Coin collecting has been called the hobby of kings, and it can certainly be very expensive. Not every coin collector is a king or millionaire, however, and still the hobby remains a rewarding pursuit. This article is the first in a new series meant for collectors who might not have a large budget, but would nonetheless like to get the most out of this fascinating pastime.
Each article will focus on a specific American coin series and suggest coins that can be purchased for less than $100 with relative ease. We’ll also make recommendations for those times you want to splurge and spend a little bit more. This first article will focus on one of the most popular coins in all of American numismatics: the Morgan silver dollar, struck from 1878 to 1904, and again in 1921.
Carson City Silver Dollar
Carson City, the capital of Nevada, is a city that does not need an introduction for most coin collectors. Located in the western part of the state, close to the Sierra Nevada mountain range, it saw the establishment of its own mint in 1870, following the discovery of large silver deposits known as the Comstock Lode. Coins were produced there until 1893 (with a few years’ hiatus from 1886 to 1888), with a focus on making the larger denominations of silver and gold coins, including Morgan silver dollars.
Carson City Morgan dollars hold a special place in American numismatics. Their history is linked to that of the Wild West, and many collectors hope to add one to their collection as a special memento recalling the outlaws of that time and place. While Carson City mintages were generally smaller than issues from mints like Philadelphia and San Francisco, several dates are surprisingly common in circulated grades. A nice, problem-free VG/Fine would make a wholesome addition to any collection, and would only cost $80-$90 from a reputable coin dealer.
Spend a little more: Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Carson City Morgan silver dollars were never released for circulation and had not been unearthed from government safes until the 1970s, when the General Services Administration sold them through a mail bid system. Specifically packed in plastic cases, these are known as GSA dollars, and most are nice Uncirculated coins. Initially marketed as “the coins Jesse James never got!” these remain relatively affordable, and an uncirculated 1884-CC GSA dollar (as well as several other dates) can be purchased for less than $200.
MS-64 Type Coin
Collecting by type is very popular, and the Morgan silver dollar is an ideal type coin for beginning collectors. There are quite a few dates that are affordable in many grades, and less than $100 per coin would buy you a nice assortment of different dates and mints in MS-64 condition, certified by PCGS or NGC. If you were to purchase just a single issue of this popular type at this grade-level, my suggestion would be to purchase one of the early San Francisco issues, such as the 1880-S or 1881-S. These often came from freshly struck dies, and many have semi-Proof-like surfaces, making for a very appealing coin.
Spend a little more: MS-65 graded examples of the aforementioned early San Francisco dates can easily be found; they tend to hold their value very well and are also very popular. A PCGS graded MS-65 1881-S Morgan silver dollar has a PCGS Priceguide value of $165, and it’s not too difficult to purchase one at that level.
First Year of Issue
Morgan silver dollars were first struck in 1878, and production in that first year was quite substantial at the Philadelphia, Carson City, and San Francisco Mints. For collectors on a budget, there are several options available that represent the first year of issue. The Philadelphia Mint started production first, and it was there that several interesting reverse varieties were struck.
George T. Morgan’s initial design had an eagle with 8 tail feathers, and the first coins struck had this particular reverse design until someone pointed out that the American Eagle always has an odd number of tail feathers. Several reverse dies were altered to reflect the correct number of feathers, and these are known as the 7/8 Tail Feathers variety. Later reverse dies reflected 7 Tail Feathers, and this number would become standard on Morgan silver dollars struck from then on.
The earliest 8 Tail Feathers is a scarce variety, especially in the higher grades. $100 would buy an XF/AU. The 7/8 Tail Feathers variety is very popular with collectors, who prefer pieces struck from dies that have as many of the original feathers showing as possible. A 1878 7/8 Tail Feathers Morgan silver dollar in AU+ would sell for about $100, and is a feasible goal for many collectors on a budget. Finally, a 7 Tail Feathers 1878 Morgan silver dollar is the easiest to acquire, with a lower-end Uncirculated example costing around $100.
Spend a little more: The 1878-CC Morgan silver dollar is obviously a very popular coin, but plenty of examples can be found on the market at any given time. With some searching, a nice XF/AU can be found for about $150 and would be a coin that has a lot going for it.
20th Century New Orleans Morgan Silver Dollar
New Orleans, Louisiana in the early 20th century was a city with a unique mix of cultures, people, and strong French character. The United States Mint had opened a branch in the city in 1838, but it closed at the onset of the American Civil War, not to be reopened until 1879. By then Morgan silver dollars had come into circulation, and the New Orleans Mint produced a healthy output of them. Holding a silver dollar struck in New Orleans at the dawn of the 20th century can feel like being transported back in time to a unique period in the history of that vibrant city.
For collectors wishing to acquire such a coin there are several options. The 1900-O and 1901-O silver dollars can be acquired for less than $100 in choice Uncirculated condition, as can the 1902-O. The 1903-O is a different story, as it’s a semi key-date and more expensive, but the 1904-O is the most interesting coin of the bunch.
Despite having a lower mintage than the 1903-O (by about a 25%), the 1904-O is priced at the same level as the 1901-O and 1902-O silver dollars. The reason for this is that the 1903-O appears to have been melted at a relatively large scale, and most coins on today’s market did not appear until they were released in the 1960s, when as much as several hundred thousand Uncirculated coins came to the numismatic market. As a result of this, the 1904-O is a great story coin for the collector on a budget. It is also the last New Orleans silver dollar, as the denomination would not be struck again until 1921, by which time the New Orleans Mint had closed.
Spend a little more: There is one very interesting variety of the 1900-O silver dollar, which used one of several reverse dies originally intended for the Carson City Mint after it closed in 1893. Known as the 1900-O/CC, the Carson City mintmark is still visible on many examples below the New Orleans mintmark. While lower grades can be found for less than $100 with relative ease, a choice XF for about $150 would be a great option, as those coins retain much detail and often have a very clear overpunched mintmark that can be seen with relatively low (5x) magnification.