Few People Saved Philadelphia Barber Halves

By Paul M. Green
Numismatic News

Barber half dollars in general are the toughest type coin of the past century. Of the Barber halves, the most overlooked group within the set are probably the Philadelphia issues. Overlooking Philadelphia issues is easy to understand. As the main mint of the United States, Philadelphia generally did have the highest mintages and as a result the coins of Philadelphia would usually be the most available. However, in the case of half dollars especially that was not always the case, and that is seen in the case of Barber halves. Included among the Philadelphia dates are some very low mintage and surprisingly tough coins.

Low mintages are not everything when arriving at today’s prices, especially in Mint State, and that is where we see that many of the Philadelphia Barber halves tend to be lower in prices than those from other facilities. Philadelphia coins were generally more heavily saved. Plus, in the case of the Barber half, there were proofs every year, and that has helped the type supply today. Even so, it would be wrong to take the Philadelphia Barber halves for granted.

There were a number of factors working against the saving of Barber halves during the period from 1892-1915 when they were produced. The first factor was a simple one: that they were not very popular with the collectors of the time. To start with, collecting was in a slow cycle with the numbers of proofs being sold each year dropping. The national economy was also weak during the early years of the Barber half dollar. Further, no one was really impressed with the design. All of those considerations joined to makes the Barber half dollar a set that was not being filled by many.

The Barber half was a problem for collectors even if they were interested a half dollar was too much money for many collectors at the time. Nor did that situation change for a long time as even in the 1950s many younger collectors were not attempting Franklin half dollar sets simply because they were too expensive. That problem was seen in the case of Barber half dollars quite literally for the entire time they were produced. The average Barber half simply reached circulation and continued to circulate for decades. We see some strong proof of that fact in the New York Subway Hoard put together in the 1940s and purchased by the Littleton Coin Company back in the 1990s. The hoard included 24 complete sets of Barber half dollars, and to be available in the 1940s means that some of the dates had been in circulation for 50 years.

The impact of the lack of saving, both when released and over the years in circulation, makes virtually every Barber half dollar a tougher coin than might be expected not just in Mint State but also in circulated grades. Moreover, with such a long time in circulation, it is entirely possible that numbers of many dates were simply retired as too worn and destroyed, potentially meaning the mintage totals might not be accurate guides as to the availability of some dates today.

The very first 1892 Philadelphia Barber half dollar pointed immediately to the fact that it could not be taken for granted that the Philadelphia mintages would be high. The 1892 had a mintage of 935,245, which was lower than the 1892-S. The 1892 might have been saved, not unusual for the first year of a new design. Today in G-4 the 1892 lists at $28.50 while an MS-60 is at $475, basically an available-date price, suggesting saving around Philadelphia. An MS-65 is at $3,400, slightly higher than the most available MS-65 dates, which are at $3,000. In this case the numbers at the Professional Coin Grading Service serve as a good guide to how available or tough other dates might be. PCGS reports 111 examples in MS-65 and better and over 500 total Mint State examples graded.

The 1893 would have a higher mintage of 1,826,792, but in fact it shows that there was definitely some saving in the first year as the 1893 is much less available in Mint State where it has a price of $535 in MS-60 and $5,500 in MS-65. Those prices are deserved as PCGS has seen around 125 examples in Mint State and of that total only 21 were MS-65 or better.

The 1894 and 1895 would be similar in that both had mintages of between one million and two million pieces. The 1894 would have the lower mintage at 1,148,972, which results in a price of $32.50 in G-4 today while the 1,835,218-mintage 1895 is at $17.50 in that grade. In MS-60 the 1895 becomes the more expensive at $595 while the 1894 is just $500. They switch places again in MS-65 where the 1894 is at $3,900 while the 1895 is $3,500. The close prices are no accident; PCGS shows just a one coin difference in the numbers seen of the two.

1896 again saw a low mintage of 950,000 at Philadelphia. The uneven nature of supplies in circulated grades is seen in the fact that the 1896 is just $20 in G-4, less than the higher mintage 1894. With so much time in circulation, it is possible that greater numbers of the 1894 were destroyed, making it the tougher date today. In MS-60 the 1896 is at $565, an MS-65 $6,000, that price justified with only 14 examples having been graded in MS-65 or better today.

