U.S. & World Coin News and Articles

Morgan Dollars - The Most Popular Coins In History

1890-P MS65 Morgan Dollar.
1890-P MS65 Morgan Dollar.

Reprinted with permission from David Hall's Inside View

The Morgan silver dollar is arguably the most popular coin in the history of the world. It creates a rush of nostalgia for many Americans as they recall going to the bank to obtain their first one. There was one in the upstairs chest that remained there no matter how much you wanted to use it to go to the movies or indulge a culinary fancy. It is the history of the American West in microcosm, jolting your memory of a hundred scenes when John Wayne or Randolph Scott tossed one on the bar. The Morgan dollar stimulates the senses of numismatists and those who simply love history, but to many it is more than that. Much more. It is the afternoon when your grandfather helped you unhook your first fish or the memory of your grandmother's joyous laugh. It is the streets of your childhood. To many, the Morgan dollar is intensely personal.

The Morgan dollar wasn't born out of necessity, but, instead, out of politics. Following the "Crime of '73," an 1873 act of Congress that eliminated the Liberty Seated silver dollar, the two cent piece, the three cent silver, and the half dime, the silver interests lobbied for new coinage. They needed to relieve the oversupply of silver created by the Comstock Lode and other major silver strikes that had occurred in recent years. In 1878, over the veto of President Rutherford B. Hayes, a law was passed mandating monthly purchases of $2 million to $4 million worth of domestic silver for coinage into dollars. The Mint Director approved the Morgan dollar design and the first proofs were struck eleven days later.

The first business strikes (coins minted for circulation) were struck on March 12, 1878. They exhibited eight tail feathers (8TF) on the reverse along with a totally flat breast on the eagle. From March 26 through April 4 the Morgan dollars were struck from modified dies with seven tail feathers engraved over the previous eight, creating a famous die variety (7 over 8 TF, or 7/8TF). Beginning on April 4 a new die was introduced with seven tail feathers, but with the same flat breast. In late June of 1878 the round breast design was introduced, and this basic design remained in use for decades. Meanwhile, San Francisco and Carson City also issued Morgan dollars in the first year with the 7TF, flat breast motif. These numerous varieties and sub-varieties of 1878 have achieved a niche of their own in the world of Morgan dollar collecting.

In 1879 the New Orleans Mint joined the Morgan dollar party, and twelve proofs were struck at this branch Mint on February 20, 1879, to commemorate the reopening of the Mint. This Mint had been closed since 1861 when Confederate soldiers seized it in the early days of the Civil War.

The round breast design remained in use through 1904, but some old dies with the flat breast were used in 1879 in San Francisco and in 1880 in Carson City, creating two more popular varieties. There are also numerous overdate varieties, mintmark varieties and other variances of moderate or great interest to collectors.

The Morgan dollar was discontinued after 1904, and over 350 million were melted under the Pittman Act of 1918. In 1921 the Morgan dollar was reintroduced for one year only, with the design modified once again, including a flat-breasted eagle. The year 1921 may have been the end of production for this magnificent coin, but it was only the beginning of the story for collectors.

Collecting Options

What is the most popular way to collect Morgan silver dollars? The answer may surprise you. While there are some complete date/mintmark collections that are nothing short of outstanding, and variety collectors abound, most collectors simply buy what they like.

There are collectors who go for dollars with rainbow toning, those who seek fully struck examples of dates that usually come poorly struck, collectors who like deep mirror cameo prooflikes, and many (many, many) who simply love "nice dollars."

How many times have I heard the following words or something similar? "If you find any knockout Morgans at the show give me a call." Note that there's no specification of date, toning, brilliance or any other characteristic in that request except for one: eye appeal.

Here's another a statement I've heard hundreds of times in one form or another: "Yeah, I know I've already got about 30 examples of this date, but I just couldn't resist it." Those words embody the passion of collecting.

If there is a "favorite of favorites" it's Carson City dollars. There are only 13 dates in a complete set, and at the present time only two MS65 or better sets can be completed, so the great demand obviously goes far beyond the desire to build a "complete collection of Gems." In our affluent society the principal "stopper " in the set isn't the price, it's the rarity.

The tremendous interest in Morgan dollars has created what I call the "except for" syndrome. "I just finished my Carson City set in MS65 except for the '89-CC where I had to settle for an MS64." "I have one of every mintmark in MS66DMPL except for the Denver issue, of course, where I put an MS65PL."

Some Morgan dollars come with prooflike (PL) or deep mirror prooflike (DMPL) surfaces. This terminology comes from the similarity of these coins to proofs (obviously) and the depth of the reflectivity determines the classification of each particular coin. Some prooflikes are prohibitively rare in any mint state grade, such as the 1894-0 or 1901-P, while some other dates are relatively easy to locate, even in gem condition. This is an area of the market that won't be discussed in this particular issue of INSIDE VIEW but it's a significant market segment that will definitely be examined in the future.

