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Barber Halves With the 'S' Mark Stand Out
By Paul M. Green, Numismatic News

If you want an overlooked set of solid values that can be completed at least in circulated grades and lower Mint State grades, the Barber half dollar is the perfect set. It's a case where Barber half dollars are simply 25 years of tough dates, but no really impossible ones. Especially in Mint State coin for coin the set is probably as good or better than any set involving coins of the past century, but with relatively few collectors over the years it remains very reasonable in terms of price, making it a great choice in any grade.

The Barber half dollar was produced at four facilities, but two stand out as Philadelphia and San Francisco produced the Barber half dollar basically from the start in 1892 to the final production in 1915. In Mint State especially the coins from San Francisco are the more significant challenge.

From the very start of Barber half dollars, the difficulty in finding nice examples from San Francisco is readily seen. The 1892-S had a high mintage for 1892 of 1,029,028. Now that was not unusually high for a half dollar, although in 1892 it was the top mintage for a new Barber half dollar. In fact, it would not be unusual for 25 years of Barber half dollars as there was no Barber half dollar with a mintage of even 6 million and dates with mintages of less than one million are numerous.

Certainly as the first year of a new design, the 1892-S should have seen heavy saving, but it was not a good time for heavy saving. The national economy was not strong and that was reflected in collector numbers. The sales of proofs had been in a slow decline for a while and that was a very good indication of collecting activity as this was a time when many collectors collected only by date and not by date and mintmark, which meant that a proof each year was a perfect way to assemble a set.

Of course that collecting pattern meant that Philadelphia dates, which were available in proof by definition, would have better top-grade supplies than dates from San Francisco and other facilities that were not offered in proof. Only the few collectors working on sets by date and mint would have cared about acquiring a new 1892-S along with the few collectors around San Francisco where the 1892-S would simply be the most available Barber half of the year.

There were other factors as well. In 1892 the Columbian Exposition commemorative half dollar was offered and as the first true commemorative of the United States it attracted a good deal of interest. Meanwhile, the new Barber coins did not receive particularly good reviews and in denominations of a dime, quarter and half dollar they were beyond the budget of many collectors of the day.

Simply put, there was a combination of factors weighing against the saving of any significant numbers of the 1892-S. Moreover, the factors continued for years. If an 1892-S was not saved in 1892, it was likely to circulate literally for decades because there were few new half dollar collectors arriving on the scene for years to pull examples in VF or XF from circulation. As a result, the 1892-S while tough in Mint State is also a very tough coin in upper circulated grades. Even in G-4 the small supply is seen as the 1892-S lists for $250, which is very high for a Barber half dollar with a mintage over 1 million.

In Mint State, the most available date Barber half dollar is priced at $480 in MS-60 but the 1892-S is at $940. In MS-65 an available date is around $3,600 but the 1892-S is $4,850. In fact in all Mint State grades had there not been a small amount of special saving because it was a new design, the 1892-S would be far more costly today.

At the Professional Coin Grading Service they report a total of 13 examples of the 1892-S in MS-65 or better and a total of just 87 examples called Mint State. There could be some repeat submissions in that 87 total, but realistically even if there are not, we are still looking at a total of fewer than five rolls and that is certainly not a large supply.

The situation would be similar the following year, although in 1893 the San Francisco half dollar production was just 740,000. Somehow the 1893-S survived at least in lower circulated grades as it lists for $165 in G-4 today, which is less than the 1892-S. That said, $165 is still a high price for a coin of that period with a mintage of 740,000, so there is still little doubt that the 1893-S was lost in some numbers over the years.

The lack of saving in 1893 shows up very quickly in Mint State where the 1893-S lists for $1,275 in MS-60 and $25,000 in MS-65. That MS-65 listing is very high for a Barber half dollar, but the PCGS numbers show that if anything, the 1893-S is a good value at today's prices as they have graded just 36 examples in all Mint State grades combined and a mere five were MS-65 or better.

It must be remembered that some Philadelphia dates might have similar Mint State totals, but they are just part of the story as there are proofs. That is not the case with a San Francisco date and with under two rolls reported at PCGS if you want a Mint State 1893-S you are not in a good position to try to get a better price as there are simply no numbers available.

The 1894-S is better in some respects thanks to a larger 4,048,690 mintage, which makes it an $18 date in G-4. In Mint State, however, the 1894-S could well be called a classic Barber half dollar from San Francisco as the mintage suggests it should be available, but it lists for $490 in MS-60, which is a tiny premium over an available date, but $9,850 in MS-65. It is no mistake. Despite a mintage of over 4 million, PCGS has seen just seven examples of the 1894-S in MS-65 or better, so the price is very legitimate.

