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All-Time Greatest Collection of Barber Half Dollars to be Auctioned in Boston, Part 2

by Greg Reynolds

In part 1, I introduced Dr. Duckor’s set of Barber Halves, mentioned the last two coins that he added, focused on his 1904-S half, and discussed the building of his set of Barber halves. Here in part 2, the historical and cultural importance of this set will be analyzed, with references to other landmark sets of Barber Halves. In my last weekly column, on Wed. Aug 4th, I discussed two other halves in Dr. Duckor’s set, both of which were previously in the Thaine Price collection, his 1893-O and 1895-S. (As usual, clickable links are in blue.)

IV. Gem Sets of Business Strike Barbers

Only a small number of collectors have attempted to assemble a set of gem quality Barber Half Dollars. These were minted from 1892 to 1915. Barber Dimes and Quarters were also first minted in 1892, though these continued until 1916. In low grades, Good-04 to Fine-12, a set of Barber Halves is easy to complete. Without consideration of the 1892 Micro O variety, suggests that a whole set, in Good-04 grade, could be assembled for around $2500.

Generally, many collectors choose Barber Halves over Barber Quarters because a set of Barber Halves is easier to complete. An 1896-S quarter may cost as much as $1000 in Good condition, while a 1901-S quarter could easily cost more than $5000. So, kids and other beginners are often discouraged from Barber Quarters because they are concerned that they will never be able to complete a set. In grades of MS-65 and higher, though, Barber Halves are much more expensive than the quarters overall.

In many instances, when a collector becomes wealthy, he (or she) returns to some of the series that he collected when he had far less money, often to coin types that he collected as a kid or as a relatively young adult. As sets of circulated Barber Halves have been completed by so many collectors, I am surprised that so few advanced, wealthy collectors have sought to complete sets of gem quality Barber Halves. Such a quest may be very exciting.

Yes, gem quality Barber Halves have been worth significant sums of money since the late 1980s. From then to the present, however, it has often been type coin collectors and speculators that have demanded gem quality Barber Halves. Over the last century, there have been very few collectors, who strongly focused upon completing sets of gem quality, business strike Barber coins.

A perusal of catalogues of auctions of especially great collections from the 1940s to the 1970s demonstrates that minimal attention was given to Barber Halves. It seems that, in decades past, collectors of half dollars felt an obligation to include Barber Halves because traditional rules stipulate that a collection of classic half dollars should include all the dates that the respective collector could afford. In the traditions of coin collecting in the U.S., completion is a value of a high order.

Only in rare instances was a collection of business strike Barber Halves a focus. In addition to being the foremost researcher of U.S. Patterns, Saul Teichman has engaged in a tremendous amount of general research regarding great collections. “One point to remember is that Barber Halves were no big deal in the 1960s and early 1970s,” Teichman remarks, “many of these were under $100 in gem grade back then.”

Several of those who built the greatest U.S. coin collections of all time did, in fact, very much appreciate Barber Halves. Their respective collections featured numerous gem quality Barber Halves.

V. Business Strike and Proofs in Different Sets

As is widely known and is indisputable, Louis Eliasberg formed the greatest collection of U.S. coins of all time. He was not, though, a connoisseur of Barber coins. Most of the pre-1917 silver coins in the Eliasberg collection that now grade from 66 to 68 came from the Clapp collection, which Eliasberg purchased intact in 1942. In a sense, the Clapps were a father-son collecting team, though I am not sure of the extent to which they collected together. Both were named John.

A large number of the coins in the Clapp collection were obtained directly from the Mints when these, respectively, were issued. Additionally, gem quality coins were acquired by the Clapps at major auctions or from leading dealers of their eras. In the early 1900s, it would have made sense to acquire Barber coins from the Mints and/or from dealers who had connections with U.S. Mint officials. The Barber coins in the Clapp collection were largely acquired in this manner and, another famous collector, S. Benton Emery, also acquired Barber coins directly from the Mints.

The Emery-Nichols collection was auctioned in New York by Bowers & Merena (of New Hampshire) in 1984. David Akers attended the sale and bought many Barber Halves, a good number of which he later sold to Dr. Duckor. He sold others to Thaine Price. Like most collectors active at any point from the 1860s to the late 1980s, Emery and the Clapps preferred Proofs to business strikes, and, when a Proof of a date was available, the Proof was chosen, and a business strike of the same type and date was not then obtained. It was not unusual for a Proof of a higher grade to replace a business strike of a lower grade, in a collection.

While I maintain that mixing Proofs and business strikes in the same set makes logical sense, I acknowledge that coin collecting traditions in this regard have changed. Really, there has been a change in the pertinent cultural rule.

