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Designer coins: 10 best from Mint engraver Charles Barber
By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.
October 18, 2017

When I started collecting coins in the 1950s, all Lincoln cents had wheat stalks, and early Lincolns were plentiful enough to make it interesting to look for them. Most of the nickels were Jeffersons, but Buffalo nickels showed up more than occasionally, and they tended to have full, four-digit dates. Roosevelt dimes were most common, but Mercuries were still plentiful. The quarters in circulation were mostly Washingtons, but Standing Liberty quarters were sometimes seen, usually with full dates. Although Franklin half dollars were new and shiny when I was a kid, Walking Liberties were still plentiful.

Of course, matters of what’s in circulation have changed considerably over my 60+ years as a collector. If you find any Buffalo nickels, Mercury dimes, Standing Liberty quarters, or Walking Liberty half dollars in circulation today, you can be pretty sure that someone’s collection has been looted and spent. And the same is true for silver Roosevelt dimes, Washington quarters, Franklin halves, and 1964 Kennedy halves.

For me as a junior collector, the oddities, the rarely seen coins, were the Barbers. When found, these were the coins that quickened my pulse, that got me excited. Charles E. Barber-designed Liberty Head cropped up now and then, often coins with reverses worn to the About Good stage. Similarly, Barber dimes, quarters, and half dollars were about as plentiful as Liberty Head nickels and just as exciting to find. To this day, Barbers remain some of my favorite coins.

In this article, I’m going to discuss 10 Barber coins that I believe have potential. All of them are worth having in your collection even if they don’t make you a fortune when you sell them.

1. 1886 Liberty Head nickel. You wouldn’t think that a coin with a mintage of more than 3.33 million would be scarce, but the 1886 Liberty Head nickel is one of the three key dates in the series. In value, the 1886 is behind only the 1885, which had less than half the mintage.

In A Guide Book of Shield and Liberty Head Nickels, Q. David Bowers wrote, “…in Mint State, particularly at the gem level, the 1886 nickel eclipses the 1885 in rarity. High-grade (Very Fine to Mint State) examples are elusive across the board, as little numismatic notice was paid to the date until the 1930s, by which time most had become well worn.”

The September 2017 edition of Numismatic News “Coin Market” assigns values to the 1886 from $170 in Good-4 to $4,100 in Mint State-65. It’s worth noting that the value in MS-65 is well below that of the 1885 ($5,400), which the 1886 “eclipses…in rarity.” In Fine-12, a nice collectible grade, the 1886 is valued at $375.

2. 1912-S Liberty Head nickel. This is one of my all-time favorite coins. With just 238,000 struck, it has by far the lowest mintage in the Liberty Head nickel series. In addition, it has the distinction of being the first nickel produced by the San Francisco Mint.

With all that it has going for it, I believe that the 1912-S nickel has always been somewhat undervalued. I can remember thinking that when I bought my first example, a F-12 specimen with a small planchet flaw, for just $50. Years later, I bought another example in the same grade but without the flaw for $95 at a coin shop in downtown Chicago. When I asked for a discount, the seller informed me that the price was already discounted.

Today, the coin’s value ranges from $135 in G-4 to $2,225 in MS-65. It lists for $200 in F-12. I have only a couple of 1912-Ss at the present time, one in Very Good-10 and the other in F-12. I think I need to buy some more, preferably in higher grades.

Bowers noted, “All 1912-S nickels show weakness.…” Further, “Any sharp piece is likely an alteration from a Philadelphia Mint coin, made by adding an S.” In other words, it’s a good idea with this coin and any other expensive piece to confine your purchases to coins certified by one of the major certification services.

3. 1895-S Barber dime. With a mintage of 1,120,000 pieces, the 1895-S is overshadowed by dimes of that year made in Philadelphia and New Orleans, both dates considered keys to the series. About the 1895-S, David Lawrence (The Complete Guide to Barber Dimes) wrote, “Available in full-rimmed Good, but tough in any higher grade.” In A Guide Book of Barber Silver Coins, Bowers noted, “This issue is scarce and desirable.”

According to Lawrence’s rating system, the 1895-S received an R-3 in G-VF (“A tough date. Only a few likely to be found at larger shows.). In EF-AU and mint state, he called it R-4 (“Scarce. May or may not be available at larger shows.). Finally, if you could find one in MS-64 or higher, it would be an R-6 (“Extremely Scarce. Almost never available.”).

“Coin Market” values range from $42 in G-4 to $3,150 in MS-65. In F-12, the date lists for just $125, which is surely too low. Also, at $1,000 in MS-63, I think the 1895-S has the potential to go much higher.

4. 1896-S Barber dime. Not counting the 1894-S, the 1896-S has the third lowest mintage (575,000) in the Barber dime series, behind only the 1895-O and the 1913-S. About it, Lawrence wrote, “Probably the second toughest date to find in Good.… Underrated in Fine and above.” He also noted, “This date shows up on most collectors’ want lists, but hasn’t brought the premiums of the more magical dates.” Likewise, Bowers noted, “This date has always been a classic scarcity in the series, a fact that is generally overlooked in the marketplace.”

As for the marketplace, “Coin Market” gives it a range of values between $72 in G-4 and $2,900 in MS-65. In F-12, a grade rated R-4 by David Lawrence, it lists for $240.

