A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #131 …..
The topic here is collecting Morgan Silver Dollars that were minted in Carson City, Nevada. Coins struck at the Carson City Mint each have a ‘CC’ mintmark on the reverse (back of the coin.). The Carson City, Nevada Mint was established in 1870 and coins were last struck there in 1893. The Carson City Mint was closed from 1886 to 1888.
From 1878 to 1904, far more Morgans, tens of millions, were produced than anyone wanted. Furthermore, a vast quantity of Carson City Mint Morgans were stored in government vaults for many decades. So, most survivors are uncirculated and usually grade above MS-60.
This discussion is aimed primarily at beginning and intermediate level collectors. For those who have no idea as to how to go about collecting coins, I suggest an earlier column on Basics for Beginners. (As always, clickable links are in blue.) Very general collecting advice is also provided in another past column, advice for beginning and intermediate collectors of U.S. coins.
Morgan Dollars, in general, were minted from 1878 to 1904, and again in 1921. Most issues are extremely common. Literally, hundreds of millions of Morgans were minted, largely to benefit silver mining firms and related business interests. In contrast, less than seven million Liberty Seated Silver Dollars were minted. These date from 1840 to 1873.
Most Morgans were stored in government vaults. Many millions of government held Morgans were melted at various times during the 20th century. It is also true that millions of Morgans were released from the 1940s to the 1970s. Some in the 1920s as well. At times, Morgans were melted privately, especially during periods when market prices for silver bullion were rapidly rising.
Only a microscopic percentage of all Morgans minted actually circulated in commerce. Most Morgans were not intended for circulation, one reason why business strikes should not be called ‘circulation strikes.’ Laws requiring large quantities of Morgans to be minted were passed with the understanding that the U.S. Treasury Department would buy large quantities of silver and that most of the minted Morgans would remain in the possession of the national government for a long time.
Also, in the 20th century, many millions of Morgans became worn when used for gambling purposes, especially in slot machines. For a long time, a substantial percentage of privately owned Morgans were located in the State of Nevada, which is the gambling center of the United States.
Rather than discuss the many extremely common dates and numerous better dates in the whole Morgan series, this discussion is limited to just the Morgan Dollars struck at the Carson City Mint, for these are scarcer than Morgans in general and only thirteen coins are needed for a set, not including die varieties. Besides, Carson City Mint coins in general have recently been ‘in the news.’
The “Battle Born Collection,” a complete set of Carson City Mint coins of all denominations, was auctioned in Philadelphia by Stack’s-Bowers on Aug. 9, 2012. Please read my two part series on the results of this auction. The first part was devoted to silver and the second part to gold. Earlier, I wrote about the importance of the “Battle Born Collection,” and, separately, about the 1870-CC quarter that it contained. Later, I discussed the PCGS certified ‘Proof-65’ 1893-CC Morgan that was auctioned the same night of Aug 9th, though was not in the “Battle Born Collection.” There are many collectors who focus on Carson City Mint coins.
I. Why Collect ‘CC’ Morgan Dollars?
Yes, it would be much less expensive to collect selected, super-common Morgan Silver Dollars like 1881-S, 1882-S and 1921 issues. Most Morgans, though, are very common and are heavily promoted, especially by marketing firms outside of the mainstream of the coin collecting community. They charge prices that are higher than most knowledgeable collectors, of U.S. coins, would be willing to pay. Even within the mainstream, Morgans are relatively expensive, given their commonality. Of all 19th century series of U.S. coins, Morgans are the most common. Tens of thousands, often hundreds of thousands, exist of almost all dates in the series.
A few CC Morgans are very scarce, in relative terms. Other Carson City Morgans are readily available to collectors on limited budgets and to each collector who wishes to find out how much he or she likes Morgans before committing an amount that is personally regarded as large. Moreover, there is a mystique about the Carson City, Nevada Mint. The history of a true U.S. Mint in a small city, in a sparsely inhabited region, during the period of the so called ‘Wild West’ is fascinating. Additionally, completing a set of thirteen CC Morgans, which are appealing for their respective certified grades, is not difficult, though is not extremely easy.
It would take time to find pleasing coins of each date. A set of CC Morgans does not cost a fortune, less than a complete set of San Francisco Mint Morgans, and, of course, is much less costly than a whole set of Morgans. Besides, some collectors who complete sets of Carson City Morgans will find that they become Morgan Dollar enthusiasts and will feel compelled to expand their respective sets of Morgans.
