A Collector’s Guide to the Morgan Silver Dollar Coins
Introduction to Morgan Silver Dollars
The Morgan Dollar is often called the "King" of American Silver Dollars. Virtually every collector of United States coins has at least one of these magnificent coins in their collection. The coin's engraver was George T. Morgan, hence the name given to this series of coins. The Morgan dollar was minted from 1878 until 1904 and in 1921. The falling price of silver in the 1870s brought about legislation that minted large quantities of silver dollars. The mint produced far more coins than the public could use in day-to-day commerce and millions of dollars languished in mint storerooms and treasury vaults for nearly a century. The abundance of the dollar coins has made them a favorite with coin collectors.
The series of Morgan dollars has nearly one hundred different dates and mint marks, so there is a lot to understand about the series. The coins were minted at five different mints over a forty-three year period. Along with the business strike coins that were made for everyday transactions, there were also struck a few thousand of the highly polished proof coins that are as rare as they are beautiful. The Morgan dollar series offers a little bit for every collector, from the great rarities of the series, the 1893-S and 1889-CC, to the common 1921 dollars.
History of the Morgan Silver Dollar
In the early 1870s the German Empire adopted the gold standard, which resulted in the dumping of over 8,000 tons of silver on the world market. To add fresh silver to the already crowded market, large amounts entered the supply from the enormous silver deposits in Nevada. The result of the abundance of silver was the depression of prices. Silver mines in the western United States were not happy with low prices and began to lobby Congress for some relief. Representative Richard “Silver Dick” Bland of Missouri and Senator William Allison from Iowa pushed through legislation in 1878 that mandated monthly purchases of from two to four million dollars of new domestic silver to be used explicitly for dollar coinage production.
The mint director hired Englishman George T. Morgan, formerly a pupil of William Wyon in the Royal Mint in London, to prepare the designs for the new coin. Morgan persuaded Miss Anna Williams, an eighteen-year-old school teacher, to pose for the portrait of Ms. Liberty on the obverse (front) of the coin. The design and striking of the coins proceeded hastily and by March of 1878 the first three proof examples of the coin went to President Rutherford B. Hayes, Secretary John Sherman, and mint director Dr. Henry Linderman, and thus was born the Morgan silver dollar.
The obverse of the Morgan dollar features a left facing portrait of Miss Liberty with wheat and cotton in her hair, symbolizing the reconciliation of the North and South. The liberty cap upon her head represents hard-won freedom. The reverse of the coin features a magnificent American bald eagle holding the arrows of war and an olive branch of peace in its talons. Surrounding the eagle is a laurel to honor the nation’s accomplishments. The designer’s initial M is found at the truncation of the neck of Miss Liberty and on the reverse on the left-hand loop of the ribbon.
For the remainder of its years, the Morgan dollar became a political football in the struggle between those who wanted the expansion of the currency through issuance of more silver dollars, the “silverites,” and those who wanted the country based on a gold standard. In 1890, the Bland-Allison Act was replaced by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which mandated the purchase of more silver for Morgan dollar production. By 1904 the silver purchased by the Sherman Act was depleted and production of the Morgan dollar came to an end.
Because of the poor world economic conditions in Europe after World War I, the government ordered the melting of 270 million silver dollars and the silver sold to the British government. The British government was in dire need of silver to back the silver certificate notes they had issued, thus preventing a banking collapse. The action was authorized by the Pittman Act of 1918, which also required the government to replace the coins as it was expedient with silver purchased from western mines. The act was a boom for the silver industry, with millions of ounces of fresh silver required to replace the silver sent to Great Britain. The Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints went into full production and struck over eighty million 1921 dated silver dollars. This would be the last year of the Morgan dollar as it was replaced by the Peace dollar to commemorate the peace reached after the end of World War I.
