CoinWeek Podcast #50: Talking Morgan Dollars with Leroy Van Allen

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This week on the CoinWeek Podcast, we talk Morgan dollars with a luminary in the field: Leroy Van Allen. Leroy recently wrote an exclusive article that broke down his thoughts on the recently discovered 1964 dollar based on footage that CoinWeek shot of the hubs at the Philadelphia Mint. Access our video and Leroy’s article about the hubs by going to CoinWeek.com.

In this podcast, we talk about the hubs, what has surprised him most about silver dollars. And what it was like being on ground zero when the silver dollar phenomenon really took off.

There’s no one like Leroy Van Allen, and you get to hear what he had to say to us next on the CoinWeek Podcast.
 

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The following is a transcript of Charles and Leroy’s discussion:

Charles Morgan: Hi there, Leroy. This is Charles from CoinWeek.

Leroy Van Allen: Hi this is Leroy Van Allen. Good to meet you finally. You’ve got a really great last name!

CM: Well, you’ve spent a lot of your numismatic life studying the Morgan dollar, I bet you were a little bit surprised by seeing these 1964 Morgan dollar hubs that have been in the news lately.

LV: Yeah, I’ve heard of them, of course. They’ve been in the literature, but I haven’t seen a picture of them yet. So, I appreciate you sending them to me. It’s a very good, excellent rendition of an old design.

CM: So what do you make of the hubs? Obviously, these weren’t original hubs. Do you have any insights as to who might have engraved them?

LV: They are definitely not the originals because there are some small differences on the obverse and reverse from the available coins. Of course, all of the hubs and dies were destroyed by the Mint in 1910. So there were no Morgan dollar dies available after that. They had to make new hubs because they are about coins and silver dollars… and this is 1963 and 1964… so they had to make new hubs. And the hubs could make enough working dies so they could make the required 45 million silver dollars that was authorized in the funds approved. Anyway, that’s just a short synopsis.

CM: So you’ve spent quite a few years of your life researching the Morgan dollars and different varieties that you’ve been able to discover through close scrutiny. How much of that pioneering work, do you think, was made possible by the run-up in silver prices in the 1960s and the fact that for speculative reasons and for collecting reasons, that the Treasury hoard was emptied of these coins?

LV: I became interested in the Morgan dollar back in the early 1960s, ’62 and ’63. They were released at Christmas time. I was a collector of just general… all different denominations. But then when silver dollars became news that they were available brand new… so I studied them and collected them and then I eventually put out my first book in 1965. And meanwhile, of course, George [Mallis] was collecting silver dollars also, the Morgan dollars, and researching them. And we got together in 1971 and published our first joint book. Then in ’76, the revision and update, which was published by First Coinvestors. And then of course another book in 1992 and reprint in 1998, so that’s basically our history. So, I’ve been involved in Morgan and Peace dollars for well over 50 years.

CM: And did you ever expect that the popularity of collecting Morgan and Peace dollars by variety would take off to the point it has, as you were working on your book?

LV: Well, there had been others before… in 1965, when my book [appeared]. You know, published articles in various magazines and newspapers about some of the things that they had found. In fact it goes way back to the turn of the century, where they looked at… there were a couple publications and The Numismatist… about different varieties that they had found on the 1878s and the designs were different. So, the history of looking at varieties of Morgan dollars goes way back to 1898. But there were no real books on them, co-author George Mallis put out a sort of pamphlet… 100 copies… back in 1963. And Neil Shafer put out an article about various designs and I used that as a basis for my book in 1965, which I sold, of course 5,000 copies. And so that’s part of some serious collecting and lots of collectors… but it’s had its ups and downs.

After our ’76 book, there was a resurgence in collecting of die varieties of silver dollars and then it sort of down died a little bit, but it didn’t completely die out, it was just not as much enthusiasm and numbers reported until Jeff Oxman and Michael Fey put out The Top 100, I think that was in 1998. And, that sort of helped focus what the collectors could put together.

