Anyone can collect Morgan dollars. The fact that some Morgans sell for very high prices in grades of MS-65 and above does not mean Morgan dollars are only for the rich. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a lower grade and lower priced Morgan dollar collection and in fact such collections may be even more fun.
I am not saying that merely because it sounds good. I have had enormous fun over the years with Morgan dollars and have probably never owned a single MS-65. It all started with my grandfather. Every Saturday he would come to the house and bring my brother and me a silver dollar. It was back in the 1950s and while not used in large numbers silver dollars were still circulating.
For a long time collecting dollars was way out of my league in terms of price as with an allowance of a quarter a week plus extra funds from mowing lawns and other odd jobs, you still cannot start a dollar collection. Over time, however, as I filled other albums to the point I could, I finally realized that silver dollars were not for spending on other coins as I had been doing but rather they too could be a collection.
It was definitely slow going. My basic quota of Morgan dollars was one a week but sometimes with a little luck I could get two or three. The Morgans in circulation back in the 1950s at least in New York were somewhat limited. Over time I was able to get about 20 different dates, but realistically as you did not see that many, it was not like cents or nickels where you could fill a lot of holes in a collection in a hurry. Of course, even if the dollars had been there, my funds were not, so it was very slow going.
There was one Morgan I wanted to find but had a simply terrible time finding it. I had at least one from all the other facilities that produced Morgans, including a 1921-D, but finding one from Carson City was a real problem. Of course at the time I did not know and neither did anyone else that a few million Carson City Morgan dollars were sitting in a vault a few hours away in Washington, D.C. I just simply assumed Carson City Morgans were extremely tough and in part with perhaps one-third of the dollars I did see being Peace dollars, having trouble finding dollars from a certain mint was not all that surprising.
Realistically I was not that upset as what must be remembered is that back in the 1950s with the exception of Morgan dollars, about the oldest coin you could expect to find in circulation were 1909 Lincoln cents. You might get lucky and find an Indian Head cent or a Barber coin, but the odds of finding any coin from before 1900 were very long.
Finally, after looking for a couple of years, the cash register at my grandfather’s restaurant provided the one coin I really wanted in the form of an 1878-CC. It was well worn and the 1878-CC historically has been the most available Carson City Morgan dollar thanks to a mintage of 2,212,000, but that did not matter to me as finally I had my Carson City silver dollar and that was special.
Ironically, the period was one where the government was providing more Morgans than the rare coin market could ever hope to absorb as bag after bag were being sold by the Treasury at their face value of $1,000. As it would turn out, what the government giveth it also taketh away. When the Treasury stopped selling the bags in 1964 and silver was removed from the dime and quarter and reduced to 40 percent in the half dollar in 1965, any chance of taking my Morgan dollar collection any further from circulation finds was ended. At that point, discouraged, I saved one from each mint and spent the rest as they were not worth any premium at time.
The collection had been a great deal of fun for a couple years of and every time I added a new date I was excited especially if it was from the 1800s. For me and perhaps for others, the Morgan dollar had been the one opportunity at the time to collect a coin from the previous century. To me that was fascinating. I could check the date and go back in my history books to see who had been President and what had happened at the time that specific Morgan dollar was new.
As it turned out, my problem in finding any Carson City Morgan dollar went to the other extreme in the 1970s when the General Services Administration began to sell the Carson City dollars that had been found in the Treasury vaults. This too was extraordinary fun. I bought most of the dates offered at $30, but for me the real fun were the mixed lots of coins that were seen by the GSA as not uncirculated. I bid and won many times and while I never received an 1879-CC or 1889-CC or any major error, the fact is for the reduced prices of the dates they were in my estimation a great deal and a great deal of fun. Eventually I had over a roll of assorted grades and dates of Carson City dollars that almost made me feel like I was back in Carson City in the days of the Old West.
Part of the fun of Morgan dollars at least to me was that from the time I started you could never really predict what Morgans might be tougher based on their mintages. True, the 1893-S is a key date in virtually every grade, but part of the Morgan dollar story involves chance in terms of whether a certain date survived and if so in what grade.
Certainly government policy played a large role in the chances of a Morgan dollar surviving. The Bland-Allison Act that was followed by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act required the production of far more Morgan dollars than could ever have been used at the time they were struck.
When the last Morgans were produced under the original legislation in 1904, it was estimated that perhaps 50 million were in circulation but over 500 million were in vaults. That meant only about 10 percent of the original mintages were being circulated, but it could be any date in any number as it was not simply 10 percent of each mintage. Helping them stay in vaults was the fact that they were also used as backing for Silver Certificates. People didn’t have to use a clunky, large silver coin when paper did the job for them.
