By Ron Drzewucki – Modern Coin Wholesale ….
I originally thought that I’d frame this post as a boxing match with some pre-fight analysis thrown in. Each aspect of the Morgan dollar and American Silver Eagle that I compared would serve as one round. But I quickly realized the fight was rigged.
Point for point and spec for spec, bullion coins have an advantage over circulating collectibles. Add subjective traits like eye appeal, design, and “collectibility”, and the American Silver Eagle–the most popular bullion coin produced by the United States–can match many of our greatest numismatic treasures blow for blow.
So I’m going to forego the Tyson and Ali references and just do a straight comparison between two of America’s foremost collectible coins.
Both coins are mostly silver but each type’s content is determined by its intended purpose. The Morgan dollar was a late 19th-, early 20th-century circulating silver dollar, minted from 1878-1904 and again in 1921. As such, it is 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper.
Notice I said it “was” a circulating silver dollar. I did that partly because it’s a part of American history and doesn’t circulate now, but also because the Morgan dollar (and practically any other “old”, rare coin you can think of) is really a different kind of object once it becomes “collectible”. I don’t think the same can be said for bullion coins, whose whole purpose is to be “set aside” and serve as a government-guaranteed store of wealth.
The American Silver Eagle, by contrast, is a silver bullion coin, first issued in 1986 under President Ronald W. Reagan and still produced for an eager market today. Being .999 fine, the Silver Eagle is 99.9 percent silver and a miniscule amount of copper.
Interestingly enough, without comparing the Silver Eagle with the Morgan dollar, it might be hard to wrap your head around how much of a difference that additional 10 percent silver makes to the value or even appearance of a coin. But here, one is clearly bullion and the other used to be a down-and-dirty instrument of commerce.
The difference is further emphasized by the size and dimensions of each coin. Morgan dollars are slightly smaller, with a diameter of 38.1 mm (1.5 in) and a mass (weight) of between 26-27 grams. American Silver Eagles weigh a little over 31 grams and have a diameter of 40.6 mm (about 1.6 in). Digging out my ruler, I measured the thickness of a well-worn 1921 Morgan dollar that I had on hand. I got exactly 2 mm. A Silver Eagle is almost 3 mm thick.
Both coins have reeded edges and both series also feature proofs. Branch mints in Philadelphia (no mint mark) and San Francisco (S) have minted both types, but the Morgan dollar was also minted in Denver (D), Carson City (CC), and New Orleans (O). The American Silver Eagle is also minted in West Point (W).
Both coins have a face value of $1, though a Morgan dollar really was worth a dollar back in the day. Think about that 10 percent difference again. Then think about how much a Silver Eagle is worth fresh from the Mint. What does that say about the worth of a dollar now?
Inscriptions are mostly the same. They both have the date on the bottom of the obverse, with the Morgan dollar’s right below the dramatic truncation of Liberty’s neck and the Silver Eagle’s date is in the exergue.
Both give their face value as ONE DOLLAR at the bottom of the reverse. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA arcs around the top of each reverse, though in keeping with George Morgan’s dramatic, frame-bursting design, the eagle’s wings jut in between the words. Besides taking a more naturalistic–albeit slightly baroque–approach, John Mercanti must have considered the Morgan reverse (among others) and decided to go in the opposite direction with his stately and restrained eagle on the back of the Silver Eagle bullion coin.
Both coins feature the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, though Morgan dollars have it on the reverse and Silver Eagles have it on the obverse.
Designer initials are found on both types, but since the obverse of the American Silver Eagle is an adaption of Adolph Weinman’s classic Walking Liberty (which graced U.S. half dollars from 1916 through 1947), it features Weinman’s initials at Liberty’s hem. John Mercanti’s initials are under the arrows on the reverse.
By the way, Morgan dollars are historic in this respect–they were the first federal coins to have the designer’s initials on both sides. His initials can be found at the bottom of Liberty’s hair on the obverse and in the wheat on the reverse.
And since the Silver Eagle is a bullion coin, it also has the inscription 1 OZ. FINE SILVER on the bottom of the reverse. The Morgan dollar also has E PLURIBUS UNUM atop the obverse, where the Silver Eagle simply has the word LIBERTY. In one of the more striking traits of the Walking Liberty design, Lady Liberty’s head, windswept veil, and bouquet of branches stand in front of the inscription–which itself overlays the sharp, spindly rays of the sun rising behind a hill.
The illusion of depth is amazing considering how flat it all is.
Thankfully, Mercanti’s and Weinman’s designs work together, no doubt due to Mercanti’s forethought and humility. But I must say, the Morgan dollar is a more cohesive design as a whole. While the multiple objects of scenery on the Silver Eagle’s obverse are masterfully layered to create depth, the elements of the Morgan dollar–obverse and reverse–stand alone, rather flatly and abstractly. The aim here appears to be to conquer the available space and threaten to keep going.
One could speculate that it’s a neat psychological trick related to the coin’s function. When you hold a Morgan dollar in your open palm, the coin takes over the space. It arrests your attention squarely on the circle in your hand. Morgan dollars are meant to be seen and contemplated one at a time.
Spending a Morgan dollar must have been an event.
American Silver Eagles create a different effect on the mind. The depth I keep talking about focuses your vision downward, almost like you’re looking through an invisible tube at the coin. Again, I’m speculating about the motives of Morgan, Weinman, and Mercanti, but this kind of view implies and almost encourages the physical act of stacking–which immediately conjures stereotyped images of stacks of gold and silver sitting in bank vaults, wealth secured and accounted for.
Okay, I’ve rambled on long enough for today. Morgan dollars and American Silver Eagles may differ (slightly?) in some aspects, but I think it’s clear that the major differences between the two series all have something to do with function and intent. You could probably arrive at the same conclusion from a comparison of any other two coins but these are special. The Morgan dollar is arguably the most popular collector’s coin in America, and the Silver Eagle is the most popular bullion product the United States has to offer.
Join me next week when I compare condition, eye appeal, and collectibility.
Interesting piece, Ron.
Eric Jordan has argued that the W burnished unc eagles are today’s CC Morgans.
A question and a correction:
The author refers to the Philadelphia mint as a branch mint. I was always under the impression that because it was the original mint, the term “branch” was used for all cities _except_ Philadelphia. Is that incorrect?
The author also uses the term “miniscule”, a common solecism. The word is actually spelled _minuscule_.
I’ll email Ron and get his take on it but for now I’ll have to skip the branch question. As for “miniscule”, it’s a perfectly good variation of “minuscule” that’s been around for over a hundred years.
“miniscule” versus “minuscule” – really? What an unbelievably minute thing to find something to point out! My spell check allows both!