HomeCollecting StrategiesClassic US Coins - Proof Morgan Silver Dollars for Less Than $5,000...

Classic US Coins – Proof Morgan Silver Dollars for Less Than $5,000 Each

Greg Reynolds Proof Morgan Feature Graphic

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #378

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds …..
Proof Morgan silver dollars were minted in Philadelphia from 1878 to 1904 and possibly in 1921. Branch Mint Proofs and non-Proof special strikings are different topics. For less than $5,000 each, attractive Proof Morgans may be obtained without difficulty.

Explanations and examples are put forth. This discussion ends with commentary about the physical characteristics of Proof Morgan silver dollars.

From 1878 to 1904, and again in 1921, vast quantities of business strike Morgan silver dollars were produced, far more than were needed for consumer and business transactions. For political reasons (in part to cater to special interest groups favoring the role of silver in the economy), millions of Morgans were made to be stored by the government. A main reason is that silver dollars served as reserves for ‘silver backed’ paper money, otherwise known as “silver certificates”. Even as late as the 1950s, silver certificates were often used in commerce.

Most issues of Morgan dollars are extremely common in the present. Literally, hundreds of millions of Morgans were minted. In contrast, less than seven million Liberty Seated silver dollars were struck. These date from 1840 to 1873. The mintage of Proofs, of course, was just a fraction of the quantity of business strikes produced.

Philadelphia Mint Proof Morgans, of equivalent quality and eye appeal, dating from 1879 (not 1878) to 1904 are worth about the same, except for the 1895. In another words, if two certified Proof-63 Morgans are hypothetically about identical, though with different dates, they are worth about the same, except for the 1878, the 1895, unusual issues in 1921 and Branch Mint Proofs.

The 1895 dollar is highly demanded because no business strikes are known and collectors of business strike Morgans often demand a Proof 1895. There are three major varieties of Proof 1878 Morgans and all cost more than typical Proof Morgans. A representative of the rarest of the three varieties, “Reverse of 1879, 7 tailfeathers” could not be acquired for less than $5,000.

Excluding the 1878 and 1895 dates, however, a collector can complete a set of Philadelphia Mint Proof Morgans, 1878 to 1904, without spending more than $5,000 on any one coin. Besides, it is not clear as to whether any 1921 Morgans are true Proofs.

Separate discussions would certainly be required to cover Branch Mint Proof Morgans, which are very expensive and constitute a complex topic. The special strikings of 1921 are controversial, puzzling and unlike pre-1921 Proof Morgans. It makes sense to acquire typical Proof Morgans for less than $5,000 each before thinking about buying exotic issues for five or six-figure sums.

PCGS reports having graded less than 2,000 Proof Liberty Seated dollars, of all dates, and more than 9,000 Proof Morgan dollars. PCGS and NGC have each graded more than three million Morgan dollars.

Undoubtedly, however, because of resubmissions, the combined total of six million probably amounts to fewer than five million different Morgan silver dollars that have been graded by PCGS and NGC.

For every Proof Morgan graded by PCGS, more than 340 business strikes have been PCGS-graded. Proofs thus amount to less than 0.03% of the PCGS total.

The more than 9,000 Proof Morgans in the PCGS population report are not all different coins. In my opinion, PCGS and NGC together have probably graded 8,500 different Proof Morgan dollars, at most. Of these, 1,163 have been CAC-approved. Undoubtedly, however, a significant number of Proof Morgans have never been submitted to CAC.

During the 1980s and ’90s, it was common for Proof Morgans to be sold to non-collecting investors. CAC was founded in 2007. Further, many investors are unaware of CAC or do not understand the functioning of CAC. Therefore, there are many Proof Morgans held by investors or their respective beneficiaries that have never been sent to CAC.

1894 Proof Morgan DollarIt is also true that some CAC-approved Morgans have since been upgraded at PCGS or NGC, without CAC being notified of such upgrades. So, the CAC population report does include some coins that no longer have CAC stickers. It is fair to figure that there is a potential CAC population of 1,500 different Proof Morgans.

