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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Assembling Sets of Silver Coins, Part 1, Dimes and Half Dollars

News and Analysis of scarce coins,  markets, and the collecting community #78

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds

The topic here is ideas for beginning and intermediate level collectors who wish to complete or nearly complete sets of U.S. silver dimes and half dollars. Advice is provided, especially for collectors who are not affluent.

I will address quarters in another column. I am also an advocate of the collecting of copper, nickel, or gold coins. There are, though, only so many topics that may be effectively addressed in one discussion. In the future, I will write about assembling sets of all series of U.S. coins. Dimes and halves dated prior to 1965 are predominantly silver and have always been very popular with collectors of U.S. coins

One of the primary factors that distinguishes coin collecting from many other collecting pursuits is that there are clearly definable sets that can be completed, or almost completed. If a set of Three Cent Nickels is completed, for example, then such a completion is a fact, not an opinion. Can a particular collection of paintings, sculptures, old photographs, movie memorabilia, or baseball bats ever be ‘complete’ or nearly so?

Unlike in the cultures of other collecting pursuits, the facts and the rules that pertain to completing sets of U.S. coins are, for the most part, widely accepted and have clear logical structures. There is less opinion involved in the collecting of coins than there is in other kinds of collecting activities, though there will always be some subjective factors.

Those who do not understand the notion of completing a set of a series of U.S. coins may wish to first read an earlier column on Basics for Beginners. (As always, clickable links are in blue.) For general collecting advice, not focused upon completing sets, please read my column on advice for beginning and intermediate collectors of U.S. coins. Those collecting or considering collecting Two Cent Pieces, Three Cent Nickels or Dimes may click to read my pieces on collecting these specific denominations.

Although I often suggest that collectors assemble type sets, I am excluding type sets from the current discussion. Yes, it makes sense for a beginner to obtain one of each design type in order to appreciate and learn about all design types of U.S. coins. The quest of completing a type set, however, is much different from the pursuit of a specific series. Type coins of series starting in 1840 or later are readily always available for a price and these are besides the focus here.

Collecting certain specific series ‘by date’ (including Mint locations) requires time, involve challenges, and is often fun, even for collectors who do not have a lot of money. The purpose here is to discuss sets that thousands of coin collectors can afford to complete or almost complete.

I. Mercury Dimes

Collectors on a tight budget, especially beginners, may wish to consider Mercs. Mercury or ‘Winged Liberty’ Dimes were minted from 1916 to 1945 and are commonly called ‘Mercs.’ Including two overdates, 1942/41 and 1942/41-D, there are eighty dates in the set. In coin collecting, the term ‘date’ refers to more than just a year. It also includes a reference, often implicit, to the mint that struck the respective coin. In my terms, a 1916 Philadelphia Mint Barber Dime, a 1916 Philadelphia Mint Mercury Dime, and a 1916 Denver Mint Mercury Dime constitute three different dates.

Seventy-three of the eighty dates in the Merc series may be purchased for less than $5 each in Good-04 grade or higher. Indeed, several of these may be obtained in Extremely Fine-40 grade for less than $5!

Key dates cost more. A 1921 Philadelphia Mint Merc would cost around $50 in Good-04 grade and around $800 in AU-50 grade. A 1921 Denver Mint Merc is priced about thirty percent more than a 1921 Philadelphia Mint Merc.

The 1926 San Francisco Mint Merc is another key date. It may cost around $10 in Good and more than $400 in AU grade. Other than the 1916-D, the 1942/41 overdates are the most expensive. A collector should figure that each of these two overdates will cost several hundred dollars.

A set of Mercs without a 1916-D is almost complete and is significant. For those who can afford a 1916-D, one may cost around $500 in AG-03 and more than $10,000 in AU-55 grade. In Sept. 2010, the Goldbergs auctioned a PCGS graded AG-03 1916-D for $748, a coin which may be especially nice for its ’03’ grade.

