Grading Liberty Seated Half Dollars (1839-1891)
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One of the most familiar icons of United States coinage during the 19th Century was the figure of Liberty seated upon a rock, holding in one hand the Union shield and in the other a staff surmounted by the Liberty Cap. Though an awkward and uncomfortable pose, she managed to hold it for more than fifty years. This image debuted on the silver dollar in 1836, and it continued in use on the fractional silver coins as late as 1891.
Seated Liberty half dollars were minted 1839-91 with only minor changes. There are two subtypes for 1839 alone. The revised figure is distinguished from the first version by the reduction of the rock upon which Liberty rests and by the addition of a fold of drapery at her left elbow. The motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to this type in 1866, and arrowheads were placed at either side of the date in the years 1853-55 and again 1873-74 to denote slight changes in weight. A glory of rays appeared on the reverse in 1853 only, this feature being dropped the following year when it was determined that the arrowheads alone were sufficient to distinguish the new coins from those of the old standard. The size of the reverse lettering was increased in 1842 to be in conformance with the other denominations. Specialists in this series are aware also of very minor changes to the master hubs during the years 1858 and 1876. These will escape the notice of typical collectors, but they did have an effect on the way these coins wore and are now graded.
For the most part the grading of circulated Seated Liberty half dollars is fairly simple. The photographs and text in the book The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins are easy to use, though a few supplemental notes are included for those coins which do present some challenges. An example is the note included for 1839 halves of both subtypes in which it is observed that the "Eagle's [viewer's] left wing, left leg and claw are usually weakly struck." Another note pertains to the halves of 1854-55 with arrowheads at the date: "Philadelphia Mint coins tend to be slightly weak on Liberty's head."
One thing to bear in mind is that the coins lacking the motto IN GOD WE TRUST were of higher relief than those having the motto. Actually, a new reverse hub without the motto was introduced beginning in 1858, and this already featured a somewhat lower relief. Most of the Philadelphia Mint coins after 1860 employed this lower relief, while those of the branch mints used dies taken from both old and new hubs. It was not until the introduction of the motto in 1866 that all Seated Liberty halves were made with lowered relief. What makes this important to the grading of these coins is that a high-relief obverse paired with a low-relief reverse resulted in uneven wear on coins of the transitional period. The subtype with motto wore more rapidly overall, since both sides were of lower relief. Thus, the grading of these coins will require some allowance based on these relative wear patterns.
Mint state coins provide a different set of challenges. There are no dates in this series that may be described as common in such condition, though the population of certified coins found in NGC's Census Report reveals that some dates are more often encountered than others. In addition, the low-mintage dates from 1879 through 1891 were preserved in high grades by speculators, making them far more available than the numbers coined would suggest.
While a number of uncirculated Seated Liberty halves do survive for certain dates, they are not likely to grade much higher than MS-63. One of the most common problems to result in the downgrading of these coins is the presence of hairline scratches. These are usually the result of careless cleaning or of sliding around within paper envelopes, the preferred method of storage for an earlier generation of collectors. Hairlines may also be caused by coin albums of the type having sliding plastic windows, the movement of the plastic causing friction against the coin's surfaces. That's why these fine scratches are sometimes described as slide marks.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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