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These Key Rarities Unlock the Sets
By Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
February 27, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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Key coins are the stoppers in a series, the coins with the lowest mintages and often the highest values. These are the coins that everybody needs for set completion, but there aren’t enough survivors to go around.

Another type of key coin, the condition key, is a coin that is relatively common and inexpensive in low grades but rare and pricy in higher grades. Condition keys (or condition rarities) will not be the focus of this article.

The advice frequently given to beginning collectors is to buy the key coins first, as these are the coins that appreciate faster than their more common brethren. If you don’t get them early, you may find that they’ve appreciated so much while you were buying common dates that you can’t afford them now. In fact, this is what happened to me with the Barber quarter keys, but more on that later.

When I started collecting, Buffalo nickels, Mercury dimes, and Standing Liberty quarters were relatively common in circulation, all the Lincoln cents were wheaties, and there was no such thing as a clad coin. The exotic coins for me were the Barbers and particularly Barber quarters.

In fact, some of the nicest coins I obtained as a junior collector were Barber quarters, and two in particular stand out, an 1897-O and a 1904-O. Both graded at least Extremely Fine, and both cost me just a quarter apiece. I got them from a friendly trolley driver, who would often take the time to chat with me when he turned his vehicle around at the end of the line, which just happened to be at my school.

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But enough reminiscing. The two quarters are long gone, the victims of some misbegotten trade in my youth. In this article, I’m going to focus on the keys to the three Barber series.

* * *

In the Barber dime series, minted from 1892-1916, there is really only one rare date, and that is the 1894-S. You can’t call it a key, however, as it’s one of the handful of super coins that routinely bring high six- or seven-figure prices at auction. Obviously, the 1894-S is not a coin that the typical collector of Barber dimes has any hope of acquiring, so I won’t consider it in this article.

In terms of mintage, there’s really only one key date, with several semi-keys. The key is the 1895-O, with a mintage of 440,000 pieces. Several other dates have sub-million mintages, and the date with the second lowest mintage is the 1913-S (510,000). Because of its differential retention, however, the 1913-S hardly qualifies for even semi-key status. In other words, so many of the date were retained that it’s much less expensive in any grade than you would think from its mintage.

About the 1895-O, David Lawrence (The Complete Guide to Barber Dimes) writes, “The unquestioned key to the set (disregarding the 1894-S).” In Collecting & Investing Strategies for Barber Dimes, Jeff Ambio notes, “The 1895-O is the prime rarity in the Barber Dime series in Mint State. The vast majority of coins that have been submitted to PCGS and NGC for third-party certification are circulated, and even a BU-quality example in MS-60 or MS-61 represents an important buying opportunity in today’s market.”

In the January 2013 edition of “Coin Market” from Numismatic News, the 1895-O starts at $385 in Good-4 and goes up rather rapidly from there: Very Good-8 $575, Fine-12 $900, Very Fine-20 $1,285, EF-40 $2,500, About Uncirculated-50 $3,650, Mint State-60 $6,000, MS-63 $8,250, and MS-65 $19,500.

I currently own an 1895-O graded F-12 by ANACS for which I paid $750 a few years ago. I would be surprised if it crossed over (achieved the same grade) at PCGS, as the letters of LIBERTY are weak.

Barber dime dates with semikey status that may one day be considered keys include 1894-O, 1895, 1896-O and -S, 1897-O, 1901-S, and 1903-S. All have mintages well under a million and are priced significantly above $50 in G-4.

* * *

The three well-known Barber quarter key dates are 1896-S, 1901-S, and 1913-S. Both the 1901-S and the 1913-S have mintages well below 100,000, with the 1901-S at 72,664 and the 1913-S at 40,000, which gives it the lowest mintage of any non-gold issue of the 20th century. In terms of their values, the most expensive by far is the 1901-S, followed by the 1913-S and the 1896-S, in that order.

With a mintage of 188,039, the 1896-S has only fairly recently crept up in value to challenge the $1,000 mark in G-4. In fact, I can remember paying $90 for a full-rim G back in the early 1980s. I sent it to the American Numismatic Association Certification Service, which returned it as being in too low a grade to certify. I subsequently found it in a G-4 ANACS holder in the stock of the dealer from whom I had bought it and to whom I had returned it after I got it back from ANACS.

