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Classic US Coins for Less Than $500 Each, Part 6: Barber Half Dollars

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds

News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #176 …..

This is the sixth in a series of articles on classic US coins that cost less than $500 each. This series is aimed at people who wish to build collections that are enjoyable, satisfying, and are meaningful in terms of the traditions of coin collecting in the U.S., without spending more than $500 for any one coin. Much of the discussions relate to coins that cost from $200 to $500 each. Fortunately, a pleasant, truly complete set of Barber Half Dollars can be assembled for such prices, with most coins grading from Very Fine-20 to Almost Uncirculated-53, depending upon the preferences of the buyer, and only a few grading below VF-20.

circ_barbersLast week, the fifth piece in this series was about Liberty Seated Half Dollars. It was not then practical to cover the whole series of Liberty Seated Half Dollars, dating from 1839 to 1891. So, the focus last week was on the six design types of Liberty Seated Half Dollars and the ease of assembling a type set of these. (Clickable links are in blue.)

Herein, the focus is on completing a set of Barber Half Dollars. There is only one design type of Barber Half Dollars, which were minted from 1892 to 1915. A great aspect of Barber Halves is that a complete set is a very much realistic objective.

As we said last week about Liberty Seated Half Dollars, John Albanese and I maintain that Barber Half Dollars are “terrific values” in Very Fine and Extremely Fine grades, provided that such coins feature natural toning and have not very apparently been cleaned or dipped. John Feigenbaum agrees.

Feigenbaum has been extremely interested in Barber coins for more than twenty years. He is currently the president of DLRC.

His late father, David Lawrence Feigenbaum, was recognized as the nation’s leading expert in Barber coins and as an accomplished author. Though published years ago, books on Barber coins by one or both Feigenbaums are still often used as references by active collectors.

“My dad’s favorite grade for a Barber Half was Very Fine-20. Barber Halves were tremendous usage coins. Collectors then saved uncs. Most Barber Halves circulated a great deal. They were workhorses in our economy. There are a lot that grade below VG. My dad [learned that] it was very hard to find choice, original Very Fine grade coins. It would take years to put together a set of original, VF Barber Halves.”

For collectors who are unable or unwilling to spend more than $500 for any one coin, and would like to spend significantly less, collecting Barbers in Fine to EF grades is easier than collecting Liberty Seated Halves in this grade range. Indeed, collectors who can spend up to $500 per coin are likely to have a wonderful time buying Barber Halves. There are appealing coins available of all dates in the series!

I. What are Barber Half Dollars?

Like Barber Dimes and Barber Quarters, Barber Half Dollars were first minted in 1892. All three Barber types were designed by Charles Barber, who was also the designer of Liberty Nickels, which are sometimes called ‘vee nickels.’ The obverse (front) designs of Barber Dimes, Barber Quarters and Barber Halves are extremely similar. The obverse design of Liberty Nickels is considerably different. Liberty Nickels date from 1883 to 1913. Barber Half Dollars were last minted in Barber Half Dollars were last minted in 1915.

gr_barb_under500_1There are seventy-three dates (including U.S. Mint locations) in the series. None are rare, though many are scarce, meaning just a few thousand survive in all grades.

In each year from 1892 to 1915, Barber Half Dollars were struck at the Philadelphia Mint and at the San Francisco Mint. Barber Half Dollars that were produced in Philadelphia do not have mintmarks.

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.

A ‘D’ mintmark refers to the U.S. Mint in Denver, Colorado. The following are the seven Denver Mint issues of Barber Half Dollars: 1906-D, 1907-D, 1908-D, 1911-D, 1912-D, 1913-D, and 1915-D. For personal reasons, the absence of a 1914-D half stands out.

When I was around six years old, I received three 1914-D dimes from my grandmother. This gift sparked a lifelong interest in Barber Dimes. The other Barber Dimes that she then provided were Philadelphia Mint issues. I was taken by the large, block-like ‘D’ on the reverse of a 1914-D dime and, not long afterwards, I sought additional 1914-D dimes at coin shows. To a minor extent, I hoarded dimes of this issue.

II. Toughest Dates in Fine to Very Fine

The whole set could possibly be completed in Fine-12 to VF-20 grades for less than $500 per coin, though it is unlikely that truly gradable coins in this range for all dates in the series could be found for less than $500 each. It may be necessary to include Very Good-10 or VG-08 grade representatives of the 1892-O, the 1892-S, and the 1897-O. Indeed, each Fine-12 grade 1892-O would be very likely to cost more than $500.

Although leading price guides suggest than a Fine-12 grade or maybe even a VF-20 grade 1892-S could be purchased for less than $500, such a purchase would be very difficult to effect in reality, and might not be possible. Also, many 1892-S halves have serious problems and it is not a good idea to spend more than $400 for an 1892-S that has serious problems. Certainly, a collector should buy one that is PCGS or NGC certified AND ask the advice of an expert regarding each 1892-S half that is being considered

A pleasant, VG-10 grade 1892-S could almost definitely be found for less than $450. If such a coin is not already certified, then the buyer should ask the seller to guarantee that it would be graded as at least VG-08 by the PCGS or the NGC. An arrangement to send it to the CAC may make sense as well. I emphasize that many 1892-S halves are problematic.