Most collectors who complete CC Morgan sets, I figure, will ‘move on’ and collect other types of U.S. coins. Sometimes, when collectors find out that Morgans are extremely common, these collectors tend towards series where many dates are scarce.
Other collectors are not concerned about commonality and overall rarity, or even have a very positive view of extremely common coins. John Brush emphasizes that “many beginning and advanced collectors seem to prefer the size of Morgan Dollars and the fact that they are more readily available, even in key dates, than many other series simply due to the high mintage figures and the number of still-existing coins of most dates.” Brush is vice president of David Lawrence Rare Coins (DLRC).
It is certainly not my purpose here to discourage collectors from seeking to build a set of all Morgans dating from 1878 to 1904 and 1921, too. I am concerned that beginners are misled into thinking that Morgans are scarcer than they are in actuality. For many collectors, a set of thirteen CC Morgans may be an enjoyable and educational experience, and, after completing such a set, each collector should then decide upon subsequent collecting objectives that are suitable for him or her.
It does not take a great deal of time or money to assemble a set of thirteen CC Morgans. Such a set has a significant place in the traditions of coin collecting in the U.S. and is logical overall.
II. Grades and Prooflike coins
Circulated coins tend to have noticeable wear. These are graded on a scale from zero to 60, usually with the following increments: Poor-01, Fair-02, AG-03, Good-04, Good-06, Very Good-08, VG-10, Fine-12, F-15, Very Fine-20, VF-25, VF-30, VF-35, Extremely Fine-40, EF-45, Almost Uncirculated-50, AU-53, AU-55 and AU-58.
Mint State coins are graded on an eleven point scale from 60 to 70. Morgans that grade 60 or 61 are typically very ‘banged up’ from contact with other coins and/or have other very noticeable issues.
Coins that grade MS-63 are considered to be ‘Choice Uncirculated,’ 64 grade coins are ‘Very Choice.’ Coins that grade 65 or higher are gems. Technical issues include consideration of scratches and contact marks. Technical issues, design detail, surface quality , and eye appeal are all factors that are considered when experts assign an overall numerical grade to a coin.
Attempts to explain grading criteria are usually misleading. There is a need to see coins in actuality, though viewing many images of the same issue in the same grade may be very educational. Any one pair of images should not be regarded as particularly illuminating. Collectors should discuss grading criteria with experts. It is not possible to learn how to grade gem quality coins by reading. Identifying prooflike Morgans, though, is not complicated.
In John Brush’s experience, there are a significant “number of collectors who just collect prooflike and DMPL Morgans as well as people that prefer wildly-toned pieces.” By “wildly toned,” Brush is probably referring to particular kinds of bag-toning that feature a multitude of atypical vibrant colors. This aspect of collecting Morgans is not appropriate for beginners. (I refer those interested to my article on Super Premiums for Common Silver Dollars with Attractive Toning.)
Prooflike designations relate to grades, yet are not grades. Prooflike (PL) coins have mirror-like fields as a consequence of being among the few coins that were struck after a pair of dies was heavily polished. As more coins are struck, the effects on subsequent coins of such die polishing become less noticeable. Prooflike coins may have other characteristics that are similar to those of true Proofs, especially contrast between reflective fields and white-frosted devices
Deep mirror prooflike (DMPL) Morgans feature mirrors that are thicker and and have more depth than those of merely prooflike Morgans. It is sometimes very difficult to discern a dividing line between substantially prooflike Morgans and DMPL Morgans. Single tests regarding the extant of reflectivity, such as holding a pen a certain number of inches from the surface, are curious, though misleading, in my view. More than one factor should be taken into consideration before concluding that a particular Morgan is ‘deep mirror prooflike’ (DMPL), rather than just prooflike (PL).
The PCGS and the NGC are the two leading grading services, and experts at both services designate specific Morgans as prooflike (PL) or DMPL. These designations, when assigned, appear on the labels, paper inserts inside the respective holders.
“Some of the more more common CC dates can be found with especially wonderful, deeply reflective Prooflike or Deep Mirror Prooflike surfaces,” Mark Feld states. Mark was a full-time grader at the NGC during most of the 1990s, and has worked as a grader for a few of the leading dealers in the coin business, including Steve Ivy.
