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Could 1906 earthquake be pricing factor?

It is truly a shame that coins cannot talk. They oftentimes leave us with many questions and very few answers. In fact, a scarce coin is frequently like a good mystery in that we may have clues as to why a certain date is scarce, such as a low mintage, but we frequently do not have all the answers and that leaves us guessing or at best trying to assemble clues into some type of logical story.

We see many examples of the situation and they are certainly not all recent. The 1844 Seated Liberty dimes thanks to a mintage of less than 100,000 was going to be a tough date based on that fact alone.

The 1844, however, had help as it was later promoted as “Orphan Annie” and at the time the name stuck and made the 1844 instantly recognized as a tough date. That turned out to not be enough as a large number of stories grew up around the 1844, such as the one that the 1844 was used to pay the troops on their way to Mexico. While in Mexico the soldiers allegedly used 1844 dimes to pay for entertainment or to just give young Mexican ladies who made them into bracelets. There was probably no truth to the story and no bracelet has ever been recorded, but it gave some the impression that the 1844 was even tougher than its already low mintage suggested.

In fact, over time the 1844 became the subject of other stories as well. It was part of a lost shipment robbed and then buried by robbers. It was in one natural disaster or another and according to one was burned in the great Chicago fire.

If there was a reason why the 1844 would be scarce other than its mintage there was usually a story to explain the situation. In fact, with the passing of time and the advent of grading services we have learned that the 1844 is about as tough to locate as might be expected considering its mintage. It is tough in Mint State and it could be seen as a little tougher in general, but realistically if the 1844 was lost in any significant numbers for one reason or another, you cannot tell it by the supplies available today.

In other cases like the 1927-D Saint-Gaudens double eagle, the story is pretty well assumed. The 1927-D in MS-67 or above might well bring $2 million today as there are fewer than 20 examples known and that number might even be under 10. That should not be the case with a coin that had a low but hardly record low mintage.

The likely situation was the 1927-D simply sat in Treasury vaults from 1927 until the gold recall of 1933 and at that point in time any double eagle in the vaults was melted. That melting claimed all but a few 1927-D double eagles that were safe in private hands. There was no natural disaster or other unusual event there was just a simple lack of collecting of double eagles by date and mint at the time and that meant the 1927-D while available for face value was simply never requested by anyone and for some reason was never shipped to Europe, making it one Saint-Gaudens double eagle date that was almost entirely destroyed.

One of the most interesting mysteries regarding coins that are tougher than would be expected might well be the case of Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars and especially those dated prior to 1906. There is a logical reason why such issues would be tough, as there was really very little collecting by date and mint at the beginning of the 20th century. Moreover, dimes, quarters and half dollars were upper denominations and that would reduce even further the number of potential collectors and the amount of saving.

The problem is the date as 1906 is important in the history of San Francisco for a tragic reason. It was in 1906 when the great earthquake struck San Francisco and then a fire swept through the city.

Understanding the situation in San Francisco in 1906 takes a little research as it was certainly not like today. The San Francisco Mint was a busy place producing the coins primarily for the region. A coin created in San Francisco in the period leading up to 1906 was fairly likely to stay in the area. While there were travelers on the railroads, there were few people who routinely traveled distances of hundreds or even thousands of miles. A coin produced in San Francisco might eventually leave the area, but it was certainly not as quickly as it would be today.

Under the circumstances, it is safe to assume that when the earthquake struck in April of 1906 the coins most likely to have been buried in the rubble or consumed in the fire that followed would have been issues from San Francisco and most likely ones made in the few years just prior to the tragic events of 1906.

However, what is likely and what we can prove are two different things. San Francisco produced its share of gold coins over the years, including some in the years prior to 1906, but like silver dollars we cannot really determine any patterns from the gold issues and silver dollars of the time for a couple of reasons.

The first is that the gold coins and silver dollars would have been the coins most likely to be in the vaults of the San Francisco Mint, and it was the only “bank” left standing after the quake and fire. It was out of business, as it could not get fuel to run its machines, but it was standing and for a time became the depository for relief funds. The gold and silver in its vaults would have been safe.

There is another factor as well and that is that in the case of silver dollars and gold scarcity cannot be pinned on the earthquake as just over a decade later hundreds of millions of silver dollars were melted as a result of the Pittman Act while in the 1930s large percentages of all gold coins were destroyed.

