The 1878 (Reverse of 1879) Morgan Dollar
By Randy Campbell
As a group, the Morgan Silver Dollars of 1878 struck at the Philadelphia mint constitute quite a challenge for the collector or the investor. A primary concern is developing the knowledge necessary to recognize the four major 1878-P categories. They are: the 1878 with 8 tail feathers on the eagle; the 1878 with a 7 tail feather reverse superimposed over the 8 tail feather design; the 1878, 7 tail feathers, with so-called “flat breast” or second reverse (usually called the reverse of 1878) and, finally, the 1878, 7 tail feather, with the so-called “round breast” or third reverse (usually called the reverse of 1879). Within these four major categories there are at least 116 known die varieties, some extremely rare (and valuable) and some obscure and insignificant.
Of these four major categories, the one that will be the focus of this article is the 1878 with the reverse of 1879. It is certainly the least known and least understood of the 1878 dollars. Some of the early books on dollars, such as Jim Osbon’s Silver Dollar Encyclopedia, added to the confusion by claiming that both of the 7 tail feather reverses are common and that, in addition, both are common in Prooflike (an assertion that has proven to be far wide of the mark). The early editions of Les and Sue Fox’s Silver Dollar Fortune-Telling didn’t even mention these two different reverse in their date by date analysis. And the U.S. mint, for its part, added to the confusion by failing to keep separate mintage figures for the two different 7 tail feather reverses. So, as a consequence, most dollar collectors in the 1960’s and early ‘70’s lumped them together without any consideration for the reverse of 1878 or the reverse or 1879.
This state of confusion and ignorance began to change when, in 1976, Wayne Miller’s An Analysis of Morgan and Peace Dollars was published. In this book, Miller discussed all of the major categories of 1878 dollars, including the reverse of 1879. His book, which was very well received by the collecting fraternity, fostered greater knowledge and greater DEMAND for certain underrated issues. By the end of the ‘70’s, many beginning collectors knew what dollar insiders had known for a long time. They knew that the 1878 (reverse of 1879) dollar was an elusive issue in high grade.
HOW TO RECOGNIZE THE REVERSE OF 1879
The easiest way to tell the difference between these two 7 tail feather reverses is to study carefully the arrow feathers on the reverse of the coin. The reverse of 1878 (so named because most dollars struck in 1878 feature this reverse) features a top arrow feather which is parallel to the other arrow feathers. In the case of the scarcer reverse of 1879, the top arrow feather IS SLANTED at about a 25 degree angle from the other arrow feathers. The accompanying photographs illustrate this major difference between these reverses.
SCAN PHOTO HERE.
Another major difference centers on the breast feather design. For the reverse of 1878, the breast feathers are not as clearly articulated. The eagle’s rib cage has a scrawny, almost concave, appearance. By contrast, the scarcer reverse of 1879 features a more robust breast feather design. The eagle’s breast feathers are more clearly articulated, giving it a more convex and aesthetically pleasing appearance. This difference in the breast feather design led to the so-called “flat breast” designation for the scrawny reverse of 1878, and a “round breast
designation for the more robust reverse of 1879. Got it?
Mastering this difference between the reverse of 1878 and the reverse of 1879 is important, not only for the 1878-P dollar, but also for two other dates. In the case of the 1879-S, the reverse of 1878 is dozens of times scarcer than the reverse of 1879. Likewise, in the case of the 1880-CC dollar, the reverse of 1878 is many times scarcer. Many dealers are still totally unaware of these major design differences. Thus it is still possible to “cherry pick” one of the scarcer varieties for the price of the more common variety. Scholarship has its rewards, right?
HOW SCARCE IS THE 1878 REVERSE OF 1879?