Though properly termed a designation, apart from a grade, collectors often think of a PL or DMPL designation as being part of a Morgan’s grade. An 1878-CC that is NGC certified ‘MS-64 PL’ has a value of maybe $725, while an 1878-CC that is NGC graded MS-64, without such a designation, may be worth an amount in the range of $560. Further, an 1878-CC that is NGC certified MS-64 DMPL would retail for around $2100. Generally, PL and especially DMPL designations are worth substantial premiums, which vary considerably among dates.
III. The Thirteen Dates
The thirteen dates of CC Morgans are listed here. I have placed NGC price guide values for EF-40 grade coins, in parentheses, to provide an idea of collecting costs and relative prices. Lower grade coins are less expensive and gem mint state coins are much more expensive: 1878-CC ($101), 1879-CC ($720), 1880-CC ($264), 1881-CC ($410), 1882-CC ($104), 1883-CC ($103), 1884-CC ($114), 1885-CC ($506), 1889-CC ($2840), 1890-CC ($155), 1891-CC ($132), 1892-CC ($498) and 1893-CC ($1410). There are no Carson City Mint coins that date from 1886 to 1888.
It is not practical to provide information about each of these dates here. I discuss two of the least scarce CC Morgan issues, the 1878-CC and the 1882-CC, plus the scarcest, the 1889-CC.
Uncirculated (‘Mint State’) 1878-CC Morgans were released by the U.S. Treasury Department in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, at face value. Indeed, large quantities were available to the general public from 1962 to 1964. Later, more than sixty thousand 1878-CC Morgans were distributed, in GSA holders, from 1972 to 1974, for prices substantially above face value.
I suggest that more than 250,000 1878-CC Morgans exist now. Most of these grade AU-58 or higher.
This month so far, Heritage sold NGC graded 1878-CC Morgans in the following grades at the following respective prices: AG-03 $50, Good-06 $62, Fine-12 $79, Fine-15 $84, VF-20 $89, EF-40 $111.63, EF-45 $117.50, AU-50 $129.25, AU-58 $141, MS-61 $258.20, MS-62 $282, MS-63 $352.50, MS-64 $529.93, MS-64 PL $705, MS-65 $1527.50. All Morgan Dollar collectors could thus afford one. Collectors who are unwilling to spend more than $50 per coin probably should not be focusing upon Morgan Dollars.
The 1882-CC issue is even more common than the 1878-CC. A collector should be able to quickly locate dozens from which to choose. At least 650,000 survive.
This month, Heritage sold an NGC graded Good-04 1882-CC for $47. One of the most noteworthy 1882-CC Morgans is the coin that was in the “Battle Born Collection.” It is PCGS graded MS-67 and is CAC approved. On Aug. 9th, it brought $10,351. Back in Jan. 2004, ANR auctioned a PCGS graded MS-68 1882-CC for $43,700!
There are probably only a few thousand 1882-CC Morgans that experts at the PCGS and the NGC have designated, or would regard as being, ‘Deep Mirror Prooflike’ (DMPL). Usually, DMPL Morgans are not collected in grades below 64, as the contact marks that tend to characterize sub-64 grade Morgans are annoying when seen on very reflective surfaces.
In July 2012, Heritage auctioned two ‘MS-64 DMPL’ coins, a PCGS certified 1882-CC for $632.50 and an NGC certified one for $661.25. The latter was in a GSA holder, which is worth a premium.
Indisputably, the 1889-CC is not just the scarcest Carson City Mint Morgan, it is one of the three keys to the whole Morgan Dollar series. The 1885-CC is also relatively costly in low grades. An 1885-CC in Good-04 grade costs as much as $300 at retail, while the 1889-CC may retail for around $500 in Good-04 grade. In EF-40 grade, an 1889-CC would retail for more than $2000, while an EF-40 grade 1885-CC would probably retail for around $500. Only one other CC Mint Morgan, the 1893-CC, costs more than $1000 in EF-40 grade. In grades higher than MS-60, 1889-CC Morgans become dramatically expensive.
In August 2011, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded MS-62 1889-CC for $25,875. In June 2012, Heritage sold two, with this same certification, one for $25,300 and the other, which is CAC approved, for $29,900.
