The Morgan Silver Dollar, the king of 19th century U.S. coins, has all but dominated the numismatic hobby and coin market within the United States since the 1960s. Learn various approaches to build your Morgan collection!
The allure of Morgans is clear to anyone who sees a beautiful, high-grade example of these hefty silver pieces. Yet, to those who contemplate collecting the series, it is easy to feel overwhelmed since there are 96 coins in a complete set. There are also many better-date coins that are expensive in any grade, and some that are true rarities, especially the 1893-S and 1895 – the latter coin only issued in a proof finish.
For those who desire a set of every business strike date including all Mint marked coins, but who can’t afford to spend a substantial sum on a rare, mint state 1893-S, or for other dates in mint state condition, one could substitute circulated examples of the rarer coins at lower price points.
When starting out with the series, a good approach is to first acquire the 30 most-common dates, preferably in as high a grade as the collector can afford – something that is not nearly as affordable in any other series from this era. This is possible, because even with the massive melting of the coins in the 19th century, mint state Morgans remain plentiful. Their abundancy is partly because many of them were stored at the U.S. Treasury in bags, which entered the market in the 1960s, including some dates like 1903-O that were previously very scarce. It is possible in today’s market to acquire raw uncirculated examples of each of these 30 coins for a reasonable sum.
By doing this first, the newer collector will begin to learn some of the most important facets of the series, such as the variations in strike and surface quality of coins from the various mints that struck Morgans. This is also a great opportunity to learn some of the finer points of grading, such as why two coins that may look very similar, can have values that differ greatly.
Coins produced at the San Francisco Mint are generally the most-flashy and well struck of the series, especially coins issued from 1878-S to 1891-S. However, other S-Mint coins, especially the 1921-S, come very poorly struck, although often with good luster.
The other Mint that produced coins that were typically very well-struck and frosty white is the Carson City Mint, especially the more affordable issues from 1881-CC to 1885-CC.
Coins from Carson City are by far the single most widely-collected subset of the series, especially since the 1970s when the General Services Administration (GSA) sold a large quantity of Carson dollars that had been stored for decades in bags. These coins were distributed to collectors mostly in black, hard-plastic holders, and some in soft plastic that went inside blue envelopes. Carson City enthusiasts collect these coins either raw, graded in regular slabs, in GSA boxes, and in GSA boxes that have been graded, but those in graded GSA boxes tend to be the most popular.
This subset of the series is so popular, in part, because nothing conjures up the history of the West during the days of the Comstock Lode, more than Carson dollars. In addition, because it is a relatively short set of 12 coins with 7 dates that are accessible to most buyers in nice uncirculated examples (1878-CC, an always popular issue, 1880-CC, 1881-C, the three most affordable dates (1882-CC, 1883-CC, and 1884-CC), and 1885-CC. The five dates that are rarer and more expensive, especially in mint state, are 1879-CC, 1889-CC, 1890-CC, 1891-CC, 1892-CC, and 1893-CC. Those on a budget who want to have each date could seek circulated examples of those coins.
For New Orleans issues the 1879-O to 1882-O coins tend to have nice luster but strikes range from soft to good. The 1883-O to 1885-O range from dull grey to frosty white and strikes tend not to be very good, and the 1889-O to 1892-O coins are similar. Coins issued in Philadelphia tend to have a dull, frosty white look, and their strike quality varies but is often below average.
The only coin issued at the Denver Mint is the 1921-D, whose strike is typically light because it was made from shallow dies, and the luster varies from dull to frosty.
By learning how much variation there is from one date and from Mint mark to another, as well as of coins of the same date and Mint mark, and even of the same grade, over time the collector will learn how to spot coins with solid eye appeal that they will want in their collections and which may have better resale value when the time comes to sell.
Today that task is made a little easier because of the green and gold CAC (Certified Acceptance Corporation) stickers that have become the norm for better-date coins, especially when they are sold at auction.
There are many other ways to collect Morgans such as by die variety, which requires acquiring specialized knowledge of the many different die varieties that exist of different coins, known as VAM’s, and having some good reference books, especially Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars by Leroy C. Van Allen and A. George Mallis.
Another approach is to collect pedigreed coins such as those that were part of major collections and coins from various hoards of Morgan dollars such as the recently-acquired New York Bank Hoard and Great Montana Hoard which includes many toned coins – another popular way to collect Morgans. Coins with beautiful toning, especially those with rainbow colors, command very strong premiums.
The most famous of the major hoards are the coins that were owned LaVere Redfield, an eccentric collector who amassed hundreds of thousands of Morgan dollars hidden behind a false wall. The entire hoard was purchased in 1976 by a single coin dealer. Redfield dollars typically come in red and black boxes that say Paramount International Coin Corporation on them, though some of these pieces only have the Paramount name. Due to their popularity, all of them sell for a premium over coins that were not part of this hoard.
Morgans also exist with amazing mirrored surfaces known as prooflike (PL) and deep mirror prooflike (DMPL). This is another way to collect the coins with the more common dates with these surfaces costing only a relatively small amount over the regular strikes, while some dates are extremely rare with PL and DMPL surfaces.
One other area that collectors should focus on, is the certified coin populations that are available from NGC and PCGS. Especially when it comes to better-date coins, it is essential to study the population reports at PCGS and census reports at NGC to see how many coins in the grade of the coin you are considering have been graded and how many exist above that grade. Also study how many coins have been given the green or gold CAC stickers. And remember that these numbers change over time as more coins are graded.
Collecting Morgan dollars can be rewarding in so many ways. Purchasing nice quality examples of undervalued coins or getting ones that are always popular at a great price, may result in higher values for your coins later. However, keep in mind that the market always fluctuates and even up to MS67, the most common issues trade generically, unless you have one that is exceptional for the grade or has a special pedigree.
Collecting Morgans can be endlessly enriching in non-monetary ways too, as you learn more about the coins and when and how they were made. Since obtaining nice quality, better-date issues takes time, study, and effort, collecting the series is a journey that can last for many years.
||Louis is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing on modern coins. He has been writing a weekly column for CoinWeek since May 2011 called “The Coin Analyst,” which focuses primarily on modern U.S. and world coins and developments at major world mints. In August 2015 he received the Numismatic Literary Guild’s award for Best Website Column for “The Coin Analyst,” and in August 2021 the column received the NLG award for best column on modern U.S. coins. He has also received other awards for his writing. He is also a contributor to several magazines, including Coin World, where he writes a bimonthly feature;The Numismatist, the American Numismatic Association’s monthly publication, where he writes a monthly column on modern world coins; and and other publications. He began writing about coins in 2009. He is a founding member of the Modern Coin Forum hosted by ModernCoinMart and has written articles for MCM since 2014. He has collected classic and modern U.S. and world coins since he was about 10 and first joined the ANA in the 1970’s. He has been writing professionally since the early 1980s.|