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)
Die preparation: In the preparation of dies for 1887 coinage, in the Die Department of the Philadelphia Mint, some unused 1886-dated dies were lightly resurfaced and punched with 1887 dates.
Discovery: The 1887/6 overdate silver dollar was first publicized by California numismatist Ted F. Clark in November 1971. Ted spent a great deal of time studying coins under magnification, and to his credit go a number of significant discoveries.
During the 1970s he was a frequent visitor to my office (then located in Los Angeles; I moved to New Hampshire in 1979) and a frequent correspondent with Kenneth E. Bressett, editor of A Guide Book of u.s. Coins. In general, I would agree with some of his overdates (I am not referring to dollars here) and disagree with others. We had some lively discussions. At one time we featured a number of his rare overdates in one of our public auction sales. While at the time some of the more obscure overdates seemed rather arcane to many, today, with the publication of books by Van Allen and Mallis, and by Fivaz and Stanton, to cite two author-teams whose works are widely read, there is a strong appreciation for such items.
The first specifically identified 1887/6 dollar to be auctioned crossed the block as Lot 876 in Lester Merkin's sale of October 6-7, 1972. Called prooflike, the coin reached $550, an impressive price at the time. As is often (if not always) with new discoveries, at the outset no one knew how rare the 1887/6 was. As time went on, the overdate turned up in quantities, usually in lower Mint State ranges.
Like a roller-coaster: Jeff Oxman described the market gyrations of the 1887/6: 1
Historically, the prices of the 1887/6 in various grades have endured an amazing roller-coaster ride. The 1887/6 was first listed in the 1974 Guide Book at $4.50 VF and $7.00 Uncirculated. By the following year, prices had skyrocketed to $250 VF and $500 Uncirculated!
Then the descent began, which by 1981 left the value of a VF at $23 and an MS-60 at $100. When it was discovered that the overdates of 1887 were surprisingly rare in higher Mint State grades, their fortunes improved again. A decade later, the 1991 Guide Book listed the overdate at $18 VF, $75 MS-60, and $600 MS-63. A recent Coin Dealer Newsletter showed the overdate at $125 MS-60 and $1,400 MS-63.
The moral to the story is that the values of these scarce varieties are highly grade-dependent. The 1887/6 appears to be undervalued in AU and MS-60 and possibly overvalued in MS-63, and therein lies an opportunity!
Conjectures: A related overdate exists among New Orleans dollars and is the 1887/6-0 described below. Most famous of the 1887/6 overdates is the nickel three-cent piece which occurs in at least three minutely different die variations, two Proof and one circulation strike (the latter first identified by Bruce Stowe). Inasmuch as we know that in late 1886, when 1887-dated dies were being prepared, the Mint overdated dies in the three-cent and silver dollar series, it might be a worthwhile pastime to check 1887 coins of other denominations to see if any other overdates was made. (Somewhat related in concept is Clyde Tombaugh's discovery of the planet Pluto in 1930. Astronomers thought than another planet might exist outside of the orbits of Neptune and Uranus, and knowing what they were seeking, one of their number finally found it. (Mysteriously, Pluto and its moon are not nearly massive enough to explain the disturbances in Neptune's orbit which had originally stimulated the search!) An immediate possibility is 1887/6-S overdated silver dollars and half eagles.
Circulated grades: Worn specimens of the 1887/ 6 Morgan dollar are relatively scarce, but enough survive that the reader will experience no difficulty in locating one or more.
Mint State grades: I believe that several thousand or more Mint State coins survive, but most of these are in lower ranges from MS-60 to MS-63, and have relatively little aesthetic appeal. As more and more 1887 coins (a common issue) are examined for the overdate possibility, the issue will undoubtedly become more plentiful. MS-64 coins are scarce, and MS-65 coins are presently in the rare category, with about 100 to 200 estimated to exist. John Highfill mentions an early 1990 sale of a PCGS certified MS-65 by one dealer to another for over $10,500. Cherrypick before buying, for most desirable are early coins from the dies, whichshow the overdate feature more clearly.
The striking quality of most coins is average. Prooflike coins: Prooflike coins exist as do a handful of DMPL coins. Regarding DMPL, as of September 1992, one each had been certified (by PCGS and/or NGC) at the MS-62 level, one at 64, and one at 65.
1. 1887/6 overdate: Breen-5593, VAM-2. Only the one pair of dies known to date, but I wouldn't be surprised if others are discovered. The overdate is clearest on early impressions. The bottom curve of the 6 shows distinctly left and, especially, to the right of the shaft of the 7. Often, some faith is needed to see the overdate on late die states.
Dies prepared: Obverse: At least 1; Reverse: At least 1.
Circulation strike mintage: Unknown part of 1887 mintage.
Estimated quantity melted: Unknown.
Availability of prooflike coins: Available but rare in lower grade ranges; very rare in high-grade DMPL.
Characteristics of striking: Average
Known hoards of Mint State coins: None specifically of 1887/6, except as a part of Treasury releases of 1887, a common date.
This variety was generally unknown to collectors until 1971.