The final Philadelphia Barber half dollars of the 1890s showed significanty higher mintages. The 1897 was near 2.5 million while the 1898 was over 2.9 million and the 1899 was at over 5.5 million. The three are between $12 and $15 in G-4 with each being $485 in MS60. In MS-65 the three are between $3,800 and $4,800 with the 1899 being he most expensive at $4,800 where CGS has only graded 14 examples.

What happens in the case of the Philadelphia Barber half dollar is that a pattern does not last long. The 1900-1902 dates all had mintages between four million and five million. Generally speaking, all three are equally priced equally available.

Just when the pattern seems to be established, there is the 1903, which had a decent mintage of 2,278,755. That is not a low total, so the 1903 is just $13.50 in G-4, which is basically the same as the dates from 1900-1902. In MS-60 it is also similar to the three earlier years at $500, but then suddenly as opposed to roughly $4,250 like the other dates it is listed for $11,000. That immediately raises the question as to whether it is that much tougher and in fact it is as PCGS has only seen five examples in MS65 or better while the three earlier dates are usually at a dozen or more pieces seen in top grade.

The 1904, mintage 2,992,670, was similar although not as extreme. Available in circulated grades, the 1904 is $1,300 in MS-60 and $6,600 in MS65, both premium prices. The question becomes, do the numbers support the prices? Once again they do. PCGS reports just seven examples in MS-65 and higher grades. With a number just two coins lower than the 1903 but a price at about 50 percent of the 1903 level in MS-65, the question might well be why the 1904 is not more expensive. There could be a few factors explaining that – with limited demand and a very limited supply, you have the elements of a volatile situation in terms of price. There is another factor to be remembered, and that is the presence of proofs. These are cases where the proofs can potentially be substituted for MS-65 examples by some type collectors.

The proofs are a very real consideration as today the 1904 in Proof-65 is $4,100, about $2,500 below the MS-65 price. In the case of the 1903, with a Proof-65 at $3,825 while an MS-65 is $11,000, there is a very real financial incentive to consider using a proof in a collection. PCGS shows safely over 20 examples of both the 1903 and 1904 in Proof-65 and many more in lower grades. This makes the proof not only much less expensive but also far easier to find offered.

The proof situation might surprise some, but we have to consider the times. The proof sales in 1903 and 1904 might have been around 700, down from over 1,200 in 1892. Even though the numbers moved up and down, the proofs sold each year had a very real advantage when it came to survival as the only people acquiring proofs were serious collectors, and that means much better care. We can see that in the famous 1895 Morgan dollar that was part of a set with an 1895 Barber half dollar. The total mintage of that set is put at 880 pieces, which was about average for 1895, yet the belief is that perhaps 600 examples of the 1895 proof-only dollar still exist. While the numbers are lower for the 1895 half dollar, the fact remains there are significantly more proofs available today despite the much lower mintage than there are examples in a grade like MS-65, and this trend runs throughout the entire period when Barber half dollars were produced – but only in the case of coins produced at Philadelphia.

In 1905 the Philadelphia Barber half dollar mintage suddenly dropped to just 662,727 pieces. We are not certain of any specific reason for the decline although Philadelphia throughout had other responsibilities that would cause its mintages to rise and fall sometimes for no apparent reason. The lower mintage makes the 1905 a $22.50 coin in G-4, and that has to be seen as a very good deal when you consider the low mintage. Perhaps the 1905 did survive in circulated grades, but it is also possible that being from Philadelphia it is simply overlooked. The 1905 is better in Mint State at $575 in MS-60 and $8,250 in MS-65 where the PCGS total is just 13 coins seen. Once again the Proof-65 is an option at $3,900 and the supply there is better as well, with more than 30 examples graded Proof-65 or better.

The 1906 and 1907 are basically at available-date prices of $12 in G-4, $485 in MS-60 and around $3,250 in MS-65. In both cases as well as a number of other dates, its worth remembering that these are not common coins. They are available dates among Barber half dollars, but in both cases there were mintages of under three million pieces. Under no circumstances can such a mintage be considered large, and these coins as well as the others were not saved in any numbers. They circulated for decades. Certainly over time there were many examples destroyed and lost. At today’s basic price of $12 in G-4, the conclusion has to be that any Philadelphia Barber half is a good value, and that includes even these more available dates.