As stated earlier, the mint failed to keep separate mintage figures for the two different reverses of the 1878-P 7 tail feathers Morgan Dollar. However, we do know that for all four major styles of 1878-P dollars, a total of just over 10.5 million coins were struck. To date, at least 116 different die varieties have been identified by Van Allen and Mallis in their Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of U.S. Morgan Peace Dollars (1976), and their subsequent yearly updates from 1977 to 1984. Of these 116 varieties, 14 (or roughly 12 percent) have the reverse of 1879. If you multiply 10.5 million coins by 12 percent, you come up with an estimated mintage of 1.26 million for the 1878, reverse of 1879. Allowing for variance in die life, it is still probable that the true mintage is somewhere in the 1 million to 2 million range.
Mintage figures aside, one wonders how many of these reverse of ’79 dollars have survived the ravages of time. We have no reliable estimate concerning the exact number of surviving circulated specimens (XF’s currently trade for about $15-$20). However, for uncirculated specimens, we do have the population reports from the 3 major grading services to draw upon.
THE MINT STATE 1878 (REVERSE OF 1879) MORGAN DOLLR
MS-63: An examination of recent population reports from the major grading agencies (May 15, 1991, from ANACS; May, 1991, from NGC; June, 1991 from PCGS) indicated that the 1878 (Rev. of ’79) dollar is a surprisingly scarce item in MS-63. This conclusion becomes apparent when one compares this issue with some other dates from the era.
COMBINED POPULATION 6/7/91
DATE IN MS-63 PCGS BID
1878 (Rev. ’79) 593 $100
1879-0 1,071 226
1880-0 726 376
1880-CC 1,535 130
1881-CC 2,079 135
Clearly, on a price/rarity basis, the 1878 (Rev. of ’79) is by far the best buy in MS-63 from this group. And how many of you would have guessed that this date is scarcer than the much celebrated 1880-0?
Other factors, such as popularity and eye appeal, contribute to the price of a given coin. And there’s no doubt that the 1880-CC and 1881-CC are more popular than the 1878 (Rev. of ’79). Yet, when you compare the population and bid prices of the MS-63 1881-CC and the 1878 (Rev. of ’79), you have to wonder, “is this date underrated?”
MS-64: It’s much the same story in MS-64 where the 1878 (Rev. of ’79) dollar has the twin advantages of a low population and a relatively low price.
COMBINED POPULATION 6/7/91
DATE IN MS-64 PCGS BID
1878 (Rev. ’79) 385 $385
1879-0 506 590
1880-0 292 1,000
1880-CC 1,464 192
1881-CC 2,565 210
Note here that the two Carson City issues with vastly higher populations are priced at more appropriate bid levels. And, speaking of vastly higher populations, readers may be interested to compare the 1878 (Rev. of ’79) census in MS-64 (385 coins) with the census of the Ms-64 1881-S (over 40,000 coins)!
A more interesting comparison evolves when we take a close look at the 1878 (Rev. of ’79) and the 1879-0. In MS-64 (as in the case in MS-63) the 1878 issue is both substantially scarcer and substantially cheaper than the 1879-0!
MS-65: The Great Coin Market Crash has claimed many victims, including this date. At the height of 1989 bull market, the 1878 (Rev. of ’79) was bid at $6,000 in MS-65. Currently, it is bid at only $2,150, a drop of over 60 percent in two years! To some, this represents a catastrophe. To others, today’s much lower prices represent an opportunity to own a truly scarce coin at more reasonable price levels. Morgan Dollar series in Gem MS-65 condition. To date, the three major grading services have certified only 48 examples in this grade. By contrast, the MS-65 1879-0, with a combined population of 67 coins, is bid at $4,200, or about twice the price of “our baby.” When better date Morgan Dollars come back in favor, one can expect the Gem 1878 (Rev. or ’79) to join the charge to higher bid levels.
MS-66: None, zero, zip, zilch! As of this writing, the 1878 (Rev. of ’79) is one of just a handful of dates for which no specimens have been graded higher than MS-65 by any of the major services. One might expect that this would put more price pressure on the small census of MS-66 specimens. If and when the first MS-66 examples surfaces, this writer believes that the current theoretical bid of $3,150 will be shattered when the coin change hands. However, that day may never come because in my many years experience as a collector, dealer, and professional grader for ANACS, I have never seen a superb example of this issue.
