Background and History
Many consider the 1901-S Barber Quarter to be the rarest non-gold coin of the 20th century. The issue also ranks as the second rarest of all Barber type coins struck from 1892 to 1916, after the unusual 1894-S dime. The 1901-S quarter is scarce and desirable at all grade levels, with even barely recognizable survivors commanding prices in the thousands of dollars. Virtually all examples of this rare issue are found in well circulated condition, an indication that nearly the entire original mintage was immediately released into circulation after production. The few survivors in uncirculated condition generate substantial interest at auction and sell for large sums.
The Barber Quarter series was introduced in 1892 and struck at various Mints until 1916. During this period, the dime, quarter, and half dollar all shared the same basic design created by Charles Barber. The obverse of all three coins featured the head of Liberty wearing a cap adorned with a wreath of laurel and a headband carrying the inscription “Liberty”. The image is surrounded by thirteen stars and the motto “In God We Trust”. The reverse design for both the quarter and half dollar features a heraldic eagle with a shield at its chest and its talons grasping an olive branch and bundle of arrows. A ribbon in the eagle’s beak reads “E Pluribus Unum” and thirteen stars appear in the field above. The dime carried a different reverse design featuring an agricultural wreath.
There are a number of rarities that stand out when exploring the three series of Barber coinage. This includes the 1894-S dime which was created under mysterious circumstances with an original mintage believed to be a mere 24 pieces, the low mintage 1896-S and 1913-S quarters, and the 1902-O “Micro O” half dollar. Among the issues, the 1901-S quarter stands apart as the most elusive regular issue which leads to its frequent identification as the “King of Barber Coinage.”
As can be expected with such a rare and prized coin, some counterfeits do exist. Genuine examples of the 1901-S quarter exhibit a number of unique features which makes identification possible for experienced collectors, although certification is still recommended. Only two die pairs were used to strike the full mintage. They are identified by the placement of the date on the obverse (in particular the placement of the 1’s above the denticles) and the placement of the mintmark on the reverse. The style of the mintmark is also important, as added mintmarks are always from a slightly different punch than the one which was originally used.
When identifying the genuineness of a 1901-S Barber Quarter, the date placement and mint mark are both important to remember, but neither can be used as the sole indication of a genuine coin. As an example, there are some 1901 quarters from the Philadelphia Mint with the obverse date placement very similar to one of the two 1901-S obverse dies. Forgeries are known to have been made from coins struck from this obverse die with an added “S” mintmark. Both obverses developed a number of small die cracks to the right of the date which can also be used for identification purposes, although the die crack is not visible on all coins.
The 1901-S Barber Quarter had a total mintage of 72,664 pieces struck for circulation at the San Francisco Mint. This represented the lowest mintage for the series at the time, however it would later be undercut by the 1913-S which had a mintage of 40,000 pieces. Nonetheless, the extensive circulation took a heavier toll on the 1901-S, making it the rarer of the two issues with perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 examples surviving in all grades. The majority of these are well-circulated, often barely recognizable, while only a distinct minority have managed to survive in uncirculated condition.
Compared to other quarters of the early 20th century, the mintage of the 1901-S quarter was extremely low. Virtually all other issues of this period had a mintage at least ten times greater, with the Philadelphia issues usually having the highest mintages. While the San Francisco Mint typically produced a smaller output, the numbers were still sizable with more than 1.5 million quarters struck in both 1900 and 1902, the years immediately before and after the key date rarity. Unlike 1906, there was no natural disaster in San Francisco (the earthquake of that year did have some influence on the mintages of the circulating coins struck at the San Francisco Mint) so there must have been some other reason for the unusual drop in production.
Many have speculated that the San Francisco Mint may have had an adequate supply of freshly minted quarters from other years still in storage, thus they planned to pay these out prior to striking large quantities of additional quarters.This scenario seems to be a likely possibility which would account for the limited production for the denomination during the year.
The small number of newly minted quarters would soon end up in circulation and it would not be for another few decades until the issue attracted some attention above other higher mintage issues. By this time, much of the original mintage had been lost or survived in well worn or damaged condition. Accordingly, the supply of uncirculated examples of this issue is extremely limited.
Finest Known and Values
The absolute finest known 1901-S Barber Quarter is a single piece which has been graded PCGS MS68+. This coin had previously been certified as PCGS MS68 when it was sold at auction in March 2010 for a price of $327,750. Shortly after the auction this coin was regraded with the plus designation and served as a featured coin for PCGS’s announcement of Secure Plus grading. In May 2010, it was announced that the coin had been sold privately for an unspecified price.
Other high grade examples include three pieces graded by PCGS as MS66 and MS67, with only seven gems graded MS65. The finest pieces graded by NGC include just two examples at MS67, followed by two examples each at MS66 and MS65. Undoubtedly, these numbers include a few resubmissions, which means the actual rarity of the pieces could be even greater than the numbers imply.
As can be surmised, the 1901-S quarter represents an exceptional rarity at the gem level and stands out as the rarest 20th century silver issue in gem uncirculated conditio. Uncirculated examples in slightly lower grades are just as rare, and even AU certified specimens trade very infrequently and for very high prices.
As for values, the price record for a 1901-S Barber Quarter at public auction stands for the previously mentioned PCGS MS68 (now MS68+) which sold for $327,750. Only a few others have sold for 6 figure prices, graded gem or finer, but these sales occur very infrequently. In lower uncirculated and higher circulated grades the price difference is relatively small, indicating the rarity of this issue in those grades as well. The lowest grades, often having multiple problems such as cleaning and various other forms of damage usually sell for a couple of thousand dollars each.