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Just forget about the 1894-S with Barbers

Every so often an 1894-S Barber dime sells, and it is a gentle reminder to all collectors that Barber dimes are an interesting set. With the exception of the 1894-S, it is a collection that most can hope to complete relatively easily in circulated grades.

The 1894-S which now lists at $1.9 million in MS-65 is that gentle reminder simply because it is the only Barber dime that seems to ever get any headlines. Without the 1894-S, some might very well not even know there are Barber dimes to collect.

This lack of attention gives everyone an equal opportunity to get in on what is almost the ground floor in terms of a collection of Barber dimes. For a 90 percent silver dime that was last produced roughly 90 years ago, the Barber dime set is really an excellent value and a surprising amount of fun.

There are a lot of factors that have seemingly played a role in making Barber dimes lesser known. Historically, the Barber dime has never really attracted many collectors in part because back when they were first introduced in 1892 there were not a lot of people collecting dimes.

The denomination was simply too high a value for some at the time. Moreover, the national economy was poor and people were not in the habit of collecting coins by date and mint, but rather only by date. In the case of the Barber dime, which was produced at a number of different facilities, to only collect by date would have been to miss much of the challenge and fun.
The Barber dime was also not helped by the design. In fact, the Barber design was really a choice made in frustration as officials at the time had the best of intentions when it came to producing great new designs.

With the change in the nickel design in 1883, officials had begun to consider what might be done with the silver coins, but they were uncertain precisely what their legal powers were when it came to design changes.

The intention was certainly there as Mint Director Kimball stated in 1887 that there was, “a popular desire for an improvement of the coinage in respect to the present designs.”
The problem was legal authority so the Mint director went to the Congress to ask for clarification as to what they could and could not do.

The Congress responded on Sept. 26, 1890, with a law that stated that any time after a design had been in use for 25 years the Secretary of the Treasury could order a change in the design without consulting the Congress.

Since the Seated Liberty designs on the silver coins had been in use for nearly twice the required 25 years, that opened the door to make the changes officials desired.

There is no doubt that officials had thought the matter of getting the best possible designs through as they issued invitations to the nation’s leading artists to contribute designs. The invitations went to 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. We are not sure whether Chief Engraver Charles Barber or his assistant George T. Morgan, who had designed the Morgan dollar, were also included or not.

The thinking on the part of officials was almost certainly that the artists would be honored by the opportunity. After all, if their design was used their work would be seen by the entire nation. That would make them much better known and they were one of the few being given this golden opportunity.

The artists, however, apparently saw it as another competition and in their position they were probably approached to submit work to many such competitions. The artists have to eat and pay their bills too and submitting work to competitions, which only pay if you happen to win, can be a quick way to the poor house.

The artists consequently responded as a group with a set of “conditions” for their participation with the conditions involving pay, time to prepare their designs and judging.

That response almost certainly surprised and disappointed officials, who promptly dropped that idea and opted instead for a national competition open to everyone and anyone including famous artists.

Three judges were selected and they were Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Chief Engraver Charles Barber and Boston seal and gem engraver Henry Mitchell.

There was reason to suspect it would be an uphill climb for anyone to win the competition as Barber felt he was the only one qualified to design a coin and Saint-Gaudens was not much better, feeling that he along with a couple artists in France were the only ones qualified. That said, the designs submitted apparently were not very good as one discouraged official called the whole effort a “wretched failure.”

With that unfortunate result, officials did about all they could do, which was to turn to Barber and tell him to design the new coins. Even that did not go perfectly and the result was what one critic called “institutional art.” It was a perfect description, but also an expected one.

Having worked at the Mint for years, Barber was not about to do anything dramatic. For that reason an opportunity was lost. That is seen in 1916 when three dramatic new designs were chosen.

Barber, however, in 1892 was not about to do three new designs as the historic pattern had been that the dime, quarter and half dollar had basically the same design except for the reverse of the half dime.

There were transitional periods where one denomination might be the old design and another the new, but basically the design of silver coins was uniform and that pattern was good enough for Barber’s father who had also been chief engraver and was certainly good enough for Barber, so what officials got was a single not-terribly-inspiring design.

