USA Coin Album: The San Francisco Mint Coinage of 1923, Part Two

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 7/10/2012

Last month’s column initiated a look at the various coins struck by the San Francisco Mint in 1923, focusing on the cents dated 1923-S. In continuing this study, David will focus on the nickels, dimes and quarter dollars struck there in that intriguing year.

Like the cents, 1923-S nickels were coined in the waning months of the year, as the existing supply of earlier dates lying idle in vaults was exhausted. This issue had a mintage of 6,142,000 pieces, small by modern standards but overshadowed by the much lower mintages of nickels which preceded and followed it in 1921 and 1924, respectively. As with all Buffalo Nickels, this issue’s date was exceedingly vulnerable to rapid wear, and it’s a certainty that many of the thousands of dateless, S-Mint nickels surviving today once bore the date 1923.

Popular with collectors from the 1930s onward, 1923-S nickels were hoarded from circulation in lower grades, and examples grading Fine or less remain common. Higher grade coins are scarce, due primarily to the mushy dies employed for much of this mintage. The federal government was in a cost-cutting mode throughout the 1920s, and dies were literally pushed to their breaking point before being removed from the press. Since reverse dies were undated and could thus carry on into the following year, they were especially susceptible to overuse. The details of the bison are usually quite blurred on 1923-S nickels. As the completeness of the bison’s horn is a key element in distinguishing whether a coin grades above or below Very Fine, this is the grade at which this issue becomes elusive.

It’s not unusual to find a 1923-S nickel which appears Extremely Fine or About Uncirculated on its obverse and may even display luster, while its reverse reveals so much die erosion that it can be called Very Good at best. Before the advent of grading services, most dealers sold such pieces at the value of Fine or so. With the market grading employed by grading services, the inherent weakness of many Buffalo Nickels is taken into consideration, and less emphasis is placed on the amount of horn evident. The coin described above may be certified as XF-40, though it will certainly be less desirable to a knowledgeable collector

The silver-copper alloy used for dimes through dollars slowed the erosion of die steel as compared to the hard copper-nickel alloy of the five-cent piece, yet it remained a factor in all 1923-S coinage. Coincidentally, the 1923-S dime’s mintage of 6,440,000 pieces was nearly the same as that of the nickel, and both coins were struck in the latter part of the year. As the dimes were less susceptible to loss of their dates through wear, I suspect that more of them have survived. Like the 1923-S cents and nickels, these dimes were popular with collectors from the mid-1930s onward, the debut of inexpensive coin collecting boards in 1935 creating an entirely new demand. Only in grades Very Fine and higher is this issue scarce, as lesser pieces were pulled from circulation by both collectors and speculators. San Francisco Mint coins have long possessed a certain mystique that was lacking in the more commonly seen Philadelphia and Denver Mint issues. The fact that most coin collectors lived in the East or Midwest before 1950 only added to the perceived rarity of S-Mint coins.

Most 1923-S dimes are reasonably well struck, though Mint State examples displaying full bands on the fasces are rare enough to command a significant premium. Being opposite the bust of Liberty, this device was seldom fully formed, the central horizontal bands and the lower diagonal band being the ones most often seen incomplete.

The rarest of the 1923-S coins across all grades is the quarter dollar. San Francisco coined only 1,360,000 pieces toward the end of the year, and this mintage would by itself be enough to create a scarcity. Aggravating this situation, however, were two factors unique to these coins. First, all of the Standing Liberty quarters dated before 1925 had exposed, raised dates that were among the first features to wear away. Contemporary accounts confirm that it took as little as ten years circulation to render these coins completely dateless. In addition, however, 1923-S quarters were poorly struck as a rule, with the first three numerals of their dates being especially indistinct, even on Mint State coins. When this series became popular with collectors in the mid-1930s, the few 1923-S quarters still to be found typically showed only part of the numeral 3, the remainder of the date being obliterated by moderate wear. Most ads from the 1930s simply stated “Wanted” in place of a price listing for 1923-S quarters. That’s a remarkable testament to its rarity from the outset.

Mint State examples are especially rare, and they seldom feature a fully struck head on the Liberty figure. The designation “Full Head” adds considerable value to most Standing Liberty quarters, and it’s a big factor in the value of 1923-S quarters. Some collectors, however, dwell too much upon the head alone, disregarding the overall quality of strike.

Next month I’ll conclude this study of 1923-S coinage with a look at the popular halves and dollars.

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