 Simply put, a San Francisco silver dollar or gold eagle from the period might be scarce today, but the reason could be melting and not the earthquake and fire.

As San Francisco back in 1906 was not making cents or nickels, leaving only Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars as the denominations that we can realistically study to determine what if anything was the impact of the great quake and fire on the coins of the time.

The question becomes whether there is any pattern to suggest that the Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars from the period just prior to 1906 are tougher in any grade than those produced immediately after the quake and fire.

To a degree even such comparisons are slightly flawed as in Mint State they are less possible. The number of collectors was likely to have grown during the period and that would mean greater numbers of Mint State examples being saved in 1910 than in 1902. It was also a period when the idea of collecting by date and mint was promoted for the first time and that too could have produced some slightly higher numbers for the later dates. The best guide is probably just a general comparison to see if circulated examples of dates immediately prior to 1906 are tougher than dates with similar mintages from the period just after 1906.

Certainly the Barber dimes were a prime candidate for being lost. There were generally larger numbers and being the smallest of the three denominations, dimes were naturally the most easily lost in the debris. In fact, there is actually some clear suggestion that something is unusual in the Barber dime prices especially when you compare the 510,000 mintage 1913-S and the 593,022 mintage 1901-S, or even the 613,300 mintage 1903-S.

With those mintage totals we would normally assume the lower mintage 1913-S would be more expensive, but it is priced at $30 in G-4 while the higher mintage 1901-S and 1903-S are priced at $80 and $84, respectively. The difference in price in G-4 is far higher than could possibly be explained by just a decade difference in the date when the coins were produced.

There is really no good way of explaining such a significant price difference except to say that something unusual happened to the higher mintage dates and the one unusual thing we can point to is that April morning in 1906 when the ground started shaking in San Francisco. In Mint State there are similar price differences and the grading services report far more examples of the 1913-S than either of the others.

The 1902-S is another pre-quake date that might have been lost in some numbers. It had a virtually identical mintage to the 1914-S, yet when you compare their G-4 prices you find the 1902-S is at $8 while the 1914-S is at just $3.

A more extreme case can be seen with the 1905-S issued just prior to the quake and with a mintage of  about 1 million more pieces than the 1916-S, yet again the higher mintage date is more expensive at $3.50 as opposed to $1.75 for the 1916-S.

The differences fall short of proof that something unusual happened to many pre-1906 San Francisco Barber dimes, but the numbers are significant enough and the differences great enough especially when you look at the prices of the 1901-S and 1903-S to suggest that something highly unusual seems to have had an impact on their supplies.

The quarter as the middle denomination was not produced in the same numbers as dimes, but by 1900 the quarter was seeing solid use. Evidence of something unusual having an impact on pre-1906 San Francisco quarters is not hard to find. There are two highly visible low mintage Barber quarters in the form of the 72,664 mintage 1901-S and the 40,000 mintage 1913-S.

With those mintages, the two key Barber quarters are well known and very expensive. What we see in their prices is something most unusual as the lower mintage 1913-S is currently priced at $1,500 in G-4 while the higher mintage 1901-S is at $7,000. It is a large difference and one that historically may be unusually large, but the fact is that historically the supply of the 1901-S has been unusually low.

On of the best gauges of numbers of dates in circulation for key dates has been the “New York Subway Hoard” purchased by the Littleton Coin Company back in the 1990s. The hoard was assembled starting in the 1940s from coins found in the receipts of the New York Transit Authority.

It was certainly a great place to check the change and the hoard produced what were truly amazing results, with large numbers of coins like 1916-D Mercury dimes, which generally could not be found in any numbers if at all in circulation.

In the case of the New York Subway Hoard the 1901-S appeared a mere 8 times while the much lower mintage 1913-S was found 20 times. It was no fluke as the 1913-S appeared one time more often than the 52,000 mintage 1916 Standing Liberty quarter. While that might be slightly out of line, the fact is that both the 1913-S and 1916 appeared about 2.5 times more often than the higher mintage 1901-S.

There could be influencing factors as by the 1940s the 1901-S would have been in circulation a long time, but realistically today’s prices and numbers available point very strongly to an unusual shortage of the 1901-S and once again there is no good reason except for the 1906 destruction.

