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HomeEzerman on the 1888-O "Hot Lips" Morgan Dollar

Ezerman on the 1888-O “Hot Lips” Morgan Dollar

By Rob Ezerman for CoinWeek …..

The spectacular and whimsical 1888-O Doubled Die Morgan dollar gained widespread attention with the early work of silver dollar specialists Leroy Van Allen and George Mallis in the late 1960s. They catalogued the coin as the 1888-O VAM-4.

A few years later a popular movie would inspire collectors to give the variety its proper name.

That movie, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, a dark comedy about a U.S. Army field hospital set during the Korean War, featured many memorable characters, two of which were a bumbling surgeon and insufferable proselytizer named Frank Burns and the 40-something army lifer and chief nurse Margaret Houlihan.

Both had a distinctive “stuffed shirt” quality that played in stark contrast to the film’s other less than “military” characters.

Sally Kellerman as Margaret
Sally Kellerman as Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in M*A*S*H (1970).

In one memorable scene, their tryst is spoiled in the middle of the act when Burns and Houlihan hear themselves being broadcast on the post’s PA system. The entire unit hears Burns say to Houlihan: “God meant us to find each other.” To which Houlihan, eagerly undressing, replies, “His will be done,” a reference to Burns’ pompous religiosity, followed by the more carnal entreaty, “Oh, Frank, my lips are hot! Kiss my hot lips!”

For the 1888-O VAM-4, which has prominent doubling on Liberty’s lips, it was only a matter of time before some numismatist made the connection, and while “Hot Lips” Houlihan may have fallen out of public consciousness, her numismatic namesake has stuck around.

About the VAM-4

The VAM-4, or Hot Lips, is a single hub doubled die variety that is quite scarce in Uncirculated condition, with fewer than 10 grading events reported by PCGS and NGC combined. The variety is accessible to most collectors in grades XF and below, which leads one to believe that the die had a long and productive life and wasn’t withdrawn early due to its imperfect nature.

To date, the highest-graded example of the 1888-O VAM-4 is a PCGS MS-62. A photo of that coin can be seen on PCGS CoinFacts.

Numerous circulated examples purporting to be the 1888-O VAM-4 can be found through reputable coin dealers and on eBay. Unfortunately, the majority of the raw coins out there have been “cleaned”, which significantly impairs the coin’s surfaces and thereby reduces their valuations.

1888-O VAM-4 "Hot Lips" in Extra Fine. Late Die State example. I paid $315 for this example.
1888-O VAM-4 “Hot Lips” in Extra Fine. Late Die State example. I paid $315 for this example.

The Common 1888-O and the VAM-4

Uncirculated 1888-O Morgan dollars are common. In the low Mint State grades, the 1888-O sells for $100 USD. To acquire one with strong eye appeal, expect to pay $300 or more. You’ve undoubtedly heard the term BUY THE COIN, NOT THE HOLDER at some point in your collecting career; that term certainly applies when a coin is available in abundance. For collectors of common date Morgan dollars, consider this rule to be always in force.

1888-O VAM-4, Close Up.
1888-O VAM-4. Close Up.

The VAM-4 sells for multiples of the price of the common type.

As of March 2023, I have found and purchased more than a dozen circulated examples, for which I paid between $40 to $400 per piece. Many of them are used to illustrate this article.

The coin imaged above was purchased on eBay for $315. This example is from a late-middle to early-late die state but has clearly defined interdigitated doubled lips. In simpler terms, the doubled mouth is opened and oriented slightly above the fully articulated mouth. The bottom lip of the doubled lip rests in between Liberty’s normal lips.

The interesting thing about this variety is that this doubled mouth remains present even on lower circulated-grade coins.

When the doubling weakens, one has to tilt or “wobble” the coin under a lamp to bring out doubling that may show only at one specific angle. Typically, photographers have a difficult time conveying the full range of doubling in a single image, so it’s not uncommon to see photographs of the Hot Lips variety that fail to convey the dramatic doubling on Liberty’s lips.

By the way, check each candidate for obverse/reverse rotation of more than 15 degrees from the normal 180-degree opposition; this condition adds to the coin’s rarity and value.