Given the reality that Morgan dollars are among the most popular of all U.S. coins, 1,500 is not a large number. CAC-approved Proof Morgans are absolutely very scarce.

As such a small percentage of Proof Morgans extant are CAC-approved, it is not practical for all interested collectors to limit themselves to CAC-approved Proof Morgans. It is important for collectors to ask experts about the positive and negative aspects of individual coins. Personally, I very much like some of the Proof silver coins that experts at CAC find to be too dark. Collectors should decide upon the criteria that they regard as important for themselves.

Proof Morgans that grade from 63 to 65 are extremely popular. Yes, those that grade from 60 to 62 cost much less. These, however, tend to be unattractive, heavily cleaned, full of hairlines, overdipped, or irritating for other reasons. Occasionally, of course, a collector may find a very attractive Proof Morgan that is PCGS- or NCG-certified as Proof-61 or -62. A wonderfully toned coin, for example, may have some moderate to heavy scratches, perhaps across the eagle on the reverse.

The very attractive 61 or 62 grade coins are exceptions. Experience is helpful for figuring the grades of coins that have very positive and very negative characteristics. Balancing factors to determine an overall grade is often a difficult undertaking.

Also, many Proof-60 to -62 certified coins have problems that are not immediately apparent. In some cases, collectors think they have found excellent coins for reasonable prices, although they have not really done so.

CAC-approved Proof-63 Morgans are often good values from a logical perspective, as experts at CAC tend to reject Proof-63 Morgans that have readily noticeable negative factors. In my view, CAC is more reasonable about approving certified Proof-63 Morgans that have natural deep toning than certified Proof-64 Morgans with similar toning. Collectors benefit from the reality that CAC-approved Proof-63 Morgans tend to cost substantially less than CAC-approved Proof-64 Morgans.

A deep and colorfully toned, PCGS-certified Proof-63 1881 Morgan was auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers for $2,832.93 in July 2015 in Baltimore. This coin had a sticker of approval from CAC.

Additional CAC-approved, deeply toned Proof Morgans have been available. An 1879 was in the possession of the family of Dr. James McClure for decades. The McClure 1879 was NGC-certified as Proof-63 and CAC-approved. While the McClure 1879 appears mellow at some angles, when tilted under a lamp, vivid orange-russet, blue, tan and other colors become apparent. It was auctioned for $3,290 in June 2016 by Heritage Auctions (HA).

From the same McClure collection, an 1899 with the same NGC Proof-63 certification and also with a CAC sticker, brought $2,820. The just mentioned 1879 dollar might have been a little more appealing.

Collectors who prefer brighter coins may like an NGC-certified Proof-63 Cameo 1881 that GreatCollections sold on April 17, 2016. It, too, has a sticker of approval from CAC.

This 1881 was dipped in the not-too-distant past, and natural russet peripheral toning has formed.
The fields are a post-dip, gray-blue color, which is common on dipped silver coins. Some people find this gray-blue color to be attractive. The head of Miss Liberty on the obverse and the eagle on the reverse are frosted and bright-white. There are some hairlines, which are consistent with a grade of 63. This coin brought $3,506.80.

Proof-64 Morgan Dollars

Philadelphia Mint Proof-64 Morgans dating from 1879 to 1904, except the 1895, have been selling for prices between $3,000 and $5,000, frequently for less than $4,000. From a logical perspective, many of these are excellent values. Proof-65 and -66 Morgans tend to cost far more and are often not much more satisfying.

Should a collector pay a premium for a Proof-64 Morgan dollar with a ‘Cameo’ designation over another Proof-64 Morgan of the same date and equivalent quality without a ‘Cameo’ designation? Different collectors will like different coins, and collectors tend to pay premiums for Proof coins that appeal to their own respective preferences and instincts. With or without ‘Cameo’ designations, the appearances of naturally toned, certified Proof-64 Morgan dollars vary widely.

