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Jeff Garrett: Collecting Silver Dollar Varieties

By Jeff Garrett for NGC (Numismatic Guaranty Corporation) ……
Jeff GarrettCollecting United States coins by die variety has its origins in early copper coinage. Some of the first specialty books for U.S. coins were for Colonial coinage and Large Cents. Generations of collectors have been searching for rare varieties of these early copper coins. Over time, collectors turned their attention to other series of early U.S. coinage, including the extremely popular Bust Half Dollars produced from 1794 to 1836. My library has dozens of specialty books and research materials devoted to these highly collected series.

Later, researchers devoted time and energy to studying coins produced after the advent of steam presses in 1836. Production of coins became more standardized, but plenty of interesting varieties were created to stimulate research and specialty books. In recent times, books have been written that study nearly every series of coins the United States has ever produced. Modern collectors are blessed with information previous generations of collectors could only dream of.

Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars struck from 1878 to 1935 are one of the most popular coins ever created by the United States Mint. Morgan Silver Dollars are incredibly popular for many reasons. Collectors love large silver coins, and they were produced in prodigious numbers. There are about two dozen issues that can be considered common and purchased for under $100 in Mint State. On the other end of the spectrum, the series contains many rarities, especially in high grades. Only mega-collectors can afford the expense of a complete set of Gem Uncirculated examples. Large numbers of coins were also produced at the very popular Carson City Mint. These can be found easily because of the GSA release of millions of Mint condition coins in the 1970s.

1890-CC VAM-4 "Tail Bar" Morgan Dollar. Image: NGC.
1890-CC VAM-4 “Tail Bar” Morgan Dollar. Image: NGC.
Close-up of an 1890-CC VAM-4 "Tail Bar" Morgan Dollar. Image; NGC.
Close-up of an 1890-CC VAM-4 “Tail Bar” Morgan Dollar. Image; NGC.

Like many of the other series mentioned above, it was only a matter of time before researchers turned their attention to Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars.

Starting in the late 1960s, numismatists Leroy C. Van Allen and A. George Mallis began to compile a list of every die variety for Morgan and Peace Dollars. Their combined efforts led to the 1971 release of the Comprehensive Catalogue and Encyclopedia of U.S. Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars. The book has been revised and updated many times since its first release more than five decades ago.

There are around 2,000 different varieties of Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars. The book is certainly “comprehensive”, and nearly overwhelming in scope. Some dates have dozens of individual and distinct VAM varieties. The three-letter acronym “VAM” stands for the initials of the last names of the book’s authors. With so many different varieties, collectors and dealers enjoy the fun and thrill of hunting for rare examples listed in the reference.

1922 VAM-12A "Moustache" Peace Dollar. Image: NGC.
1922 VAM-12A “Moustache” Peace Dollar. Image: NGC.
Close up of a 1922 VAM-12A "Moustache" Peace Dollar. Image: NGC.
Close up of a 1922 VAM-12A “Moustache” Peace Dollar. Image: NGC.

With the great number of varieties known for the two series, it would be nearly impossible to assemble a complete set of VAM Dollars. Plus, new varieties are discovered on occasion. The task is simply too daunting, even for hardcore devotees.

Nevertheless, there are several different ways to explore and collect VAM Dollar varieties that do not require finding over 2,000 coins. One very popular method is to collect coins listed in the book The Top 100 Morgan Dollar Varieties: The VAM Keys, by Michael S. Fey, Ph.D., and Jeff Oxman. This handy guide identifies the 100 most popular and valuable Morgan Dollar VAM varieties. NGC recognizes dollars listed in this book on their labels for coins submitted for variety attribution. Coins listed in this book are much more likely to command a significant premium compared to many of the other minor varieties listed in the book by Van Allen and Mallis.

Another source for information and collecting guidance is the Cherrypickers’ Guide published by Whitman Publishing. The book covers major varieties for dozens of series, including Morgan and Peace Dollars. The Cherrypickers’ Guide is a great tool for anyone who enjoys the thrill of finding unattributed varieties that can be worth a premium. It’s the closest thing to “treasure hunting” we have for the hobby.

