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Did the earthquake make rarities?

The coins of San Francisco have a knack for raising questions that frequently cannot be answered. The original San Francisco facility chose its first year of production to make token amounts of quarter and half eagles that virtually no one saved. Why they chose to make fewer than 300 pieces of each remains a question without an answer.

The dedication of the cornerstone of the new San Francisco facility produced more than its share of questions as at least according to the reports a single half dime and $3 gold from 1870 were made and placed in the cornerstone yet both exist today, suggesting either they were not placed in the cornerstone or more than one of each was made contrary to the reports.

Questions surround the 1894-S Barber dime as well and while over the years we have assembled some information about the 1894-S, the fact is not everyone is fully in agreement that the mintage was just 24 pieces, or what the real reason for the production was as theories continue to be advanced in place of the facts that are lacking.

Perhaps the most interesting of the assorted questions or mysteries surrounding the coins of San Francisco centers around the coins of the early 1900s. If you look at gold issues most are available, but if any coin is going to be expensive in Mint State it is likely to be the one from San Francisco no matter what the mintage.
A similar situation exists if you look at the San Francisco Morgan dollars of 1903 and 1904, which were the final issues prior to the return to production of Morgans in 1921. Both the 1903-S and 1904-S had reasonably large mintages yet both are surprisingly tough especially in high grades.

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It is not easy to draw any conclusions from the situation primarily because the coins involved both Morgan dollars and gold had very unusual histories in that both were later heavily melted and that melting took place long before there was much serious collector interest in either gold coins or silver dollars. With no records from the melting of either the gold coins and silver dollars could be elusive in the highest grades simply because they were not saved with possible supplies of nice examples being melted before they could be obtained by dealers and collectors.

The mystery does not, however, stop with gold coins and Morgan dollars. In fact that is just the start as the San Francisco coins of the early 1900s tend to be elusive in the case of the denominations that would have been the most likely to be in circulation at the time. Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars were the lowest denominations being produced in San Francisco back in the early 1900s and they too seem to be in short supply in all grades.

The classic situation to illustrate the point is that of the 1901-S Barber quarter with its mintage of 72,664 and the 1913-S Barber quarter with a lower 40,000 mintage. In fact, the 1913-S Barber quarter is the lowest mintage silver coin of the past century that was intended to be released into circulation. Most would assume that it would be less available than the 1901-S as its mintage was barely over one-half the total of the 1901-S. In fact, the two are not really close in price, but it is not the 1913-S that is more expensive. In G-4 the 1901-S is $6,250 while the 1913-S is just $1,850. It is similar in Mint State where the 1901-S is $40,000 in MS-60 and $82,500 in MS-65 while the 1913-S is $15,000 in MS-60 and $37,500 in MS-65.

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Any time a higher mintage date is more expensive than a lower mintage date of the same type it raises questions. After all, it simply is not logical that the coin with the higher mintage should be more costly. The question is a simple why and in this case the basic situation is one where historically speaking the popular belief is that the 1901-S for one reason or another is less available.

Some proof of this situation was seen in the New York Subway Hoard purchased by the Littleton Coin Company in the 1990s. The hoard was perhaps the greatest accumulation of key dates of the past century ever seen and in its numbers were 20 examples of the 1913-S and just eight of the 1901-S. That suggests that the 1901-S despite the higher mintage was tougher at least in the 1940s, but it leaves unanswered other questions. A look at the grading services supports the notion that for some reason the available numbers of the 1901-S are not what they should be at least compared to the 1913-S. At Numismatic Guaranty Corp., the numbers of 1901-S quarters is about 80 percent of the 1913-S. Meanwhile at the Professional Coin Grading Service, the difference between the two was around 10 percent.

Looking for answers to the difference between the two dates the usual possibilities do not really appear to apply. There would have not been sufficient difference in the number of collectors over the period to make the 1913-S significantly more available. What is even more perplexing is that the situation is not an isolated one as routinely when it comes to dates of the early 1900s from San Francisco the dates from the first few years of the new century are significantly tougher than dates from a few years later even though the later dates have lower mintages. If anything the dividing line appears to be about 1906 and that is a critical date not just for price comparisons but in the history of San Francisco.

The year 1906 might well be called the end of old San Francisco and the beginning of the new as it was on the morning of April 18 of that year when the city was devastated by a major earthquake that was followed by a fire that could not be extinguished as all the water mains were destroyed.

