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‘O’ for a New Orleans quarter set

Barber quarters are one of the great sets that can be completed by many. There are certainly significant key dates, like the 1901-S, the tiny 40,000 mintage 1913-S, and the 1896-S, but in many cases those three dates tend to overshadow some otherwise excellent dates that today represent great values. Many of those dates that are somewhat overshadowed were produced at New Orleans. If you are looking for some good values, the Barber quarters of New Orleans are a perfect place to look as the Barber quarter set is not just three key dates and all the rest.

A lot of our assumptions about Barber quarters and especially New Orleans Barber quarters can be wrong. The assumption that there were significant numbers of collectors to save new Barber quarters from New Orleans as they were produced is a good starting point.

There is very little evidence of much interest taken in the new Barber coins when they were introduced back in 1892. There was a variety of factors influencing that situation, not the least of which was that the national economy was not good and that made the Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars even more of a financial problem than normal for many to collect.

Not only were the Barber coins’ high face value relative to the incomes that prevailed in the 1890s, the design itself apparently did not inspire much interest. To put the economic value of even a Barber dime in perspective, remember the 1890s were a time of nickel beers with a free lunch thrown in. Keeping a Barber quarter was a lot of lunch money. Building a set was more than most people could afford.

What collectors there were in 1892 were aware of the arrival of a new commemorative coin. This interest in the new Columbian Exposition commemorative half dollars was natural as they were the first official commemoratives of the United States.

Also, the new Barber designs, however, were seen as not very interesting and not especially good art.

It was ironic as officials had tried to come up with special designs for the new dimes, quarters and half dollars, but their idea of having an invited competition among the nation’s leading artists ran into difficulty with the artists. Their second idea of a national competition was seen by one official as a “wretched failure.” That left the back-up possibility, which was to simply assign Chief Engraver Charles Barber to design the coins. This  he did, producing what one critic called “Institutional” designs. Whatever you call them, the designs apparently inspired little interest on the part of collectors.

Even if there had been significant collector interest at the start, the supply of dates from the branch mints of New Orleans and San Francisco might well be not much better today. The reason is that the collecting of the day was carried out primarily as a hunt for dates and not for dates and mintmarks. One coin dated 1892 was considered as good as any other.

That mindset would eventually change. The year after the Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars made their appearance there was a publication by Augustus Heaton that did help to spotlight branch mint issues such as those from New Orleans, but it would take a long time for that publication to have an impact on collecting habits. In fact the case can be made that people really started collecting by date and mint much later when cents and nickels, the most heavily collected denominations began to be produced at branch mints, or when albums became available for complete collections and they included the branch mint issues. In 1892, however, all of those things were more than a decade in the future.

Even if collectors had been of a mind to collect something like quarters by date and mint, there might have been some hesitation when it came to issues of New Orleans. The New Orleans facility not unlike Carson City had a somewhat uncertain status at the time. In fact, New Orleans had produced its first coins since 1861 only in 1879 when the facility was brought back to produce coins.

At about the same time Carson City stopped producing anything but gold and silver dollars. It was the silver dollars that played a major part in the New Orleans return to the role of a producing mint as the silver legislation of the period required enormous silver dollar production.

If someone had wanted to collect New Orleans quarters, they would have had a very hard time finding any to collect. It was simply the nature of the situation in New Orleans. After making a quarter back in 1860, the next New Orleans quarter would not be produced until 1891 the year before the Barber quarter was introduced. Consequently, at the time of the first Barber quarter issue, it would have been very unlikely that there was much of a base of  New Orleans quarter collectors of any kind.

Despite all the problems there is at least limited evidence that the first 1892-O quarter saw a small amount of saving by the public. The mintage was 2,640,000. While certainly well below the Philadelphia total of that year, it was above the San Francisco mintage.

The 1892-O does command premium prices in circulated grades at $22 in G-4 as opposed to $10 for a Philadelphia example from the same year. Available date prices for the series as a whole is $5 in G-4.
In MS-60 the 1892-O lists for $400 while an available date is $210 and an MS-65 is $2,000, above the available date price of $1,550. In fact, it is surprising as the numbers for the 1892-O are actually quite low in MS-65 or better with PCGS reporting 31 examples in MS-65 along with two in MS-66 and a single example in MS-67. For the price that is not exactly a common coin but that reflects the continuing lack of demand for Barber quarters.

The 1893-O had a higher mintage of 3,396,000, but it is less available at least in upper grades. In G-4 the 1893-O is $9, which is still a slight premium, but in MS-60 it is $265 with an MS-65 at $2,100. If you check the available numbers, that MS-65 price becomes even more interesting as PCGS reports just 14 examples in MS-65 and six in higher grades. With such numbers, the 1893-O could easily be much more expensive with added demand.

(Because mintmarks were added to dies by hand using a letter punch, the location varies from coin to coin. Some of the variations are so extreme that they have been gaining separate line listings.)

