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These Quarters are Worthy of Your Attention
By Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
November 21, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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Do you have a favorite coin series? Or, are you like I am: You have so many favorites it’s hard to pick out just one.

If pressed, I would have to say that the Barber quarter series is one of my all-time favorites. Barber quarters and I go all the way back to my beginnings as a coin collector. I can still remember standing in the door of the trolley that reached the end of the line at my junior high school and asking the driver if he had gotten anything interesting that day.

“Sure did,” he said, and held out a really neat-looking old coin. It was an 1897-O Barber quarter in Extremely Fine-About Uncirculated. I paid him a quarter for it, thanked him, and went back to join my friends on the playground. I subsequently bought a 1904-O in the same or higher grade from the same source.

I grew up in Louisiana, so coins from the New Orleans Mint were perhaps more common in my area than they might have been at the same time in other parts of the country. If you’re wondering about how much these two dates were actually worth when I got them, according to a 1956 Handbook of United States Coins (aka the Blue Book) the 1897-O was worth $1 in Good and $2.50 in Fine. The 1904-O was worth 45 cents and 85 cents in the same grades. To put this in perspective, both the 1896-S and the 1913-S had list values of $6.50 and $17.50.

Of course, the Blue Book is a listing of wholesale prices. The retail values for the 1897-O in the 1958 A Guide Book of United States Coins (aka the Red Book) were $5.50 in Good, $11 in Fine, and $70 in Uncirculated. The 1904-O listed for $5, $10, and $120 in the same grades.

Obviously, the coins I got from the friendly trolley driver were worth considerably more than I paid for them. But, easy come, easy go, as the saying goes, and that’s the story of my two nice Barber quarters. I frittered them away in some poorly conceived trade years ago.

At the time I obtained the two quarters, all I knew about the series was that it was designed by Charles E. Barber, that his initial “B” was located at the base of Liberty’s neck, and the series ran from 1892-1916. If I had looked at the introductory text for the Barber dime in my Red Book, I would have seen the additional bit of information that Barber was chief engraver of the Mint.

Of course, there’s much more to the story than that. After a design contest that none of the invited artists chose to enter, the call for new designs to replace the long-lived Seated Liberty design was opened to the public. The judges for this new contest were Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Henry Mitchell (a Boston engraver), and Charles E. Barber.

As Walter Breen writes in Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, “Barber’s record…was notable for only two things: dullness and adamant opposition to outsiders’ designs. His presence among the judges was the kiss of death.” Only two of approximately 300 entries earned even honorable mentions, and Barber was charged with preparing the new designs himself.

Although Breen describes the design as “…Germanically stolid, prosy, crowded (especially on rev.), …and without discernible merit aside from the technical one of low relief,” I disagree. Obviously, the Barber designs suffer in comparison with what followed them (that is, Mercury dime, Standing Liberty quarter, Walking Liberty half dollar), but they still have a certain charm to the aficionado, particularly in high grades.

If your ultimate goal is to assemble a complete date/mintmark set, then the Barber quarter series is not a great choice. The problem is that the set has three key dates, all of which are scarce and pricy. The key dates are 1896-S (188,039 minted), 1901-S (72,864), and 1913-S (40,000).

There’s not a perfect correlation of price with mintage, however, as the 1901-S, with nearly twice the mintage of the 1913-S, is by far the most expensive of the three. According to the pricing guide in a recent edition of this magazine, the 1896-S ranges in value from $845 in G-4 to $50,000 in Mint State-65. The 1913-S is worth between $1,800 and $31,500 in the same grades, and the range for the 1901-S is from $5,200 to $77,500.

Back in the 1970s I worked on a complete date/mintmark run of all three Barber denominations. The dimes and half dollars weren’t too challenging, particularly for someone who was satisfied with coins in G-Very Good. Unfortunately, I didn’t heed the oft-stated advice to acquire the key dates first, and by the time I was ready to consider the 1901-S quarter, its price in even G had achieved four-figure status. At the time, that was well beyond what I was willing to spend for a coin.

The 1896-S and 1913-S were not terribly expensive at the time, however, and I had gotten one of each of these. Unfortunately, the 1896-S, for which I paid $50, was absolutely one of the worst specimens ever retrieved from circulation. Its detail was in the Extremely Fine-About Uncircultaed range, but otherwise it reminded me of cents I’ve picked up after they’ve lain in the street for a few weeks, coins with an uncountable number of nicks, dings, cuts, etc. Simply put, the coin was a dog.