While a few PCGS graded Fine-12 or Fine-15 1897-O halves sold at auction for less than $500 each in 2011, a collector should not count upon being able to find one for less than $500. For collectors seeking to buy Barber Halves for less than $500 per coin, the 1897-O, the 1892-O, and the 1892-S are the key dates.

III. Better Dates in Fine to VF

Besides the 1892-O, the 1892-S and the 1897-O, and maybe the 1904-S, every date in the series could be obtained in Fine-12 or higher grade for less than $500 per coin. Only a few need grade as low as Fine-12 or Fine-15. A very large percentage of the dates in the series cost less than $500 in VF-20 or higher grades.

gr_barb_under500_3Although the 1904-S is the key date in the series in AU-50 and higher grades, fortunately for budget minded collectors, it is not a rare coin in absolute terms. There are more than 2500 1904-S halves in existence. Most of these grade from AG-03 to VG-10.

In March 2012, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded Fine-12 1904-S for $431.25, and then auctioned a different NGC graded F-12 1904-S two months later, in June 2012, for the exact same price. Plus, a PCGS graded Fine-12 1904-S will be offered on July 14, as part of Heritage’s Summer FUN auction event.

If a collector is not able to acquire a Fine-12 or Fine-15 grade 1904-S for less than $500, he or she may be able to buy a PCGS or NGC graded Very Good-10 1904-S for less than $250. In Fine to Extremely Fine grades, the 1897-S is almost as scarce as the 1904-S.

About a month ago, on June 8, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded Fine-12 1897-S for $381.88. Curiously, in Jan. 2013, Heritage sold three different NGC graded Fine-12 1897-S halves, each for less than $300.

There are other dates in this series that are difficult or almost impossible to find in true VF-20 or higher grades for less than $500 each: the 1896-O, the 1896-S, the 1898-O, the 1913, and the 1914. The PCGS price guide value of “$350” for an 1896-O in VF-20 grade is wrong. A true retail price for a PCGS graded VF-20 1896-O would probably be over $500. The current retail level for a Fine-15 grade 1896-O, however, would certainly be below $375.

It is more likely that a collector could find a truly gradable VF-20 1896-S for under $500 than a true VF-20 grade 1896-O. The 1896-S, though, tends to be even rarer than the 1896-O in Fine-12 and -15 grades. One of those could retail for more than $400.

In Jan. 2012, Heritage sold a PCGS graded Fine-15 1896-S, with a CAC sticker, for $345. In April 2012, this same firm sold a PCGS graded Fine-12 1896-S, also with a CAC sticker, for $373.75.

Additionally, in 2012, Heritage auctioned two different, PCGS graded VF-20 1896-S halves for $431.25 each. In Jan. 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded VF-25 1896-S, from a collector consignment, for $385, though this coin has some very noticeable imperfections on Miss Liberty’s face.

gr_barb_under500_2A collector should be able to find a VF-20 grade 1898-O for less than $500. I suggest, however, that each collector be very careful about buying a non-certified, Very Fine grade 1898-O and, I repeat, seek the counsel of an expert. It is best to ask that such a coin be PCGS or NGC certified before finalizing the transaction.

On Sept. 8, 2012, Heritage sold a PCGS graded VF-20 1898-O for $440.63. On May 26, 2013, Heritage sold an NGC graded VF-20 1898-O, with a CAC sticker, for $434.75.

The 1913 and the 1914 are curiously scarce Philadelphia Mint issues. Fewer than five thousand of each survive, including coins that are not gradable. As with many Barber coin issues, a large percentage of survivors grade below Fine-12, if gradable at all.

A collector cannot count on being able to purchase a VF-20 grade 1913 for less than $500, though such a purchase is a realistic possibility. On June 2, 2012, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded VF-20 1913 for $431.25.

The 1914 is scarcer than the 1913 overall. A PCGS or NGC certified VF-20 grade 1914 is very likely to retail for above $500. One in Fine-15 grade, though, should retail for less than $400 and one in Fine-12 grade would probably cost less than $350. Prices, in part, though, depend upon the physical characteristics of specific coins. One Fine-12 1914 may be worth considerably more than another Fine-12 1914 because of superior surface quality, originality and/or eye appeal.

On June 8, in a Long Beach auction, Heritage sold a PCGS graded Fine-15 1914 for $329. In February, also in a Long Beach auction, Heritage sold an NGC graded Fine-15 1914 for $299.63.

