By Dan Duncan – Retired, Pinnacle Rarities ……
From buzzard to beau (bow) dollar, that large silver coin minted from 1878 to 1904 and again in 1921 has gone by a number of names. Regardless of the moniker, few coins have captured the hearts and minds of both collector and general public as much as the Morgan dollar, named for its designer, George Morgan.
There is no wonder it is one of numismatics most popular series as it is both challenging and fun to collect. The coins are plentiful in gem uncirculated condition for a number of dates, making entry into beginning the series easy. Beautiful gem examples are obtainable without breaking the bank.
The series also offers numerous elusive dates, making the series enjoyable for the even the most advanced numismatists.
Morgans are rich in historical significance, with a long production run rooted deep in politics and economic fluctuations.
Much has been written of these storied times to keep the inquisitive collector entertained. And with so many dates and mint marks to choose from, collectors have a variety of subsets on which to focus, if not completing the entire run.
The art of collecting is flexible, and there are as many ways to build a collection as there are collectors… Begin with a set of standards and bench marks established by the hobby and fine-tune these with your own unique preferences. The following sets can act as blueprints that work within or include collecting the Morgan Dollar series. These formats lend themselves to issues across the numismatic spectrum, and can be applied to a number of other series as well.
The grades of the coins you buy will depend on your individual resources and comfort level, but stick to PCGS- or NGC-certified examples. And for the best return on your money, acquire the finest quality you can afford.
The Silver Dollar Type Set (Beginner)
A “Type Set” is a collection that includes one of each design. Building a silver dollar set is a great way to learn about each of the dollar types. Each series can be studied closely, as examples are considered and eventually picked up for inclusion. The U.S. Mint has produced a dozen different dollar coin types (way more if you count commemorative issues). Collectors can choose all types, or break the coins into categories.
Many choose just collecting the dollars made of silver. Conditions and grades will likely vary with a MS63 Flowing Hair dollar costing in excess of $100,000 and a MS63 common-date Morgan less than $50. This set is often assembled with each type example chosen within a value range. Whatever the strategy or grades, the silver dollar type set includes examples of these dollars: Flowing Hair, Draped Bust, Seated, Trade Dollar, Morgan, Peace, Eisenhower, and Commemorative type. The set can be expanded to include varieties within each type (ie. Small and Large Eagle Draped Bust Dollars).
Morgan Dollar Mint Set (Beginner)
A good way to dive into collecting Morgan Dollars is to buy one coin from each of the mints – Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, Carson City and Denver. Date choices vary widely (except Denver) and each coin can be obtained in a range of values. Build this set with uncirculated examples and research strike and date characteristics of each mint for the periods. You’ll find the Morgan series rich in technical subtleties. That knowledge base will make you a better buyer of premium quality examples in future transactions.
An alternate version of this set includes one coin of each date from a particular Mint. This is most often done with Carson City. This set includes 12 base coins and can be expanded to include a few varietals. Learning about each mint is a great background for collecting rare coins in general.
Dollar Date Set (Intermediate)
The date set consists of one of each date from 1878 to 1904 and a 1921 example. Building a date set is an excellent primer for the series as a whole.
This is a popular set for fans of the Morgan dollar.
It also allows collectors to choose coins in a variety of price levels. A superb gem set can be assembled with most dates available in MS65 or better. Recession era dates (early 1890s) prove elusive in most grades. This set can be affordable, with most dates obtainable for under $500 in MS63. The mid-1890s era issues are a bit more expensive.
A collector can opt for the more common mint within each date, or a rarer one, depending on finances and preference. The toughest date in this set is the 1895 Philly, available in proof only, but both O- and S-mints are also scarce. Either of the branch mint examples, however, are available for a few hundred dollars in low-end circulated conditions ( thousands in AU and better).
This set offers a great foundation for the complete set discussed below.
Complete Dollar Set (Advanced)
The complete dollar set would include one of each date and mint mark. With nearly 100 coins in the basic set, the undertaking of this can be quite daunting.
These sets can be broken down into three levels each with increasing difficulty – the basic circulating set, the circulating set with major varieties and either of these with the proof examples included. Whether your set is inclusive of major varieties or proofs, building a complete set of Morgan Dollars usually takes years to complete with discretion.
