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).
Mintage not needed: In 1903 at the New Orleans Mint, 4.45 million circulation strike silver dollars were minted. Not needed in circulation at the time, most of the coins were stored in vaults. Apparently, only a few were released.
Later, probably during the implementation of the 1918 Pittman Act, millions were melted. In 1929, those remaining at the New Orleans Mint were shipped to storage in a sealed vault in the Philadelphia Mint, where they remained until October 1962.
King of the Morgan dollars: Until October 1962 the 1903-O was the most important, most acclaimed, rarest issue in Mint State in the entire Morgan dollar series. Outranking the 1893-S, 1895, and other contenders, the Mint State 1903-O was so rare that it was estimated that fewer than 10 specimens were known to exist in numismatic circles. Indeed, the rarity of the 1903-O in this grade was legendary. Few collectors or dealers had ever seen one, let alone had the opportunity to own one! A few scattered advertisers claimed to have Mint State 1903-O dollars, but these listings were probably window dressing, representing what they might charge if they had coins available, or they may have been AU "sliders." In the then current Guide Book of U.S.Coins in 1962 an Uncirculated 1903-O catalogued at $1,500.00 - the highest price of any Morgan dollar. Yeoman's theory was that most had been melted under the Pittman Act.
This changed in October 1962, when to the great amazement of the numismatic fraternity, a number of bags of Mint State 1903-O dollars came to light, setting off the numismatic equivalent of the California Gold Rush! It is said that the small town of Alma, Michigan was the site of some of the first 1903-O dollar discoveries. The race was on, and the silver dollar market would never be the same again.
The news spread that the 1903-O and other New Orleans silver dollars had been shipped to the Philadelphia Mint in 1929, and had remained in a joint-sealed vault since that time. A generation of distinguished Philadelphia numismatists came and went, without knowledge of their existence in their very backyard! Additional coins came out from hiding in the Treasury Building in Washington, D.C., where, for some unexplained reason, they had not been noticed by coin-wise employees earlier.
Dozens of bags of 1903-O dollars were released in 1962-1964. Exactly how many coins were involved is not known, and guesses have ranged from 60,000 or so to over 1,000,000. Wayne Miller's estimate is 60,000 to 100,000. Probably, the truth lies somewhere between 60,000 and several hundred thousand. I suggest 200,000 to 350,000. As the 1903-O is rare in worn grades, probably most of the 4.45 million coins originally minted were melted under the Pittman Act.
Reminiscing in The Comprehensive Silver Dollar Encyclopedia, Dean Tavenner said that in Helena, Montana a banker had 1903-O dollars available in quantity by February 1963. The least Dean Tavenner remembers paying for an Uncirculated piece was $7 each, probably in the summer of 1963. He recalled that by November 1975 he sold five rolls for a banker from Dillon, Montana for $2,100 - which amounted to $21 per coin.
Writing in an advertisement in The Numismatist in January 1964, Steve Ruddel told of an unspecified Kansas City dealer who "panicked ... when he got a bag of '03-0s. He soon flooded his local market and got $3 or $4 each. At the same time I had a standing offer of $15,000 a bag and couldn't buy any."
I was first told about the release of 1903-O (and 1898-O and 1904-O) dollars by Harry J. Forman, who telephoned dealers and collectors around the country to alert them to the situation and also to warn them against deception. It seems that a few clever insiders obtained coins of these three formerly-rare dates, and hurried to dealers' stores to sell them for cash-at prices based upon the old catalogue listings. One such insider flew to London, where he endeavored to steal a march on B.A. Seaby, Ltd., A.H. Baldwin, and Spink & Son, Ltd., the three leading British rare coin dealers at the time.
After the news broke, I was offered a few bags for $17,000 each in late 1962 or early 1963 by a Detroit source, but I declined, as I was fearful that about four million more coins would be coming out of the Treasury; I was wrong on the four million, but time would have vindicated a purchase at $17,000 per bag.