The destruction was extraordinary and unique for a city where a U.S. branch mint was located. Interestingly enough, it was during those dark hours where the U.S. branch mint in San Francisco known to many as the “Granite Lady” would gain added stature as the facility was the only financial institution left standing. It was out of operation because the machines ran on gas and the city’s gas works had been destroyed, but being the only thing resembling a bank left standing, it became the depository for relief funds and other financial activity.

A similar situation today would certainly be a disaster, but in the case of the San Francisco Mint and the coins in the area, it might well be very different. It must be remembered that this was 1906 and at that time the San Francisco facility was basically making the coins for the West. There were not likely to be shipments of coins from one region to another and that meant that coins produced in San Francisco would tend to stay in San Francisco and the surrounding region. The meaning of that limited distribution is that coins of the few years prior to the earthquake were likely to be there in large numbers right in the middle of the fire and those coins were likely to be overwhelmingly recent issues from San Francisco.

It is interesting as over the years there have been any number of assorted stories about large numbers of certain coins being lost for various reasons. In fact, some of the stories are true as certainly shipwrecks have produced significant numbers of San Francisco gold coins in particular from the 1850s and 1860s that were being shipped to the East. Many times, however, there are stories that fail to pass an objective test as being true or even being likely. Moreover, with grading services and better information today we can usually put such stories to at least a limited test to determine if the coin is actually tougher than might be expected for some unknown reason.

The evidence of unusual factors influencing the coins of San Francisco issued in the period just prior to 1906 is virtually everywhere. In the case of Barber dimes for example there is a large price difference between the 510,000 mintage 1913-S and the 593,022 mintage 1901-S and the 613,300 mintage 1903-S. Normally the expectation would be that the lower mintage 1913-S would be at the same price or perhaps even slightly higher than the other two, but the 1913-S in G-4 is $35 while the 1901-S is $80 and the 1903-S is $84. We see other indications of surprising difference in availability as NGC shows fewer than 50 examples of either the 1901-S or 1903-S, but some 79 of the 1913-S. At PCGS the 1901-S and 1903-S have appeared roughly 90 times while the lower mintage 1913-S is at 125.

The 1902-S is potentially another date influenced by the quake and fire and it is easy to compare to the post-quake 1914-S as the two have nearly identical mintages. The 1902-S, however, is roughly twice the price of the 1914-S. The pattern is also seen with the 1905-S which was issued just before the quake as it has a mintage of almost 1 million more coins than the 1916-S yet once again the earlier date with the higher mintage is more expensive.

Certainly the pattern falls short of absolute proof, but it is a case where if only one date was involved it would be seen as unusual but possible to explain. When a number of dates are involved and they are only ones where the mintages are similar enough to make a comparison potentially valid, it becomes much more difficult to explain using any of the normal factors that might cause the unusual pricing.

To the Barber dimes can be added the situation with the 1901-S and 1913-S Barber quarters, but it does not stop there. The 1902-S Barber quarter had a mintage of over 1.5 million while the 1907-S was at 1,360,000. The two are only five years apart although in the five years there was the disaster. Today in G-4 the 1902-S is about 50 percent more costly than the 1907-S despite the fact that the 1907-S has the lower mintage. We see the pattern repeat in the case of the 1905-S, which had a mintage of about 500,000 more than the 1909-S, yet the 1905-S is more in G-4 than the 1909-S. The pattern repeats when you compare the 1903-S which had a mintage of over 1 million to the 1915-S which was at just 704,000. The 1903-S today is nearly twice the price of the 1915-S in G-4.

As the largest of the three denominations, the half dollar would probably be least likely to be lost in the rubble, but even in the half dollars of the period the unusual pattern appears as the 1901-S, which had a higher mintage than the 1913-S by about 250,000, is at roughly double the price of the lower mintage date. The situation is similar when you compare the 1902-S with a mintage over 1.4 million and the 1914-S which was at 992,000. In theory the lower mintage 1914-S should be more expensive, but the prices today show it at the same or lower prices depending on the grade as the significantly higher mintage 1902-S. That is repeated with the 1903-S, which had a mintage over 1.9 million and the 1915-S, which was at roughly 1.5. The mintages again would suggest the 1915-S should be the more expensive, but once again they are currently at similar to lower prices. While not as dramatic as the lower denominations, the trend for the half dollar is still that the higher mintage earlier date is more expensive or the same as the lower mintage dates after the earthquake.

Once again the trend falls short of proof, but overall the evidence mounts up to a point where it is very hard to explain away for any reason other than the earthquake. Short of actual proof, which would be impossible to produce, the mystery of the higher values of early dates of the 1900s from San Francisco will continue. The earth moved in 1906 and it might still be affecting prices today.

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