We’ll admit it: We don’t spend much time thinking about dimes. Quarters, sure. Pennies? We could write a dissertation on pennies.
Dimes, on the other hand, aren’t very interesting. Most of us just throw them in a jar with other loose change and forget about them until we cash it all in at the bank.
But if you find yourself casting your dimes aside, you may want to take a long, hard look at them first. Take special care with any older dimes. If you find one from 1894 that features a Lady Liberty on the front—and it’s in fairly good condition—it could be worth up to $1.9 million.
No, that’s not a misprint. Some dimes are worth millions of dollars, provided that you can find the right buyer. Here’s the weird story of the 1894-S Barber Dime (and why collectors think that it’s worth much, much more than its weight in gold).
The dime was designed by Charles Barber.
Charles E. Barber was the sixth chief engraver of the United States Mint. At the time, the chief engraver was the highest staff member at the Mint, charged with designing coins and engraving (duh) the coin dies—those are the two pieces of metal used to strike the respective sides of a coin, giving it its design.
For Barber, coin mintage was a lifelong passion. When he was 19, he apprenticed at the Philadelphia Mint with his father, William Barber. When William passed away, the Treasury held a public contest to design new coins…and that contest failed miserably. The Mint then turned to some of its own employees, and Charles Barber had the winning design, which led to him being appointed the Philadelphia Mint’s chief engraver.
For the rest of his life, when someone asked, “Who died and made you boss?” Charles would get teary eyed and answer, “My father.” We assume. Okay, fine, we’re making that up.
In any case, Barber became one of the most famous chief engravers in history, and if you’re into coins, that’s really saying something. He presided over the end of a key period in U.S. Mint history, introducing new designs that literally reshaped American currency forever.
That doesn’t mean that everyone loved his designs. Coin site USA Coin Book notes that one observer described the Lady Liberty on an early Barber coin as resembling “Emperor Vitellius having a goiter.” In the extremely nerdy world of coin collection, that’s throwing down major shade. President Theodore Roosevelt reportedly hated Barber, describing him as an enemy within the Mint and opining that Barber’s coins were inferior to European coins.
Barber was one of the most controversial figures in coin mintage. Some called him “King of the Mint,” while Roosevelt called his designs “insipid.”
In any case, Barber had a significant impact on the art of coinage, and one of his creations is one of the most valuable coins currently believed to be in circulation.
In 1892, Barber introduced a new set of silver coins.
Barber spent a lot of time carefully designing his silver coins. At the time, there had been no updates to the currency since the 1830s. There was a growing demand to see our coinage updated with something more modern to reflect the new states that had been added in the half-century since. Unfortunately, his designs were… well, boring, and collectors ignored them.
Granted, at the time of their issue, the United States economy was in trouble, and dimes were expensive currency. Collectors couldn’t simply hang onto dimes in the hope that they’d eventually improve in value.
Today, almost all of Barber’s original dimes are fairly easy to collect and not especially valuable, per a report in Numismatic News.
“Numismatic,” by the way, is a term used for something relating to coins, medals, or paper currency, and yes, we had to look it up. Serious collectors can put together a full set of widely issued Barber coins without much trouble.
In 1894, however, Barber created a special-edition dime.
Only 24 were minted.
Why? Nobody’s really sure, but the most popular theory is that San Francisco Mint superintendent John Daggett wanted to mint a few coins for his banker friends.
Another theory: The mint’s annual audit showed a discrepancy of $2.40, so the bank minted 24 coins to balance the books. If true, that’s a great example of government bureaucracy at its finest—“Hey, guys, we’re short a couple of bucks, let’s make 24 coins and then destroy our dies”—but again, we just don’t know the full story.
There’s quite a bit of lore surrounding the 1894-S, and that’s part of the reason for the coin’s exceptionally high value. Daggett allegedly gave three to his young daughter, Hallie, telling her to save them until she was older. He realized that the coins would be valuable, owing to their rarity, although he probably had no idea how valuable they’d get.
Hallie, however, was a young girl, and she had no idea what money was worth (other than, you know, the amount printed on the coin). She kept two, but she spent one of them on ice cream. We hope that was some really, really good ice cream.
Over the decades, the 1894-S became more valuable as coins dropped out of circulation or degraded in condition. Of the original 24 coins, nine are known to exist today. While one account suggested that 10 of the original coins were melted down, many numismatists (yes, we’re using that word again) discount that idea, since there’s no actual record of the coins’ destruction.
Therefore, it’s possible that there are as many as 15 dimes still out there somewhere. Maybe they’re sitting in your coin jar right now.
Identifying an 1894-S can be difficult.
By this point, the coins would be quite old and heavily worn. That’s part of the reason they’re so elusive—some people may not realize that they’ve got something valuable on their hands. If you think you’ve found one, your best bet is to take it to a coin collector.
We should note here that many Barber dimes are less valuable, so don’t get excited if you’re researching one of your old coins and you see the name “Barber” pop up. To earn $1 million or more, you’ll need the 1894-S. However, an 1895-S in great condition can be worth $7,500, and you’ve got a slightly better chance of finding one of those: Over 1 million were minted.
The 1894-S is, of course, the big prize. Most recently, the coin sold for $1.9 million back in 2007. The buyer remained anonymous—we assume they didn’t want to answer questions from theirs friends about why they plunked down nearly $2 million for a dime—but the seller, Daniel Rosenthal, is a well-known name in the world of numismatics. The coin in question is the best-preserved 1894-S of the known examples.
Rosenthal acquired the coin in 2005 for $1.32 million, so he made a sizable profit from his investment. The sale was facilitated by David Lawrence Rare Coins, and a statement from its representatives noted that “Mr. Rosenthal will ultimately be shown to be one of the greatest coin collectors of our time.”
Other old or misprinted coins can be valuable (but less valuable than the 1894-S).
Your chances of finding a rare Barber dime are fairly low, but other coins can be worth quite a bit more than their printed value. For instance, the 1829 curl-base “2” Liberty Cap dime can be worth as much as $10,277 in average condition. A 1968-S, no-S proof Roosevelt dime sold for $32,200 in 2005, and the 1874-CC Liberty Seated Dime most recently fetched $12,000 at auction.
Newer coins can also be valuable (albeit less so). Coins with errors are more likely to be valuable to collectors, since, you know, errors are funny. A 2004 Wisconsin state quarter with an extra corn leaf is worth up to $300. A Ben Franklin half-dollar coin is worth anywhere from $12-$125, and a 2005 Kansas state quarter with “In God We Rust” erroneously printed on its face is worth up to $100.
When evaluating coins, look for age, condition, and any unconventional design elements that might indicate a printing issue. If you’re not interested in starting a collection, take any old or strange-looking coins to a qualified collector to get them appraised—don’t trust internet resources for valuing your coins.
Granted, rare coins are rare for a reason, so you probably won’t drastically increase your net worth by spending an afternoon sorting through change. You never know, though—you could be a millionaire without knowing it, and if you don’t take the time to check out your coin jar’s numismatic value (we can’t stop using that word), you might leave a lot of money on the table.