The Barber coins did not get a great reception from the public or collectors when they were released, either. In part, it was not the fault of the design as collecting was in a slow period anyway primarily because of the national economy. In addition, the same year saw the offering of the Columbian Exposition commemorative half dollar, and as the first official commemorative it received much of the attention.

The first dimes saw mintages of 12,121,245 from Philadelphia, 990,710 from San Francisco and 3,871,000 from New Orleans. All three are available, especially in circulated grades, although the lower mintage 1892-S is better at $66 in G-4 while the others tend to be around $10 in that grade.

The three were saved in at least small numbers, meaning they can be found in Mint State, with the Philadelphia 1892 at $110 in MS-60 and the 1892-O is $140 and the 1892-S is $425. In MS-65, the 1892 is $705 while the 1892-O is $1,275 and the 1892-S is at $3,850.

Realistically, the amount of saving was probably reduced by the fact of new commemoratives that year as well as the fact that many dealers of the day would not have responded like modern dealers by saving extra examples or perhaps rolls as their customers were really not very interested in the purchase of coins they could acquire at the bank or in circulation, so there was little reason for a dealer to save any quantity.

It did not take long for the Barber dime to have its one and only major rarity in the form of the 1894-S. Over the years, there have been assorted ideas brought forth to explain why there would be a 24 coin mintage of the 1894-S dime. One suggests they were needed to balance the books at San Francisco and while that might seem logical enough making 24 proof dimes seems like a very unusual way to balance the books.

A more likely situation is that San Francisco Mint Director John Daggett was approached by a few at the time to make an 1894-S. It might seem odd, but special creations were not that unusual in those days as there had been special 1870-S coins made to be included in the cornerstone of the new San Francisco facility and to be given out as souvenirs.

Celebrating 1894 is not the same as putting coins in a cornerstone, but it seems possible that Daggett would not have thought too much about what he was doing and simply ordered the production of a couple dozen 1894-S dimes.

 Just as we are uncertain why the 1894-S was made we are equally uncertain precisely what happened to them. There is a famous story that Daggett allegedly gave three to his young daughter Hallie, telling her to keep them until she was as old as he as at that time they would be valuable.

Allegedly Hallie did that with two of them, but being young she supposedly spent the third one on ice cream. The story is great for human interest value, but a little less significant in terms of actual proof.

The first report of an 1894-S did not take long as The Numismatist in 1900 had an example reported by George Heath. Other reports, such as one from Texas where Louis R. Goodwin was reported to have had an example for some time, kept the mysterious 1894-S on the minds of collectors.

Realistically we are able to account for just nine of the reported mintage of 24 1894-S dimes. There has been one account suggesting that 10 of the original mintage were melted, but most discount that and are satisfied with the idea of a mintage of 24, although certainly that total has never been verified. Most, however, are not satisfied with the large percentage missing as that is unusual for a significant rarity.

Attempts have been made to turn up missing 1894-S dime including an effort by the Professional Numismatists Guild ,which received a lot of publicity by offering a reward, but so far the 1894-S Barber dimes known have not changed in numbers.

The 1894-S was at one time considered along with the 1804 dollar and 1913 Liberty Head nickel one of America’s great rarities, but then it seemed to slip into the background a bit as it was not offered and some other rarities with even fewer known examples grabbed the numismatic spotlight.

With the 1894-S now comfortably over $1 million, however, it appears that the 1894-S has regained its historic role as a great rarity and perhaps an even better story.

In approaching a set of Barber dimes, the 1894-S is the one date not normally included. All the other dates, however, are available. A circulated set is certainly very possible with the 440,000 mintage 1895-O being the key date currently at a price of $385 in G-4. Like other dates, the 1895-O was simply not heavily saved at any time as the number of collectors of Barber dimes did not grow significantly in the years after the first ones were released. There were new collectors but like new collectors throughout U.S. history they tended to start with lower denominations allowing even better dimes to simply circulate until they were in many cases retired from too much wear and destroyed.

We have at least one interesting indication of just how long Barber dimes did circulate as the so-called “New York Subway Hoard” purchased by the Littleton Coin Company in the 1990s was a spectacular hoard of primarily key dates assembled starting in the 1940s some 25 years after the last Barber dime had been produced.

