This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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The 1897-S Barber quarter is very easy to overlook. In some cases, being overlooked means a coin is better than normal. The 1897-S is really a good coin but one in a set where there are truly very special coins that cause all others to pale in comparison.
The Barber quarter set is famous, not for having large numbers of collectors but for having some terrific coins. The 1901-S, for example, with a mintage of 72,664, may be the best silver coin of the past century. In grades like G-4 and F-12, the 1901-S, both in price and difficulty, has to rank right at the top. The 1901-S is more expensive, but the 1913-S, with a mintage of just 40,000 pieces, is the lowest mintage silver coin of the 20th century.
Were it not for the 1896-S, the 1897-S Barber quarter might be a little better known, but with a mintage of 188,039, the 1896-S had a much lower mintage. With a mintage of 542,229, the 1897-S was seen as common in comparison, so it was hard for it to get any attention back in the late 1800s.
Actually, back then there was probably not much consideration of either date. Barber coins of any denomination were not very popular with collectors. The Barber coins were introduced in 1892 to a large collective yawn from many collectors, probably because the design was not very exciting.
Just as very few started collections in 1892, not many were likely to begin collections in later years. Throughout the period, a quarter was a higher face value coin than most could routinely collect. That lack of collecting has haunted collectors today as the coins simply circulated until they were retired and destroyed by the government.
The lack of saving, may finally be coming home to roost in terms of having an impact on prices. Back in 1998, the 1897-S was priced at only $14 in G-4, and there was probably a number of examples gathering dust in dealers’ cases even at that price. Today, however, a G-4 is up to $75, and you will not find many other situations where a G-4 over that period of time has increased by such a percentage.
In MS-60 the 1897-S lists for $900, which is exactly the price it was in 1998. The G-4 gained more than $60, while the MS-60 stayed the same. It is rare that a G-4 will increase when an MS-60 of the same date doesn’t. The MS-65 is only slightly better, up from $6,300 to $7,000.
The price movements are both unusual and interesting, but the grading services may hold the key. Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has seen the 1897-S a total of 39 times, and 32 coins were Mint State.
Even more remarkable, five of these were MS-65, one was MS-66, two were MS-67 and one was MS-68. At Professional Coin Grading Service, a total of 48 examples showed 32 in Mint State. Again, there was a surprising number of examples in high grades with eight in MS-65, two in MS-66 and one in MS-67. Maybe it is luck or maybe the 1897-S was unusually well-struck.
It appears that the 1897-S is a real problem in lower grades, where the supply is not even close to meeting the demand. That does not mean the 1897-S is common or too expensive in MS-65. It simply means that by not being saved it is tough in circulated grades, which is typical of a coin that has been overlooked for much of its history.