By Ron Drzewucki – Modern Coin Wholesale …..
In my previous sortie into VAM territory, I mentioned the 1888-O “Hot Lips” variety of Morgan dollar. It is arguably the most famous VAM out there (a “VAM” being a Morgan or Peace dollar variety as officially cataloged by Leroy Van Allen and George Mallis), and if you’re of a certain age you’re bound to get a chuckle out of the nickname. Younger folk might be a bit confused by the old-timey slang. I’ll get to that in a few.
But Hot Lips isn’t the only 1888-O variety worth writing about. And they’re both so dramatic (in both appearance and nomenclature) that it’s no wonder the two VAMs are eagerly sought after–even in mainstream collecting.
These are exciting coins.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I hereby introduce to you “Hot Lips” and “Scar Face”.
1888-O “Hot Lips”
On top of its collectability and spectacular appearance, the 1888-O “Hot Lips” variety of Morgan dollar is also an historically important coin.
It was the coin that got the maestro himself, Leroy Van Allen, hooked on Morgan dollar varieties in the first place.
Before the Treasury Department started depleting its neglected stock of Morgan dollars in the 1960s or thereabouts, Morgans really weren’t that popular. They certainly weren’t the bedrock of the hobby. When searchable mint bags of uncirculated Morgans began to hit the streets in large numbers, Morgan dollar variety collecting–a real but minor aspect of a relatively unpopular niche market–became accessible to the general public.
In 1963, a numismatist by the name of Francis X. Klaes wrote a book called Die Varieties of Morgan Silver Dollars. This brief work provided the first mass-produced images of a number of varieties–one of them being the 1888-O Hot Lips. Klaes is recognized as the coin’s discoverer, as a matter of fact.
Anyway, thanks to the pictures in Klaes’ book, Van Allen found a fortuitous Hot Lips specimen and became intrigued with variety collecting. The rest, as they say, is history.
So what’s so special about Hot Lips? Three alliterative words: dramatic die doubling.
Die Doubling, if you’re not aware, is when the die strikes a coin at least a second time slightly off-center from a previous strike. In other words, it looks like another copy of the design is trying to peek out from underneath the one on top–an echo, if you will.
When the doubling occurs along the truncation of a bust portrait, or on the letters and numerals of an inscription, it can be especially dramatic and thrilling. Outside of Morgan dollars, the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse (DDO) Lincoln cent is the best-known example of die doubling.
Less obvious but at its most dramatic no less thrilling is die doubling in other locations on a design. The tin doesn’t lie about the 1888-O Hot Lips variety – it’s Miss Liberty’s lips that are most noticeably doubled here (though her nose and other features are also doubled). The best examples reveal a complete second set of lips superimposed over her upper lip.
Far be it from me to impugn Miss Liberty with such salacious slander, but it’s not hard to see why coin collectors latched on to the slangy term “Hot Lips” for this one. I only wonder if Robert Altman’s magnum opus M.A.S.H. (1970) had anything to do with it. In the film, “Hot Lips” is the nickname of Sally Kellerman’s rather uptight character.
Van Allen’s first book on VAMs came out in 1971.
About Uncirculated examples can cost you as much as 10 grand. Mint State pieces more than twice that. Extra Fine examples go for a few hundred dollars, and the coin isn’t cheap until you’re all the way down into Fine territory.
But speaking of movies…
1888-O “Scar Face”
Say Hello to my little friend.
Most people will hear the words “Scar Face” and think of Al Pacino and the classic 1983 film of the same name. If you’re a little older or more of a cinema buff, you might be reminded of Paul Muni’s original 1932 version of the same character.
No, not Edward G. Robinson. You’re thinking of Little Caesar (1931).
At any rate, if any coin is worth a cheesy Pacino impression escaping your lips every time you hold it in your hand, eliciting groans from all around you, it’s this one.
Talk about dramatic!
Once again, the name says it all. “Scar Face” looks like what it sounds like – a deep, Frankenstein-esque gash across Miss Liberty’s cheek, jowl and neck.
This particular numismatic disfigurement is the result of a late stage die break. If you remember from last time, a die break is a crack in the die, not an actual “break”. A “broken” die couldn’t make any coins.
A late stage die break, however, is about as close as you can get to an honest-to-goodness break.
Which brings me to a brief discussion of die states.
In numismatics, and especially error and variety research, the condition of a particular die can be described in terms of die states. There are three main stages in the life of the average working die: early die state (or stage), middle die state, and late die state. You can probably guess what they mean.
“Early die state” is a term describing the characteristics of a die (and therefore the coins it produces) when it’s new. Assuming it’s of sound quality itself, the die is strong, it’s features well-defined and its surfaces relatively free of blemishes – though in the past there was a wider tolerance for variation between individual dies (another of the many fascinating details that draw some of us deeper down the rabbit hole of collecting). The appearance of early die state coins usually corresponds accordingly.
“Middle die state” dies show some wear or repair marks, and the coins they produce do as well… just in the negative.
“Late die state” dies and coins are the relative “no-hopers” of the collecting world. The Mint clearly didn’t care about the quality of the pieces it was producing with a late die state die; the point was to strike ‘em and ship ‘em. Not that nice pieces can’t be made during the late die stage, but the die states are generally indicative of what to expect.
Add to that the fact that the New Orleans Mint was the business strike workhorse of the Morgan dollar run, with most New Orleans pieces being relatively weakly struck to begin with, and a fantastic-looking late die stage New Orleans variety coin is quite the find. Expect to pay several grand for a low Mint State Scar Face.
But if you think about it, this is just more proof that “perfect” coins aren’t necessarily the end-all-be-all of coin collecting. Error coins from a lackluster branch mint production run–especially when they sound like Dick Tracy villains–sometimes possess a wonder and amazement that the latest and greatest might never attain.