US Coins

1882 Seated Liberty half dollar remarkable coin

Coin Lore column from Dec. 21, 2015, issue of Coin World:

The 1882 Seated Liberty half dollar is a remarkable coin that nobody wants. Collectors shun it to the point that you can’t get a truly rare regular-issue U.S. coin for less money. It’s as cheap as they come.

The 1882 half dollar has a miniscule mintage of 4,400, but catalogs for just $875 in Extremely Fine 40 condition in Coin World’s Coin Values. In contrast, the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter dollar, a coin with a mintage of 52,000, catalogs for $10,000 in EF-40.

In round terms, the 1882 half dollar is a dozen times rarer than the 1916 quarter dollar, but sells for 1/12th the price.

For most of the Seated Liberty half dollar’s 52-year run, the Mints churned out the coin by the hundreds of thousands each year; but in 1879 production fell off a cliff and stayed there until the end of the series in 1891.

In 1879, only 4,800 half dollars were produced. For most of the next dozen years, the Philadelphia Mint, the sole facility striking the coin after 1878, minted fewer than 10,000 coins annually. In 1882 and again in 1884 production dropped to a scant 4,400 coins. (The 1884 coin tends to fetch a little more money than the 1882 half dollar.)

The channels of commerce were stuffed with enough half dollars to satisfy demand in 1879 and the Mints turned their attention elsewhere — the Morgan dollar.

In his Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, researcher Walter Breen noted, Congress required the Mint to buy immense quantities of silver and convert it to coin. The Mint chose the dollar as the workhorse denomination. “Why silver dollars rather than small change?” Breen rhetorically asked. “Because each silver dollar was heavier than two halves, four quarters or 10 dimes. Quantities mandated were so immense that to fulfill the new law all the mints had to suspend or abolish coinage of smaller denominations. ... This accounts ... for the tiny mintages and consequent scarcity of Philadelphia half dollars 1879-1891.”

A Morgan dollar contains 0.77344 ounce of pure silver. Two halves contained just 0.72338 ounce of silver. When coining millions of silver dollars each year, the difference was immense.

The price difference between Seated Liberty half dollars and Standing Liberty quarter dollars raises the question: Are Seated Liberty half dollars sleepers, destined to rise in value?

Don’t bet on it. In the market, rarity doesn’t drive demand. Demand drives demand. And the demand for late 19th century half dollars shows no sign of increasing.

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