From the July 2004 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:
Building A Set Of Seated Liberty Half Dollars
When the average collector thinks about building a set of coins, they generally think in terms of building a set of Indian or Lincoln cents, buffalo nickels, mercury dimes, walking liberty or Franklin halves, Morgan dollars, or one of several suspects. Just ask around at the next club meeting what people are working on, and you are likely to hear that many people are working on these and other popular sets. Next, inquire about how many seated liberty halves folks have in their collection, and the typical answer will be either zero or just a few pieces which reside in a type set.
Be honest, have you ever really considered building a set of seated liberty half dollars? Probably not Ė it is a large set with a number of very expensive coins needed for completion. That is why I do not recommend that the average collector attempt building a complete set, as it is a task that exceeds most of our budgets. What I do recommend is that people think about building a date set, also known as a one-a-year set. Building a date set allows you to avoid such horrors as the 1878-S, which will run $10,000 and up for any undamaged specimen.
Seated liberty halves were introduced part of the way into the year 1839, which is also the last year of production for the reeded edge capped bust halves. The seated halves were produced on a very regular basis, with emissions from at least one mint each year through the end of the series in 1891. Four minting facilities provided these halves: Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Carson City. You canít avoid having Philadelphia coins in the one a year set, but try to make sure that the three branch mints are represented by at least one coin each. Thatís not hard to do, since all the mints Ė even CC Ė produced affordable coins in at least some years.
What condition should this set be built in? That depends, of course, on your budget. In general, seated liberty coins are pleasing in appearance, and affordable, in Fine condition. A well matched set is a superb sight to behold, so one should try to stay within a one grade range when building the set, such as sticking with grades of Very Good and Fine, or Fine and Very Fine. It would not detract from the set to have one high grade coin included in the set, say a sharp AU-55 or so, to show non collectors what an unworn seated liberty half looks like.
It is usually the case that the most difficult coins in a set are to be found among the early dates. Thatís not the story here! There are a dozen dates at the end of this series that will set you back some real money once you are lucky enough to find a specimen. These coins, minted from 1879 through 1890, were produced only at the Philadelphia mint, so there is no way to avoid them. They will likely run $250 to $350 each when you finally are able to find them, and the 1886 and 1887 dates will be even a bit higher. Even though the one a year set is easier than the complete set, it is still by no means a simple set that you can just throw together. What fun would that be? The upside is that you will be purchasing a dozen legitimately scarce coins with mintages ranging from a low of 4,400 pieces to a high of only 12,000 pieces. A convincing argument could be made that these coins are actually bargains considering how few are out there.
Now, here is the key to making a really great date set of seated halves, a set that will stand out as being better than other date sets even if it is in lower condition. From 1879 through the end of the series in 1891, half dollars were only produced at the Philadelphia mint. Almost all other years, from the beginning in 1839 through 1878, production was accomplished at two or three mints. It is your job to figure out which mint made the most desirable coin each year. What this means is that you may find a particular year with coins made at two separate mints that are priced about the same even though one of the coins has only half the mintage of the other. Go for that lower mintage issue! In other years you may find one issue has a mintage only one tenth the size of the other, but is only twice the price. It will take a lot longer to find that lower mintage coin and it will cost twice as much, but I assure you that it is worth getting that much scarcer coin in the long run. Selecting the right coins greatly increases the value and interest of your set, not to mention the frustration factor as you discover just how scarce some of these halves really are. It will surprise you when you discover that you canít locate some of these coins even though they are considered common and are priced at only $100 in Fine condition.
Letís look at a couple of examples. Right at the beginning of the series in 1839, you will see that only Philadelphia struck seated liberty half dollars that year, and that they created two distinct varieties: with drapery and without drapery. There were 100,000 coins produced without drapery and 1,872,400 with drapery. Despite the huge difference in mintage, the no drapery coin is only a bit over double the price of the more common with drapery model. You get the added advantage of getting a one-year type coin with the no drapery issue. Your choice should be obvious here.
Another example might be the centennial year of 1876. Half dollars were produced at three mints that year, Philadelphia (8.4 million), San Francisco (4.5 million), and Carson City (1.9 million). The Carson City model is only priced about 25% higher than the other two, but when you factor in the lower mintage and the usual premium accorded to all Carson City coinage, it seems to be the obvious coin to select for your 1876 example. Some years, there will not be an obvious standout, but for most years there should be one mint that proves to be more desirable than the others.
Here is a 53 piece, 19th century set of large coins that can actually be completed without the need for an unlimited bankroll. Granted, it wonít exactly be cheap, but it is affordable for most collectors. When you are done, you will have a set that very few other people have, and not many have even considered!
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