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

Posted on 8/14/2012

A post-war recession hovered over the opening years of the 1920s, and the many millions of coins produced during 1916-20 left large numbers idle in Treasury vaults for some time.

No half dollars of the regular type were coined from the latter half of 1921 through most of 1923. Finally, in September of 1923, the existing stock of these coins had fallen to the point where production resumed at San Francisco alone. Some 630,000 Walking Liberty halves were minted that month, followed by 1,380,000 in October and a final striking of 168,000 coins in November. The resulting total of 2,178,000 half dollars proved sufficient to meet the needs of commerce for the next several years, and no half dollars were struck for circulation again until 1927.

The 1923-S Walking Liberty half dollar is a plentiful issue in worn condition. At the present price of silver it commands no significant premium in grades less than Fine-12. In contrast, examples grading VF-20 through AU-58 are fairly challenging to find, and this is especially true of uncleaned, problem-free pieces. Like most San Francisco Mint issues of the 1920s, the typical specimen is poorly struck. The central features of Liberty and the eagle are almost always incomplete, and even the first two numerals of the date can be a bit shallow at their tops where they meet the exergue line. Not long ago a quite boldly struck example came across my desk at NGC, and this certainly caught my attention. Sadly, however, it had been improperly cleaned and had to be graded non-numerically. That coin nevertheless offered some hope of finding another with bold details and no such restrictions on grade.

The San Francisco Mint likewise coined 1923’s only other half dollar coinage. It was authorized to recognize the centennial of the Monroe Doctrine and sold during a June exposition sponsored by the motion picture industry in Los Angeles. Production occurred just in time for this event, with 172,000 coins struck during May and the remaining 102,000 in June. Sculpted in low relief by Chester Beach, this coin featured jugate busts of John Adams and James Monroe on its obverse, paired with a reverse showing a personification of the Western Hemisphere in the form of two contorted female models. The coin’s shallow dies failed to produce a pleasing coin, and the San Francisco Mint’s typical poor quality work of the time only aggravated this problem. A significant percentage of this coin’s mintage did not sell to numismatists and exposition attendees at the specified premium. Rather than return the balance of these coins to the mint for melting, banks simply dispensed them at face value in the normal course of business. Worn examples are thus rather common, while gem mint state coins are very scarce. Fortunately, uncirculated coins of so-so quality are plentiful enough for any budget.

The largest production of coins at the San Francisco Mint in 1923 was in the form of Peace silver dollars. These coins were neither needed nor wanted in most of the nation, but the terms of the 1918 Pittman Act had to be met. It mandated that the many millions of silver dollars melted in 1918-19 be replaced with new coins made from domestically mined silver as soon as possible. Production of the replacement pieces peaked in 1922 but was still going strong the following year. It was in 1923 that the Treasury actually completed its purchase of Pittman silver, yet coining continued another five years before this bullion was exhausted. The San Francisco Mint contributed 19,020,000 coins to the cause in 1923, carefully spacing this production over many months to keep workers busy during an otherwise slow year.

1923-S Peace dollars are plentiful in any grade short of MS-65, as so many of these coins remained idle in vaults until becoming popular with collectors in the 1950s and ‘60s. The typical example is poorly struck from worn dies, with weak central details that contribute to their low certified grades. Many coins also show mounding at their peripheries, as the wearing dies began to sink and form a circular berm just inside their rims. On the plus side, however, most 1923-S dollars that have not been improperly cleaned display bright and pleasing luster that is somewhat satiny in texture.

No gold coins were struck at San Francisco in 1923, but this seems to have been a statistical anomaly. Millions of S-Mint double eagles were coined in both 1922 and 1924, and the San Francisco Mint certainly had additional capacity to produce more coins in 1923. It’s likely that 1923-S dies for the double eagle were shipped to San Francisco but ultimately not used. These would have been routinely destroyed at the end of the calendar year.

The San Francisco Mint coinage of 1923 includes only seven coins in total and makes for an interesting collection in itself. With the exception of the quarter dollar, all of these are fairly plentiful in circulated condition. The real challenge will be to find well struck examples in grades F-12 or better that have natural and attractive surfaces. Such a display would be a real eye-catcher.

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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