Interestingly, earlier sales of worn 1903-O dollars caused a lot of problems after October 1962, when Uncirculated pieces became so common. A number of collectors complained to the officers of the Professional Numismatists Guild about members who had obtained several hundred dollars each for circulated coins earlier in the year. These collectors felt sure that these dealers had some sort of advance warning about the impending release. However, no one did - and dealers were just as surprised as anyone else.
Mint State grades:
Mint State 1903-O dollars are plentiful. Around 200,000, or even more, are believed to exist. Most are in lower ranges from MS-60 to 63, with an occasional MS-64. MS-65 coins are somewhat more elusive but are readily available. My population estimates are as follows: MS-60 to 62, 120,000 to 240,000 coins; MS-63, 40,000 to 80,000; MS-64, 20,000 to 40,000; and MS-65 or better, 10,000 to 20,000.
The majority of surviving 1903-O Morgan dollars have attractive frosty lustre. Bagmarks are relatively few, as the coins were not moved around much from the time of striking to the time of distribution. The striking varies from flat to sharp, with the average coin being somewhere in between. Sharply struck MS-65 coins are very desirable.
Prooflike 1903-O dollars constituted a tiny majority of the Treasury release of this New Orleans issue. Probably, somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 exist. The contrast is low, and because of this the demand has been small. DMPL coins are two to three times scarcer than PLs. Most grade below MS-65.
NEW REVERSE HUB: WIDE NECK/WING
SPACE, LARGE STARS VAM REVERSE C-4
1. Breen-5696. Varieties are not notable: open 9, VAM 1-2; closed 9, VAM-3; other differences, including tilted mintmarks and slight repunching of numerals.
Dies prepared: Obverse: Unknown; Reverse: Unknown.
Circulation strike mintage: 4,450,000; Delivery figures by month: January: 1,000,000; February: 350,000; March: 500,000; April: 500,000; May: 500,000; June: 1,250,000; July: none; August: none; September: none; October: none; November: none; December: 350,000.
Estimated quantity melted: Probably about 4,000,000 under the terms of the 1915 Pittman Act.
Availability of prooflike coins: Prooflike coins are slightly scarce, have low contrast. DMPL coins are scarcer.
Characteristics of striking: Varies from weak to sharp, but is mostly average to above average.
Known hoards of Mint State coins: Probably somewhere between 200,000 and 350,000 coins were released in the autumn of 1962; prior to this time a Mint State 1903-Owas believed to be a great rarity, only a few were known.
The 1903-O is the most famous of all mint marked Morgan dollars from a legend and lore viewpoint, it being the center of attention in the great 1962-1964 Treasury release of silver dollars.
An Early Appreciation of Rarity
The Numismatist, July 1925, printed this note by Howard R. Newcomb:
"There seems to be something peculiar about the standard silver dollar of 1903 issued from the New Orleans Mint. Al-though the government records indicate a coinage of 4.45 million pieces, I failed to locate, in the last half dozen years, any specimens either in the hands of dealers or collectors, save one in my own collection and one in a prominent collection in Washington, D.C. They seem to be equally scarce even in circulation.
"Although silver dollars were not plentiful in circulation in these parts [Newcomb lived in Detroit], I have enlisted the aid of the head cashiers in three of our larger stores to be on the lookout for this piece. It is customary in these stores when silver dollars are received not to give them out again in making change, but to deposit all of them. These men, for several years, have looked over thousands of silver dollars and not one has come to light. Two of our A.N.A. members, one in Los Angeles, the other in San Francisco, have also searched where the silver dollar is plentiful and they, too, have been unable to find any. The only explanation I can offer is that the government, during the late war, sold the entire mintage as bullion and the entire mintage rested in the government vault, undisturbed, until that time when so many millions of silver dollars were melted up."
Apropos of Newcomb's comment, the editor of The Numismatist Frank Duffield said: "Silver dollars are not collected extensively, but if they were, it is more than probable that other dates and mintmarks would be found to be far rarer than the recorded coinage would indicate."
