USA Coin Album: Coins of the 1950s - Part 5

Posted on 1/21/2014

Among the many coins minted in this decade, the quarter dollars are particularly interesting.

They offer numerous collectable varieties, about which I’ll say more later, but they are a challenge even for the basic date/mint collector seeking high grade examples. The bold relief of Washington’s portrait left it quite vulnerable to contact marks and scrapes, these being especially noticeable on his exposed cheek. The busier reverse design tends to hide such marks, and this only compounds the difficulty in assigning an overall grade to this coin type.

The quarters of the 1950s do fit the pattern set by other denominations. By and large, the Denver Mint coins were the ones most often fully struck from fresh or only moderately worn dies. The Philadelphia quarters were more likely to have obvious signs of die erosion, while the S-Mint pieces are rarely seen with bold strikes from fresh dies, most being quite blurry from heavily eroded die faces. Such coins, with their frosty, diffused luster, often produce the most appealing luster, and they more easily hide contact marks. Therefore, they may receive very high numbers from the grading services. Commercial grading emphasizes luster, surface quality and an absence of contact marks above design details, and the tendency of Washington quarters to develop attractive, symmetrical toning may reward these blurry coins with an additional grade point or a star () designation for outstanding eye appeal. There’s nothing wrong with this, as it is the market standard, but the discriminating collector will want a high grade coin that is also sharply struck.

Most of the issues from the first eight years of the decade have fairly substantial certified populations in grades as high as MS 67. It’s obvious, however, that something happened beginning with the coinage of 1959 and lasting for the next several years that has resulted in far fewer top grades for these later coins. What is known for a fact is that many of the high grades assigned to quarters dated 1951-58 are based on the stellar toning they developed from the Mint’s double-coin Uncirculated sets (not offered for 1950). Before 1959, these sets were housed in cardboard flats somewhat akin to the page of a coin folder, and this sulfurous material often imparted gorgeous, multicolor toning on one or both sides. Starting with the 1959 set, the Mint replaced this packaging with its pliofilm plastic envelopes. While the coins still toned a bit in this material, the result was more a detriment than an asset.

Another contributing factor may be the change in the coin market that occurred around 1959. It was at this time that the speculative frenzy over BU (Brilliant Uncirculated) rolls and even bags of coins really took off in a big way. These coins by the pound were hoarded and/or traded vigorously through 1964, being moved many times between owners and thus acquiring countless contact marks. Though many of these silver hoards were later lost to the melting pot in 1979-80, some of the remaining coins were later run through bulk grading services at NGC and PCGS, with only a very small percentage of them achieving high grades. The result is evident in the low numbers of 1959(P) and 1959-D quarters certified as MS 67.

Other condition rarities for the decade include all of the Denver Mint coins from 1952 through 1956, each of these dates having glaringly small certified populations in MS 67 or higher. The reason is that the D-Mint quarters seem to have suffered far more contact marks than those of the other two mints. Even those found in the cardboard Uncirculated sets are more heavily marked than their P and S cousins, so we know that the rough handling most likely occurred at the Denver Mint itself. Why the 1957-D and 1958-D quarters have much higher numbers of certified MS 67 examples is not fully explainable, but I have a theory. Until recently, most collectors disdained toned coins and sought only those that were fully white. Since far greater numbers of these later dates were preserved in roll and bag quantities, this source provided enough coins for collectors’ albums, and the Uncirculated sets were thus less likely to be broken up and their coins dipped to make them white. These sets survived until quite recently, when their toning was more fully appreciated for both its aesthetic value and its tendency to reward submitters with high certified grades.

There were very few low mintage quarters during the 1950s, but those few that did stick out were widely hoarded at the time. While collecting Washington quarters from circulation during the mid-late 1960s, the only two 1950s issues that eluded me were 1955(P) and 1958(P), both of which had noticeably lower than usual mintages (oddly enough, the very low mintage [3+ million] 1955-D quarter was somehow located from pocket change). The two Philadelphia issues were scooped up by speculators as soon as their production numbers were published. They are thus quite common today in Mint State but are rarely seen in grades lower than About Uncirculated-50. A VF 1958(P) quarter is thus a condition rarity!

It seems that I’ve run out of room for this month, and I’ll continue my examination of 1950s quarters next time. Until then you can study your own collections and get a running start.

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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