Morgan Dollars Minted in Philadelphia
The mint in Philadelphia, which was established in 1892, is considered the “mother mint” of U.S. coinage production. In addition to producing the dies used by the other mints, Philadelphia also produced the proof Morgan dollars. The series started in 1878 and that year’s dollar minted in Philadelphia had several different die varieties. The first major variety had the eagle’s tail on the reverse with eight tail feathers. This wasn’t correct; eagles only have seven tail feathers, so the dies were changed to have seven tail feathers. There are some varieties that have seven over eight tail feathers for coins made from re-worked eight tail feather dies. The seven tail feathers variety also comes with two other variations: one has a slanted top arrow feather and a convex eagle’s breast; a second variety has a parallel top arrow feather. There are actually many other minor variations to this first year of issue.
The Morgan dollars produced at the mint in Philadelphia don’t carry any mint mark and are the most available of the series. With the exception of a few years, the Philadelphia Morgans are readily available in most grades. The low mintage years are 1893, 1894, and 1899. These three dates command a significant price premium over the common date dollars minted at the Philadelphia mint.
Morgan Dollars Minted in San Francisco
To provide coinage for the western states, a mint was established in San Francisco in 1854. Silver dollars minted in San Francisco are known for their high quality and excellent sharpness of detail. If you are looking for a really nice Morgan dollar for your collection, you need to consider the 1881-S. The 1881-S is the most available Morgan dollar in mint state from the years 1878 to 1904. Many have a proof-like surface and they are typically well struck. Expect to pay $100.00 to $125.00 for MS-65 (Gem BU) dollar. The mintage on the coin was 12,760,000 and it is estimated that approximately half are still in mint state.
The San Francisco mint produced the great rarity of the series, the 1893-S, with the low mintage of only 100,000. Most of the coins issued by the San Francisco mint circulated in the western states for day-to-day transactions and saw considerable usage. The 1893-S is routinely found in circulated condition with few mint state coins surviving. Since this coin is so rare, it is always best to purchase a coin that has been authenticated and graded by one of the reputable grading services. Expect to pay around $3,000.00 for a circulated 1893-S dollar. Mint state coins start at around $150,000.
Morgan Dollars Minted at New Orleans
To maintain the production levels required by the Bland-Allison Act, the New Orleans mint was reopened in 1879 specifically to mint silver dollars. The silver dollars struck at the mint in New Orleans starting in 1879 are known for their poor quality, typically with weak strikes and a lack of detail even in uncirculated coins. The 1893-O, 1895-0, and 1903-O dollars are the scarcest of the New Orleans mint coins and start at around $300 in circulated grades. The common date circulated New Orleans minted dollars typically sell for $30 or more. The 1888-0 has two interesting variety coins: the “Scarface” variety has a significant die break along Miss Liberty’s cheek and the “Hot Lips” double-die variety gives Miss Liberty rather unusual lips, chin, and nose.
Morgan Dollars Minted at Carson City
No collection of Morgan dollars would be complete without at least one dollar from the Carson City, Nevada mint. They are easy to spot with the “CC” mint mark below the eagle on the reverse. The first Morgan dollar issued by the Carson City Mint was the 1878-CC with a mintage of 2,212,000. This was a lower mintage than either issues of the Philadelphia or San Francisco mints of the same year but turned out to be the second highest mintage of any of the CC Morgan dollars. A nice, circulated example of this year’s CC dollar can be purchased for less than $125.00.
The 1879-CC and 1880-CC dollars are less common than the 1878-CC and are more costly. Similar to the 1878 Philadelphia dollar, the 1880-CC has many die varieties; some of the varieties of the 1880-CC are: 80 over 79, 8 over 7, 8 over high 7, 8 over low 7, and there are also reverse differences within this group. Thanks to the Government Service Administration’s release of hundreds of thousands of CC dollars in the 1970s, the 1882, 1883, and 1884 Carson City dollars are available to collectors in uncirculated condition. Coins for these years can be purchased in the original GSA holder for around $200.00 to $250.00.