I did a little better with the 1913-S, purchasing one for $90 in what would be classified as G-6 by today’s grading services. It had full rims on both sides, perfectly natural color, and a couple of letters of “LIBERTY.”

This was at the time when the first certification services were making their appearance, and I had decided that if I paid more than $50 for a coin, I would get it certified. Thus, I sent the 1913-S to ANACS, which, at the time, was part of the ANA.

In response, they sent me a letter (remember those?) saying that the coin had too much crud around the mintmark for them to determine whether or not the mintmark had been added. Would I give them permission to sonically clean the coin with just water? Unfortunately, I did give permission. As a result of the sonic cleaning, the coin lost its wonderful patina from long circulation, and I found I no longer liked it. It was genuine, by the way.

At the present time, I have two 1896-Ss, one graded G-4 by ANACS and the other graded AG-3 by PCGS. The About Good-3 coin also has a Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC) sticker, indicating that it’s in the top tier of coins in that grade.

I’ve found that there’s a considerable amount of variability in the coins graded AG-3 by the major services, all the way from a coin that doesn’t look like it makes the grade to one that’s incredibly close to a solid G. In fact, I’ve seen some grading guides in which such a coin would actually make the grade of G-4 (for example, the guide in David Lawrence’s The Complete Guide to Barber Quarters, 2nd edition).

In my opinion, if you can find a certified AG-3 example of any of the big keys that almost qualifies for G-4, you should buy it if you can get it for anywhere near the average AG-3 price. The saying “a rising tide lifts all boats” fits here; as the price in G-4 goes up, nice AG-3s become more desirable and should also increase in value.

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I also have a pair of PCGS-graded AG-3 1913-S quarters, both blessed with CAC stickers. I sold a third one recently and nearly doubled my money on it. Again, look for the keys in AG-3 that nearly qualify for the grade of G-4. If they’re priced right, pounce on them.

In addition to the big three, there are several Barber quarters that qualify in terms of price for semi-key status. These are as follows: 1896-O (1.48 million minted; range in price from $62 in G-4 to $6,950 in MS-65), 1897-O (1.41 million, $45 to $3,550), 1897-S (542,229, $130 to $6,850), 1901-O (1.61 million, $70 to $5,450), 1909-O (712,000, $42 to $8,750), and 1914-S (264,000, $125 to $3,450).

Note that the mintage of the 1914-S is identical to that of the big key Mercury dime, but the value of the Barber quarter is much less than that of the dime ($850 to $26,500). Obviously, the dime is part of a much more popular series with collectors. Also, the quarter was saved in large quantities because its low mintage was recognized early (the same could be said for the 1916-D, of course). About the 1914-S, Lawrence wrote: “The low mintage makes it very scarce, but because of this it was also saved. G and VG coins are always available.… As can be seen from a comparison of the rankings of mintage and of certified coins, this coin is not [as] elusive as it ought to be.”

In addition to the dates listed above, Lawrence cited several other Barber quarters that he had found to be particularly scarce from his many years of experience as a specialist in the series. In fact, he called most of the early mintmarked dates hard to find in some grades and some of them hard to find in all grades. One of the latter is the 1892-S, with a mintage of 964,079 and values from $35 in G-4 to $4,500 in MS-65. After labeling it a “…scarce date in all grades,” Lawrence wrote, “…saved somewhat, as first year of issue.…”

Another date Lawrence called hard to find in all grades is the 1893-S (mintage 1.45 million). Values don’t reflect this difficulty, however, at least not in circulated grades ($21 to $6,350).

About the 1895-O, Lawrence wrote, “An underrated date in strong demand from Fine to MS64. Surprisingly tough in mint state.” With a mintage of 2.82 million, it’s worth between $12.50 and $2,650. In the 1970s, I bought one of these in AU for $1 at a country fair, where it was part of a “collection” of a half dozen coins, most priced at ridiculously low amounts.

Lawrence also considered the 1895-S, with a mintage of 1.76 million, “Scarce in all grades.…” Values range from $22 to $3,650.

