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Morgan quest at 40 years and still counting

Collecting Morgan silver dollars by date and mintmark seemed a daunting task when I began it as a young collector over 40 years ago.  The face value of the set came to over $100. Yet, the coin was beautiful, impressive and had a 90 percent silver content. I am still working on it.        

The first Morgan dollar I ever saw was a 1921 given to me by my grandmother for Christmas, along with a 1922 Peace dollar. These were both the common Philadelphia issues issue at a time Philadelphia did not use mintmarks.

But these were the two coins that got me started in collecting. The two coins were only a year apart, yet had completely different designs. I was fascinated by the differences between the two dollars, and wondered how many more dollars and other coins existed with designs that were not like the coins I saw everyday.

After purchasing a Red Book at a local hobby shop, I realized that pursuing a set of Morgan dollars would take some time, especially for a youngster without a lot of money to spend. A coin shop in a shopping plaza had boxes of silver dollars to browse through, worn dollars and “better” coins.  The worn dollars cost $1.25 each, the better coins, $1.50.  The owner of the shop realized I was becoming a serious collector, even at my young age and let me look through the boxes all I wanted. 

Many dollars with the “O” mintmark under the eagle’s tail feathers on the reverse, for New Orleans, could be found in these boxes. I accumulated a number of these, including quite a few of the 1904-O.  For some reason, I liked this date.  The owner of the shop gave me a Mint State 1904-O for Christmas one year. 

Mint State Morgan dollars were available for reasonable prices back then.  Beautiful specimens of the 1879, 1884, 1889, and other dates were found. I remember a lovely 1886 with light blue toning, and very few bagmarks.  Liberty’s cheek was perfect and unblemished. I had to pay all of $2 for this treasure.

Looking through many Morgan dollars taught me what to look for when picking out coins for my collection.  I saw differences in strike among different dates and mints.  Many dollars I found in the boxes had bagmarks, some to an extreme. I particularly remember an 1882-S that had some mint luster, and was technically an uncirculated coin, but had so many bagmarks that it made the coin unattractive.  Some uncirculated dollars had blazing luster; others, more subdued luster, and a few others didn’t look so hot, even at near Mint State.

The bright coins caught my eye, but later, I appreciated the beauty of a toned coin. I also learned that toning could cover a multitude of sins, and that toning could be artificial. A few dollars had toning from being the end coin in a roll.  Some had a dull coloring all over the surface, not attractive, and I passed up these coins.  I bought the coins that appealed to me.  There were a few duplicates, but the prettiest coins were placed in a bookshelf album.

The Morgan dollar set consisted of three albums, a large set that would take years to build. As the years went by, more holes in the album were filled. I wondered if every single hole would someday be filled, or at least every hole but the one for the 1895, designated “proof only” in the album. Slabs and professionally graded coins did not exist back in the days when I began collecting Morgan dollars.

I noticed that 1881-S dollars were almost always beautiful, with bright luster, and a good strike. The 1921 coins were not that nice, and the 1892-O coins were usually blah – for lack of a better term.  On the whole, the S-mint coins looked much better than the O-mint coins – just one of my many observations.

It seemed that no matter how many Morgan dollars I bought, there were still quite a few to buy, to make a complete set. I began reading magazine articles in coin publications – clipping and saving the best articles – and purchased a few reference books on Morgan dollars. I learned quite a bit about the history of these coins. I was fascinated by the story of the 1903-O. That coin had been considered a major rarity for years, but when bags of the coin were released by the Treasury Department in 1963, the price went way down. The 1904-O and 1898-O coins were also former rarities that became common. 

During a trip to a local coin shop, I found a worn 1904-O in the box of common dollars.  I wondered if someone had paid a fancy price for the coin years ago, then wound up selling it for a few cents over face value.
And speaking of the Treasury Department, I recall the release of the Carson City dollars and other dollars in the early 1970s.  I didn’t order any.  First of all, the uncirculated Carson City dollars were a bit out of my budget, and second, I thought the prices on these coins would plunge once all of the coins were out. Big mistake!

One lucky collector received a dollar struck off-center, but he didn’t seem all that thrilled with the coin.  I wonder what happened to it.

The 1895 proof-only issue was obviously out of my reach, and perhaps always will be, but a complete set of the other dates and mintmarks could very well be accomplished. I could dream, and thought that maybe someday I could afford an 1895  My coin won’t have to be a perfect proof, acquired after spirited bidding at an auction.  An impaired proof with some wear, would fit nicely into my set.  I did see one offered for sale, graded Proof-15, but didn’t buy it.

I learned that the Morgan dollar had been struck at five different mints. I bought a special holder to house one coin of each mint. The Carson City coin was the difficult one, but I did manage to find a worn 1878-CC that fit nicely into the set.  Much later, I upgraded this set.