The 1894-O  would see a drop in mintage to 2,852,000 and apparently a drop in the number saved as well. The 1894-O is available in circulated grades with a G-4 at $10-$12.50 but an MS-60 is $325-$415 and an MS-65 is at $2,650. The PCGS totals continue to drop, supporting the higher prices with the 1894-O having a total of just 14 coins graded MS-65 or better.

It almost appears that New Orleans was trying to produce identical mintages as the 1895-O total was 2,816,000, which was almost the same as the 1894-O. The prices while not identical are similar with the 1895-O being slightly better at $12.50-$17.50 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $390-$525 with an MS-65 at $2,850. Ironically, the 1895-O MS-65 or better total is slightly lower than the 1894-O even though the 1894-O is more expensive. The PCGS total for the 1895-O in MS-65 or better stands at just eight coins and that certainly would suggest it is an excellent value in top grades.

The 1896-O would see a mintage decline to just 1,484,000 pieces. What must be remembered, however, is that there were many Barber quarters with mintages below 1 million so even this lower total would not stand out. That meant that a date like the 1896-O was likely to simply circulate for years. We see proof of that as even the 1901-S and 1913-O as is seen in the totals from the “New York Subway Hoard,” which was assembled starting in the 1940s, were still in circulation in small numbers.

That means that a more available date like the 1896-O was likely to simply circulate until it was retired and destroyed. Even if they were pulled from circulation four decades or more after being released, there is a real possibility that they were so worn as to be a prime candidate for melting in the 1970s and 1980s when the price of silver rose to $50 an ounce as at that time they were worth more as silver than as a lower grade Barber quarter. Whatever the situation, the 1896-O is a better date today at $32 in G-4, although that still makes it only a better date and not even one of the better lesser known Barber quarters.

In MS-60 the 1896-O is priced at $815 and then in MS-65 it lists for $9,850. That MS-65 price does make it one of the better Barber quarters, although still well behind the key dates. In fact, it’s PCGS total of just 10 coins in MS-65 and above is certainly  supportive of the price, although ironically it is higher than the much less expensive 1895-O, although the difference between the two in numbers seen is very small.

The 1897-O continued the mintage pattern with a total production of 1,414,800 and that, too, results in a better date in circulated grades with a G-4 listing at $19.50. In MS-60, the 1897-O is $900 while an MS-65 is at $3,950 and that seems in the ballpark as PCGS reports a dozen examples in MS-65 or better.

The 1898-O had a slightly higher mintage of 1,868,000 and that results in a premium circulated grade price of $16 for a G-4.  An MS-60 is $665, but an MS-65 lists for $10,000 and that puts the 1898-O as the fourth most expensive Barber quarter in MS-65 behind only the key 1901-S, the extremely tough in Mint State 1896-S and the 40,000 mintage 1913-S.

The immediate question has to be whether the 1898-O deserves to be in that very select group and the PCGS totals seem to suggest that it does deserve to be in that company with only seven examples graded MS-65 or better. There is no particularly good reason why the 1898-O might be so tough although it can be observed that New Orleans at least in the case of Morgan dollars was famous or perhaps infamous for lower than average production quality.

If you couple indifferent quality with a poor amount of saving, you have a pretty good recipe for having trouble finding top quality examples today. That is certainly the case with the 1898-O just as it has been the case with a number of the 1890s dates.

That pattern of a definite lack of any numbers of top grade coins would continue in the case of New Orleans Barber quarters. The 1899-O had a mintage of 2,664,000 and that made it a slightly better date in circulated grades with a G-4 price of $14. In MS-60 the 1899-O is $415, which seems to suggest average availability in the case of New Orleans Barber quarters that are virtually always in shorter supply than Philadelphia dates. In MS-65 the 1899-O is at $3,750 and that also seems to be about right as PCGS has so far seen 13 in MS-65 or better.

The 1900-O had a higher mintage of 3,416,000 yet its G-4 price is basically the same at $16. What that suggests is that all of these dates simply were allowed to circulate being seen by the collectors of the date as basically nothing special.

In the end, neglect, a lack of saving and wear tended to equalize their surviving numbers and that is helped by the lack of demand today. It might very well be the case that the 1899-O is tougher in a circulated grade like G-4, but until there is enough demand to cause the difference to be seen in supplies, we are unlikely to see any major price differences.

In the case of Mint State examples we can see the difference as the Mint State examples are sent in for grades and there we see the 1900-O, for example, had a total of 15 coins seen by PCGS, which results in a $3,750 MS-65 price. In the case of the 1900-O, however, the MS-60 price of $575 is more interesting as that price suggests a somewhat lower supply than is seen in some other years and that is true as PCGS has seen about 55 examples in Mint State, but the total for the 1899-O is closer to 75, so for some reason the 1900-O is not readily seen in any Mint State grade.

