Are They “Liberty Head” or are They “Barber” Coins?

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Liberty Head vs. Barber:

Did you know that Liberty Head and Barber coins are actually the very same thing? Coin collectors, when they first take up the hobby, quickly become familiar with the ubiquitous Liberty Head coins. U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber designed them for use in the late 19th and early 20th century. A hundred years and more ago, the design appeared on the dime, quarter and half dollar.

Today these coins are known by both their engraving, “Liberty Head” and by their designer, “Barber.” The expressions are interchangeable in numismatic terms.

Competition Gone Wrong:

When congress authorized coin redesigns in 1891, the U.S. Mint created a competition and sought out famous artists for entries. But surprisingly, all of the artists cooperated and refused to submit designs because the Mint was only prepared to award a prize for the winning design. All the others who had submitted entries would have put in many hours of work and effort with no payback. After that setback the Mint opened the competition to the public. That contest was boycotted by qualified artists for the same reasons and very few entries were deemed remotely acceptable.

After the competition failure, the Mint went to Chief Engraver Charles Barber, whom they commissioned to design a new dime, quarter and half dollar coin. Barber must have been pleased with this outcome as he was known for his opposition to outside designers.

Masterpiece or Disaster:

Charles Barber had a long and successful career as the U.S. Mint Chief Engraver and was responsible for designing many of the coins used during his tenure. The “Liberty Head” design is considered his masterpiece as he had spent five years preparing the engraving.

During the coin’s initial introduction reviews were mixed on Barber’s new design. Some collectors regarded it as the most “perfect” classical U.S. coin design while others found the work mediocre at best. Complaints include criticism that the portrait was reminiscent of the Morgan dollar and very masculine, as well as disapproval of the fact that the reverse design was much too similar to earlier works.

As tastes have changed over the years Barber’s design has not gained much more of a following. (It often lands on lists of “ugly” coins!) But the coin continues to be very popular as a numismatic collectible representing an important part of U.S. heritage.

Where to Go From Here:

Love them or hate them, “Liberty Head” coins are a huge part of U.S. numismatic history. It was the last U.S. coin engraving to appear on three separate denominations. Every serious collector of American coinage will want to own a few of these historic issues. You’ll find plenty in well-circulated grades but higher quality specimens can be well worth the cost to see the contentious design in its best light.

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