The Greatest Morgan Dollar Set Ever

In 1997 prominent silver dollar specialist Jack Lee sold 98% of his Morgan dollar set for a price in excess of $7 million. Incredibly, all but three of the coins in the set were the finest examples graded by PCGS, or tied for the finest graded! In addition, he assembled an additional set of many of the finest prooflike and DMPL examples as well. He worked on the set for nearly a quarter of a century, but most of the coins were acquired during the 1990s.

This magnificent set contained virtually all of the most famous Morgan dollars in the world, including the Wayne Miller 1886-0 in MS67DMPL, the Wayne Miller 1895-0 in MS67, the 1896-S in MS69 (!), an 1896-0 in MS66, and multitudinous other jawdropping rarities.

Four coins from the set still remain in his personal holdings, including the aforementioned '95-0 and '96-S. Even when we're talking about millions of dollars, there are some things that a collector just won't sell.

The Top 20 "Affordable" Dates

A date-by-date analysis of the complete series would either be too long or too superficial for one (or even two) issue(s) of INSIDE VIEW. Instead, I have chosen to look at what I consider to be the 20 most important coins in the so-called "affordable" price range. While MS65 or better examples of the major keys (1884-S, 1889-CC, 1893-0, 1893-S, 1893-CC, 1894-0, 1895-0, 1896-0, 1901-P and a few others) are a superb area of the market that I recommend without reservation, this issue is going to focus on the "action" arena of sub-$10,000 coins that have the greatest potential.

Please note: When a coin is recommended in a particular grade (usually MS65), it is automatically recommended in higher grades as well. Buy the best quality that you can afford. All recommendations are for coins graded and authenticated by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). If you buy coins that aren't PCGS certified you may be settling for less than the best. All prices quoted below are courtesy of the Coin Universe Daily Price Guide.

1878 8TF, MS65. This coin has everything going for it. It is a first-year-of-type coin, it is a one-year variety, it has a sort of "deep dish" look to it that isn't seen on other coins of the series, its reverse is found exclusively on the Philadelphia issue of this year, and its popularity is staggering. Dealers who used to run "laundry lists" of silver dollars (every date in almost grade in every ad) in the 1960s and '70s have told me that this was the most frequently ordered coin of the series. Just over 200 examples have been certified in MS65, which is a minuscule supply considering the demand side. In addition, many collectors seek this coin by VAM (Van Allen-Mallis) die varieties, as well as die states of those separate die varieties. If you're not sure what that means, I'll put it another way. Collectors are SERIOUS about this issue. Current price in MS65: $1,500.

1878 7TF, Type of '78 (Flat Breast), MS65. This is the "basic" reverse of 1878 that is found on Philadelphia, Carson City, and San Francisco coins of this year. As mentioned above, it was modified (at least in Philadelphia) later in the year. As with the 8TF, it is a first-year-of-issue coin that is in great demand and is collected by die variety. Many pieces are unevenly struck, creating an eye appeal problem that adds to the rarity and desirability of crisp, clean examples. There are about 210 MS65 specimens certified by PCGS, with 14 higher. Current price an MS65: $1,500.

1878 7/8TF, MS65. This is a complex coin that needs some explanation. There are numerous die varieties of this issue. In order to simplify things as much as possible, PCGS has broken them down into two major categories: 7/8TF Weak (less than four strong tips of the eight feathers showing beneath the seven feathers) and 7/8TF Strong (four or more clearly defined tips showing). The demand for the Strong variety far exceeds that of the Weak variety.

The VAM collectors are in LOVE with 7/8TF dollars, particularly VAM-41, a variety that shows seven full tips beneath the seven feathers. One dealer related a story of finding a Gem example in 1975 and advertising it for $100. "I got my $100 for it all right. I then spent about $200 in postage returning all of the other checks I received for the coin. You'd have thought the WHOLE WORLD collected dollars by VAM variety!"

There are about 75 Gem examples of the Strong variety certified by PCGS (72 MS65, three higher). Current price in MS65 (for the recommended Strong variety): $2,950.

1878 7TF, Type of '79 (Round Breast), MS65. If you think you're noticing a trend here, you're right. All four of the major varieties of 1878 have made the list-and for good reason! These are highly significant and popular coins that are filled with potential. This is the reverse that you'll find on most Morgan dollars minted through 1904. There are just over 75 coins certified in MS65 or better. Current price in MS65: $2,850.

