Big Three Dates Dominate Barber Quarters
By Paul M. Green
for coin, there may be not be a greater
challenge in any grade from the past century
than the Barber quarter. In fairness, the Barber
quarter did begin back in 1892, but the bulk of
the dates in a Barber quarter collection and the
two keys in most grades, the 1901-S and 1913-S,
were products of the 20th century.
The question as to why Barber quarters are so
challenging as a set has many answers. Logically
there are some Barber quarters that had very low
mintages. In fact, the 1913-S at 40,000 is the
lowest mintage regular date silver coin of the
past century. That alone is impressive and is a
good indication that Barber quarters are not
going to be an easy set to complete.
In addition the Barber quarter, and the Barber
dime and half dollar as well, were simply not
heavily collected at the time of issue. That
statement normally means there are few Mint
State examples and that is true, but
realistically in the case of the Barber coins
they were not collected much at all when they
were released and not collected heavily until
decades afterwards. This was in large part
because they are upper denominations and
relatively few people were collecting upper
Also, it is important to keep in mind that many
of the active collectors were still assembling
sets simply by date. Even when the Barber
quarter was replaced in 1916 by the Standing
Liberty quarter, there is little evidence that
the switch caused a rush to collect the design
that was disappearing.
Decades later Barber quarters including all the
best dates would still be in circulation and
that means the Barber quarter can be tough in
virtually every grade. Many of the coins were
worn slick, a condition that would hardly be
recognized by the current generation.
It is an interesting situation, as one could
describe a Barber quarter collection as tough
but also fair. There are expensive dates like
the 1901-S, but in reality there are no great
rarities. There is no Barber quarter with just
11 examples known as there is with the dime.
Simply put, the set can be completed by many but
it is definitely not easy in any grade.
Part of the lack of initial popularity of the
Barber quarter seems to be traced, in some
minds, to the design. We know it was a golden
opportunity for great designs, which simply and
tragically slipped away. Officials since the
1880s had wanted to make design changes in the
silver coins to retire the Seated Liberty
design, but they were cautious. They were
uncertain about what they could legally change
without consulting the Congress.
To solve the problem, the Mint asked the
Congress for guidance and on Sept. 26, 1890,
Congress gave them what was wanted in the form
of legislation that allowed the secretary of the
Treasury to change a design any time without
consulting Congress 25 years after that design
had been introduced.
In the case of the silver coins at the time, the
Seated Liberty design was roughly in service for
double that requirement, so the door was wide
open for design changes.
Officials were very serious about changes and
very serious about getting the best designs they
could. They decided to invite America's best
artists to submit designs. The list of invited
artists included Augustus Saint-Gaudens, J.Q.A.
Ward, Daniel French, Olin Warner Herbert,
Herbert Adams, Charles S. Niehaus, Miller
MacMonies, Kenyon Cox, Will S. Low and H.S.
What happened next was the start of good
intentions going unrewarded. The artists
apparently did not see the invitation as an
opportunity to have their work seen by millions.
Rather, they viewed it as another attempt to get
them to work for free.
As the nation's leading artists, it is possible
that the artists were frequently approached to
submit work for competitions and probably at
times those invitations were suspect. As a
group, they responded with a set of conditions
for their participation.
That was hardly the reaction officials were
expecting and they immediately dropped that
idea. Today it looks like a misunderstanding and
something that should have been ironed out with
a phone call, but such options were not
available in 1892 and a golden opportunity to
have new and possibly exciting designs was lost.
Plan B was to have an open national competition.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Chief Engraver Charles
Barber and a Boston gem and seal engraver were
tabbed as judges. Of course, Barber felt no one
but he was qualified to design a coin and Saint-Gaudens
felt the same about himself, although he
apparently believed there might be a couple of
French artists who were also up to the task.
So the two men who agreed on virtually nothing
else agreed that no entry from an open
competition was going to be good enough. In
fact, they might have just been right as there
were no winners and one official described the
whole effort as a "wretched failure."
Having already taken two strikes in their effort
to find good designs, officials then simply
turned to Charles Barber, who was already on the
payroll, and told him to design the new coins.
Of course in doing so they also were making a
decision to stick with the tradition of having
the designs of the dime, quarter and half dollar
be basically the same.
