Background and History
The 1921 Walking Liberty Half Dollar (Buy on eBay) was struck at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mint facilities. All three issues for the year experienced low mintages and are considered the primary key date coins of the series. The scarcity of the coins varies based on grade, with the Philadelphia and Denver issues comparatively more difficult to acquire in circulated grades and the San Francisco Mint issue 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. The design for the half dollar is widely noted for its beauty and represents one of the cornerstones of the so-called Renaissance of American Coinage. The popularity of the design led the obverse to be used for the American Silver Eagle bullion and collector coin series introduced decades later in 1986.
The celebrated obverse design features a striking, full length portrait of Liberty walking confidently forward against the backdrop of the rising sun. Liberty’s right hand is extended and her left hand holds a bouquet of olive branches. The date appears within a recessed area at the base, with the word LIBERTY widely spaced above and the motto IN GOD WE TRUST appearing in the right field. The reverse features a stylized eagle standing on a rock with a mountain pine sapling protruding to represent America. The inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, E PLURIBUS UNUM, and HALF DOLLAR are incorporated.
The 1921-D Walking Liberty Half Dollar had a mintage of 208,000 pieces, representing the lowest figure for the series. The 1921 Philadelphia Mint issue carried a mintage of 246,000, representing the second lowest for the series. The San Francisco Mint had an output of 548,000 pieces, but of the three issues saw the lowest survival rate in uncirculated condition.
Two factors contributed to the low mintages experienced for the 1921 half dollars, one was legislative and the other was economic. The first factor was the impact of the Pittman Act, which had been enacted in 1918. The Act authorized up to 350 million silver dollars held in storage to be melted and converted into silver bullion. At the same time, the Act required the purchase of domestic silver for the coinage of newly minted silver dollars. In 1921, after a gap of 18 years, the production of silver dollars was resumed on a massive scale. With more than 80 million silver dollars struck across three mint facilities, the capacity for the mints to strike other silver denominations was vastly reduced.
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 transition from a wartime to peacetime economy and the return of large numbers of soldiers which caused a surge in the labor force. During this time prices fell sharply, the Dow Jones Index dropped 47%, and unemployment rates rose to above 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 survival rate of the 1921 Walking Liberty Half Dollars. An unprecedented recovery occurred, leading to rising prices and improved retail business. These factors led to the increased the circulation of existing coinage, including the recently released 1921 half dollars. The heavy circulation took its toll and left few high grade or uncirculated examples available for future generations. These impacts were especially prominent for the San Francisco issue, which carries the strongest premiums in uncirculated grades.
Finest Known and Values
All three issues of the 1921 Walking Liberty Half Dollar 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. Neither of the two grading services have certified any coins higher than MS-66. Even at that grade level, fewer than 20 pieces have been graded across all Mints and both grading services combined. It should not come as a surprise that this number is extremely low within both the context of the series as well as 20th century United States coinage.
The Philadelphia issue shows roughly 90 pieces graded as MS-65 across both PCGS and NGC grading services. This figure is no doubt inflated by resubmissions. At the MS-66 grade level there are a mere four and two pieces graded at PCGS and NGC, respectively. The few MS-66 graded examples appear at auction extremely infrequently. The last appearance occurred in 2015 when one of the PCGS graded examples with a CAC sticker sold for $54,050.
The population reports for the Denver issue show a similar pattern with slightly lower figures at gem. Across both services, there are approximately 50 pieces graded MS-65. At MS-66, PCGS and NGC have encapsulated three coins each. The record price for this issue is held by a coin graded PCGS MS-66 with CAC sticker, which realized a price of $168,000 at auction in 2018. Surprisingly, this same coin had sold just a few years earlier in 2015 for $94,000.
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. Across the two major grading services about 40 pieces have been graded MS-65. At the MS-66 grade level, there are only two pieces graded by NGC and a sole example graded by PCGS. The auction record for this issue is held by the example graded NGC MS-66, which sold for $188,000 at auction in 2016. Attesting to the rarity and desirability of the issue, there have been several sales at prices above $100,000 for MS-65 graded examples.
Although the San Francisco issue is the rarest and most valuable of the trio in uncirculated condition, both the Philadelphia and Denver issues are scarcer and more valuable in circulated grades. Each of these two issues drives prices in the hundreds of dollars for well-worn pieces, while the San Francisco issue can be found at lower prices. Prices equalize across the three mints at the VF grade level, with prices for San Francisco pieces ascending in price at higher grades.