If you’re looking for an interesting coin at a modest price, the 1903-S Barber dime may be just the coin for you. The 1903-S is reasonable in price partly because there is basically no widespread serious collector interest in Barber dimes.
Dimes in general are not exactly setting the numismatic world on fire with frantic buying. Even when the 1894-S broke $1 million a couple of times, it produced no wave of price increases for the other Barber dimes.
In the case of the 1903-S Barber dime that meant that it basically continued at its current price of $84 in G-4, while an MS-60 is $1,100 with an MS-65 price at $3,150. By Barber dime standards those are fairly high prices and they should be as the 1903-S is a lot tougher than most Barber dimes. In fact, the 1903-S is very legitimately one of the toughest dimes of the past century or so.
One of the things that happens at times is that the 1903-S gets compared to the 1913-S. The two were exactly a decade apart and, being the same denomination, the assumption would be that the demand is fairly similar. It probably indeed is fairly similar.
The 1913-S, however, is much cheaper and that tends to get some comparing the two, suggesting what a great value the 1913-S is at its current prices.
In fact, those promoting the 1913-S as a sleeper are perhaps right. The only problem is that the 1903-S and 1913-S may not really compare for a very simple but very unusual reason. The reason is that the 1903-S was only in circulation a couple years prior to the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Normally speaking, something like an earthquake should make little or no difference in coin prices. The 1906 quake was not, however, a normal quake, as it produced a fire that destroyed almost everything the earthquake had left standing, which was not much.
What has to be remembered is that back in 1903 coins did not travel like they do today. A 1903 product of San Francisco tended to stay close to San Francisco for many years. It might eventually make its way across the country, but it was not likely to happen quickly.
In the case of the 1903-S, it is very reasonable to assume that significant numbers were lost in the fire and rubble of San Francisco back in 1906, as the only “bank” left standing was the San Francisco Mint. We see it repeatedly in dates from just prior to the disaster, like the 1903-S, as they tend to be much tougher than dates from after the earthquake, even if the later dates had lower mintages.
Based on prices and numbers seen today, the quake did not spare the 1903-S, but it makes any found today very interesting survivors of a mintage that may have been destroyed by nature.