It is imperative that collectors consider only 1916-D dimes that have been certified by the PCGS or the NGC. There are many fake 1916-D dimes being offered at coin shows and by ‘mail-order’ dealers.

If the 1916-D and the two overdates are ignored, an almost complete set, consisting of seventy-seven coins, would cost less than $500 in Good to Very Good grades, or less than $1500 in Very Fine grades! Such a quest could be pursued over a period of years and thus could fit into the budgets of most coin collectors. Also, I suggest acquiring coins that have naturally toned rather than those that have been artificially brightened. Circulated silver coins tend not to be bright. Coins properly stored in albums or envelopes often tone russet, brown, tan, blue and other colors.

II. Realistic Sets

What is the difference between almost completing a set and totally completing it? There is not always a clear answer. Generally, I am referring to collectible coins.

A set of Liberty Seated Dimes may be effectively complete without the unique 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ dime. The collector who acquired the unique 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ Dime in 2004, so I have been told, collects Carson City (Nevada) Mint coins of all denominations, not Liberty Seated Dimes ‘by date.’ So, there may currently be zero complete sets of Liberty Seated Dimes. Realistically, a set of Liberty Seated Dimes of all dates (including Mint locations) without this one unique coin would be regarded as ‘complete’ by most experts, even though, in actuality, it would be ‘almost complete.’

There exists likewise only one 1870-S Liberty Seated Half Dime. Nonetheless, a set of all Liberty Seated Half Dimes, except the 1870-S, would be almost complete, really effectively complete. Within the traditions of coin collecting in the U.S., a set that is almost complete is often considered to be very important and may be a great accomplishment. Traditionally, coin collectors are not fanatical about completeness.

When I was not an adult, I was an extremely enthusiastic collector of Barber coins. These were first minted in 1892. Barber Dimes and Barber Quarters were minted until 1916, while Barber Half Dollars were last struck in 1915. Barber coins of all three denominations were struck at four different U.S. Mints, at Philadelphia, Denver, New Orleans and San Francisco. While not rare in absolute terms, business strike Barber coins are much scarcer than Morgan Silver Dollars and are less expensive.

According to the PCGS price guide, a set of PCGS certified Morgan Dollars ‘by date’ (including Mint locations) in EF-40 grade would cost more than $25,000, more than $70,000 in AU-55 grade and around a half a million in “MS-63” grade. Except for a few key dates, it is unusual to collect Morgan Dollars in grades below Extremely Fine-40. These are not excellent values, mostly because Morgan Dollars are very common. There exist tens of thousands of almost every business strike in the series. Of some dates, there survive hundreds of thousands.

The leading key date in the series is the 1893-S, and there are thousands of these. Indeed, David Hall asserts that “probably” around ten thousand 1893-S Morgan Dollars exist. Yet, an 1893-S Morgan costs more than $1500 in Good condition and more than $7500 in Extremely Fine-40 grade. In contrast to other 19th century silver coins, Morgans seem overvalued, from a logical perspective. Nevertheless, they are very popular and are frequently promoted by large marketing firms.

Barber coins are often collected in Good to Very Good grades, as these are usually available. Unlike Morgans, they were minted primarily for circulation and did, in fact, widely circulate. Most wore down in commerce. Barber coins are not expensive in Fine to Very Fine grades.

John Albanese recommends Barber coins in “Extremely Fine to AU grades,” which tend to cost from “$50 to $2000 per coin.” Albanese founded the NGC in 1987 and he started the CAC in 2007.

III. Barber Dimes

A complete set of business strike Barber Dimes may cost around $1250 in Good-04 condition, in Fine-12 grade perhaps $5000, maybe $7500 in VF-20, and probably more than $11,000 for nice, naturally toned Barber Dimes in EF-40 grade. A collector “could complete a set of EF to AU Barber Dimes for $20 to $1750 per coin,” Albanese emphasizes, “with most coins less than $150.”

