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First Read: Morgan Dollar: America’s Love Affair with a Legendary Coin

First Read, a CoinWeek continuing series of essays about classic and contemporary works of numismatic literature

Essay by Louis Golino for CoinWeek….

Morgan Dollar: America’s Love Affair with a Legendary Coin
by Michael “Miles” Standish

The mighty Morgan dollar, as Michael Standish notes in his important new reference book on the most widely collected classic American coin, is a coin of many contradictions. For example, it was considered not worth collecting in the 19th century because the coins were viewed as common, yet in the 20th century and since it has emerged as “the most robust collectible of its era in American numismatics and traded in a highly sophisticated market,” and “the most collected 19th-century United States coin in the history of American numismatics,” as the author writes.

firstreadstandishAnother contradiction is that for a coin that has been so widely collected for more than half a century there is a relatively small body of significant books on the coin, which the author lists at the end of the book. Perhaps this is testimony to the fact that one book, now in its fourth edition as of 2012, Q. David Bowers seminal A Guide Book of Morgan Silver Dollars, published by Whitman as is the Standish book, has played such a major role in educating collectors and dealers on the Morgan dollar series that other authors did not feel more books were needed.

Michael Standish was the first grader at PCGS when the company was founded and is today a senior graded there and vice president for business development. He is also co-author with John Mercanti of American Silver Eagles, a Guide to the U.S. Bullion Coin Program, which is in its second edition.

While there are other experts on the series like Mr. Bowers and many others, Mr. Standish has seen and graded more coins and more of the high-grade rarities in the series than probably anyone else. This experience gives him a unique perspective that informs his engaging coin-by-coin study of each date and mintmark in the 97-coin series, which is the heart of the book. In it he discusses how the market for each coin has developed over time and presents data on mintages, certified coin populations, and retail prices for graded coins as well as the frequency of prooflike and deep mirror prooflike coins, which are very popular with Morgan collectors and for some issues are very rare. He notes that the population data is based on “PCGS grading events,” which means many coins may have been submitted for grading multiple times.

The book also includes a brief historical chapter that discusses the America of the Morgan dollar era and the many ways it changed during that period, examines the design of the coin in detail, discusses proof coins, and provides a very interesting market study that compares the market for the coins when the Red Book first appeared in 1947 and in the 1973 edition, and how the market has evolved in the years since the early 1970’s.

The author describes the coin’s design as “quintessentially American” because it is a combination of old and new, of “traditional American thematic elements” fused with “a European sensibility.” He calls the obverse a neo-classical “Grecian effigy” and explains that the long-standing belief that schoolteacher Anna Willess Williams served as the coin’s model may not be accurate based on some correspondence from George T. Morgan, the coin’s designer, to his granddaughter saying no real person was the model, as explained in a 2002 Coin World article.

Interest among collectors in this series has always been shaped by, as the author explains, the combination of “the mammoth amount of untouched, collectible-quality” coins and the lack of certainty “about the quantity available of any date or mintmark.” But a couple of key events starting in the early 1960’s, when the Treasury released a large amount of bags of uncirculated coins, have given collectors a lot of information about the remaining quantity of coins in the series after all the melting that was done of Morgan dollars. That information has undergirded the ever-expanding market for these coins in the years since the historic release of all those coins. And the releases of the 1960’s are what make it possible to find such high-quality examples of so many issues today.

morgan1When the bags of mostly pristine coins were released in the 1960’s, a topic also explored in Mr. Bowers book, dates that were previously considered rare instantly became common. The most celebrated example is the 1903-O, which went in a short period from perhaps the scarcest date to a $7 coin. But instead of turning people off from the series, these events propelled interest in it more than anything else apart from the three million Carson City coins sold by mail order auction by the General Services Administration in the early 1970’s. And then there is the discovery of the huge hoard of Lavere Redfield, an eccentric hard money fanatic who amassed over 400,000 Morgans stashed in his home.

Mr. Standish also covers the impact of third-party grading, registry sets, and the various tools available to today’s collector such as online certified coin population reports and high-resolution images. His coin study uses images of the Coronet Collection.

Whereas the Bowers guide book goes into great detail about the events and coin market each year a Morgan dollar was issued, the Standish book presents a more succinct historical narrative and his coin-by-coin analysis focuses on the key attributes and other important details about each coin. In addition, the Standish book only presents certified population data for coins graded by PCGS, whereas the Bowers book presents data on all certified coins.

Two minor quibbles:

1.) The retail prices listed for each coin tend to be on the low side in my view when compared to recent retail and auction sales. Contacted for this article the author explained that the prices listed are from the Red Book, and he recommended that readers use online PCGS information on prices and coin populations to stay current. Personally, I would recommend consulting a variety of resources on values, including especially auction prices at companies like Heritage, Stacks, and Great Collections, where buyers are usually experienced collectors and dealers, the Coin Dealer Newsletter, especially for the wholesale market, etc.

2.) The author mentions that prices for coins of similar quality can vary widely, and he discusses in his market study the collection put together by Morgan dollar expert and dealer Wayne Miller, who sought the finest example of each coin, typically paying ten-times then dealer bid prices for each coin. However, I would have liked to see some more discussion of this issue and some specific examples, perhaps based on recent auction prices, of how widely prices can vary for the same coin in the same grade depending on eye appeal and how much a buyer is willing to pay for a premium coin.

morganbook_smallerThe Morgan dollar collector, whether new, intermediate, or advanced, will reap many rewards from reading this book and consulting it as a reference when considering specific coins in the series. I rank it alongside the Bowers guide book as one of the most important and accessible works written on the subject.

First Read: Morgan Dollar: America’s Love Affair with a Legendary Coin
by Michael “Miles” Standish
154 Pages. Whitman Publishing, LLC. $29.95

Louis Golino
Louis Golino
Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing on modern U.S. and world coins. He has been writing a weekly column for CoinWeek since May 2011 called “The Coin Analyst,” which focuses primarily on modern numismatic issues and developments at major world mints. In August 2015 he received the Numismatic Literary Guild’s (NLG) award for Best Website Column for “The Coin Analyst.” He is also a contributor to Coin World, where he wrote a bimonthly feature and weekly blog, and The Numismatist, the American Numismatic Association’s (ANA) monthly publication, where he writes a monthly column on modern world coins. He is also a founding member of the Modern Coin Forum sponsored by Modern Coin Mart. He previously served as a congressional relations specialist and policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress and as a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international politics and national security for a wide variety of publications. He has been writing professionally since the early 1980s when he began writing op-ed articles and news analyses.

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  1. In the most recent book on this topic I have read,Carson City Morgan Dollars, 3rd Edition, featuring the coins of the GSA Hoard, the author goes into detail about the unwanted celebrity like attention Miss. Anna Willess Williams received for many years afterwards. As described in the book, “the press started a search for the “Silver Dollar Girl” and in 1879, a Philadelphia reporter revealed Miss. Williams secret.” According to author, Miss. Williams never was fully able to live down her unwanted fame, and possibly caused her to remain unmarried until a fall in 1926 which ultimately caused her death a short while later. A very interesting story.

    Thanks for your essay, I will be looking forward to the next time you submit another.

  2. Hi Dusty,

    Thank you for your comment. Standish does relate the same info., but then adds that despite being so widely believed, that story may not be true according to the coin’s designer.


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