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Barber halves long ignored by collectors

If you are looking to have your collection double in price in any grade every year, Barber half dollars are probably not for you. If, however, you are looking for solid values on a surprisingly difficult set of the past century, then the Barber set might be the right choice for you. It is a collection of tough dates that are really not appreciated by many.

Part of the reason Barber half dollars are such a good value is that they have historically been ignored by generation after generation of collectors. That dates all the way back to 1892 when the design was first introduced to something resembling a large yawn of public indifference.

In part, the lack of enthusiasm for Barber half dollars centered around the fact that collecting in the 1880s and early 1890s was going through a relatively slow period. We can look at the proof sales during the period and see a small but steady decline and that is usually a good indication of general interest.

There were other factors as well, including the fact that a half dollar was a lot of money for many collectors at the time. The collecting pattern of the day was to simply collect by date and not date and mintmark, although that would begin to change with the publication of the Augustus Heaton work on branch mint issues, but the fact remains collecting Barber half dollars and especially needing one from a few mints each year was likely to be over the budget of many collectors at the time and more money than many others were willing to spend. The high value of the coin might best be indicated by pointing out that lunch and a beer was a nickel in those days.

As a result, the Barber half dollar would not be collected heavily when it first appeared in circulation in 1892 and actually in the years that followed there would be relatively few collectors willing to start with half dollars. The impact was that in large numbers Barber half dollars would simply circulate until they were simply retired from too much wear. In the end that would take a severe toll on the available supplies, especially in the case of some of the earlier and tougher dates.

Part of the lack of collector interest traces to the design. From the newspaper accounts of the period the big interest at the time was not in the new Barber coins,  but rather in the Columbian Exposition half dollar. The first commemorative would naturally be interesting, but the suggestion is that Barber coin designs did not help to generate much interest in dime, quarters or halves.

It is too bad it turned out that way because official intentions had been good. Officials had wanted to change designs going back to the 1880s but had stalled to first check with the Congress to learn what they could legally do. The Congress responded with an 1890 law that allowed the secretary of the Treasury to change designs any time after they had been in production for 25 years without the approval of the Congress. As the Seated Liberty designs had been around since the late 1830s, they were easily at twice the required length of time.

With a congressional green light, officials decided to invite the nation’s leading artists at the time to submit designs in a competition. They invited Augustus Saint-Gaudens, J.Q.A. Ward, Daniel French, Olin Werner Herbert, Herbert Adams, Charles S. Niehaus, Miller MacMonies, Kenyon Cox, Will S. Low and H.S. Mowbray to participate.

The response of the artists clearly surprised and upset officials. The artists responded with a set of conditions for their participation involving compensation, length of time for submission of designs and judging. Top officials probably saw the response as lacking gratitude for the opportunity to have their designs considered for what the officials saw as a great honor. It would have also been a great opportunity to have the work of the artist seen by a much larger audience.

The artists, however, seemed to see it as just another attempt to get them to submit work without any certainty of compensation. Sadly, the matter was not resolved and the idea of the competition was dropped.
Plan B was another competition, but in this case the competition was open to anyone who cared to enter. It did not exclude the artists. A distinguished panel of Chief Engraver Charles Barber, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Boston seal and gem engraver Henry Mitchell was established to judge the work submitted. There was reason to suspect that Barber and Saint-Gaudens had egos that would make it highly unlikely that they would consider the work of anyone good enough. They proved it by coming to exactly that conclusion.

 We might question whether any of the work had a fair chance, although one official called the whole effort a “wretched failure,” so it may be that the submissions were simply that bad.

Barber then got the job of designing the three denominations. He was already on the payroll. Even that did not go perfectly smoothly. Barber had his ideas and officials had their own and the two were not always perfectly in harmony.

An opportunity to create first rate art was lost.

Barber, having spent all his life at the Mint, was not going to break with tradition, which at the time was that the obverses of the dime, quarter and half dollar were the same. The reverses of the quarter and half dollar would also be the same, with only the dime being different. Because of its small size it was not required to have an eagle.

Barber was only one person, so expecting different designs for the different denominations would have been expecting a great deal from one person no matter how talented, but with his background it was unlikely that Barber would even consider the notion of different designs for the different denominations as that had not been the way things were done historically. Consequently, what they got was what one publication described perfectly as “institutional art.” That’s what it was. Barber knew how to make coins that would present no problems to produce and no problems in circulation, but it was basically uninspired.