In most PCGS and NGC registry sets, it is not permissible to mix Proofs and business strikes in the same sets. Heritage places Proofs and business strikes in different runs in this firm’s auction catalogues. Usually in Heritage catalogues, the business strikes of a certain denomination are auctioned first and then, secondly, the Proofs.

When DLRC auctioned the epic Richmond collection in 2004 and 2005, Proofs and business strikes of the same type were catalogued as separate subcollections. The Richmond Proof Liberty Seated Halves, for example, were not offered until all the Richmond collection, business strike Liberty Seated Halves were sold.

“As for old time collections, most of them included proofs of the P mint coins. The idea of having both proof and unc p-mints” in the same collection “is a relatively modern one, which is encouraged by the [leading grading] services,” Saul Teichman states. His research supports my point in this section.

B&M, Stack’s and the Goldbergs, in contrast, have maintained the tradition of listing Proofs and business strikes together. In their catalogues, for example, of any type, a 1907 Proof and a 1907 business strike would both follow a 1906-S and appear before a 1907-D. I am not assuming that these three firms are encouraging collectors to include Proofs and business strikes in the same sets, though they are certainly not discouraging this traditional practice.

Is there a compelling right or wrong answer to the question of whether collecting Proofs and business strikes of the same type should be considered very distinct (and logically separate) objectives? No, though it is clear that there has been a change in tradition. I respect the relatively new tradition, though I do not completely agree with it. Dr. Duckor certainly believes the collecting of Proofs and business strikes are two completely different pursuits and he strongly favors the collecting of business strikes, not just for Barber coins, but in general.

It is true that a very large percentage of business strikes (though not all) were struck for actual circulation, while Proofs were struck for other reasons. (It has long been argued that some Proof Gobrecht silver dollars were struck for circulation, though relatively recent research has called this theorem into question by challenging the Proof status of the Gobrecht dollars that have been documented as having been made for circulation.)

So, the fact that Emery and Eliasberg preferred Proofs, as did the Norwebs, is the main reason why their respective collections did not contain excellent runs of Philadelphia Mint, business strike Barber halves. Largely because of this point, the Emery-Nichols and Clapp-Eliasberg holdings did not contain the two finest sets of business strike Barber Halves. The Norwebs had some terrific Barber Halves, both Proofs and business strikes, but the Norwebs also had some really mediocre Barber halves as well.

It is clear that the Norwebs never thought of Barber Halves as a priority or as an important component of the overall Norweb collection. If they did, they could easily have obtained gem quality representatives of all dates, especially during the 1950s when they were very seriously acquiring high quality coins and greatly enhancing their family collection.

VI. Originality

When Dr. Duckor evaluates collections, he does not only consider how the PCGS has, or would, grade the coins included. Dr. Duckor, as do I, places tremendous emphasis on originality. Please see my three part series on collecting naturally toned coins, in which Dr. Duckor and other sophisticated experts are quoted [Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3]. Advanced, knowledgeable collectors generally place a higher emphasis on originality than do the leading grading services, though the PCGS and the NGC usually weigh originality as a strong positive when evaluating individual coins.

Dr. Duckor strives to find coins that have never been cleaned or dipped, and feature natural toning. Charles Browne is currently a PCGS grader, and he served as a grading expert for several coin firms during the course of his career, which has lasted more than thirty years. He has participated in innumerable major auctions. Browne declares that “Duckor has a wonderful eye” and has “formed very, very excellent collections,” which are strongly characterized by “naturalness”!

In contrast, both the PCGS and the NGC will often assign gem quality grades (65 and higher) to silver coins that have been obviously and sometimes blatantly dipped. The term ‘dip’ refers to the immersion of a coin in an acidic solution for the purpose of tearing a layer of metal off the coin, usually with the intention of brightening the coin and/or removing toning.

So, when Dr. Duckor interprets collections, he is weighing originality more heavily than does the PCGS and especially the NGC. He is, therefore, not assuming that a coin with a higher certified grade is of higher quality than a coin with a lower certified grade. Also, when analyzing collections of Barber Halves, Dr. Duckor is focusing on business strikes and not considering Proofs.

VI. Best Collections of Barber Halves

In Dr. Duckor’s analysis, the all-time best collections of business strike Barber Half Dollars are: 1) Duckor, 2) Thaine Price, 3) Dale Friend, 4) Hugon, 5) Eliasberg, 6) Emery-Nichols, and 7) Norweb. “The first three are easy” to perceive, Duckor states, partly because these each contain some of the best halves from the following four.

