If you want to find the better Barber half dollars, your first rule should be to not get hung up on mintages. Yes, mintage can be a good indication on some coins of how tough they will be, but it is not always reliable. The 1896-S Barber half dollar is proof of that.
With a mintage of 1,140,948, the 1896-S would not have impressed anyone at the time. After all, about a decade earlier, there were half dollar mintages of 10,000 or less. Even within the context of Barber halves, a mintage of more than one million was not low. The Philadelphia issues of 1913, 1914 and 1915 were all below 200,000, and they are not seen as especially rare.
There were just too many factors at work during the Barber half dollar era that influenced how many examples there are today and at what price. The mintage is an indication, but little more, as a lot could happen to a Barber half to prevent it from surviving.
The starting point is simply that very few collected Barber halves, and virtually no one who did had a collection by date and mintmark. In fact, the idea of collecting by date and mint was only just gaining popularity, thanks to the writing of Augustus Heaton.
Gaining popularity and becoming widespread, however, are two very different things. The Barber dime, quarter, and half dollar were not exactly at the top of the charts in terms of collector interest. In fact, these three denominations historically have never been popular. This was especially true at the time in question.
A half dollar was a lot of money then. The national economy was not good, and collecting was not doing well. In fact, in 1896, there were fewer than 2,000 proof sets sold, marking the first time in a long time that had happened. During the 1880s, in fact, sales had sometimes been more than double the 1896 total.
Under the circumstances, few 1896-S Barber half dollars were saved at the time of release, and numbers did not improve in the years it was circulating. Collecting did increase in popularity with the arrival of the Lincoln cent in 1909, but it was a big step to go from collecting cents to starting a Barber half collection. Few made that step, and Barber coins simply circulated. This explains why, when the “New York Subway Hoard” was begun in the 1940s, it was possible to complete 24 sets of Barber halves.
By that time, the 1896-S Barber half dollar had been in circulation for roughly 45 years. Over such a period, silver coins get worn to the point of being retired and destroyed. This goes a long way towards explaining why, today, examples in G-4 condition are priced at $90.
Where the 1896-S gets really tough is in Mint State. It lists for $2,200 in MS-60, with just four other years above that price in the same condition; MS-65 examples list for $8,000, with fewer than a dozen other years listed higher.
Grading service reports support these high prices. The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has seen 11 examples of the 1896-S Barber half dollar in MS-65 or better, while the Professional Coin Grading Service has seen 16, for a combined total of just 27 pieces (assuming none were submitted more than once).
These totals tell the story, as there are $80,000 coins with the same number of appearances. The deciding factor for price, however, is the historic lack of demand. If that ever were to change, the 1896-S Barber half dollar would suddenly be better known and much more expensive.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.
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