THE PROOFLIKE 1878 (REV. OF ’79) MORGAN DOLLAR
MS-63 and MS-64 Prooflike: ANACS, NGC and PCGS have certified a total of 44 examples of this date in MS-63 Prooflike (current bid=$235). A paltry 17 specimens have been slabbed MS-64 P-L (bid=$700). This comes as no surprise to silver dollar veterans who, for many years, have held this date in high esteem in prooflike condition. To the best of my knowledge, no hoards of this date have surfaced during the intervening years that would alter the consensus opinion. Indeed, as the years go by, this is one date whose status continues to rise as researchers continue to learn more and more about the relative rarity of the scarcer dates in this series.
MS-65 Prooflike: Only 2 examples of this date have been certified MS-65 Prooflike (both by PCGS). None have been graded higher. The word “rarity” is sometimes overused. In this case it seems most appropriate. The current bid of $3,000 must be regarded as theoretical for a coin of such proven rarity in this grade.
THE DEEP MIRROR PROOFLIKE 1878 (REV. OF ’79) MORGAN DOLLAR
MS-63 and MS-64 DMPL: It is a characteristic of this date that most of the Prooflike examples evidence mirrors with medium reflectivity. Strictly Deep Mirror Prooflikes, with at least 4 to 6 inches of clear reflectivity on both sides of the coin, are, flat-out, RARE! The three major grading services have certified just 21 MS-63 Deep Mirror P-L’s (bid=$500) and a mere 8 specimens have been slabbed MS-64 DMPL. At anywhere near the current $1,150 bid, this writer would heartily recommend purchase of an MS-64 DMPL of this date.
MS-65 DMPL: Two specimens have been certified MS-65 DMPL (none higher). Should either one of them ever appear for sale, the current theoretical bid of $4,850 would be smashed to smithereens by those competing for the right to own one of the more important condition rarities in the Morgan series. Despite current bid levels, a selling price in excess of $10,000 would come as no surprise to me.
With deference to Rodney Dangerfield, it is my view that certain dates in the Morgan Dollar series “don’t get no respect!” The 1878 (Rev. of 1879) is one of these.
No doubt this lack of respect is due, in larger part, to the multitude of categories and varieties one associates with the Morgan Dollars of 1878 struck at the Philadelphia mint. Beginning collectors express confusion about exactly what constitutes that 8 feathers, the 7 over 8 feathers, the reverse of ’78, the reverse of ’79, etc., etc. “I don’t understand all that jazz,” a collector once told me. “I’d rather buy an 1878-CC,” he said. “That’s something I CAN understand,” he concluded.
Fortunately, today’s beginning collector has a few well written and easily understood books on this subject. The previously mentioned books by Miller and Van Allen-Mallis are the best. Study them. Learn to appreciate this date for what it really is.
Those collectors who take the time to study and understand the dollars of 1878 will reap the benefits of getting more enjoyment out of their hobby and, perhaps, more profits, too! For the collector working on a small budget, I’d recommend purchase of a pleasing MS-63 example of the 1878 (Rev. of 1879) dollar at a fair increment above the current $100 bid. MS-63 Prooflikes (bid=$235) are also worthy of consideration.
Those with more money to spend may want to consider both the MS-64 (now bid at $385) of the MS-64 Deep Mirror Prooflike (which will certainly cost you more than the listed bid of $1,150). Even given the status of the current coin market recession, purchase of either of these last two selections seems like a risk worth taking for those who buy with an eye toward relative scarcity and favorable price/rarity ratios.
Of course I’d like to recommend both the MS-65 P-L (two graded) and the Ms-65 DMPL (also only two graded) at anywhere near current levels. But we all know there aren’t any Santa Clauses out there. Or, are there?