Background and History
The 1921 Walking Liberty Half Dollar was struck at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mint facilities. All three issues for the year experienced low mintages and are considered to be the primary key date coins of the series. The scarcity of the issues varies based on grade, with the Philadelphia and Denver Mints comparatively more difficult to acquire in circulated grades and the San Francisco Min issue comparatively more difficult in higher grades.
The Walking Liberty Half Dollar had been introduced in 1916 and would be issued until 1947. The design was created by sculptor Adolph A. Weinman who had won contests to redesign both the dime and half dollar denominations. The half dollar featured a striking full length portrait of Liberty walking confidently forward with her right hand extended and her left holding a bouquet of olive branches. The reverse featured a stylized eagle standing on a rock with a mountain pine sapling protruding.
Although mintage levels were low for some of the initial years of the series, levels dropped even further in 1921 due to the combined impacts of the required production of silver dollars and a depression which reduced the need for circulating coinage. Across all 1921 issues, fewer than one million pieces were struck. The lowest mintage occurred for the Denver issue at 208,000 pieces, followed by the Philadelphia issue at 246,000 pieces, and the San Francisco issue at 548,000 pieces.
For a complete set of circulated coins each of these issues may prove to be stoppers and command a premium to acquire. For higher end collectors, the issues can prove exceedingly difficult or costly to acquire. This is particularly true for the San Francisco issue, which despite having the highest mintage of the trio, saw the lowest survival rate in uncirculated condition.
Two factors contributed to the low mintage experienced for half dollars in 1921, and both of these factors also had an impact on other denominations. The mintages for all silver coins were heavily influenced by the massive number of silver dollars struck during the year, as required under the Pittman Act. The mints shifted their focus to the largest silver denomination striking more than 80 million silver dollars, which reduced the capacity to strike other silver denominations.
The second factor contributing to the limited mintage of 1921-dated half dollars was the economy. While usually overshadowed by the Great Depression, the United States also experienced a depression from 1920-1921. This depression is often attributed to the change in the economy from wartime to peace. The return of large numbers of soldiers and the need for factories to change their products resulted in deflation. Prices fell sharply, the Dow Jones Index lost 47% from the highest point in 1919 to the lowest point during the depression, and unemployment rates rose to over 11%. The decline in the economy led to a reduced need for circulating coinage, further contributing to the reduced production of half dollars.
The years after the depression would also have an impact on the status of the 1921 Walking Liberty Half Dollars. An unprecedented recovery occurred, which saw rising prices and improved retail business, leading to increased circulation of existing coinage. The 1921 half dollars had been released soon after their mintage and few were saved. The improvement in the economy led to the widespread circulation of the issue, leaving few higher grade or uncirculated examples available for future generations.
Coin collectors were few and far between in the United States at this time and thus very few 1921 Walking Liberty Half Dollars were saved in uncirculated condition, regardless of the Mint where they were struck. By pure coincidence some were saved, and in fact, gem survivors (pieces graded MS-65) are easier found for the lower mintage Philadelphia and Denver coins than those struck at the San Francisco Mint.
The lowest mintage of the year was achieved by the Denver Mint, which released a mere 208,000 Walking Liberty Half Dollars, followed by the Philadelphia Mint. The so-called “Mother-Mint” only struck 246,000 Walking Liberty Half Dollars in 1921. San Francisco had the largest issue of the year, although its total output of 548,000 coins is never considered to be much within the grand scheme of mintages for the series. In total, just a little over a million half dollars, from three different Mints bear the 1921 date. Given the fact that virtually all other dates within the series had higher mintages we can see that the output this year was extremely small.
Finest Known and Values
All 1921 Walking Liberty Half Dollars are scarce in circulated condition, rare in lower uncirculated grades, and extremely rare in gem or finer grades. A quick look at the PCGS and NGC population reports is sufficient to get a general idea of the rarity of these 20th century Mint products. Neither of the two major grading companies have graded any coins higher than MS-66. And even at that grade level only about a dozen pieces are known, across all Mints and across both grading services combined. It should not come as a surprise that this number is extremely low within both the context of the series and that of 20th century United States coinage.
The Philadelphia issue has seen a total of four coins graded by PCGS at the MS-66 level, with 51 (a number no doubt influenced by resubmissions) graded as MS-65. The numbers at NGC are even lower, with two MS-66’s graded, followed by thirty-one MS-65’s. As can be expected, these are seldom traded, and when they do they sell for a fair amount of money. The record for this issue at public auction stands at $29,900. To indicate the rarity of pieces graded MS-66, it must be noted that this prize record is for a PCGS MS-65, none of the MS-66 graded pieces have traded at public auction since 1998. Whenever one of the pieces reappears it will no doubt easily set a new record for this issue.
The population reports for the Denver issue show a similar scheme. PCGS has graded three coins at the MS-66 level, followed by thirty pieces graded as MS-65. Again, the NGC population report shows similar numbers, with three graded in MS-66, and twenty-one in MS-65. One of the PCGS MS-66 pieces holds the price record, having sold in February 2006 for $48,875, while another piece in this grade and holder sold for the same amount in January 2005. Pieces graded by either of the two major grading companies have sold for amounts between $25,000 and $35,000 in the last decade. Overall, this makes the Denver issue of the 1921 Walking Liberty Half Dollar slightly rarer than the Philadelphia issue at higher grade levels.
Despite having the highest mintage of the trio, the 1921-S Walking Liberty Half Dollar is the rarest issue of the group in gem or higher grades. PCGS has graded only a single coin in MS-66, followed by a mere sixteen pieces which have graded in MS-65, clearly a number influenced by some resubmissions as well. Even in MS-64 the 1921-S is a rarity, with only 46 pieces certified in almost 25 years of coin grading by PCGS. NGC has also graded a single piece as MS-66, with a total of eighteen MS-65’s graded. Unsurprisingly, the two MS-66 pieces have not traded at public auction, and the price record for this issue is held by a PCGS graded MS-65, which sold for an amazing $161,000 in November of 2006. This is not only a price record for this issue, it is also one of the price records for the series, regardless of date or grade.
Because of the lower mintages, both the Philadelphia and Denver issues are scarcer than the 1921-S in circulated grades. However, as we have mentioned, the San Francisco issue is absolutely the rarest and most valuable of the trio in uncirculated condition. Even in circulated condition these carry a strong premium and have been in demand ever since the 1950s. By that time, however, most had been in circulation for a long time, and most collectors will now have to satisfy the 1921, 1921-D and 1921-S slots in their sets with a circulated coin. In uncirculated condition any Walking Liberty Half Dollar dated 1921 is a trophy coin which is very difficult to upgrade once such a piece is acquired.