How To Build a World-Class Morgan Dollar Collection
Featuring The Little Darlings Collection
Born Out of the Wild West
The Morgan Silver Dollar is America’s most collected coin, with a rich history born out of the old Wild West. These big, beautiful silver dollars conjure up images of cowboys and saloon poker games, outlaws and stage-coach robberies, casino slot machines and honkytonks of the past. Born out of the rich silver mines of Nevada that turned small mining camps into large bustling cities full of promise and entrepreneurial enterprise. Today, Morgan Dollars are among the most colorful and treasured relics of the old American West.
The Morgan Dollar Heritage
This large, hefty, handsome, historic silver dollar is named after its designer, United States Mint Engraver George T. Morgan. The obverse depicts a profile portrait representing Lady Liberty, while the reverse depicts an American eagle with wings outstretched.
Morgan Dollars were considered large and bulky and not very popular in daily commerce and they were mainly circulated in the South and in the Wild West. Cowboys on long cattle drives would drop these silver dollars into their canteens to hide them for security, but also found that the silver kept their water pure.
These were among the coins that Jesse James and his gang stole in their holdups. The silver dollars that Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp threw across saloon tables in Tombstone, and the coins that Annie Oakley shot holes through in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Shows. The Morgan Silver Dollar is truly an inspirational coin of historical significance.
The Morgan Dollar Story
Minted from 1878 to 1904, and then once again in 1921, before retiring as America’s most popular coin. Morgan Dollars are called the “King of America’s Coins” for a good reason, because they helped the United States grow the western frontier and fuel the engines of American industrialization. During the late 19th Century, the Morgan Dollar became a rallying point in politics between the Eastern Bankers, known as the “Goldbugs,” and the Western Silver Mining interests, dubbed the “Silverites.” They contributed to one of America’s major economic depressions known as the Panic of 1893 and became a major political platform in the 1896 and 1900 Presidential elections. The “Gold” or Silver” bimetallism debate over the monetary standard gave the politicians much to argue about.
In the early 20th Century, mass melting’s of Morgan Dollars helped finance the First World War and then again in 1942 during World War II. Forged by fires of the U.S. Mint melting pots, to the rediscovery of a massive hidden hoard found in the Treasury vaults in the 1960’s, the Morgan Dollar is one of the most complex and misunderstood coins issued by the United States.
Morgan Dollar Renaissance
Over the years, many Morgan Dollars ended up hidden away in Treasury vaults, forgotten for many decades, and some 270,000,000 ended up in melting pots due to the Pittman Act in 1918. Fortunately, a massive hoard of Morgan Dollars was discovered during an audit of the Treasury in the 1960’s. Shortly after, the Treasury Department drastically reduced the silver content in the nation’s coinage which led to a renaissance of sorts for those seeking to hoard Morgan Silver Dollars for their intrinsic value of silver. This desire to acquire “real money” is a natural occurrence when currency is debased, and those who understood this natural law of money have been rewarded handsomely by adding Morgan Dollars to their holdings.
The Treasury Department released many millions of Morgan Dollars in the GSA sales of the 1970’s, creating a buying frenzy with the public who was looking to capitalize on the devaluated U.S. dollar. This created an explosion in the demand of this once very unpopular coin and lifted its status into America’s favorite collectible coin.
The Morgan Silver Dollar is a coin of many contradictions. From leading the country into financial ruin at the end of the 19th Century, to saving the day in the beginning of the 20th Century, and then back into the limelight in the 1960’s when the silver content was taken out of America’s coinage and massive hoards were made available for sale to the public. It is little surprise the Morgan Dollar is an American classic and that became the most widely collected coin of today.
Morgan Dollar Timeline
CLICK the image on the RIGHT to launch an interactive timeline on the Morgan Silver Dollar Story.
Over the 27 years of Morgan Dollar production, some 657 million Morgan Dollars were produced in 96 different date-and-mint combinations. Hundreds of millions of Morgan Silver Dollars have been melted over the years. The timeline below gives a brief overview of the major events that affected this American Classic Silver Dollar.
- 1859 – Comstock Lode; The richest silver mine in American history was discovered in Nevada.
- 1873 – Crime of 1873; Silver demonetization and end of the silver dollar, puts the U.S. on the gold standard.
- 1878 – Bland-Allison Act; Guaranteed government silver purchases creates the birth of the Morgan Silver Dollar.
- 1890 – Sherman Silver Purchase Act; Increased government silver purchases increases silver dollar production.
- 1893 – Panic of 1893; An oversupply of silver triggers bank failures, causing a serious economic depression.