The 1885-CC was the last dollar issued before the mint was closed for four years, with only 228,000 dollars produced. This low mintage results in a much higher price for the 1885-CC dollar in any grade. Expect to pay at least $500.00 for a circulated example. Minting of coins was halted in the years between 1886 and 1888, and no coins were issued during that period. The mint came back into operation in 1889 and produced the rarity of the Carson City dollar series.
The 1889-CC dollar is the hardest of the Carson City dollars to find in mint state. These coins saw general circulation and were not hoarded like other dates in the series, which leaves very few uncirculated examples available for collectors. For a problem free circulated coin in VF condition, expect to pay around a thousand dollars. Uncirculated coins will cost more than $20,000.00. For rare coins like this, it is best to have them professionally graded and encapsulated by one of the main services, such as PCGS, NGC, ANACS, or ICG.
In 1890, 1891, and 1892, the Carson City mint was able to produce more than a million dollars for each of these years, and the dollars from these years can be purchased in the $100.00 to $150.00 range in circulated condition. 1893 was the final year of coin minting for the Carson City mint and the mintage figure for the 1893-CC was low, with only 677,000 minted. Very few of the mint state coins from this year were saved and uncirculated dollars are very expensive. For a fully uncirculated example from 1893, expect to pay about $5000.00 for a coin.
The 1921 Morgan Dollar
By 1904 the supply of bullion silver purchased under the Sherman Act of 1890 had been exhausted and the minting of Morgan silver dollars came to an end. In 1910, the original hubs for the Morgan dollar were destroyed and the Treasury had millions of Morgan dollars in their vaults. By 1921 there was renewed interest in minting the Morgan dollar, but new hubs had to be designed to mint the new coins. These coins would be used as backing for the paper Silver Certificate Notes. These new dies had a shallower relief and the resulting coins differed slightly from the issues of 1878 to 1904. In 1921 the Philadelphia mint went all out and produced 44,690,000 coins that year, which is by far the highest mintage of the series. 1921 Morgan dollars are the most plentiful coins in mint state. Unlike the 1881-S dollars, the 1921 Morgans aren’t typically found with bright luster and the surface can often be grainy or dull. The Denver and San Francisco mints also produced large numbers of dollars that year. The D and S mint marks are very small, and you must look closely on the reverse below the eagle to see them. The 1921-D dollar was the only year the Denver mint struck a Morgan Dollar.
The U.S. Treasury Releases Large Quantities of Morgan Dollars
In the early 1960s, the Treasury Department started to release large quantities of Morgan dollars into the coin collector market. The mint’s vaults were full of extra Morgan dollars and it was time to clean out the vaults. One consequence of the release of hundreds of thousands of dollars onto the market was an immediate drop in prices of some of the rare dated coins. For example, the 1903-O dollar was considered rare and cost well over $1000 for an uncirculated coin. After the release of all the dollars onto the market, the price of a 1903-O dropped to under $20. Currently, an uncirculated 1903-O Morgan dollar sells for around $400.
GSA Silver Dollar Release of the 1970s
By the early 1970s, nearly all of the silver dollars held in the U.S. Treasury’s vaults had been distributed. Remaining was around three million dollars, most of which were from the Carson City mint. The dollars began to be distributed to the public through a series of mail bid sales organized by the General Services Administration (GSA). It was not until the early 1980s that all of the silver dollars had been sold to the public. The coins were packaged in a hard plastic container and came in a black box with mint paperwork explaining the coin.
Proof Morgan Dollars
Following a long tradition of the Philadelphia mint, specially made dollars were struck in small quantities for collectors and government officials. Proof coins differ from business strike coins because they are made using polished dies and specially prepared planchets or blanks. Unless a proof Morgan has been mishandled or circulated, the coin should be free of bag marks on the surface. Proof Morgans have deeply reflective mirrored fields, square rims, and superior design detail. Due to the low mintages, normally less than one thousand per year, and the high collector demand, genuine proof Morgan dollars are expensive. For a low grade PR60 or PR63, expect to pay around $2,000; as the grade increases so does the price. The most expensive proof Morgan was minted in 1895. The mintage wasn’t particularly low at 880; however, in 1895 there was no business strike issued--meaning, if you want an 1885 Morgan dollar without a mint mark, it has to be a proof example, which sells for in excess of $40,000.