The Pittman Act in 1918, which authorized the melting of up to 350 million dollars and which ended up seeing the destruction of 270,232,722, still meant that basically somewhere close to 50 percent of the coins sitting in vaults were destroyed. Once again there was no pattern as the coins melted were simply whatever bags were pulled from the vaults.
It appears that as Carson City dollars were shipped to the vault in Washington first in the early 1900s, that they might well have been in the back of the vault and consequently were less likely to be melted than others. It cannot be proven but that appears to have been the case especially when you consider that in the 1950s and 1960s as the vaults were emptied the last coins there turned out to be primarily Carson City dates and they made up the bulk of the three million coins that were later sold by the GSA.
There are other factors influencing supplies today in certain grades. Basically from the time the last silver dollar was produced in 1935 until the run on dollars in the late 1950s and early 1960s, bag after bag was paid out. Over the span of a couple decades, most of those bags ended up in regular commerce, meaning the coins they contained were circulated.
In the case of some bags that did find their way to coin dealers, they too were usually not saved in large numbers simply because there was very little demand for Morgan dollars in the 1930s and 1940s. A dealer might save a few examples from a bag, but many times the vast majority of the 1,000 coins in the bag did not find their way to collections. The face value alone was an enormous sum to tie up, so the idea was to search them rather than keep them.
When silver rose to $50 an ounce in 1980, the value of any Morgan dollar was around $35. At that point millions if not hundreds of millions were melted. By that time, better dates would have been identified and not included in the melting but the losses of average dates in circulated grades were probably very large and that could play a role in making some dates tougher than might be expected today.
The history of the Morgan dollar makes it one of the relatively few coins of the United States that is nearly impossible to gauge simply by mintages. For example, thanks to the GSA sales, we known many Carson City dollars came out in Mint State. That does not, however, mean that all Carson City dollars were suddenly available in Mint State as the 1889-CC, which has become the key in Mint State of the Carson City dollars and a major rarity, was not in the sale and neither were the 1892-CC and 1893-CC. The 1892-CC and 1893-CC are not as tough as the 1889-CC thanks to larger mintages and the fact that over the years as bags were paid out by the Treasury at least some numbers ended up in numismatic hands.
In fact, in the case of at least the 1893-CC, there were also a few bags in the Redfield Hoard, although typically of the twists and turns of fate that seem to be common with Morgan dollars, many of those coins were damaged by a counting machine used to inventory the hoard.
If you consider a circulated Morgan dollar collection today, it is a fascinating challenge and one many collectors can attempt. As it turns out, the dates that may be tough in circulated grades are not by definition the same dates that would be tough in MS-65 or better.
The best example is probably the 1885-CC. The 1885-CC is a tough date and there can be no doubt about that as it had a mintage of just 228,000. The 1885-CC it seems was never paid out in any numbers at the time they were produced. They must have ended up in the back of the vault at the Treasury when the Carson City dollars were shipped to Washington as the 1885-CC also appears to have never been paid out in any numbers until the 1950s. As a result, they did not circulate in Nevada casinos or other places and when the bags did hit the market in some numbers in the 1950s, many were saved. Later in the GSA sales, 148,285 were available and that is 65.03 percent of the entire mintage.
The result of the unusual distribution pattern is that the 1885-CC despite not being priced as the most expensive circulated Morgan dollar is in fact a good deal. Q. David Bowers in his book The Official Red Book of Morgan Silver Dollars puts it well, suggesting, “Ironically the 1885-CC is the rarest of all Morgan dollars in circulated grades, eclipsing the 1889-CC, 1893-S, and all other contenders.”
If you think Q. David Bowers might be wrong guess again. At the Professional Coin Grading Service they have graded 14,324 1885-CC Morgan dollars and a grand total of 18 were circulated. It was even more dramatic at NGC where they have graded 4,753 and just three were circulated. No other dates came close other than the 1883-CC and 1884-CC. As for the keys, as Bowers suggests, the 1885-CC is much tougher and if you doubt Bowers, the grading services and me try to find a nice VG-8 at any price.
In fact the 1889-CC is more expensive in circulated grades as it too is tough. While a large number of Morgan dollar dates in circulated grades and even lower Mint State grades are available for extremely reasonable prices, frequently $25 in AU-50 and only a few dollars more in MS-60, finding Carson City dollars at such prices is not possible.
