Finding a coin that everyone has overlooked is fun. It does not happen often because coin prices tend to be very accurate reflections of the availability of most issues. When a coin seems too cheap or too expensive, the prices are rarely wrong when you factor in demand.
It is unusual to find seemingly wrong prices in a Barber quarter set. The set prices are upgraded regularly. In the past few years we have seen the 1896-S pass the 1913-S in Mint State. Historically, the 1913-S, with a mintage of just 40,000, has been viewed as better than the 188,039 mintage 1896-S. However, the grading service totals concluded that the 1896-S was seen less often than the 1913-S.
No other Barber quarters were considered to be in the same class as the 1901-S, 1913-S and 1896-S. They were the three key Barber quarters. In some grades this is still the case. The 1898-S is that surprise date that makes every price look suspect.
The 1898-S was a good, not great, Barber quarter. It had a mintage of 1,020,592, which is much more than the 1896-S or 1913-S. It is not a high total, though.
There were not a lot of collectors and dealers back in the 1890s who would save examples of a seemingly better date. In fact, there is little evidence of anyone saving examples of any silver issues. Collectors got new dates from circulation and, since there were few buyers, dealers did not save an extra roll of a new issue.
That may explain why the 1896-S is so tough in top grades. What it does not explain is why the 1898-S is even tougher.
The 1898-S was not saved because there were almost no collectors to save examples for their sets. If someone was collecting Barber quarters at the time, there is a good chance they were collecting only by date.
In MS-60 the 1896-S is currently at $8,000, while the 1898-S lists at just $400. At $7,200 in MS-65, the 1898-S is less in MS-65 than the 1896-S is in MS-60. Based on the big mintage difference, that might seem fair.
What becomes surprising are the grading service totals. Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has seen the 1896-S in Mint State a total of 24 times, while the 1898-S has been seen a total of 21 times. The Professional Coin Grading Service has seen the 1896-S in Mint State 29 times, while the 1898-S has appeared 23 times.
In fairness, the numbers are not conclusive. The 1896-S could still be tougher. Perhaps more examples of the 1898-S have yet to be sent in for grading. This is possible considering the lower 1898-S prices.
While it is possible that the 1896-S is still tougher in Mint State, the two appear to be very close in population numbers. This may seem surprising considering their large price differences.
The two dates were produced two years apart at the same facility. It is natural that the number saved at the time would be similar. Today a lower mintage date might be hoarded, but this was the 1890s in San Francisco. There were few, if any, collectors and dealers to save examples of the two dates. Their similar surviving totals should come as no surprise.
It is not certain that the 1898-S will suddenly jump in price, but if you want a good deal on a sleeper, the 1898-S might be the coin for you.