Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Philadelphia Mint Barber Half Dollars of 1904
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #132 …..
There has been a tremendous amount of discussion concerning the silver dollars of 1804, yet minimal talk about the half dollars of 1904, which are not as common as many collectors believe them to be. Furthermore, in almost uncirculated (AU) and uncirculated (‘Mint State’) grades, 1904 halves are important condition rarities. Moreover, 1904 halves are ‘in the news’ as Heritage will offer four at auction in less than three weeks. One of the stars of this upcoming auction, at the autumn ANA Convention in Dallas, is the finest known business strike 1904, the fabulous Duckor coin.
I. What are Barber Half Dollars?
Like Barber Dimes and Barber Quarters, Barber Half Dollars were designed by Charles Barber. These types were first minted in 1892. The dimes and quarters were last struck in 1916, while Barber Halves were last struck in 1915.
Liberty Nickels were also designed by Charles Barber. Liberty Nickels, which are sometimes informally called ‘vee nickels,’ date from 1883 to 1913. These look much different from the silver coins that Barber designed.
Barber Dimes, Barber Quarters, and Barber Half Dollars all have a similar (obverse) front design. The reverse (back) design of Barber Half Dollars is nearly identical to that of Barber Quarters. A heraldic eagle concept dominates the reverse design of the quarter and the Barber Half Dollar. This representation of an eagle would not have fit comfortably on the reverse (back) of a dime.
While Barber Half Dollars are not extremely expensive, most Walking Liberty Half Dollars are less costly in circulated grades and Franklin Half Dollars are much less costly overall. Someone who cannot afford Barber Halves may wish to consider collecting Franklin Half Dollars, which were minted from 1948 to 1963.
A set of Good-04 grade Barber Halves, including all dates (and corresponding mint locations), could be assembled for around $2500. For less than $8000, a set could be built of Barber Half Dollars in Fine-12 or better grades. Seventy-three dates, including coins struck at four U.S. Mint locations, are needed for a complete set.
The 1892 ‘Micro O’ variety is not necessary, though can be an interesting addition. The 1904 San Francisco Mint issue is the key ‘date’ in the series. Coins produced at the San Francisco Mint typically have an ‘S’ mintmark.
A ‘D’ mintmark is found on Denver Mint coins, and New Orleans Mint coins each have an ‘O’ mintmark. Before 1942, Philadelphia Mint coins never had mintmarks. The 1904 Philadelphia Mint issue is overshadowed by the key 1904-S half, which is famous.
A collector on a tight budget may acquire representatives of the best dates in Fair-02 or AG-03 grades. A 1904-S that grades Fair-02 or AG-03 would probably retail for less than $25.
An incredibly large percentage of surviving business strike Barber Half Dollars grade less than Fine-15. Most grade from AG-03 to VG-08. Many dates this series are rare in AU-50 and higher grades, and are extreme condition rarities in MS-65 and higher grades.
Dr. Steven Duckor declares that “Barber Halves are ten times rarer than Barber Dimes and five to seven times rarer than Barber Quarters in Gem MS-65 or better. I [collected] Barber Halves for nearly twenty years. I was fortunate” to obtain so many superb Barber Halves, Duckor finds.
Most collectors of Barber Half Dollars do not even consider gem quality coins. I estimate that fewer than eight thousand, gradable 1904 business strike half dollars exist and fewer than 450 of these grade AU-50 or higher.
Business strikes are coins made by ordinary or routine methods. Proofs were specially made for collectors and/or to impress people. Some physical characteristics of Proofs are much different from corresponding characteristics of business strikes. Each Proof Barber Half Dollar was struck multiple times with extensively polished dies, usually on specially prepared blanks. (Please see my article on the physical characteristics of 1841 Quarter Eagles for a discussion of the meaning of Proofs, and my article on a Denver Mint Proof Double Eagle.)
In Dallas, Heritage will auction two Proof 1904 halves. On Oct. 18th, one that is PCGS certified Proof-64 will be sold. It is not ‘fresh.’ This same coin was auctioned by Heritage on April 22, 2012, in Illinois, for $1322.50. It was then in the “Lois Crews Collection.” I estimate that 385 Proof 1904 halves survive, not all of which are gradable.
On Oct. 20th, Heritage will sell a PCGS certified Proof-61 1904 half. Like many Proof coins that grade ‘61,’ it has a large number of hairlines. Pre-1917 Proofs were often wiped in misguided efforts to ‘clean’ them. It may, though, be a fairly attractive coin. I have never seen it. This certified Proof-61 1904 may sell for less than half as much as the just mentioned PCGS certified Proof-64 Barber Half Dollar.
