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Building a Barber Dime Set
By Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
August 01, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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When I started collecting coins more than a half century ago, coins were often housed in thin, blue Whitman albums, which I remember costing 25 cents apiece. The album for Barber dimes, like the ones for Liberty Head nickels and Flying Eagle and Indian Head cents, had a plug in one of the slots that read “Rare.” For Barber dimes, this was the 1894-S slot, whereas for the other two the plugs were for the 1913 Liberty Head nickel and the 1856 Flying Eagle cent, respectively. In other words, forget set completion: It’s not going to happen.

Except for the 1894-S, which is essentially impossible to obtain, the rest of the Barber dime set is eminently doable. The only key, if you can even call it that, is a coin with a mintage of 440,000, the 1895-O. For a key coin, that’s a pretty sizable mintage and makes the series easy to complete, with one exception, of course. But before I talk about collecting Barber dimes, let me briefly trace the origin of the coin’s design.

As you can gather from the name of the series, the designer was Charles E. Barber, who was Mint engraver at the time. In 1892, it was certainly time for a change in coin design, as the Christian Gobrecht Seated Liberty design had been on dimes since 1837.

Thus, the Treasury initiated a design competition among ten of America’s best artists. Unfortunately, all of the artists rejected the competition’s terms, one of their main complaints being that the prize money wasn’t worth the effort that would be involved. They made a counter offer, which the Treasury considered ridiculous.

At this point, the Treasury declared the competition open to the public, with the judges to be Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Henry Mitchell (a Boston engraver of gems and seals), and Mint engraver Barber. This competition turned out to be an exercise in futility, as the country’s best artists boycotted the event, and only two of approximately 300 entries earned even an honorable mention.

As Walter Breen puts it in Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, “The new Mint Director, Edward O. Leech, called the contest ‘too wretched a failure’ ever to be tried again, and ordered Barber to prepare the designs himself[,] which is exactly what Barber had wanted all along.”

As for the design Barber produced, “Barber must have been feeling unusually lazy. He left the rev[erse] design as it had been since 1860, with minor simplifications. His obv[erse] was a mirror image of the Morgan dollar head, with much of Miss Anna Willess Williams’s back hair cropped off, the rest concealed (most likely for Respectability)…within a disproportionately large cap.”

In The Authoritative Reference on Barber Dimes, Kevin Flynn gives a somewhat different assessment of Barber’s abilities. “Barber was an excellent sculptor and engraver. His technical skill in the die making process and in coin striking was remarkable. His use of low relief designs required less die pressure, prolonging the life of the dies. Some might question Barber’s artistic ability, but his coins speak for themselves. His choice of design was very conscientious and meticulous.”

As for collecting Barber dimes, there are a number of different possibilities. The simplest way is to collect the series by type, in which case you need only one coin for set completion.

Typically, the coin selected for a type collection is one of the most common dates, and the Barber 10-cent series has plenty of these. In a table of rarity ratings in mint state, David Lawrence (The Complete Guide to Barber Dimes) gives 22 date/mintmark combinations a rarity rating of 1, which means they are common dates. In Collecting & Investing Strategies for Barber Dimes, Jeff Ambio rates the most common dates in mint state as follows: 1892, 1916, 1911, 1912, 1914, and 1913, in that order.

As you can see, these are all Philadelphia-minted coins, and they occur either at the beginning or at the end of the series (1892-1916). According to Numismatic News “Coin Market,” values for these super common dates in Mint State-60, -63, and -65 are $110-$115, $220-$230, and $590-$600, respectively. If I had to choose one of the most common dates for type, I would go with the 1892, as it represents the beginning of the set.

But why opt for the series’ most common date for type? Why not look for a date that’s only a little more expensive than a common date but is not nearly as common?

One possibility is the 1892-O, with a mintage of less than a third of its Philadelphia counterpart (3.84 vs. 12.12 million). Ambio ranks it 51st in mint state out of 74 different combinations. “Coin Market” says it’s worth $150, $300, and $1,275 in MS-60, -63, and -65, respectively. Although it’s a bit of a reach in MS-65, $300 for a decent coin in MS-63 doesn’t seem that bad.

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Of course, another collecting possibility is to try to put together a complete set of all date/mintmark combinations. If this is your goal, you should take the advice of many experts who say to get the key coins first. I’ll confess that I’ve almost never been able to take this advice, but I do agree with the rationale for it: Key coins almost always rise in value more quickly than common dates.

As I said at the outset of this article, the set’s key is the 1895-O. Ambio ranks it No. 1 in mint state, and it’s the only date in the series worth more than $100 in every grade. In fact, it’s worth $385 in Good-4, $575 in Very Good-8, $900 in Fine-12, $1,350 in Very Fine-20, $2,500 in Extremely Fine-40, $3,650 in About Uncirculated-50, $6,000 in MS-60, $11,500 in MS-63, and $24,500 in MS-65. That makes it far and away the most expensive Barber dime in any grade, not counting varieties or the 1894-S.

Writing more than 20 years ago, here is what Lawrence says about the 1895-O: “Available for a price in G to F. Difficult to locate in VF and in great demand in XF and above. High-grade specimens often sell for 25-50% premiums over listed prices, even in mint state.”

With the exception of an overdate (1893/2), all of the other date/mintmark combinations list for less than $100 apiece in G-4. Several dates are close to the $100 figure, however, and we can consider them the semi-keys to a circulated set. In order by value, they are 1895 and 1896-S ($85), 1903-S ($84), 1896-O and 1901-S ($80), 1894-O ($70), 1897-O ($69.50), and 1892-S ($66).