- 1904 – Morgan Dollar End; The Mint ceases to strike Morgan Dollars when silver reserves are finally depleted.
- 1918 – The Pittman Act; The mass melting of over 270 million Morgan Dollars to be used to supplement the war effort.
- 1921 – Morgan Dollar Rebirth; Over 86 million 1921 Morgan Dollars are minted one final time.
- 1962 – Treasury Hoard Discovery; Over 2.9 million Morgan Dollars with the coveted Carson City (CC) mintmark are found.
- 1972 – The GSA Sale; The General Services Administration holds 7 mail bid auctions grossing $100 million.
Morgan Dollar Key Dates
Collecting Morgan Dollars has become a popular set-building pursuit among many coin enthusiasts as well as investors. The goal is to complete a set of all coins minted which includes one of each date and mintmark. The most desired coins in the set are known as “Key Dates.” Key Date Morgan Dollars are usually the most valuable and rarest of the series. Often referred to as “Keys,” they tend to have higher price appreciation over time than their common-date counterparts and thus become a targeted acquisition for investors. There are also “Semi-Key Dates” that are the next level of difficult-to-obtain after “Keys” and those too show great price appreciation over time.
Supply and demand fundamentals move markets, especially those with a fixed supply and a strong collector foundation. With popular collectibles like the Morgan Dollar, rarity, and demand drives pricing. A coin’s population or survival rate directly affects supply, so when there are high supplies, prices are usually lower. However, when a Morgan is difficult to obtain and in demand, like a Key Date, it will have a numismatic premium which trends higher based on market conditions, rarity, and condition.
Key Date Case Study
The 1889-CC Morgan Dollar is a Key Date coin that has a small supply is extremely popular and enjoys a steady increase of demand, as with all Carson City Morgan Silver Dollars. The Carson City Mint opened in 1870 to accommodate a shorter traveling distance for the silver coming out of the Comstock Lode. The mint in Carson City struck Morgan Dollars from 1878-1885 and 1889-1893. The four-year hiatus was for political reasons and in October 1889, Morgan Dollars once again began rolling off the mint’s presses. Only 350,000 coins were struck in the last three months of 1889 due to maintenance issues. The result is that the 1889-CC Morgan Dollar is one of the lower mintage issues of the entire Morgan Dollar series. Many other less-famous dates had lower mintages, but many 1889-CC Silver Dollars had an early demise. Approximately 300,000 1889-CC Silver Dollars were melted, ensuring 1889-CC survivors to become one of the Key Dates in the Morgan Dollars series.
VAM Morgan Dollars
Almost 50 years ago, extensive research was published by Leroy C. Van Allen and A. George Mallis on the variation of the dies used to strike Silver Dollars. The term VAM is an acronym for “Van Allen-Mallis”. In 1971, Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis published “The Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars,” which is one of the foremost authorities on these coins. There are over 3,000 different VAM numbers and since the VAM book was first published and has been updated with new editions and supplements to reflect the latest findings.
The VAM system catalog identified die varieties by their respective date and mintmark and these VAM numbers are exclusive for each specific Morgan variety. Some VAM varieties have fun nicknames like, Long Nock, Alligator Eye, Spitting Eagle, Hot-Lips, and Scarface. There are also popular variety lists like the ‘Hot 50’ or ‘Top 100’ varieties. VAM collecting is very popular, and it is the “thrill of the hunt,” that drives many coin collectors on their journey in collecting as many different die varieties as possible.
Collecting Morgan Dollars
Morgan Silver Dollars, minted from 1878 to 1904 and again in 1921, are by far the most popular and widely collected U.S. coin series in numismatics. America has had a long love affair with this legendary lady born out of the Wild West. Few coins have captured the hearts and minds of collectors as much as these big beautiful silver coins. Morgan Silver Dollars are fascinating as a coin series and are both challenging and fun to collect.
Morgan collecting is very flexible, and there are many ways to build a collection. The many varieties offer collectors several intellectually exciting options. There are many ways to assemble Morgan Silver Dollar sets from date ranges to mintmarks. Listed below are ways one might choose to focus.
- Morgan Series – Pursuing a full set is a popular past time for those with the means, patience, and desire to build legacy collections. There are approximately 100 coins, not including overdates and major die varieties.
- Date Set – Another popular set is to acquire one of each date from 1878 to 1904 and a 1921. Some may pursue the most common for the date, while investors and sophisticated collectors will tend to acquire the toughest variety or mintmark for the date.
- Key Dates – A key date and a semi-key date collection is very popular for investors who recognize that collectors will always need the tougher coins to complete their collection, thus creating a strong foundation for value. The rare Key Dates and Semi-Key Dates are always in demand even in soft market cycles.