Just as the critics were not impressed, it appears that the public had the same reaction to the original release of 935,245 Barber half dollars from Philadelphia, 390,000 from New Orleans and 1,029,028 from San Francisco.

Normally, we would expect higher than usual saving of the first year of a new design, While that possibly did happen, it was not enough to make a substantial difference in supplies today. In part, the denominations have to be seen as potential factors in addition to the design as the collectors at the time primarily collected lower denominations. It was a matter of cost. Collectors were generally interested in things like Indian Head cents. Even in that case the numbers of collectors and dealers were not enough to simply hoard much of the new half dollar issue as would be seen decades later when the 1931-S Lincoln cent was heavily saved, or the 1950-D Jefferson nickel would have almost its entire mintage saved.

We see some evidence of small saving especially in the case of the Philadelphia 1892, which is currently at $28.50 in G-4, $475 in MS-60 and $3,620 in MS-65. Even that MS-65 listing is close to the price of the cheapest available date in despite the fact that the 1892 had a relatively low mintage.

In the case of the 1892-S, which had the highest mintage of the three, that mintage did not translate into much saving as the 1892-S is $250 in G-4, $940 in MS-60 and $4,850 in MS-65.

The 1892-O, with its lower mintage is even more at $310 in G-4, $850 in MS-60 and $4,350 in MS-65. The lower Mint State prices suggesting that there might have been at least a little saving in New Orleans of the new coins. There is an 1892-O with a “micro O” mintmark and it is tough in any grade, with a G-4 listing at $2,000 and an MS-65 is $64,000. Those prices are correct as the 1892-O “micro O” has been graded just four times in Mint State by the Professional Coin Grading Service and only twice by Numismatic Guaranty Corp.

The relatively high prices of the 1892-S and 1892-O are indications of not just a lack of saving when the new Barber half dollars were released in 1892 but also relatively little saving in the decades that followed. Collector numbers would increase in later years, but most of the increase was in collectors of lower denominations and not in dimes, quarters and especially half dollars.

The fact that better date Barber half dollars were not pulled from circulation by generations of collectors was best seen in the so-called “New York Subway Hoard,” which was purchased and dispersed by the Littleton Coin Company in the 1990s. The hoard was primarily of key dates that had been found in the New York Transit Authority over a period of about 20 years starting in the 1940s. In addition to numbers of the better dates, the hoard included 24 complete sets of Barber half dollars as every date was still circulating some 50 years after the first Barber half dollar had been released.

The lack of collector saving can produce sometimes surprising results as there would be no pattern as to which dates would survive and which ones would not. Joining the 1892-S and 1892-O at prices of more than $100 in G-4 are dates like the 1893-S, which is now at $165 in G-4, while the 1897-S and 1897-O are at $155 and $170, respectively.

A couple other dates are up there, with the 1896-S at $115, followed by the very low mintage dates from Philadelphia from 1913-1915. The lowest mintage of the Philadelphia low mintage dates, the 1914, is $155 in G-4 and the 1915 is $112 in G-4.

With mintages of 188,627 for the 1913, 124,610 for the 1914 and 138,450 for the 1915, these dates definitely have to be taken seriously as potentially tough. That seems to be increasingly to be the case as about five years ago in G-4 the 1913 was $38.50, the 1914 $68.50 and the 1915 $50, but today you see G-4 listings of $77 for the 1913, $155 for the 1914 and $112 for the 1915. Those are very solid increases.

Dates seem generally to follow the pattern of scarcity as indicated by mintage figures, but there are exceptions.  The 1895-S for example with a mintage of 1,108,086 is $30 in G-4 while the 1898-O, which has a lower mintage of 874,000, is priced at $37.50. But then comes a coin like the 1893-O, which is $36 in G-4 and it has a mintage of 1,389,000. It is logical that it is cheaper than the 1898-O, but if mintage were solely the guide, it should not be more expensive than the 1895-S.

It is simply a case where unlike most issues of the period, the mintage of a Barber half dollar is not likely to give you a perfect indication of how expensive it will be today.

