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Skip keys and collect Philly Barber quarters

Individuals who started collecting coins in the late 1950s as I did sometimes envied somewhat older collectors who collected Barber coins from circulation.

We didn’t dwell on it. It was a stray thought whenever it was time to begin collecting something new.

The fact that we didn’t yearn to collect Barber coinage and then act on the impulse might have kept the series out of the limelight and the mainstream.

As a result, Barber quarters were not as heavily collected and studied as the Standing Liberty design was. The Barber quarters produced at Philadelphia were probably even less heavily collected and studied than those from New Orleans, San Francisco and Denver.

But within the Philadelphia run of dates there are possibilities in terms of overlooked good values and it makes the Philadelphia Barber quarters today something on the order of a treasure hunt simply to determine if they are as available for purchase as many always thought they were.

The first thing that should be remembered in terms of Philadelphia Barber quarters is that words like “common” and “available” are relative. There is really no such thing as a readily available Barber quarter with even the most available dates listing for $205 in MS-60 and $1,400 in MS-65. If anything, those prices are probably low.

The relatively small supplies of any Barber quarter today can be traced back to the situation at the time. We know the Barber quarter was released at a time when the national economy and the interest in coin collecting was not in its strongest period. Our best estimates suggest that in 1892 there were roughly 1,245 silver proof sets sold and by 1895 the total was 880. By the time the last Philadelphia Barber quarter was included in such sets the estimated mintage was just 450.

While it is not by definition scientific, the fact is proof sets sales are usually a pretty good indication of the collector interest at the time and although it is possible there was an overall increase around 1909 with the arrival of the new Lincoln cent such interest was directed toward cents and not quarters.

Back in 1892 and the years that followed one of the things hurting interest was almost certainly the fact that a quarter was simply too much money for most. What collecting there was would have been primarily lower denominations reflecting the limited budgets of most collectors at the time.

There were other factors when it came to silver denominations. The most important was that collecting as we now practice it today was not really the approach of many. The bulk of collecting was by date only. The idea of acquiring a coin from each of the three facilities that produced them in a given year was not the normal approach as most were content with simply an example of the date from any year.

We have a good deal of evidence that in many cases those collectors opted for a proof from Philadelphia each year. That would help the supply of Philadelphia Barber quarters, but the fact remains that if a coin with a specific date from any facility was adequate for the collectors of the day, it would generally result in fewer numbers of available top quality coins from any facility today.

The impact might be less in the case of Philadelphia, but it would still be likely that our supplies today would not be as high as if collectors were seeking examples from all facilities every year.

On top of the other factors is that Barber quarters as well as the other Barber denominations simply did not seem to generate much interest among the collectors of the period. In fact, even in their first year they were not the main topic of interest. They were in some minds overshadowed in importance by the new Columbian Exposition half dollars. It’s a little unusual considering the fact that the Columbian Exposition half dollars were not intended to circulate, but they were the first commemoratives authorized by the United States and that certainly would have helped to make them a hotter topic than might normally be the case.

When you put all the various factors together you find it hard to avoid the conclusion that Barber quarters even from Philadelphia would not be heavily saved. That was important in Mint State.

For supplies of lower grade coins because there was relatively little new saving by collectors for virtually the entire period of production, that has had a very negative impact on supplies in circulated grades.

We know that even in the 1940s decades after the last Barber quarter was produced they were still in circulation. The one major hoard that was known was assembled starting in the 1940s contains all the key date Barber quarters as well as numerous sets of Barber dimes and half dollars.

Based on that hoard, it is clear Barber coins were circulating, but as they were they were picking up additional wear, making them likely candidates to be retired and destroyed by the government as they became too worn for use. Those worn smooth that weren’t retired by the government were called “slicks” by hobbyists and often sold to beginning collectors as cheap type coins.

Many of the slicks and small accumulations and hoards were sold in the 1970s and 1980s when silver was at high levels as something like a well worn available date Barber quarter was easily worth much more as silver bullion than as a coin for a collector.

Even though the 1892 release of the first Barber quarter was something short of the event of the year the fact remains it was the first quarter of a new design and there was likely to be some resulting saving especially in the area around Philadelphia, which had been something of the traditional home of American coin collecting.