All of the eight most expensive Barber 10 cent pieces in G-4 have mintages below 1 million, and there’s a fairly close correlation between mintage and value. The ranking from smallest to largest mintage is as follows: 1896-S, 1901-S, 1896-O, 1903-S, 1897-O, 1895, 1894-O, and 1892-S. The range of mintages of the eight are from 575,056 to 990,710. Actually, the 990,710 for the 1892-S is an outlier; the next highest mintage is only 720,000 for the 1894-O. In addition to these eight, there are four later dates with sub-million mintages: 1904-S (800,000), 1909-D (954,000), 1913-S (510,000), and 1915-S (960,000). You might wonder why the 1913-S isn’t worth more, as its mintage is second only to the 1895-O and is substantially below that of the 1896-S, which starts at $85 versus just $35 for the 1913-S.

Differential retention is the answer. People saved this date because of its low mintage. Lawrence writes, “This date…has traditionally been in strong demand. However, it is generally available because of hoarding. The 1913-S is not nearly as tough as the 1909-D and S and 1910-S, all of which have twice its mintage.”

As for the other sub-million mintage dates, the 1904-S ranges in value from $45 in G-4 to $4,500 in MS-65, the 1909-D from $7.25 to $2,850, and the 1915-S from $7.50 to $1,550. If you compare the mintages of these Barber dimes with those of the semikey Mercury dimes (1921, 1,230,000; 1921-D, 1,080,000), you’ll wonder why the Barbers are so inexpensive, at least in most circulated grades. After all, the two Mercuries range in value from $60 to $2,850 (1921) and from $80 to $2,900 (1921-D).

If you have lots of money to spend for numismatic purchases, then you may choose to pursue Barber 10 cents in uncirculated. If you do this, then you definitely need Ambio’s book that I mentioned earlier, as it deals exclusively with Barber dimes in mint state.

Actually, tackling an uncirculated set of Barber dimes may not be as impossible as you might think, or as costly. Looking at the MS-63 values for the series, I counted only 13 dates out of 74 that list for more than $1,000 and that’s not bad for a series at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th centuries. Of those 13, just 3 are above $2,000 in that grade: 1894-O and 1896-O, $2,650; 1895-O, $11,500. Taking age and mintages into consideration, I think you would be pleasantly surprised at how reasonable the values are for the bulk of the coins in the series.

In MS-65, of course, the values go up considerably, but there are still quite a few dates that are below the $1,000 figure. Amazingly, there are only two dates that list for five figures in gem condition, 1894-O ($15,500) and 1895-O ($24,500).

Of the two dates, Ambio considers the 1894-O scarcer in higher grades. He writes, “It is actually rarer than the 1895-O in high grades, and the 1894-O is actually the rarest business strike Barber Dime at and above the MS-65 grade level.”

Another way to collect Barber dimes is as proofs. For this set, there are just 24 different dates, one for each year of the series except for 1916. Amazingly, “Coin Market” gives each one the same value in Proof-65, $1,485. Assuming you could actually buy the coins for that amount, a complete set would cost $35,640, which is less than the combined price of the 1894-O and 1895-O in MS-65 ($40,000).

Mintages of the proofs range from 425 (1914) to 1,245 (1892). The mintage for 1914 is followed closely by 1915s mintage of 450. Actually, the 1,245 mintage for 1892 is an oddity, as the remainder of the dates saw fewer than 1,000 produced.

Ambio has rarity rating charts for proof Barber dimes in all proof grades and in PR-65 and above. In all proof grades, the scarcest dates are generally those with the smallest mintages, and his ranking of the top five is as follows: 1915, 1914, 1908 (545 minted), 1907 (575), and 1910 (551). At the bottom are 1896 (762), 1898 (735), 1892, 1895 (880), and 1894 (972). The rankings are similar in PR-65 and above as well.

Ambio’s estimates of surviving proof Barber dimes are from 220-275 for the 1915 to 500-600 for the 1894. Note that these represent relatively high percentages of the original mintages, which is what you would expect for coins undoubtedly purchased by collectors.

Barber dime varieties represent another interesting ways to collect the series. The 2013 U.S. Coin Digest lists just two varieties, an overdate (1893/2) and a tiny mintmark (1905-O micro O). Values for the overdate in “Coin Market” range from $135 in G-4 to $6,000 in MS-65, which makes it one of the priciest issues. The micro O goes from $35 in G-4 (the regular mintmark coin is worth just $4.25 in that grade) to a whopping $12,500 in MS-65, which puts it close to the 1894-O.

If you really want to get into Barber dime variety collecting, you’ll definitely want to purchase a copy of the 5th edition of Fivaz and Stanton’s Cherrypickers’ Guide. In it, you’ll find pictured and described more than 30 varieties such as doubled dies and repunched dates. Fivaz and Stanton do not include either the 1893/2 or the 1905-O “micro O,” perhaps because they’re considered too well known. They also don’t include the one Barber dime variety that I have, a repunched mintmark (1915-S/S).

For the ultimate guide to Barber dime varieties, there’s Kevin Flynn’s The Authoritative Reference on Barber Dimes. Many of the varieties in Flynn’s book require extreme magnification to detect. He does, however, include the 1915-S with a repunched mintmark.

As I hope you can see from my discussion, excluding the 1894-S, Barber dimes are interesting to collect in a variety of ways. You can obtain a single nice example as a type coin, work on a complete date/mintmark set in either circulated or uncirculated condition, put together a set of proof Barber dimes, or assemble as many minting varieties as possible. I think you’ll find that, with a few exceptions, Barber dimes are quite reasonably priced for their age and scarcity.

With the continuing popularity of all Barber coins with today’s collectors, I think you’ll be pleased with the appreciation in value these little gems will show over time. Remember: Buy the keys first. You’ll be glad you did.

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