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Philadelphia Morgans Offer Solid Entry Point
By Mark Benvenuto

The Morgan silver dollar, minted from 1878-1904, then again in 1921, may be the single most collectible coin or coin series in the United States today. It certainly remains a collector favorite, one that is easy to spot at large shows, and one that no dealer seems to be without.

An aficionado today can only wonder if designer George T. Morgan had any inkling when creating his design that he was making an image that would be world famous a century after its unveiling.

But it’s hard to believe anyone could, at the beginning, have thought of how popular and well known this image of Liberty would ultimately become. Today the Morgan dollar stands not only as a longtime collector favorite, but also as a staple among the collector/investors, as well as a mainstay item among bullion traders.

The series has some fantastic rarities and plenty of common dates and mintmarks. It also has plenty of dealer and collector activity wrapped around the slight differences in strike that make a coin Mint State-64 or -65, or even one of those hard-to-reach MS-66 gems.

There is plenty of lore associated with the Morgan dollars of the short-lived Carson City Mint and plenty of collector desire for coins marked with the San Francisco “S.” But even with all that there remains plenty of room in the series for the collector of limited means. For a primer on the Morgan dollars that generally weigh in with the lowest price tags, let’s concentrate on those without any mintmark at all—Philadelphia Morgans.

It was 1878 when the Bland-Allison Act was passed by Congress—over the veto of President Hayes—requiring the Mint to utilize a certain amount of silver each year and coin silver dollars.

Philadelphia wasn’t far from the center of the debate and decision, and that year the mint in the City of Brotherly Love did a masterful job of pounding out the new Morgan silver dollars. There are more than 10 million to that particular annual tally, although that massive total is split among five varieties, varieties mostly relating to the number of tail feathers on the eagle that dominates the reverse. Most of the different varieties do not carry a premium, and you can land one in a lower mint-state grade for about $100 (or a circulated specimen for as low as $30).

But if you are a newcomer to the series, there’s nothing wrong with ignoring the whole variety issue and just picking up a single 1878 of any variety. The eight tail feathers vs. seven tail feathers difference can wait until later.

A 10-million mintage makes most of us think that the 1878 Morgan dollars are common items, but when compared to the 14.8 million from Philadelphia in 1879—and the fact that there are no real varieties on record for that year—one might want to reconsider. Because of that rather massive mintage, the 1879 can be purchased for about $50 in MS-62. Examples of the date that show some wear can even be purchased at or near the price of bullion. Certainly, $30 can go a long way with this particular date.

The 1880 and 1881 Morgans are also easy-to-get dates within the series, although the 1881-S is an example where a branch mint out produced the main facility. Yes, the 1881-S is actually a bit more common, with 12.7 million against the 1881 at a “trifling” 9.1 million. It’s not really a matter of concern, as both are common enough that the prices I just mentioned for the 1879 are the same here for mintmarked and unmarked versions.

From 1881-1889 the volumes of Morgan dollars churned out by the Philadelphia Mint continue on a pretty steady upward climb, peaking at just over 21.7 million in 1889. Much has been written about the melting of Morgan silver dollars, and other silver, when the prices of gold and silver climb on the commodities markets. It would appear, though, that a total like 21.7 million is proof as well as padding against these coins becoming rare, or even scarce, no matter how many melts have occurred.

The 1882-1889 Philadelphia Morgan dollars remain wonderfully inexpensive. You’ll find that $100 goes a long way when it comes to landing one in mint state. And those low prices in turn mean these big coins are going to be pretty easy to add to any growing collection of the basic Morgan dollars.

Although it took about a decade for the Morgan dollars of Philadelphia to reach the stratospheric heights of more than 20 million coins in a year, it only took four more years for the mintages to plunge back below 1 million. And the drop didn’t stop at the 1 million mark. From 1890, when Philadelphia saw 16.8 million dollars produced, to the famous rarity that is the 880 proofs minted in 1895, there are three years in which the average collector won’t be able to get his or her hands on any Philadelphia piece without parting with some serious cash.