In a competition there could have been different
designs for each denomination as would happen in
1916, but Barber, whose father had also been
chief engraver, was not likely to break with any
traditions including having the three designs be
basically the same except for the dime, which
was not required to have an eagle on the reverse
because of its small size.
Released for the first time in 1892, the new
Barber designs were greeted with something well
short of hysterical trumpeting by the critics.
One hit the nail on the head, calling them
examples of "institutional art" and with Barber
that was close to a perfect description. The
numismatic highlight of 1892 seemed to be not
the new dime, quarter and half dollar, but
rather the Columbian Exposition half dollar.
If they were basically overlooked at the start,
the Barber quarter would be easy to overlook in
the years that followed as it was a time when
the economy was not good and collector numbers
decreased based on proof sales, which are
usually a good indication of interest.
The Barber quarter mintages, however, were never
high enough to have the luxury of being
overlooked and still have substantial numbers
available today. While most Barber quarter dates
can be found for $5-$20 in G-4, they are a much
tougher coin than the prices suggest.
Not only were there two dates with less than
100,000 mintages, but there were another 11
under 1 million pieces. No Barber quarter could
really be called high mintage as only a few even
topped 10 million, and in virtually every case
they simply circulated for decades until they
become so worn that they were retired.
Even the coins ultimately saved by collectors in
many cases would be heavily worn, and some were
later melted when the price of silver rose to
$50 in early 1980.
The historic keys of a Barber quarter collection
are the 40,000 mintage 1913-S and the 72,664
mintage 1901-S. The two are fascinating coins,
with the 1901-S currently at $6,250 in G-4 while
the lower mintage 1913-S is at $1,850. The
relationship between the two has always been
interesting as historically the 1901-S has
always been more expensive.
There is really no good way of explaining why
the higher mintage 1901-S has always been so
much more expensive than the 1913-S. It is clear
that for some reason the 1901-S is not found in
the numbers we would expect today based on its
mintage. It has seemingly always been that way
even though no one can come up with a reason why
that is the case.
The best observation might well be that almost
all San Francisco dates from just prior to the
earthquake of 1906 are more expensive that lower
mintage dates that came after the destruction.
It seems like a stretch to suggest that the
1901-S was an earthquake victim, but it may be
the one way of explaining the situation that
makes some sense other than simply observing
that it did not survive. There actually is a
certain amount of evidence to suggest that as a
We know that over the years the gap between the
1901-S and 1913-S has widened. In 1998 the
1901-S was $1,750 in G-4 and the 1913-S was
That means that since that time, the 1913-S has
actually increased in price in percentage terms
by more than the 1901-S, but it is close.
What is interesting is that the numbers from
assorted places do not seem to support that
increase. The so-called New York Subway Hoard
purchased by the Littleton Coin Company back in
the 1990s was an extraordinary hoard of key
dates plucked from the coins received by the New
York Transit Authority starting in the 1940s.
In that hoard there were eight examples of the
1901-S and 20 of the 1913-S. The grading
services also point to the 1901-S and 1913-S
being fairly close in real numbers. Numismatic
Guaranty Corporation had recently graded exactly
85 of each in all grades combined. The
Professional Coin Grading Service totals showed
the 1901-S at 304 appearances and the 1913-S at
320. Certainly whatever small difference there
is would not be large enough to justify the
current and still high overall price
What justification there might be could simply
mean that historically demand is much higher for
the 1901-S since it has always been seen as the
key Barber quarter. We see similar situations in
other issues where key dates are somewhat more
expensive than their actual numbers would
normally suggest, and that might also be true in
this instance as well.
We may actually be seeing for one of the first
times some evolution in Barber quarter pricing.
That has been seen with recent increases in the
third of the three key Barber quarters, the
1896-S, which is much tougher than many suspect.
The 1896-S just seems like it would be much more
available than either the 1901-S or 1913-S as it
had a mintage of 188,039.
Once again that total is deceptive as the 1896-S
did not survive in any numbers, and that has
seen its G-4 price rise to $900, almost doubling
in the past four years. There was some
indication in the New York Subway Hoard that the
1896-S was not that available. It only was found
29 times, which, while more than the 1901-S or
1913-S, was still very low.
One of the interesting things seen in the
grading service totals is that many of the key
date Barbers are heavily circulated, suggesting
that they were not saved. At NGC, 25 percent of
the 1896-S quarters graded were VG-8 or lower,
while the total for the 1901-S was closer to 50
percent in lower grades. The 1913-S showed 34
out of 85 graded being VG-8 or below.