1878-CC, MS65. At any moment Ben Cartwright may come riding in from the Ponderosa with his three sons. It's about time for Wyatt to leave Dodge City and head for Tombstone. In a couple of years Billy the Kid has a date with destiny. Here's one of America's most romantic coins, the first of the mighty Carson City Morgan dollars, from an era that is flooded with characters and events (both real and imagined) that are totally unique to America. This coin is not rare, with around 800 pieces certified in MS65 and another 100 higher, but it's scarce and ultra-popular. In great demand for type sets, date sets, and just as "something neat to own." The current price in MS65: $1,300.

1878-S, MS66 (note grade). San Francisco was a pretty romantic place itself in the mid-late 19th century, and this is (of course) another first issue. There are about 250 pieces graded in MS66, and it's an extremely attractive coin in this lofty grade. The San Francisco Mint "flashiness" is seldom found on coins from other Mints, adding to the popularity of "S"- Mint coins. Current price in MS66: $1025.

1879-O, MS65. This is the first issue of the New Orleans Mint, as mentioned above. The mintage of nearly 3,000,000 Morgans in this year can be deceiving, as the survival rate in top condition is extremely small. This date is noted for problems, such as poor central detail and too-soft luster that hurts the eye appeal. This coin was a slow seller prior to the days of PCGS because, as one long-time customer put it, "I knew if I ordered one I wouldn't like it." His feelings were justified. Over the years over 5,000 pieces have been submitted to PCGS, yet barely over 100 earned the grade of MS65, with seven higher. This is an overlooked coin that is just beginning to be appreciated. Current price in MS65: $3,150.

1880-CC, MS66 (note grade). This is another date that is filled with varieties, but the one I'm talking about here the basic Round Breast with or without the sub-sub-variety overdate(s). One of most popular of the Carson City issues, and quite tough to find with a sharp central strike. There have been extremely few memorable '80-CC dollars over the years. For a long time this date was ranked with the 1881-CC in price, but the '80-CC has proven to be about five times rarer than the '81-CC in this grade. This coin in this condition is a great value today. There are about 130 pieces certified in MS66, with nine higher. Current price in MS66: $2,950.

1887-0, MS65. Under-appreciated. Sleeper date. A lot tougher than you think. All of the standard words and phrases that are used to describe an underpriced coin certainly apply to this one. It's another "problem date," similar to the 1879-0 but even more difficult to locate. You will hardly ever encounter an example that you could call "crisp" or "highly attractive," and the few Gem examples that exist seldom appear on the market. There are about 75 pieces graded MS65, with nothing higher except for (believe it or not) one MS66DMPL. Current price in MS65: $5,200.

1890-P, MS65. As is true with the '87-0 this coin doesn't come any better than MS65 and it rarely shows up in that grade, either. Numerous examples are poorly struck; others have subdued luster or heavy marks. This is another date that used to get zero respect, and the price histories show this coin at under $20 in the early 1970s, even though such valuations are meaningless since today's quality standards are difficult to factor into yesterday's numbers. Another outstanding value. There are 119 pieces graded MS65. Current price in MS65: $3,250.

1891-P, MS65. I didn’t know nearly as much about rare coins 20 years ago as I do today (I was only a ten-year "veteran" in coins in 1980), but I knew that this coin was RARE in Gem condition. I can recall telling some people that the '91-P was rarer in MS65 than the 1903-S and they said I must be working too hard (which is a polite way of stating what they really said). Vindication! Since the inception of PCGS the '91-P has proven to be more than twice as rare as the '03-S. The problems of poor luster, poor strike, and extra-metal flow (a phenomenon that makes the coin look "lumpy") have combined to make this issue extremely difficult to find in Gem condition. Only 42 pieces have graded MS65 over the years, with only one higher, an MS67 that sold for $60,000! Current price in MS65: $7,450.

1891-0, MS65. To say that this coin is "tough" vastly understates its rarity. This is consistently one of the most poorly struck of all Morgan dollars, and the breast feathers are so flat on many pieces that they appear to be concave. There is frequently a problem with die pitting (also seen on the '81-0) that makes the coin look as if it were infected with something you hope you never catch. To top it off, the well-struck examples usually have muted luster and the highly lustrous pieces have severe extra-metal flow. PCGS has graded over 2,600 examples of this date, but only 26 have graded MS65, with zero higher. Enough said? Current price in MS65: $7,750.

1891-S, MS65. For many years this date was placed in rarity class with the 1890-S and 1897-S as a semi-key of the series, and the prices of the three dates were similar. This date has now proven to be three times rarer than the '97-S and roughly two times rarer than the '90-S. It is not a "problem date," as the strike and luster are excellent. The only problem is locating a Gem at current levels. There are 205 examples graded MS65, with 30 higher. Current price in MS65: $1,450.