There are different colors and natural toning patterns. Several factors affect toning. Original Philadelphia Mint wrappers are central factors for late 19th-century and early 20th-century Proof coins. The plush interior and wooden exterior of coin cases that were often used during the same time period are pertinent. Furthermore, there are particular coin albums and collecting boards that were popular during the middle of the 20th century. Coins stored in a certain way will be more likely to tone particular colors. It takes a great deal of experience for an expert to distinguish natural from artificial toning on late 19th-century Proof coins.

For Proofs, an opposite of toning is a relatively original ‘black & white look’! Last week in Baltimore, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-certified Proof-64 Cameo 1899 with a CAC sticker, for $4,230. Although I did not view this coin, images suggest the possibility that it may possess the very much original ‘black & white’ Proof texture that is frequently coveted by specialists in Proof coins. Though not literally ‘black,’ the fields seem to be black in a way that many household mirrors project a ‘black and white’ glow when reflecting light.

This phenomenon is hard to explain, and I am not completely certain that this specific coin really exhibits a ‘black & white’ glow, though it probably does. I have seen quite a few Proof Morgans and Barber coins that are ‘black & white’ as this concept is defined by coin collectors.

1804 Draped Bust Silver Dollar. Class I Original. Bowers Borckardt-304. Proof-68 (PCGS).
1804 Draped Bust Silver Dollar. Class I Original. Bowers Borckardt-304. Proof-68 (PCGS).

The Childs family had many 19th-century Proof coins that were purchased directly from the Philadelphia Mint and stored properly. Yes, this is the same family that owned the finest-known 1804 dollar before the Pogue family acquired it.

Bowers & Merena auctioned the Childs family coin collection in New York at the end of August 1999. There were a significant number of ‘black & white,’ late 19th-century Proof silver coins sold, which were overshadowed by the 1804 dollar in the same offering.

In November 2016, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-certified Proof-64 1892, with a CAC sticker, for $3,290. It is certainly multi-colored and is considerably indicative of a frequently seen ‘look’ of Proof Morgans.

So far in 2017, Heritage has sold more than 15 Morgan dollars that are PCGS-certified as Proof-64 or “-64+”. The following sold in February: an 1889 for $3,055, an 1894 for $3,955, an 1896 for $4,935, an 1897 for $6,168.75, and a 1903 for $3,525.

Grading-wholesalers may have figured that this 1897 was a candidate for an upgrade, as $6,168.75 is a bit too strong a price for a “Proof-64” 1897 Morgan. Although it is not a good idea to grade a coin solely by viewing images, there is a good chance that the blue, gray, russet and green tones on the just mentioned 1894 are typical, natural and pleasing.

On January 5, 2017, Heritage auctioned an NGC-certified Proof-64 1879, with a CAC sticker, for $3,525. The blue, gray and russet blend on the obverse is likely to be natural, appealing and stable.

There are so many Proof-64 Morgans available each year that an interested collector may easily acquire a dozen. For a type set, buying one or two that are CAC-approved may be a good idea.

Understanding Proof Morgans

Although they appear notably different from business strikes, Proof Morgans are among the least distinctive of Proof coins from the late 19th century in terms of physical characteristics. A combination of factors indicates the Proof or business strike status of a coin. No single factor is definitive. There are non-Proofs with deep mirrors and there are 19th-century Proof coins that have faintly reflective surfaces.

Proofs were specially made for collectors, for political purposes, and to be marketed to the general public. Dies and blanks (planchets) were specially prepared. Proof Morgans tend to have thick and deep mirrors, which are often covered by toning that gradually developed over decades.

The rims and edges of Proof coins differ from those of business strikes, though less so on Proof Morgans than on Proofs of other silver denominations during the latter part of the 19th century. The relations of the design elements to the fields (blank areas) are different on Proofs, too. For Proof Morgans, however, there is much less of a distinction in this regard than there is for Proof Barber half dollars, Proof Barber quarters, Proof eagles ($10 gold coins) or even Proof Liberty Seated half dollars.

For reasons unknown to me, 19th-century Proof silver dollars were not struck with the degree of refinement and relief that tended to characterize Proof half dollars, quarters and dimes. Indeed, the relief on Proof Liberty Seated dollars (1840-73) tends to be oddly shallow, and the design elements on Proof Morgans are often only slightly different from the corresponding design elements on business strikes. Even so, there are important differences between Proof Morgans, Deep Mirror Prooflike (DMPL) Morgans and normal business strikes.

