Grading Walking Liberty Half Dollars (1916-1947)
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Almost everyone's short list of favorite coin types includes the Walking Liberty half dollar. The United States Mint didn't share that view, however, as coins of this type were very difficult to strike; even proofs sometimes lacked complete details.
The Mint's Engraving Department attempted to correct this problem by sharpening the obverse master hub on several occasions, but the fundamental problem of poor metal flow into the dies proved insurmountable. This fact presents a challenge when attempting to grade Walking Liberty halves, as many of the pieces coined during the 1920s and earlier seem worn even when fully lustrous. This also is true of some of the branch mint issues of the '30s and '40s, particularly those coined at the San Francisco Mint.
Circulated halves are quite popular with collectors, though these coins did not wear evenly and can be unattractive in grades below Fine. The guidelines and photographs presented in The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins are very useful in determining the grades of circulated coins. This book also offers detailed descriptions of each Mint State grade level, though the most effective teaching tool is always hands-on experience.
The figure of Liberty and the eagle were both quite susceptible to contact marks from other coins, both before and after leaving the mint. These elements are in high relief and received only slight protection from the raised rims. As with any coin type, the Walking Liberty half dollar features certain areas where contact marks or hairline scratches have a greater impact on grading than they do in other areas. These are described in the ANA's guide as Prime Focal Areas and include the obverse field at the right (above the motto IN GOD WE TRUST) and the eagle's breast, left leg and left wing. Any surface disturbance occurring in these areas weighs heavily in lowering a coin's grade. Secondary Areas include the obverse field at the left, the sun's face and rays, Liberty's right arm, the flag drapery below it and the date area. Contact marks or hairline scratches located in these places still affect a coin's grade, but to a lesser degree.
Toning also is a grading issue with Walking Liberty halves. Coins of this type typically tone in an irregular and sometimes quite unattractive pattern. They're not likely to produce the beautiful concentric circles found on simpler designs. That's why you won't see very many toned Walkers in the marketplace, as many such coins have been "dipped" at some point to remove blotchy toning. There are exceptions, of course, and attractively toned examples may earn an extra grading point or the NGC star (?) designation for superior eye appeal. Still, you should not be put off by dipped coins, particularly if their mint luster is unimpaired.
With their areas of exposed relief, Walking Liberty halves are particularly vulnerable to light stacking friction, or "rub" as it's sometimes called. This typically appears on Liberty's breasts, the breast and upper left leg of the eagle and the rims. Before the advent of certified grading, coins with such rub frequently were sold as mint state examples. These "sliders" are now graded AU-58, and that grade was devised specifically to describe such coins.
Before I conclude this discussion, a few additional words about striking quality are essential. The greatest deficiency in metal flow typically occurred at Liberty's left hand and the branch stem on the obverse, and at the eagle's breast and left leg on the reverse. Only on proofs dated 1936-42 are all of these elements brought up well, yet even some proofs are a bit indistinct in the shape of Liberty's hand. Many Denver and San Francisco Mint coins show additional weakness in Liberty's head, the olive branch and the date area. If severe, such weakness can lower the grade of a Mint State coin, and it can impair the wearing quality of circulated coins as well.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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