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Barber Half Best of Bad Art Situation
By Paul M. Green, Numismatic News
November 13, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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If you are looking to have your coins double in price in a year or two, the Barber half dollar is probably not for you. If, however, you are looking for a good value on a coin that is much tougher than many think than the Barber half dollar might well be a perfect choice as a collection.

Part of the reason why Barber half dollars are such a great value is that they simply were never heavily collected. It was actually fairly typical for all Barber denominations as they came along in 1892 at a time when interest in collecting was going down. Moreover the Barber half dollar was a higher denomination, unaffordable to many at the time of issue, which was the time of the nickel beer at saloons that came with a free lunch.

Who could afford to forego 10 such lunches to obtain just one coin? Certainly professionals of the time could, but not the average working man.

Another factor that must be considered is that back at the time when the Barber half dollar was introduced many of the nation’s collectors were only collecting by date. That would change, but collecting by date and mint was far from universal until well into the 1930s when penny boards became common, or even later. That meant that a lot of real opportunities were missed as lower mintage Barber half dollars from branch mints were simply not saved because no one was trying to assemble complete sets as we know them today.

The Barber half dollar really did not get off to a very good start with collectors in 1892. The big news that year was the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and for collectors there was the commemorative half dollar that marked the event. New Barber coins were secondary. But even the commemorative half dollar suffered from the affordability problem as many ended up in circulation.

Certainly some of the problem with the Barber half dollar was the design itself, which was a classic case of no good deed going unpunished. Officials going all the way back to just after the introduction of the Liberty Head nickel in 1883 had wanted to change designs on the silver coins.

The desire of officials was natural as the Seated Liberty design dated back to the late 1830s, but they decided to first check with the Congress to be sure they actually could change designs using outside artists. The Congress responded with a bill that allowed the secretary of the Treasury to make any changes desired once a design had been used for 25 years without Congressional approval. That gave officials a green light to make changes as the Seated Liberty design by the time had been around for twice the required 25 years.

The officials, however, were very serious and they had decided the way to obtain the best designs for American coinage was to call on the nation’s leading artists. The officials felt that the artists would be honored to have their work considered for a coin. Out went invitations to Augustus Saint-Gaudens, J.Q.A. Ward, Daniel French, Olin Werner Herbert, Herbert Adams, Charles S. Niehaus, Miller MacMonies, Kenyon Cox, Will S. Low and H.S. Mowbray. All were invited to submit designs for consideration.

Mint officials thought recipients of the invitation would view it as an honor, but the artists, who were probably approached on a regular basis to submit work in assorted competitions saw it another way. Rather than submit their work, the artists submitted a list of conditions that they wanted met before submitting anything.

This reaction was unexpected and it apparently stunned the officials who decided to drop the idea of the invited competition.

The fallback plan that was implemented did not exclude the previously invited artists, but what it did was make the competition open to everyone. A panel of three judges was selected, including Chief Engraver Charles Barber, renowned Paris-trained artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Boston gem and seal engraver Henry Mitchell.

The idea might have been ill-fated from the start as Saint-Gaudens was quite convinced he was the only person in the United States qualified to design a coin. Barber felt the same way about himself. Only Mitchell was not already on the record excluding the work of anyone else but himself.

The fact that no work ultimately was judged worthy of being used on a coin should probably come as no surprise in light of the views of the three judges. However, it is possible none of the submitted entries was worthy as one frustrated official called the whole thing a “wretched failure.”

With no other ideas, the officials turned to Barber who as chief engraver was already on the payroll. He was instructed to design the coins. With that decision, a golden opportunity would slip away as Barber would follow tradition with basically a single design for the dime, quarter and half dollar just as was the case for the Seated Liberty coinage these designs were replacing.

A competition would have almost certainly resulted in three different designs as took place in 1916, breaking with the tradition from the first silver coins that they all have basically the same design with the one exception of the dime reverse, which was too small to do justice to an eagle.

The Barber designs were greeted with something a bit short of hysterical trumpeting. Perhaps the most accurate review stated that they were “institutional,” which was certainly the case as they were prepared by a chief engraver whose father had been a chief engraver. It is hard to get much more institutional than that background.

A slowing economy kept mintages down and the public simply was not inspired. The first Barber half dollar mintages of 935,245 at Philadelphia along with 390,000 in New Orleans and 1,029,028 from San Francisco were probably not saved in the numbers we might expect for a new design.

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Of the three, the Philadelphia is the most available today at $29.50 in G-4, $505 in MS-60 and $3,150 in MS-65. The level in MS-65, however, is basically close to the price of an available date in MS-65. In the case of the 1892-S, which was the high mintage date of the three, we find it is tougher, having not been saved. It is $250 in G-4, $985 in MS-60 and $4,850 in MS-65. With its lower total mintage and no saving, the 1892-O is even tougher at $310 in G-4, but more available at $850 in MS-60 and $4,350 in MS-65. There is also an 1892-O with a “micro O” mintmark and it is $2,000 just in G-4 with an MS-65 at $64,000. The MS-65 price is supported by the Professional Coin Grading Service, which has graded just nine in Mint State while Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has only seen five.