I (this writer) maintain that Hugon’s set of business strike Barber Halves was much better than Dale Friend’s set. Hopefully, someday, I will publish coin-by-coin analyses of these sets, with opinions from several experts. Further, if Proofs were considered along business strikes, with a one grade-increment (or even a two grade) discount, Eliasberg’s set would certainly rank higher than number five. A discount may be logical, as for several dates of Barber Halves, gem quality Proofs are much less rare than corresponding gem quality business strikes. As the Clapps, Eliasberg, and Emery never really intended to acquire superb Philadelphia Mint business strike Barber Halves, and they followed the rules that governed coin collecting before the 1980s, it seems illogical to punish them for not having superb Philadelphia Mint business strike Barber Halves.

Nonetheless, Dr. Duckor emphasizes that the Duckor, Friend, Price and Hugon collections feature “non-Proof P Mint coins” that are carefully selected and impressive. I (this writer) wish to point out that the Eliasberg, Emery-Nichols and Norweb collections contained some really awestriking Proof Barber Halves.

Hugon had both business strikes and Proofs for all three Barber denominations, dimes, quarters and halves. Heritage auctioned Hugon’s Barbers on Jan. 12, 2005, in Orlando.

Dr. Duckor regards Hugon’s halves as “the weakest of his Barber collection.” In Duckor’s opinion, many of Hugon’s halves were “overgraded.” I was far more impressed by Hugon’s halves than was Dr. Duckor. Further, while Dale Friend had some marvelous Barber Halves, he also had some mediocre ones. In my view, too many of Friend’s halves had been apparently dipped. While a coin by coin comparison of the Hugon and Dale Friend sets would be besides the present topic, it would be interesting.

After Hugon, Dr. Duckor declares that the “Eliasberg collection would come next. Eliasberg’s Barbers were great.” Unfortunately, from Duckor’s perspective, “Eliasberg’s Philadelphia Mint [Barber Halves] were all Proof. Gem Mint State P Mints are VERY HARD to acquire; the 1900 to 1905 P Mint [Barbers] are especially difficult!” It may require years for a collector to find exceptional gem quality business strikes of some of the Philadelphia Mint dates from the early 1900s.

As for the “Emery-Nichols collection, the halves of 1892 and 1893 are circulated and some of the [other] dates like 1900-0 and 1895-S are circ.” as well, Duckor explains. “True, starting in 1901 and until 1914, Emery-Nichols coins were gotten from the mint directly,” Duckor emphasizes.

Charles Browne participated in the Emery-Nichols sale in 1984. He found many of the coins to be gems. Among business strikes, Browne regarded the 1897-S, 1898-S and 1906-S, in particular, to be “superb”! Overall, “what” Browne “remember[s] most about this sale is that the coins were just gorgeous!”

“Lastly would be the Norweb collection,” states Dr. Duckor, mostly because it is “not a complete set of Barber Halves … True, the Norweb collection had some really superb Barber Halves.” Dr. Duckor declares, though, that all seven of these sets of Barber Halves “are great. The Norweb [set] may be at the bottom of the list, but only [because it is] not complete.”

I wonder if the David Queller and James A. Stack, Sr. sets of Barber Halves deserve a little more credit than Duckor gives them. Duckor states that the James A. Stack. Sr. set had “only a handful of nice coins” and that Queller had “a small number of gems.” While Duckor’s points are clearly true, some of the Queller Barber Halves and more than a few of the J. A. Stack Barber Halves were tremendous, including some key dates.

I have noticed that when Barber halves, which were previously in the James A. Stack, Sr. collection, appeared at auction over the years, these have realized prices that suggest that bidders regarded them as superb gems and/or coins with tremendous aesthetic appeal.

As an example, consider the James A. Stack 1901-O that was in the George Byers collection of half dollars, which Stack’s auctioned in 2006. It was then not certified. I saw it. It was an awesome coin. I graded it as 66+ overall, though it had the ‘look’ of a higher grade coin at first glance. Bidding started at around $8500 and went wild. It eventually sold to a prominent collector for around $32,000. Stewart Blay, a leading grading expert and accomplished Barber coin collector, was the underbidder.

Stack’s auctioned the James A. Stack, Sr. collection in parts over a period of around twenty years. It is just a coincidence that this collector and the family that owned the auction house had the same last name. His quarters and halves were sold in March 1975. Among Barber halves, while some of the scarcer dates would grade from MS-65 to MS-67 by current standards, others were not of exceptional quality. Many coins were graded “Very Fine,” including the 1896, 1897, and 1897-O. The 1896-O and 1897-S were graded as “Fine to Very Fine.” Indeed, the James A. Stack 1904-O was catalogued as being “Very Fine, lightly polished.”

