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Building a Morgan Short Set
By Mark Benvenuto, Coins Magazine
April 03, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The current news concerning U.S. dollar coins always seems to be a matter of whether or not golden dollars will be produced, will circulate, or will be missed if they do not circulate. It was a different game a century ago, when Morgan dollars had been the unit coin of the day. Issued from 1878-1904, and then again in one massive issue during 1921, these silver dollars saw much more use in some parts of the country than in others. Indeed, some saw virtually no use, being minted, bagged, and plunked into bank vaults for decades.

This rather odd treatment leads to some interesting collecting possibilities. A short set - meaning a collection of the common-date coins, or perhaps even the coins from just one mint - can be an interesting grouping to assemble.

Common Dates

In any series there will be common-date coins, as well as those that are scarce or rare. It seems obvious that for a series to be collectible, most of the dates and mintmarks need to be common. The Morgan dollar series certainly meets that criterion, with tens of millions of coins produced right at the get go.

Like many U.S. coin series, the Morgan dollar came roaring out of the gate that first year, and also like many U.S. coin series, there were a couple of varieties associated with that first date. If you’d like to delve into the world of eight tail feathers vs. seven tail feathers, or even eight feathers over seven feathers, the 1878 is a coin for you.

While the 1878 is a rather common Morgan dollar, excluding the more scarce varieties, the 1879 is the first Morgan dollar that really sets the bar for downright amazingly common. Issued from four mints, the main facility in Philadelphia and the branches in New Orleans, Carson City and San Francisco, there are an enormous number of 1879s from which to choose. The Philadelphia Mint hammered out just over 14.8 million of them. That number means that they will probably remain very common, perhaps past the next ice age.

Now, an examination of the price guide in Coins will quickly show you that the price differences in an 1879 from grades such as Very Good-8 to the lower end of mint state are trivial. They start not much higher than the melt price of silver. So, by all means, buy the higher end coin, as its look and grade will make it worth the extra expenditure.

But here is where each of us has to make a decision regarding any short set we build: What level of mint state can we afford? If you intend to keep your spending ceiling at $10 or $20, Morgan dollars will always be out of your price range. But if you are willing to part with $100 per coin, there are quite a few within this series that will be of interest.

As we look into Morgan dollars, let’s keep in mind just how deep the level of detail has been in how they have been graded, and that this has been going on since the freewheeling days of the 1980s. Back then, the price of gold had spiked, the price of silver went soaring up with it, and plenty of folks with money to invest, but without a wealth of detailed information concerning numismatics, wanted in on the game.

The answer to this demand was the invention of the third-party grading services and the numeric code for grading. No longer were Morgan silver dollars simply “uncirculated” or “brilliant uncirculated.” No, there were now MS-60 and MS-65 coins. Then came the slight differences, such as MS-62, MS-64 and MS-67. Now it is at least theoretically possible to find a Morgan dollar of a particular date in any grade from MS-60 (an uncirculated, but not a mark-free coin) to MS-70 (a perfect coin to the naked eye).

As these minor differences of grade were determined, the two coin series that were generally used as models for these delineations were the Walking Liberty half dollars and the Morgan dollars. And with these minor differences in grade came some major differences in price.

These price differences bring us back to our short set of Morgan dollars and what most of us want also to consider as affordable. I just commented that the difference in price for the 1879 was quite small as we ascended from VG-8 to MS-60. Well, it’s not too big a jump from MS-60 to MS-64, either. The price rises from about $50 at that lower end to about $150 at the higher.

Admittedly, this is more than the $100 mark I just mentioned, but not a lot (one step down, the MS-63 is well under $100). However, the jump from MS-64 to MS-65 takes us almost up to the four-figure price range. Yes, that one extra grading point means the cost jumps almost to $1,000. For those of us on some kind of budget, it’s time to stop and think.

Now that we’ve established both a reasonable price for a single mint-state Morgan dollar and seen the complexity of the grading system within mint state, we should probably look at what Morgan dollars do indeed qualify as common. It’s tempting to look at the mintages that were posted each year and simply claim that the high totals should equate to low prices (and thus be far from that $1,000 price I just noted). But here’s the rub: High mintages don’t equal high numbers of Morgans in a specific grade of mint state.