Many of the major varieties for Morgan and Peace Dollars can be found listed in the MEGA RED guidebook by Whitman Publishing. This carefully curated list of varieties has been chosen over the years by the esteemed team of Red Book contributors. Experts in the series have suggested listings for coins many would consider part of a comprehensive collection of Morgan and Peace Dollars. The MEGA RED book has listings and illustrations for the most important varieties. The corresponding VAM numbers and additional collecting tips are given as well.

1880-O VAM-4 "Hot Lips" Morgan Dollar. Image: NGC.
1880-O VAM-4 “Hot Lips” Morgan Dollar. Image: NGC.
Close-up of an 1880-O VAM-4 "Hot Lips" Morgan Dollar. Image: NGC.
Close-up of an 1880-O VAM-4 “Hot Lips” Morgan Dollar. Image: NGC.

The following are some of the most interesting and valuable VAM Dollar varieties listed in the latest edition of MEGA RED:

  • 1878 8 Tail Feathers Obverse Die Gouge “Wild Eye” variety (VAM-14.11)
  • 1878 7 over 8 Tail Feathers – “Triple Leaves” variety (VAM-44)
  • 1880-O Die Gouge “Hangnail” variety (VAM-49)
  • 1881-O Doubled Die Obverse variety (VAM-27)
  • 1888-O Obverse Die Break “Scarface” variety (VAM-1B)
  • 1888-O Doubled Die Obverse “Hot Lips” variety (VAM-4)
  • 1890-CC Die Gouge “Tail Bar” variety (VAM-4)
  • 1890-O Die Gouge “Comet” variety (VAM-102)
  • 1891-OPitted Reverse” variety (VAM-1B)
  • 1899-OMicro O” variety (VAM 4,6,31,32)
  • 1901 Doubled Die “Shifted Eagle” variety (VAM-3)
  • 1903-S Small S variety (VAM-2)
  • 1922 Die Break “Ear Ring” variety (VAM-2A)
  • 1922 Die Break “Moustache” variety (VAM-12A)
  • 1923 Die Break “Whisker Cheek” variety (VAM-1D)
  • 1934-D Doubled Die Obverse variety (VAM-4)

The above list is just a small sampling of the fun and interesting Morgan and Peace Dollars that are known and available to collectors. New varieties are found regularly, most of which make headline news in the numismatic press when announced.

If you love Morgan and Peace Dollars but would like a new and more challenging way to collect them, consider some of the many dramatic varieties for your collection. How can you not love a coin nicknamed “Scarface“?

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Rare Coin Gallery


Jeff Garrett
Jeff Garrett
Jeff Garrett, founder of Mid-American Rare Coin Galleries, is considered one of the nation’s top experts in U.S. coinage — and knowledge lies at the foundation of Jeff’s numismatic career. With more than 35 years of experience, he is one of the top experts in numismatics. The “experts’ expert,” Jeff has personally bought and sold nearly every U.S. coin ever issued. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t call on Jeff Garrett for numismatic advice. This includes many of the nation’s largest coin dealers, publishers, museums, and institutions. In addition to owning and operating Mid-American Rare Coin Galleries, Jeff Garrett is a major shareholder in Sarasota Rare Coin Galleries. His combined annual sales in rare coins and precious metals — between Mid-American in Kentucky and Sarasota Rare Coin Galleries in Florida — total more than $25 million. Jeff Garrett has authored many of today’s most popular numismatic books, including Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins 1795–1933: Circulating, Proof, Commemorative, and Pattern Issues; 100 Greatest U.S. Coins; and United States Coinage: A Study By Type. He is also the price editor for The Official Redbook: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Jeff was also one of the original coin graders for the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). He is today considered one of the country’s best coin graders and was the winner of the 2005 PCGS World Series of Grading. Today, he serves as a consultant to Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), the world’s largest coin grading company. Jeff plays an important role at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Numismatic Department and serves as a consultant to the museum on funding, exhibits, conservation, and research. Thanks to the efforts of Jeff and many others, rare U.S. coins are once again on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. Jeff has been a member of the Professional Numismatic Guild (PNG) since 1982 and has recently served as president of the organization. He has also served as the ANA President and as a member of the ANA Board of Governors.

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