From the December 2004 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:
Of Those Pesky 1909 Barber Half Dollars
1909 Barber half dollars? What is the big deal about 1909 Barber half dollars?? They are a common date, produced at three mints that year; Philadelphia, New Orleans, and San Francisco. All three of these are readily available in most any condition. The key word in that last sentence was the last word: condition. For that is the dilemma involved in the purchase of a circulated 1909 Barber half dollar.
Barber half dollars were produced for 24 years total, with production taking place at two or more mints each year during that era. All 73 pieces required for a full set of these halves are available for a price, with only four of those coins having a retail value over $100 in Good-4 condition, and none of those exceeding about $200 in that condition. In general, the later dates, those made in 1900 and later, are more easily available than the 19th century issues. Some searching will be required to find the better dates in decent circulated condition, but eventually they can be found. Note, however, that many of the 1890's coins are more difficult to locate than their current low prices would indicate.
Many collectors, of average means, will try to assemble this 73 piece set in one of the lower circulated grades, as the price of Barber halves increases rapidly as you move up the grading scale. Grading is fairly easy in the lower circulated grades. A Good-4 coin will be worn pretty much flat, though the rim should be full or nearly full. In Very Good condition, three letters of the word Liberty, most likely the L, I, and Y, will be visible and the rim will be full. The wreath will be about half way outlined. In Fine-12 condition, again we look to the word Liberty, which in this case will be full. The wreath will be fully outlined. It is all pretty simple once you have some experience. Experienced collectors immediately focus in on the location of the word Liberty to grade barber halves. Except on the 1909's.
It is not commonly known that the hub used in 1909 is slightly different from the ones used in other years. Maybe it is the same hub, just a bit warped, but in any case, the word Liberty is a bit more recessed in 1909 than it is in the other years, and that applies to the coins from all three mints. What it boils down to, is that you can not grade a 1909 Barber half dollar based solely on the word Liberty as you have been trained to do. To properly grade a 1909, you have to look at the overall level of detail on the coin, focusing in particular on the amount of detail visible in the wreath. Let's look at a few examples.
The picture of a 1909-S obverse shows what a strong Good-4 Barber half looks like. It is almost Good-6, but not quite. Note that four letters of Liberty are visible: the L, I, T, and Y. By this measure it is a solid Very Good, but the detail in the wreath is insufficient.
Here is a nice solid Very Good-8 Barber half obverse dated 1908. Three letters of Liberty are visible in this case, the L, the T, and the Y. About half of the wreath is visible. Now let's look at the 1909 half dollar in the same condition below.
About the same amount of wreath detail is visible in this 1909-O obverse, and possibly even a little bit less, than the 1908 specimen pictured above. However, you can see that all seven letters of Liberty are visible, though the bottom of B, E, and R are a bit weak. An inexperienced collector may be duped into purchasing this as a Fine-12 based on the appearance of all letters of Liberty, but it is not. Again, as with the 1908, only about half of the wreath is visible.
Now let's take a look at a real Fine-12 1909 Barber half dollar.
This is a solid Fine-12 1909 Barber half dollar obverse, approaching Fine-15. In fact, it was sent to me as a Fine-15, but I sold it as a Fine-12 based on the overall amount of wear. In any case, it is solid for the grade. Sorry I don't have a larger picture of it, but suffice it to say that all of the letters of Liberty are clear and strong. On any other date besides 1909, the middle letters of B, E, and R are generally weak and just barely there.
Look at the wreath. It is fully outlined but it is flat, with no details showing in the leaves that compose the wreath. In Very Fine condition, the leaves start to show some detail, and the wreath starts to take on a three dimensional appearance. In the grades above Fine-12, the word Liberty is not really used much for grading any more, and other details take the spotlight (such as wreath detail), so you do not need to be nearly as concerned about the difference in the appearance of the word Liberty on 1909 halves in these higher grades.
So, there is a little heads up for when you purchase a 1909 Barber half for your set. Don't be surprised if the person you are purchasing the half from you looks at you funny when you mention this fact. I have only seen it written about in one place, and that is in The Complete Guide To Barber Halves by David Lawrence. Even the ANA grading guide does not mention it, even in the footnotes that follow the Barber half series. That is why few people are aware of this little quirk of this one year. And yes, this applies to all three mints of that year.
Just a little something to look out for in our wonderful world of numismatics!
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