In the minds of many there is just one San Francisco Barber dime, the famous 1894-S, one of which recently traded hands for nearly $2 million. That may be why so many who are looking for sleepers or great values turn to the somewhat overlooked San Francisco Barber dimes for their choices. Among the ?S? Barber dimes are a surprising number of excellent coins at excellent prices.
In understanding the San Francisco Barber dime, a few factors must be remembered. The first is simply that Barber dimes as a group were not heavily collected while in circulation. The period when Barber coinage was introduced was one of those times when collecting interest was weak because of a weak national economy. Even the Barber dime for many was too much of an investment.
Moreover, there was competition for people?s limited funds in the form of the first Columbian Exposition commemorative half dollar. Based on the reports from the time, it appears that there was more interest in the first commemorative issues than there was in the new Barber coins.
The first San Francisco Barber dime was the 1892-S and it had a mintage of 990,710 pieces. That mintage should have made it slightly better, but of course it was a new design and there is a track record of new designs being saved in larger numbers than later releases. Much of that track record, however, has been assembled in the 1900s. Back in the 1890s there was another factor: many did not collect by date and mint, but rather only by date. What saving there was might have been in 1892 Barber dimes from Philadelphia and New Orleans, which both had larger mintages.
What we find is that the 1892-S is at premium prices in circulated grades. A listing of $66 in G-4 is far higher than that for available dates, which tend to be $1.75, but there is certainly no suggestion it is a key to the series. In MS-60 the 1892-S is $425 while an MS-65 is $4,000. Those prices do suggest a supply problem directly related to limited saving back in 1892. The 1892-S may have had additional saving at the time, but it was limited. Professional Coin Grading Service reports only 10 examples in MS-65 or better and just over 50 in Mint State. Certainly such numbers, while admittedly from just one grading service, still do not suggest any sort of serious saving when the 1892-S was released.
The 1893-S had a much larger mintage of 2,491,401. It lists at $14 in G-4 and in MS-65 it is $3,250. In MS-60, however, the 1893-S is just $330, and if that does not make you shake your head trying to find a reason for such pricing, nothing will. As interesting, it is more available than the 1892-S in Mint State overall, but in MS-65 there have been just nine examples graded, so it does appear slightly less available than the 1892-S. Consequently, the prices are supported by actual numbers even if we cannot find much logic to explain the numbers.
That brings us to the 1894-S, and once again logic is in short supply. The reported mintage of the 1894-S was just 24 pieces. Right away we have to ask why, and there is no good answer. It had been suggested by some that the mintage was simply to balance accounts at San Francisco. That might seem logical, but to produce a mere 24 proofs seems like an extreme way to balance accounts.
The other usual explanation is that San Francisco Mint superintendent John Daggett had some pressure from collectors or friends that year to make an 1894-S dime. That is possible, and it is possible that Daggett saw no particular harm in such an idea as special coins had been made in San Francisco before. It had been done before, back in 1870, when special coins were made for the cornerstone and to be presented to special guests at ceremonies marking the beginning of construction of the new facility. When you only make a couple dozen, however, you are making a rarity.
A further story is that Daggett told his young daughter Hallie, to whom he gave a few examples, to keep them as some day they would be worth a lot of money.
The problem with all of the stories is that they are just stories and not proof. They are interesting, as is the old story that young Hallie spent one on ice cream.
All the stories over the years have certainly helped create interest in the 1894-S. Additional interest has come from the efforts of the Professional Numismatists Guild, which offered a reward if a new example of the 1894-S dime could be found. It was a serious offer as we can only account for roughly half of the reported 24-piece mintage. The offer produced no more examples of the 1894-S, but all the publicity has kept the 1894-S high on the list of the nation?s great rarities.
As it turned out, until recently the 1894-S had possibly slipped slightly in prestige. The Eliasberg sale price of $451,000, while high back in 1996, had been topped since by a number of other coins. The 1894-S dime dropped further down the list of the nation?s most valuable coins. Some suspected that part of the problem was that, by great rarity standards, a healthy number were known. Further, it?s a dime. Recent sales of 1894-S dimes for over $1 million and approaching $2 million have, however, answered the questions as what was lacking was a recent sale of a top-quality 1894-S. It still ranks as an important rarity and an exciting coin to see sold as it still has the potential to produce a very high price whenever one is offered.