1892-CC, MS65. Where did this date go? They've almost completely disappeared from the bourse floors of America, and demand is always high. The 1890-CC has a lower population in MS65 than the 1892-CC, yet I seem to see at least three examples of the '90-CC for every '92-CC. Many '92-CC dollars are ultra-flat, but there are quite a few sharply struck pieces as well. The main problem is marks, and this date is usually peppered with them. About 150 pieces have graded MS65, but supplies are extremely limited (as they say on late-night TV, except in this case it's the truth). Current price in MS65: $7,500.

1892-0, MS65. In an era when the San Francisco Mint was doing some its best work, Philadelphia, Carson City and most notably New Orleans almost forgot how to make nice dollars. Where are the breast feathers on the eagle? Even on the finest examples the feathers are usually a little weak. The good news is that the luster on this issue is vastly improved over the '91-0 and the extra-metal flow problem has disappeared. There are 50 pieces graded MS65, with five higher. Current price in MS65: $7,500.

1894-S, MS65. Welcome to the age of the "roller marks." Just as I was bragging on the work of the San Francisco Mint, along comes a new problem. These linear striations were created during preparation of the planchets, and they frequently make the coin look as though a wire brush had been taken to it. Finding clean and attractive examples of this date is always a challenge, and current price levels are among the most attractive of the entire series. About 70 pieces have graded MS65 or higher. Current price in MS65: $6,550.

1897-P, MS66 (note grade). Is this a "common' date? A lot of people think so until they investigate the facts. In MS65 there are just over 800 pieces graded and in MS66 the population currently stands at 84 coins. Those numbers won't make your heart race, but when you look at the price vs. rarity comparisons things suddenly change. This date has long been a mini-sleeper, and now it's an excellent value that almost everyone can afford. Current price in MS66: $1,625.

1903-0, MS67 (note grade). Every date seems to have a story, and the 1903-0 has perhaps the best story of all. At one time this was the rarest and most expensive of all the Morgan dollars. In the 1940s a nice mint state specimen was worth 100 times more than a Gem proof 1895! Today a Proof 65 1895 Morgan dollar is a $36,500 coin and an MS65 1903-0 will set you back less than $500. How's that for a role reversal? What happened? In the 1960s the government released hundreds of bags of silver dollars into circulation, and ten or twelve of those ($1,000 face value) were 1903-0. Until that time it was believed that virtually the entire mintage had been melted under the Pittman Act. While well over 1,000 pieces have been certified MS65 today, only 25 have earned the grade of MS67. Want a great quality coin with an equally great story? There was one at the 1988 ANA Convention with a $25,000 price tag on it. Today they're a much better deal. Current price in MS67: $4350.

1921-D, MS66 (note grade). Here is a coin with spectacular potential. This isn't much of a coin in lower mint state grades. It's common, unattractive, the mintmark is so small that it's difficult to see, and the strike on the reverse wreath is usually terrible. In MS66, though, the story changes. This is the only Denver-Mint Morgan dollar, so every mintmark type set (one coin from each of the five Mints that produced Morgan dollars) has to have this coin. There are only 91 pieces graded in MS66, so only 91 sets can be assembled in this grade. Add to this the demand for the coin for date sets and other purposes and you have a highly significant "condition rarity." Sound like a $2,500 coin? It's not. Current price in MS66: $1,050.

MS68 Type Coins (note grade). These are the showstoppers in the world of Morgan dollars. They are coins of incredible beauty, with surfaces, strike and luster that will make a collector of almost anyone. There are less than 300 of them, and they used to cost in excess of $20,000 each. Today they are much less. Current price: $3,000.

Morgans that made "Honorable Mention"

While the "Top 20" list above is as comprehensive as possible, there are a few other coins that are highly worthy of mention. Here are three coins that barely missed the list.

1885-CC, MS66 (note grade). Pop quiz. What's the lowest mintage coin in the Carson City dollar set? Nope, it's not the 1889-CC or the 1893-CC. It's the 1885-CC! This fact has made the '85-CC hugely popular with collectors, and popularity drives much of this market. There are nearly 400 pieces certified in MS66 or better, but there's almost always someone looking for one. Current price in MS66: $1,675.

1888-0, MS66 (note grade). This is a popular date because it's surrounded by rarities from the New Orleans Mint. From 1886 through 1897 this is the only issue that many collectors can afford in Gem condition. In MS66 the '88-0 is a rarity in itself, with 41 pieces graded and zero higher. Current price in MS66: $3,650.

1893-P, MS65. As is true with the 1892-CC mentioned above, this is one of those extremely elusive dates. There are only 74 pieces graded in MS65, with one higher, but the rarity seems even greater. Highly popular due to its low mintage of 389,000 coins. Current price in MS65: $7,500.

1885-CC MS66 Morgan Dollar.
1885-CC MS66 Morgan Dollar.
1878-CC MS65 Morgan Dollar.
1885-CC MS66 Morgan Dollar.
PCGS Library