for a Morgan Silver Dollar
More than $1 Million for an 1893-S
by Greg Reynolds
When the Norweb
1893-San Francisco Mint dollar was auctioned for
$355,500 in Nov. 1988, collectors were stunned.
Nobody then thought that a Morgan Dollar could
be worth more than a quarter of a million
dollars. Indeed, until the Norweb III auction, a
Morgan Dollar had probably never before sold for
as much as $150,000.
Morgan silver dollars were minted from 1878 to
1904 and, again, in 1921. None of the business
strikes (as opposed to Proofs and other special
strikings) are very rare. Several dates,
however, are extremely rare in MS-65 and higher
grades, the gem quality range.
In April 1997, when Jack Lee bought the
Eliasberg 1889-Carson City (Nevada) Mint dollar
for $462,000, the coin collecting community was
surprised. The 1889-CC Morgan is not nearly as
scarce as the 1893-S, which is clearly the most
elusive business strike Morgan.
The Eliasberg 1889-CC does seem to be the finest
known of this date by a substantial margin. Even
so, a low grade 1889-CC could easily be acquired
for less than one thousand.
In October 2008, a Morgan Dollar broke the
million dollar barrier. It is not the Norweb
1893-S nor is it the Eliasberg 1889-CC.
This 1893-S has been graded MS-67 by the
Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). It was
earlier in the collection of Cornelius Vermuele,
which is possibly pronounced ‘Virr’ and then
‘mule’ like the animal. Much of the Vermuele
collection was auctioned in New York in Nov.
The Vermuele 1893-S realized $414,000 in 2001, a
price substantially less than the $462,000
realized by the Eliasberg 1889-CC more than four
years earlier. Reportedly, the Norweb 1893-S,
long before then, had sold privately for
significantly more than $414,000.
Both the Eliasberg 1889-CC and the Vermuele
1893-S were in Jack Lee’s primary Morgan Dollar
collection. Lee later owned the Norweb 1893-S as
The Jack Lee estate has consigned the Eliasberg
1889-CC to the January 2009 FUN auction to be
held in Orlando. It is plausible that it will
realize more than a million dollars.
On Oct. 14, 2008, Chris Napolitano sold the
Vermuele 1893-S to Laura Sperber of Legend
Numismatics. Napolitano was acting as an agent
for a collector who “likes to buy really neat
coins.” This 1893-S was in a display case at the
table of Napolitano’s firm during the Sept. 2008
Long Beach Coin, Stamp & Collectible Expo in Los
Angeles County. Napolitano declares that the
Vermuele coin “is the best ‘93-S out there”!
On Monday, Oct. 20, Sperber sold the Vermuele
1893-S Morgan for “over one million” dollars.
She adds, “he has been collecting since he was a
kid.” Further, “he has been buying Morgans since
the 1970s.” He has not been actively collecting
other series. This collector “has one of the
most intense passions for Morgans” that Sperber
“has ever seen”!
It was true that the Vermuele 1893-S and the
Norweb 1893-S WERE each graded MS-67 by the
Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS).
Shortly after the Norweb III sale in Nov. 1988,
the PCGS assigned an MS-67 grade to the Norweb
1893-S dollar. More than one PCGS grader then
favored a higher grade. For a significant
portion of the 1990s, Jay Parrino owned the
Sperber declares that the “Norweb 1893-S WAS the
FINEST” (emphasis hers). I agree. I have seen
both the Norweb and Vermuele 1893-S dollars, and
they were both terrific coins when I saw them.
In my view, the grade of the Vermuele coin is a
low-end to mid range MS-67 while the grade of
the Norweb 1893-S WAS certainly above the
midpoint of the 67-grade range. I have not seen
it in 2008.
It helps to keep in mind that grading standards
for Morgan Dollars are a little looser than
standards for other 19th century silver coins,
in part because Morgans typically accumulated
numerous bagmarks and other contact marks.
Morgans frequently banged against each other
before they left the respective mint that
produced them, and banged against each other at
later times while residing in bags of one
thousand. As silver dollars are heavy coins, the
wrappings of rolls would often tear as bags were
thrown into and out of vaults. In many cases,
Morgans were stored just loose in bags, thus not
wrapped in rolls, and were tossed around when
they were periodically counted or at least
The Norweb 1893-S has no significant contact
marks, which is amazing, and the Vermuele 1893-S
has an extremely small number of minor marks.
There are, of course, several factors involved
in computing a coin’s grade in addition to the
number, severity, placement and scope of contact
The quality of a coin’s surfaces is a concept
that is analytically distinct from contact
marks. Not long ago, the Norweb 1893-S was
removed from its holder and ‘conserved.’ The
‘conservation’ process probably involved
dipping, though the details of this conservation
process have not been revealed to the coin
Earlier in 2008, the owner of the Norweb 1893-S
consigned it to a major auction and it did not
sell. The reserve might have been unreasonable.
In any event, I would not put any blame on the
auction firm for this coin’s failure to sell.
The dramatic change in appearance of this coin
may have been a factor.
The images on the auction firm’s website
demonstrate that the Norweb 1893-S looked much
different in early 2008 than it did in years
past. Indeed, it is almost unrecognizable.
