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Junk Silver Washington Quarters

The History and Value of Washington Quarters

There are many histories of the various coin designs and releases into circulation. These stories are the bedrock of our nation's coinage development, and serve to tell the story of how money is designed, produced and circulated in our nation.

America's competitive nature led to a design competition assisted by the Commission on Fine Arts and the Washington Bicentennial Commission. This was done for the purpose of enticing the public's artists to step forward and become recognized. This process became standard when new designs needed to be laid onto a new series of coins.

In 1931 another such competition was announced. The decision had been made to create a one-year commemoration 90 percent silver half dollar to release in 1932. It was to be the 200th commemoration of George Washington. The competition was to discover a new design for the reverse of the silver coin, since a Washington bust design was already in use. The contest was announced broadly across the nation.

The rules were announced early in the year with the guideline that the designs should be based on the "celebrated bust" made by the sculptor Jean Washington and notable French Antoine Hudon, the study having been created from a life-mask taken at Mt. Vernon in 1785 that was widely regarded as being uncannily accurate and therefore admired nationally.

Ninety eight applicants submitted 100 designs for the coin. Many were very amateurish, with some good ones, however the most exceptional according the Fine Arts Commission was the one done by Laura Gardin Fraser. She was also the designer of the Oregon Trail commemorative and wife of James Fraser, the creator of the design for the Buffalo Nickel coin.

The powerful medal-appropriate design by Mrs. Fraser really stood above all others. It was highly similar to artistic renderings produced during the numismatic "golden years" that was initially inspired by Theodore Roosevelt. The Commission decision was unanimous but there were others who needed to be pleased.

The contest was held before Congress debated the new commemorative coin issue. At the time, currency was providing the public with a Standing Liberty Quarter. Congress decided to change this silver quarter to commemorate Washington. This meant the half dollar designs would go on hold. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon was appealed, in order to allow Fraser's design from the previous contest to be used on the new quarter. Mellon refused and the contest for the new quarter design continued a second time. After authorizing the new quarters from Congress, the new competition was announced by the US Treasury department.

The new quarter design signaled the end of the beloved silver Standing Liberty quarter design used from 1916. Nobody argued a denomination change, however the man responsible for coinage designs, Secretary Mellon had quite the reputation for eccentricity, and this played out here. He was known to be a chauvinist and to be wealthy beyond ordinary imagination. He had his own ideas about art, and wasn't about to allow Fraser's design to get through. His art collection was world renown, as was his stubbornness born of wealth and position. Refusing repeatedly to listen to any Commission perspectives on Fraser's design, he chose a depression era styled piece by John Flannagan whose medal work reflected study with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and was reminiscent of the bland and boring conservative images.

Mellon's first impulse was to placate the Commission by calling for another contest. Although he was having to field protests from the advisory panel, Mellon decided to leave his office and accept a position as Herbert Hoover's ambassador to Great Britain. The new Secretary Ogden rudely reminded the advisory committee they were only advisors, and went forward with the Flannagan design, as it was his ultimate decision.

Finally, the new silver Washington quarter coin was released on August 1, 1932, and we have been using it ever since. Many continued to believe that Laura Frasier should have gotten this contract for her stunning design, and 33 years after her death, she was honored when her Washington design was chosen to augment one side of the 1999 commemorative Half Eagle, a five dollar gold coin created for another commemoration of 200 years after the death of George Washington. Frasier and her husband were able to go down in history as the talented couple responsible for some of our most beloved designs with some still in circulation today.

The design Flannagan created had a simplicity more appropriate to a portrait than metal art. It had an extraordinarily low relief. Washington's bust faces left, dominating the obverse while the date is below, and LIBERTY reads above. IN GOD WE TRUST is etched into the left field while the designer's initials can be found on the base of his neck. A heralding spread winged eagle graces the reverse with the words "E PLURIBIS UNUM" above with "Quarter Dollar" and a wreath underneath. The mint marks that can be found below the wreath are on the 90 percent silver coins dated 1964 and earlier and later non-silver coins from 1968 have it just to the right of Washington's ribbon.

Production engineers may have appreciated the fact that with such a low relief, they could be struck with a single blow from the die stamp press. The artistic loss here is unfortunate and the weak design element caused periodic alterations to be needed on the master hub. By the end of 1932 some issues of the 1934 motto could barely be read, as it was so weakly designed. This was true even for the un-circulated mint condition silver coins. This reality was an education for the designers and circulation production staffers.

