Coin for coin, there may be not be a greater challenge in any grade from the past century than the Barber quarter. In fairness, the Barber quarter did begin back in 1892, but the bulk of the dates in a Barber quarter collection and the two keys in most grades, the 1901-S and 1913-S, were products of the 20th century.
The question as to why Barber quarters are so challenging as a set has many answers. Logically there are some Barber quarters that had very low mintages. In fact, the 1913-S at 40,000 is the lowest mintage regular date silver coin of the past century. That alone is impressive and is a good indication that Barber quarters are not going to be an easy set to complete.
In addition the Barber quarter, and the Barber dime and half dollar as well, were simply not heavily collected at the time of issue. That statement normally means there are few Mint State examples and that is true, but realistically in the case of the Barber coins they were not collected much at all when they were released and not collected heavily until decades afterwards. This was in large part because they are upper denominations and relatively few people were collecting upper denominations.
Also, it is important to keep in mind that many of the active collectors were still assembling sets simply by date. Even when the Barber quarter was replaced in 1916 by the Standing Liberty quarter, there is little evidence that the switch caused a rush to collect the design that was disappearing.
Decades later Barber quarters including all the best dates would still be in circulation and that means the Barber quarter can be tough in virtually every grade. Many of the coins were worn slick, a condition that would hardly be recognized by the current generation.
It is an interesting situation, as one could describe a Barber quarter collection as tough but also fair. There are expensive dates like the 1901-S, but in reality there are no great rarities. There is no Barber quarter with just 11 examples known as there is with the dime. Simply put, the set can be completed by many but it is definitely not easy in any grade.
Part of the lack of initial popularity of the Barber quarter seems to be traced, in some minds, to the design. We know it was a golden opportunity for great designs, which simply and tragically slipped away. Officials since the 1880s had wanted to make design changes in the silver coins to retire the Seated Liberty design, but they were cautious. They were uncertain about what they could legally change without consulting the Congress.
To solve the problem, the Mint asked the Congress for guidance and on Sept. 26, 1890, Congress gave them what was wanted in the form of legislation that allowed the secretary of the Treasury to change a design any time without consulting Congress 25 years after that design had been introduced.
In the case of the silver coins at the time, the Seated Liberty design was roughly in service for double that requirement, so the door was wide open for design changes.
Officials were very serious about changes and very serious about getting the best designs they could. They decided to invite America’s best artists to submit designs. The list of invited artists included Augustus Saint-Gaudens, J.Q.A. Ward, Daniel French, Olin Warner Herbert, Herbert Adams, Charles S. Niehaus, Miller MacMonies, Kenyon Cox, Will S. Low and H.S. Mowbray.
What happened next was the start of good intentions going unrewarded. The artists apparently did not see the invitation as an opportunity to have their work seen by millions. Rather, they viewed it as another attempt to get them to work for free.
As the nation’s leading artists, it is possible that the artists were frequently approached to submit work for competitions and probably at times those invitations were suspect. As a group, they responded with a set of conditions for their participation.
That was hardly the reaction officials were expecting and they immediately dropped that idea. Today it looks like a misunderstanding and something that should have been ironed out with a phone call, but such options were not available in 1892 and a golden opportunity to have new and possibly exciting designs was lost.
Plan B was to have an open national competition. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Chief Engraver Charles Barber and a Boston gem and seal engraver were tabbed as judges. Of course, Barber felt no one but he was qualified to design a coin and Saint-Gaudens felt the same about himself, although he apparently believed there might be a couple of French artists who were also up to the task.
So the two men who agreed on virtually nothing else agreed that no entry from an open competition was going to be good enough. In fact, they might have just been right as there were no winners and one official described the whole effort as a “wretched failure.”
Having already taken two strikes in their effort to find good designs, officials then simply turned to Charles Barber, who was already on the payroll, and told him to design the new coins. Of course in doing so they also were making a decision to stick with the tradition of having the designs of the dime, quarter and half dollar be basically the same.
In a competition there could have been different designs for each denomination as would happen in 1916, but Barber, whose father had also been chief engraver, was not likely to break with any traditions including having the three designs be basically the same except for the dime, which was not required to have an eagle on the reverse because of its small size.