The 1895-S had a lower mintage of 1,108,086, which makes it tougher in circulated grades at $30 in G-4. In MS-60 it is $580 and in MS-65 it is at $8,250 thanks to the fact that PCGS has seen 11 coins in MS-65 or better. The situation shows the uncertain survival prospects for any Barber half dollar from San Francisco as the 1895-S while less available than the 1894-S in circulated grades because of a much lower mintage is actually slightly more available in MS-65. That is constant as in Barber half dollars you really cannot predict a likely price based on mintages.

The 1896-S would seem to be almost the same as the 1895-S as the mintage was 1,140,948, which was very similar to the 1895-S. In G-4, however, the 1896-S lists for $115, which is far higher than the 1895-S. The MS-60 listing of the 1896-S is also high at $1,450 while the MS-65 price of $10,500 is also high and supported by the fact that PCGS has seen just 14 examples in MS-65 or better. It is simply a case where the 1896-S did not survive in the numbers we might expect.

The 1897-S was another date with a mintage below 1 million at 933,900. The current G-4 price for the 1897-S of $155 seems about right under the circumstances and that applies to MS-60 where it is $1,500 while the MS-65 is a bit lower than a couple of the other higher mintage dates at $7,350, although the numbers graded do not suggest the 1897-S is much more available in MS-65 as PCGS reports just 13 examples graded.

The 1898-S returned to higher mintages with a total production of 2,358,550, but the 1898-S is tougher than the mintage suggests in G-4 where it lists for $27.50. The simple lack of saving seen throughout continues with the 1898-S as in MS-60 it lists for $950 while an MS-65 is at $10,250 and that price is supported by the fact that PCGS has graded only 10 in MS-65 or better.

The unexpected prices based on mintages continue to happen with the 1899-S. With a mintage of 1,686,411, the 1899-S is less expensive in G-4 at $23, but that price is still a premium one even though the 1899-S would have to be seen as an average date based on its mintage. In the case of an MS-60, the 1899-S is $660 while an MS-65 is $6,900, which may actually be low as PCGS reports only 14 examples graded.

The 1900-S is a date that might well be called a typical San Francisco Barber half dollar. With a mintage of over 2.5 million, the 1900-S is available in circulated grades with a G-4 price of $15. In MS-60 it is $640, but an MS-65 is at $10,000 and sure enough despite the high mintage the price is justified as PCGS has seen only nine pieces. If anything the MS-60 price is low as in all Mint State grades combined the higher mintage 1900-S has been seen fewer than 50 times.

The 1901-S was a special coin at least in top grades. The 1901-S had a mintage of 847,044, which qualifies as low. That said, the 1901-S is not all that expensive in G-4 with a current listing of $34. In MS-60 it is a good deal more expensive than most dates at $1,850 and then when you move to MS-65 you find a price of $19,500, making it one of the most expensive Barber half dollars in MS-65.

It is very clear that the 1901-S saw very little saving as PCGS reports just 30 examples in all Mint State grades combined and of the 30 just seven were MS-65 or better. We simply do not know why, but the 1901-S did not get saved or did not survive. It might be a combination of both as the 1901-S Barber quarter, which is the key to the set, is also not available in anything close to the numbers that might be expected.

The San Francisco dates of the period prior to 1906 are something of a wild card in that there is some very good evidence that the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 caused sometimes heavy losses primarily among the San Francisco coins produced from 1900 up to April of 1906 when the earthquake and fire destroyed the city. As a result, during the period dates can be tougher than expected not only because they were not saved but also because they might well have been victims of one of the greatest natural disasters in the nation's history.

In the 1902-S we have an available date with a mintage around 1.5 million. The 1902-S is $16 in G-4 and $750 in MS-60 with an MS-65 at $7,750. The MS-65 price is neither especially high nor unusual for San Francisco dates of the period, but PCGS reports only 11 examples in MS-65 or better.

The 1903-S with a mintage of over 1.9 million would be expected to be even more available and it is starting at $15 in G-4. In MS-60 the 1903-S is $610 while an MS-65 is at $5,750. While less costly than the 1902-S, the fact is the 1903-S based on its mintage is an available date, but it is priced well above available date levels in most grades.