The 1895-S followed with a mintage of 1,120,000. It and the 1896-S, which had a much lower total of 575,056, are good examples of the fact that Barber dimes tend to be inexpensive, especially in circulated grades. The 1895-S today is at $43.50 in G-4 while the 1896-S is at $85 in the same grade. Based on the mintages, the prices are roughly in line with the mintages, but for a coin with a mintage of under 600,000 to be less than $100 suggests a lack of demand. In Mint State the two are in line with the earlier dates although in MS-65 the 1895-S at $7,800 is more expensive and it?s justified as PCGS reports just three examples in MS-65 and two more in MS-66.
The rest of the ?S? dime dates through 1900 are relatively available in circulated grades with the 1897-S at $21 in G-4 being the most expensive of them. The Mint State prices tend to be in a relatively narrow range except for the 1900-S, which is less in both MS-60 at $155 and MS-65 at $1,900. PCGS has seen a total of 15 in MS-65 or better.
Suddenly, in the case of the 1901-S, which had a mintage of 593,022, we see a much higher G-4 price of $80. There is also a higher price in MS-60 at $1,000 and MS-65 at $5,500. Certainly the lower mintage is at least part of the reason for these higher price listings.
The dates that follow are all somewhat expensive, especially when compared to later San Francisco dates. The 1902-S at $8 in G-4 is costly when you consider its mintage was just over two million pieces. The 1903-S was another low-mintage date and it is at $84 in G-4. The 1904-S and 1905-S are also expensive considering their mintages. The Mint State prices for the period are high and both the 1901-S and 1903-S are over $5,000 in MS-65 with very small Mint State totals seen at PCGS.
There are some factors at work here that may help to explain why the 1901-S and 1903-S are $80 and up in G-4 while the 1913-S, with a lower mintage than either, is just $22 in the same grade. It is also seen with the other dates of the period when compared to later dates. It is what I call the earthquake factor.
The San Francisco dates from prior to 1906 are routinely more difficult than those after 1906. We see the same thing happen in the case of the 1901-S quarter, which is much more expensive than the lower mintage 1913-S. For higher-mintage dates to be more expensive than lower-mintage ones from the same period and the same facility is unusual. When it happens repeatedly, there has to be some factor at work.
The most likely factors causing the higher-mintage dates to be more expensive than the lower-mintage dates is in all probability the great earthquake and fire that struck the city in April 1906. It was a situation unlike any other ever seen in the United States. There had been other earthquakes and natural disasters, but they had not taken place in the city where a U.S. Mint was located. San Francisco in 1906 was the one exception. It was reasonable that the bulk of the coins lost in the destruction were from San Francisco. That was simply because coins at the time were not likely to travel significantly in a short period of time. There were no planes to take them across the country in the pockets of those traveling, and cross-country shipments were also unlikely. A coin made in San Francisco would ultimately move to other parts of the country, but it was not likely to happen quickly. That means that the bulk of the coins buried in the rubble and destroyed in the fire were likely to be from San Francisco and most likely to be relatively recent. As an added factor, the denomination most likely to be lost, simply because it was the smallest in physical size, was the dime. Someone might look long and hard in the remains of their home and have a fairly good chance of finding a silver dollar or double eagle, but a dime much less so.
The problem with this earthquake theory is that it falls short of proof. There is certainly a very unusual pattern, and there certainly was an earthquake that destroyed virtually every bank and many homes and businesses in the city in 1906. Certainly coins were lost. We have no proof that they were San Francisco coins of the years from 1901-1906. All we have in an unusual pattern.
We have another factor to consider as well, and that is that the number of collectors of Barber dimes did not increase significantly as time passed. There were probably a few added collectors, but the bulk of the new coin collecting interest was in lower denominations. The average Barber dime would simply continue to circulate. Over time, with enough circulation, the wear would reach a point where the coins would be retired and destroyed.
