If you had to pick out one group of coins primarily from the past century that would rank as the toughest collection, the most likely pick would almost have to be the Barber quarters produced at San Francisco. There might be other good choices and you could make the point that some of the San Francisco Barber quarters were actually made in the 1890s, but the bulk were produced after 1900.
Technicalities aside, if you really want a challenge when it comes to coins of one facility in the past century, you are going to find no group more challenging than those San Francisco Barber quarters.
It is a fair and logical question to ask why Barber quarters from San Francisco are so tough. Realistically, it is a question which has many answers. Certainly there were low mintages, including a couple that were below 100,000. That has to be one major factor.
An additional factor is certainly that quarters were not a heavily collected denomination at the time they were struck and issued. In times of inflation like ours, it is hard to imagine how much money a quarter represented to an average person a century ago. It had the purchasing power of roughly $4.25 in today’s money.
There were few collectors of the denomination and reflecting that fact there were very few dealers who even bothered to stock the current quarters.
There are other complicating factors as well. The idea of collecting by date and mint was not even widespread when the first San Francisco Barber quarter was produced. The Augustus Heaton work that would help to popularize the idea of collecting both by date and mintmark would not appear until 1893 and even then it would be decades before every collector routinely wanted a coin from every facility from a given year. It took coin boards from Whitman and other companies in the 1930s to truly mold mass collector attitudes about what constituted a full set.
If you were just concerned about having a Barber quarter of every date, unless you were living close to the San Francisco Mint, the chances were good that you would end up with coins from Philadelphia or New Orleans, but probably not from San Francisco simply because the mintages were so low in some years.
It is certainly fair to question why San Francisco would frequently have such low mintages. There is no readily apparent answer to that question. Certainly San Francisco at the time had the capability to produce more coins, although the facility was very busy at least some of the time in the required silver dollar production over the period.
The relative share of the national population who lived in the West was also small relative to the areas served by Philadelphia and New Orleans.
There are no other particularly logical reasons for the low mintages except that it simply worked out that San Francisco simply regularly made very few quarters.
The trend of low mintages was quite literally apparent from the start when in 1892 San Francisco produced 964,079 Barber quarters while Philadelphia was over 8 million and New Orleans over 2.6 million.
Just the mintage alone would make the 1892-S better at $30 in G-4 while neither of the others are even $15. The 1892-S, while probably saved as is the case with most coins when they are the first year of a new design, it is still better in Mint State at $480 in MS-60 and $4,850 in MS-65 and PCGS shows only 11 examples in MS-65 or better.
The pattern of San Francisco having the lowest mintage of the three facilities at the time would continue with the 1893-S, although it was over 1.4 million, and with the 1895-S, although it was higher still at 1,764,681.
At $480 and $445 in MS-60 and $8,400 and $4,150 in MS-65, respectively, the two dates are better although not among the toughest Barber quarters.
In 1896 San Francisco would issue the first of the three dates that would make its Barber quarters famous. The 1896-S had a mintage of just 188,039 and normally that total would have been sufficiently low to make it famous for generations of collectors. In fact, with the 1901-S and 1913-S, the 1896-S has the highest mintage of the three making it closer to the best coin no one ever considered a key date. It was simply a case where based on mintages where the 1896-S had a total of more than double the higher mintage of the other two made it seem like the more available of three especially good dates.
Much of what was suspected by later collectors was based on mintages. That was natural as mintage totals were all the information available other than the suggestion of dealers or collectors that the 1896-S might actually be tougher than expected.
The advent of grading services, however, has made a big difference. Today the 1896-S is appreciated far more than in the past especially in mint state where the amount of saving at the time and not mintages really determines the supply today.
At $750 in G-4 the 1896-S is tough but probably correctly priced. At $8,000 in MS-60 the 1896-S is up from $5,600 from five years ago. What is significant is that today the 1913-S is $9,000 in MS-60, but five years ago it was $6,750.
Simply put the 1896-S closed the gap somewhat in MS-60. The reason that has happened and is likely to continue to happen are the totals as PCGS reports only 29 mint state 1896-S quarters graded while NGC reports just 24. In the case of the 1913-S, the totals are 54 for PCGS and 39 for NGC.
Clearly, the 1896-S appears to be the tougher date in MS-60 and that is also seen in MS-65 where it lists for $56,000, which makes it easily the second most expensive Barber quarter and that price is backed up by a PCGS total of just 10 coins graded MS-65 or better.
The 1896-S while historically being in the shadow of the 1901-S and 1913-S contributed to putting any other San Francisco Barber quarter even deeper into the shadows cast by the better dates. One of the dates that was certainly in those shadows was the 542,229 mintage 1897-S.
