Many collectors enjoy building sets of Barber Half Dollars, which were designed by namesake engraver Charles Barber and officially called Liberty Head Half Dollars. They were produced by the United States Mint from 1892 through 1915 and were rather unpopular in their day, yielding to the more widely beloved Walking Liberty Half Dollar just as soon as their minimum 25-year run was up at the end of 1915.
Despite failing to gain mass support on the basis of any artistic merits, the Barber Half Dollar nonetheless saw widespread circulation out of necessity, if for nothing else. At the turn of the 20th century, 50 cents represented a large amount of money – it was easily half a day’s wages for lower-income laborers and was a decent chunk of change for a skilled worker, whose average daily pay may have amounted to $1.50 to $2. Serving as a workhorse coin in its era, Barber halves are remarkably difficult to find in better circulated grades. As a matter of fact, Barber Half Dollars grading F12 or better are regarded as conditionally scarce, regardless of date. In XF40, any Barber Half Dollar is a genuinely difficult coin, with some categorically rare even at that level.
What many collectors don’t realize is that it is a remarkably challenging, expensive endeavor to build a set of Barber Half Dollars in G4. To be sure, many dates are common at that grade. But many others are far tougher. Nearly a dozen circulation-strike Barber Half Dollars are three-figure coins – or just about so – at the grade of Good-4, and many more trade for north of $50. But assembling a set of solid-Good Barber halves isn’t just about paying the price – it’s about persistence. Many examples are few and far between in the marketplace, meaning some collectors need to wait to finish their circulated set of Barbers even if they’ve got the money to build the entire set today.
Generally speaking, the series keys are the 1892-O and 1892-S, which represent the first-year branch mint issues. These go for $360 in $300, respectively, in a grade of G4. Some pay more than that just because the competition between collectors over these early branch-mint dates in the series is so great. The 1893-S, 1896-S, 1897-O, and 1897-S round out the scarcer 19th-century issues, with prices ranging from about to $100 to $200 in G4. Then there is the trio of Philadelphia issues from the last three years of the series that all saw low mintages under 190,000 apiece (FYI, that’s less than half of the output for the 1909-S VDB Lincoln Cent). The Philly Three, so to speak, trade for substantial figures, with the 1913 fetching $95, the 1914 taking $135, and the 1915 going for $100.
Of course, this just covers the regular-issue Barber Half Dollars. Throw in the varieties and the key date becomes the elusive 1892-O Micro O, which bears a four-figure price of $4,250 that any diehard Barber Half Dollar enthusiast with the financial means will gladly fork over in a heartbeat – if they can locate the coin in G4. And that’s a big IF. Fewer than 100 examples are known across all grades. PCGS has graded 13 examples in G4, but that’s exactly half of the total graded in FR02 and AG03, with tiny showings of 1 to 3 examples for many of the other circulated grades higher than that.
Most of the other Barber Half Dollars in the regular-issue canon sell for less than $50 each, with the bulk of those realizing around $20 to $30 apiece. Collectors who want to complete the series with only the regular-issue coins in G4 should expect to lay out about $4,500. That figure jumps to nearly double, or $8,300, to include the major varieties – namely the 1892-O Micro O.
With prices so high and scarceness ruling the availability (or, shall we say, lack thereof) for many dates in the grade of G4, it makes some Barber Half Dollar collectors wonder if there should be greater embrace in collecting the series at a grade AG03. That’s perhaps a more budget-friendly alternative to going full G4 without quite pursuing the set as a lowball objective, which would demand greater emphasis on seeking pieces in the range of PO01 or FR02. Still, the challenge of building the entire set in G4 is just tough and tempting enough that plenty of collectors go all in, even if it means having to wait a little (or a lot) to find just the right pieces.