The only significant changes to the coin came in 1965 first, when the metal composition was altered from 90 percent silver to a "sandwich metal" coating of 75 percent copper, 25 percent nickel that was bonded to a pure copper core. This eliminated the intrinsic value of the coin. The old 90 percent silver coins are generally referred to as junk silver coins and have a high value due to the silver metal they contain.

In 1975 the second modification was made to the reverse for the "Drummer Boy" design, also obtained through a contest won by Jack L. Ahr for the bicentennial issue. The obverse of the coin carried the dual date of 1776-1976 and in 1977 they returned to the original design. The "Drummer Boy" issue still stands out for collectors today.

Most collectors have a growing appreciation for the Washington quarters, usually assembled by date and mint. The only year it wasn't issued was 1933, the only break coming for the silver production mintage that stopped in 1964. The issues from 1932 D and S mintage runs are considered scarce, and so are the ones from 1936.

Regardless of the large mintage of the Denver coins, renowned coin dealer, Wayte Raymond, with his group of contemporaries somehow helped them escape the hoarder nests.

These dealers were diligently accumulating bank-wrapped rolls from the 30's when most folks couldn't afford even the $10 cost to the single roll. Many people were jobless and even those who worked for the Detroit auto makers earned only $20 per week.

From the year 1932 there were over 21 billion die strikes headed for the business community and 60 million proofs were issued. Production happened in the Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco and west point Mints. Business strike proofs get a lot of attention from dealers, especially 1932-1942 issues. Also, hunters look for the cameo proof coins from 1950 to 1964. The numismatic community recently learned of a unique oddities found on a 1970-S proof Washington that was struck over a 1900 Barber-era quarter. Evidently an exceptionally creative US Mint employee allowed it to escape into a 1970-S proof set. This is only one of many reasons coin collecting is so interesting, as these kinds of surprises and errors are still being discovered, today.

These quarters, collected in all grade ranges, are especially popular in the XF, AU and mint state. There are lots of coins from many, many die casts, die varieties, over-mint marks and hubbing errors. This is a fertile field to study for anyone starting the dive into the intricate modern coinage production era. The wear marks begin with Washington's hair around his ear, and on the center of the eagle's breast. There are a few counterfeit coins that were struck, but mint mark alterations are far more common. This is especially true on the 1932 D and the 1932 S series. It is always advised to be sure one has an accurate authentication. This does need to be stressed.

Any quarters circulated from 1965 through today are worth 25 cents, with one exception--the silver-clad bicentennial quarters. These are worth $4 dollars in mint state condition. These shouldn't be confused with what many might find in their change—those are not the silver clad issue. Silver clad issues are only available for individual sale, and not for circulation. Several hundred million non-silver clad bicentennial issues were released that year. Many study these histories in order to understand how to value their own collections.

Prior to 1965, coins were made out of 90% silver. This means that coins from 1936 to 1964 are worth about $7 dollars, depending on the current spot price of silver. Most coin shops are only interested in these 90 percent silver coins. They are called junk silver quarters as their numismatic value is negligible compared to their intrinsic silver metal content value.

A few exceptions exist; in 1950 an S/D – S mint mark was stamped over a D mint mark, and these are worth about $150.00 and that same year a D/S – D mint mark was stamped over an S mint mark, and these are worth around $135.00. In `1943 an S Double Die – front of coin looks like it was struck twice, and this one is worth $125. Again in 1943 a Double Die was struck twice, these go for $225. In 1942 a D Double Die was struck causing its value to rise to $400. In 1937 a Double Die strike caused some to be going now for about $100.

Between 1932 and 1935 a few slightly more valuable coins were released, these capture values from $8 to $20 with three exceptions; a 1934 Double Die- In God We Trust looks like a double die stamp worth $75 to $225 and in 1932 the S and D series are generally the most sought after of the Washington quarter vintage as there was such a low mintage that year. The 1932 S in its lowest grade is worth $185 (VG-8) and in high grade (MS-63) it comes in around $1,500. The 1932 D- $180 in low grade (VG-8) to $3,200 in high (MS-63).

All the above prices are for coins in EF or "extra fine" condition. Again, these coins ideally should be graded by a third party grading service for greater accuracy. Obviously lower vintage grades are worth less and vice versa. Local coin dealers can be helpful, but at times can be deceptive if they seek to make a profit.

Check the change; anyone could have a quarter worth more than 25 cents. There are Washington quarter folders available for safe keeping if someone decides to take up the vintage quarter collection challenge.

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