- Mintmarks Set or Date Set – This is a very popular way for those with a budget. This short set represents a single year of mintage, but a coin baring each mintmark, Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, Carson City and Denver.
- Carson City Set – While I have seen many collectors pursue a coin of each baring a single mintmark, none are more popular than a Wild West baring the Carson City mintmark (CC). This is shortest set to acquire and in comprised of only 13 different dates.
- Grade Set – Building a set in a specific grade or condition is a popular and very challenging endeavor. Many key dates are next to impossible in MS65 or better.
- Proof Set or Proof Like Set – Morgan dollars were minted in proof condition in low quantities and are stunning when preserved correctly. To build a proof set of Morgan Dollars is the goal of many collectors, especially those who enjoy the beauty and history of this American Classic. In addition to proof strikes, there exists business strikes which are preserved in what appears to be proof condition, but are actually early die strikes which are known as DMPL (Deep Mirror Proof-Like) and PL (Proof Like) designations. Many of the world class collections, like the Jack Lee Collection or the Little Darlings Collection, include both high grade business strike (MS) and proof strike (PR) coins of every date with many major die varieties.
- VAM Set – “VAM” is an acronym for Leroy Van Allen and George Mallis who identified many Morgan varieties. While pursuing a VAM set is not as popular, it can be quite fun and challenging for those who enjoy the minor nuances and attention to detail.
- GSA Set – In recent years I have seen a growing desire among enthusiasts to acquire coins released from the General Services Administration (GSA) in their original government holders. These GSA sales took place from 1972 to 1980. It has become so popular that even some dates the certificates issued with each coin trade for hundreds of dollars.
- Toned Set – Over time Morgan Silver Dollars can become beautifully toned due to oxidation. Some examples exhibit beautiful vivid rainbow colors, or other hues and natural patina toning. These coins often command big premiums and many collectors only pursue coins of natural beautiful colors.
Grading Morgan Dollars
Coin grading is the expression of an opinion that describes the condition of an individual coin that most dealers and collectors agree. Over time, numismatists and coin grading services have refined and agreed upon specific definitions, descriptions and numeric values that help all coin collectors describe coins accurately when buying or selling.
Morgan Dollars are large and heavy coins that are made of silver which is relatively soft and malleable. Their large size made it difficult to strike the design fully. Five mints manufactured Morgan’s (Philadelphia, New Orleans, Carson City, San Francisco, and Denver. The quality of the strikes can vary from strong to weak, depending on the year and mint.
Coin Grading Standards
In 1949, a well-known numismatist by the name of Dr. William Sheldon (1898- 1977), assigned alphanumerical grades to his coins to determine a logical mathematical relationship between the numerical grade and the value of each coin.
The Sheldon Grading Scale was a brilliant combination of numbers and letters, standardizing grading, from a low grade of 1 to a high grade of 70. Today, the Sheldon’s grade descriptions are used as the general guide for all coin grading from PCGS and NGC.
Third party coin grading services are companies that grade and authenticate coins, then seal those certified coins in tamper-proof hard plastic cases that have come to be called “slabs.” Grading companies are categorized into three “tiers,” or quality of service categories.
- Top Tier Grading is recognized by PCGS and NGC.
- Second Tier Grading companies include ANACS and ICG.
- Third Tier Grading and should not be relied upon are all other grading services not mentioned above.
Because of the great consistency in grading and guarantees provided by the top tier services there really is no reason to acquire coins that are not certified and graded by PCGS and NGC. The coins by the top tier often trade sight-unseen, at premium prices over coins with the same grade in the second tier. Coins in third tier holders are not recognized by mainstream quality dealers and should be viewed as uncertified and potentially problem coins.
Morgan Dollar Grading Interaction
CLICK the image on the RIGHT to launch a Morgan Dollar Visual grading interaction.
- Perfect Uncirculated (MS70)
- Superb Gem Uncirculated (MS66-69), Gem Uncirculated (MS64-65)
- Choice Uncirculated (MS62-63), Uncirculated (MS60-61)
- Choice About Uncirculated (AU55-58), About Uncirculated (AU50)
- Choice Extremely Fine (EF45), Extremely Fine (EF40)
- Choice Very Fine (VF30-35), Very Fine (VF20-25)
- Choice Fine (F15), Fine (F12)
- Choice Very Good (G10), Very Good (VG8),
- Choice Good (G6) Good (G4)
- About Good (AG-3), Fair (FR-2), Poor (PO-1), Blank (0)