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Building a Set of Almost Uncirculated-55 to ‘Mint State’-63 Barber Half Dollars

News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #213

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds ……..

The purpose here is to discuss the costs and practicality of assembling a set of Barber Half Dollars (1892-1915), in which all of the coins grade from AU-55 to MS-63. Many of these will cost more than $1000 each. Such a set can be truly completed in a few years. Several of the semi-key dates are undervalued, from a logical perspective, in current coin markets. It is exciting to complete a whole set ‘by date’ (and U.S. Mint location) of a series that started in the 19th century in high grades, without spending a vast fortune.

Those collectors who prefer to spend much less on a set of these may wish to read a very much related column that was published last year. It was then emphasized that, for less than $500 per coin, an appealing, truly complete set of Barber Half Dollars may be built, with most coins grading from Very Fine-20 to Almost Uncirculated-53 and including only a few grading below VF-20.

barber3Collecting Barber Halves that grade from AU-55 to MS-63 is a much more expensive undertaking than collecting those that grade from VF-20 to AU-53, yet is an easier pursuit. A relatively substantial number of Barber Halves in AU-55 to MS-63 grades survive. Indeed, currently existing Barber Halves tend to grade less than VF-20 or above AU-53. Surviving Barber Half Dollars were either saved shortly after they were produced or they extensively circulated for decades. Only a small percentage of survivors moderately circulated to the point that they grade from VF-30 to AU-53 now.

Collectors who will not or cannot spend even $500 for one coin may wish to consider my two part series on classic U.S. coins that cost less than $250 each. Relatively low cost alternatives are also addressed in my presentation of the overall concept that many, exciting classic U.S. coins are not expensive. Also, the vast majority of dates in the series of Barber Half Dollars retail for from $18 to $35 in Good-04 grade.

Indeed, a complete set of Barber Halves in Good-04 grade probably could be assembled for less than $3000 in total. AU-55 grade Barber Halves, however, will tend to cost at least $400 each and more than a few better dates are generally priced at more than $1000 in AU-55 grade. A whole set could easily cost more than $65,000 in AU-55 grade. If such a task was completed over a period of nine years, outlays could easily be kept to less than $7500 per year. Yes, $7500 is a significant sum of money for most people. In terms of 19th century and early 20th century U.S. coins, however, $7500 is not a lot for purchases of AU-55 or higher grade coins.

Of other types, some single AU-55 grade coins from this era cost more than $7500! An AU-55 grade 1901-S Barber Quarter could easily sell for more than $25,000, and certified AU-55 grade 1877 Indian Cents tend to sell for more than $2700 each at auction. In December 2013, a PCGS graded, and CAC approved, “AU-55” 1926-S Buffalo Nickel was auctioned for more than $4400. Most (or all?) dates in the Barber Half series are much scarcer than 1926-S Buffalo Nickels. In contrast to prices for other classic U.S. coins, Barber Halves tend to be good values for collectors, from a logical perspective.

I have been thinking, over the last few days, about prices for Barber Halves particularly because I was recently asked by Scott Travers to provide some estimates of retail prices for the upcoming 21st edition of the “The Insider’s Guide to U.S. Coin Values” (NY: Random House, 2015). Several price guides, including the 20th edition of that book, understate market levels for semi-key dates in the series of Barber Halves.

In regard to scarce, classic U.S. coins that are worth more than $500 each, some guides fail to make clear that estimated values are really for coins that are graded and encapsulated by the PCGS or the NGC. Scarce, classic U.S. coins that are not certified or are graded by some other services will often be worth much less than the values estimated in leading price guides.

I. Buy Certified Coins

  Certified coins offer some assurance that the coins are problem free.

When seeking U.S. coins that cost more than $500 each, collectors should only consider coins that are PCGS or NGC certified (unless a better grading service is founded in the future). A CAC sticker on a PCGS or NGC holder provides additional assurance and a highly respected opinion.

I am not implying that all such certified coins are accurately graded or are fairly graded. Indeed, there are plenty of PCGS or NGC certified coins that have been mistakenly graded even though they have been doctored or are otherwise seriously problematic. Further, there are many PCGS or NGC certified coins that have been mistakenly overgraded in the views of most relevant experts. A pressing point is that more than 95% of the scarce, classic U.S. coins that are valued at more than $500 each have already been submitted to the PCGS or the NGC, and thus most of those that are not certified failed to receive numerical grades at the PCGS or the NGC. A relevant additional point is that non-certified, classic U.S. coins, which are priced above $500 each, tend to be mis-represented, accidentally or deliberately, by those selling such coins.