About the 1896-S David Lawrence (The Complete Guide to Barber Quarters) writes, “Extremely scarce in EF and above (far scarcer than the 1913-S in mint state). Available for a price in the lower grades.” In terms of his rarity ratings, Lawrence considers it R4 (Scarce) in G/VG, R5 (Very Scarce) in F/VF, R6 (Extremely Scarce) in EF, R7 (Rare) in AU, and R6 in mint state. Current values are $845 in G-4, $1,625 in VG-8, $2,550 in F-12, $4,000 in VF-20, $5,350 in EF-40, $6,200 in AU-50, $9,750 in MS-60, $17,500 in MS-63, and $50,000 in MS-65. As you’ll see, this last value is considerably more than that for the 1913-S (with less than one-fourth the mintage) in the same grade.

Next chronologically is the 1901-S. This is the date that prevented me from completing my Barber quarter set. When I was working on the series, I got a price list from a dealer I knew to be a conservative grader. On the list, he offered a 1901-S that had some wear into the letters on the reverse but was otherwise G for the then-reasonable price of $250. I dithered and didn’t order it, and the next time I looked, the date was priced above $1,000 in any grade.

Now, the 1901-S is valued at $5,200 in G-4, $9,500 in VG-8, $18,500 in F-12, $26,500 in VF-20, $31,000 in EF-40, $38,000 in AU-50, $41,500 in MS-60, $48,850 in MS-63, and $77,500 in MS-65. About the date, Lawrence writes, “The king of all Barber coinage with a low mintage and low survivorship.” He also cautions, “Be careful when buying this coin, especially if the coin has been cleaned. Counterfeits (altered coins) have been made by adding an S to a 1901-P and by changing the date of another S-mint.”

About the 1913-S, Lawrence writes, “Rare above Fine. Usually available in AG to VG and sometimes in F, but almost never in EF and AU.… Several times I have had to place an uncirculated specimen into an AU set, because they are far easier to locate.… Some nice mint state specimens were saved and it isn’t nearly as tough as the 1896-S or 1901-S…in new condition. Still, demand is strong and uncirculated specimens don’t stay on the market for very long.”

The first 1913-S quarter I owned cost me $50. Today, it would be graded G-6. I sent it to ANACS to be certified, and they asked me if they could clean it sonically, as there was some crud around the base of the mintmark that prevented them from seeing if it had been added. With some misgivings, I agreed to the request, and I soon got the coin back with a certificate attesting to its authenticity. Unfortunately, I never liked the coin after the cleaning, as it no longer had its original patina, so I soon got rid of it.

Today, I own two 1913-S quarters, one certified by ANACS, the other by the Professional Coin Grading Service. Both received the grade of About Good-3, although both coins are much nicer than most AGs around and indeed are better than many coins certified as G-4. Both have some wear into the stars on the left side of the obverse and wear into the letters on the right side of the reverse. Other than that, they are much closer to G-6 than to G-4. Actually, the reverses match or exceed the reverse shown in Lawrence’s book for a G-4 coin.

Current values for the 1913-S are $1,800 in G-4, $2,450 in VG-8, $5,350 in F-12, $7,950 in VF-20, $10,500 in EF-40, $13,250 in AU-50, $15,500 in MS-60, $21,500 in MS-63, and $31,500 in MS-65. Compare the $1,800 with the $50 I paid for a G-6 back in the early-to-mid1970s, and you’ll see how much this key coin has gained in value over the years.

* * *

It’s easy to conclude that there are no key dates in the Barber half dollar series, but that wouldn’t be any fun (or worth writing about), so I’ll consider that any coin worth more than $100 in G-4 is a key. By this definition, there are eight keys: 1892-O and -S, 1893-S, 1896-S, 1897-O and -S, 1914, and 1915. At $77 in G-4, the 1913 comes close, and I predict it will cross the threshold in the not-too-distant future.

In terms of mintage, the keys rank as follows: 1892-O (4), 1892-S (22), 1893-S (13), 1896-S (26), 1897-O (10), 1897-S (18), 1914 (1), 1915 (2), with the 1913 in third position. Obviously, there’s not much of a correlation between mintage and value, as half of the keys are not even in the top 10, and two are not in the top 20.

In terms of value in G-4, the two dates with the lowest mintages (1914, 124,610; 1915, 138,450) rank sixth and eighth, with values of $145 and $112, respectively. However, they came at the tail end of the series and thus were saved in greater numbers than you would expect given their low mintages. The same is true for the 1913 (188,627) as well.

