Q. David Bowers: The following narrative, with minor editing, is from my "Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia" (Wolfeboro, NH: Bowers and Merena Galleries, Inc., 1993)
Once a rarity: From the time of mintage through the early decades of the twentieth century, the 1897 was a major rarity. Very few had been released into circulation. However, Proofs were available readily enough, and took care of the need to acquire the date. This situation was true of such other Philadelphia dates as 1892, 1894, and 1899, among others. Earlier generations of numismatists were blissfully unaware that the 1897 Morgan dollar in non-Proof format was indeed a rarity.
Hoard coins: Once considered rare, Morgan dollars of 1897 were later released in large quantities, and by the 1950s mint bags were common in eastern banks. By that time, they had no premium value, so no attention was paid to them. Among dollars of the 1890s, they are second only to the common 1896 in terms of availability today - another case of how a mighty Morgan dollar rarity has fallen.
The Treasury release of 1962-1964 brought forth other bags, probably by the hundreds or more. Bags were released in Montana early in 1963 and in California and Nevada shortly thereafter. Later, in the mid-1970s, an estimated 16 to 18 bags were in the Redfield estate and were sold through John B. Love, reportedly many to John Kamin, publisher of The Forecaster newsletter.
In 1982, Wayne Miller wrote: "This date is a favorite of promoters because it is readily available and has a deceptively low mintage." A lot of water has gone under the numismatic bridge since 1982, and what was common then is less so now; at least, what was concentrated in just a few places then is apt to be widely dispersed now. I recall that in the 1950s when I could have bought a truckload of Mint State 1897 Morgan dollars (or anyone of several other dates) for face value. Now, even a single bag of this common date would be worthy of notice if it came on the market.
Circulated grades: In 1925, numismatist E.S. Thresher reported that despite searching since 1919, he had not been able to find an 1897 Morgan dollar in circulation; one of just eight coins absent from his Morgan dollar collection (the others were 1884-CC, 1885-CC, 1889-S, 1892, 1893-S, 1894, and 1899).
Today, the 1897 is considered to be fairly common in circulated grades, with most of them being VF, EF, or finer. Apparently, well-worn pieces are rare.
Mint State grades: Mint State 1897 dollars are common in all levels, although in MS-65 they are not among the top 10 most common Morgan dollar dates. Most are well struck and have satisfactory lustre. Others, particularly those in grades from MS-60 through 63, can have grayish, "greasy" surfaces.
Population estimates: MS-60 to 62, 250,000 to 500,000; MS-63, 50,000 to 90,000; MS-64, 25,000 to 50,000; MS-65 or better, 5,000 to 10,000.
Prooflike coins: Prooflike 1897 Morgan dollars are plentiful and remain by the thousands, per the "new" PL criteria used by the grading services. Most have low contrast and unappealing surfaces. High grade DMPL coins are somewhat elusive; about 10% to 15% of the DMPLs are above MS-64.
Proofs: Proofs are usually well struck with deep cameo contrast and are a joy to behold. In higher grades, such coins are among the finest in the Morgan series.
1. Normal date: Breen-5650. Most of the 13 obverses, 12 reverses were used. At least four VAM varieties show partial repunching on date. Four-digit date logotype for all mints, 7 leaning slightly left.
Dies prepared: Obverse: 13; Reverse: 12
Circulation strike mintage: 2,822,000; Delivery figures by month: January: 772,000; February-May: none; June: 600,000; July: none; August: none; September: 100,000; October: 100,000; November: 450,000; December: 800,000.
Estimated quantity melted: Probably 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 under the 1918 Pittman Act.
Availability of prooflike coins: Readily available in prooflike condition, but usually with low contrast and unattractive surfaces. DMPL coins are scarcer.
Characteristics of striking: Usually well struck. Known hoards of Mint State coins: Many bags were released by the Treasury in the 1950s and in 1962-1964; the Redfield estate distributed in the late 1970s had 16 to 18 bags.
The 1897 Morgan dollar is common in all circulation strike grade levels.
The Annual Report of the Director of the Mint for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1897 told of distribution of silver dollars by the Philadelphia Mint:
Philadelphia: In mint July 1, 1896,54,522,267; transferred from the Treasury for storage, 1,000,000; Coinage, fiscal year 1897, 6,848,701; total, 62,370,968; in mint July 1, 1897, 61,943,104; distributed from mint, 427,864.