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Collecting Barber Quarters
barber quarterBy Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
August 27, 2008
barber quarter

When you think of popular U.S. quarter series, the first one that probably comes to mind is Washington quarters, because of the popularity of the state quarter series. Or, you might think of Standing Liberty quarters, which almost everyone agrees have a wonderful design. You might even think of Seated Liberty quarters, because of the challenge of collecting such a lengthy series.

But Barber quarters may be overlooked in your consideration of popular U.S. quarters. For one thing, even their biggest fans are likely to think of the design, particularly the obverse design, as bland at best.

And if you're not a fan of the design, as Walter Breen almost certainly wasn't, then you might write something like Breen wrote in his Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins: "The whole composition is Germanically stolid, prosy, crowded (especially on rev[erse]), and without discernible merit aside from the technical one of low relief."

The design was the work of Mint engraver Charles E. Barber, who, if you believe Breen, sabotaged a design contest for new coin designs so that he would be asked to produce the new designs himself. Thus was born the dime, quarter, and half dollar designs that bear his name.

According to Breen, "Barber's new obv[erse] was a mirror image of the Morgan dollar head," whereas the reverse design was a copy of "Robert Scot's adaptation of the Great Seal of the United States" back in 1804. Obviously, Breen didn't think much of Barber's creativity in the design.

Of course, if you started collecting when I did in the 1950s, then you may view Barber quarters with a certain degree of affection. For me, Standing Liberty quarters could sometimes be found in quarter rolls from the bank along with Washington quarters, with an occasional "exotic" Barber quarter. Of course, most Barbers in circulation in the 1950s were likely to be worn down to the grade of Good or even lower.

I did, however, have two great Barber quarter acquisitions when I was a kid. One was an 1897-O in Extremely Fine-About Uncirculated, for which I think I paid 30 cents. I should note here that I grew up in Louisiana, so coins from the New Orleans Mint may have been more plentiful in the state. The other prize was a 1904-O, for which I paid face value, which was in even better condition than the 1897-O. I remember that I got one of the coins from a friendly trolley driver whose last stop was at the junior high where I went to school.

Of course, you can't think of the coins as being worth anywhere near what they're worth today. In my first A Guide Book of United States Coins, a 1958 edition, the 1897-O listed for $11 in Fine and $70 in Uncirculated, with no grades in between. The 1904-O was worth $10 and $125 in the two grades, respectively. Obviously, they were worth considerably more than the 55 cents I paid for them.

In the early 1970s, I bought another nice New Orleans Barber quarter for a ridiculously low price. It was an 1895-O in AU that was priced at $1 at a country store in a small community. A local banker had donated a few coins to be sold at the store, and presumably whoever did the pricing didn't have a clue as to what they were worth. I recall that some of them were actually overpriced while others were grossly underpriced. Naturally, I took advantage of the latter.

At one point early in my modern collecting days, which began in 1970, I worked to put together circulated sets of all three Barber series. As you can probably guess, I succeeded easily with the dimes and half dollars but failed with the quarters. The problem was that I didn't take the advice that I have given for years, which I had gotten from reading Q. David Bowers: Buy the keys first.

So you should be able to figure out what happened. By the time I got to the 1901-S, its price had surpassed my budget. If I had bought it first, when it was still relatively affordable (I passed on a Good/About Good priced at $250), then completing a low-grade circulated set would have been a snap. As I recall, I paid $90 for my first 1913-S, which was a nice Good+ worth well over $1,000 today.

I bought an EF 1896-S for a token amount. The only problem was that the coin was a dog, with major pitting and stains. Still, if the 1913-S was less than $100 in G+, I could have gotten an 1896-S in the same grade for a song.

Except for the big three, which I've briefly mentioned, the remaining Barber quarters are not particularly difficult to obtain, at least in well circulated condition. As you get to higher grades, however, many of the dates become remarkably difficult to find. Let's take a look at what's involved in putting together a date-mint mark set of Barber quarters.