The situation also becomes cumulative. It is one thing if in an isolated case there is one price that seems out of line with another. If, however, as is the case with these Barber dates, the situation happens repeatedly and seems to follow a pattern, the situation becomes not an isolated case but a pattern that is pointing to certain conclusions.

In the case of Barber quarters like the Barber dimes there is an extreme example in the case of the 1901-S as opposed to the 1913-S, but once again there are other examples as well. The 1902-S had a mintage of over 1.5 million pieces, which was higher than the 1907-S, which had a mintage of 1,360,000. Once again, the 1907-S would be expected to command a higher price yet the 1907-S in G-4 is $10 while the 1902-S is $13.50. The dollar difference is not high but the percentage difference is significant.

The 1905-S is another case. Issued on the eve of the earthquake, the 1905-S had a mintage about 500,000 higher than the 1909-S, which was issued after the devastation.

The 1905-S is not cheaper than the 1909-S as might be expected, but rather slightly more in G-4 and that is also true of the 1903-S, which had a mintage over 1 million, which can be compared to the 1915-S, which was at just 704,000. Once again the higher mintage 1903-S is at $15.50 while the lower mintage 1915-S is at $9, so the pattern while not extreme in every comparison continues to hold true.

That evidence of a pattern is significant as these are not isolated cases that can be dismissed but rather a very real pattern of comparing dates where consistently the higher mintage date is more costly than the lower mintage date that was produced after the earthquake.

Much like the dimes, there is an extreme case in Barber quarters of a difficult if not impossible to explain price difference with the 1901-S and the 1913-S as well as other differences that while not as large are still very real and always having the higher mintage date at a higher price than the lower mintage date produced after 1906.

As the largest of the three denominations, the half dollar would seem like the least likely to show significant pricing differences as half dollar were more likely to be sitting in vaults as reserves and being larger they were also more likely to be spotted in the debris after the quake and fire. Even so, there are still some indications that something unusual happened to Barber half dollars from before the earthquake in San Francisco.

The 1901-S had a mintage of roughly 250,000 pieces more than the 1913-S. Yet today the 1901-S in G-4 lists for $34 while the lower mintage 1913-S is hardly more than one-half that price at $20 and that is certainly not the sort of difference we expect to see.

In the case of the 1902-S, it had a mintage of 1,460,670, while the 1914-S was at just 992,000, but the 1902-S is $1 more at $16 in G-4 even though it had a significantly higher mintage.

In the case of the 1903-S, it had a mintage over 1.9 million while the 1915-S was at 1.4 million. Once again the two are almost the same price despite a very real mintage difference suggesting the 1915-S should be the more expensive of the two. Though in this case, the 1915-S is 50 cents more expensive than the 1903-S.

In fairness, the half dollar pricing does not show the extreme differences we see in the case of dimes and quarters, but as suggested half dollars would probably be less likely to have such differences. The point with half dollars is that while less clearly they still show the pattern of the dates just prior to 1906 being better than their mintages alone suggest.

The situation may fall short of absolute proof in some minds, but the fact is the pattern is very clear. It involves date after date in three denominations and consistently the higher mintage date from prior to 1906 is more expensive than would be suspected. It is also not a case where we are comparing apples and oranges as these are the same denominations being compared with dates of just in some cases a few years later from the same facility.

If you compared a coin from San Francisco to one from Philadelphia, the comparison would not be valid, but that is not the case here. The San Francisco dimes, quarters and half dollars produced essentially over a span of 15 years should be extremely similar in terms of numbers saved by collectors at the time and numbers available today, but the prices suggest something very different.

What makes it significant is that if there had been no earthquake in every case the prices today would seem to be the direct opposite of what they should be. If, however, you factor the total destruction of a city where a United States Mint happened to be located, the seemingly peculiar prices suddenly seem logical. There is no other situation like it in our numismatic history as at no other times was there a functioning branch mint in a city that was literally destroyed. That makes evaluating the situation difficult as it cannot be compared to any other similar situation.

Certainly, we cannot say with certainty that the earthquake and fire in San Francisco claimed large numbers of coins at the time, but it is not too much to suggest that there are very clear patterns in the San Francisco issues of the period suggesting that San Francisco Barber coins from just prior to 1906 have a lower than expected survival rate and higher prices and the reason may very well be the events of April in 1906 when the city was basically destroyed, making many dates much tougher than would otherwise be the case. u

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