The relatively high circulated prices of the 1892-O and 1892-S speak volumes not only about the initial saving by the public but about the number of new collectors in the years that followed. The high denomination and general slow period for collecting certainly did not help, but the fact remains that it appears the vast majority of Barber half dollars simply circulated until they were worn out and retired.

That belief was confirmed years later when the Littleton Coin Company purchased something called the New York Subway Hoard, which was a vast quantity of primarily key dates plucked from the coins found in the New York Transit Authority starting in the 1940s. The hoard is perhaps the best indication we have of the sorts of dates found in circulation in the 1940s and it included many examples of dates like the 1892-S and the 1892-O. In fact, the hoard contained 24 complete sets of Barber half dollars, so every date was still circulating in some cases 50 years after they had first been released.

The lack of saving can result in sometimes surprising circulated grade prices. Joining the 1892-O and 1892-S at more than $100 in G-4 are the 1893-S which is now at $165 in G-4 along with the both the 1897-O and 1897-S which are $170 and $155, respectively. These prices are interesting, as the 1897-O had a lower mintage than either the 1893-S or 1897-S. A couple other dates that have broken the $100 mark are the 1896-S at $120 in G-4 and the very low mintage 1915, which is currently at $112 in G-4. The 1915 follows the even lower mintage 1914, which became the first Philadelphia date to surpass $100 at $145 in G-4.

The prices of the 1914 and 1915 in G-4 are interesting as the 1913, 1914 and 1915 prices have historically lagged behind even though the coins have mintages of just 188,627 for the 1913, 124,610 for the 1914 and 138,450 for the 1915.

It is really part of a pattern that shows that mintage totals do not seem to matter as much in the case of Barber half dollars as in many other issues. A sampling shows the 1895-S with a mintage of 1,108,086 at $32 in G-4 while the 1898-O with a mintage of 874,000 is $37.50. Yet the 1893-O is priced at $36 in G-4, yet its mintage of 1,389,000 should put it well behind the 1895-S.

Prices may not make sense based solely on the mintages, but they do based on the numbers surviving and that is what is important.

There is little doubt that the Philadelphia dates had an advantage in terms of survival and that has had an impact of keeping the prices of the 1913, 1914 and 1915 lower than might be expected. It also may have been a case where, being produced almost 20 years after the first Barber half dollars, the later dates would naturally survive longer. This gave collectors who were increasing in numbers a great chance to pull them from circulation before they were worn smooth.

Under the circumstances, assembling a circulated grade set of Barber half dollars can be a learning experience with each date as they all have their own stories of survival or scarcity. In addition, if you attempt a set in a grade like VF-20 or better, you will find that many dates become significantly tougher. In order to be in upper circulated grades, they would have needed to have been saved in the 1930s or earlier. There were very few new Barber half dollar collectors at the time, so nicer circulated grade examples are oftentimes much tougher than expected.

In Mint State, it becomes hard to predict prices and even harder to assemble a complete set. It is not a case where there are no Mint State Barber half dollars as a number of dates are just over $500 in MS-60 or $3,000 in MS-65. Rather, there are a number of dates that turn out to be very tough even though they might not be the lowest mintage dates where you would expect high price levels in every grade.

The key Mint State Barber half dollar other than the 1892-O with a micro O is the 1904-S. This is not expected as it has a mintage of over 1 million, yet the 1904-S is $9,850 in MS-60 which is far ahead of the next most costly: the 1901-S, which is at $1,950. There are a host of others at $1,000 or more in MS-60 that are not dates you would always expect to be more costly based on their mintages.

In MS-65, again not counting the 1892-O with the micro O, the 1904-S again leads the way at $46,000 and that is an increase from $41,500 in 2012. The increase is justified based on the grading service totals which show PCGS reporting just eight examples of the 1904-S grading MS-65 or higher while NGC has only seen four in MS-65 or higher.

The 1893-S is currently the closest date to the 1904-S in MS-65 at $25,000 and it also has very few known examples in MS-65. A close contender for breaking the $20,000 mark is the 1896-O, which currently goes for $19,500. There are a number of dates that are at $10,000 or more in MS-65 including the 1900-O, which is at $15,500, as well as the 1901-O, which is at $14,850. There are a host of other dates in the $10,000 to $20,000 range with more possibly joining that group in the future.

While there are some high prices, there are some great values as when you check numbers for any of the more expensive Barber half dollars, you find that the totals are very low. Even in circulated grades there are a lot of surprising values like the 1910 which had a mintage of 418,551 yet is just $20 in G-4. You won’t find a 1909-S VDB at such a low price.

We sometimes lose sight of how good a Barber half dollar set is simply because the pricing pattern is so unusual. In fact, there are over 20 dates with mintages below 1 million and only a couple of those dates are $200 or more in G-4. A few more are $100 or more but many are still $50 or less including dates like 1905 and 1905-O which had mintages under 700,000 but are $30 or less in G-4 today.

Actually, a very strong case can be made for the idea that there are no common Barber half dollars. After all, no date had a mintage above 6 million pieces. When you then remember that the vast majority were not saved and many more were melted down in the later 1970s when silver rose to $50 an ounce, survivability becomes key. Under the circumstances, you have to question how available any date can really be and, whether it’s a G-4 or an MS-60, you have to feel that with a Barber half dollar, you are getting a good value.

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