One good source of information about Barber quarters is The Complete Guide to Barber Quarters (2nd ed.) by David Lawrence. If you're interested in the series, you should try to find a copy if you don't already have one. I found four used copies listed on Amazon for prices ranging from about the list price ($29.95) to $37.50. These are actually not bad prices for out-of-print coin books, from my experience.

Using his own rarity rating scale (R1, common; R2, slightly better date; R3, better date; R4, scarce; R5, very scarce; R6, extremely scarce; R7, rare), Lawrence classifies the coins in the series according to four different grade ranges: G/VG, Fine/Very Fine, EF/AU, and Mint State. It's interesting that the big three are all rated either R4 or R5 in G/VG, and these are the only dates that fall in those categories in the lowest collectible grades.

The Barbers I told you I acquired as a youth are rated either R4 (1904-O) or R5 (1897-O) in EF/AU, whereas the 1895-O in AU is classified as an R4. Several of the low-mintage dates in the series that I think are worth accumulating are rated as R3s in G/VG (e.g., 1912-S, 1913, 1914-S, 1915-S).

The big three have the lowest mintages in the series, with the 1901-S and 1913-S having mintages below 100,000 (72,664 and 40,000, respectively). In this lineup, the 1896-S is a distant third (188,039).

In terms of value, at the present time the 1901-S and 1913-S are both worth more than $1,000 in G ($7,000 and $1,500, respectively, according to Numismatic News "Coin Market"). The 1896-S is well back at $750, but its value has been rising recently, and I can easily see it reaching the $1,000 plateau soon.

Back when it (and the others, as well) were much less pricy, I bought a low-grade 1896-S for less than $100 from a dealer friend of mine. I thought it would easily grade G-4, so I submitted it to ANACS when the service was still affiliated with the American Numismatic Association. ANACS eventually returned it to me with a note saying that it was too low a grade to certify. I returned it to my friend and got my money back. You can imagine my dismay the next time I visited my friend's shop to find the same coin in an ANACS holder with a grade of G-4.

Of course, when you have coins as scarce as these three in a series with a lot of collectors, then demand for examples will extend even into grades below what would normally be considered collectible. In other words, even AG-3s are worth having if they're "high-end" for the grade. Of course, if you haven't seen several coins certified as AG-3, then it's probably difficult for you to imagine high-end and low-end AG-3s. Trust me, they do exist.

At the moment, I have two 1913-Ss that are extremely high-end AG-3s, one certified by ANACS and the other by the Professional Coin Grading Service. In my opinion, each coin looks better than several of the date I've seen that were certified as G-4s.

If you're willing to consider a coin for your collection that's as low a grade as AG-3, then look for the best example of the grade you can find and be prepared to pay a premium. With the way that the set's big keys have risen in value in recent years, I feel confident that my two pieces will soon be worth considerably more than I paid for them.

All of the set's keys have risen in value a great deal in recent years, and the headline of the issue of "Coin Market" I'm using to price Barber quarters is appropriate to this discussion: "Two key Barber quarters set to jump." The two keys Harry Miller means by his headline are the 1896-S and the 1913-S. He writes, "I suspect these two dates will top $1,000 and $2,000, respectively, in good in the not too distant future." I couldn't agree more.

Of course, in higher grades the three are well beyond most collectors' wallets. In F-12, for example, the 1896-S, 1901-S, and 1913-S list for $1,850, $16,500, and $4,000, respectively. In EF-40, you could expect to pay $4,300, $28,500, and $6,500, respectively.

If you have megabucks to spend on your Barber quarter collection, you could stretch and buy MS-65 specimens, if you could find them, for $56,000, $100,000, and $24,000, respectively. The lower price for the coin with the lowest mintage of the three is explained by Lawrence's comment: "Some nice mint state specimens were saved and [the 1913-S] isn't nearly as tough as the 1896-S or 1901-S (or some other dates) in new condition."

Obviously, Lawrence thinks that some of the other dates are tougher than the 1913-S in gem condition. This is not reflected in values, however, as the big three are at the top of the price chart in MS-65, with only one of the other dates (1898-O) even reaching a five-figure value.

