The 1896-O Morgan dollar is probably worthy of its own book. It?s available, but only in some grades, and while it can be found in Mint State, you probably would not want to show it off to your friends because your average 1896-O is not an especially attractive coin.
The 1896-O came along at a time when there was certainly no need for Morgan dollars, but the law was the law, so New Orleans did its part by producing 4,900,000, although it has to be noted that it was not an inspired effort, as you cannot get as many poorly struck coins as there are in the case of the 1896-O if any care at all is exercised.
What happened to the 1896-O mintage is an interesting question, but one where we have no certain answers. The odds are that a number were released and that later an additional number were melted under the provisions of the Pittman Act.
We cannot be sure of those observations, but it is safe to say that the supply of the 1896-O in all grades combined does not seem right for a mintage of 4.9 million. The Pittman Act is the best way to explain vanishing Morgan dollars.
What happened to the surviving examples of the 1896-O becomes very important, as this is a date which is about $20 in VG-8, which is basically an available date price, but in MS-60 it?s $1,100 ? certainly a premium price ? and in MS-65 it?s $185,000, if you can find one. The conclusion is that something unusual occurred with the 1896-O.
First off, it was poorly made. Wayne Miller wrote, ?No other Morgan dollar is as consistently deficient in luster, strike and degree of surface abrasions as the 1896-O.?
Miller is not alone. In his book, The Official Red Book of Morgan Silver Dollars, Q. David Bowers said of the 1896-O, ?Striking is usually below average, insipid and unattractive.? He goes on to say that the luster,?is typically dull and lifeless.?
Clearly, when a coin such as the 1896-O is described like that, to have any chance to find a nice one there has to be large supplies, as a great deal of cherrypicking will be required.
The fact is that we have spotty reports when it comes to the appearance of any significant number of the 1896-O after it was released. What makes it so unusual is that despite limited reports, the 1896-O is available in some numbers in circulated grades, meaning it had to be released somewhere at some time.
As we see a lot of AU examples, a release at casinos might seem likely, but New Orleans dollars did not on a regular basis end up in Nevada. That said, there is a report that one bag of the 1896-O was lost in the 1963 Redfield theft in Reno, so it is possible that at least a few bags did make it west.
The known bags are few, with some reported in 1953. In the early 1960s, there were other reports, with some not buying, as the thought was that there might be large numbers about to emerge from the Treasury. That never happened, but it caused caution at the time.
There was another factor which caused some with chances to not save the 1896-O. It was not seen as a tough date, so no one would have been concerned about saving examples. Secondly, if a potential buyer looked through a roll or bag, they would have probably decided against its purchase because of the appearance of the coins.
Many passed on the chance to buy examples, so the supply today in all Mint State grades is lower than expected, but almost unknown in top grades.