The Rare 1903-O
In the September 1926 number of The Numismatist, Will W. Neil, of Baldwin, Kansas, in a letter to the editor dated July 23, 1926, noted that he had been looking through coins for eight years in connection with his drugstore business:
"Of the silver dollars from 1878 to 1904 I found one complete set, all dates and mints, and several varieties .... I then started a second set and have it complete with the lone exception of 1903-O, which is a tough fellow to find. I suppose I have looked over five million silver dollars to find the one I have. I have found most of the other pieces that he [Mr. Thresher, who had written earlier on the same subject] could not locate, with the exception of the two rarities."
Recollections of a 1903-0 Hoard
In 1991 John Pancratz shared his recollections concerning a hoard of 1903-O Morgan dollars:
"Dear Mr. Bowers:
"I recently came across an article of yours in the February 27, 1991 Coin World on the subject of the 1903-O Morgan dollar. The subject has fascinated me for years as I have had an indirect involvement in this subject and since you write articles and books I will relate to you what information I have acquired on the 1903-O dollars that have passed through this area.
"In 1962 Seattle had a World's Fair and a private concern organized a Million Dollar Display as part of the exhibits. This received a great deal of publicity and even merited inclusion as one of the 10 subjects for the Fair's official medal set.
"The one million silver dollars were ordered from the Federal Reserve and were shipped in mint bags by armored car to the Seattle Fair site from the San Francisco Mint. With much public relations photography, they were dumped from the bags into a wire cage which constituted the Million Dollar exhibit. These were Uncirculated Morgan and Peace dollars. Approximately 200,000 Uncirculated dollars were sold by the exhibitor for souvenirs.
"In November of 1962 when the exhibit closed, the employees rolled up the remaining displayed dollars in standard paper bank tubes with the Exhibit title stamped on the roll. I believe that there was at least one bag from each of the years 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904 with the O mintmark in the center of the exhibit. I know many collectors who visited the Exhibit and none recall seeing any of the dollars prepared for souvenirs that had an O mint mark.
"The rolls of dollars were bagged and returned to the Seattle Federal Reserve branch vault. During the period from 1963 to 1964 these rolls were sent to banks in Idaho, Montana and Utah as normal currency in response to bank request.
"In 1964 and 1965 two technicians employed by the Boeing Company on the assembly and checkout of the Minuteman missile sites near Great Falls and Malstrom AFB became aware of the presence of the 1903-O Morgans hidden in Exhibit marked bank rolls in the banks of Montana. They and their wives obtained as many of these silver dollar rolls as they could, sorted out all of the O mintmarked dollars and rerolled the remainder for deposit and recirculation. These two couples took a number of vacations to many parts of the country, visited coin shops and sold their 1903-O Uncirculated dollars to pay their vacation expenses.
"One of the wives separated from her husband and I took a number of rolls of O mintmarked dollars with her to Seattle where she obtained employment as a clerk at the Boeing Company. Prior to leaving Seattle and moving back to the Midwest with her children she sought me out and sold me the remainder of what she and I believed were junk silver dollars. I took the balance of her plastic tubed rolls at the then current market value of $5 each or $100 per roll.
"I took the sack of rolls and put them in the truck of my car. It snowed the next morning and I left them in car trunk for ballast. In the spring of 1970 my wife asked me to clean my junk out of the car trunk and I took my bag of dollars into the house, and discovered that each plastic tubed roll contained Uncirculated Morgan silver dollars with a New Orleans mintmark. There were three rolls each of the following: 1898-O, 1899-O, 1900-O, 1901-O, 1902-O and 1904-O. I laid the dollars from each set of three rolls in order of quality and took the best two from each year for my son and myself for our collections. All of these were at least MS-63, some were MS-65 and a few were prooflike MS-63. The balance of my hoard found their way into local dealers and coin collector's hands by way of auctions at coin clubs and shows over the next few years.
"How many 1903-O Morgan dollars are out there in Montana in dresser drawers and iron boxes will never be known. I am sure these two technicians didn't find all of the remainder from that bag. I suspect that they found about a hundred.