The 1892 with a mintage of 8,237,245 certainly had a high enough mintage to provide examples for anyone who wanted one and it appears that a higher number than usual were saved.

The 1892 today is at available date prices of $210 in MS-60 and $1,550 in MS-65 and the supplies suggest those levels are appropriate. The Professional Coin Grading Service total in Mint State is around 900 with a total of 77 reaching MS-65 or better.

The drop in saving is seen clearly in the case of the 1893, which had a mintage  of 5,444,023. The prices of the 1893 today indicate the drop although at $210 in MS-60, the price is simply long past due for an adjustment. The higher $1,650 MS-65 price of the 1893 is a better indication of the situation. The PCGS totals show it clearly as opposed to nearly 900 examples in Mint State as was the case with the 1892 the 1893 has been seen just about 175 times with only 13 as opposed to 77 being MS-65 or better.

Actually in some cases it may be that the numbers from the grading services are not as accurate as an indication as is normally the case simply because so many Philadelphia Barber quarters are viewed as being in the available group. As a result, they may not be sent into the grading services with the same regularity as more famous dates, so we cannot rush to conclusions about the relationship of one date to another, but it certainly is fair to suggest that its totals in MS-65 or better make the 1893 an interesting date and there are others.

What we see especially in the dates from the 1890s is continuing evidence that at least in MS-65 and better these are not common dates at all. The 1894 is listed at $$1,550 in MS-65, a slight premium over the available date price of $1,400, but the number seen at PCGS is just 23 in MS-65 or better. In the case of the 1895 the MS-65 listing is $1,850 and there the total at PCGS is 18. The 1896 is less at $1,550 and that is justified with a total at PCGS of nearly 30. It is followed by a string of available dates until you move to the 1901.

On the surface, the 8,892,813 mintage of the 1901 would not suggest a tougher date. It is, however, at a premium even in G-4 although that premium is small. The 1901 is also at an available date MS-60 price but then in MS-65 it lists for $1,850. The PCGS total of 19 is low, although the higher price of the 1901 might come in part from the fact that there are 17 of the 19 coins that were graded MS-65 and just two in MS-66. That low total in MS-66 with no examples grading higher suggests that the 1901 is a real problem in the ultra grades that many seek.

The 1903 is another case of a much higher price and again  with a 9,670,064 listing the 1903 would not seem like a candidate for high prices. In fact, it is only higher in MS-65 where it lists for $2,600, which is higher than any of the earlier Philadelphia dates. This time the PCGS numbers show clearly the reason why as PCGS reports just 12 examples in MS-65 or better with 10 being MS-65 and two being MS-66.

The 1904 and 1905 have slight MS-65 premiums but after them the price for the remaining dates tends to be back at the regular $1,400 level. There is, however, one very significant exception and that is the 1913. The 1913 in the minds of many is the best of the Philadelphia Barber quarters and the reason for that feeling can be easily traced to the fact that the 1913 had a mintage of just 484,613 pieces. It is thought that 613 of the total were proofs, giving the 1913 Barber quarter the same business strike total as the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent.

Naturally, there is a high difference in demand between the two as the 1909-S VDB has a small army of willing buyers. By comparison there is virtually no demand for the 1913 and that explains its current $16 price in G-4. Of course that is a premium price, but when you consider what you are getting in terms of a coin with such a low mintage and with many probably having been destroyed for one reason or another the 1913 suddenly looks like the much better coin that it is. The problem in terms of moving to higher prices is one of demand and that could change, although in all probability the change is likely to be modest.

The premium price of the 1913 is hardly limited to G-4. In MS-60 the 1913 lists for $960 and that is actually quite high for a Barber quarter. There are the three key dates, the 1896-S, 1901-S and 1913-S, and they are all well over $1,000, but there are very few other MS-60 Barber quarters from any facility that are even $1,000 in MS-60. In terms of numbers the 1913 currently shows just over 80 coins graded Mint State by PCGS and actually that total is not quite as low as might be expected based on its price.

