The set listed above comprises 98 varieties. Even simpler would be to have just one variety of 1878-your choice of tail feathers-which cuts the number of varieties down by two to just 96.
If you want to add a few issues, then the Second and Third Reverse varieties of 1879-S and 1880-CC are worth considering as are the 1882-O/S, 1887/6, 1887/6-O, and 1900-O/CC. If I were building a set of Morgan dollars, I would include these.
What constitutes your collection of Morgan dollars is a personal' matter, and rarely do two people have precisely the same list (unless they are collecting to fill an album with a set number of holes).
Which to Buy First?
Although a case could be made for buying rare Morgan dollars before common ones, lest the rare ones "get away" or go up in price, in my opinion it is probably just as well to start with the commoner issues. The reason for this is that it provides an inexpensive way to gain familiarity with aspects of the strike, minor design variations, surface lustre, etc., of the various dollar issues and makes the entire field easier to comprehend. While reading about striking, lustre, etc. in books is fine to do, nothing beats in-person examination of the coins themselves.
To aid in determining which Morgan dollars to buy first, and to gain an overall concept of relative rarity (especially in higher grades) of the various issues, I offer estimates of the number of specimens of Morgan dollars surviving in various grades, followed by a discussion and analysis of certified coins, the latter using data taken from NGC and PCGS population reports as of September 1992.
Estimated Population of Various Issues
How Many Morgan Dollars Exist?
The following listings cover the major date and mintmark issues of Morgan dollars and give estimated total populations in various grade levels. The numbers can also be found later in the text under Summary of Characteristics for each coin.
In general, the higher the grade and the more expensive a coin is, the more likely it is that a specimen has come to light in numismatic circles and has been listed in an auction, or sent to a grading service, or otherwise memorialized in print. For this reason, estimates as to the population of the rare 1893-S dollar in MS-63, MS-64, and MS-65 grades are more accurate, and less subject to change, than are guesses as to how many common 1881-S dollars exist in MS-63 grade or how many worn 1885 dollars survive.
In all instances, the estimates are relative. It is undoubtedly accurate to say that within the following lists, Morgan dollars at the top of each list (representing the most plentiful issues) can be found more easily than those in the middle, and those in the middle are much more available than those at the bottom.
One difficulty any taker of polls, or compiler of loosely defined data has, is that while charts and listings of numbers appear precise, it is more difficult to create a narrative that will stand up to close scrutiny. In the case of Morgan dollars this is especially so, as many different writers have published widely varying estimates over a long range of years. However, I have given the situation a "college try." After reading my figures, noted Morgan and Peace dollar specialist Leroy C. Van Allen wrote this;
You were brave to quote actual numbers of coins surviving in the various grades. Readers tend to sometimes find fault with price projections and estimates of surviving mintages. However, I think your numbers of coins by grade are probably closer to the truth than any previous author's estimates.
For Morgan silver dollars, as with Peace dollars, there is one area for guesswork: How many coins were melted of each issue?
The 1918 Pittman Act was responsible for the melting of over 270 million earlier-dated silver dollars, nearly all of which were the Morgan design, although I imagine that some bags of Liberty Seated coins went to the cauldron as well. The 1942 Silver Act caused over 53 million silver dollars to be melted, an unspecified, unknown mixture of Morgan and Peace types. In addition, over a long period of years the government melted millions of other Morgan dollars that were returned to the Treasury as being worn, obsolete, or damaged. In no instance was any record kept of the dates and mintmarks destroyed. It is conventional numismatic wisdom that all 12,000 business strike 1895 dollars were melted, this being the explanation for the lack of verified Mint State examples today.
Apparently, about 29 million Morgan dollars were shipped to China in late 1919 and early 1920. (Van Allen-Mallis, p. 32.) Many if not most were probably converted to bullion there, for Morgan dollars were not common in China decades later.
Next to the Pittman Act, the most destructive angel of death for the Morgan dollar was the rise of silver bullion on international markets beginning in the late 1960s. By 1980 the price of an ounce of silver briefly touched the $50 mark. The following prices represent the silver value of an unworn Morgan dollar (which contains 0.77344 oz. of fine silver) at various market levels:
Silver = $5 per ounce; silver dollar worth: $3.87 Silver = $10 per ounce; silver dollar worth: $7.73 Silver = $20 per ounce; silver dollar worth: $15.46 Silver = $30 per ounce; silver dollar worth: $23.19 Silver = $40 per ounce; silver dollar worth: $30.92 Silver = $50 per ounce; silver dollar worth: $38.65
As silver crossed the $10 per ounce mark, then $20, and then went higher in the late 1970s, the vast majority of circulated Morgan dollars still in existence, plus millions of Mint State specimens of commoner dates, became worth more as bullion than as numismatic articles. Untold tens of millions of Morgan dollars were melted by private refineries. Once again, no account was kept of the dates and mintmarks involved.
From the mid-1960s onward, Guide Book and other price listings for circulated and low Mint State common dates reflect the bullion value, not a significant increase in numismatic demand. Thus, if a Morgan silver dollar was worth $30 if melted down, but had a numismatic value of $35 if someone went through the trouble of retailing it, the choice was easy: to the couldron.
Somewhat over 657 million Morgan dollars were minted from 1878 through 1921. The number surviving today will never be known, but I estimate it to be somewhere between 100 and 200 million coins.