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Famed GSA Dollars
By Mike Thorne

Can you believe it's been more than 35 years since the first of the great General Services Administration sales of silver dollars began in 1972? Of course, if you're younger than 50 or so, then you probably know of the sales only through reading about them.

For me and the thousands of other bidders in the sales, it was the chance of a lifetime, although we didn't realize it at the time. We were taking part in one of the signal events in the history of coin collecting in America - the dispersal of one of the greatest hoards of all time.

Technically, it was merely the continuation of the hoard's dispersal, as the Treasury had been doling out its massive stockpile of silver dollars to interested parties for years before the GSA sales. However, in the early 1960s, this depletion accelerated enormously.

According to Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis's Comprehensive Catalogue and Encyclopedia of U.S. Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars, "The Treasury holdings of silver dollars in Washington, D.C. dwindled from 180 million in January 1960 to 28 million on January 1, 1964." Rumors of older Morgan dollars being released in addition to the more common Peace type resulted in a further run on the Treasury, which responded by calling a halt to sales on March 26, 1964.

An inventory of the remaining silver dollars revealed that nearly 3 million of them were uncirculated Carson City dollars, with considerable numismatic value. The question then became: How could these scarce and valuable coins be distributed equitably?

The Joint Committee on the Coinage decided that the answer was to hold a series of mail bid sales. Of course, like everything else that involves the government, the sales didn't begin right away.

In fact, they didn't start for another eight years. First, President Nixon authorized the GSA to sell the coins. Next, Congress approved funds for the GSA to develop the program needed to actually put them on the market.

To begin with, the coins needed to be inspected and sorted, brochures advertising the sale had to be designed and printed, documentary movies had to be produced and shown on television, and so on. All this took time, and it wasn't until the end of 1971 that the GSA actually took physical possession of the massive hoard of dollars.

How massive, you ask? Well, the "2.9 million dollars weighing 77 tons were transferred from the Treasury vaults in Washington, D.C. to the U.S. Bullion Depository at West Point, New York, where the various inspection and packaging operations were to be carried out. Seven, heavily guarded semi-trailer trucks were used to haul the valuable cargo and by January 1972, all dollars were at West Point."

Can you imagine the labor involved in physically sorting nearly 3 million dollars? Assuming that it would take you three seconds to look at the obverse and reverse of a silver dollar and put it into the correct pile, the time for this task works out to 2,416.67 hours, or 100.69 24-hour days. And nobody works 24-hour days, so a more realistic figure is 302 8-hour days. And that's not including time for bathroom breaks or any other breaks.

Fortunately, the sorting wasn't done by just one individual. In fact, there were "six white-gloved women with four to five supervisors."

According to Van Allen and Mallis, each coin was first separated by date and mintmark. Within each date-mintmark category, coins were further divided into uncirculated pieces, possibly uncirculated but toned or slightly scratched specimens, and errors (e.g., off-center, filled dies) or rejects (e.g., badly scratched or gouged). Fortunately, the GSA took the advice of several coin collectors and didn't clean the tarnished pieces.

When all the coins were sorted, GSA was left with five categories: "(1) uncirculated CC, (2) mixed CC, (3) mixed uncirculated (of other mints), (4) mixed circulated, and (5) unsaleable (due to severe gouges or badly worn)." Coins in the first three categories were placed in sealed plastic cases GSA holders. The mixed circulated coins were individually sealed in plastic envelopes at the Philadelphia Mint.

As it developed, coins in some of these categories turned out to be incredible bargains. To be more precise, some of the coins were incredible bargains at the time. In retrospect, all of the CC dollars sold in the GSA sales were bargains if people paid the minimum bid prices for them. According to articles I read during the sales, some of the bidders who weren't familiar with coin values bid astronomical amounts for relatively common dates.

Of course, a number of the CC dates that were quite scarce before the GSA sales became relatively common afterward. The reason for this is that for several of the dates, the GSA holdings constituted a substantial portion of the original mintage.

For example, of the 1,136,000 1884-CC dollars originally struck, the GSA had 962,638 of them, or almost 85 percent! The GSA hoard also contained 50 percent or more of the 1881-CC, 1882-CC, 1883-CC, and 1885-CC dollars, with more than 22 percent of the 1880-CCs.

Five GSA sales were held between October 1972 and June 1974, with an additional two sales to dispose of the remainder of the coins in 1980. According to a table in Van Allen and Mallis, the minimum bids for each of the date categories (these were coins deemed by GSA to be uncirculated and to have no problems) were as follows: 1878-CC, $15; 1879-CC, $300; 1880-CC, 1881-CC, and 1885-CC, $60 each; 1882-CC, 1883-CC, 1884-CC, 1890-CC, and 1891-CC, $30 each. There was only one each of the 1889-CC, 1892-CC, and 1893-CC dates, so these weren't offered with minimum bids. Instead, they were put into the Mixed CC category and sold in the 1980 sales. According to William E. Spears, writing in John Highfill's Comprehensive U.S. Silver Dollar Encyclopedia, "There is no confirmation that the single 1889-CC, 1892-CC, and 1893-CC coins delivered in the 1980 GSA sales have ever surfaced again."

Besides the individual date categories, there were three additional groupings: Mixed CC, which were the coins that GSA thought were too tarnished or marked to be sold in the date categories; Mixed Unc., which weren't CC dollars; and Mixed Circ., which obviously weren't considered uncirculated. The minimum bids for these three categories were $15, $5, and $3, respectively.

