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All-Time Greatest Collection of Barber Half Dollars to be Auctioned in Boston, Part 1

by Greg Reynolds

On Wed., Aug 11, during the Platinum Night event of the Summer 2010 ANA auction in Boston, the all-time greatest collection of Barber Half Dollars will be auctioned. This set was assembled and consigned by Dr. Steven Duckor.

I. Overview

Here in part 1, I will introduce Dr. Duckor’s collection, mention the last two coins that were added, focus on his 1904-S half, and discuss the evolution of his set of Barber halves. In part 2, the historical and cultural importance of this set will be analyzed, along with references to other landmark sets of Barber Halves, including those of Thaine Price, Louis Eliasberg and the Norweb family. Plus, there will be some additional information in at least one of my Wednesday morning columns. Please read tomorrow’s column.

All of Dr. Duckor’s coins are authenticated, graded, and encapsulated by the Professional Coin Grading Service. During the Spring, the entire set was re-evaluated by the PCGS under the new SecurePlus™ program. Twenty-seven of Duckor’s halves received plus grades, Duckor himself reports, and “one coin fully upgraded to the next grade.”

In accordance with the rules of the PCGS registry, Duckor’s primary set has a “weighted” grade point average of “66.776.” With inclusion of the rare and recognized 1892 Micro O variety, his GPA drops a little to “66.72” The second ‘current finest’ set is owned by Dr. Peter Shireman and it is third on the “all-time” list. My guess, though, is that the Thaine Price collection is superior to that of Shireman. In accordance with current grading criteria, some of Price’s coins would merit higher grades than these received in the 1990s.

I am not referring to Dr. Duckor’s set of Barber Half Dollars as the ‘all-time’ best because it is the number one “All-Time Finest” in the PCGS registry, though this is so. I am referring to it as the greatest collection of business strike Barber Halves of all time because it is superior to any other, better than those that were disbursed before the PCGS was founded, and better than those that include a mix of PCGS and NGC certified coins. I have spent considerable time researching and analyzing the topic of business strike Barber Half Dollars.

Actually, so few collectors have even attempted to assemble gem quality, complete sets of business strike Barber Halves, it was not that difficult to determine that the Duckor collection is the greatest of all time. References to other sets of Barber Halves are central to an understanding of Dr. Duckor’s set. In terms of the culture of coin collecting, Dr. Duckor’s set of Barber Halves is perhaps the most important collection to be auctioned in Boston this August, even though tens of millions of dollars worth of rare coins, including several wonderful collections, will be sold.

Unfortunately, I am not able here to extensively discuss many of the individual Barber Halves in the collection. The objectives of this two-part series are to explain the importance of this set, to provide information about its evolution, to relate it to other sets of Barber Halves, and to discuss the meaning of this set in the context of the history and traditions of coin collecting in the United States. I will mention a few specific Barber Halves in my weekly columns, starting tomorrow.

Mark Borckardt, surely, did an admirable job of cataloguing Dr. Duckor’s coins. I strongly recommend that collectors read the catalogue. Even collectors who cannot afford these halves will find the catalogue to be educational and interesting. In order to understand the coins that a collector possesses, it is necessary for him or her to learn about coins that are not affordable.

Of course, it is theoretically possible that a higher quality set of Barber Halves could have existed, or may be tucked away somewhere. It is also theoretically possible that there could exist multiple, undiscovered, gem quality 1894-S dimes, 1804 dollars, 1870-S Three Dollar gold pieces, 1927-D Saints and 1964-D Peace Dollars. Some possibilities, however, are just too remote to be worth considering. Besides, while Barber Halves are not rare in absolute terms, several dates are extremely rare in MS-65 and higher grades. Most of the gems of these key dates have been tracked. It is remotely possible, though not plausible, that there is (or ever was) a secret collection that is of higher quality than the Duckor set of Barber Halves.

II. The Duckor 1904-S

Perhaps the three most valuable coins in Dr. Duckor’s set of Barber Halves are his 1892 Micro O, his 1896-O and his 1904-S. While the 1892 Micro O is very scarce in all grades, and, of course, rare in high grades, it is a variety of the 1892-O date. Dr. Duckor emphasizes that the “two dates that are the rarest Barber halves in MS-65, or higher [grade], are the ’96-O and the ’04-S.”