The 1904-S is a very different matter. With a mintage of 553,038, the 1904-S would be expected to be better. Ironically its price of $38.50 in G-4 is not all that high. Once again it's a case of uneven survival. The Barber half dollars circulated for decades. We know that as in the "New York Subway Hoard" purchased by the Littleton Coin Company in the 1990s there were 24 complete sets. In the case of the early dates that means the coins had been in circulation for nearly 50 years as the "New York Subway Hoard" was begun in the 1940s. In the course of 50 years, a lot of things can happen to a coin with the most likely being that it simply became so worn that it was retired and destroyed. As a result you can never predict numbers likely to have been pulled from circulation, but in the case of the 1904-S based on its G-4 price, the numbers saved by collectors and dealers appear to be slightly better than might have been expected.

In the case of Mint State examples, however, it is a different matter as the 1904-S is the key Barber half dollar. It lists for $9,000 in MS-60 and $41,500 in MS-65 and those high prices appear to be great deals. In Mint State PCGS has seen only 21 examples of the 1904-S of which only five were MS-65 or better. Clearly that supply is not enough to meet any future increase in demand so then 1904-S remains a coin to watch in the future as frankly the only thing keeping it from much higher price is a lack of demand.

The 1905-S saw a much higher mintage of nearly 2.5 million. That total should make it an available date, although it does command a small premium at $15.50 in G-4. In MS-60 it would seem to be correctly priced for a San Francisco date at $615, but in MS-65 it is $9,750 and PCGS has only seen 11 examples.

The 1906-S, which had a mintage of 1,740,154, is priced in most grades at basically available date levels. In G-4 the 1906-S is $14.60, while an MS-60 is only slightly above available dates at $590. In MS-65, however, the 1906-S while more available than other San Francisco dates still commands a premium at $5,950 and that is because PCGS reports just 15 examples.

The last of the $10,000 or more MS-65 San Francisco Barber half dollars is the 1907-S, which is a fairly average date in lower grades thanks to a mintage of 1,250,000. That makes a G-4 $17.40 while an MS-60 is $1,275. An MS-65 is $12,500. The Mint State total in all grades stands at just 43 for the 1907-S and the MS-65 total is just 14 so the prices are no fluke as the 1907-S is definitely a tough date in Mint State.

While the remaining San Francisco Barber half dollar dates are less expensive in top grades, that should not be confused with them being available dates as they are not readily available. The 1908-S for example is $18.50 in G-4 but $850 in MS-60 and $6,350 in MS-65.

The 1909-S is a date that could be called available with a mintage of 1,764,000. That puts a G-4 at $13.40 while an MS-60 is $600 just above an available date listing while an MS-65 is $4,450. The PCGS total in MS-65 is 19 coins, which is definitely higher than earlier dates, but still can hardly be called an adequate supply should the interest in Barber half dollar see any sort of significant increase.

The 1910-S with a nearly 2 million mintage is available in circulated grades, although it is slightly tougher in Mint State where it lists for $625 in MS-60 while an MS-65 is at $6,650, with PCGS reporting 20 examples graded.

In an unusual twist, the 1910-S is one of the only dates where at least so far the number graded in MS-66 is actually higher than the number in MS-65. That could always change as we are talking about just a few coins difference but the fact that the numbers in the two grades is similar is somewhat unusual.

The 1911-S has a lower total mintage of 1,272,000, but that has little impact on prices with a G-4 at $14.60 while an MS-60 is available at $580 and an MS-65 is $5,950 with PCGS reporting only 14 examples graded.

As you look at the totals reported from PCGS, you do reach the conclusion that there was increased saving of the Barber half dollar over time, although the increase was very small. The 1912-S is slightly better at $16.40 in G-4, but at $535 in MS-60 it is an inexpensive Barber half dollar from San Francisco, although in MS-65 it remains tougher at $5,850, with the PCGS total up only slightly to 16 coins.

The 1913-S and 1914-S are similar in availability and price although the 1913-S is slightly more expensive in G-4 at $20. That is interesting as the 1914-S had the lower mintage at 992,000 but it trails the 1913-S in G-4 at $16.40. The MS-60 prices of the two, however, are similarly differentiated, withe the 1913-S at $725 and the 1914-S at $575. In MS-65, the 1914-S takes the value lead at $4,950, $300 more than the 1913-S.

It is, however, the 1915-S that is seen as the most available San Francisco Barber half dollar. It lists for just $480 in MS-60 while an MS-65 is just $3,600, which is an available date from any facility. Even so, the 1915-S has been seen just under 30 times in MS-65 by PCGS.

Certainly date for date without any great rarities the San Francisco Barber half dollars are legitimately a tough group and the higher the grade the more elusive they become. They are also an interesting group as realistically the mintages are not a good indication as to availability in a specific grade. That makes every date unique and the complete set becomes a lot of fun while being a serious challenge at a modest price.


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