Prooflike Morgan Dollars
The Morgan dollar series has a small percentage of coins that appear to be proof coins; however, they are not true proof coins but rather, are prooflike. Proof coins are specifically made by the mint for the collector and have full details and mirror like surfaces. Through a combination of circumstances, a small percentage of business strike coins have sharp detail and mirror like surfaces; this is a confusing point for the beginning Morgan dollar collector. The collecting community designates coins that have mirror like surfaces as prooflike (PL), and if the effect is especially pronounced it is called deep mirror prooflike (DMPL). There isn’t an exact science to differentiate PL from DMPL; however, there are some helpful guidelines.
The production of prooflike Morgan dollars occurs during the minting process when the dies used to strike the dollars are overly polished. During the normal die preparation process the dies are polished to remove any excess metal that may be present from the process of making the die. If the craftsman was overly zealous and polished the die too long, the flat areas would become smooth as a mirror. During the minting process, when the obverse and reverse dies smash together under thousands of pounds of pressure, the silver in the blank or planchet is forced into the cervices of the die to form the raised portion of the coin as well as the flat field areas. The excessively smooth surfaces of the die were then transferred onto the minted coin, giving it a mirror-like surface. Only the first few dozen coins out of each freshly polished die produced coins with the prooflike or mirrored surfaces, hence the rarity of prooflike Morgan dollars.
There is an art and a science to determine if a Morgan dollar is prooflike or deep mirror prooflike. One reliable method is to hold a prooflike coin (by the edge, never touch the surface of the coin) next to a newspaper and see how many lines you can read from the newspaper. For a prooflike coin you should be able to read two to four inches of the paper, and for a DMPL coin you should be able to read six to eight inches of the paper–this is not an exact science. Before you spend a bunch of money buying PL or DPML dollars, it is recommended that you purchase coins that have been professionally graded by PCGS or NGC. These two services normally provide very accurate grading and the coin comes with their opinion that the coin is genuine. PCGS adds the designator DMPL or PL on their holders, whereas NGC uses DPL and PL. Note that both sides of the coin must be prooflike to receive this designation.
Price and Availability of Prooflike Morgan Dollars
Since the production of a prooflike Morgan depends on the craftsmanship of the die maker and coin press operator, the number of prooflike dollars varies widely from year to year and mint to mint. Coins struck in the years prior to 1900 are more likely to be prooflike than those after due to a change in the minting process around the turn of the century. It would be virtually impossible to collect a complete set of DMPL condition dollars since several dates have none or they are exceptionally rare. There are several common date MS63PL Morgans that sell for around $100 that have been professionally graded and encapsulated, and these are the 1879-S, 1880-S, 1881-S, 1882-O, 1883-O, etc. The common dates in the higher grade of MS65PL sell for approximately double the price of the MS63PL coins. The DMPL coins are much rarer and the price for a MS63DMPL coin starts at around $200, with the higher grade MS65DMPL starting at $700. The most common DMPL coins are: 1880-S, 1881-S, 1883-O, 1885-O, 1885, 1886, and 1887. The rarer date coins in MS65DMPL sell for many thousands of dollars each.
Counterfeit Morgan Dollars
Just like knock-off or fake Rolex watches or the expensive Gucci handbags, there are unscrupulous individuals who make counterfeit coins to fool and cheat the unknowing. Luckily, the problem of counterfeit Morgan dollars isn’t rampant and there are a few basic techniques that will catch the most obvious fakes.