In MS-65 the 1913 lists for $5,000 and that certainly is the top price for a Philadelphia Barber quarter in MS-65. The PCGS total of just 15 examples in MS-65 or better certainly justifies the price although it should be remembered that a couple of other Philadelphia dates like the 1901 had very similar totals. It might well be the case that the 1913 does have a reputation as the best Philadelphia Barber, resulting in slightly higher prices based on its low mintage and not based as much by the numbers actually seen. That conclusion seems possible as no other date has anything close to the 484,613 mintage, but at least a couple of dates seem to have similar numbers graded in Mint State and in MS-65.

One of the factors that can be confusing in the case of the Philadelphia Barber quarters is that when you look at numbers in Mint State and especially in MS-65 comparisons with other better Barber quarters would seem to raise questions as to why the Philadelphia Barber quarters are so inexpensive.

For example, the key 1901-S lists for $82,500 in MS-65. That is certainly an enormous difference when compared to any Philadelphia date including the 1913. In fact if you check the PCGS totals, the 1901-S has been graded MS-65 or better about a dozen times and that is fewer than 10 pieces less than the 1913. Can fewer than 10 coins make such a difference in price? In fact, they probably should not but the difference between the 1901-S and other better dates is not just the fewer than 10 pieces that we see in the grading service totals.

What must be remembered is that there still exists a supply and sometimes a very good supply of the Philadelphia Barber quarters in proof. Some may not want proofs and right now the proofs of all the Philadelphia Barber quarters are around $2,450 in Proof-65, so they are more expensive than the MS-65, but in the case of the 1913 with the MS-65 at over $5,000 the $2,485 Proof-65 becomes an option. Moreover, it becomes a very available option as PCGS reports a total of roughly 60 examples of the 1913 in Proof-65 or better. That is a very real and significant supply of top quality 1913 Barber quarters available for those who want a top quality example at basically 50 percent of the cost of an MS-65. Moreover, the proofs being so much more numerous are much easier to find.

Right now with most MS-65 Philadelphia Barber quarters at under $2,000 in MS-65 and many are just $1,400, so obtaining a proof example is actually more expensive. That said, in a few cases the proof is cheaper and the simple fact that there are proofs probably had a moderating impact on MS-65 prices.

In most cases the number of Proof-65 examples seen for a given date tend to be 50 or more coins. There are a couple dates that do stand out in proof with the final 1915 being perhaps the best example.

It must be remember that the proof totals were basically declining for the entire period of Barber quarter production. From the estimated 1,245 total of the 1892, the totals by the final few years had fallen to under 500 pieces. In the case of the 1915, the estimated production was 450 coins. While $2,485 today in Proof-65, the 1915 has appeared just 28 times in Proof-65 or better at PCGS and that is a much lower total than is seen for most dates.

The presence of numbers of proofs of all the Philadelphia Barber quarters definitely changes the picture in terms of availability, assuming most collectors are willing to take a proof as opposed to a Mint State example of a given date. In fact, with the numbers seen, it would even be possible at a price averaging less than $2,500 per coin to obtain a complete run of proof Barber quarters from 1892 to 1915 when the final Philadelphia Barber quarter was produced.

It a somewhat ironic situation as you have the Philadelphia Barber quarters actually being more available in top grades thanks to the presence of proofs while in lower grades there are very serious doubts as to whether the supplies are as good as current prices would suggest.

After all, it must be remembered that Barber quarters were not saved at any time for decades and that is even more true in the case of Philadelphia Barber quarters. Even the lower mintage 1913 was not seen as a key date by most. That means that in many grades there could potentially be a real shortage.

With few, if any new collectors in the years that followed it has to be seen as very uncertain as to whether any numbers of Philadelphia or other facilities’ Barber quarters ever were saved in upper circulated grades for example. In fact, the average Philadelphia Barber quarter tends to jump strongly in price from F-12 to XF-40 and there is probably a very good reason in the form of very limited supplies.

Whatever your approach to collecting the set, whether it be in G-4 grade or Proof-65, the Philadelphia Barber quarter is a group that makes for a very interesting and overlooked collection. What might happen if even just a few hundred more collectors would seriously undertake assembling a P-mint date set? This small number could induce large increases in price.

While the Philadelphia Barber quarters may not be in the class of the great rarities of the Barber quarter set, the fact is that Philadelphia Barber quarters might well be much better than some suspect.

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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