In the cases of the 1908 and 1909, these are a couple of dates that on the surface seem to be available thanks to mintages between 1.3 and 2.3 million pieces. In all Barber half dollar cases the mintages are low, and that includes even the available dates. The totals of the 1908 and 1909, while low, make them average Barber halves. There were only a couple dates which would even reach the five million mark and none that would top six million. Under the circumstances, when it comes to availability, everything is relative to other Barber halves, and by that standard the 1908 and 1909 are at least available in circulated grades. Where the 1908 and 1909 prove to be better is in the case of the 1908 in MS-65 where it lists for $4,500 as only 17 examples have been graded MS-65 or better at PCGS. In the case of the 1909, it is the Proof-65 at $4,000 that is worth noting. In fact, the dates since 1907 are all higher in Proof-65 at $4,000 or more; the earlier dates tend to be $3,300 and up but usually in the $3,500 range. What the 1909 and others reflect is a continuing decline in proof mintages, making them less available than earlier dates, and that trend would continue with a couple exceptions until the end of Barber half production.

The 1910 would be the start of what is an interesting period. The mintage of the 1910 is just 418,551, and by any standard that is a low total. Yet its price is just $20 in G-4. A comparison with the 1938-D Walking Liberty half dollar might well show the value. The 1938-D, which was actually saved in some numbers, had a higher mintage of 491,600, yet today in G-4 the 1938-D is $120. There is no doubt that the 1938-D is more available, yet the lack of interest in Barber half dollars today allows the 1910 to sit at $20, making it a great value on an overlooked coin.

The 1910 is also very reasonable in Mint State as there it is the number saved and not the mintage that really matters. At $625 in MS-60 and $4,000 in MS-65 with a Proof-65 at $4,250, the 1910 is better but certainly not out of line considering its mintage and the PCGS numbers, which show 19 examples in MS-65 or better.

The 1911 saw a return to a more normal mintage of 1,406,543 and the 1912 would be similar at 1,550,700. As it turned out, the 1911 would be the available date of the two based on prices today while the 1912 is at a premium price of $4,200 in MS-65 and it may be a sleeper at that price as PCGS has only graded 11 in MS-65 or better.

The 1913 mintage began the final three years of Philadelphia Barber half dollar mintages, which were all extremely low. The 1913 had a mintage of 188,627 while the 1914 was at 124,610 with the 1915 at 138,450. Precisely what was happening at Philadelphia to produce such totals is uncertain, but in three years Philadelphia produced the three lowest mintages in the history of Barber half dollars and those three dates are extremely interesting today.

With such low mintages we might assume that the three dates were heavily saved at the time, but that is not the case. After all, there was a Barber quarter with a 40,000 mintage in 1913 and a Standing Liberty quarter with a 52,000 mintage in 1916 and those were just a couple of a parade of lower-mintage dates during the period. The 1913, 1914 and 1915 Barber halves did not stand out. We also have some proof that they circulated for decades without being pulled out of circulation by collectors or dealers. The New York Subway Hoard had not only 24 complete sets of Barber halves, but also many individual examples of these dates, so there is no doubt that they were in circulation at least into the 1940s.

We have seen circulated prices of the three rising recently. It may be primarily a case of their low mintages attracting attention as they have been rising faster than other Barber half dollars. In G-4 the 1913 is now at $70 while the lowest mintage 1914 is at $150 with the 1915 at $90. In today’s market those prices are reasonable for coins with such mintages, but future increases may be limited simply because of a lack of demand.

In Mint State we see the 1913 at $1,150 in MS-60 and $4,850 in MS-65 while the 1914 is $1,400 in MS-60 and $7,500 in MS-65 with the 1915 at $1,250 in MS-60 and $6,500 in MS-65. The PCGS totals for the three show the 1913 with 16 pieces graded MS-65 or better while the 1914 is at eight and the 1915 is at 12. Those actually are pretty close to what you would expect based on prices although it must be remembered that there is still a supply of proofs for all dates. Interestingly enough, based on PCGS totals the toughest of the three in proof grades is the 1915.

Whatever grade you might select, there is really no doubt that the 1913, 1914 and 1915 are very interesting Barber half dollar dates and dates that still seem to have a lot of potential if additional demand surfaces.

Actually, the matter of additional demand is key to all Philadelphia Barber half dollars. Based on the numbers graded and their low mintages, the Philadelphia Barber half dollar certainly seem to have a great deal of potential. The only real question is whether that will be recognized by enough collectors to push their prices to new levels in the future.