning of the Post-World War II economic boom. Numismatically, Walkers are one of the most important series in the 20th Century.

Both the short and the long term outlooks for the Walking Liberty half dollar series are very positive. If financial potential is a consideration for you, Walkers are a good place to be.

Recommended Strategy

There are several ways to participate in the Walking Liberty half dollar series. The two strategies that I recommend are to either build a set of high quality examples, or buy high quality late dates for yourself and/or your kids.

Set building is the most powerful way to successfully participate in the coin market. The vast majority of the people who I have seen enjoy financial success with rare coins have been those who put together sets of high quality rare coins. And we are currently in the midst of a coin collecting renaissance, so set building is more powerful than ever.

If you want to build a set of Gem quality Walkers, you have several options. First, you need to choose between the 1916 to 1947 complete set, 1933 to 1947 set, and 1941 to 1947 short set. They are all good options. Second, you need to decide whether to build an all MS65 grade set, or whether you want to really "go for it" and buy the highest grades possible for each issue. Again, either option has great benefits and potential. The most important thing is to make your choice and then stick with it.

The second way to participate in the Walker market is to buy high quality late dates. The late dates have great relative value and their prices are just coming up off of 12 year lows. Perhaps your budget doesn't allow you to build a complete set. Or perhaps you'd like to put away some great coins for your children, grandchildren or even yourself. Gem quality late date Walkers are great "put away" coins.

The Walking Liberty half dollar market is on the move. The most important recommendation I have for you is that if you'd like to participate in this market, you should get started now!

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