In regards to classic U.S. coins that cost more than $500 each, buying PCGS or NGC certified coins involves much less risk that buying coins that are not so certified. Also, it is not usually a good idea to buy non-certified classic U.S. coins that cost more than $250 each. Even so, collectors should not take PCGS or NGC assigned grades too seriously.

A coin that was judged to be non-gradable, because of serious problems in the past, may receive a numerical grade from the same service at a later time. Coins that have been rather blatantly dipped, recently immersed in acidic solutions, are often assigned high grades by the PCGS or the NGC and may have CAC stickers as well. Furthermore, coins are upgraded. A coin that was graded EF-45 in the past may be graded AU-50 or AU-53 by the same service in the present. Again, I repeat that coins that have been doctored or have problems are sometimes mistakenly awarded numerical grades, even though they should be judged to be non-gradable. Therefore, while buying certified coins is better than buying non-certified coins, collectors should attempt to learn about the coins that they are considering and collectors should ask relevant experts for advice.

While it is difficult to become an expert, it is not difficult to learn enough to make sense of the information and opinions provided by experts. A lot can be learned by reading, asking questions, and examining coins in actuality.

II. What are Barber Half Dollars?

Charles Edward Barber (1840-1917), sixth Chief Engraver of the United States Mint.

Barber Half Dollars, along with  Barber Dimes and Barber Quarters, were first minted in 1892. Although Barber Dimes and Quarters continued until 1916, Barber Half Dollars were last minted in 1915. All Barber types were designed by Charles Barber, who was also the designer of Liberty Nickels (1883-1913), which are sometimes called ‘vee nickels.’

There are seventy-three dates (including U.S. Mint locations) in the series of Barber Half Dollars. While there are no rarities, many dates are scarce, meaning just a few thousand survive in all grades. A few dates are condition rarities in grades above VF-20.

In each year from 1892 to 1915, Barber Half Dollars were struck at the Philadelphia Mint and at the San Francisco Mint. Those struck in San Francisco each have an ‘S’ mintmark on the reverse (back of the coin). Barber Halves were struck in New Orleans, each with an ‘O’ mintmark on the back, from 1892 to 1909. Before 1942, Philadelphia Mint coins did not have mintmarks, or so I argue.

Barber Halves struck at the Branch U.S. Mint in Denver each have a ‘D’ mintmark. There are  seven Denver Mint issues of Barber Half Dollars: 1906-D, 1907-D, 1908-D, 1911-D, 1912-D, 1913-D, and 1915-D. On Branch Mint Barber Halves, the mintmark is always on the reverse (back of the coin). Usually, New Orleans Mint Barber Halves are rarer than Philadelphia or Denver Mint issues. The 1907-O and the 1908-O, though, are relatively much less scarce.

III. Least Scarce Dates

The least scarce dates in the series are often called “common dates.” In regard to Barber Half Dollars, the term ‘common’ is misleading as all dates in the series tend to be much scarcer than the least scarce dates in other series of U.S. coins that were minted late in the 19th century or during the first third of the 20th century.

The least scarce Barber Halves are much scarcer than the least scarce Barber Quarters, Barber Dimes, Liberty Nickels, Indian Cents, Walking Liberty Half Dollars, Morgan Silver Dollars, and Indian Head Quarter Eagles. All issues of Barber Halves much scarcer than 1901-S Eagles or 1904 Double Eagles ($20 gold coins). Even so, it is important to distinguish the least scarce Barber Halves from the ‘better dates.’

barber5Regarding Barber Halves that grade from AU-55 to MS-63, some of the least scarce dates are listed here: 1899, 1900, 1901, 1903, 1904, 1906, 1906-D, 1907, 1907-D, 1908, 1908-D, 1908-O, 1911, 1911-D, 1912, 1912-D, 1915-D, and 1915-S. The 1907-O and the 1912-S are also among the least scarce and are highly demanded as Branch Mint issues. Many collectors assemble type sets of four Barber Halves from four different U.S. Mint locations.