Much attention will be paid to the Duckor 1904-S. It is one of only two that is PCGS graded MS-67, and it is the only certified MS-67 grade 1904-S to have received a sticker of approval from the CAC. Curiously, of the five top 1904-S halves listed in Borckardt’s condition ranking, I have seen all but this one. While I have viewed much of Dr. Duckor’s set, for one reason or another, I never saw the Duckor 1904-S.

The other PCGS graded MS-67 1904-S is in the collection of Dr. Peter Shireman. It was earlier in the Norweb family collection, and was auctioned in Nov. 1988. It then realized $17,050, an exorbitant price at the time. I have seen this coin and I was impressed by the toning. I would like to see it again before commenting upon its grade. It certainly has natural toning and no significant flaws.

The Emery-Nichols-Thaine Price-Hugon 1904-S is NGC graded MS-67. I have examined it on more than one occasion. In his 1998 catalogue of the Thaine Price collection, David Akers states that “it was undoubtedly purchased by S. Benton Emery directly from the Mint and thus has had only a couple of owners in the past ninety-four years.” My impression is that Akers is referring to four owners, Emery, Nichols, himself and Thaine Price. Yes, my belief is that this is another of many Barber Halves that Akers obtained directly at the auction of the Emery-Nichols collection for Akers’ personal collection. Later, he sold it to Thaine Price, I guess.

The first time that I saw this coin I graded it as 66+. Years before the PCGS or the NGC considered formally using plus grades, coin enthusiasts did so on their own. The second time, I concurred that it merits a MS-67 grade. Dr. Duckor agrees, and states that “it is an absolutely solid 67”! He does believe, though, his 1904-S is of higher quality, and it might very well be. Duckor thought that the Emery-Nichols-Price 1904-S “went cheap” at the Jan. 2005 auction of the Hugon collection, where it realized $92,000.

The Eliasberg 1904-S was obtained by J. M. Clapp directly from the San Francisco Mint. It was in the “Stellar” collection at one time. Please see my inaugural column for a little discussion of the “Stellar” collection. The Eliasberg 1904-S was in the Dale Friend collection when Friend’s set of Barber Halves was auctioned by Heritage in Jan. 2009. It is PCGS graded MS-66 and has a CAC sticker of approval. I like it. In my view, its grade is in the middle of the 66 range. Moreover, it is more than very attractive. It realized $80,500 in Jan. 2009.

The PCGS price guide values a 1904-S half in MS-67 grade at $110,000, and the Numismedia guide provides a value of $117,000. The Duckor 1904-S was earlier in the collection of James A. Stack, Sr., which is one of the fifteen all-time greatest collections of U.S. coins. My understanding is that David Akers purchased it at the 1975 auction of James A. Stack’s quarters and halves, or soon afterwards, for his own collection. In 1992, Akers sold it to Dr. Duckor. The late James A. Stack, Sr. is not related to the Stack family that founded the Stack’s coin firm. He had some really terrific Barber Halves. It will be interesting to see how much the Duckor 1904-S will realize at auction in August.

III. The Evolution of Duckor’s collection

Dr. Duckor began collecting Barber halves in 1991. By then, he had many years of experience as an advanced coin collector. Moreover, Duckor was mentored by one of the most knowledgeable dealers of all time, David Akers. While Akers is widely recognized as an expert in gold coins, Akers was also a specialist in Barber Halves and devoted years to studying them. My research suggests, though Akers might deny it, that Akers was personally and very seriously collecting Barber Halves in the 1980s and sold, over time, much of his collection to Duckor. Akers also sold many gem quality Barber Halves to Thaine Price.

In addition to acquiring a sizeable portion of his Barber Half collection from Akers, Dr. Duckor cherrypicked coins from the Hugon, Thaine Price and Dale Friend collections. Indeed, Duckor bought a large number of Barber Half Dollars at the May 19, 1998 auction of the Thaine Price collection.

David Akers catalogued the Thaine Price collection and this catalogue is a wonderful reference for Barber Halves and early 20th century gold coins. While I have referred to it innumerable times, I was surprised when Dr. Duckor told me that he has “taken” his copy of the Thaine Price auction catalogue “on every trip to Hawaii over the last dozen years.”