Although there is some correspondence between dates Lawrence considers scarce and mintages, it's not as close as you might think. For example, the 1914-S has a mintage of just 264,000 pieces, which is the fourth lowest mintage in the series. Its value is relatively high in lower grades, such as G-F, but it's worth only $3,550 in MS-65, which is well down the list and way behind other dates with much higher mintages. As Lawrence expresses it, "The low mintage makes it very scarce, but because of this it was also saved." He considers it rare only in grades of EF and AU.

Considering MS-65 value and Lawrence's rarity ratings for the dates in mint state, I find 13 dates that seem to be worth strong consideration if you're thinking of acquiring Barber quarters for potential appreciation, or if you just want to get the tough dates out of the way first. The first of these is the 1893-S, with a mintage of 1,454,535 pieces. According to Lawrence, the date is "Difficult to find in all grades, but especially from Fine to EF. AU coins are sometimes available and should be bought if nice. Very scarce in mint state.…" The 1893-S lists for $18 in G-4, $62.50 in F-12, $160 in EF-40, $300 in AU-50, and $8,400 in MS-65.

Chronologically, the next date on the list is the 1895-O, with a mintage of 2,816,000. You'll recall that this is the date that I bought in AU for $1 in the early 1970s. Lawrence calls the 1895-O "An underrated date in strong demand from Fine to MS64. Surprisingly tough in mint state." Assuming this analysis is correct, the 1895-O would appear to be undervalued at just $2,750 in MS-65.

Next, we have the 1896-O, with a mintage of 1,484,000. Lawrence considers it "Very scarce in Fine and above" and gives it a rarity rating of R6 in mint state. This one starts at $26 in G-4 and then goes up rather gradually until it jumps from $1,850 in MS-63 to $7,750 in MS-65.

The 1897-S is the first of my intriguing dates with a relatively low mintage, as only 542,229 were produced. In terms of scarcity, Lawrence writes, "Definitely one of the scarcest coins in the set in F and higher." Later, he calls it "My favorite date. Where have they all gone? This coin is only available in AG to VG condition. The moment a Fine or better specimen comes on the market even with problems it is sold." Values start at $85 in G-4, with a top value of $7,000 in MS-65.

While writing this article, I looked on eBay to see what 1897-Ss were up for auction. I bid on and won a PCGS-graded G-4 for a total of $57.09 including postage. I was planning to put in a last-second bid on an 1897-S graded F-12 by PCGS, but the price went well be beyond what I'm willing to pay. With a retail price of $275, according to "Coin Market," it sold for $438!

The next date Lawrence likes is the 1898-O, with a mintage of 1,868,000 pieces. According to him, this is "One of the scarcest dates in the set in VF and higher." In AU and mint state, Lawrence rates it R6. He also writes, "Though most knowledgeable collectors and dealers know this is a scarce issue it remains strongly undervalued through MS63." It starts at just $13 in G-4, is worth $75 in F-12, $295 in EF-40, $1,525 in MS-63, and then takes a huge jump to $10,000 in MS-65.

Lawrence also likes the 1898-S, with a mintage of just 1,020,592 pieces. He calls it "Scarce in all grades except EF and AU50. Fine and VF are hard to find and AU55 and mint state coins are truly scarce.… Truly rare in mint state because most of the coinage evidently went to the Philippines and few survived in new condition." Although the mintage is considerably lower, the values of the 1898-S are well below those of the 1898-O. Like the 1898-O, the coin takes a huge jump in value from MS-63 to MS-65 ($1,250 to $7,200).

With a mintage of 1,612,000, the 1901-O is another good date, according to Lawrence. He writes, "Very scarce in all grades, but particularly from EF through MS-63." Although the values are higher than most other dates with similar mintages, this date is probably a good buy if you can purchase no-problem coins for anywhere near the retail values. It lists for $40 in G-4, $135 in F-12, $470 in EF-40, $2,000 in MS-63, and just $5,750 in MS-65.