Instead of submitting minor varieties, they could focus on the main ones, like overdates and big gouges and breaks and things. But then there were other books put out and pamphlets since then… and so there are probably well over 2,000 pamphlets and documents and books on the Morgan dollar die varieties.

CM: Do you think anyone has ever come close to putting together a collection of all of every VAM that has been discovered and published in your books?

LV: Myron Field was trying to do that back in the 1980s, but he sold his collection when he passed away. He had probably 60-70% of all of the die varieties at that point in time. But of course, since then, there’s been many more. And there’s some collectors currently that have maybe 60 or 70%, but every year I put out a supplement, which includes new and discovered and reported and revised varieties. So this thing, it just keeps tugging along.

CM: For a series that is seemingly full of surprises, and the discovery of a 1964 Morgan dollar effort on the part of the Mint is certainly a surprise… what in your opinion is the most surprising thing about the Morgan dollar series?

LV: Well, back in the 1960s, the overdates were the big news… for the 1887/6 overdate. And also they found in the 1960s, the 1900 over CCs. So that was big news back then. But then there’s been other ones, like the large over small date 1898-Os. Those were reported, but we didn’t have very good pictures, so we didn’t know much about it until last year. And an article about that was published in the Errorscope.

There’s so many things that have been found, like acid treated 1878s, by the San Francisco Mint. Here is a case where a branch mint was modifying their dies. I don’t know how they got away with it because the Philadelphia Mint was the one that makes the dies. So they were altering. They added… well, they even engraved things on the tail feathers. And engraved things on the wreaths of the reverse and on the obverse. So the San Francisco Mint took it upon themselves to sort of touch up these dies in 1878 and also through 1882. That was a big surprise.

There’s so many different things that keep popping up on the Morgan dollar. That’s why I’m still doing this after 50 years. I’m mainly just a cataloger now because I don’t have much of a collection anymore and I don’t examine the coins. I don’t go to coin shows to examine them. So it’s the collectors nowadays, they are searching through all of these coins. And they send coins to me, pointing out things new and I just take pictures, describe them, and I catalog it and put out a yearly supplement.

So my job right now is mainly a cataloger.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, I reported a number of new varieties. Some were pretty significant, like over dates and over mintmarks. But I’m mainly a cataloger, which keeps me busy. And writing articles. It’s amazing what these collectors are still finding, even today.

CM: How would you say the sophisticated collector today, the type of collector who would be interested in Morgan dollars by variety, how do you think this collector compares to the collectors of the 1960s and the 1970s.

LV: Well, in a word, they are much more knowledgeable, by far. You know, back then, there weren’t too many people who had studied the minting process, or how error coins or varieties were made. But they would report things like change of position of Mint Mark, and dates, and die doubling… but today’s collector, they can really examine closely, these die varieties and send them to me with notations of what to look for and what they think are new. So they are much more knowledgeable and experienced nowadays than they were back 40 or 50 years ago.

I’m just talking about Morgan dollars because other series like large cents, they’ve had knowledgeable collectors for many years. People weren’t too interested in the Morgan dollar or Peace dollar until the 1960s, when they became more widely available… nice new coins… and they could study them. And the hobby grew around silver dollars.

CM: So, you said earlier in our conversation that for a time that people could walk up to their bank and get Morgan dollars at face value. Collectors that came around the hobby long after that probably really relate to that story. It boggles the mind. But going back to the early 1960s, about how many Morgan dollars or dollar coins do you think your typical local bank would have in the cash drawer and what condition would they typically be in?

LV: Well, George Mallis lived in Massachusetts, but he was an architect and he had some jobs down in the Washington, D.C. area. So he would go to the Treasury Department and he would get a bag of a 1,000 and lug it home. This was in the early 1960s, ’61, ’62, and ’63. And then study them. Meanwhile, I lived in Baltimore, Maryland.

