On November 17, the U.S. Mint launched what was perhaps the most anticipated coin of the year: the 2016-W Walking Liberty Centennial Gold Coin, which honors the Walking Liberty half dollar. This coin is the third and final 24-karat gold coin issued to mark the 100th anniversary of three popular classic Liberty-themed coin series that debuted in 1916.
The Walking Liberty gold coin is a tribute to what is undoubtedly the best-known and most widely collected classic silver coin and one that many collectors alive today received in change during their youths. Millions of collectors have assembled sets of silver Walkers, especially of the short set of coins issued between 1941 and 1947.
The stunning obverse design of this coin, which is one of Adolph Weinman’s masterpieces, shows Lady Liberty “striding toward the dawn of a new day, carrying laurel and oak branches, symbolic of civic and military glory,” as a July 1916 article in The Numismatist magazine explained. The reverse, the article further notes, “shows an eagle perched high up on a mountain crag, wings unfolded. The pine growing out of the rock symbolizes America.”
This design was chosen through a competition to replace the unloved Barber coinage and was unveiled a year before the U.S. entered World War I, helping to make it a major world power. Along with the Liberty dime and quarter, the new half dollar was part of a renaissance in American coinage.
As every collector of modern U.S. coins knows, this iconic and quintessentially American obverse design also appears on hundreds of millions of American Silver Eagles struck since 1986. But it only graces one gold coin.
Views Before the Launch
Prior to the launch of the gold half dollar, there were some people who were very bullish about the coin’s sales potential, such as Ian Russell, president and CEO of Great Collections, an online coin auction company. He said on October 28 that “the Half Dollar has the potential to be the best out of the three—more people will want it due to it being a larger gold coin, the design, and it has a chance to sell out with the three per household limit.”
However, there appeared to be a broad consensus going into the launch that the coin would not be an especially quick seller.
After being initially bullish on the coin in October, on November 6 Mr. Russell said he was not recommending the coin until the Mint lifts the household limit and said he did not expect a sellout on the first day. He added that the wholesale market turned negative about this coin in early November.
Negative sentiment about the coin was based on a series of points, including: the high cost of the coin, at $865, which represents a premium of over $250, or about 40%; the rather high maximum mintage of 70,000 coins, which most collectors said was far too high*; the fact that the gold quarters have not yet sold out despite the household limit having been lifted; and the suggestion that the coin would likely not perform well in the secondary market, and might even sell for less than issue price at some point. Others pointed to buyer fatigue and the approach of the holidays.
Those views appeared to be reinforced by two other developments prior to the coin’s launch. First, there was noticeably less chatter about the gold halves in the numismatic blogosphere than there was for the dime and quarter, including the coin blogs sponsored by Whitman as well as others like the PCGS message boards.
And second, there were fewer offers from dealers to purchase the coin at a premium to help them acquire sufficient inventory. For example, one company offered only a $100 credit for each coin purchased. And those who did make such offers generally offered smaller premiums than they did in the past because they were unsure how the coin would do. One dealer told me he saw offers between $25 and $100 per coin from various companies.
An additional factor—one that my series of articles on the centennial gold trio for this website** identified early on—is that these coins have so far been grading at very high levels, with close to 90% of the coins that are submitted for grading receiving the top grade of MS- or SP-70 (at least based on the first two centennial coins). It is possible that with the larger diameter and bigger fields, there could in theory be more imperfections, but I suspect we will see similar results with graded Walkers.
Initial dealer pre-order prices for 70-graded coins were priced about 50% over the cost of a raw coin from the Mint, but expect those prices to probably come down substantially, as did those for the previous centennial coins—especially if the census data for the new coin are comparable to the numbers for the previous two issues.
And that seemed to suggest dealers would not be likely to go in big on the gold halves, since they ended up with a lot of extra inventory of gold dimes and quarters that have seen their retail prices discounted considerably to move them out.
Initial Sales Strong
But whatever merit those arguments may or may not have had, initial sales of the gold Walkers were higher than most people anticipated they would be, coming in at 43,728 for first-day sales, according to the U.S. Mint’s Office of Public Affairs.
That figure represents 62.5% of the total maximum mintage of 70,000 coins, a strong showing for a coin that costs almost $900.
It suggested that completing the trio was important for many buyers, which is hardly surprising, and that a good number of dealers purchased the coin too.
Comments about the coin since news of the first-day sales have been more positive than they were before the launch.
Plus, it seems reasonable to assume that more of the halves will remain in collections compared to the previous two coins, especially given the lower mintage that makes the half dollar the trio key. In fact, if considered part of the Walking Liberty half series, the 2016-W gold coin is by far the lowest-mintage business-strike coin.
In addition, the Mint has been processing orders for the coin quickly. And buyers who have their coins in hand are apparently very pleased with how they look and have posted images of their coins.
And it is also noteworthy that most people have either grown accustomed to the slight difference in size and appearance between the original silver coins and the gold tributes, or seem not as concerned about those differences. Readers of my previous articles will recall that the Mint decided to use existing fractional American Gold Eagle planchets for the gold tributes to save money.
But strong initial sales are certainly no guarantee of a strong secondary-market value, especially in the short term. And the fact remains that, as with each of the centennial issues, modern gold coins with these kinds of mintages are not by any means rare.
What they are is desirable collector pieces that should maintain good demand going forward and hold on to their value, which is more than one can say about many modern numismatic gold coins.
Andrew Salzberg, who is general manager of Modern Coin Mart, an industry leader in modern coins, provided some useful perspectives on these issues. He thought the 70,000 mintage was high, but that the three-per-household limit helped since that meant fewer buyers were needed for a sellout. On the other hand, he said it is hard to say what the long-term collector demand will be for the coins since so many factors come into play in that equation.
On the plus side, the iconic design, the larger size, and the fact that it is the third of the series all bode well for the coin’s future.
Mr. Salzberg does not see the coin as a major money maker, especially given the premium over gold content, but he sees it holding its value two to four years from now.
Unlike coins such as the American Buffalo Gold, or the American Gold Eagle, which are ongoing series that reuse popular classic coin designs, the 2016 coins are one-offs.
And that has made it unclear how to even categorize them, i.e., as commemoratives, as part of the original series, or as special-issue modern coins—or where to list them in references sources like the Red Book.
None of this in any way diminishes the long-term significance of the coins.
Given the pride of place that the three Liberty coins that were launched in 1916 occupy in U.S. numismatics, these unique gold tribute coins should also have a bright future going forward. ❑
* In 2015 the Mint surveyed potential buyers of the gold centennial coins about their level of interest in these coins. In the survey the Mint suggested respective mintages for the coins of 70,000, 35,000, and 25,000, whereas the actual figures turned out to be much higher at 125,000, 100,000, and 70,000.
** See the first three: “2016-W Standing Liberty Centennial Gold Quarter: For Collectors, Not Flippers,” “Mercury Gold Centennial Dime Market Trends Comparisons and Lessons of Launch,” and “2016-W Gold Winged Liberty Dime U.S. Mint Exclusive.”
Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing on modern U.S. and world coins. His work has appeared in Coin World, Coin Week, The Numismatist, Numismatic News, and Coinage, among other publications. His first coin-writing position was with Coin Update.