Well worn 1889-CC Morgans are much less costly. In Sept. 2011, Stack’s-Bowers sold an NGC graded AG-03 1889-CC for $345. In Nov. 2010, this same firm auctioned an NGC graded VG-08 coin for $489.
This month, Heritage sold a few 1889-CC Morgans, including two Fine grade coins, a PCGS graded Fine-15 coin for $881.25 and an NGC certified 1889-CC of the same grade for $822.50. Two NGC graded VF-25 1889-CC Morgans were auctioned, the first for $1116.25 and the second for $1057.50. A heavily worn, not gradable 1889-CC could probably be found for less than $300.
VII. GSA Holders
From 1972 to 1974, and again in 1979, the General Services Administration publicly sold quantities of Morgans, mostly Carson City issues. According to the Wikipedia, the “General Services Administration (GSA) is an independent agency of the United States government, established in 1949 to help manage and support the basic functioning of federal agencies.”
There was little public interest in these GSA sales. It is noteworthy now that most of the CC Morgans sold by the GSA were sealed by the GSA in hard plastic holders. Each such coin could not be removed without breaking the holder. There were also some sealed in soft holders.
There are many collectors who pay premiums for coins in original GSA holders. In Jan. 2003, the NGC began to grade coins that remained sealed in such holders. After a coin is submitted to the NGC while in a GSA holder, a band, with information about the coin, including the grade assigned by the NGC, is placed by the NGC around the holder.
In a recent book on Carson City Morgans, there is a great deal of information relating to NGC graded Morgans in GSA holders, and historical information about these GSA sales. Earlier this year, the second edition of this book was published by Whitman. The authors are Adam Crum, Selby Ungar and Jeff Oxman.
While the authors emphasize coins in GSA holders, this book also covers the history of the Carson City Mint, the history of Morgan Dollars, coins in NGC holders, and popular die varieties. Adam Crum is the vice president of Monaco Rare Coins, and Selby Ungar is with this same firm. Ungar is a long time specialist in Carson City Morgans. Jeff Oxman is a well known collector, who has researched die varieties of Morgans.
Although this book serves as a price guide, estimated values for CC Morgans in GSA holders may also be found on the NGC website. Auction prices realized for NGC certified Morgans in GSA holders are listed in Heritage, Stack’s-Bowers and Goldberg records.
In the past, I was not impressed with the idea of collecting Morgans in GSA holders. I now have a much more positive perspective on GSA holders. When a Morgan Silver Dollar is found sealed in a genuine GSA holder, it is evident that it is has not been dipped or cleaned since the 1970s, and that it has never been doctored. As coin doctors have, on numerous occasions, successfully deceived experts at the NGC and the PCGS, the fact these Morgans in GSA holders were sealed by the U.S. government, probably before 1974, is important.
“While puttying is not a huge issue with Morgans,” John Brush encounters many Morgans that “have been a bit overly-dipped and some that have been ‘thumbed’ to remove hairlines. For experts, these are fairly noticeable and the grading services have gotten better at spotting these issues as well,” John maintains.
“As for artificial toning, there are obviously Morgans that exist with this issue that are still in [PCGS or NGC] holders,” Brush points out. “The grading services have also gotten much stricter regarding toned coins and this has slowed down the number of artificially toned coins [coming] on the market,” John notes.
VIII. Concluding Thoughts
To those who collect Morgans, I recommend buying coins that have naturally toned, at least to an extent, though are not wildly toned or especially vivid. Shades of russet, often brownish, and assorted spots or patches of rich blue colors naturally appear on Morgan Dollars. Somewhat frequently, apricot or peach colors naturally appear as well, though usually accompanying russet shades in small bands, patches or rings. It would not be a good idea to buy a Morgan that is entirely peach colored. Distinguishing natural toning from artificial toning can sometimes be difficult.
A collector who regrets buying a specific coin may then sell it and replace it with another. Morgan Dollars in NGC or PCGS holders are easy to sell at competitive prices. There is a vast market for PCGS and NGC certified Morgans, with many active dealers. In PCGS or NGC holders, Carson City Morgans are among the most liquid of all classic U.S. coins.
Beginners may wish to start with circulated coins or with uncirculated (MS) coins that they find to be relatively inexpensive. It is good idea to direct questions at experts. Carefully viewing high resolution images of coins and, of course, coins in actuality is important. Putting together a set of thirteen CC Morgans is a lot of fun.
©2012 Greg Reynolds