USA Coin Album: Still a Favorite

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 9/19/2011

This month David discusses why he finds Walking Liberty half dollars to be one of the most appealing of United States coin types.

I just recently reached a milestone by completing my set of Walking Liberty half dollars. I should explain that this is actually the third time I’ve reached this goal, but each successive collection has been distinctive enough to provide its own challenges and learning experiences. I’m certainly not alone in finding this to be one of the most appealing of United States coin types, and it really lends itself to the assembling of a complete date and mint series. There are no really expensive issues to discourage the collector, a problem with its silver contemporaries the Mercury dime and the Standing Liberty quarter.

The first set of Walking Liberty halves I put together began with circulation finds in the mid-1960s. Half dollars, once a common sight in everyday commerce, had already started to fade from the scene, even while silver dimes and quarters remained plentiful. Most numismatic historians blame hoarding of the Kennedy half for the demise of this denomination, but it was already in decline by 1960. Though I didn’t have the means to buy rolls of half dollars, I did get a few different dates by going through my parents’ change or receiving my own change for purchases of model kits, Matchbox cars and other boyhood toys.

When I was ten or eleven I began to buy the missing issues from coin dealers’ boxes of mixed date, you-pick-‘em halves. At that time the going box rate for common dates at my favorite shop was 85¢, while the scarcer issues were in the $1.25 box. Common pieces include all dates 1934 and later, except the 1938-D. In this box I could also find the 1917-S Reverse mintmark and 1918-S halves, as well as 1920(P) and 1920-S; all of these were then considered to be worth little more than face value. The $1.25 box would nearly finish one’s set, with the exception of the 1916, 1919 1921 issues plus 1938-D. As this is written, any Walking Liberty half dollar is worth nearly $15 for its silver value alone!

The few remaining dates were bought sometime later with money earned mowing lawns, rounding up shopping carts, recycling soda bottles and other odd jobs. A 1919-D half dollar grading Fair is a sorry sight, but that pretty much sums up the better dates in this first collection. The most money spent to complete it was some $27.50 for a 1921(P) half in About Good given to me as a Christmas present one year.

In my late teens I became more serious about numismatics, and this early collection was now seen as nothing more than a dead asset that could be turned into spending money for much better pieces. It was a rude shock to be offered only silver value for all but the semi-key dates, but that was a valuable early lesson in the economics of the coin business. My interest leaned toward U. S. type coins and Seated Liberty halves at the time, so I was without a set of Walkers for ten years or so. When I got around to reassembling this series as an adult, my focus was on choice uncirculated coins for all issues 1934 and later, with the earlier dates being About Uncirculated. I did achieve this goal, and some particulars of this collection were detailed in my September 2008 column, so I won’t repeat them now. It too was eventually sold at auction, and I went another few years with no more than two or three high-grade Walking Liberty halves for my type set.

By now I was working at NGC and seeing my fill of gem coins on a daily basis, so my need to own such pieces had diminished considerably. In fact, I was more passionate about collecting coin boards and albums, as this satisfied my love of the coin hobby as an institution and offered the simplicity and charm that coin collecting had provided in childhood. The funny thing about having so many coin albums around is that they begin to whisper in your ear after awhile, pleading to be filled. In the mid-1990s the price of silver was very low, and it became a simple matter to obtain most of the Walking Liberty set at $2 per coin or thereabouts. Even the scarce coins cost no more than $200-300 each in grades that were compatible with the rest of the coins.

Having developed a very discriminating eye, I was careful to buy only problem-free circulated coins that had matching, original toning. Thus, the resulting set is pleasing to the eye and will be easy to sell when the time comes. The way prices have risen over the past ten years it is quite tempting to do so immediately, but this is the kind of collection that provides too much satisfaction to part with for quick cash. It is something I hope to share with grandchildren in an effort to impart my love of the hobby. They say it skips a generation, and I can only hope that’s true!

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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