With a mintage of 1.87 million, Lawrence called the 1898-O “One of the scarcest dates in the set in VF and higher.” The 1898-O ranges in value from $165 in VF-20 to $8,950 in MS-65. Its companion date, the 1898-S, Lawrence called “Scarce in all grades except EF and AU50.” With a mintage of just 1.02 million, it’s not hard to see why it’s worth between $12.50 and $7,950.

About the 1899-S, Lawrence wrote, “Low mintage [708,000] and very scarce in all grades.” Values range from $18 in G-4 to $3,650 in MS-65. Lawrence wrote almost the same thing about the 1903-S: “Low mintage [1.04 million] and scarce in all grades” but added “except mint state, where some nice coins have been saved.” It lists for between $15.50 and $2,450.

Lawrence had some interesting things to say about the 1905-O, with 1.23 million minted. He called it “The most underrated date in the set; undervalued in all grades except gem condition. This coin has such demand that even coins with light scratches, rim bumps or other minor problems sell for full price or higher.” It’s worth between $44 in G-4 and $6,850 in MS-65. The San Francisco quarter that year (1.88 million minted) may be almost as desirable, as Lawrence pronounced it “Undervalued in most grades except gem.” It lists for between $32 and $3,650.

The 1907-O, mintage of 4.56 million, Lawrence called “The poorest struck coin in the series,” so if you run across one with a decent strike and a good price you should buy it. Values range from $10.50 to $1,950.

With a mintage of only 784,000 specimens, it’s not surprising that the 1908-S is “Very scarce in all grades, especially above VF.” Values range from $18.50 to $4,750.

Lawrence considered the 1910-D “A challenging date, underrated in all grades.…” With 1.50 million minted, its list prices don’t reflect any scarcity, going from $8.90 in G-4 to $1,875 in MS-65. I guess it’s still underrated nearly two decades after the publication of Lawrence’s 2nd edition.

Another coin with a sub-million mintage, the 1912-S (708,000), Lawrence considered “Very scarce,” and wrote that the date is “Always on want lists in all grades above VG.” It must have been saved in quantity, however, as it ranges in value from $10.50 to $1,675.

Another low-mintage date, 1913 (484,000), must have been differentially saved, as its value ranges from $16 to $4,450. Think what this would be worth if it were part of a series with higher demand. Lawrence called it “Very scarce because of its low mintage….”

Finally, the 1915-S is “A better date, but not as scarce as its mintage [704,000] implies.” Values range between $28 in G-4 and just $1,200 in MS-65. Lawrence considered it “…undervalued in EF and in all mint state grades.” With a value of only $1,200 in MS-65, I would say it’s still undervalued.

Of course, there are ways to collect the Barber quarter series other than assembling a date/mintmark set. You could collect them as proofs, for example. Here you would find that there’s little variability in their values in PR-65, at least according to the prices in this magazine. The range for the 25 different dates is from $2,450 to $2,550. These prices seem remarkably inexpensive for beautiful coins with mintages ranging from 380 in 1914 to 1,245 in 1892. Actually, the 1892 mintage is the only one over 1,000 pieces. I checked on eBay and was surprised to find more than 100 sales of proof Barber quarters, so they don’t seem to be as rare as you might think.

Another way to collect Barber quarters is by varieties. The 2014 U.S. Coin Digest, for example, lists a second reverse type for each of the mints in 1892 and then different mintmark placements from 1893 through 1895, with only one other variety after that, 1916-D/D. About the three Barber series, Cherrypickers’ Guide (Vol. 2, 5th edition) states, “The three series of the Barber design have long been neglected when one considers the typical varieties, such as doubled dies, repunched mintmarks, overdates, and the like.… But all that is changing now that many new varieties are discovered and reported, and some of the known varieties are becoming more popular.”

Cherrypickers’ Guide lists 15 Barber quarter varieties, which include some die doubling, repunched dates, repunched mintmarks, and misplaced dates. Fivaz and Stanton’s book would be a good place to start if you are interested in collecting Barber quarters by variety.

No matter how you choose to collect them, I think you will find Barber quarters worthy of your attention. In addition, if you buy them right (that is, you don’t pay too much) I think you’ll be handsomely rewarded when it comes time to part with your collection. I know that I have been.

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