I would go to a reserve bank in Baltimore and also to the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., since I worked down in Washington, D.C. And I’d get a bag of a thousand and take it home and look at it. I’d always be disappointed when it was just one date, like a ’98-O, or ’04-Os… I liked the mixed date bags. Sometimes they were quite circulated. Other times, they were a mixture of circulated and uncirculated.

And then I would go to local banks in Baltimore and also in D.C., and there you could get bags from them for a while. Then they started rationing. You could only get a couple rolls, or something like that. Then it was just a roll. And finally, it was just a single coin as they ran out of them. So it was quite an experience and you’d get all of these coins just for a dollar, big coins that were minted way back in the 1880s and 1870s, whereas all the minor coins, you couldn’t go to the bank and get coins that old. So for me, that was the thrill of it.

CM: And you could probably get some well-worn Seated dollars once in a while in circulation?

LV: Yeah, once in a while, in those bags… and circulated mainly, there would show up some Seated Liberty dollars. I got a number of those also. But they were pretty few and far between. They weren’t like the Morgan dollars, where you could get a lot of uncirculated ones. You could get all dates, except for the 1889-CC, just going through bags and getting them for a dollar each. And so did my co-author George Mallis.

But it was really crazy when they started to run out and the dealers would flock down to Washington, D.C. and stand in line to get those bags. I did some of that also.

CM: And did collectors at the time, when they were pulling these bags out. If you were looking at original bags, you must have seen coins that would qualify as premium Prooflike or Deep Mirror Prooflike – and this was before those characteristics were a mainstream characteristic that collectors looked for. Do you look back to those days and wish you would have put some of those aside?

LV: Yeah, but you got to realize that in the 1960s I didn’t make that much money, even as an engineer. I wasn’t rich, I was just a working guy. So, I couldn’t salt away thousands and thousands of dollars, or hundreds of bags, so I would go through, pick out a few nice coins or varieties. I was mostly interested in different varieties… but I did get some nice coins. Whereas, there were dealers that could salt away hundreds of bags. And some of the… as you know the hoards… some people put away hundreds of bags. I didn’t have the funds to do that.

CM: Are you at all surprised by the prices some of these coins are bringing now, especially high-end toners?

LV: Yeah, well. I had put some of my coins at auction a number of years ago and I was just amazed at some of the prices that they brought. The varieties… well, that’s the way inflation goes and then, of course, it’s the interest… the collector interest and that creates bidding against one another and that drives the prices up and then you have to have, of course, the publications and then so the collectors know about the varieties, and their significance, and the rarity. And it all ties together. You have to have a good collector base that forms interest and can drive the prices up. That’s on top of inflation, which is like death and taxes… inflation just keeps going up and up. The silver content value of a dollar just went higher and higher, and of course that is the base price of the coin… and the varieties are on top of that.

CM: And of course in the 1960s, pulling out a $1,000 bag and taking it home to look through the coins was nothing to blanch at. A thousand dollars back then is far more money than what people think of when they think of $1,000 today. Back then that was a really significant amount of money.

LV: Oh yeah. When I graduated as an engineer in ’57, my salary was a little over $5,000 a year. And it kept going up and up. And I forgot what I was making in ’62 or ’65. So a $1,000 for the average worker was a big significant amount. Oh, in ’61 or ’62, I was making about $10,000 to $12,000 a year.

CM: So then, pulling out a bag back then was like withdrawing one month’s salary, pre-tax. So, back in the day when you were pulling these Morgan dollars, these uncirculated Morgan dollars out of original Mint bags, did you see a lot of coins with vibrant rainbow toning, the kind of toning that you see on the market nowadays – or did this kind of color develop on the coins after they were taken out of the bags?

LV: Toned coins have had a market and collector interest from the get-go, because big silver dollar coins with these rainbow tones, or multi-toned total side… they are beautiful and I would collect them. And they added value to the coin. Not as much as some of the overdates and other things. Yes, I was interested in toned coins way back then too, because they were something that added to the beauty of a silver dollar.

