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Specimen 1878-S Morgan slabbed by PCGS

In the first year of striking Morgan silver dollars, did the San Francisco Mint make special coins for dignitaries?

It looks like the answer is a strong "yes" from information provided by the Professional Coin Grading Service.

PCGS says it has authenticated and certified the only known specimen strike 1878-S silver dollar.

It is very well preserved.

It is graded SP65.

It is the VAM 58 variety.

“I knew it was special the moment I laid eyes on it,” said the coin’s owner, an East Coast collector who bought it in 2006 and wants to remain anonymous.

Every collector would agree the coin looks amazing.

In the words of PCGS' Don Willis, “When this coin was submitted to us at the June Long Beach Expo, we instantly knew it was something special. After careful analysis, we are pleased to designate it as a Specimen!”

It is the earliest-known specially struck branch mint Morgan dollar, according to PCGS.

This alone makes the coin special.

But it is the historical background that helps make the case that it truly is a specimen strike.

PCGS said, “One of the dignitaries attending the April 1878 first strike ceremony for Morgan dollars at the San Francisco Mint was former California Governor Frederick Low, who was given the second coin struck."

The Morgan dollar was authorized to help soak up surplus supplies of silver from Western mines.

Low would have been aware of the coin’s importance to the California and Nevada economies. It would have been a coin worth keeping.

He moved to Hawaii in 1882 and became a banker there.

This coin has an unbroken pedigree to the 1880s, PCGS said, when it was the property of Bishop & Co. Bank in Honolulu, Hawaii, and then acquired by Samuel Mills Damon of Honolulu, a partner in Bishop’s Bank.

It remained in the Damon estate for more than 120 years until it was offered at auction by Doyle New York in 2006.

It was described by the auction house as “1878-S, Morgan Dollar. Brilliant coin, possibly a presentation piece....”

Is this the Low coin?

“The forensics for this coin are overwhelming,” said Willis. “It has a medallic strike from fresh, new dies of the correct variety, it’s fully struck with square rims and with prooflike surfaces, there are no reeding marks, and no clash marks as found on other coins of this variety struck later.”

In other words, it is not some random “S” mint coin from the pocket of a sailor on shore leave.

The current owner’s thoughts in 2006 when he acquired the dollar coin were expressed this way:

“It looked like a zebra among horses. Just too well made, it was struck like a Philadelphia Mint proof, and had obviously been handled with kid gloves.”

One last bit of information supplied by PCGS is the San Francisco Mint “has a history of creating special strikes, such as a specimen 1854-S $20 gold coin and an 1855-S proof $3 gold coin, both of which marked the beginnings of minting those denominations in San Francisco.”

This mint had the means to do it again in 1878.

Does this make this beautiful 1878-S dollar the Low coin?

We will never have 100 percent certainty, but this PCGS research is good enough for me.

How about you?

Buzz blogger Dave Harper won the Numismatic Literary Guild Award for Best Blog for the third time in 2017 . He is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."