An Experts Guide to Collecting Morgan Dollars
By Hannes Tulving
All Rights Reserved
Reprinted with permission from Coins Magazine
By all accounts, Morgan dollars are the most popular collector coin in the world. Recently, the WALL STREET JOURNAL estimated that there was upwards of 20 million coin collector/investors active in the United States. Of those, I would venture to say that most have a sizable number of Morgan dollars among their holdings.
Morgan dollars are popular among U.S. collectors and investors for many reasons. The first is that of sheer volume. Between 1878 and 1921, approximately 657,870,000 Morgan dollars were struck by the U.S. Treasury’s mints in Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, Denver and Carson City. Of those dollars actually produced, it is estimated that some 13,268,000, and 20 percent of the original mintages, survive to this day in uncirculated condition. This number is far larger than that of any numismatic coin on the market.
The second reason for the popularity of Morgan dollars is affordability. Current wholesale prices for properly graded Morgans range from a low of around $16 for common date MS-60s to between $1,000 to $4,000 for most MS-65 Prooflikes. Many Morgans in the MS-61 to MS-63 range can be picked up for between $50 and $300 at the wholesale level.
The third reason is support literature. More books have been written about silver dollars than any other coin type. Morgans are listed prominently in every major wholesale price guide. Anyone interested in learning about these coins have a wealth of sources from which to choose.
Last and certainly not least is price performance. Although appreciation is not the first priority of the true coin collector, in today’s profit-driven coin market, the investment potential of one’s collection cannot be ignored. And here Morgans hold a substantial edge over most competitors. Since the mid-1950’s prices for mint-state Morgan dollars have been on a virtually steady uphill climb. Annual appreciation rates of 15 to 25 percent are common for Morgans that were properly priced and graded at their time of purchase. No other U.S. coin can match the long-term profitability and stability of the Morgan silver dollar.
A 14-Year Love Affair with Morgans
I personally have enjoyed a love affair with Morgan dollars that dates back all the way to 1976. That was the year I began my professional career as a rare coin investment advisor under the tutelage of two of America’s leading rare coin experts, John Love and Wayne Miller. Not coincidentally, both of these gentlemen shared one particular area of expertise: silver dollars. These two men loved silver dollars and taught me to appreciate them as well for their exceptional beauty, unique historical significance and tremendous numismatic potential.
For almost six years, Morgans and, to a lesser extent, their successors, peace dollars, were the only coins sold by my rare coin invest firm. During this period I strongly believed that silver dollars were the only coins that could offer investors both high returns and a minimal risk on their capital investment. My guidance proved sound. Between 1976 and 1983, a period when the broad market experienced massive gains followed by an equally massive crash, silver dollars – due principally to their enormous collector appeal – not only held their values, but actually continued to appreciate significantly.
Today, with the conservative investment market having expanded to include numerous coins other than silver dollars, Morgans still make up the backbone of my company’s investment strategy. All of my firm’s more than 4,300 portfolios contain a sizable proportion of Morgans in grades MS-61 all the way through MS-65 Prooflike. In many cases, silver dollars represent 50 percent or more of the coins contained in a client’s portfolio. And all for the same reasons I discussed earlier.
From the standpoint of an investor or a collector, no single coin has more appeal or significance than the Morgan silver dollar.
The History of the Morgan
In point of fact, the Morgan dollar was not originally called the Morgan at all. It was called the “Bland” dollar, not due to any criticism of its design, but for Missouri Representative Richard Bland, co-sponsor of the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, which lead to the coin’s creation. This Act provided for a minimum monthly coinage of two million pieces and established silver dollar at its current weight.
The coin with its famous Liberty head obverse and spread-winged eagle reverse was designed by its current namesake, George T. Morgan. Morgan was born in Birmingham, England in 1845. A talented artist, he attended several prominent British art academies, including the Royal Mint in London, before emigrating to the United States in 1876, where he was immediately hired as an Assistant Engraver at the U.S. Mint. He was appointed Chief Engraver in 1917, succeeding Charles Barber, and continued to work at the Mint designing coins, commemoratives and medallions until his death at age 80 in 1925.
It was shortly after his hiring that Morgan was assigned the enviable task of designing America’s new silver dollar. The first “Morgan” dollars were struck in 1878 at the Treasury’s mints in Philadelphia and San Francisco, and at the Department’s then-brand new facility in Carson City, Nevada. Total mintages that year were approximately 22,495,950 and included reverses with both the eight tail-feather (8TF) and seven tail-feather (7TF) variations, the latter becoming the standard for all the following years.
In addition to having two subtly different reverse patterns in its first year, the Morgan dollar is also notable for being the first U.S. coin to contain its engraver’s initial on its face, a tradition that has continued ever since. The tiny “M” for Morgan can be found directly below Liberty’s head.
Morgan dollars were struck continuously in various amounts between 1878 and 1904. It was then briefly resurrected in 1921, only to be supplanted that same year by the new “Peace” dollar.
The Morgan dollar enjoyed the largest mintage of any American coin. It remains the number-one coin for collectors and investors alike.
Knowledge is Power
If you are about to seriously embark on a quest to collect Morgan dollars, a word of advice. Today’s market is primarily investor-driven. The modern coin show is no longer the friendly gathering of hobbyists it may have been a decade or more ago. Today’s coin conventions are more akin to the pits of Wall Street or the Chicago Board of Trade where professional sharks jockey mercilessly for prime material at highly competitive prices. It has been said that in today’s market, the novice doesn’t stand a chance against the insiders who do this for a living. And I have to agree. It is very, very hard for the non-professional to find properly graded coins at a decent price. However, if you are intent on giving it a try, just remember: “Knowledge is power.”
