Walking Liberty Half Dollars > Ch 4 > Estimating Scarcity

[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, Bruce Fox. This information was originally published in 1993 in The Complete Guide to Walking Liberty Half Dollars]

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There are many variables to consider when determining the scarcity and availability of a particular coin.  Mintage figures often do not reflect how difficult it will be to locate a particular date and mint.  For example, when silver bullion prices were in the $40 to $50 per ounce range and common date walking liberty halves were worth around $15 each just in silver content, there was no hesitation on the part of many to sell these for melting.  I personally witnessed bags of Walking Liberty half dollars sold this way.  As a result, several late date walkers fall into a “high mintage, lower than expected availability” classification.  This is seen by dealers who have these “common” dates on their want lists, by collectors going to coin shows and being unable to locate a particular date believed to be common, and by my personal experience in building complete walker sets.

Also, the first and last date of the series (1916, 1947) tend to be saved and therefore are more apt to be available in higher grades.  When a series ends and a new design begins, there is a tendency for many people who have no numismatic interests to pull the previous designs from circulation and put them in a jar, box or safety deposit box.  Sometimes they stay there for many years.  This was especially true when the Franklin half dollar design appeared, as most preferred the walking liberty design.

I have built hundreds of walker sets for customers over the years, grading from good to mint state.  Sets that grade good and better are not hard to put together, as a set price of less than $400 would indicate.  As a reference point, I attended one of the San Jose, California shows in 1990 with the intention of putting together partial or complete walker sets over a period of 2 days.  All dates were available at the show.  If your budget was healthy, a set of walkers ranging in grade from good to MS65 easily obtainable.  However most collectors are not interested in having extreme grade differentials in their sets.  They prefer to own a collection that is matched and aesthetically pleasing.  For example, they may want all coins to be F or VF or have the short set dates in EF-AU, the intermediate dates in VF-EF and the early dates in VG-F.

Building a complete set in G/VG at the show was actually very difficult.  As you may have guessed, it was nearly impossible to obtain some of the later dates in low grade.  I completed the set by searching through dealer junk boxes and bulk silver bags.  Technically, the coins were plentiful, but they were not available in 2 x 2′s in dealers’ display cases.  The higher grades were a different story.  I did not complete a set in any grade above G-VG.  I searched for a set of F-VF, EF-AU and MS60-62.  In the F-VF range, I did not find a 1921-D, 1919-D or a 1917-S(o).  Surprisingly, they were not there.  Of course you run across them at random times as they are not stoppers in this grade, but they did not turn up at this show of approximately 175 tables.  As the grade increased, the availability of the coins I wanted went down proportionately.  The EF-AU and mint state sets were 85% and 70% completed, respectively.  These higher grade sets can be completed in time, but to find matching coins may take a year or more of semi-serious searching without tackling the various striking problems associated with many of the dates.

I recently completed a set in AU for a customer and it required nearly 3 years. This set was very well matched cosmetically and in strike.  There just are not enough 1921-D walkers available in AU to obtain a well struck piece with an appearance that matches 64 other coins.  It is a beautiful collection to see, but was extremely difficult to assemble.

The higher grade mint state coins are in the same category.  Due to cost limitations, most of the higher grade sets I have built have been of MS63 or MS64 quality.  I have built two sets in MS65 with a mixture of PCGS and NGC certified coins.  The scarce condition rarities were obtained mostly at auctions.  The bulk of mint state collectors, however, are satisfied with MS62-63 coins in the early dates, MS63-64 in the intermediate dates and MS65 in the short-set dates.  This still makes a beautiful collection at a fraction of the cost of a complete MS64 or MS65 set.

Striking characteristics are always a factor in the cost of certain dates.  A fully struck coin of a date and mint known for poorly struck pieces can sell for twice greysheet prices or even more.  Knowledge in this area can be financially rewarding.  Occasionally, a strike rarity can be found at the same price as a poor or typically struck price.  I once had the pleasure of looking through a dealer’s stock of nine 1944-S PCGS MS65 walkers to select one for a client.  He gave me a price and let me choose the one I wished.  Eight pieces were more or less typical for the date, but one was clearly an 80% to 90% full strike.  Several years later my client sold that particular coin to a knowledgeable collector for a considerable profit.

Striking characteristics are basically determined by the number of strikes per die and the pressure used to strike the planchet.  Although it is impossible to gather information related to striking pressures, there is some information still available that can give an indication of how difficult it may be to find a fully struck coin.  The United States annual mint reports from 1916 to 1919 contain information on die usage.  The average number of strikes per die is indicated in Table 4-1.  As an example, all the 1919 San Francisco minted coins were struck with only 7 dies for the reverse verses 14 for the Philadelphia Mint reverse.  This translates into 229,286 pieces per die for the San Francisco reverse versus 76,499 pieces per die for the Philadelphia Mint.  This in turn indicates there should have been more poorly struck reverses coming from San Francisco than Philadelphia that year.  It is interesting that there was normally a different number of dies made for the obverse than the reverse, accounting for not only strike differences between mints, but also between the obverse and reverse of the same coin.  Based on die usage alone, the 1919-D halves should have been better struck than the 1919-S pieces.  However, it is well known that the 1919-D is rare with a full or nearly full strike.  Evidently the Denver mint used less pressure In making the coins than San Francisco.  Perhaps to preserve the dies.  Striking characteristics of each date and mint are also discussed in Chapter 5.  General strike considerations are further discussed in Chapter 3.