The 1892, with just over 1 million coins to its tally, is the final year that can be considered common before the three tough years. The 1890, 1891, and 1892 are all pretty reasonably priced, although the 1892 does command something of a premium when it gets into mint-state grades. The 1893, with only 378,000 coins posted as its sum, will cost a few hundred dollars, even in grades such as Very Good or Fine. The 1894 is even less common and thus starts out in the low thousands for an example down in VG or F. And the 1895 is the stuff of legends.

Before going further, why did these three years post such low mintages, especially after such a river of silver dollars had come out of all the mints for years? It wasn’t just a Philadelphia phenomenon, as the Carson City, San Francisco, and New Orleans mints also had pretty low totals during this time (only the 1894-O and -S rose above 1 million coins). No, it would appear the Mint had reached a saturation point concerning silver dollars.

There was already more than a decade of high mintages. Most of the silver was coming from mines in the Comstock Lode, which meant it was easier to coin it in the West. Plus, there may simply have not been the necessary demand from the local banks or the population for so many large silver coins. All that adds up to a few dates with some high prices, at least for collectors.

Even though the 1895 will reign supreme as the toughest of the tough when it comes to Morgan silver dollars from the Philadelphia, let’s take a quick look at these 880 proofs (there are some rumors of circulation strikes but none have ever appeared for sale). Some price guides do actually give numbers for these in a grade as low as G-4. If you reflect on it for a moment, that’s got to be a proof that saw some serious mishandling over the past century. Even that strange grade, though, catalogs at $17,000.

When one of the more cared for of these proofs does cross the auction block, it tends to hammer down as a six-figure sale. So, unless you have enough money to buy another house just sitting around, the chances are slim that an 1895 can be added to the collection.

The Morgan silver dollar series did see almost a decade of coins beyond those rare 1895s. The next three years saw multi-million coin totals on the East coast, making the 1896-1898 Morgans pretty common coins. Once again, arming yourself with a $100 bill will put you in good stead as far as a mint-state piece goes. In addition, the lower circulated grades are once again very near the price of silver as a commodity.

In 1899 a mere 330,000 Morgan dollars were produced at Philadelphia, while the branch mint in New Orleans put its “O” mintmark on 12.29 million, and the Granite Lady in San Francisco added 2.56 million more coins with the “S” mintmark. It makes 1899 a common year for Morgan dollars but not for Morgans from Philadelphia.

Curiously, these dollars are just about as common as those of 1893 (one of the scarce years I mentioned), but oddly they cost a bit less. They still run in the hundreds of dollars for a mint-state sample, but at least they aren’t up there in the thousands.

From 1900-1904, the Morgan dollars again went well over 1 million coins per year from the main mint, although they never again reached the screamingly high heights of those earlier years. The 1904 is the lowest of these, with 2.78 million to its ledger, and the 1900 comes in at the top with 8.83 million.

They’re healthy numbers and the prices today reflect that. Actually, a person could make the argument that if you were on a limited budget, it might be wise to buy these Philadelphia Morgans before the more common 1879, 1880, or 1881 pieces, since they are less common and they cost virtually the same amount. Their mintages are high enough that they probably can’t be considered sleepers, but it’s always neat to get your hands on a coin with the lower overall total.

The Morgan dollar series was put to bed in 1904 but returned for one more year in 1921. It’s easy to get one from Philadelphia today, as there were 44.69 million produced. Both the Denver and the San Francisco 1921s are also common, and all three can easily be found in mint-state grades.

I’ve noted that several of the common Morgan dollars from Philadelphia are quite available for the person who wants to spend $100 per coin in mint state. But one of the amazing aspects of this series is that you can shoot a bit below the mint-state range and still get beautiful coins.

For little more than the price of silver you can find numerous Morgan silver dollars, most of them in grades such as Extremely Fine or About Uncirculated. It won’t take too much time or money to make a date run if you choose to stay in this price range.

The Morgan dollars of Carson City or of San Francisco still have the lore of the Old West attached to them. But for anyone who has passed Morgan dollars by in the past, whether for fear of high prices or any other reason, starting off with the basics can be an eye opener. There are great looking dollars from the Philadelphia Mint sitting quietly in some dealer’s stock, just waiting for a discerning eye and a new collector. Why not be that collector? Give the Morgan dollar basics a try.


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