There’s a famous adage in sports that states that games aren’t won on the day they’re played; they’re won long before, on the practice field. A screenwriter friend of mine often quotes Hollywood’s variation of this axiom, which says a film is either a hit or a flop the moment the first frame of film goes through the camera. Both maxims illustrate the same point: success is a function of preparation. The harder you prepare, practice, study and rehearse, the stronger and more able you will be when it comes time to put those skills to work. In no field is this more relevant than numismatics. The people who succeed are those who’ve done their homework, who have studied the market closely and who have a credible expertise in the coins with which they’ve chosen to deal. Those who are less prepared inevitably become just one more statistic on the market’s list of countless casualties.
As a primer to the collecting Morgans, I would suggest the excellent Morgan & peace Dollar Textbook by the aforementioned Wayne R. Miller. This four-color volume offers invaluable information to the Morgan collector, be he a novice or seasoned expert. Miller takes first a broad look at these coins in general, then goes into a detailed date-by-date analysis of each date. The Miller book also includes spectacular color photo representatives of each date and mint-mark variation from the legendary collection he eventually sold in 1984 and two years later was liquidated piecemeal at auction for a then-record $814,056 (including a 10 percent Buyer’s Premium).
When I was first learning to buy and sell silver dollars during the late 1970’s, I literally had the Miller book with me everywhere I went. It proved to be an invaluable tool in my quest for quality. Although values have certainly changed greatly since those bygone days, the information and analyses contained in this book can still serve as an excellent foundation for any Morgan dollar collector.
I would also highly recommend subscribing to a variety of numismatic publications for timely information on the current market as well as the occasional in-depth article on your coin of interest. Certainly Coins regularly offers wonderful articles on Morgans as well as other coins in language geared to the collector. Coin World and Numismatic News also can be very helpful in keeping up with market trends and finding out about coins shows and conventions in your area.
Going to coin shoes of various sizes in various locations can prove to be an education in itself. For the beginner, a coin show sponsored by a local or regional organization in your area is a good way to get your feet wet. They tend to be friendly and not particularly intimidating. When you’re ready to graduate to the Big Leagues, there are the three yearly Long Beach shows for residents of the West Coast, the January F.U.N. show for those on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, and the annual National Silver Dollar Convention in St. Louis for those inhabiting America’s Heartland. And then, of course, there is the Granddaddy of them all, the American Numismatic Association’s annual convention, which is usually held in late July or early August and whose locations changes from year to year.
The major Conventions can be confusing and intimidating to the uninitiated, so be prepared. At the same time, they can often be a source of coins that are unavailable at any other event, so learning to “work the bourse” is an essential skill for any serious collector.
Before you begin collecting Morgans, it’s best to develop some kind of buying strategy. Be specific. Don’t make a mad grab for any Morgan dollar that comes along. First, decide if you’re going to collect circulated or uncirculated specimens. If you want your collection to grow in value, I would strongly recommend uncirculated (mint-state) coins, specifically those graded MS-61 or above. (MS-60’s, the lowest mint-state grade, tend to be overly sensitive to fluctuations in the bullion market and are thus more appropriate for “hard money” enthusiasts than numismatists.)
It is ultimately your financial wherewithal that will determine what grade of Morgan dollar you can collect. For example, a coin in may wholesale for $50 in MS-61 and $1,000 in MS-65. While the MS-65 is obviously the more desirable coin, can you afford to buy regularly in this price range? Some people can. Most cannot. Once your grade is established, it’s then useful to concentrate on specific mintages. For example, collect just “S” mint coins or “O” mint coins. Many people enjoy collecting “CC” coins. Carson City dates do tend to be more expensive than comparable mintmarks, but their Old West heritage has a strong emotional appeal that many people find irresistible.
As your knowledge and resources grow over the years, you can always expand your collection to include other dates and mintmarks. The point is to keep your collection focused. Otherwise you may be doomed to years of frustration and failure.
Consider Working with Professional
A much easier and ultimately safer way to buy Morgans, whether it be for collection or investment purposes, is to work with a professional numismatist. Professional coin dealers are able to deal effectively in what has essentially become an “insider’s market.” They can help locate the coins you need at prices that will probably be less than what you can negotiate yourself. The service charge and/or commission professionals levy on top of wholesale values are usually more than worth it in terms of the quality and value of coins received.
Before selecting a dealer with whom to work, proper due diligence is required. First, determine whether or not this person is a specialist in the coins you want to buy, in this case, Morgan silver dollars. Is this person recommended by other dealers? Is he frequently quoted in the numismatic press and asked to contribute articles? And does he work directly with collectors? Many larger companies cater only to investors and will not fill specific requests for the collection-minded client. Obviously, if building a collection is your top priority, it’s critical to find someone who is willing to work with you.
Other questions to ask are:
- Is he a member of the prestigious Professional Numismatics Guild (PNG)?
- Is he a member of the Industry Council for Tangible Assets (ICTA), and has he been accredited by that organization’s Coin and Bullion Dealer Accreditation Program (CABDAP)?
- Is he a member of the National Silver Dollar Roundtable?
Finally, is this a person you feel comfortable with? Someone with whom you can communicate? Someone who understands your needs and is willing to accommodate them?
There are literally hundreds of dealers who are even now ready to do business with you, but probably only a few dozen who are really qualified to do the kind of expert job a true collector requires. Finding one of these individuals may prove to be a long, arduous and sometimes frustrating task. But the rewards will be more than worth it. As millions of Morgan dollar collector/investors can already testify, collecting these uniquely American coins can be one of the most exciting and ultimately profitable experiences you can enjoy.