By Ron Drzewucki – Modern Coin Wholesale …..
Last week, it was tech specs and design. This week, I wanted to talk about the Morgan dollar and American Silver Eagle’s “eye appeal”–specifically, toning and strike. By extension, the topic covers some aspects of the series’ collectibility.
Morgan dollars are some of the most beautifully toned American coins. They run the gamut from dark, almost niello-like blacks to coppery oranges and dazzling rainbow patterns. This is because silver naturally allows for a wide range of toning, and being alloyed with metals such as copper only broadens the palette, so to speak.
As I wrote back in October, toning occurs when the metal on the surface of a coin interacts with elements in the environment (such as but not limited to oxygen) to create a thin layer of a new compound material on top of the original metal. The layer is so thin that light passes through it and reflects off the coin surface underneath. At the same time, light reflects off the new surface at a slightly different angle. The interaction of the light from these two sources creates the colors that we call toning. Think soap bubbles.
In my experience, newer collectors tend to prefer brilliant and frost white coins. I think it’s because these coins conform to an ideal of “newness” or “purity” that many beginners have. It’s not hard to understand why; collector coins fresh from the Mint should look nearly perfect and modern practices in the hobby (like third-party grading and encapsulation) practically demand this perfection.
So why give a relatively dull Morgan dollar the same grade or close to it? Only the cleanest, sharpest, brightest and best will do for some.
On top of that, it’s true that “toning” is the same thing as oxidation and can even be called corrosion if you’re so minded. Many collectors can’t help but see it that way. To them, toning is a sign of poor storage, just one more mark against a coin.
But if you’ve made it past your first collecting slump (it happens to everyone) and find yourself reinvigorated over a new series or a different approach, then you might find yourself preferring coins with some “character”.
Of course, the most spectacularly toned Morgan dollars are the rainbows. Some rainbow toning is beyond belief–and for good reason. When it comes to toning (especially the moneymakers like rainbows), there are plenty of fakes out there. Identifying artificial toning or other such doctoring can get technical, and I’ll get into specifics at a later date. But keep in mind that the colors on a naturally-toned rainbow blend into each other, while artificial toning tends to keep the bands of color separate.
American Silver Eagles can tone up as nicely as Morgan dollars, but since they’re over a hundred years younger and–as far as I know–have never been sealed in canvas bags and stashed away in basement vaults, you don’t see as many on the market. And yes, there are some beautiful fake Silver Eagle rainbow toners out there, too.
One issue with Silver Eagles that you’ll want to watch out for is milk spots. Like the name suggests, these are whitish spots, sometimes even whole areas, on the surface of a silver coin. They aren’t quite “corrosion”, and I definitely wouldn’t call them “toning”, but they can be confused for toning and are a big enough problem on modern silver coinage from all over the world that I thought I should mention them.
To the best of my knowledge, milk spots are a defect created when leftover rinsing fluid (I’ve heard different things about what chemicals are used) remains on a coin during the annealing process. Annealing is when blank planchets are heated to make them a little softer and easier to work with (otherwise known as “ductile”). So when these cleaning chemicals are baked into the surface, milk spots are the result.
But that’s not the worst part. Sometimes, milk spots “develop” over time. PCGS and NGC have both had to deal with the headache of coins graded MS70 and placed in holders that suddenly have major flaws in the form of large white specks. The “spots” were always there, they just weren’t visible yet.
Due diligence and patience are your best investment partners.
On average, Morgans struck well. Of the five mints that produced Morgan dollars, Carson City and San Francisco tend to be the sharpest. Philadelphia tended to strike well enough, and New Orleans tended to strike weakly. One-year-only newcomer Denver, which struck Morgan dollars in the interregnum year of 1921, tended to produce flatter coins–but then all of the issues from 1921 tend towards the softer side because of the low relief dies then in use.
As far as proofs go, many collectors and dealers agree that proofs from 1886-’92 just don’t have the “oomph” of other issues. In 1893, the Mint switched to hydraulic presses for proofs, but somehow the transition caused the year’s Morgans to be among the weakest. 1894 was better.
1895 is the key date for Morgan proofs, with only 880 produced. Sure, fewer were made in 1896, but the mysterious 12,000 business strikes listed in Mint records were apparently never made, so these proofs are the ONLY Morgan dollars from 1895.
Silver Eagles have the benefit of modern minting techniques and tend to strike well. Some mint errors exist that, incidentally, have weak strikes. This doesn’t mean they’re all perfect… they just tend to be.
Also thanks to modern tools and methods, the American Silver Eagle has a number of different finishes, something the Morgan dollar series does not. Besides proof and bullion strikes, the Silver Eagle series also features burnished uncirculated pieces and stunning reverse proofs. Each mint except Denver has tried its hand at the different finishes over time, though only Philadelphia and San Francisco have produced reverse proofs.
The differences between the Morgan dollar and American Silver Eagle series once again come down to intent. They both tone up and can do so in spectacular ways. They both, on a rough average, strike well, though obviously the Silver Eagle has the advantage of ultramodern production facilities. No, the big difference here seems to boil down to marketing. Although, without the Morgan dollar the modern coin market–and the attention lavished on it by mints around the globe–wouldn’t be half of what it is. I believe it’s due to the success of the GSA hoard releases of the 1960s and ‘70s that the Mint would ever begin to mass produce special finishes for special uncirculating coinage in special packaging and special sets. Other than in original GSA holders, Morgan dollars hit the market either raw or in third-party holders.
It seems that once you’ve seen a Silver Eagle, you’ve seen them all. The proofs and other strikes are different, but that’s all. The Morgans at least have several decades worth of toning and in some cases circulation, which give each one a uniqueness. Wonderful essay but I’m left wondering if the reliefs are different. Is the silver eagle generally of a lower and similar relief to pre-1921 morgans? Thanks