During the eighteen or so years that Duckor collected Barber Halves, he frequently upgraded; he replaced coins with higher quality representatives of the same respective dates. In 2002, Dale Friend traveled to meet Duckor and they arranged trades at the bank that houses Dr. Duckor’s collection. Generally, Dr. Duckor sold duplicates.

Dr. Duckor’s Barber Half set was initially completed in 2002. “Between 1998 and 2002,” Duckor recounts that he “did not buy any coins. [He still] needed a 1909-S. [Dr. Duckor] flew to New York to see the 1909-S in the Queller sale.” Stack’s auctioned David Queller’s collection of half dollars in Oct. 2002, at which time Duckor finished his set. The Queller-Duckor 1909-S was earlier in the James A. Stack, Sr. collection.

In fact, several Barber Halves in the Queller collection were earlier in the James A. Stack, Sr. collection and these brought substantial sums at the auction of Queller’s halves. For example, the Queller 1904-O, earlier in the James A. Stack collection, brought $25,300, a stunning price for a 1904-O at the time, or at any time. The bidders at the Queller sale, which included many expert graders, must of thought that some of the J. A. Stack – David Queller Barber Halves were of astonishing quality for their respective dates.

Also, Duckor “met Stewart Blay for the first time at the Queller sale in 2002.” Blay is a legendary collector of small cents and Barber coins, and is widely recognized as an expert grader of most copper and silver series of U.S. coins

Dr. Duckor’s 1911-S half is also from the Queller collection, though it was acquired years after the 2002 Queller sale. It sold for $14,950 in 2002. It is now PCGS graded “MS-67+” and is valued at “$25,000” in the PCGS price guide.

Dr. Duckor feels fortunate to have been “able to get the 1915-S in PCGS 67 at the May 2008 Long Beach Heritage auction from the Silbermunzen collection, which was off the market for almost 20 years!”

The Silbermunzen collection will be best remembered for 19th century quarters. It was curious that it contained a superb 1915-S half. From 1991 to early 2008, Dr. Duckor could not find a 1915-S that he graded higher than MS-65. I saw the Silbermunzen-Duckor 1915-S. It has neat blue and russet toning and no significant marks. It was the second to last Barber Half that he obtained.

The “last coin” for this set was acquired by Dr. Duckor in early 2009. Previously, Dr. Duckor purchased the Thaine Price 1905 half at the May 1998 auction. The Thaine Price 1905 is PCGS graded MS-67.

“More than fifteen years ago,” Duckor recounts, “David Akers called [Duckor] and said that [Akers] saw the most incredible Barber Half that [Akers had] ever seen.” Duckor promptly inquired and Akers indicated that it was “already sold to Jay Parrino and that it [was] in the Knoxville collection.” In 2009, Duckor “was offered” this same 1905 half, which was NGC graded MS-68. Dr. Duckor “got it crossed”; it became PCGS graded MS-68. In 2010, it was PCGS graded “MS-68+.” Before the implementation of the SecurePlus program in 2010, the PCGS did not award plus grades.

The “Knoxville” collection is the all-time best type set of U.S. silver coins. Jay Parrino guided a collector in the building of this set in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 2003, Parrino sold all the coins in this set. The collector, who owned the ‘Knoxville’ set, does not, and probably never did, live in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The Knoxville 1905 is thus the last addition to Dr. Duckor’s set of Barber Halves. As far as I know, it is the only Barber Half Dollar of any date that is PCGS certified as “MS-68+”!

Dr. Duckor feels “fortunate” to have been collecting during an era when most of the greatest Barber Halves were available to him. The availability of these halves, and their sources, will be discussed in Part 2, along with general references to the business strike Barber Halves in the Eliasberg, Norweb, Emery-Nichols and Thaine Price collections. The topic of segregating business strikes from Proofs will be analyzed.

©2010 Greg Reynolds

About the Author

Greg Reynolds is a numismatic writer, researcher and analyst. Greg has examined almost all of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest type coins and patterns, He has extensively researched the pedigrees of important numismatic properties, and he has written about and analyzed numerous auctions, private sales and collections.

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