While completing a set of Morgans might require just a few hours at a major convention, as these are so common, completing a set of Barber Dimes would take time. Even at a leading coin convention, some of the better-dates would not be available in any grade!

When I was I kid, I found that some better dates were extremely difficult to find in the Good to Very Fine range. So, I would settle for Fair-02 or AG-03 grade pieces, including a 1900-O and a 1903-S. At many small coin shows, particular better-date Barber Dimes were difficult or nearly impossible to find. Some of the coins offered had terrible problems or were Philadelphia Mint coins with added mintmarks. Collecting Barber Dimes was fun, challenging and exciting.

By the way, I am not implying that collecting Barber Dimes is a task for kids. Many adults, of all ages, enjoy collecting Barber Dimes. It is an activity that kids, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents can all undertake.

“Barber sets are a bit tougher to acquire than early 20th Century sets, like Buffalo Nickels and Walkers,” John Brush finds, “but there seem to be a lot of Barber Dimes available on the market at reasonable prices right now.” John Brush is the vice president of David Lawrence Rare Coins. “Even CAC [approved] Barber Dimes are available in modest quantities,” Brush adds.

Brush is referring to high quality Barber Dimes. There are Barber Dime issues, from four different mints, dated before 1910 that are very low priced, just a few dollars each. It takes a very small amount of money to start a set of Barber Dimes. As I am nearly convinced that all 1894-S Barber Dimes were struck as Proofs, a set of business strike Barber Dimes is not too difficult to truly complete. It is just difficult enough for the quest to be time-consuming and challenging.

IV. Half Dollars

For beginning or intermediate level collectors who are seeking to complete sets of silver coins, I would recommend Barber Halves over Barber Quarters. As I mention below, a collector who cannot afford Barber Halves may choose Franklin Halves.

A truly complete set of Barber Halves, including all dates (with all corresponding mint locations), would cost around $2500 in Good-04 grade, and around $8000 in Fine-12 grade. A collector on a tight budget may wish to buy the least scarce dates in Very Fine or higher grade and the key dates in Almost Good (AG) to Very Good grades.

A 1904-S, a key date, costs many thousands of dollars in high grades. Indeed, the Duckor 1904-S realized more than $100,000 at auction in August 2010. A 1904-S in Good-04 grade, however, may be priced around $45. One in Fair-02 or AG-03 grade could be found for $25.

Unfortunately for the non-affluent buyer, an 1892-O and an 1892-S might each cost more than $200. The assembling of a set of Barber Halves, though, typically occurs over a period of years. Collectors could acquire the least scarce dates in a leisurely manner, and save for the better dates.

When a collector seeks classic U.S. coins that cost more than $250 each, he or she should consider only coins certified by the PCGS or the NGC. Even when the grading services make mistakes, the holders have substantial value. Buying PCGS or NGC certified coins involves less risk than the purchase of non-certified coins.

Several 19th century Barber Halves, from three different mints, may be obtained for less than $35 each. Among 20th century Barber Halves, coins from four different mints may be found in Good grades for less than $25 each.

In Extremely Fine-40 grade, most dates in the series cost between $150 and $425. I emphasize that a truly complete set is a very realistic objective. Other than an 1892 ‘Micro O’ variety, which is not needed for a set, no Barber Half should cost more than $250 in Good-04 grade.

John Albanese recommends “a set of Barber Halves in Extremely Fine-40 to AU-55” grades. Such a set, “without the 1897-O and the 1904-S, could be assembled for $175 to $900 per coin. A nice ’97-O and a nice ’04-S cost more than this in Extremely Fine or better grades, but the ’97-O should cost less than $2000,” John adds.

Albanese also suggests Walkers for beginning collectors. Walking Liberty Half Dollars (Walkers) were minted from 1916 to 1947. “Except a half dozen better dates, circulated Walkers can be bought for melt value or a little above melt value at small coin shows or coin stores,” John explains. The term ‘melt value’ refers to the value of the metal in the coin if (hypothetically) the coin was melted. “You do not have much to lose by buying classic silver coins for around the price of silver,” Albanese declares.