Released for the first time in 1892, the new Barber designs were greeted with something well short of hysterical trumpeting by the critics. One hit the nail on the head, calling them examples of “institutional art” and with Barber that was close to a perfect description. The numismatic highlight of 1892 seemed to be not the new dime, quarter and half dollar, but rather the Columbian Exposition half dollar.
If they were basically overlooked at the start, the Barber quarter would be easy to overlook in the years that followed as it was a time when the economy was not good and collector numbers decreased based on proof sales, which are usually a good indication of interest.
The Barber quarter mintages, however, were never high enough to have the luxury of being overlooked and still have substantial numbers available today. While most Barber quarter dates can be found for $5-$20 in G-4, they are a much tougher coin than the prices suggest.
Not only were there two dates with less than 100,000 mintages, but there were another 11 under 1 million pieces. No Barber quarter could really be called high mintage as only a few even topped 10 million, and in virtually every case they simply circulated for decades until they become so worn that they were retired.
Even the coins ultimately saved by collectors in many cases would be heavily worn, and some were later melted when the price of silver rose to $50 in early 1980.
The historic keys of a Barber quarter collection are the 40,000 mintage 1913-S and the 72,664 mintage 1901-S. The two are fascinating coins, with the 1901-S currently at $6,250 in G-4 while the lower mintage 1913-S is at $1,850. The relationship between the two has always been interesting as historically the 1901-S has always been more expensive.
There is really no good way of explaining why the higher mintage 1901-S has always been so much more expensive than the 1913-S. It is clear that for some reason the 1901-S is not found in the numbers we would expect today based on its mintage. It has seemingly always been that way even though no one can come up with a reason why that is the case.
The best observation might well be that almost all San Francisco dates from just prior to the earthquake of 1906 are more expensive that lower mintage dates that came after the destruction. It seems like a stretch to suggest that the 1901-S was an earthquake victim, but it may be the one way of explaining the situation that makes some sense other than simply observing that it did not survive. There actually is a certain amount of evidence to suggest that as a possibility.
We know that over the years the gap between the 1901-S and 1913-S has widened. In 1998 the 1901-S was $1,750 in G-4 and the 1913-S was $415
That means that since that time, the 1913-S has actually increased in price in percentage terms by more than the 1901-S, but it is close.
What is interesting is that the numbers from assorted places do not seem to support that increase. The so-called New York Subway Hoard purchased by the Littleton Coin Company back in the 1990s was an extraordinary hoard of key dates plucked from the coins received by the New York Transit Authority starting in the 1940s.
In that hoard there were eight examples of the 1901-S and 20 of the 1913-S. The grading services also point to the 1901-S and 1913-S being fairly close in real numbers. Numismatic Guaranty Corporation had recently graded exactly 85 of each in all grades combined. The Professional Coin Grading Service totals showed the 1901-S at 304 appearances and the 1913-S at 320. Certainly whatever small difference there is would not be large enough to justify the current and still high overall price differential.
What justification there might be could simply mean that historically demand is much higher for the 1901-S since it has always been seen as the key Barber quarter. We see similar situations in other issues where key dates are somewhat more expensive than their actual numbers would normally suggest, and that might also be true in this instance as well.
We may actually be seeing for one of the first times some evolution in Barber quarter pricing. That has been seen with recent increases in the third of the three key Barber quarters, the 1896-S, which is much tougher than many suspect. The 1896-S just seems like it would be much more available than either the 1901-S or 1913-S as it had a mintage of 188,039.
Once again that total is deceptive as the 1896-S did not survive in any numbers, and that has seen its G-4 price rise to $900, almost doubling in the past four years. There was some indication in the New York Subway Hoard that the 1896-S was not that available. It only was found 29 times, which, while more than the 1901-S or 1913-S, was still very low.
One of the interesting things seen in the grading service totals is that many of the key date Barbers are heavily circulated, suggesting that they were not saved. At NGC, 25 percent of the 1896-S quarters graded were VG-8 or lower, while the total for the 1901-S was closer to 50 percent in lower grades. The 1913-S showed 34 out of 85 graded being VG-8 or below.