II. Almost Uncirculated-53 grade
Also on Oct. 20th, Heritage will offer a 1904 half that is PCGS graded AU-53. In a sense, this is a condition rarity. After all, I repeat that fewer than 450 grade AU-50 or higher. In two Heritage auctions in 2011 and in one in Aug. 2012, other PCGS graded AU-53 1904 halves realized $322, $345, and $499.38, respectively.
Most of the 450 1904 halves that grade AU-50 to MS-67+ fall into the range from AU-58 to MS-63. Banks and contemporary coin dealers set aside a few rolls. Furthermore, some people in 1904 collected them at face value. The names and precise activities of most all the people who collected coins in their respective eras, at face value, will never be known.
In affluent capitalist societies, there are large numbers of people who enjoy collecting things. Coin collecting grew tremendously from the 1850s to the 1870s. In 1904, coin collecting was a very popular hobby. Besides, collectors would have nothing to lose by collecting half dollars at face value, fifty cents each. Such collecting accounts for many of the surviving uncirculated 1904 half dollars, especially the choice or gem quality coins. (A choice grade coin grades 63 or higher and gems grade 65 or higher.)
Despite the fact that collecting coins was a very popular hobby in 1904, there are four main reasons why so few choice uncirculated 1904 halves survive.
(A) Many high quality, collected coins were inherited by, or given as gifts to, people who later spent them, without realizing that these were (or would eventually be) worth significantly more than face value.
(B) Collectors, or later owners of collected coins, harmed coins while thinking that they were ‘improving’ them. Over a period of more than two centuries, tens of thousands of classic U.S. coins have been seriously harmed by ignorant and careless past owners who improperly cleaned, polished, or surgically altered them.
Coins with serious problems that survive are judged to be, or should be judged to be, not gradable. When I refer to coins that grade above AU-50, I emphasize the term ‘grade.’ In such a context, I exclude coins that have the details of an AU-50 to MS-60 grade coin, yet are not gradable.
Many severely harmed half dollars were later melted, as their silver content has always been significant. It is especially sad that some nice, naturally toned, gradable half dollars were sent to be melted by owners who did not understand them.
According to coinflation.com, on Oct. 2nd, each Barber Half Dollar had a ‘melt value’ of “$12.4857.” Barber Half Dollars are approximately 90% silver and 10% copper. A heavily circulated coin will have a lower ‘melt value,’ as some of its silver content will have worn away.
The price of silver, as a metal, was even higher, briefly in Jan. 1980, than it is now. Even during times when 90% silver half dollars each contained four to five dollars worth of silver, many were melted.
(C) In 1904, most, though not all, advanced collectors would have considered 1904 half dollars to be trivial. They would have been far more interested in half dollars minted around a century earlier, perhaps those dated 1803 or 1805. (There are no half dollars dated 1804.) Most advanced collectors now likewise regard coins dated 2012 as being not of great importance.
(D) In 1904, most advanced collectors who desired a Philadelphia Mint 1904 Half Dollar would have acquired a Proof 1904 Barber Half Dollar. Even until 1930, a Proof 1904 would have been easy to find for only a small premium over face value.
Before the 1980s, most knowledgeable collectors regarded Proofs as being superior to corresponding business strikes, not merely products of different production methods. Moreover, tradition allowed for Proofs and business strikes to be mixed in the same sets. Indeed, for sets of high quality coins, a policy of including Proofs along with business strikes was encouraged. Therefore, before the 1980s, a collector building a set of choice or gem quality Barber Half Dollars would be likely to have obtained a Proof 1904, and not a business strike.
To a large extent, this tradition has been pushed aside by the adoption of a new set of rules, which do not allow collectors to mix Proofs and business strikes in the same sets, except type sets. The new rules, in this regard, are exemplified by the PCGS and NGC registries, which segregate sets of business strikes from sets of Proofs. Personally, I prefer the longstanding tradition, though I understand and respect the new set of rules. I suggest that collectors of choice or gem quality coins, in many cases, mix business strikes and Proofs in the same sets.
In any event, not many 1904 business strikes that grade above 60 survive. These are condition rarities in 63 and higher grades. Indeed, there are probably fewer than fifty 1904 halves that leading grading experts would honestly grade MS-64 or higher, perhaps only forty. There are some that have been mistakenly certified as grading MS-64 or higher.
I maintain that a maximum of seventeen different business strike 1904 halves grade MS-65 or higher. The finest known is the Duckor coin.
III. Duckor 1904 Barber Half
On Aug. 11, 2010, Dr. Steven Duckor’s set of Barber Half Dollars was sold in the Heritage auction at the ANA Convention in Boston. As I explained in my two part series about it, Dr. Duckor built the all-time greatest set of Barber Half Dollars. (Clickable links are in blue.) In 2011, I wrote about his experiences as a leading coin collector.