The 1916, 1916-D and 1916-S Walkers could each be acquired for less than $100 each. The 1921 and the 1921-D are the only two Walkers that cost more than $100 each in Good grades.

Kris Oyster finds that beginning and intermediate level collectors “enjoy BU [Brilliant Uncirculated = bright ‘Mint State’] Walkers and Franklin Half Dollars.” Oyster points out that a “short set of BU Walkers, 1941-47, is not expensive.” Moreover, “a set of Franklins is fun and affordable. I really love the Franklin Half series,” Kris declares. Franklin Half Dollars were minted from 1948 to 1963. Oyster is the managing director of numismatics for DGSE in Dallas, which owns Superior Galleries in California and also stores throughout the South.

Beginning collectors can complete a set of high grade Franklin Half Dollars, in AU-50 to MS-63 grades, by simply going to a small coin store,” John Albanese explains. “If the shop owner is friendly, he will let you pick through his junk silver bags [and buy coins] at a small percentage over melt. For not much more, collectors can buy BU raw Franklins,” Albanese adds. The term raw refers to coins that are not certified. John “would put them in a Dansco album or coin envelopes for moderate matched toning.”

In my view, it is important to point out that Albanese and Oyster are referring to Franklin Halves that cost little more than silver bullion value. While Franklins may be good choices for beginners and for collectors on tight budgets, these are not rare coins. Unless a collector is wealthy and is knowledgeable about coins, he or she should not spend more than $100 on a business strike Franklin Half.

V. Liberty Seated Dimes

If the Carson City issues of 1871 to 1874 are excluded, assembling a set of business strike Liberty Seated Dimes is somewhat easy and is recommended. This series spans more than five decades, from 1837 to 1891.

Most of the dates in Good-04 condition cost from $9 to $25 each. Even in EF-40 to AU-50 grades, a large number of the dates (including mintmarked coins) in the series cost less than $200 each, many less than $75 each.

Even the 1860-O dime, a classic rarity, costs around $1000 in Fine grades. In Sept. 2009, Stack’s auctioned an 1860-O that is PCGS graded “Fine-12” for $1092.50.

The Philadelphia Mint dime issue of 1844 is famous and is truly scarce, perhaps almost rare. It is certainly rare in grades of Fine-12 and above. In September, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded “VF-20” 1844 for $173. In May 2007, the Goldbergs auctioned a PCGS graded ‘Fine-15” 1844 for $483.

The 1858 San Francisco dime issue is famous and is rare! In Good-04 grade, the PCGS price guide values an 1858-S at $125 and the Numismedia.com guide value is $144. These seem like reasonable prices for a famous rarity. Prices for higher grade 1858-S dimes are still sensible, from a logical perspective.

There are too many Liberty Seated Dimes, of different dates, that cost less than $100 each to list here. A collector who can afford to spend an average of $500 per dime could acquire a very large percentage of the series in Very Fine to Extremely Fine grades.

When I collected coins as a kid, Liberty Seated Dimes and Barber Dimes that graded from Fair-02 to Good-04 often delighted me. There really is not a need to spend a lot of money to enjoy collecting coins.

If a budget is spread over a five to ten year period, the cost of building an almost complete set of Liberty Seated Dimes will turn out to be less than most collectors realize and will often be manageable on an annual basis for a non-rich collector. A set of Liberty Seated Dimes is cool, and includes several recognized rarities and six design types or subtypes!

©2011 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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  1. I really appreciated this article, nicely written and reasonable. Too often a rarity for coin collecting articles that focus on totally out of reach coins. Gave me ideas as well.

  2. A very educational thesis on collecting . There is another way to satisfy your collection needs , that would be a date set . Like the Barber dime date set from 1892 -1916 those in very fine and some in extra fine with mint marks is very satisfying on the wallet and a very nice addition to one’s numismatic collection .


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