By Mark Benvenuto
Silver dollars have been a mainstay of the collecting community for decades now. They are available at virtually every coin show, can be purchased through numerous dealers in this magazine and seem to hog the collecting spotlight. Yet we sometimes assume every collector knows just about all there is to know of them. So, for our new members of the collecting family, as well as for the seasoned numismatist who just wants to take a step back, here is a quick silver dollar primer, and a recommendation or two.
Curiously, we live in a time when more dollar coins have been made than ever before. We have a program honoring our presidents on dollar coins, as well as one honoring Native Americans. Yet perhaps because these are not silver dollars in the traditional sense, it’s tough to find collectors who get enthusiastic about them. What are collectively termed the “golden” dollars are a little too functional and pragmatic, a little too lacking in allure, to have become a fun, widely collected series.
Prior to the golden dollars were our short-lived Anthony dollars, issued for just three years, 1979-1981, then in one final hurrah in 1999. They are the same size and have the same electronic resistivity as the golden dollars that followed them (that electronic resistivity or “signature” guarantees a coin is genuine when going through a vending machine), but it’s probably even harder to find a passionate collector of the Anthony dollars than it is one of the golden dollars. They just don’t have much appeal.
The last of what we might call the true U.S. silver dollars were the Eisenhower dollars, minted from 1971 to 1978. They are the same size as those last minted in 1935, and the proofs were actually made with some silver in them, although not the traditional 90 percent of U.S. silver coins from 1964 and prior. But once again, the collector fervor never seemed to reach them. Plenty of folks who enjoy assembling collections of silver dollars might add the proofs to any growing collection, but they usually don’t pay too much for them.
In short, all the modern series of U.S. “silver” dollars are quiet collectibles, apparently relegated to the shadows for the long term.
The earliest silver dollars of the United States suffer from the reverse problem of the modern series – they are amazingly collectible, and thus amazingly expensive. From 1795 to 1804, the young U.S. Mint produced what might politely be called a trickle of silver dollars, with all of them being rather expensive today. The 1804s, which were not produced in that year, have become one of the greatest of American coinage rarities, even though none with that date was made to circulate.
The U.S. was out of the silver dollar business from 1805-1836, with simply no production at all. But even the Seated Liberty dollars, which had some kind of issue almost every year from their inception in 1836 all the way to 1873, were made in generally small quantities and are expensive today. For the novice who wants just one, it might be wise to look for an 1871 or an 1872. These are the only years of the entire series that saw mintages over 1 million coins.
The year 1873 also marks the beginning of the short-lived Trade dollar, issued as some sort of circulating coin up to 1878, then as progressively rarer proofs until 1885. To be fair, there are some high mintages in this brief span of years. But many of these dollars ended up being melted, so even common dates may not be all that common.
Morgan and Peace dollars
Well, we’ve just looked at both ends of the issue of the U.S. silver dollar denomination, and in the process we have whittled the field down to just two series: the Morgan and Peace dollars. These are, without a doubt, the silver dollars to which collectors gravitate. These are the big, silver disks that are center stage, in the hot spotlight, always at the bull’s eye of collector interest. The Morgans, issued from 1878 to 1904, then again one final time in 1921, are the bigger series of the two, especially if we count all the mintmarks and varieties. The Peace dollars, issued from 1921 to 1928, then for two final gasps in 1934 and 1935, are usually the quieter of the two series. But even here, there are some high-end specimens that make auction headlines almost every year. So, with these two series in our crosshairs right now, where do we start?
When it comes to the Morgan dollars, a wise way to jump into the series might be to find one common date in the 1878-1904 zone, and one 1921 piece. The 1921s were produced at the mint in Philadelphia, as well as at the branch mints of San Francisco and Denver. Indeed, this is the only year during which Morgan dollars came out of Denver. And in all three cases, the totals are far higher than almost any previous year, which generally translates to pretty good prices for collectors.
As to the common-date Morgan dollars from before 1921? Well, there are several dates and mintmarks from which to choose where the mintage is at or over 10 million coins. For the modern collector, that’s a pretty common piece. And plenty of them are available in the middle of the Mint State range, meaning they are very attractive coins with equally attractive prices.
As we get into this, a note on grades and prices is in order. Put simply: If you are going for mid-grade or high-grade Mint State dollars, buy certified coins. Even for the old-timers among us, those people who don’t like a sheet of plastic getting between them and their coins, a silver dollar certified by one of the third party grading services gives us a guarantee, some peace of mind. There’s nothing worse than buying a coin that you are positive is a Mint State-65 only to be told when you sell it sometime later that it is only going to grade as an MS-63.
Moving to the Peace dollars, the 1922 coins from Philadelphia were the single most common silver dollar ever, at least when they were minted. The 51.7 million coin total makes them an easy-to-find dollar today. The challenge here might be finding a piece in an excellent Mint State grade, but doing so without flattening our wallet. Some searching and some patience are probably in order.
When it comes to finding a second Peace dollar, well, one can easily claim this is where the fun starts. The Peace dollars – like quite a few series of United States coins – started with both a rarity, the 1921, and a bang, the 1922s. But then they went into a long, slow decline. The 1925 issue was the last to see more than 10 million as a total. The 1926-S, with 6.9 million to its count, is the last that got nearly that high. Several of the other dates and mintmarks hovered near 1 million coins. They aren’t rarities, but they aren’t all that common, either. The challenge here is less patience, and more seeing just what dates and mintmarks are available with some eye appeal, but with an attractive price tag as well.
Importantly, speaking of price tags, please note we haven’t given any. For the person starting out in silver dollars, you will have to find a price point with which you are comfortable and see what sort of Morgan and Peace dollars it will net. These will never be “chump change” coins with down-in-the-dirt prices. But there are still a bunch of possibilities for the collector who only wants to spend $50 or $60 per silver dollar. That outlay will land coins in grades such as MS-63, which certainly have some sparkle, some eye appeal, to them.
Onward from a starting foursome, there are plenty of directions in which to go. Some of us will examine each series and see just what the outlay might be for the common dates. Others might consider just focusing on one or the other of these two in-the-spotlight series. Still others might focus on the issues of a single mint. But whatever direction a person’s collecting takes them, have fun with these big silver dollars, minted when the United States was still young and expanding. As is often said: Enjoy the hunt.
This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.
• Are you a U.S. coin collector? Check out the 2018 U.S. Coin Digest for the most recent coin prices.
• If you enjoy reading about what inspires coin designs, you'll want to check out Fascinating Facts, Mysteries & Myths about U.S. Coins.