In 2010, Dr. Duckor’s 1904 realized $51,750, an astounding price for a 1904 half. Earlier in 2010, it became PCGS graded ‘MS-67+.’
The Heritage online catalogue for this auction, as of Oct. 2nd, gives the impression that there exists a 1904 that is PCGS graded MS-67. I tentatively suggest that this report is an error.
My impression is that no other 1904 has been PCGS graded MS-67. After the “67+” Duckor coin, the next highest grade assigned by experts at the PCGS to another 1904 business strike is ‘MS-66.’
The NGC has not graded a 1904 half dollar as MS-67 or higher. The NGC has graded just two as MS-66. Neither the PCGS nor the NGC have graded a 1904 half as ‘MS-66+.’
The CAC has approved just four 1904 halves that are PCGS or NGC graded MS-66. The Duckor 1904 has been approved by the CAC as well.
“David Akers called me in 2002,” Dr. Duckor recalls, and Akers said that he “just saw the most incredible 1904. Dale Friend, a lawyer, has it. Do you want to make contact with him?” Dr. Duckor reveals that he later met Dale Friend “at my bank” around the time of “the Long Beach show [of] September 2002. It was originally in an NGC holder. I got it into a PCGS holder,” Duckor reports.
In theory, there could be an unknown 1904 half that is of higher quality than the Duckor 1904, though I would be surprised if one emerged. In my view, its grade really is in the upper end of the 67 range. Clearly, its grade is well above that of any other business strike 1904 half that has been ‘on the market’ in a long time.
The Duckor 1904 is an awesome coin. The toning is natural and wonderful. Indeed, the green colors are amazing. It is one of the most attractive business strike Barber Half Dollars that I have ever seen.
In the past, I examined all of the Barber Half Dollars in the Duckor and Thaine Price sets of Barber Half Dollars, plus all that were in the final version of Dale Friend’s set. Furthermore, I viewed many of those in the Eliasberg and Hugon sets. Additionally, over the years, I have seen quite a few Barber Half Dollars that were earlier in the JAS and Norweb Collections. The initials ‘JAS’ refers to the late James A. Stack, Sr., who is not related to the family, with the same last name, in the coin auction business.
The Duckor, Price, Hugon, Eliasberg, Friend, JAS and Norweb collections contained the all-time best sets of business strike Barber Half Dollars. There are not many superb, business strike Barber Half Dollars that I have not seen.
IV. Various Prices and Grades
There are numerous Proof Barber Half Dollars that grade 66 or 67. After all, collectors active from 1892 to 1915 usually preferred Proofs to business strikes. Furthermore, for various reasons, people acquired 1904 Proof sets in 1904, or assembled them later. In my view, if a beautiful Proof, true 67 grade 1904 could be acquired for less than $6800, then this would be a good value.
Gem Proof 1904 halves are much less expensive than gem business strike 1904 halves. Gems are coins that grade 65 or higher. A certified Proof-64 1904, however, will usually cost more than an MS-64 1904 half dollar that is certified by the same grading service. While an MS-64 1904 may retail for a price in the $1200 to $1450 range, a Proof will tend to retail for a price in the $1500 to $2000 range, depending upon the individual characteristics of the respective coins.
In 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded MS-64 1904 for $1208 and a PCGS graded MS-63 1904 for more, $1380! The certified 63 grade coin was fresh; it had been in a private collection since the 1970s. Plus, it may very well be a more appealing coin than the one that is certified as grading “MS-64,” which brought $1208. I need to view coins in actuality in order to thoroughly interpret their respective auction prices. There are many variables.
Most auction prices are around the border between pertinent wholesale and retail price ranges. In many instances, though, auction prices will be way above market levels or well below this border between retail and wholesale. (Please read my relevant article, What are Auction Prices?)
From a logical perspective, market prices for 1904 Barber Half Dollars are good values. Those who cannot afford an EF-40 or higher grade 1904 may buy a well worn circulated 1904 for not that much over its current ‘melt value’ of $12.49.
One leading dealer recently offered a 1904 that, according to him, merits at least a VG-08 grade, for $22. One in Good-04 grade would cost much less. Even a VG-08 grade 1904 could be found for less than $22, at small to medium size coin shows or at some coin stores.
For those who can afford to spend more than $200, an Extremely Fine-40 or -45 grade 1904 half that is PCGS or NGC certified may be an excellent choice. I suggest coins with natural toning; shades of gray with some brownish-russet are often seen on these, and patches of peach color or touches of blue are occasionally present.
Prices for 1904 halves range from less than $15 to the $51,750 that the Duckor coin brought in 2010. I hope that the next owner of the Duckor 1904 is a collector who truly appreciates it. While I was surprised when it brought $51,750 in 2010, I understand how a collector may be mesmerized by this coin. I will never forget it.
©2012 Greg Reynolds