Collecting Morgan Dollars Part I: an Overview
by Louis Golino
The Morgan silver dollar, minted between 1878 and 1921, has no real peer in the numismatic world. It is by far the most widely collected and traded numismatic coin in the world. Attend any coin show and you will quickly see that slabbed and raw Morgan dollars are everywhere. Look through the typical mail order dealer’s catalog or advertisement, or those of higher end dealers and auction houses, and again, you will encounter lots and lots of Morgan dollars. Peace dollars are popular too, and have the advantage of being a much shorter set that is not very hard to complete depending on the desired quality, but they have never been as widely collected as Morgan dollars.
There is certainly no shortage of Morgans in the marketplace. Hundreds of millions of the coins were minted in large part because of legislation that required them to be made in quantities that far exceeded what was needed for commerce. That is because there was a very powerful lobby in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that represented silver mining companies. In 1918, in an effort to prop up the price of silver, more than 270 million Morgan dollars were melted, and the silver bullion was sold to India. Millions more were melted later.
No records were kept of which coins were melted, so over the years numismatists have attempted to piece together estimates of surviving coins from various written sources. Even with all that melting, millions of the coins survive to this day. According to estimates by Q. David Bowers and other noted experts, there are 100 to 200 million Morgans and as many as 65 million mint state coins alone, with more than 10-15 million of them 1921 dollars.
As a result of all the overproduction of Morgans, some dates, especially the 1921 coins, as well as others such as the San Francisco mint marked coins from 1880-1882, are quite common even in high states of preservation. The 1921 coins are by far the most common, with more than 85 million minted between the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco mints. They were made from a different die than coins from 1878-1904 and are flatter and generally less attractive, especially the San Francisco coins which are very poorly struck.
Morgan dollars are an endlessly fascinating coin series. Completing the full set of approximately 100 coins, depending on whether or not one includes overdates and major die varieties, even in circulated grades is a daunting challenge, and for many a lifelong quest. Some people chose to build a date set and don’t worry about having one from every branch mint. Others focus on VAM’s, which are die varieties that are named after Leroy C. Van Allen and A. George Mallis. To acquire the scarcer dates, be prepared to spend substantial money even for lower grade coins. The 1895 only exists in proof, and the 1893-S is the rarest business strike issue, with fewer than 100 in existence.
Another very popular specialization is to collect only the coins minted in Carson City, Nevada, especially those still in their original black boxes from the General Services Administration. The GSA conducted a series of auctions and mail order sales of the coins from 1972 to 1980. Some of the Carson City coins, like the 1882-1884 issues are common in grades up to MS-66, but others are extremely rare, especially the 1889-CC, of which only one coin exists in the original GSA holder. When NGC grades the GSA-housed coins, it uses a blue and white band that goes around the holder with the grade indicated instead of removing the coin from its GSA box. But a larger number of CC coins on the marketplace are not housed in the black boxes and may have come from a different source than the GSA sales.
To collect Morgan dollars it is critical to understand the differences in key surface characteristics, especially strike, luster, and contact marks, associated with different branch mints and with coins of different years. To specialize in Morgans and build a collection of lasting value I strongly suggest consulting experts who have studied the coins for many years. Since most people can’t afford to pay for an expert consultation, or spend years studying the series before beginning a collection, it is helpful to rely on published sources. The best single one is Q. David Bowers’, Guidebook of Morgan Silver Dollars, now in its third edition.
Mr. Bowers is widely considered the dean of American numismatists, and is the most prolific coin author of all time having written well over 50 books. He became a coin dealer at the age of 17 and writes a weekly column for Coin World. He has bought and sold virtually ever major rarity and is the person who was chosen to appraise and sell by auction the greatest coin collections of all time, the Garrett and Eliasberg collections. Mr. Eliasberg, a Baltimore, Maryland banker, is the only person who ever owned a complete collection of American coins.
The prices in the third edition of his Morgan guide book from 2007 are now outdated, but the information on the history of the coins and especially the date-by-date and mint mark analysis is absolutely essential to building a solid collection. Coins of one year and branch mint were struck very well such as many from Philadelphia, whereas, for example, coins from New Orleans are notorious for their poor strikes, particularly in the obverse center of Miss Liberty’s hair just above her ear and on the reverse on the breast feathers. Coins from 1878, which are very popular, are made from different dies and always come with shallower breast feathers. There are also several major varieties of 1878 dollars based on the number of tail feathers on the eagle.
If a collector does not understand these points, he or she will not know what to look for in selecting a good coin for the grade. When I look at Morgans at a coin show or dealer’s store, I always zero in on the center of both sides, carefully studying the strike, luster, marks, and overall eye appeal, which is the most important factor when assessing a coin’s appearance. And before I look for a certain date, I make sure to consult Mr. Bowers guide book and other sources.
One also needs to know how to grade Morgans and to understand the differences between say an MS63 coin and an MS65 coin, which are substantial despite the two-point difference. In fact, the major coin grading companies were in many ways created because in the 1970′s and early 1980′s Morgan dollars were traded very widely by many coin dealers with subjective grading designations such as “Gem BU.” Subjective grading terms proliferated and prices for what seemed like the same grade varied dramatically. Some kind of more scientific approach was needed to protect the consumer and undergird the market.
The various published grading guides are very useful for learning the basics, but there is no substitute for seeing lots and lots of coins. One reason dealers tend to be better graders than collectors, which is not necessarily true if the collector is more advanced and experienced, is that they come across so many coins in the course of their work.
So many mint state Morgan dollars exist today in large part because they were saved over the years in canvas Treasury bags, where they knocked against each other when moved, and hoarded by people such as Lavere Redfield. This resulted in bag marks, contact marks and abrasions, and sometimes colorful toning even though they were never used in commerce. In 1962 the Treasury department discovered large quantities of Morgan dollars in bags that had been sitting around for decades, including the three million Carson City coins that were later sold by the GSA, and many previously scarce coins.
One of Mr. Bowers’ favorite tales is that of the 1903-O Morgan dollar, which in the 1960′s was the rarest Morgan dollar. Mr. Bowers said he never encountered a mint state one in his years as a young dealer. But in November 1962 when bags with hundreds of thousands of the coin in uncirculated condition were discovered, overnight the coin’s value plummeted from $1500 to $15. Today it is a mid-range date and sells for approximately $400 depending on the grade. In March 1964 the Treasury halted sales of Morgan dollar bags. By 1967 the New York Mercantile Exchange was trading bags of these coins for more than twice face value at a time when the price of silver was fixed at $1.29, as Mr. Bowers recounts in a new book on precious metals called “Precious Metal,” which I plan to review soon.
In the second part of this article (Click Here), I will interview one of the most experienced Morgan dollar dealers in the country, professional numismatist Steve Estes of Portland, Orgeon. I will ask him about the recent explosion in prices for common-date uncirculated coins and whether he thinks those prices are sustainable and other issues.
Louis Golino is a coin collector and numismatic writer, whose articles on coins have appeared in Coin World, Numismatic News, and a number of different coin web sites. He collects U.S. and European coins and is a member of the ANA, PCGS, NGC, and CAC. He has also worked for the U.S. Library of Congress and has been a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international affairs for a wide variety of newspapers and web sites.