At PCGS, one-third of the 1896-S quarters were VF-20 or below, along with a similar percentage of the 1913-S and roughly 20 percent of the 1901-S. While the grading service totals cannot be taken as absolute proof that many examples of these coins circulated, the percentages are unusually high for coins of the past century and these coins were not simply mishandled. In many cases, to reach the grade they were given would have required years of circulation.
The natural focus on three extremely tough dates has perhaps caused many other very good dates to be overlooked over the years. Close to the top of any list of overlooked dates would have to be the 1914-S. Obviously coming the year after the 1913-S, the 1914-S was likely to be overlooked, but its mintage of 264,000 should not be taken lightly. It is identical to the 1916-D Mercury dime, which is around $1,050 in G-4.
In fairness, there is a large difference in demand between the 1916-D Mercury dime and the 1914-S Barber quarter, but even so, a price of $82 in G-4 looks awfully reasonable today as does its $3,450 MS-65 listing when compared to the $26,500 MS-65 price of a 1916-D Mercury dime.
Another good date that also came right after one of the big three Barber quarters was the 1897-S, which had a mintage of 542,229. Once again, that is a low mintage, but simply not as low as the 1896-S Barber quarter.
Today the 1897-S lists for $75 in G-4 and that too is an excellent value. There are others as well. The 1903-S, like the 1901-S, is potentially a date that was caught up in the destruction after the 1906 earthquake and it along with dates like the 1905-O, 1908-S and 1909-O are all lower mintage and very tough to find in any grade.
The majority of better date Barber quarters is going to come from the branch mints where mintages were frequently lower and where the numbers being saved were also usually lower. The 1913 from Philadelphia is one exception as it had a mintage of just 484,613, which was a mere 613 more than the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent.
Once again you cannot compare the two in terms of likely prices because demand is so much greater for the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent, but the fact that the 1913 quarter is at just $16 in G-4 and $960 in MS-60 has to convince you that the 1913 is an awfully good way to spend your money.
Realistically, the prices today with the possible exception of the 1901-S, 1913-S and 1896-S, which have a special demand as widely recognized key dates, suggest the relatively low demand from collectors for Barber quarters.
In MS-60 the Barber quarter set is relatively inexpensive other than the Big Three. The 1901-S is at $40,000 in MS-60, making it easily the most expensive. The 1913-S at $15,000 is significantly higher than the 1896-S in the same grade at $9,750.
Grading firm figures argue for more price increases for the 1896-S based on populations. The 1896-S has been seen 24 times in Mint State by NGC, while the 1913-S has been seen 39 times. At PCGS the 1896-S has appeared 29 times in Mint State, while the 1913-S is at 54 times.
While grading service totals cannot be used as absolute proof of relative rarities, when both major services agree and show a large gap between two coins as they do in this case, it is probably safe to assume that the 1896-S in fact is tougher in Mint State than the 1913-S. The question is, does the market know something we don’t, or are traditional views overriding population reports?
The rest of a Barber quarter set in Mint State is not expensive. An average MS-60 is currently priced at $205 and while there are a few dates over $1,000 or at least near that price, they are few in number and in every case well worth the price.
In MS-65 the 1901-S as might be expected is the most expensive Barber quarter with a current listing of $82,500. The 1896-S ranks as a solid second at $56,000 with the 1913-S well back in price at $37,500.
The $10,000 mark is a good dividing line in MS-65, and the 1898-O is the only other date to reach that total with a current price of exactly $10,000. A few others like the 1909-O and 1893-S are approaching that figure, but realistically there are still relatively few Barber quarters that even fall into a $5,000 to $10,000 price range and they tend to be branch mint issues. The most available MS-65 is $1,400 and as type collectors will attest, even the most available Barber quarter in MS-65 is not an easy coin to find.
The prices in various grades certainly attest to the fact that Barber quarters are not a set that is easily and quickly completed. That said, the Barber quarter is a collection that can be completed over time and when you and if you do complete a set, it is a real achievement as Barber quarters rank as perhaps the toughest set in most grades of the past century.