There are two reasons why the Carson City dates even in circulated grades will start at $100 or more in most cases. The first reason is the demand that is always extremely high. The second is the supply as there are not many circulated Carson City dollars around simply because the majority are Mint State. That makes them the most difficult single group in a circulated collection.
The most expensive dates might well be called the usual suspects. The 1893-S is a key date in any grade in a Morgan dollar collection. The 1893-S currently lists for $3,800 in VG-8 and they are tough to find at least in that grade. The reason is simply that the 100,000 mintage of the 1893-S appears to have circulated briefly before being pulled from circulation for one reason or another. That makes the majority of the thousands of known examples in large part VF-20 to perhaps XF-40. Lower or higher than such middle grades is unusual and that will make an 1893-S a significant challenge for a circulated set.
Another key date is the Philadelphia 1894 that had a mintage of just 110,000. At $1,450 in VG-8, the 1894 seems to be a case where the mintage tells the story. The 1894 seems to have no special stories as it is available in roughly the numbers that would be expected for a Morgan dollar with such a low mintage.
The drop off to the next group of Morgans is sharp. The 1889-CC is $625 in VG-8, but from there the next most expensive dates are the 1885-CC at $550 while the 1895-O is $335. As perhaps the least available circulated date, the 1885-CC is a good deal at that price and the 1895-O is a problem in most grades although of the number available from its small mintage of 450,000, a goodly number are found in upper circulated grades. The 1881-CC is also above $300 at $375 in VG-8 in another classic case of Carson City dollars being more available in Mint State than in circulated grades.
There are only a couple other dates even reaching $300 in VG-8. The 1903-O is at $325 and that is one of those glorious flukes of Morgan dollars as in MS-60 it is only $425. The reason for the odd pricing is simple in that the 1903-O basically never circulated. Until late 1962 it was the prime Morgan dollar rarity, a coin that was $1,500 in Mint State, but which could not be found in any grade. Then bag after bag was released by the Treasury. The numbers were large, with Bowers estimating that perhaps 200,000 to 350,000 were released. Large numbers were saved, making the 1903-O an available date in Mint State today, but a very elusive date in circulated grades. At the current prices, it is really hard to justify the $325 price for a VG-8 when you can pay just a small amount more and get a much higher grade.
The 1893-CC is $265 in VG-8. The 1895-S is interesting in that it is $450 in VG-8, which is more than double the $200 price of three years ago that ranked it below the 1893-CC. The 1895-S is another case of a lower mintage that seemingly resulted in a poor survival rate perhaps suggesting some percentage of the mintage was melted in the Pittman Act melting. We cannot really be sure, but we know the 1895-S is elusive in circulated grades and difficult as well in Mint State because most examples are heavily bag marked.
There are any number of dates currently in the $100-$200 range in VG-8, with most of the remaining Carson City dates falling into that price range along with a couple others. The rest of the Morgan dollars in circulated grades tend to be around $20 in VG-8. There are a few that bring small premiums, but the number of dates that are available for very modest prices is large enough to make for quite a collection, affordable to the kids of this generation who still cut lawns for their incomes.
There is one other date that you probably will not be able to add to a circulated Morgan dollar collection. The 1895, with a listed mintage of 12,880, was actually a proof-only issue that had a mintage believed to be 880. It was a simple clerical error or at least that is what we believe happened. There have been some who historically have suggested that perhaps the 12,000 business strikes of the 1895 were melted in the Pittman Act melting, but that seems increasingly unlikely as the 1895 should have at least had an example saved for the Assay Commission but that coin was also a proof. Realistically the 1895 was heavily saved as they only went to collectors with more than 50 percent of the entire mintage probably available today. There is a price listing of $21,500 in VG-8, but the problem is that there are probably no coins in that grade. There may be some impaired proofs, especially when there are hundreds known, but finding one in such a low grade is unlikely and that means an 1895 would cost much more as the grade would be much higher and when the coin is a significant rarity, there are always buyers looking for a lower priced example to fill that hole.
Otherwise, the Morgan dollar set is one everyone can attempt and in many cases come near completion. There are only 17 dates over $100 in VG-8, not counting VAM varieties. In fact, when you realize that the most expensive coin in the set other than the 1895 would cost $3,800 in VG-8 and that there are only a few coins even topping $500, it is suddenly not a set that is that costly.
You might not turn a lot of heads at a major show with a circulated Morgan dollar collection, but the fact is you will have a lot of fun assembling such a set and enjoying it and that is the main purpose of any collection.