The 1903-O, with 3,500,000 minted, is another of Lawrence's high-rated coins. He calls it "the most undervalued coin in the set in MS63." In this grade, it lists for $1,300 and then jumps to $5,800 in MS-65. It's quite inexpensive in lower grades, starting at $8 in G-4, climbing to $41.50 in F-12, and then listing for just $125 in EF-40.

The 1905-O is one of Lawrence's favorite dates in the series. He calls it "The most underrated date in the set; undervalued in all grades except gem condition," where it lists for $6,600. "This coin has such demand that even coins with light scratches, rim bumps or other minor problems sell for full price or higher." In "Coin Market," it starts at $18.50 in G-4, is worth $82.50 in F-12, $260 in EF-40, $515 in MS-60, and $1,275 in MS-63.

The 1908-S is another date that Lawrence calls one of his favorites. "Never stays in stock," he writes. "Trouble-free coins of any grade sell immediately." This is one of the dates with a mintage of less than 1 million pieces (784,000), and Lawrence considers it "Very scarce in all grades, especially above VF." The values seem low for such a low-mintage coin, as it starts at $20 in G-4, goes to $92.50 in F-12, is worth $320 in EF-40, $1,250 in MS-63, and $5,100 in MS-65.

The 1909-O, with a mintage of just 712,000 pieces, is "One of the coins that makes the Barber Quarter series great," according to Lawrence. "Very scarce, almost rare in VF and above. One of the hardest coins to find in AU." Not surprisingly, he rates it R7 in AU. Values seem reasonable for this coin, which begins at $25 in G-4, is worth $175 in F-12, $900 in EF-40, $1,250 in AU-50, $3,500 in MS-63, and $9,000 in MS-65.

Lawrence considers the 1911-D (933,600 minted) very scarce and seldom found in grades higher than VF. Also, he considered this date "the most underrated coin in the series in 1989 when the First Edition came out." At the time Lawrence wrote the second edition, the certified population of this date was just five more than that of the 1901-S! Would you believe that this coin starts at just $8 in G-4, goes to $95 in F-12, is worth $330 in EF-40, $1,300 in MS-63, and $6,250 in MS-65.

The 1911-S is another date with a sub-million mintage, and at the time he wrote the second edition, Lawrence considered the date the most underrated in the series in the grade of F. It has gone up in value a good bit in that grade since 1994, but at $51.50, it would still seem to be undervalued. Lawrence writes that it's just as scarce as the 1911-D in circulated grades, yet is priced considerably lower. In EF-40, for example, it's worth just $160, which is less than half the 1911-D price. In MS-65, it lists for just $1,500, which is almost a common-date value.

Some other low-mintage dates that I like that are essentially priced like common dates are the 1912-S and 1915-S, with mintages of 708,000 and 704,000, respectively. Of course, with such low mintages, they were differentially retained, so they are not as scarce as their mintages would suggest. Still, if you can get them for not much more than common-date prices, they would have to be good buys.

The 1913, with a mintage of just 484,000 pieces, also falls in the category of low mintage but reasonably priced, at least below MS-65. Compare the mintage of this coin with those of the 1932-D and -S Washington quarters. Now, compare the values. I think you'll see that this Barber quarter is worth purchasing, if you can find no-problem examples reasonably priced.

As I think you can see from my discussion, the Barber quarter series includes lots of interesting dates in terms of mintages and survival. If you buy no-problem coins that are properly graded and pay a price commensurate with the grade, then I think you can't go wrong with any of the better dates with which the series abounds.

If you decide to try to put together a complete set, do as I say, not as I did and get the keys and semi-keys first. If you do this, by the time you complete the set, I can almost guarantee that the keys will be worth more than you paid for them.

One caveat: Before you spend big money on any of the better dates, I would strongly urge you to purchase only coins certified by one of the major certification services.

Although the design is not exceptionally attractive, Barber quarters are well worth your consideration as coins to collect. Many of them are underpriced for their scarcity, and obtaining problem-free examples will be a challenge. I can almost guarantee that the end result will be worth the effort.

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