Walking with Liberty

Posted on 9/11/2008

This month, David W. Lange recalls the early days of his dedication to the hobby, and pays tribute to an American favorite, the Walking Liberty Half Dollar.

High on the list of favorite American coin types is the Walking Liberty Half Dollar of 1916–47. So popular is this design that its obverse was revived for the American Eagle Silver Bullion coinage produced since 1986. While the US Mint’s staff of sculptor-engravers has taken a number of “liberties” with the work of Adolph A. Weinman, the current silver eagle coinage remains faithful to the original in concept, if not in execution.

The history of this coin type is well documented in books, so I’ll bypass that here. I’d rather focus on the collecting of these coins. As a child I collected Walking Liberty halves from general circulation. This fact reveals two things: The first is that I’m getting old, while the second is just how coin crazy I was at the time, since 50 cents still wielded significant purchasing power then, especially for a kid. Though half dollars were not commonly encountered, they circulated enough in the San Francisco area that I was able to put together a grouping of several issues, the best of which was a 1927-S half in Very Good condition. The others were all common pieces from the 1940s (I’ve mentioned before in this column that Franklin halves were never seen by me in circulation, and why this was true remains a mystery).

By the time I was 12 or 13, I was earning some money with odd jobs and set about finishing my collection in whatever grades I could afford. This set was completed in a year or so, albeit with the key coins having single-digit dates, as well as a few lumps and bumps. Years later this motley assemblage was traded in for whatever money I could get, and it was not until well into adulthood that I put together another collection. This time, all of the coins from 1934 onward were Uncirculated, most of them pretty nice. The earlier dates were selectively purchased as very choice About Uncirculated pieces, and I imagine that a few of these beauties are now certified as Mint State-something or another.

In any case, the object of my collecting was to put together a nicely matched set of coins having exceptional eye appeal, irrespective of numeric grades. This meant acquiring only halves that had not been cleaned and that had their original surfaces. Some of the coins displayed colorful crescents of color, but most were just faintly toned as acquired. It was no easier then to put together such a set than it is today, and certified and encapsulated coins were not yet commonplace, so I had to use my own judgment in selecting the right examples. I can still see certain memorable coins in my mind, such as the evenly toned 1917-S with obverse mintmark that just seemed to have the absolutely perfect look for an old coin or the fully lustrous 1927-S that I purchased from a dealer in world coins at his grade of AU, even then knowing that it was more likely MS 64!

The set as completed was very satisfying to me, and I enjoyed it most when it was held in an old coin album from the 1960s. I later transferred the set to a pair of rigid, plastic holders for display purposes, but the coins seemed to lose their individual appeal when shown altogether that way. It was not long afterward that my interests began to shift and money was needed for other areas of numismatics. As with all of my AU-UNC sets of USA coins, the Walking Liberty halves ultimately were sold. I consigned this set anonymously to a major auction, where it got lost amid the thousands of lots and brought less than I anticipated. This was a somewhat disappointing conclusion to an otherwise memorable collecting experience, but then there are always highs and lows in numismatics.

As was the case with several other popular coin series, I was not able to resist the siren call of Walking Liberty halves forever. Being a collector of coin albums, I usually have enough duplicate albums lying around that they begin to fill my head with notions, and so it was for this coin series. About ten years ago I began putting together another set in well circulated grades, the only provision being that the coins again had to be completely original in their surfaces, free of damage and complimentary to one another in overall appearance. In other words, I wanted the kind of set that old time collectors of coins from pocket change hoped to build only to be stymied by the random nature of circulation finds.

I started by going through dealers’ junk boxes of common silver coins, and I was able to assemble pretty much all of the 1940–47 issues this way when silver was about half its current price. The rest were acquired at various premiums above silver value, but very few cost more than two figures. This is really a great series to collect in circulated grades, since there are no real stoppers price-wise. I still don’t have my 1921(P) and 1921-D halves, but I’m in no hurry to get them. Completing the set might lead to selling it once again, and I’m enjoying the experience more now than at any time since childhood.

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