Generally, PCGS or NGC certified Barber Halves will retail for at least $400 in AU-55 grade. On many occasions, auction prices will be less than retail prices and coins will sometimes sell at coin shows for prices below retail as well.

There are many variables that affect the price of a specific coin in a given setting on a particular day. Estimates of retail prices should not be viewed as facts. Actual prices may be higher or lower.

Generally, PCGS or NGC certified MS-63 grade Barber Halves retail for more than a thousand dollars each. Prices for AU-58, MS-61 and MS-62 grade coins are harder to estimate as these grades are more complicated. It is not unusual for a coin that is not uncirculated to be graded MS-61 or MS-62 by the PCGS or the NGC. Such a coin will often have fewer technical problems than a coin that is strictly uncirculated that is also graded MS-61 or MS-62. Furthermore, a coin that has the sharpness of an AU-55 grade coin and has very attractive natural toning may be certified as grading “AU-58.” In a previous column, I refer to the issues relating to coins that are certified as grading AU-58, MS-61 or MS-62. I suggest being careful about acquiring these and viewing many of them before spending substantial sums on them.

IV. Toughest Dates in AU-55 to MS-63 grades

Many collectors find 19th century dates to be more exciting than 20th century dates. While a 1901 coin is just around two years younger than an 1899 coin, most people find the 1899 date to be more historical or to be romantic. As it is not practical to review every date in the series here and since most of the semi-key Barber Halves date from the 19th century, I focus on 19th century dates here. Because the semi-key dates in the 19th century are elusive and are relatively expensive, a ‘short’ set of just 20th century Barber Halves would be easier to complete and may appeal to a collectors who specialize in 20th century coins, literally.

barber6The first Philadelphia Mint issue, 1892, is not a tough date; it is one of the least scarce issues in the series. An AU-55 grade 1892 should not be too difficult to find for a price in the range of $375 to $475. The 1892-O and the 1892-S are different matters; these are among the scarcest dates in the series. The 1892-O may probably retail for above $900 in AU-55 grade and twice that amount in MS-63 grade. The 1892-S is not as scarce in lower grades though is scarcer than the 1892-O in the AU-55 to MS-63 range. An AU-55 grade 1892-S may retail for more than $1000!

The 1893 Philadelphia Mint issue is also not very scarce. These tend to bring a 15% to 25% premium over the prices for extremely similar coins of the least scarce dates. It is probably not necessary to pay more than $500 for a PCGS or NGC certified AU-55 grade 1893, or more than $1075 for an MS-63 grade 1893 Barber Half.

The 1893-O is a good value at current market levels. Many collectors and dealers do not realize that 1893-O halves that grade from EF-40 to AU-58 are extremely hard to find. The current retail level for an AU-55 grade 1893-O is from $500 to $550. If I knew of a pleasing, naturally toned, very much original AU-55 grade 1893-O that was available for less than $550, I would have been glad to recommend it to those seeking Barber Halves.

The 1893-S is not undervalued, relative to other dates in this series. It is one of the toughest dates and is priced accordingly. I estimate that the retail value for a truly nice AU-55 1893-S is about $1750 and a MS-63 grade 1893-S could cost as much as $4000.

The value for an 1894 half in this grade range is, more or less, the same as that of an 1893. An AU-55 1894-O only costs slightly more than an 1894 Philadelphia Mint Half in the same grade, probably not more than $535.

An 1894-S might retail for around $510 in AU-55 grade. An MS-63 grade 1894-S, though, might cost as much as $1500.

The 1895-O and the 1895-S are both ‘better dates,’ which could be called semi-keys.Regarding coins in low grades, the 1895-S is more expensive than the 1895-O. AU-55 to MS-63 grade 1895-O halves, though, brings slightly higher prices than corresponding 1895-S halves. An attractively toned, MS-63 grade 1895-O might retail for as much as $1750, maybe even more. An 1895-O half, however, is not nearly as important as an 1895-O dime, which is justifiably much more famous.

In AU-55 grade, 1895-O, 1895-S and 1896 halves would probably retail for prices ranging from $625 to $650 each, or thereabouts. Yet, an 1896 is much less expensive in MS-63 and higher grades than an 1895-O or an 1895-S.