Granted, there is ample evidence in the catalogue to prove Dr. Duckor’s point that this set of Barber Halves was not exemplary. It is true, however, that many of these Barber Halves had little value in the 1940s when J. A. Stack, Sr. was most actively collecting, and it is widely believed that he could have easily obtained choice or gem uncirculated representatives of most all dates.

In my view, the presence of so many gems among J. A. Stack’s Barber Halves, especially of better dates, is important, especially since non-key date Barber Halves had so little value in the middle of the 20th century. He perceived quality and condition rarity in this series more so than most other advanced collectors who were active in the 1940s.

A phenomenal collection of U.S. copper and silver coins was auctioned in the spring of 1965. It belonged to A. B. Hinman, though is name is not mentioned in the catalogue. It was replete with rarities, like an 1894-S dime, an 1876-CC Twenty Cent piece, an 1817/4 half, and an 1838-O half, plus 1823/2, 1827 and 1842 ‘Small Date’ quarters. Hinman emphasized completion, not quality, and his set of Barber Halves was not impressive. It seemed like an afterthought. The impression is clearly given that he, and/or an advisor, put much more time and effort into his collection of Walking Liberty Half Dollars.

The Clapp-Eliasberg, Emery-Nichols and Norweb collections could not have contained the only sets, assembled before 1970, which featured numerous gem quality Branch Mint Barber Halves. Is there evidence of another? Yes, I found one, by accident. While researching Proof 1804 Eagles for my weekly column of July 28th, I read the catalogue of the Farish Baldenhofer collection, which Stack’s auctioned in 1955.

Sure enough, circumstantial evidence suggests that Baldenhofer may have had a terrific collection of Branch Mint Barber Halves, perhaps the greatest to be sold at auction before the 1980s. Many of these halves are catalogued, presumably by Norman Stack, as being gems. The Baldenhofer 1896-O is said to be a “Perfect Brilliant Uncirculated Gem.” The Baldenhofer 1904-S is termed “Brilliant Uncirculated Gem” and “Extremely Rare”! It is fascinating that the cataloguer is obviously referring to a condition rarity, in 1955, as he must have known that no date in the Barber Half series is truly rare in absolute terms.

I have read dozens of catalogue entries written by Norman Stack and I have seen a sizeable number of newsworthy coins that he catalogued. A few of Baldenhofer’s Barber Halves may not even grade 60 by today’s standards. It is very plausible and perhaps likely, however, that many of them would grade from MS-65 to -68.

As with the text in the catalogue of Hinman’s “Century Collection,” the text in the Baldenhofer catalogue (pp. 35-36) clearly implies that Baldenhofer placed far more time, effort and emotion into collecting Walkers than Barber Halves. The fact that the Norweb collection of Barber Halves had some circulated coins and some gaps, too, suggests that the Norwebs did not regard Barber Halves as being very important. It is curious that Baldenhofer, the Norwebs, Hinman and so many others did not cherish Barber Halves and even placed more emphasis on Walkers, which are dated later and are certainly not rare.

In the 1990s, collectors appreciated and strongly demanded Philadelphia Mint business strikes in many series of 19th century coins. Certainly, collecting high grade Barbers became more popular in the 1990s than ever before, and continues to be popular in the 21st century. (See my recent article on the highest certified 1901-S quarter.) Gem Barber coins, though, did not rise in value as much as other high quality coins during the ‘boom’ from 2002 or so to the middle of 2008. Also, consider that both Dr. Duckor and Thaine Price were strongly encouraged to collect gem quality Barber Halves by David Akers. Supposing that they had not been so influenced, how many collectors would have sharply focused on gem quality business strike Barber Halves?

Since 2008, buyers of high quality coins have been far more interested in pre-1934 gold coins, and in pre-1840 coins of all metals, than in Barbers. I will be observing how gem Barbers fare this month and in the future.

Bidding activity was exceptional and intense when Dale Friend’s Barber Halves were auctioned in Jan. 2009, and Dr. Duckor’s set, in my view, is dramatically superior to that of Dale Friend. There must be quiet enthusiasts for gem quality, business strike Barber Halves. I wonder, though, if anyone will ever assemble such a set that rivals that of Dr. Duckor.

©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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  1. Peter Shireman | Aug 16, 2010 | Reply

    Nicely done two-part series on mint state barber halves. Such a great, albeit short, list of people who have put together sets over the years. A key figure in the sets of Duckor and Price is David Akers as alluded to in the articles. I really liked the discussion about proof versus mint state for the P-mints, but I subscribe to the same notion of having mint state coins throughout the set; if I want proof coins I’ll put together a set of proofs.

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