by Mike Thorne, Ph.D.
When I started collecting coins in the mid 1950s, coins to fill contemporary sets could be acquired through change and roll searching, with an occasional purchase of a key date. At that time, dimes, quarters, and half dollars, which actually circulated, were 90 percent silver. Focusing on dimes, Mercury dimes were seen almost as often as Roosevelt dimes, which had been minted since 1946.
From time to time, Barber dimes showed up, although they were usually in well- circulated condition, which today would correspond to the grades of AG3 through G6. Of course, numbers with grades were phenomena that were many years in the future.
If you had the money to pursue higher denominations such as quarters and half dollars, the occasional Barber coin in these denominations would sometimes appear. As a junior collector, the Barber coins (dimes, quarters, and half dollars) were the oddballs; the strange items that would make my heart skip a beat. Don’t get me wrong, a key or semi key Lincoln cent, or even a 1950-D nickel, would certainly get my attention, but it was the silver Barbers that really excited me.
The days of interesting and fairly frequent circulation finds are long gone. Nowadays, roll searchers look for such things as error coins, doubled dies, over mintmarks, off-center strikes and the like. If they do run across a coin from a bygone era, you can be pretty sure it was taken from somebody’s collection and spent by a person who didn’t know its value.
With this background, let’s look at collecting Barber dimes in today’s world, a world bereft of silver coins in circulation. In other words, if you depend on circulation finds to fill your collection, you’ll never make any headway.
The design of the Barber dime was the handiwork of Charles Edward Barber, who was Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint for nearly 40 years. Barber was from England, the son of William Barber. In fact, Charles succeeded his father, who was the Mint’s Chief Engraver before his son got the position.
Although Barber’s best-known coin designs are the dime, quarter, and half-dollar series bearing his name, he either designed or helped design several other U.S. emissions. Examples include the Liberty Head (or V) nickel, Flowing Hair $4 Stella gold pieces, and the 1892 Columbian commemorative half dollar (Barber designed the obverse, George T. Morgan the reverse). Barber also designed 1883-dated coins for the Kingdom of Hawaii and the Cuban coinage of 1915. According to Wikipedia, “Barber’s design on the Cuba 5 centavo coin remained in use until 1961.”
Charles Barber died on Feb. 18, 1917, shortly after three new designs appeared on the silver coins for which he is well known. You have to wonder if the sight of new Mercury dimes, Standing Liberty quarters, and Walking Liberty half-dollars contributed to his demise. Perhaps, the shock of the three new designs, following soon after the Buffalo nickel replaced his V-nickels, was just too much for his 76-year-old heart!
The Barber dime was minted from 1892 through 1916. Like Barber’s other silver designs, the dime was a workhorse, widely used in everyday commerce. For the most part, the mintages were relatively high, with eight-digit mintages occurring for many of the Philadelphia products.
With the exception of the minuscule mintage of San Francisco dimes in 1894, the series contains no great rarities. Various explanations for the 24 1894-S dimes minted have been given, and there are differing accounts of what happened to the issue. Fortunately for collectors desiring set completion, the oddball 1894-S is not considered necessary for a complete run of Barber dimes.
Of course, if you’re the owner of a major sports team, a hedge fund manager, or have some other access to large sums of money, then you might consider the purchase of an 1894-S. Even so, your mission is likely to be thwarted by the lack of availability of the coin.
All the other date/mintmark combinations are available, most in whatever grade you can afford. Interestingly, many of the better low-mintage dates were produced in San Francisco. Most of the exceptions to this observation were produced early in the series, often in New Orleans. I’ll talk about these first.
The regularly issued Barber dime with the lowest mintage is the 1895-O, with just 440,000 produced. In The Complete Guide to Barber Dimes, David Lawrence called it “The unquestioned key to the set… Available for a price in G to F. Difficult to locate in VF and in great demand in XF and above.” Using the pricing guide in Q. David Bowers’ latest edition of A Guide Book of Barber Silver Coins, the range of values for the 1895-O is from $375 in G4 to $30,000 in MS65. A F12 should retail for around $850, and the date lists for more than $1,000 in all higher grades.
Lightning struck twice in 1895, as the Philadelphia issue that year is also considered one of the keys to the series. With a mintage of 690,000, this is by far the scarcest Philadelphia Mint product. In his book Bowers states, “The low mintage made this a date to look for in the 1930s when many were still in circulation…In any grade this is a key issue.” Values range from $85 in G4 to just $2,000 in MS65. In F12, it’s worth about $325.
Other good dates in the 1890s include the 1894-O, 1896-O and S, and 1897-O. These are all dates with mintages well below a million. Of the four, the most expensive is the 1896-O, whose value ranges from $80 in G4 to $7,500 in MS65. Its mintage is not the lowest, however, as this honor goes to the 1896-S (575,056 vs. 610,000). Bowers calls the 1896-O “one of the handful of top rarities among Barber dimes in grades MS-60 or higher. At any Mint State level an 1896-O dime is a keeper.” A nice F12 specimen should cost about $290.
Of the four the 1894-O has a higher value in MS65, $11,000. Bowers notes, “At any Mint State level an 1894-O is a prize…a gem 1894-O is a landmark coin.” You should be able to find a decent F12 example for about $200.