In fact, carefully examine all of your coins for unexpected features. There is an advantage here for those who really know U.S. coins and especially those who specialize or become experts in a given series. Just remember that any novice could have noticed–maybe even should have noticed–the 1888-O VAM-4 doubling decades before the work of Mallis and Allen in the 1960s.

1888-O VAM-4. A Very Fine example. I paid $200.
1888-O VAM-4. A Fine / Very Fine example. I paid $200.

The Numbers Game, and How I “See” a Variety

What I find fascinating here is that we have a coin that went under-publicized for almost 80 years after its release – although you could say that about a number of the dramatic VAMs.

This resonates with me as an Eisenhower dollar researcher. As I wrote in my Ike book, we all bring our biases with us when we look at coins. Because of this, we look for what we’ve seen before, what we expect to see, and finally, what we want to see. Despite our best efforts to break new ground, new varieties can escape our attention until one collector or expert comes along who just happens to see things from a fresh perspective.

This is what happened with the 1971-D “Friendly Eagle” Eisenhower dollar, which wasn’t noticed until Dr. James Wiles first published remarks about it in the 1980s. This pronounced variety didn’t appreciate wide-spread acceptance until the 2010s. Today it is a Red Book variety.

That said, we can only guess as to the number of 1888-O VAM-4 coins that survive.

We know that a large number of circulated coins trade in the raw, while a relatively small number of grading events are reported in AU and above. The VAM-4 is a readily identifiable variety and the price consideration for submitting high-end material incentivizes submission and resubmission. As these coins have not been exhibited side-by-side, we have no way of knowing how many of these reported coins are still in their respective holders, and how many might be phantom coins due to NGC to PCGS crossovers or resubmissions with the intent to upgrade the coin.

Therefore, we can only construct a “guesstimate”, as we simply cannot know how many correctly attributed 1888-O VAM-4 dollars exist.

1888-O "Hot Lips" in VF-30.
1888-O “Hot Lips” in VF-30 purchased for $300 (I likely overpaid for it).

My belief is that there are at least one thousand 1888-O VAM-4 “Hot Lips” Morgan dollars extant in circulated grades of XF and below, many being cleaned or otherwise impaired to the point that they would not be worth having graded.

As large quantities of AU and Mint State examples have not turned up, it is reasonable to assume that this variety was released into circulation around the time of the coin’s production, and whatever stock survives did not derive from hoarded bags comprised of VAM-4 coins. Never say never, but it’s unlikely that a hoard of 1888-O VAM-4s will be discovered in an as-yet-unsearched Morgan dollar bag.

1888-O VAM-4 "Hot Lips" Morgan dollar. Very fine details, but cleaned.
1888-O VAM-4 “Hot Lips” Morgan dollar. Very fine details, but cleaned.

A nicer one but with VF details. For the right price, this would be a great coin for the variety hunter.

Also, keep in mind that since this variety is easy to spot, one must assume that many, if not most, have already been identified. After several months of looking, I have yet to see a single unattributed VAM-4 come up for auction or turn up at a coin show.

I am, however, still looking – and you should be, too!

1888-O VAM-4 "Hot Lips" purchased "raw" for $40.
1888-O VAM-4 “Hot Lips” purchased “raw” for $40.

Grabbed this one at $40 – could grade “Good” but for its cleaned appearance. It’s an excellent example of a modestly priced easily identified as a VAM-4. As the variety can still be determined even at this low grade, this means that every 1888-O should be reviewed no matter the grade.

The VAM-4 is one of the more eccentric VAMs, both in name and appearance. The variety is accessible to beginners and challenging for connoisseurs. The great thing about coins like this is that they provide you with hours of study and enjoyment and you never know, one might just pop up out of nowhere and smack you right on the lips.

Charles Morgan
Charles Morgan
Charles Morgan is an award-winning numismatic author and the editor and publisher of CoinWeek.com. Along with co-author Hubert Walker, he has written for CoinWeek since 2012, as well as the "Market Whimsy" column for The Numismatist and the book 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (2020) for Whitman Publishing. From 2021-2023, Charles served as Governor of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), where he was bestowed the Glenn Smedley Award. Charles is a member of numerous numismatic organizations, including the American Numismatic Society (ANS) and the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG).

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