The 1901-S and the 1915 are better dates, though not nearly as scarce as some of those that I already mentioned. The PCGS price guide value of $350 for a PCGS graded VF-20 1901-S is not accurate, as it is too low. A retail price would probably be in the $450 to $550 range.

On June 2, 2012, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded VF-20 1901-S for $532.45, though that price was strong to very strong. Also, an NGC graded VF-20 1901-S would probably have a retail value below $500.

Any 1901-S with VF-20 level sharpness that is offered for well below $500 may have undisclosed imperfections that are moderate or serious. It may make more sense to just buy a Fine-12 or Fine-15 grade 1901-S. These retail for prices under $300 each, maybe less than $250.

Overall, there is an excellent chance that 1901-S halves that grade from Fine-12 to EF-40 are considerably scarcer than many experts realize. If an opportunity arises to acquire one that is truly gradable and at least somewhat fairly priced, it may be a good idea to act quickly, even if the coin being offered is a little irritating.

After the 1914 and the 1913, the 1915 is the scarcest Philadelphia Mint Barber Half Dollar. A quest to find a VF-20 or VF-25 grade 1915 for less than $500 would be very realistic. Another option is to buy a PCGS or NGC graded Fine-12 or Fine-15 1915 for less than $325, maybe even less than $270!

IV. Concluding Remarks

I covered the key and semi-key dates. All other dates in the series can be acquired in VF-20 or a higher grade for well under $500 each. Indeed, VF-20 grade coins can often be bought for less than $100 each, EF-40 grade Barber Halves for less than $250 each, and quite a few AU-55 grade ones for less than $425 each. It is not a good idea, however, to seek out the lowest priced coins for a particular date in a particular grade.

Many coins have serious problems that are not readily apparent. In some cases, the PCGS or the NGC grade coins that should not receive numerical grades because of serious problems. There is no substitute for the honest advice of an expert.

“Collectors who are sure they know how to grade circulated Barber Halves can buy raw coins on their own,” John Feigenbaum declares, “but most collectors now should buy PCGS or NGC certified coins, because certification offers market protection.”

Feigenbaum and I assert here that collectors should not rely entirely on grading services.

“All grading services offer varying levels of consistency,” he says. “A PCGS slab and a CAC sticker are important as safety nets,” John adds. “They provide protection to buyers who are not experts. We [at DLRC] are always sending $300 to $400 coins to CAC. So, I think that collectors can find circulated Barber Halves with CAC stickers. The CAC makes very few mistakes,” according to Feigenbaum.

Most of the dealers who offer a substantial inventory of circulated Barber Halves will not often send circulated Barbers to the CAC. Some never do so. Indeed, a few such dealers will not submit Fine to Extremely Fine grade Barbers to the PCGS or the NGC either. It is imperative for collectors of circulated Barber Halves to find trustworthy experts, as a large number of surviving, sub-40 grade Barber coins are not certified.

“Cleaning is a terrible problem for all Barber coins,” asserts Feigenbaum. “It is hard to find choice, original Barber coins that have never been cleaned. [Furthermore,] I have seen tons of Barber halves with rim problems. Collectors have to be very careful. Look carefully at both certified and not certified Barber Halves,” John advises.

A reality is that grading services, average dealers, collectors, and even leading experts will all make mistakes. ‘Nobody bats 1000,’ no one can perfectly evaluate very coin. Therefore, budget-minded collectors should slowly start each new project, have patience, ask questions of experts, and try to learn a little about the types of coins that are being purchased.

Fortunately, it is not too difficult to assemble a set of Barber Halves, with all coins grading from VG-10 to EF-45, for less than $500 each. If a collector is willing to spend a little more than $500 each for three to five Barber Half Dollars, then he or she could definitely complete a set where each coin truly grades at least Fine-12 and has pleasant, natural toning.

Yes, the 1892 ‘Micro O’ variety is being ignored here. A regular 1892-O is all that is needed for a complete set of Barber Half Dollars. The 1892-Micro ‘O’ is really an error and a die variety that attains the status of a major variety because it is apparent without magnification and relates to a mintmark. Even so, the 1892-Micro ‘O’ is an extra die variety of the 1892-O, and is not a date.

The reality is that a truly complete set of Barber Halves is not difficult, while the three keys in the series of Barber Quarters all cost more than $500 each in Good-04 grade. A set of Liberty Seated Dimes, Liberty Seated Quarters or Liberty Seated Halves cannot be completed while spending less than $500 for every coin. The pertinent challenge regarding Barber Halves is to locate gradable Fine-12 to Extremely Fine-45 coins that score highly in the categories of originality and surface quality.

©2013 Greg Reynolds

Readers who are interested in other types of classic U.S. coins, and do not wish to spend more than $500 for any one coin, may wish to click to read earlier parts of this series:

1) Copper

2) Dimes

3) Quarters

4) Bust Half Dollars

5) Liberty Seated Half Dollars

6) Barber Half Dollars

7) Trade Dollars

* * *

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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