The 1896-S and 1897-O range in value between $80 and $3,000 and $65 and $3,000, respectively. The value of each date in F12 is $280, according to Bowers’ Guide Book.
The next semi key date is the 1901-S, with a mintage of 593,022 pieces. According to the pricing guide in Bowers’ Guide Book, the 1901-S ranges in value between $80 in G4 and $4,520 in MS65. A nice F12 should cost around $350. Bowers notes, “The 1901-S, with its low mintage, has long been considered a key date in the Barber dime series, and rightfully so. Specimens are elusive at all levels.”
Next comes two more San Francisco dimes, the 1903-S and 1904-S. Both had mintages below a million: 1903-S, 613,300 and 1904-S, 800,000. The earlier date is more valuable in lower grades, while the 1904-S passes it in higher grades. The 1903-S ranges in value from $85 in G4 to $2,250 in MS65, with the 1904-S listing for $45 to $4,000 in the same grades. A decent F12 should cost about $350 for the 1903-S and $160 for the 1904-S. Lawrence considered them scarce in all grades.
After the 1904-S, there are only three other Barber dimes with mintages below a million: 1909-D (954,000), 1913-S (510,000), and 1915-S (960,000). The mintage of the 1913-S is actually the second lowest in the series, behind only the 1895-O. However, it’s not worth nearly as much as you might expect. According to Lawrence, the coin is “Overrated because of high survivorship, but collector demand keeps the price up.” Values for the date range from $35 in G4 to $2,700 in MS65.
This is a date that Barber collectors are fond of hoarding. According to Bowers, in a 2008 Barber Coin Collectors’ Society census, one of its members reported a total of 74, mostly low grade, examples. I once tried to buy as many examples as I could but quit fairly quickly when I had trouble finding coins to purchase. A decent F12 should cost about $125.
The 1909-D or the 1915-S might also be good dates to hoard, as both have mintages below those of the two semi key Mercury dimes, the 1921 and 1921-D. Values for the 1909-D range between $8 for a G4 and $1,700 for an MS65, whereas the corresponding values for the 1915-S are $7 and $1,150. In F12, the Barbers list for $60 and $35, respectively. Both of the Mercury dimes are considerably more expensive, listing for $115 and $180 in F12 in the PCGS pricing guide.
The remainders of the date/mintmark combinations are remarkably inexpensive, particularly if you’re talking about coins in well-circulated condition. Of course, how you choose to collect Barber dimes depends in large part on your numismatic budget.
For example, putting together a date set, one coin for each year the series was minted, appears quite doable as it avoids the most expensive examples. Instead of purchasing either an 1895 or 1895-O, for the date set you would opt for the 1895-S. Although the 1895-S is a better date, with a little more than a million minted, in F12 it lists for just $135 in Bowers’ Guide Book. This is in comparison to the $325 and $850 for the 1895 and 1895-O, respectively.
Similarly, for the year 1896 you would opt for the Philadelphia issue, as it’s much less expensive than either the 1896-O or S. A decent F12 should run you about $50.
Another approach is the basic set, which consists of all of the date/mintmark combinations issued during the 25-year run of the series. Once you’ve gotten the better dates I’ve discussed, the remainder of the set should be a piece of cake. Even in a grade like XF40, you’ll discover that the common dates are valued well below $100 apiece.
If you want to add major varieties to the basic set, the only varieties listed in the pricing guide in this magazine or in A Guide Book of United States Coins (the Red Book) are the 1893/2 “overdate” and the 1905-O with a tiny (micro) mintmark. Bowers calls the first of these the “so-called 1893, 3 over 2" dime. The reason for this is that it is no longer considered a 3/2 overdate. According to expert John Dannreuther, the coin is really an 1893/1893. Market values range from $140 in G4 to $5,000 in MS65. A decent F12 should cost about $160.
As for the micro mintmark on the 1905-O, Bowers states that it is, “…readily available in most circulated grades below EF-40.” Also, “This is one of the most popular issues in the Barber series and is on nearly every want list.” The popularity undoubtedly explains the date’s value relative to a regular 1905-O, which ranges in value from $5 for a G4 to $1,100 in MS65. The corresponding range for the Micro “o” is from $60 to $5,500. A decent F-12 should cost about $150.
If you are interested in collecting further Barber dime varieties, you’ll want to consult Bill Fivaz and J. T. Stanton’s Cherrypickers’ Guide, Volume II, 5th edition. The authors present page after page of repunched dates, repunched mintmarks, repunched dates and mintmarks, and even a date (1912-S) with a doubled-die obverse. Another reference for Barber dime varieties is Kevin Flynn’s The Authoritative Reference on Barber Dimes.
Another way to collect Barber dimes is as proofs. A proof version was issued for each date through 1915 and mintages range from 425 in 1914 to 1,245 in 1892. Values for PR65s in this magazine range from $975 in 1913 to $1,200 in 1894. Virtually all dates list for $1,000. If you can find them, I think that a collection of all proof issues (minus the 1894-S, of course) would be pretty spectacular.
Well, that’s it for my look at collecting Barber dimes. Whether you decide to concentrate on a basic set, a basic set with major varieties, or a date set, you can’t go wrong with this series. Steer clear of problem coins and consider purchasing coins certified by the major services (ANACS, NGC, PCGS) if the coins you’re looking for vary a great deal in value depending on the grade. Happy hunting!