Certainly with that sort of a mintage in the 1890s, the 1897-S was a better date, but that was not reflected in it' price for years as it simply did not stand out on the list of critical Barber quarters. It is recognized a bit more today at $85 in G-4, $1,000 in MS-60 and $7,000 in MS-65, but even those prices are not high when you consider the fact that PCGS reports just 33 examples in mint state of which 11 were called MS-65 or better.
It should be remembered in the case of the 1897-S as well as other lower mintage dates that these coins were just not saved in any numbers not only in the year of issue but also as the years passed. There was very little growth in collecting interest in Barber quarters.
The denomination was too much money for many collectors and there was historically very little interest by collectors of the day in any of the Barber coins. The supplies of the lower mintage dates include the big three dates are suspect even in lower grades for the simple reason that they simply circulated not for years but rather decades. Some were certainly so worn that they were retired and destroyed and while Barber quarters did not exhibit unusual wear patters many dates could have easily had rims worn into the mintmarks to the point where they could not even be identified.
Slick Barbers were not hard to find in dealer shops in the 1960s, but even then they were not considered desirable. They were curiosities to sell to newcomers who had never seen them in circulation.
Proof that Barber quarters were still circulating many decades after they were struck is found in the New York Subway Hoard purchased by the Littleton Coin Company in the 1990s. That hoard contained key dates pulled from the coins found in the New York Transit Authority starting in the 1940s.
There were 8 examples of the 1901-S, 19 of the 1913-S, 29 examples of the 1896-S and 40 of the 1914-S.
The 1897-S and other lower-mintage dates were not even apparently seen as significant enough to be saved. Certainly the 1897-S and others would have been available, but if circulating in the 1940s they would have been in lower grades.
The 1898-S would have a higher mintage of just over 1 million pieces, but its total would still be low enough to continue the pattern of the San Francisco Barber quarter being the lowest mintage of the quarters produced in any given year. The 1898-S is more available than the 1897-S as is seen by a G-4 price of $12 while an MS-60 is $400 with an MS-65 at $7,200. The prices are not a good indication of availability at least in mint state as PCGS has only graded 23 examples, which is a lower total than some more expensive dates, including the 1896-S and only 5 were MS-65 or above. The expectation is that not being a well-known date the 1898-S may not have been graded as much as the others, but the suspicion has to be real that it may be a sleeping giant.
The 1899-S would again drop below 1 million for a mintage at 708,000, resulting in a G-4 price of $17 today while an MS-60 is $440 and an MS-65 $3,800.
The 1900-S would follow with a larger mintage but lower prices in some grades and higher prices in others at $8 in G-4, but $385 in MS-60 and $5,400 in MS-65 where it is almost identical in numbers seen at PCGS to the total of the 1899-S.
Then in 1901-S San Francisco would produce perhaps the key date of the 20th century in the form of the 72,664 mintage 1901-S. This is a classic case where the mintage shows you that the coin is tough, but does not even come close to showing you how tough. The 1901-S simply did not survive even in the numbers you would expect from its low mintage.
Moreover, in recent years, the 1901-S has been discovered, moving from $1,750 in G-4 in 1998 to $7,000 today. For a G-4, that’s a remarkable increase over that period. In MS-60, the 1901-S is at $42,000 and in MS-65 it is at $100,000, with PCGS having graded a dozen MS-65 or better.
Frankly, the 1901-S raises all sorts of questions. Its prices whether G-4 or MS-65 are higher than the numbers known or reported would support. That suggests that the 1901-S has a special demand. It is widely recognized as perhaps the best date of the past century in terms of silver coins that reached circulation. Even so, especially when compared to issues like the 1896-S and 1913-S in assorted grades, or even the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter which has a lower mintage, the fast-rising 1901-S is still hard to explain in terms of recent increases.
Equally hard to explain is why the 1901-S is so tough in the first place. After all, it had a higher mintage than the 1913-S, but is much more costly in every grade. If someone had saved a 1913-S it seems unlikely they would have ignored the 1901-S. By any normal standard the 1901-S should be perhaps slightly more available or at least similar to the 1913-S, yet the New York Subway Hoard and today’s price suggest it is not as available as the 1913-S or 1896-S. In fact, the suggestion is they are not even close.
There may be one way of explaining the situation and that is that the 1901-S is the most dramatic example of a trend seen in the San Francisco Barber coins of the period. It has to be remembered that in 1906 the city of San Francisco was simply destroyed by an earthquake and then a fire that could not be easily controlled as the earthquake had destroyed the water mains. As virtually every bank as well as much of the city was destroyed it is safe to assume a lot of coins were destroyed by the events or buried forever.
