US Coins

1894-S Barber dime leads Heritage FUN auction

The finest known 1894-S Barber dime is one of the top stars at Heritage Auctions various sales held in conjunction with the Florida United Numismatists convention. 

The convention has public hours Jan. 7 to Jan. 10, and Heritage is presenting its official FUN auctions between Jan. 6 and 12. 

The 1894-S Barber dime is graded Proof 66 by Professional Coin Grading Service, with a green Certified Acceptance Corp. sticker. The lengthy lot description establishes the importance of the dime, stating, “The 1894-S Barber dime is a classic rarity in American coinage, often grouped with the 1804 dollar and the 1913 Liberty nickel as ‘The Big Three’ of United States numismatic rarities.” Heritage adds, “The 1894-S remains the most famous, mysterious, and elusive coin in the entire Barber series and has been the stuff of collector dreams since it was first mentioned in the numismatic press by Augustus Heaton in 1900.” It is also a rarity that trades infrequently, as no example has been offered at auction since 2007, when a Proof 64 example in Stack’s 72nd Anniversary Sale realized $1,552,500.

The rarity is one of 24 examples struck, and is one of perhaps eight or nine known to collectors today. The coin in the auction has a long pedigree that includes John M. Clapp and his son John H. Clapp. The younger Clapp sold his father’s collection to Louis E. Eliasberg. It brought $2,150 at Stack’s October 1947 sale of what was billed as the H.R. Lee Collection — the initials H.R. were from Eliasberg’s mother’s name and “Lee” plays off the collector’s own initials — when offered as a duplicate from Eliasberg’s collection. 

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Heritage observes that Eliasberg retained what is considered today to be his lesser example. When Eliasberg sold his duplicates, he typically retained the example he considered the finest, but it is unknown what criteria he used in deciding which of the 1894-S dimes to sell and which to retain. Heritage explains, “No formal grading standards had been established at the time and, while Eliasberg had a keen eye for quality, the difference in price between one coin in attractive condition and another in slightly higher grade was not nearly as great as it is today.”

The present dime would later sell at a January 1990 Stack’s auction as part of the James A. Stack Collection for $275,000. In the 1990s it would trade hands privately for $450,000, then $825,000 before selling again at David Lawrence Rare Coins’ March 2005 auction of the Richmond Collection, then graded Proof 66 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., for $1,322,500. In July 2007 John Albanese purchased it for $1.9 million. 

It is also the plate coin for the 2005 edition of Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth’s 100 Greatest U.S. Coins book.

The San Francisco Mint struck nearly 2.5 million Barber dimes in 1893 and had plans to maintain production in 1894, since as of January 1894 the San Francisco Mint had 10 pairs of dies from which it could strike 1894-S dimes. “Unfortunately, the Panic of 1893 caused a widespread and long-lasting economic recession and there was little demand for small change in the shrinking economy,” Heritage noted, and just 24 were struck. Heritage observed, “Although no one could have foreseen it when the coins were struck in June, there would be no further orders for dimes in 1894 at the San Francisco Mint.” 

The production came at a time when Mint mark collecting expanded in popularity with American collectors due to recent publications, most importantly the book “Mint Marks, Heaton’s seminal treatise on the subject,” Heritage notes, and contemporary collectors were well aware of the low production total that was listed in the Report of the Director of the Mint for 1895.

The lot description clarifies: “According to Robert Barnett, approximately 50 collectors wrote the San Francisco Mint in 1894 (including famous numismatists like Augustus Heaton, Peter Mougey, and John M. Clapp), trying to order sets of Uncirculated coins for the year. They were told no dimes had been coined or none were available. Barnett gave his widely circulated newspaper interview in 1895 and anyone who read the 1895 Mint Report would have been aware of the coin’s existence and its infinitesimal mintage. However, knowledge about the 1894-S remained limited until the turn of the century.”

Demystifying ice cream

There have been many popular stories to explain the rare dimes, two of which are well-circulated, grading About Good and Good. The most popular tale has John Daggett, superintendent of the San Francisco Mint in 1894 giving three examples to his daughter Hallie Daggett, who allegedly spent one on ice cream on her way home from the Mint. In 1954 dealer Earl Parker when marketing two 1894-S dimes said that Hallie Daggett told him that her father ordered the coins struck at the request of some banker friends and Daggett and each of his friends each received three coins. 

The story may be more fanciful than realistic.

Mathematically the story does not hold up, since five of the 24 coins were sent to assay and melted, leaving just 19 examples that could be distributed. Heritage adds, “Another difficulty is Hallie’s age. She was a mature young woman by all accounts in 1894, 15 years of age. She might still have been fond of ice cream, but she was not the sublimely innocent child who spent a coin worth a small fortune on a treat, as she is portrayed in the story.” Plus, Daggett had three surviving children in 1894, raising the issue of why he gave three coins to just one child. 

Heritage further observes, “If he did give the coins to Hallie, Daggett still could not have known in June that there would be no dimes struck during the remainder of the year, so he could not be certain that the coins would be rare in the long run, and would not have instructed her to save the dimes so urgently.”

Nancy Oliver and Richard Kelly published in the July 29, 2013, issue of Coin World that the February 1951 issue of The Numismatic Scrapbook magazine published a story about a banker in Ukiah, Calif., who gave three dimes to his daughter and told her to save them. The daughter sold two for $2,750 each. The 1951 article states, “She looked high and low for the third specimen, but finally remembered that it was a hot day in 1894 when her father gave her those dimes and she visited an ice cream parlor on the way home.” 

Heritage concludes, “All things considered, the Ukiah banker story seems more likely to be the true account of the early history of these three specimens, but it offers no explanation for the extremely small size of the 1894-S dime mintage.” 

Yet, it’s stories like this that make the issue such a well-known rarity today. 

Perhaps the most likely story behind their production was less exciting; an Aug. 25, 1895, article in the San Francisco Call indicates that the 24 dimes were needed to balance accounts before the fiscal year ended on June 30, 1894. 

The legacy

Today both Numismatic Guaranty Corp. and Professional Coin Grading Service consider 1894-S Barber dimes as Proofs, given that they exhibit reflective surfaces and a bold strike. However, there’s no indication that the coins were struck more than once, as is typical with Proofs of the period, and they lack the depth of reflectivity seen on regular Proof issues. While the coins were struck at the same time from fresh dies, whether they are all Proof strikes or regular circulation strikes has little impact on their value to collectors today. 

Perhaps to distinguish it from other well-known rarities like the 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagle, where there is a question on whether examples are legal to own, Heritage writes, “No example of the 1894-S will ever be the subject of government confiscation or lengthy court battles and purists can never accuse the 1894-S of not being a ‘real coin.’?”

On the example set to highlight Heritage’s 2016 FUN Platinum Night auction the firm notes: “The impeccably preserved surfaces are blanketed in vivid shades of greenish-gold, violet-blue, and rose-gray toning, and the fields are brightly reflective, under the patina. Eye appeal is unsurpassed.”

The 61st annual FUN show will be held at the Tampa Convention Center, 333 S. Franklin St., Tampa Fla., and will feature more than 600 dealer booths, an exhibit area with competitive exhibits and prizes, 15 educational programs, young numismatist and Scout Merit Badge programs, a FUN Coin Club Get Together, the Numismatic Ambassador Awards presentation, and much more. 

Florida United Numismatists board member Bob Russell is the general chairman for this convention and his theme is “The Best Deals are at FUN.” 

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