A survey was conducted to obtain information on the relative difficulty of finding each date for each collector grade in the set.  Many times I have been asked by a collector assembling a set of walkers in fine or extra fine condition, “Why is it taking so long to find the 1923-S?” or “I found the 1921-S in VF but can’t seem to locate the 192l-D.  Why is this if the 1921-D mintage is much higher?”  Table 4-2 shows the results of the survey.

The column identified as “author” reflects my personal experiences.  There are some interesting surprises.  For example, in AU condition it has always been more difficult to locate a 1946-D than a 1941-S.  I can attend a large coin show and find eight or ten 1941-S walkers in AU and never run across a 1946-D.  They can be readily available in EF or mint state, but not AU.  The 1947-D is also very difficult to find in this grade.  It is generally the case that the last year of a series is saved.  In a good economy, the coins are saved in uncirculated condition, often in bank rolls.  Those allowed to circulate soon pass through the AU state.  This explains the scarcity of an AU 1947-D, but the scarcity of an AU 1946-D is more difficult to understand.  Possibly many were withheld from circulation by the mint and later saved by collectors like the 1947-D.

A true AU rarity is the 1923-S.  I even considered ranking the coin number one, since I probably have seen more 1921-D specimens in AU over the years than this date.  I am fortunate to find one or two of these a year.  The mintage is much higher than many other dates which are easier to locate.

Column #1 is based on price.  Column #2 is from Ron Miller of Fremont Coin Gallery in California.  He has been serving the collector for over 15 years and is well versed on their needs.  Number 3 by Bob Rossfield from Florida.  Bob attends thirty to forty coin shows a year and sells 95% of his coins wholesale.  His perspective provides insight as to what other dealers need for their customers and are willing to pay a premium for.  Column #4 is from Warren Montlebon, a collector from Northern California.  Over the years Mr. Montlebon has assembled seven complete sets of walkers one each in G, VG, F, VF, EF, AU and mint state.  The “consensus” column attempts to average the results of the previous five columns.

For MS63 and higher grade coins, the Population/Census reports of the three major certification services provide the best data available for establishing relative scarcity and true availability (see Table 4-6).  These reports are not perfect.  For one thing, they tend to overstate the number of coins certified to date because some coins have been submitted more than once.  A second imperfection is that common coins are not submitted for certification as often as scarce dates, especially in lower grades.  So the reports tend to underestimate these dates.  And, third, the reports only tabulate overall grades and provide no information about strike (though to some extent it is part of the grade).  Still, their flaws not withstanding, the population reports provide a far more accurate estimate of the number of Walkers available in mint state (and by grade) than we in the hobby ever had before!

Tables 4-3 through 4-5, rank Walking Liberty half dollars by price in grades MS63, MS64 and MS65.  Interesting comparisons can be made here relating to scarcity and availability.  The 1921-S “key of the series” is presently bid at $19,000 in MS65.  However, the 1919-D is bid at $28,000, nearly 50% more.  An excellent example of condition rarity.  Mintage of the 1919-D is more than double that of the 1921-S.  A reversal takes place in MS64 and MS63.  The 1919-D moves down to third position.  Other condition rarities are the 1942-S and 1944-S.  They are both ranked about ten places higher in MS65 than in the MS64 and MS63 grades and priced six times higher than in MS64 and ten times higher than in MS63.

Studies of price and rarity correlations suggest one other consideration.  Demand is an intangible that directly affects prices.  The 1921-S has long been recognized by collectors and investors as the key to the Walking Liberty half dollar series.  If one wants to buy a rarity with pedigree and status in this series, the 1921-S is the date to select.  Serious numismatists looking for MS65 and higher specimens have the knowledge to recognize the 1919-D to be a U.S. coin condition rarity.  Only three have been certified in MS65 compared with 11 for the 1921-S and 25 for the 1919-S.  The 1919-D in MS65 is rarely seen for sale which is reflected in current price levels.

In this book, a coin’s relative scarcity is quantified by its “Rarity Rating.”  Rarity ratings range from R1 through R8, with R1 being most common and R8 the scarcest.  Factors considered in estimating scarcity are the original mintage, the population of certified coins (PCGS, NGC, ANACS), the historical value, the frequency of appearance on dealer want lists, the number of times advertised for sale and known handling and production characteristics of each mint (bag marks, strikes, etc).

R1 – Common.

R2 – A better date.  Available at most shows, but in limited quantity.

R3 – A tough date.  Only a few likely to be found at larger shows.

R4 – Scarce.  May or may not be available at larger shows.

R5 – Very scarce.  Only a few will appear at large shows or auctions in a year’s time.

R6 – Extremely scarce.  Almost never available.

R7 – Rare.  Only a few exist.

R8 – Unique or almost so.

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