In the New York Subway Hoard there were a reported 45 complete sets of Barber dimes not counting the 1894-S. That suggests that every Barber dime date was still in circulation decades after the final one was made and nearly 50 years after the design had been introduced. Had there been much collector interest, it seems unlikely that some like the 1895-O would have still been found in such numbers.

What happened to the 1895-O certainly happened to other dates as well as being higher mintage they were even less likely to be pulled from circulation and saved by a collector or dealer. What we see today are a number of G-4 dates in the $50-$100 price range, including the 1892-S, the 720,000 mintage 1894-O, the 690,880 mintage 1895, the 610,000 mintage 1896-O, the 575,056 mintage 1896-S, the 660,000 mintage 1897-O, the 593,022 mintage 1901-S and the 613,300 mintage 1903-S.

At prices less than $100 in G-4, these dates can all be seen as good values and over time this list is likely to grow, as not only were these dates not saved, in many cases they were destroyed when they were retired, or even around 1980 when the price of silver reached $50, causing many Barber dimes including some better dates in lower grades to be melted for their silver.

Except for the 1895, the pattern of lower mintage branch mint dates being better is fairly clear. Interestingly enough, however, there are later low mintage branch mint dates that seem to have fared better in terms of survival. Dates like the 1904-S, 1909-D, 1913-S and 1915-S are all branch mint coins with lower mintages yet only the 1904-S of the group is even close to the $50 mark.

In fact, the later dates have become something of a favorite with some who like to point to “sleepers,” which have the potential for much higher prices. The 1913-S is a special favorite as it had a mintage of just 510,000 yet is currently around $32.50 in G-4. That has doubled over the last three years, but it is still an extremely reasonable price for a coin with such a low mintage.
In upper grades because of the low saving at the time, Barber dimes can be tough. With only a limited demand, they are not very expensive especially when you consider that virtually every Barber dime is not going to be readily available in Mint State.

Many dates in MS-60 are under $200 and some are closer to $100. The key is the 1895-O, which lists at $6,000 in MS-60. There is good reason as PCGS reports just 25 examples in Mint State while NGC reports another 19 in Mint State.

There are only a few other dates that even reach $1,000 in MS-60, such as the 1894-O and 1903-S. A number of others are closing in on the $1,000, with that group including the 1896-O, 1897-O and 1901-S, but in every case when you consider their mintages, a $1,000 price for a Mint State example hardly seems out of line.

In MS-65, Barber dimes are possible but certainly a much more difficult set. The 1895-O is the key again at a current listing of $19,500, while the 1894-O is at $15,500. The two prices are justified as NGC reports just six examples of the 1895-O in MS-65 while the PCGS total is four in MS-65 and one better. In the case of the 1894-O, the NGC total is just a single coin in MS-65 while PCGS reports two in MS-65 and four in MS-66. In both cases the numbers are so low that today’s prices are certainly reasonable when compared to other coins with similar totals.

There are a number of other better dates, such as the 1895-S, which is now at $7,500 in MS-65 and it too has low totals, with NGC reporting just four in MS-65 and one in MS-66, while PCGS reports two in MS-65 and two more in MS-66. In the case of the 1895-S, it is interesting as it is a slight departure from the pattern as its mintage is over 1 million.

There are a couple other dates at $5,000 or more and they, too, are good buys. The 1900-O is now at $5,750 in MS-65 and the 1901-S is at $5,350. The most costly of the group approaching $10,000 is the 1896-O, which is currently at $9,500 in MS-65, but its move to $10,000 has been deliberate. Now at just below $5,000 we find the 1896-S, 1897-O, 1899-O, 1899-S, 1901-O, 1902-O, 1903-O and 1904-S, which is a growing group in recent years. There is little doubt that if there is additional collector demand the group of $5,000 and up Barber dime dates would be likely to increase quickly.

Certainly in MS-65 the Barber dime set is a real accomplishment. There are not many 90 percent silver coins sets stretching back to the 1890s that you could expect to complete and especially at such prices. That said, completing a set will take not only money, but also patience as some of the dates based on the low numbers seen at the grading services are not likely to be on the market with any regularity.

In any grade, the Barber dime is a set filled with interesting coins and good values. The lack of popularity helps to make not just the 1913-S, which is often called a sleeper a good value, but literally the whole set is a good value and that makes it a fun set to assemble as you truly feel you are getting your money’s worth.

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