China is a major producer of counterfeit coins that are sold around the world through the internet. If you are buying a rare date and high-grade dollar from a Chinese source, then be very careful. One simple technique is to use an inexpensive digital scale that can measure with a precision of 0.01 grams to check the weight of a suspect coin. The five mints that produced the Morgan dollars struck coins to the specified weight of 26.73 grams and a diameter of 38.1mm. The coin should weight 26.73 grams plus or minus 0.1 grams if your coin is uncirculated or nearly so. As the coin wears, some of the silver is removed, which will reduce the weight by as much as a gram. The diameter of the coin can be measured with an inexpensive veneer caliper. A genuine coin will have a diameter of between 37.9 and 38.2 mm. Like the weight, the diameter becomes smaller as the reeding on the edge wears.
Visual Examination of Potential Counterfeit Dollars
Many common counterfeit coins are cast copies. The process results in a loss of fine detail on the coin and coarseness of the fields. You will need a genuine Morgan dollar and a 10X magnifier to compare the genuine and potential counterfeit coins. To get a more meaningful comparison, if possible, use a comparison coin struck at the same mint as the potential counterfeit. For example, dollars from the San Francisco mint normally are well stuck and exhibit full detail, whereas coins minted in New Orleans often have weak strikes and show softness in the detail. Use your magnifier to study similar areas of both coins. If the suspect coin has pitting, a rough texture, and mushy details when compared to the genuine coin, you have reason for concern.
Buying Professionally Graded Dollars to Avoid Counterfeits
Starting in the 1980s businesses sprang up to grade coins and guarantee their authenticity. Over the years many different grading services have come and gone. Today there are four main grading services: PCGS, NGC, ANACS, and ICG, with PCGS and NGC being the two dominant players. When a collector or dealer sends in raw coins to one of the grading services, the coin will returned in a few weeks with one of two things happening to the coin: if the service believes the coin is not genuine or has been tampered with it will be returned with a note stating why the coin was not graded; if the coin is genuine it will come back in a hard inert plastic holder with a grade and possibly some designator such as PL or DMPL. These services all have a good reputation and you can feel confident your coin is genuine and has been graded properly using the Sheldon 70-point system. This now makes your coin much more valuable. However, these services aren’t free, normally costing at least $15 per coin. Purchasing professionally graded coins, though it does add cost to your coins, eliminates the guesswork when it comes to knowing iyour coin is genuine and the grade.
Price Guide for Morgan Silver Dollars
If you want to start collecting Morgan dollars or just add a few more to your collection, it is helpful to know the current pricing for the coins. No one wants to pay too much for a coin and feel like they have wasted their money. On the other hand, what if you buy a Morgan dollar well below market price? You may have just purchased a cleaned, damaged, or counterfeit coin. No one is giving the old treasures away, so it is very important to know current market prices.
The prices in the table below are broken down by date group; that is, pre-1921 and 1921. The prices are for the most common dates. The rare dates cost many multiples of the prices below. The 1921 is the most common date and that effects the price. Notice also that the prices are dependent on the grade of the coin. On uncirculated coins, expect to pay more for coins with nice original luster and problem free surfaces. Collectors like nice coins that look like they just left the mint.
Pre-1921 AG-G condition $15 to $20
Pre-1921 VG-VF $20 to $28
Pre-1921 XF $24 to $29
Pre-1921 AU $30 to $33
Pre-1921 BU $35 to $45
1921 XF-AU $18 to $22
1921 BU $25 to $30
Detailed retail prices for each date, mint marks, and varieties can be found in the book: A Guide Book of United States Coins.
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Crum, Adam, Selby Unbar, and Jeff Oxman. Carson City Morgan Dollars: Featuring the Coins of the GSA Hoard. Whitman Publishing, LLC. 2010.
Perez, Patrick (editor). The Monthly Greysheet. CDN Publishing, LLC. Vo. 11, No. 9, September 2019.
West, Doug. Coinage of the United States – A Short History. C&D Publications. 2015.
Yeoman, R.S. and Jeff Garrett (senior editor) A Guide Book of United States Coins 2020. 73rd edition. Whitman Publishing. 2019.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2019 Doug West