The 1896-O is clearly a semi-key date in the series, and is undervalued. An AU-55 grade 1896-O is likely to retail for at least $3000. In August 2011, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded and CAC approved, AU-55 1896-O for $4,168.75. About eleven months later, an NGC graded and CAC approved “AU-55” 1896-O sold for $2990.

A quest for a MS-63 grade 1896-O may be frustrating. My estimate of a retail price for a MS-63 grade 1896-O is $9200, though I am not aware of one trading in a long time. It is true that, in April 2008, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded “AU-58” 1896-O for $12,650. It is likely, however, that at least two leading bidders for this coin were seeking to remove it from its PCGS holder and re-submit it, possibly after modification, for the purpose of receiving a grade that is much higher than “AU-58.” When interpreting auction results, collectors should seek the advice of experts.

Though not nearly as rare in high grades as the 1896-O, the 1896-S is very much a better date, too. Collectors may wish to rush to grab nice ones when they become available. An AU-55 grade 1896-S may retail for as much as $1300 and an attractively toned, true MS-63 coin could probably sell for $3700 or more.

The 1897-O is not nearly as tough a date as the 1896-O, though it is a semi-key, as is the 1897-S.  Finding an AU grade 1897-O is particularly difficult. A fair retail price for a naturally toned AU-55 1897-O would be around $2100, if one could be found. Finding a MS-63 grade 1897-O is not quite as hard as finding an AU-55 1897-O, though finding a MS-63 grade 1897-O with attractive natural toning might be even more difficult. A retail value for a MS-63 grade 1897-O is around $4200.

When focusing on coins that grade from AU-55 to MS-63, the 1897-O and the 1897-S tower high as semi-key dates in the series. An AU-55 1897-S probably has a retail value of $3000. An MS-63 grade 1897-S is worth just around 20% more, $3600. It should be pointed out, however, that 1897-O and 1897-S Barber Halves that grade in the AU-55 to MS-63 range do not trade frequently and it is particularly hard to accurately estimate retail levels for these.

The 1898-O and the 1898-S are very tough dates, too. AU-55 grade 1898-O and 1898-S coins are not nearly as expensive as AU-55 grade 1896-O, 1897-O and 1897-S halves. An AU-55 1898-O perhaps has a retail value of $1850 and an AU-55 grade 1898-S half is not even worth half that amount. In MS-63 grade, however, 1898-O and 1898-S halves clearly rank among the semi-keys. An MS-63 grade 1898-O would probably retail for $3750 or more. An 1898-S is worth almost as much, perhaps around $3400 in MS-63 grade.

There are many other dates in the series that are worth premiums over the least rare dates. Almost all of the semi-keys have already been mentioned, though the 1914 Philadelphia Mint issue certainly ranks as a noteworthy semi-key. The 1914 is a surprising and curious semi-key, as it is a 20th century Philadelphia Mint Barber coin.

The lone key date in the series is the 1904-S, which is the undisputed queen of Barber Half Dollars. Maybe, a collector could realistically hope to find an appealing AU-55 grade 1904-S for less than $8500. In August 2010, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded MS-61 1904-S for $10,925 and, in July 2011, an NGC graded MS-62 coin for $13,800. A not appealing “MS-63” 1904-S was auctioned for $18,400, not long ago. A naturally toned 1904-S that grades in the middle to high end of the MS-63 range might very well sell for more than $22,000.

Curiously, a 1904-S in Good-04 grade would retail for less than $65, maybe as low as $45. One of the most significant aspects of the series of Barber Halves is that there are no very rare dates. Collectors like to complete sets and it does not cost a fortune to complete a set of Barber Halves.

Some collectors regard the 1892-Micro ‘O’ as a rare “date” in the series. It is true that this variety is very rare or even extremely rare. The relatively small ‘O’ mintmark on these, however, is not much different from the regular ‘O’ mintmark. In my view, the 1892-Micro ‘O’ is just a die variety and is not particularly interesting. It does not make sense to figure that an 1892-Micro ‘O’ is needed for a complete set of Barber Half Dollars. I suggest that collectors ignore these; there is not a logical reason for them to command the tremendous premiums that they bring in auctions.

©2014 Greg Reynolds




Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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