Of the three series commonly known as Barber coinage (dimes, quarters and halves) the quarter set is without a doubt the most difficult to complete in any grade. The set contains the three “kings of Barber coinage”, three San Francisco issues that are among the most difficult coins of the series in use in the early 20th century to find in any condition. A full set in uncirculated is an amazing feat that has been completely by only a small number of specialists, and even a full set in well-circulated condition is a surprisingly difficult endeavor that can take many years to complete. Besides the three key dates there are many semi key-dates that are difficult to find as well, especially in original VF/XF grades, a grade range which has become increasingly more difficult to collect.
The 1896-S is the first of the three famous key-dates of the Barber Quarter series. The issue had a low output of 188,039 pieces, virtually of which quietly entered circulation and got lost, melted or damaged, leaving collectors with a small number of pieces to choose from, especially in uncirculated condition. Very few pieces have remained in uncirculated condition and at the gem uncirculated level this is a major rarity that comes up for auction infrequently. Circulated pieces are not easy to find either and even coins in AG or Good condition can sell for close to $1000, if not more.
While not as difficult as the preceding issue of the San Francisco Mint the 1897-S Barber Quarter is still a semi-key date with a mintage of 542,229 pieces. Well circulated pieces are very affordable (a coin in “Good” can be found for about $100 with some searching) but like most Barber Quarters this issue is very difficult to find above Fine. Of note is one variety called the “centered mintmark”, which has the mintmark placed above the open space between “QUAR. & DOLLAR” on the reverse. This variety is rare and sells for a premium but can still be cherrypicked from dealers with searching (the common variety has the mintmark above the “D” in DOLLAR).
While it does not have the lowest mintage of the series the 1901-S Barber Quarter is the rarest issue of the Barber design in any grade. Some have actually called it the rarest American silver coin of the 20th century, and there are very few American coins that come close to the rarity of this one. The mintage, 72,664 pieces is among the lowest of all quarters every produced, and once again attrition took a heavy toll on most pieces that entered in circulation. Most of the pieces did, and very few were saved in uncirculated condition, with just a few doing so probably because of pure luck. The finest known is an amazing PCGS MS-68 that sold for $327,750 pieces at auction in 2010. Gems are almost equally as rare and regularly sell for mid five-figure sums or higher.
The 1909-O Barber Quarter is a curious issue which is well-known among specialists but does get overlooked by many, including some dealers. The mintage of 712,000 pieces is low but not extremely so, and in Good and Very Good grades the issue is frequently encountered. In grades above Fine, however, it becomes rare, especially in problem-free mid-level circulated grades such as VF and XF. Demand for this date at these grade levels is extremely high and prices realized are often many multiples of published price guide prices.
The 1913-S Barber Quarter is the last of the trio of key-dates of this series. It has the lowest mintage of all, a mere 40,000 pieces, but this issue is not as expensive as the 1901-S. In lower grades the date is more difficult to find than the 1901-S, because of the low-mintage, but it seems that more pieces were set aside by collectors at the time, resulting in a slightly larger supply of mint state coins. This does not mean that this issue is easy to find in circulated condition by any means, and a nice VF or XF coin can require many years of intensive searching. Like all Barber Quarters many pieces have been cleaned or otherwise impaired over time, making the search even more difficult if fully original pieces are sought.
Like the 1897-S the 1914-S Barber Quarter is a very scarce issue that is overshadowed by a rare predecessor. Its mintage at 264,000 pieces was not rare by any means, and the issue is usually encountered in well circulated grades, with uncirculated pieces offered at auction quite infrequently. Well circulated pieces, however, should pose no problem for the collector of coins at the lower grade levels (which, in case of the Barber series, still show considerable detail as a result of Charles E. Barber’s design) as Goods are offered quite frequently both raw as well as in slabs.
Other Scarce Dates
As has been mentioned a number of times above this is a series which has quite a few pieces surviving in Good or Very Good, but the number of survivors dwindles as the grades go up. While those pieces grading VF/XF or AU should be relatively affordable for many of the common dates those dates can be considered rarities in those grades, especially in problem-free condition, where the number of survivors can often be counted on one hand. With an increasing interest from both beginning as well as advanced collectors who seek pieces in these grades we have seen higher and higher auction prices, but given the rarity of these pieces we can expect even higher demand and prices in the near future.
Besides the key-dates and semi-key dates mentioned above there are a number of other scarce dates with low mintages of under one million pieces. These are the 1892-S, 1899-S, 1908-S, 1911-D, 1911-S, 1912, 1913 and 1915-S issues, with the majority of other issues having mintages below ten million pieces. Compared to mintages of other series, such as the Washington Quarters produced later in the 20th century, these are all very low-mintages yet many of these dates remain relatively affordable.