For example, the 1884-O posts just over 9.7 million as its mintage and a price a bit below $100 in MS-64. The 1884-S admittedly has “only” 3.2 million as its total, but in MS-64 it currently is pegged to a $110,000 price tag.

What gives? Well, the first answer to this is that mintages are no longer the marker to use when determining rarity among the Morgan dollars. All those coins that were submitted to the third-party grading services were logged in and recorded. That’s how most of us, collector and investor alike, really tell the difference between MS-63 and MS-64, or between MS-64 and MS-65 (where the real money lies).

Thus, it’s probably wiser to take a look at the population reports of the major third-party grading services. They will not be perfect, as many coins have been broken out of their “slabs” and resubmitted in the hope of getting the higher grade for the submitted coin. But they are still a generally good indicator of a slabbed coin’s scarcity.

The second answer might be: based on the number of times silver has risen in price since Morgan dollars were produced, and the number of coins that have been melted, those mintages do not reflect the number surviving and in what grade. Maybe the 1884-S dollars ended up in the melting pot in greater numbers than its 1884-O siblings, or maybe there simply were not as many 1884-S pieces that were struck up as well as those coins from the other mints. Or maybe they all made it out into circulation.

Whatever the case may be, the most frugal way to determine what Morgan dollars will end up in any short set is to go line by line through a price list, and find those with low prices next to them. I’ve saved you a bit of trouble, and have made a list of all the Morgans that come in very near $100 or less in the grade of MS-64.

They are: the 1879, 1880, 1880-S, 1881 1881-S, 1882, 1882-S, 1883, 1883-O, 1884 1884-O, 1885, 1885-O, 1886, 1887, 1888, 1888-O, 1889, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1899-O, 1900, 1900-O, 1901-O, 1902-O, 1903, 1904-O and the 1921.

Here we have 29 dollars spanning from the second year of issue, right up to the end, each of which remains pretty affordable in MS-64. Some of them have significantly lower mintages than others, but according to a recent perusal of Coins, all of them will cost $100 or less in MS-64. In other words, they are good coins with good price tags.

Desired Mintmarks

Notice that in my list I have not been able to include a single Carson City mintmark on any of the less expensive Morgans. It’s a hard and grim fact, but if there is a mintmark more coveted by today’s collectors than the S of San Francisco it has to be the tiny CC of the relatively short-lived branch mint at Carson City, Nev. Assuredly, there were a few years in which plenty of silver dollars came out of Carson City. That very first year for the Morgan dollars, 1878, saw more than 2.2 million of them minted with the CC on the reverse. But the price today is at least a few hundred dollars, if you want to stay in the mint-state range.

This last comment brings up an excellent point. I’ve been talking about assembling a short set in the mid-range of mint state, simply because the price is right and the coins are usually very attractive. But how low are you willing to go, if it means adding a CC mintmark to this collection? Coins are not automatically ugly if they are in grades such as Very Fine-20 or Fine-12. But in those grades we don’t think of them as being either rare or particularly desirable. Yet when it becomes a matter of adding a highly desired mintmark, moving down the ladder to a higher circulated grade might just be the answer.

Ridiculous Rarities

Like almost all big series, Morgan dollars have a few insanely expensive rarities. There are quite a few overdates, and there is the proof-only issue of 1895. There are also a couple, like the 1893-S and the 1894, that simply have a low mintage. These will never be affordable, and never just be laying there under the glass at some dealer’s table, even at a big show. These are the coins of auctions and dreams and we’ll just have to leave them off our list of affordable pieces that could go into any short set.

Ending the Short Set

The dates and mintmarks I’ve tabulated can serve as a wonderful short set of Morgan dollars all by themselves. But every person knows their collecting tastes and desires better than anyone else. What starts out as a short set could turn into a much bigger passion (and collection) for the ever-desired Morgan dollars.

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