With the Barber half dollar, you also see a slightly unusual pattern in upper circulated grades. The prices may not be surprising based on mintages, but what you do find is that in grades of VF-20 and better Barber half dollars are unusually tough for a coin produced primarily in the last century. That is almost certainly a result of that lack of saving even years after they were released as Barber half dollars to grade VF-20 or better today would have probably been pulled from circulation in the 1920s or earlier and there is just no evidence to suggest that in the 1920s there were many collectors rushing to assemble Barber half dollar sets.

We expect that Mint State prices can sometimes be tough to predict especially at the time of the Barber half dollar as there were few collecting by date and mint, and even if someone had wanted to assemble a set of the coins of each year from each facility, it would not have been that easy to assemble. There would have been no offers from the Mint or dealers in your mail every day saying that for a low price you could get three uncirculated half dollars of a given year.

As a result, Mint State totals can mirror mintages, but also the amount of saving in the area where a certain date was released, with the Philadelphia issues usually being more available, simply because there were more active collectors in the Philadelphia area than in San Francisco or New Orleans or the new facility in Denver (1906 and later).

In Mint State other than the 1892-O with a “micro O,” the key date is the 1904-S and that comes as something of a surprise. The 1904-S had a mintage of over 1 million. It is not, however, available in Mint State as it is $9,000 in MS-60 far ahead of the next most costly date the 1901-S, which is at $1,850 in MS-60.

There is a host of others at $1,000  or more in MS-60, but again there is no real pattern. The 1904-S, with that higher mintage, is hard to explain, although it could be noted that the 1904-S and 1901-S are both dates issued close to the earthquake in 1906. Although we have no solid proof, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence suggesting that the earthquake and fire that destroyed San Francisco in 1906 had an impact on the supply of dates just prior to the quake. That pattern seems to be less clear in the case of half dollars than it is in dimes and quarters, but the fact is that the two dates that seem to toughest in Mint State are both dates from San Francisco that would have been issued immediately prior to the destruction and that may be more than a mere coincidence.

In MS-65, not counting the 1892-O with the “micro O,” the 1904-S again is the key at a price of $41,500 and that represents an increase from just $14,000 back in 1998. The increase is justified as PCGS currently reports just five examples of the 1904-S in MS-65 while NGC has only seen four examples.

The closest date to the 1904-S in price in MS-65 is the 1893-S which currently lists at $25,000 and which has also produced very few examples in MS-65 at the grading services. The 1901-S is $19,500 in MS-65.

There are a number of other dates at $10,000 or more, including 1900-O at $15,500 and the 1901-O, which is at $14,850.

Overall, despite some high prices in MS-65, the Barber half dollar seems to have any number of dates that look like good values in various grades. Consider for example the Philadelphia 1910, which had a mintage of just 418,551 yet the 1910 sits at just $20 in G-4. Even if the 1910 had a better than average survival rate, for a Barber half dollar that mintage and that price combined clearly make it a good value.

One of the things that is frequently not recognized is just how good many Barber half dollar dates really are. That fact gets overlooked with the lack of collecting and the lack of a truly spectacular date except for the 1892-O with the “micro O.” In a complete set of Barber half dollars you are going to find over 20 dates with mintages of fewer than 1 million pieces. For a set issued primarily in the past century, that is a very high number. Despite the high number there are only a couple dates in G-4 that are more than $200 and a few more at $100 or more, but the majority are still below $100 and in some cases like the 1910 they are well below $100.

You can find dates like the 1905 and 1905-O with mintages under 700,000 but G-4 levels of $30 or less and the values in Mint State are also excellent. To those facts can be added one more and that is that despite the low mintages when silver rose to $50 an ounce in early 1980 a significant number of lower grade Barber half dollars were melted. That melting was primarily of more available dates but realistically it has cut into the supply, leaving relatively few to be called common.

Whatever the grade, the Barber half dollar is a challenging set but one that continues to be possible. Without the presence of an extreme rarity, most collectors can fill a Barber half dollar set in whatever grade they might select. When you consider how tough they are date after date, a Barber half dollar set has to be considered a great value and a great opportunity.

More Resources:

2010 U.S. Coin Digest, The Complete Guide to Current Market Values, 8th ed.

State Quarters Deluxe Folder By Warmans

Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money, 1928 to Date

Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition

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