For most inquisitive numismatists, the question ‘How to go about collecting Morgan Silver dollars?’ looms large, as some Morgan dollars are inexpensive ($35-$70), while some sell at the rate of thousands of dollars. ‘Is it enough if I consider the mintages?’ or ‘What is the grade I should start collecting from?’ These have been answered by different numismatic experts in different guides over a period of time. This post attempts to condense and give an ‘at a glance’ answer to all these questions. But before that, a history of the Morgan dollar is a must to understand this coin.
Morgan Dollar – A history
The Bland-Allison act of 1878 decreed that the U.S. treasury should buy a prescribed amount of Silver every month from Western miners and produce Silver coins. The Morgan Silver Dollar was a result of this surplus amount of Silver bought by the U.S. Treasury. Literally billions of Morgan Silver dollars were minted in Philadelphia, San Francisco(S), New Orleans(O), Carson City(CC) and Denver(D) mints between 1878 and 1904 and then again in 1921.
Designed by George T. Morgan, the Morgan dollar is considered his materpiece as Assistant Mint engraver in Philadelphia mint. Morgan created a lot of ripples when he reported to duty at the Philadelphia mint in 1876. The then Chief Engraver William Barber considered him a competition for his son Charles E. Barber and never warmed towards him. Morgan was also radical in his approach towards designing coins. Morgan selected Miss Anna Willess Williams as the model for designing Liberty’s head instead of the accepted norm of using mythical Greek-style figures. The obverse design has the Lady Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap surrounded by 13 stars and the line ‘E PLURIBUS UNUM’. For the reverse design, Morgan studied the nature of the bald eagle and created a design of an eagle clasping arrows and an olive branch.
The design of the Morgan dollar was never popular in its own period and was derisively nicknamed the ‘buzzard’ dollar to describe the somewhat thin eagle in the reverse and the ‘cartwheel’ for its big size. In the 1960’s the U.S. treasury sold some Morgan dollars that were sitting in the mint vaults in exchange for Silver certificates and in the 70’s the General Services Administration (GSA) marketed and sold nearly 2.9 million Morgan dollars to the public, generating a lot of interest. After a treasure trove of 400,000 Morgan dollars were found in the basement of LaVere Redfield from Nevada, the coin enthusiasts were really hooked.
So the Mint, the Date or the Grade?
When you are collecting Morgan Silver Dollars, all three; the Mint, the Date and the Grade are important. It's important to understand that the key date from one mint is a common date from another. Also while a lower grade from a key date is easily available, the higher grade key date varieties could be quite rare! If you are collecting Morgan Silver Dollars with a Gem Uncirculated (MS-65) grade from a key date, it's virtually next to impossible. So mostly the answer to this question depends on what kind of a coin collector you are.
Are you willing to shell out money for the really key date coins with MS-65 or PF-65 grades or above(not that there are many of these out there)? Or are you content with highly graded coins from a common date? Do you want to collect the entire set (which can leave a nice hole in your pocket!) or as short sets? Collecting short sets is an achievable goal in the case of Morgan Dollars.
Let’s look at each Mint, and the value for each key date, to help you in collecting Morgan Silver dollars.
Philadelphia Mint Morgan dollars
The Philadelphia Mint Morgan dollars were struck from 1878 to 1904 and again in 1921. These coins have no mint mark. The key date of Philadelphia mint is the 1895 issue. Of the 12,000 business strikes made none exist today as they were melted according to the Pittman Act. 880 Proof coins were also struck, out of which around 500 to 600 are known to exist and these sell at a premium (above $100,000). The other key dates are 1894 and 1901.
Carson City Mint Morgan dollars
With the Silver coming from the Comstock Lode, the Carson City Mint minted Morgan dollars from 1878 to 1893, skipping three years in between (1886, 1887, and 1888). It's no wonder that the 1889-CC coins are sold now for a premium as after three years of closure, the mint struck only 350,000 coins in the second half of the year. 1889-CC Morgan Silver Dollars with grades higher than MS-65 are said to be valued $325,000 and more. The 1879-CC and 1893-CC are also considered key date issues.
San Francisco Mint Morgan dollars
The San Francisco Mint Morgan dollars were struck from 1878 to 1904 and then again in 1921. Most dates like the 1881-S are quite common and can be quite inexpensive even in Mint state conditions (around $200 for a MS-65). But the 1893-S MS-65+ coins are considered quite rare and is a key date. They sell for $650,000 or more for MS-65 and above. Other key dates are 1883-S, 1884-S, 1892-S, 1895-S, 1896-S, 1903-S and 1904-S.
New Orleans Mint Morgan dollars
The New Orleans Mint Morgan dollars were minted from 1879 to 1904 and again in 1921. Of the rarest Morgan dollar coins from New Orleans, the 1895-O needs a special mention. Not even one coin from the 1895-O was represented during the 1970 GSA release of Morgan Dollars. Most available 1895-O coins have a grade AU-55 or lesser. One of the reasons is that these coins were struck with dies spaced far apart to minimize die breakage. An AU-55 1895-O coin commands more than $2000 and a MS-65 around $225,000. Other key dates are 1886-O, 1888-O, 1893-O, 1894-O and 1896-O.
Denver Mint Morgan dollars
The Denver Mint came quite late in the Morgan Silver Dollar minting race compared to the other mints. The mint was established in 1906 and when the Morgan dollars were minted again in 1921 by the other mints, Denver jumped into the fray. Around 20 million Morgan Silver Dollars were minted in Denver and they are easily available in Mint state conditions and quite inexpensive.
The Morgan Silver Dollars were struck at a time the United States of America was rediscovering itself over the turn of the new century. It witnessed the end of the 'Long depression of 1873-1878', the progressive era that found voting rights for women, social reforms, European mass immigration and modernization. Immersed in all this history, the Morgan Silver Dollars didn't get their due in their time. They have found huge popularity nearly a 100 years later. The Morgan Silver Dollars have finally arrived!