In building my own set of Morgan dollars, I came across some coins that were duplicates, but were too pretty to pass up, especially if I got a good price for them.  A favorite dealer once showed me a lovely 1885-S dollar with spectacular toning, loaded with eye appeal.  I snapped up that coin.  At a major convention, one dealer had a table filled with beautifully toned coins, many of them 1881-S dollars. I picked out two of the prettiest. And in a box of common Morgans at a department store, I spotted an 1883-O with rainbow toning on the reverse. I got that coin at a very reasonable price.

Checking out the boxes of “common” dollars yielded a few good finds. I found slightly circulated specimens of the 1883-S, 1884-S and 1904-S dollars in these boxes.  The coins were not Mint State, but nice anyway.

A local coin shop sold Carson City dollars from the Treasury release of the 1970s, coins still in their original black plastic holders. The coin on top of one stack was a 1881-CC, with a prooflike surface that was visible as soon as I walked in the door. That coin was my purchase for the day.

One of my favorite coin shops had in stock a large group of Morgan dollars that were purchased from a bank; the coins were still in metal boxes that resembled safe deposit boxes. Most of them had good mint luster. Most of them were common dates, too, but I kept searching, and found a 1902-S with plenty of luster, and golden toning around the obverse lettering.

Whenever I visited a local coin shop, or a major convention, I always made the time to check out a number of Morgan dollars. As the years went by, I came closer and closer to a complete set, complete except for that 1895.  I perused auction catalogs that contained many photos and stories about Morgans, in addition to buying more reference books, and saving articles from magazines and newspapers about Morgans. There was always more to learn, more coins to see, and a few more coins to buy.

Collectors may buy low-grade coins as they start out, then decide to upgrade, once they get the collecting bug and want to make their collections as nice as they can afford.  As my want list of Morgans grew smaller, a list of coins to upgrade grew longer. 

One of my first finds as a young collector was an 1896-O in fine condition.  I considered it to be a “find” because it had that unusual “O” mintmark.  That particular date was not common in high grades.  I did find a nice Almost Uncirculated coin.  While it was not a true Mint State, it was an attractive coin, and fit nicely into my set.

Finally, I came down to the last two keys in the series: 1889-CC and 1893-S.  While I realized that the 1895-P would probably never be mine, I was happy to come so close to a complete set.

While Christmas shopping, I phoned a favorite dealer who asked me to come in and see what he bought. His prize was a worn 1893-S dollar, just honest wear, no nicks, no damage. I bought that coin as a Christmas gift to myself. The dealer told me he knew I wanted that coin, so he decided to show it to me first. If I passed on the coin, he had six other customers asking for it. This was years ago. How many Morgan dollar collectors need an 1893-S dollar now? Demand will always be strong for this coin.

Last came the 1889-CC. I saw a nice very fine coin at a local shop, and bought it that day. A special coin, and a special purchase, for it completed my basic Morgan set, after years of collecting.

Did I say a basic Morgan dollar set?  That set may be finished, but there are varieties, errors, proofs, and the engraved 1921-D Morgan dollar. This coin was engraved in the obverse field, “—th coin of 1st 100 ever released from Denver Mint/Thomas Annear Supt.”

That engraved 1921-D became a favorite coin, even though I never saw one until the 2008 American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money. I did some research on this coin, and managed to track down nine of the 10 engraved coins, numbered 3 through 12. Coin number 12 was at the show, and a dealer friend had me paged at the convention center when he had the coin.

I found another engraved Morgan dollar at another World’s Fair of Money.  This coin was an 1878-S struck in proof, a rare branch mint proof, housed in a custom made holder.  As I recall, the price wasn’t outrageous. 

One proof Morgan dollar could really dress up a basic date and mintmark set.  Of course, the 1895-P, struck only in proof, is the big challenge. But quite a few dates were made in proof, and not all of them at Philadelphia.  A date set of proof Morgans would require a lot of time searching, and an unlimited coin budget, but what a beautiful set that would be.  There were very few branch mint proofs made. Perhaps the most famous of these is the 1893-CC, made during the last year of operations at the Carson City Mint.

At a Florida United Numismatists convention, the first coin I examined was a 1921 Morgan struck off-center. Large coins such as silver dollars are uncommonly seen off-center. What a prize this coin would be for an advanced Morgan collector, an error coin in my favorite series. Unfortunately, I had to pass up this coin.

Many different varieties of Morgan dollars exist, and are documented in reference books. Some are quite apparent to the naked eye, others need a magnifier, even on a large silver dollar. Collecting Morgans by die variety is a possibility, even though this pursuit would take awhile, looking through many coins and becoming familiar with the subtle and not-so-subtle varieties.  

After more than 40 years of collecting Morgan dollars, studying and purchasing many different specimens, seeing thousands of these coins, my collection is not complete.  The 1895 aside, there is so much to this set of dollars that any collector could spend a lifetime or two tracking down these coins. A set of varieties, major and minor, a set of proofs, with or without the super rare branch mint proofs, specially engraved coins – the list is long enough to keep me occupied for the rest of my collecting life. My Morgan dollar collection will never be quite finished. If it ever is, I would miss the hunt.                   

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