April 25, 2005
Recently, several dates in the Morgan dollar series have come under new
scrutiny. Collecting VAM (Van Allen-Mallis) varieties has been popular since
the publication of the first edition of the Leroy Van Allen-George Mallis work
on silver dollars in 1965. Today, there are many new collectors of the popular
varieties and prices have skyrocketed for the rarest issues.
The New Orleans Mint used several different sized mintmarks, including one
called the "Micro O," first appearing on silver dollars in 1880 from that mint.
All mintmarks at that time were added to the dies in Philadelphia before they
were shipped to the various branch mints. So, it was not unusual for different
sized mintmarks to be applied to the dies of the various branch mints - some
years had several different style and size mintmarks used. So, having micro O
mintmarks in several different years is neither unexpected, nor unusual.
However, grading and variety experts at PCGS have recently uncovered
undeniable evidence that three of the so-called "Micro O" Morgan varieties, the
1896-O, 1900-O, and 1902-O, are actually contemporary counterfeits, most probably
struck outside the US Mint sometime in the early 20th century. This is a
significant discovery and one that will certainly have an impact on Morgan dollar
The discovery of the contemporary counterfeit status of the 1896-O,
1900-O, and 1902-O "Micro O" Morgan dollars came about as PCGS experts studied an
unusually high number of these coins that recently were submitted to PCGS for
certification. These three varieties are rare and even very low grade examples sell
in the $500 range. PCGS usually examines these coins one at a time. However, PCGS
recently had the opportunity to examine a larger group of these coins and do
in-depth analysis of their die characteristics.
What was most suspicious about this group of micro O Morgan dollars was
that three years shared a common reverse! The micro O dollars of 1896, 1900, and 1902
all used the exact reverse die. This is beyond unusual. Although it was common practice
at the various United States Mints to keep reverse dies (or obverse dies if the date
side was the reverse die) that were still serviceable, using a die over such an
extended period is unusual - and suspect.
After examining the group of coins, it became apparent that these Morgan
dollars were not struck in the New Orleans Mint in the years indicated by their dates.
In fact, they were not struck in the mint at any time. These coins are among the most
deceptive copies of United States coins seen. It is probable that they date to the early
part of the twentieth century, but may have been struck as late as the 1940's. They have
been known to numismatists since at least the mid-1960s.
Who would attempt such a feat? With the price of silver on the open market
at prices much cheaper than the official price (25-50 cents for much of the first half of
the twentieth century versus the official United States rate of $1.29 per ounce), the
temptation to produce silver dollars with the "full" amount of silver and pocket the difference
was irresistible to someone. In fact, one of the suspect coins was sent for elemental testing
and it came back 94% silver and about 6% copper! It contains even more silver than a genuine
United States silver dollar. However, even with extra silver and the work needed to create
the dies and planchets, the profit from these coins would have been tremendous. Certainly,
this was a temptation to hard to resist.
Of course, exactly how and by whom they were made is unknown, but examining
the coins gives us clues to the manufacturing process. There are several repeating depressions
on the reverse that indicate some type of transfer process. Of course, the equipment to produce
a copy die so accurate would have been, and still is, very expensive. A portrait lathe would
have been employed for this process and the resulting positive (hub) would have whatever
defects the coin being copied had. When dies were prepared from this hub, the defects would be
transferred to the working die. (See photographs.)
The 1880 or 1899 may have been the model for this reverse die, as both have a
micro O mintmark that is tilted to the right and in the same general position as the reverse
die used on the other three dates.
There are other subtle, but telltale signs that the 1896, 1900, and 1902 micro
O coins are not genuine:
So, these coins were not made to deceive today's variety collector. They undoubtedly
were made in the first half of the 20th Century to take advantage of the difference in the market
price of silver and the value of the United States silver dollar.
PCGS has certified 95 of these contemporary counterfeit micro O coins in the past: 26
1896-Os; 31 1900-Os; and 38 1902-Os. For anyone who currently owns a PCGS graded example of these
contemporary counterfeit micro O Morgans dollars, PCGS will reimburse the owner for the current
market value of the coin(s) under the terms of the PCGS Grading Guarantee. Anyone who wants to take
advantage of the PCGS Grading Guarantee for their micro O Morgans should contact PCGS customer
PCGS will no longer grade these three dates with micro O's. (1896-O, 1900-O, and 1902-O).
The 1899-O with micro O is an unquestionable Mint product and will, of course, continue to be certified
Interestingly, many in the numismatic community likely will still collect these curiosities.
They are such good copies that they have circulated with genuine silver dollars since they were made.
As with some Colonial issues, collectors strive to complete their sets and include circulating counterfeits
of many issues. When the copy is good enough to fool the rank and file, the imposter has no trouble traveling
in the circle of genuine coins.