CM: So describe what it was like to get these 1,000-coin silver dollar bags from the Treasury in Washington, D.C. What was the set up there? Did they make you go into the vault and carry your own bags, or did they get them for you? What was the set up there like and how heavy were these things?

LV: Sixty pounds, plus or minus. Anyway. You go to the Treasury Department and you go to a window where you could order a bag, or multiple bags, in the early ‘60s. And I think you had to have cash in hand. You give them the money and they would go back to the vault and bring out a bag. You had no choice in what they brought out. They would just go to their local vault in the treasury and haul out whatever they happened to grab. The clerk would get it for you and bring it out, usually on a dolly. And then you had to pick it up by hand and carry it out by hand… 60 pounds… to your car, or truck, or whatever you had for a vehicle.

So, it was… You know, you couldn’t, if you ordered 10 bags, which you could at sometimes, that’s 600 pounds. So you had to have a pretty good sized dolly to load it up and cart it out. I never bought that many at a time. I may have bought two or three at a time, once in a while. Most of the time, just one bag.

CM: And while you were going back and forth to the Treasury to get bags, did you see other collectors or dealers doing the same thing?

LV: Yeah, there were dealers that had the cash, of course, and they would buy multiple bags at a time and, actually up in Montana… of course, they were the ones that used silver dollars the most in general circulation. But there were some dealers up there, they would buy hundreds of bags and go through them and pick out the good dates… and good quality coins. And there were other dealers all over the country that had access to buying these bags and they would go through for their stock, buy and sell, and then there were the hoarders, who wanted hard money… so they would buy these silver dollars and store them away.

CM: Do you suspect that there remain out there some hoards that haven’t come to light?

LV: Maybe some small ones, but I think the big ones have been found, or the heirs, or whatnot, have cashed those in to get the money. I doubt that there are any big hoards left now. The hoards were treated in various books, like Wayne Miller’s book, John Highfill’s book, and my book, and so the silver dollar hoards were interesting and big news as I explain in the book, our book. And of course there was the GSA. They put aside well over three million Carson City dollars as their stock depleted and then they had their auctions. And I was involved in that with the GSA down in Washington, D.C., since I was an engineer down in Washington, D.C., and I became a consultant on the GSA sale of the silver dollars of Carson City.

CM: I’ve speculated, or at least opined in some of my writing, that the U.S. government’s GSA sale was essentially the beginning of an era, where a whole generation of collectors just entering the hobby would form a lifelong relationship with the government and the U.S. Mint as a source of coins – beyond what had come before. They used the GSA cases to market their very expensive Eisenhower dollar Proof coins. Many collections formed from the 1970s and beyond, their first contact with coins might have been the nationally-run ads for the GSA coins and then that turned into purchasing other coin products from the U.S. mint – such as the Bicentennial coins and medals and later commemorative coins and annual mint and proof sets. I’ve run into a number of collections, helping people appraise collections belonging to their mothers or fathers that passed away and I see a similar strain of collecting habits from people who maybe didn’t have a lot of means to buy what we’d consider classic coins but could afford to spend a hundred dollars or so a year buying coins from the U.S. Mint. And I suspect a lot of this started with the first purchase of a GSA Carson City Morgan dollar. My own grandmother, Ruth, is an example of that.

LV: Yeah, there was gigantic publicity. They made these little cards and displays for all of the main banks. So people would go in there and realize that they could get these old, real old silver dollars from the 1800s from this auction. And yes, you are right, the GSA sales did produce a lot of national publicity and local publicity with their displays. They even had a display that went around the country. It did create a lot of interest in the silver dollars for collectors in general.

CM: Well, Mr. Van Allen, thank you for spending some time talking to me about Morgan dollars, your life’s passion, and those 1964 Morgan dollar hubs.

LV: Ok, nice talking to you and, yeah it’s been a thrill ride for the last 50 years, that’s for sure.

* * *

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