This was 1906. In the period prior to 1906, as the coins produced by a certain facility would normally not travel far from that facility for some time. It was simply how things worked as a new 1901-S quarter was not likely to be put in someone’s pocket where it would then fly to New York the next morning.
Coins would move away from the place where they were made, but the pace was much slower than it is today. That makes it likely that the bulk of the coins destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906 were San Francisco Barber issues like the 1901-S.
We have no proof that the 1901-S Barber quarter was heavily destroyed, but certainly as other San Francisco quarters prior to 1906 are also tougher than their mintages would suggest, the reasonable way of explaining the situation is that the 1901-S and the other dates prior to 1906 were in some numbers buried in the rubble and destroyed in the earthquake.
The 1902-S and 1903-S would show the possible impact of the earthquake as well. The 1902-S has a mintage just over 1.5 million while the 1903-S is just above 1 million. Both are under $20 in G-4 and $540 and $450, respectively, in MS-60 with MS-65 prices at $3,600 and $2,900. Those are average for San Francisco Barber quarters.
There would be no 1904-S and the 1905-S broke new ground as for the first time San Francisco had a Barber quarter with a higher mintage than another quarter produced the same year as in this case the 1905-O had a lower mintage than the 1,884,000 1905-S. Of course indications are the 1905-S was lost in some numbers the following year putting it at $11 in G-4, $350 in MS-60 and $3,650 in MS-65.
The earthquake and its aftermath saw no 1906 San Francisco Barber quarter production. The 1907-S was the first post-disaster date with a mintage of 1,360,000. That total was enough to make it relatively available by the standards of San Francisco Barber quarters at $10 in G-4, $480 in MS-60 and $3,500 in MS-65.
The tradition of low mintages for San Francisco Barber quarters would return with the 784,000 mintage 1908-S. The low mintage is seen in prices of $20 in G-4, $715 in MS-60 and $5,100 in MS-65. PCGS has seen the 1908-S just a dozen times in MS-65 or better.
The next few quarters generate very little attention. The low mintages, however, continued with the 1909-S at 1,348,000. There was no production in 1910 and the 1911-S had a mintage of just under 1 million while the 1912-S was at 708,000, making it slightly better than the other two at $10 in G-4 and $390 in MS-60 with an MS-65 at $2,750. When you think about that mintage, the prices are reasonable, suggesting that Barber quarters in general has not had heavy collector demand.
The 1913-S would be the final of the big three San Francisco Barber quarter key dates. The 1913-S had a distinction in terms of its 40,000 mintage as that total is the lowest total for any silver coin released into circulation in the past century. That fact alone is enough to justify the current $1,500 G-4 price while an MS-60 is at $9,000 with an MS-65 at $24,000.
There is some question as to whether the 1913-S should be closer to the 1901-S in price and it is a reasonable question as the numbers seen seem to support the notion that the two are not that far apart in total numbers. The New York Subway Hoard had 8 examples of the 1901-S and 20 of the 1913-S and we see the grading service totals showing 304 examples of the 1901-S in all grades at PCGS while the 1913-S has been seen 320 times. At NGC they report literally identical numbers of the two dates so there is some solid evidence to suggest that the two are not as far apart in availability as today’s prices would seem to indicate.
Whatever the eventual outcome of the pricing for the 1913-S, it remains a very special date. That extremely low mintage means that it will always have a special place in the coins of the past century. The only real question is just where it ranks in the list of great coins of the 1900s.
The shadow of the 1913-S has probably had an impact on the 1914-S over the years, although it seems to be emerging from that shadow.
The 1914-S certainly should not be in the shadow of many other issues of the century as it had a mintage of just 264,000 an identical total to that of the 1916-D Mercury dime just two years later. The lack of demand and lack of recognition for the 1914-S Barber quarter can be seen in its price of $70 in G-4 as compared to the 1916-D listing of $1,000 in the same grade. The demand, or lack thereof, for the 1914-S is what makes the price difference. In MS-60 the 1914-S lists for $940 with an MS-65 at $3,550 and that still is a good deal as PCGS reports only 13 in MS-65 or better.
The final year of San Francisco Barber quarters was in 1915 and the 1915-S appropriately also had a mintage of less than 1 million at 704,000. In fact the 1915-S could easily be called a sleeper at just $9 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $285 and an MS-65 at what is basically an available date price of $1,300. In fact, the 1915-S is available even in top grades which in this case means a PCGS total of 37 in MS-65 or better. Certainly, if you can find a better deal than the 1915-S, take it.
From the 1892-S to the 1915-S the San Francisco Barber quarter is one solid string of good or even great dates. With some of the best coins of the past century along with sleepers and good values there are not many better groups to collect.