At PCGS, one-third of the 1896-S quarters were
VF-20 or below, along with a similar percentage
of the 1913-S and roughly 20 percent of the
1901-S. While the grading service totals cannot
be taken as absolute proof that many examples of
these coins circulated, the percentages are
unusually high for coins of the past century and
these coins were not simply mishandled. In many
cases, to reach the grade they were given would
have required years of circulation.
The natural focus on three extremely tough dates
has perhaps caused many other very good dates to
be overlooked over the years. Close to the top
of any list of overlooked dates would have to be
the 1914-S. Obviously coming the year after the
1913-S, the 1914-S was likely to be overlooked,
but its mintage of 264,000 should not be taken
lightly. It is identical to the 1916-D Mercury
dime, which is around $1,050 in G-4.
In fairness, there is a large difference in
demand between the 1916-D Mercury dime and the
1914-S Barber quarter, but even so, a price of
$82 in G-4 looks awfully reasonable today as
does its $3,450 MS-65 listing when compared to
the $26,500 MS-65 price of a 1916-D Mercury
Another good date that also came right after one
of the big three Barber quarters was the 1897-S,
which had a mintage of 542,229. Once again, that
is a low mintage, but simply not as low as the
1896-S Barber quarter.
Today the 1897-S lists for $75 in G-4 and that
too is an excellent value. There are others as
well. The 1903-S, like the 1901-S, is
potentially a date that was caught up in the
destruction after the 1906 earthquake and it
along with dates like the 1905-O, 1908-S and
1909-O are all lower mintage and very tough to
find in any grade.
The majority of better date Barber quarters is
going to come from the branch mints where
mintages were frequently lower and where the
numbers being saved were also usually lower. The
1913 from Philadelphia is one exception as it
had a mintage of just 484,613, which was a mere
613 more than the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent.
Once again you cannot compare the two in terms
of likely prices because demand is so much
greater for the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent, but the
fact that the 1913 quarter is at just $16 in G-4
and $960 in MS-60 has to convince you that the
1913 is an awfully good way to spend your money.
Realistically, the prices today with the
possible exception of the 1901-S, 1913-S and
1896-S, which have a special demand as widely
recognized key dates, suggest the relatively low
demand from collectors for Barber quarters.
In MS-60 the Barber quarter set is relatively
inexpensive other than the Big Three. The 1901-S
is at $40,000 in MS-60, making it easily the
most expensive. The 1913-S at $15,000 is
significantly higher than the 1896-S in the same
grade at $9,750.
Grading firm figures argue for more price
increases for the 1896-S based on populations.
The 1896-S has been seen 24 times in Mint State
by NGC, while the 1913-S has been seen 39 times.
At PCGS the 1896-S has appeared 29 times in Mint
State, while the 1913-S is at 54 times.
While grading service totals cannot be used as
absolute proof of relative rarities, when both
major services agree and show a large gap
between two coins as they do in this case, it is
probably safe to assume that the 1896-S in fact
is tougher in Mint State than the 1913-S. The
question is, does the market know something we
don't, or are traditional views overriding
The rest of a Barber quarter set in Mint State
is not expensive. An average MS-60 is currently
priced at $205 and while there are a few dates
over $1,000 or at least near that price, they
are few in number and in every case well worth
In MS-65 the 1901-S as might be expected is the
most expensive Barber quarter with a current
listing of $82,500. The 1896-S ranks as a solid
second at $56,000 with the 1913-S well back in
price at $37,500.
The $10,000 mark is a good dividing line in
MS-65, and the 1898-O is the only other date to
reach that total with a current price of exactly
$10,000. A few others like the 1909-O and 1893-S
are approaching that figure, but realistically
there are still relatively few Barber quarters
that even fall into a $5,000 to $10,000 price
range and they tend to be branch mint issues.
The most available MS-65 is $1,400 and as type
collectors will attest, even the most available
Barber quarter in MS-65 is not an easy coin to
The prices in various grades certainly attest to
the fact that Barber quarters are not a set that
is easily and quickly completed. That said, the
Barber quarter is a collection that can be
completed over time and when you and if you do
complete a set, it is a real achievement as
Barber quarters rank as perhaps the toughest set
in most grades of the past century.