Barber Coins — A Lifelong Addiction

Posted on 12/12/2007

Every time David Lange thinks he’s out, those compelling Barber coins pull him back in. Read the full story here.

As a collector of coins and notes for more than 40 years now, I’ve had the opportunity and inclination to collect in almost every field of United States and world numismatics. As my passion for each new area peaks and then ultimately fades, these collections are sold and the money re-channeled into some new series or country. Though the objects themselves now belong to others, I retain the knowledge acquired along the way, and my numismatic library continues to grow. Throughout all this building and dispersing of collections, however, one area of collecting keeps drawing me back — the silver coins created by Charles Barber and coined 1892-1916.

There is something compelling about the dimes, quarters, and halves of these years that I always find fascinating regardless of grade or individual rarity. I’ve assembled and sold multiple partial sets of each denomination at various grade levels, never actually completing one, though I’ve come very close with the half dollars. It always seems that I change directions in my collecting interest before making the commitment of dollars and time needed to finish. I’m once again building sets of all three Barber series, but the astonishing price advances for key-date coins over the past four or five years has made it unlikely that I’ll ever own a 1901-S quarter dollar. Nevertheless, I still keep plugging away at this set knowing full well that I’m not going to fill that last hole in the album.

The first set of Barber coins that I attempted to complete in my early teens was the half dollar series. Drawn to this coin’s impressive size, as well as its attractiveness even when quite worn, I started out to assemble a set in full-rim Good condition. As this set progressed, however, my purchases gradually crept up in grade to G-VG (G-6 as it is now known), then Fine-12, then F-15 and finally VF-20. I would routinely trade in my lower grade coins at the same coin shop supplying me with the better pieces. As I began getting odd jobs and making some money, I finally settled on the grade of VF-XF (VF-30 in modern terms). I should have stayed with this grade, as I had nearly completed the set when I made the mistake of buying a couple pieces in Extremely Fine condition. These were quite appealing to me but, at their price then of $40 or so, they were too expensive for me to go on with the series at this level. I ultimately became frustrated and sold this nearly completed set. The same scenario unfolded again more than once, as I repeatedly flirted with the Barber series between other collecting experiences.

In adulthood, I decided that the time was right to assemble all three Barber series again in Choice About Uncirculated condition (AU-58). It was shortly thereafter that the Barber Coin Collectors Club was founded, and I became member #4, being quite active in the club during its formative period. After a few years, I’d made it about halfway through my “slider” sets when I was again drawn to an entirely unrelated area of numismatics, for which these Barbers soon became a source of funds.

I’m once more on the Barber trail, but my current target grades are Fine through Very Fine. Such coins have enough detail to be attractive to collectors, yet they are not so expensive as to distract from other aspects of life. Despite my being a full-time numismatist who attends nearly every major coin show in the country, it’s not easy to find the right coins. My duties with NGC demand that I be at the company’s booth nearly all the time, though I’m sometimes able to slip away for an hour or so during dealer set-up and then again after we’ve packed up for home.

Even with this limitation, since commencing my current sets about six years ago I’ve been able to fill most of the holes in the half dollar and quarter sets with eye-appealing coins, though the dime set is lagging a bit. I seek only problem-free original pieces, and by that, I mean coins that have not been damaged or cleaned and have natural, matching patinas. This is not so difficult for low-grade pieces (let’s say, About Good through Very Good), but it is extremely challenging for ones falling into the most popular collector grades of Fine, Very Fine, and Extremely Fine. Such coins are always on collectors’ want lists, and dealers have a very difficult time keeping them in stock.

I’ve acquired a number of pieces that are only VG-10, but these appealed to me because of exceptional color and contrast that made them look good alongside the higher grade examples in my sets. Assembling a matched set of coins, whatever the selected grade range, is very desirable in making the collection more attractive to you now and to potential buyers down the road. This can be very difficult with the three Barber series, as the pre-1900 issues are seldom found without signs of harsh cleaning or damage of some sort. The halves seem to have survived in greater numbers in their natural state, but the dimes and quarters of these years are extremely difficult to find in mid grades with natural color and no problems.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.