In terms of the definitions of luster employed by coin collectors, Proofs have little or zero luster. When a coin is struck, metal flows literally during the extremely short time while the dies are imparting design elements on the hot blank circular piece of metal (planchet) that is being transformed into a coin.

Luster refers to the reflection of light on metal flow lines that came about while a coin was being struck. Cartwheel luster means that the metal flow lines evenly radiate in a way that is visually analogous to metal spokes of an old wheel reflecting light while turning.

If a planchet is relatively rough, then the relationship between the metal flow lines and the terrain of the surfaces becomes complicated. Business strikes appear ‘frosty’ when there are many microscopic hills, ridges, valleys and lines in the fields. A field that appears flat without magnification really has a variety of shapes, which can only be analyzed under high magnification.

The fields of 19th-century Proof coins are typically much more flat than the fields of business strikes. On Proofs, there are not elements in the microscopic terrain of the fields to reflect light in a lustrous manner. Generally, Proofs reflect light like mirrors or reflective coatings do so; business strikes reflect light like forged and unfinished metal reflects light.

The texture of the fields is hard to perceive without magnification. A chemist or a physics professor may maintain that all coins struck during the 19th-century possess luster to some degree as there must be some flow lines, even if only visible with an electron microscope. From the point of view of coin collectors, Proofs typically do not have luster and uncirculated non-Proofs usually exhibit notable luster.

Mirrors, the absence of luster, and relations of some design elements to the fields are the most noteworthy defining characteristics of Proof Morgans. Yes, it is true that some Three Cent Nickels and Shield nickels that were sold by the Philadelphia Mint as Proofs exhibit notable mint luster. These are exceptions and nickel is different from silver.

NGC 1879 PF64 Morgan Dollar
1879 NGC PF64 Morgan Dollar

The mirrors on Proof Morgans tend to be thicker and/or deeper than the mirrors on DMPL Morgans. There is a difference in both degree and kind, as the process for polishing Proof dies is different from the process for polishing dies for regular production runs. Even DMPL Morgans have some luster, though such luster is hard to explain.

In 1998, Stack’s (NY) sold an incredible collection of late 19th-century and early 20th-century Proof sets. Most or all of these Proofs had never been dipped. Original Philadelphia Mint wrappers accompanied the consignment and were at the Stack’s store in New York when auction lots were shown.

Not all the coins stored in such wrappers will tone colorfully. There are additional variables, such as room temperature, humidity and the chemical composition of the surrounding air.

Coin doctors often attempt to mimic the colors that tend to form naturally, with proper storage, on 19th-century Proof coins. Leading experts can usually identify such artificial toning, though some pieces are particularly hard to analyze. I have viewed thousands of 19th-century Proof coins.

Auctions that Stack’s (NY) conducted during the 1990s proved to be an excellent training ground as raw coins came from various private sources, and the catalogue grades bore little resemblance to eventual grades assigned by PCGS or NGC. As many members of the general public purchased Proof sets from 1865 to 1910, and variety of people ‘ended up’ with them during the 20th century, quite a few of these found their way into Stack’s (NY) auctions. Before the year 2000, Stack’s was probably the best-known coin auction firm among the general public.

During the 1990s, leading graders from all over the nation would come to New York to view auction lots and hypothesize as to grades that would later be assigned by PCGS and NGC. Those who had the skills, adequate funds and nerves of gamblers bought coins after figuring likelihoods of grading outcomes at PCGS or NGC. The competition was fierce and it was very difficult for grading-wholesalers to profit from their purchases of fresh raw coins from Stack’s (NY) auctions. Many Proof Morgans were then offered.

In terms of the history of coin prices, Proof Morgans are not currently expensive. They were costlier from late 2007 to the middle of 2008, and more expensive in early 1990 as well. Also, over the last 15 years, prices for Proof-64 Proof Morgans have been relatively more stable than prices for most other 19th-century coins.

© 2017 Greg Reynolds

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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