With its 390,000 mintage, the 1892-O (regular mintmark; there’s also a micro-O that’s considerably rarer and more valuable) lists for $310 in G-4, $420 in VG-8, $515 in F-12, $600 in VF-20, $630 in EF-40, $690 in AU-50, $850 in MS-60, $1,650 in MS-63, and $4,350 in MS-65. Notice the rather slight changes in value between VF-20 and AU-50. About the date, Lawrence (The Complete Guide to Barber Halves) writes, “Tough to find in full rimmed G-VF-30. Available and overrated in EF and above.”

Second on the G-4 value list, the 1892-S (1,029,028 minted) is worth $250 in G-4, $330 in VG-8, $425 in F-12, $550 in VF-20, $600 in XF-40, $700 in AU-50, $985 in MS-60, $2,200 in MS-63, and $4,850 in MS-65. Lawrence writes, “Tough to find in full rimmed G to VF+. Available in EF and overrated in AU and MS.”

Third on the list is the 1897-O (632,000 minted). Values for this date are $170, $230, $485, $835, $1,050, $1,350, $1,850, $3,950, and $9,650 for G-4, VG-8, F-12, VF-20, EF-40, AU-50, MS-60, MS-63, and MS-65, respectively. Note how much more expensive the MS-65 1897-O is than the 1892-O and S in the same grade. This is almost certainly the result of the earlier coins having been saved in high grades as first-year-of-issue pieces.

Fourth is the 1893-S (740,000 minted). Lawrence calls this date “Extremely scarce F and higher.” According to “Coin Market,” it’s worth $165 in G-4, $240 in VG-8, $325 in F-12, $525 in VF-20, $595 in EF-40, $675 in AU-50, $1,275 in MS-60, $5,500 in MS-63, and $25,000 in MS-65. The latest PCGS population report indicates that only six coins have been certified as MS-65, with one MS-66, which undoubtedly explains the MS-65 value.

Fifth is the 1897-S, with a mintage of 933,900 pieces. Its values range from $155 in G-4 to $7,350 in MS-65. Lawrence writes that it is “almost as tough as the 1897-O in F to MS62.…Full rim Goods command a good price.”

Sixth is the 1914, with the lowest mintage in the series. Lawrence calls it “Scarce VG10 through AU58. Available in MS because it was saved, but rare in gem condition.…” Values range from $145 in G-4 to $8,500 in MS-65. According to the PCGS population report, just eight coins have been certified as MS-65, with one as MS-66. If the 1893-S is correctly valued, then the 1914 is seriously undervalued. I can remember when the three tail-end Philadelphia dates were priced at less than $20 apiece in full-rim G. Unfortunately, those days are long gone.

The 1896-S comes in seventh place, with a mintage of 1,140,948 pieces and a price range from $120 in G-4 to $10,500 in MS-65. Lawrence calls it “Scarce in all grades.” According to the PCGS population report, just 13 examples have been certified as MS-65 or higher.

Finally, we come to the 1915, with the second lowest mintage in the series. Its value ranges from $112 in G-4 to $6,350 in MS-65. PCGS has graded 18 pieces MS-65 or above. Lawrence writes, “Available in G and VG, but very scarce F-AU58. Actually, the toughest of the three [1913, 1914, 1915] in most better grades, including MS.”

In my collection, the “big three” are all graded by ANACS, with the 1913 and 1914 both in VF-20, the 1915 in F-12. As testimony to the increase in values of key dates in the Barber series, each coin now has a wholesale value that is more than I paid for it. By this measure, the 1913 has gone up 142 percent, the 1914 90 percent, and the 1915 only 3 percent. It’s worth noting, however, that the 1915 is the most recently obtained of the three. With more time, I expect its price appreciation to match that of the other two.

* * *

That brings to a close my look at the Barber keys. Although I’ve almost never been able to take my own advice, I still believe that you should buy the key coins in a series first, as they almost never go down in value, and their normal price trajectory is almost relentlessly upward. Remember: The keys open the lock to set completion.

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On March 8, 2013 Bill Rodriguez said
You never mentioned the 1904-S Barber Half Dollar. Many consider this one to be the KEY to the half dollar set in any grade.

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