5. 1898-O Barber dime. This is another counterintuitive choice, as the mintage of this date exceeded 2 million pieces. However, Lawrence called it “Much scarcer than its mintage suggests. In fact, one of the toughest dates in the series, especially in well-struck condition.”

If you can afford an 1898-O in uncirculated condition, you should probably buy it, as Bowers wrote, “…this is one of the handful of top rarities among Barber dimes in grades MS-60 or higher.” Values go from a low of $12 in G-4 to a high of $3,100 in MS-65. In F-12, it lists for $100. Like the 1895-S, it lists for $1,000 in MS-63. I feel reasonably sure that the 1898-O has the potential to go much higher in the future.

6. 1897-O Barber quarter. With its substantial mintage (1,414,800), you’re probably wondering why I chose the 1897-O quarter over other dates with much smaller mintages, such as later-date Barber quarters from San Francisco. For example, only 264,000 1914-Ss were minted, which puts it on par with the 1916-D Mercury dime, and we know how well that coin has done.

If you look at the mintages of quarters after 1907, you’ll see that quite a few had attractively low mintages, often well below a million pieces. In terms of their potential, however, their low mintages enticed collectors of the time to save them, which means that they’re more available than you might expect.

Lawrence considered the 1897-O “very scarce,” and he assigned it rarity ratings of either R-4 or R-5 (“Scarce” or “Very Scarce,” respectively) in all grades higher than VG. Similarly, Bowers wrote, “In circulated grades VF and up, it is almost as hard to find as the better-known 1897-S,” which had about a third of the mintage. Lawrence ended with, “Buy this coin in original circulated grades and in mint state if lustrous, with nice eye appeal. At [1994] levels, mint state coins are a good buy.”

“Coin Market” values are from $38 in G-4 to $2,600 in MS-65. In F-12, its value is $175, and it lists for $1,550 in MS-63. When I was a kid, I had an 1897-O that would probably grade at least AU-50 today, which would make it worth about $615 if I still had it. I think I paid 30 cents for it.

7. 1901-O Barber quarter. This is a date overshadowed by another quarter issued the same year, the 1901-S, which is the big key to the series. Also, its mintage (1,612,000) puts it in the same category as the 1897-O: too many made to get excited about.

Still, Lawrence pronounced it “Very scarce in all grades, but particularly from EF through MS-63.” Similarly, Bowers wrote, “This issue is underrated in higher circulated grades, and VF to AU coins are very scarce. This coin is often one of the last issues a collector needs to complete a set.…”

“Coin Market” values seem fairly high, but perhaps not as high as they might be if the date’s potential is ever reached. The range is from $63 in G-4 to $6,600 in MS-65, with an MS-63 ringing in at $2,400. In the decent collectible grade of F-12, the 1901-O lists for $185.

8. 1905-O Barber quarter. Here is another Barber quarter with a substantial mintage (1,230,000) that nonetheless has potential to go up in value. Back in 1994, Lawrence proclaimed it “One of my favorite dates.” Further, he called it “The most underrated date in the set; undervalued in all grades except gem condition.” Similarly, Bowers noted, “Coins in all grades above VG are in great demand, and EF and AU coins are very scarce.”

So what should you expect to pay for this “underrated” date? “Coin Market” values range from $39 in G-4 to $4,000 in MS-65. In Extremely Fine-40 and About Uncirculated-50, the values are $260 and $300, respectively. If you can find one, a nice F-12 should retail for about $110.

9. 1896 Barber half dollar. Its mintage of 950,762 pieces gives this Philadelphia half dollar a rank of 20 out of 73 Barber halves. Even though this date has a relatively low mintage, Lawrence noted that it was “…generally overlooked and underrated.” Bowers called it “…one of the more challenging issues to find in circulated grades, especially F-12 or higher.”

Values range from $40 in G-4 to $3,000 in MS-65. In F-12, the stated value seems quite reasonable at just $77. In MS-63, “Coin Market” says it’s worth $910, which seems undervalued for a low-mintage coin in a popular series minted more than 120 years ago.

10. 1907-S Barber half dollar. This is another Barber coin with a fairly substantial mintage (1,250,000) that almost certainly has good potential to move up in value. “Coin Market” assigns it values between $16 in G-4, which is a common-date number, and $9,300 in MS-65. The date starts to show its true colors in F-12, with a list price of $90, a figure well above a common-date value of $55.

According to Bowers, “For half dollar specialists the 1907-S has long been known as a rarity.… Apparently, the variety was virtually completely overlook at the time it was released, and today the term rarity could be applied to a piece even at the AU level. Lawrence said that the 1907-S  is the scarcest late date of the series in Mint State.’” The “Coin Market” value for the coin in AU-50 is $810.

The 1907-S Barber half dollar brings to an end my list of ten Barber coins with potential to increase in value. In truth, there are many other date/mintmark combinations that could be added to this list. Select virtually any of the silver Barber coins with a reasonably low mintage (less than 2 million), purchase it in a decent grade with no problems, and you can be reasonably certain that it will increase in value over time.

If you’re a collector/investor, you can’t ask for more than that from your coin purchases.

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