The existence of a branch mint proof 1895-O dollar was unknown and unsuspected until recently. In Walter Breen’s comprehensive 1977 proof Encyclopedia, he mentions the existence of an 1895-O quarter and half dollar, but no mention of a dollar. Wayne Miller’s 1986 dollar reference mentions many known, probable, and even definitely-not-proofs. The Anita Maxwell Trust Collection of Silver Dollars, sold at the Heritage 1995 ANA auction, had eight branch mint proofs, but no 1895-O. At that time none were even rumored to exist. Today five examples have been certified by NGC: two non-Cameo coins, one Cameo, and two Specimen strikes. Of those five coins, the coin being offered in Heritage’s upcoming Long Beach auction is the highest graded, as NGC has encapsulated it in a Proof-66 Cameo holder.
Wayne Miller refers to a lightly hairlined coin he once owned that others (himself excluded) believed to be a branch mint proof. Otherwise the traditional literature on Morgan dollars is silent about the existence of proof 1895-O dollars. One must assume these pieces were considered by Miller and others as Deep Mirror Prooflike coins. But even the most casual glance at this coin shows that it is clearly not a business strike Morgan dollar. It does, however, follow the pattern of almost all other known branch mint proof dollars (except the 1879-O) in that it was struck from known circulation dies. There is nothing special about the VAM-3 variety. It is notable only for slight doubling at the top of the 5 in the date. But as with other branch mint proofs, this coin was adapted from existing dies. New Orleans Mint personnel obviously had a need for special strikes for some occasion or person(s), and they specially treated the VAM-3 dies. However, unlike some branch mint proofs, especially those from New Orleans, this piece shows no trace of die rust.
The die characteristics on this piece and it is assumed on the other 1895-O proof and specimen strikes, are:
- Incomplete die polish in the field immediately between the upper and lower folds in the cap.
- Evidence of heavy die lapping, most easily seen on the lowest curl and truncation of the neck of Liberty around the designer’s initial, making that portion of the curl seem to “float.”
- Several other spotty areas of die polish on the obverse: in front of the eye, within the ear, below the ear, and several other patches of polish are scattered throughout the hair.
- The reverse die was also heavily lapped. Several of the peripheral letters, especially the I in UNITED are attenuated.
- Incomplete die polish is seen between the eagle’s neck and right (facing) wing, within and around the bowknot, and around the berries in the first cluster just right of the bowknot.
These characteristics are roughly equivalent to what may be found on Philadelphia proofs of the same era. Not only is that remarkable when compared to P-mint coins, but it is unprecedented among branch mint proof strikings.
In the July 2007 Numismatist, Neil Berman wrote a column titled “Morgan Proofs and Specimens” in which he laid out the general guidelines for branch mint proofs and briefly reviewed those he had seen. For the general guidelines, he wrote:
“These pieces display bold detail for the date, although weak strikes are acceptable on those issues that typically are not sharp. Proof and specimen examples exhibit square or wire rims because of the extra pressure put on the planchet during the striking process. Since the U.S. Mint did not dump these Morgans into sacks following their manufacture, they are devoid of bagmarks, although other damage can be present. Such coins should exhibit deeply reflective proof fields (a result of the specially polished planchets and polished dies). Lastly, all the coins have mintmarks. “A lack of any one of these characteristics does not disqualify a coin from being a proof or specimen, but the absence of several certainly puts the coin in question. Keep in mind that the equipment at the branch mints was inferior to that at the Philadelphia Mint; consequently, their products tended to be of lesser quality.” [Emphasis ours.]
This dollar meets all the criteria set forth above, except for squared rims. The lack of squared rims was certainly not from a lack of striking pressure, though. Unlike most 1895-O dollars, which are poorly struck, this piece has an absolutely full strike. That means complete hair detail over the ear as well as full feather definition on the eagle. The fields show extraordinary depth of mirroring, quite unlike that seen on Morgan dollars of other dates that are Deep Mirror Prooflike. Die polishing is complete from rim to rim, except for the minute areas noted above. And as Berman noted in his column, this piece lacks bag marks.
There are contact marks, as one would expect to see on a proof, but it lacks the tiny abrasions Morgan dollars display that were housed for years or decades in canvas bags. The most obvious contact mark is a shallow, angling abrasion just behind the mouth of Liberty. On the reverse, there are three shallow planchet defects in the field below ED of UNITED. Otherwise, the surfaces are brilliant with no evidence of color on either side. The devices are nicely frosted, yielding noticeable field-device contrast on both sides. In-person inspection of this dollar will remove any doubt from a prospective bidder’s mind. As Walter Breen used to say, “It carries its own credentials.”