The expansion of this set is seemingly endless with the additions of varietals. Whole books are dedicated to collecting Morgan dollars by variety. The common varietal guide was developed by professional numismatist Leroy Van Allen and Eddie Milas (thus VAM).
Collecting by VAM designation has made Silver dollars one of the most popular “die pair” collectibles in all of numismatics. Lists have been compiled of the most widely recognized and sought after, so collectors can choose to add the “Top-100 varieties” or just the “Hot-50.” One could choose to work within a plentiful VAM date and obtain all VAMS for that date (i.e. NGC currently recognizes over 25 different varieties of the 1878 8TF).
Regardless of depth, this is an immense undertaking that requires years of research, searching and provides many hours of enjoyment. And as stated, the completion at any level is considered one of the crowning achievements in U.S. numismatics.
Grade Set (Expert)
The Grade Set has one like coin in each grade from POOR 04 to MINT STATE 69. Collectors can choose ranges and final grades for inclusion.
This is a tougher set than you would think at first glance and requires intense patience.
The key to collecting a PQ set of Morgan dollars is obtaining coins with similar luster and striking characteristics, so the matching coins appear to transition from grade to grade. Sticking with a single date makes this easier, as each mint has unique or common strike characteristics unique to the respective press.
Look at a lot of coins to establish your own criteria before buying coins; you want your MS66 to be just a tad nicer than your MS65, so buying a PQ MS65 may make the MS66 tough to buy nice enough. The concept behind building a grade set is to fine tune your own grading within a series. Zero in on what you like with each grade, and try to look at as many coins before beginning as possible. Start with benchmark grades (VG35, XF45, AU55, MS60, MS63 and MS65) and fill in with coins as you find them to fit.
Again, this set requires patience. The lower grades of some dates are difficult to purchase already certified, and you may have to dig into raw coin boxes to find a suitable VG. The advent of “Low Ball” sets has put some of these lower grades on the market, but having your own certified example will give you better control over the eye appeal. Having your own coins certified can also be a reality check for your grading skills.
Please note that paying grading fees for coins worth $35 or less is usually money you cannot get back. Consider it money spend on education and enjoyment.
Building a grade set will help you to become a competent grader for a particular series.
Accumulation or Positions (Beginner to Expert)
Because of the vast range of rarity, the inherent value of silver content, and intense demand, collecting Morgan dollars represents a unique investment angle. Many dealers, collectors and investors look for hidden value within the series and accumulate examples that fit respective goals.
Some purchase examples featuring exquisite color or seek value in condition rarity.
Some buyers look for undervalued dates and grades based on mintages, survival figures and grade populations.
Or they buy in bulk and take positions within the series, such as with generics described below.
Generic coins trade like commodities. Common-date Morgans trade at published buy/sell spreads and are easily obtained and sold at sight unseen levels. Investor/collectors buy positions in particular grades, hoping to capitalize on a combination of expanding premiums and precious metal prices.
Currently MS63 and MS64 dollars can be purchased at levels well below the market highs when their silver content alone was nearing $50 in value. Buyers bullish on silver prices position themselves in quantities of certified coins and put them away in wealth accumulation plans. As precious metal prices rise, the demand for “commodity numismatics” increases, and premiums above metal content expand.
Conversely, the prices for generics do not fluctuate dollar-for-dollar with spot prices, so generics can afford a layer of protection from short-term precious metal swings. Players in this arena look to buy low and sell high, balancing premiums with spot prices.
The art of collecting Morgan dollars requires forethought and careful planning. But with the proper blueprints, collectors can enjoy building and expanding on a collection for many years. Study of the Morgan Dollar as a foundation for a collection provides a glimpse into several decades of the United States’ most expansive and colorful eras. The nostalgia behind the Morgan dollar story brings to mind the Wild West and a budding industrial nation boldly becoming the world’s greatest economy. Through patience and perseverance one can work within the frameworks of their own design.
The resulting collection should prove to be an excellent store of value and provide years of numismatic entertainment.
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