The 1901-O with a 1,612,000 mintage is tougher in every grade. We cannot be sure why, but the 1901-O is simply not available. That is seen in a G-4 listing of $42.50. The lower mintage 1896-O is just $32 in same grade, so something happened to the 1901-O.

We see that pattern in upper grades as well as the 1901-O lists for $885 in MS-60 and is then $5,850 in MS-65 and there the PCGS total is just a dozen pieces. We cannot determine reasons, but we definitely can determine that the 1901-O is a better than average date.

Something changed dramatically in 1902 and that was the New Orleans Barber quarter mintage, which jumped to 4,748,000. That total did produce a lower circulated price of $8.50 in G-4, but even that level is close to some other lower mintage dates, suggesting that mintage totals are not a certain way of determining prices today.

The 1902-O is at $485 in MS-60 and $5,000 in MS-65, so even with a higher mintage its prices are not significantly less than other dates. There were simply small numbers of collectors literally for decades when it came to Barber quarters and they needed only one example of each date for their sets, so despite the mintages those coins they set aside in basically equal numbers make up much of our supply today and consequently many dates are trading in a very narrow price range even though we suspect some are less available than others.

The trend would be seen in the 1903-O as well as its mintage of 3.5 million fell somewhere in the middle for New Orleans dates of the period and so does its price with a G-4 at $8.00 while an MS-60 is $435 and an MS-65 is at $5,625 reflecting the fact that the 1903-O is another date that seemingly did not appear in any numbers in the coins saved in top grades as again PCGS reports just a dozen examples in MS-65 or better.
The 1904-O had a mintage of nearly 2.5 million, which results in an $11.50 price in G-4 while the MS-60 level of $850 is also shared with other dates while an MS-65 at $3,250 is relatively inexpensive and a PCGS total of nearly 20 examples seen seems to suggest that the 1904-O is a more available date in MS-65.

The 1905-O with a mintage of 1,230,000 is a better date. We see that in a G-4 price of $18.50 as well as $500 and $6,600 listings in MS-60 and MS-65, respectively. The low mintage again seems to have inspired no extra saving at the time and actually the 1905-O with just 10 examples seen by PCGS ranks as one of the better New Orleans Barber quarters.

There is another dramatic change with the 1906-O. The mintage is similar to other dates at just over 2 million and if anything, is slightly low. The G-4 price, however, is just $7 and the MS-60 is just $290 with an MS-65 at only $1,700. For some reason the 1906-O is significantly less expensive than the prior dates. Moreover, the difference is seen in PCGS totals as well as in MS-65 or better the 1906-O  has been seen a total of 47 times and that is much higher than the earlier dates.

Interestingly enough, the 1907-O is a bit tougher, but the 1908-O is very much like the 1906-O in terms of price and availability. Someone, somewhere back around 1906 appears to have discovered Barber quarters. Perhaps the 10 or 12 collectors who saved the scarce earlier dates in high grades for PCGS slabs a century later might have been joined by a couple of dozen additional collectors. No?

If it wasn’t a small increase in collector numbers at that point in time, could it have been a a dealer setting aside a roll or two? Whatever the reason, there is no escaping the fact that around 1906 we have better supplies of New Orleans Barber quarters than we have from the prior years. Today’s collectors owe thanks to whoever it was that kept enough of these coins to provide us with a somewhat larger supply of coins at more affordable prices.

There is, however, the final New Orleans Barber quarter, the 1909-O, and it had a much lower mintage of just 712,000 pieces. With great saving being indicated in previous years, the 1909-O would potentially be not as tough as the  mintage suggests, but it still is a premium date at $19.50 in G-4 and $800 in MS-60. In MS-65, however, it is priced at $8,500, making it the third most expensive New Orleans Barber quarter in MS-65 or better.

Moreover, even at this high MS-65 price it might be cheap relatively speaking as PCGS reports just five examples in MS-65 or better. What happened with the 1909-O remains a mystery, but certainly it is a very tough New Orleans Barber quarter the equal of virtually any other date at least in top grades as its total number in all Mint State grades is also a very low 35 pieces. Perhaps because it was the last coin, collectors just settled for whatever they could get, or bad quality control once again asserted itself.

With the production of the 1909-O Barber quarter, the New Orleans facility again ceased production. This time, however, it closed for good. New Orleans had declined in relative importance and the status conferred on it by the existence of a mint there was lost. Denver had opened in 1906, essentially pushing the New Orleans facility into obsolescence.

The city itself remains a major port as it has been for centuries, but as a financial center, it has declined from its heyday of pre-Civil War Mark Twain riverboat commerce.

As for the New Orleans Barber quarters, never really appreciated while they were being produced and still relatively overlooked today, they are a great group to collect in any grade as they have a good story and at today’s prices they are also good values.

More Resources:

• Subscribe to our Coin Price Guide, buy Coin BooksCoin Folders and join the NumisMaster VIP Program

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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