We have ample indication that Barber dimes circulated for many years. The New York Subway Hoard purchased by the Littleton Coin Co. in the 1990s was an exceptional hoard of key dates found in circulation starting in the 1940s. The source of the coins was the New York Transit Authority, which is definitely one of the world?s great places to look for coins. The hoard contained 45 complete sets of Barber dimes, excepting the 1894-S. Those 45 sets are a solid indication that literally every Barber dime date was still in circulation in some cases 40 years after being issued. Naturally, as those years passed, the dates most likely to have the greatest wear and the greatest chance of being retired and destroyed were the earliest dates. That, too, can help to explain why dates from prior to 1906 are tougher even when mintages are equal; they had been in circulation a decade or more longer than the final dates.
A final factor, starting just before the time of the earthquake, was that mintages in San Francisco began to rise for Barber dimes. It was not a case where there would every year be a greater mintage, but in 1905, for example, the total was 6,855,199. That was a new high for San Francisco Barber dimes. It is probably no accident that 1905 was a year without Morgan dollar production. Other years would see totals of a few million. While there would still be lower totals, the fact is that Barber dime production in San Francisco was definitely up over the period a decade earlier.
There was a Barber dime mintage in 1906, the year of the earthquake, and it was actually fairly high at 3,136640 pieces. That total was prior to the destruction. The 1906-S is a little tougher than would be expected, but with the high mintage it is still available at $2.80 in G-4 and $240 in MS-60 with an MS-65 at $1,300.
Mint State Barber dimes would continue to be tougher in the dates that followed. There was simply not the saving in the area that was seen in Philadelphia. The 1907-S has a mintage over three million, much like the 1906-S, and its price listings are actually slightly higher than the 1906-S, with a 1907-S in MS-65 currently at $2,500. PCGS reports the 1906-S has been graded 24 times in MS-65 or better while the 1907-S is at just eight times in the same grades. For the period, the 1907-S total is highly unusual. There is a factor that keeps us from jumping to the conclusion that the 1907-S should be much more expensive.
The 1907-S so far has been graded just 67 times at PCGS, and that is lower than some of the other dates. In fact, when you reach the period after the earthquake through the final Barber dime production in 1916, you find that grading service totals can sometimes be unusually low. It is probably a case where these dates are seen as generally available and are simply not sent in for grading in the numbers we might expect. Of course, it is also possible that they do not exist in larger numbers. Whatever the reason, at the moment we have to be cautious about reaching conclusions. As it stands, about 10 percent of the 1907-S dimes graded were at least MS-65. While the numbers are low, the percentage is high, so it is too early to conclude the 1907-S should bring a significantly higher price in top grades.
It would be easy to assume that the rest of the San Francisco Barber dimes are readily available, and most are in circulated grades. It would, however, be wrong to make that assumption across the board. The 1909-S, for example, with a mintage of just one million, has proven to be tougher, a current G-4 listing of $9 while an MS-60 is $535 with an MS-65 at $3,200. Those are all premium prices. The PCGS total of just a dozen examples of the 1909-S graded MS-65 or above supports the notion that it?s a better date.
The date that receives a lot of attention ironically gets that attention for being a sleeper. If that sounds like a contradiction, it is, but people regularly look at the 510,000 mintage of the 1913-S and its G-4 price of $22 and reach the logical conclusion that it is a sleeper, that is, that it has the potential to go much higher in price. Sometimes we get a little too fond of mintages, though. While the 1913-S total is low, it is a later date and is consequently more available than some of the other, higher-mintage, earlier dates. It was also not involved in any natural disasters. With the overall demand for Barber dimes being low, the fact is that the 1913-S is probably priced at about the right level. In fact, if anything the 1913-S at $480 in MS-60 and $1,350 in MS-65 is slightly on the high side in terms of cost, especially when you look at the PCGS numbers, which show 40 examples in MS-65 or better and solid Mint State numbers when compared to some of the other San Francisco dates.
It?s quite a mixture. The San Francisco Barber dimes range from a great rarity in the form of the 1894-S to excellent values to some that might in fact be more available than their prices suggest. That makes a study of the San Francisco Barber dimes well worthwhile. As you assemble a Barber dime set, within the San Francisco issues is where you are likely to find a little bit of everything.