By the time I decided to bid in a GSA sale, I had read that the Mixed CC category was the one to bid on, as it contained many coins that, contrary to what the GSA sorters thought, were actually more valuable because of their toning than less valuable. And with a $20 minimum bid (the price had gone up for the 1980 sales), how could you go wrong?

Also, in the sale in which I bid, a sort of sweepstakes was in place, as not all of the offers submitted were honored. Assuming that humans would be used to select the orders to fill, I thought it would be worthwhile to try to make the envelopes in which I submitted bids as distinctive as possible. I even asked my eight-year-old daughter to use her creativity to decorate them.

By this time, I had convinced a colleague of mine to place several orders of his own, and together we sent out our bids, mine in quite colorful envelopes. As it turned out, we "hit" on about half of our bids; that is, we got the coins we bid on about half the time. I have no evidence that my "colorful" envelopes fared any better than his plain ones.

As you would expect, almost all of the coins we received were 1882-CC, 1883-CC, and 1884-CC dollars, which, as I recall, were packaged in blue outer wrappers. When I opened the boxes containing the coins I had "won," I quickly noticed that one was in a white outer wrapper. This turned out to be an 1881-CC, one of the better dates.

With such sizable percentages of many of the dates dumped on the market, many people had predicted that the result would be a dramatic drop in the value of dates such as 1882-CC, 1883-CC, and 1884-CC. In fact, just the opposite occurred, and values actually went up.

Soon after my colleague and I received our coins, I began to see dealers offering to buy all of the GSA CC dollars, and the amounts they were willing to pay were significantly more than our $20 bids. As a result, he decided to sell all of the coins he had received, and I decided to sell all but two of mine.

The coins I kept were the 1881-CC, which I thought was a low mint-state grade, and an 1883-CC that was rather nicely toned on one side and also virtually mark free. A few years after the sales, I submitted the 1883-CC to ANACS, which was still affiliated with the American Numismatic Association. ANACS graded each side of the coin separately and sent a certificate with a photograph of each side.

According to ANACS, my 1883-CC was an Mint State-63 on both sides. At the time, I thought the coin had been severely undergraded, but I just put it back in the lock box and forgot about it.

In January 2003, Numismatic Guaranty Corp. began grading dollars in their original GSA holders without removing the coin from the holder. As NGC Grading Finalizer John Maben put it:

"The GSA dollars have long been a favorite item of collectors. Many feel the GSA holder itself adds a certain romance to owning them and makes the coins more desirable and collectable. In rendering a grading opinion without removing the coin from its holder we manage to satisfy both those who like the original holder and those who want an NGC grading opinion. In talking to various dealers and collectors we believe there will be high demand for this unique service, even though the coins are not in NGC holders and therefore not guaranteed by NGC."

NGC gives the same information about the CC dollar that it would normally supply, but the information and grade appear on a label wrapped around the GSA holder. A tamper-proof seal is also placed on the holder to discourage its opening.

A couple of years ago, I decided to have my two remaining GSA dollars, still in their original holders, graded by NGC. I sent them in and after what seemed like an interminable wait, they were returned.

The 1881-CC, instead of grading MS-61 or -62, the grades I had mentally assigned to it, now has an NGC label that says it is an MS-64. In this grade, the 1881-CC has a current wholesale value of about $460. Not bad for my $20 investment.

The 1883-CC turned out to be a somewhat better coin than ANACS had thought. NGC's assigned grade is MS-66 Prooflike! As to what it is worth in this grade, the Coin Dealer Newsletter assigns the 1883-CC Morgan a value of $350 in MS-65 PL and $640 in MS-66. Consulting Heritage Auction Galleries' archives, I found that in the most recent sales, similar coins (NGC-graded MS-66 PLs) have sold for around $1,000. Again, this is a nice return on my $20 investment.

I did receive one additional coin from the GSA sales that I have not mentioned. Apparently, I bid on the $3 category of Mixed Circulated dollars hoping to get a coin worth considerably more. Actually, the coin I received was overpriced at $3: It was a 1922 Peace dollar with so little detail that I would be hard-pressed to grade it Fair-2.

I've seen lots of Morgan and Peace dollars in my 50+ years of collecting, but this was absolutely, hands-down, the worst. Speculating about how it got into such a worn state, I suspect that it was once someone's pocket piece, a coin that the owner rubbed daily until he died. His heirs, perhaps recognizing that the coin had no numismatic value, cashed it in at their bank, and from there it made it into storage along with millions of other silver dollars.

Of course, the big question is why the piece got into the mixed circulated category rather than into the unsaleable group. I can't imagine a coin being more badly worn than the dollar I received.

Needless to say, I did not submit the coin to a certification service. Instead, I put it up for auction at a meeting of a local coin club, where it brought around $4, as I recall.

In retrospect, I wish that I had kept the piece as a souvenir of the GSA sale in which I participated. Fortunately, I did keep two of the dollars I received from the sale, as I've indicated above. Those, and my sketchy memories, are all I have left of a momentous event that was both fun and generally profitable for all involved. Lest you think that only collectors benefitted, according to Spears, "The nearly 3 million coins realized over $94,000,000 in sales." Can you imagine what the same coins would bring today?

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