The Norweb 1893-S HAD neat rich, milky russet
and gray natural toning. (Published photographs
never even approximated the true colors of the
Norweb 1893-S, as it was.) It HAD never been
cleaned or dipped. The toning, which was thick
in some parts, covered a large percentage of the
coin. It now looks like it has been dipped or
otherwise chemically treated. Dipping involves
briefly immersing a coin in an acidic solution,
usually with the idea of dissolving microscopic
layers off the coin’s surface and thus making it
More than half of all uncirculated Morgan
Dollars have been dipped at one time or another.
Some Morgans have been dipped more than a dozen
times. Dipping solutions vary in terms of both
strength and chemical makeup. There is a
tremendous difference between a coin being
dipped in a weak solution, with a standard
acidic mix, and a coin being dipped in very
strong solution with relatively more potent mix
A crucial aspect of light or heavy dipping is
that risk is involved. Every coin has particles
on it that landed from the atmosphere or
traveled onto the coin from storage containers.
Some of these particles are natural, some are
manmade, and many come about through very slow
chemical reactions on the coin. Natural toning
gradually develops when coins are properly
stored. Particles other than those attributable
to toning will be present as well. Consider
pollution and microbes. Also, while Morgan
dollars and most other U.S. silver coins are
APPROXIMATELY 90% silver and 10% copper, they
are not precisely so. Traces of other metals
find their way into the alloys and ‘pop in’
during the minting process.
There are, therefore, a variety of particles on
the surfaces of most coins. Most of these cannot
be seen without a microscope, and are thus
Typically, the surfaces of a never dipped or
cleaned coin are very much stable. If the coin
is stored properly, the surfaces will only
change very gradually over years, decades or
centuries. The effectively invisible particles
on original coins are rarely problematic, unless
they are aggravated.
In many cases, those who dip coins fail to
fulfill their own objectives; there are
unintended (often unsightly) byproducts of
dipping. “Dipping is a crapshoot,” declares
Sperber, “as you do not know what is underneath
When a coin is dipped in an acidic solution or
is subjected to some other kind of chemical
treatment, chemical reactions occur, many of
which are unpredictable. Some reactions occur
right away and others occur over hours, days or
weeks. Conservation is dangerous.
Some silver coins that have been dipped in the
past will naturally re-tone in a pleasant,
appealing manner. Natural re-toning, though, is
often distinct from true natural toning.
Admittedly, for many coins, it is hard (or
almost impossible) to tell whether toning is
completely original or is natural re-toning
after a dipping long ago. (Artificial toning is
a different matter.) IF the Norweb 1893-S
naturally re-tones in an appealing manner, such
toning may require many years to develop.
Most dipped silver coins, however, do not
naturally re-tone in a great way. For many
dipped coins, gradual re-toning tends to be
unsightly, or even disgusting. Therefore, a
silver coin that is dipped once may find itself
being dipped five to fifteen times in the
future. Sooner or later, a repeatedly dipped
coin may become almost totally fried, but such
frying can occur over decades or even a century,
or it can occur in seconds in a potent solution.
In some cases, a coin will receive a higher
grade from the PCGS or the NGC after dipping,
and, in other cases, it will receive a lower
grade. My guess, and my hope, is that most rare
coins are far more likely to receive a lower
grade than a higher grade, after being dipped.
It is true, though, that silver coins with dark
or heavily mottled toning will often receive
higher grades after dipping.
Now that it has been dipped and/or otherwise
changed, the Norweb 1893-S will never again have
the original look and terrific toning that it
used to possess. Sperber explains, “after it was
treated, the coin exhibited some loss of luster”
and “all the beautiful toning” was “stripped
Undoubtedly, there are some collectors who like
the Norweb 1893-S more the way it is now in 2008
than before. Individual tastes and preferences
vary and will always play a role in the
collecting process. I honestly believe, however,
that my opinions on the merits of originality
are consistent with those of most (not nearly
all) experts and are consistent with central
traditions of coin collecting in the U.S. There
were amazingly large numbers of original rare
coins in the Garrett, Norweb, Pittman and
Eliasberg collections, and auction bidding was
usually (not always) most intense for the coins
in these collections that had original surfaces
and natural toning.
The Norweb 1893-S dollar is now in a NGC holder
with an MS-67 grade. In addition to Sperber,
however, at least three experts who saw it,
after it was ‘conserved,’ indicated that they no
longer grade it as MS-67. Two of these three are
among the sharpest graders in the coin business,
and they declined to be named in this context.
There are likely to be some collectors who
prefer the Norweb 1893-S to the Vermuele 1893-S.
Grading opinions will never be unanimous.
As of late October, the PCGS Population report
still listed two 1893-S dollars as having been
graded MS-67, even though the Norweb 1893-S has
been in an NGC holder for most or all of this
year. The PCGS insert that once resided in the
(since deliberately ‘cracked’) PCGS holder that
housed the Norweb 1893-S is believed to be
outstanding. The owner of the Norweb 1893-S
would not have anything to gain, and possibly
something to lose, by returning it to the PCGS.
The insert proves that the Norweb 1893-S was
graded MS-67 by the PCGS. Reliable sources
indicate, however, that, in 2008, PCGS officials
refused to put the Norweb 1893-S back in a PCGS
holder (with an MS-67 grade) and the PCGS
population report will be adjusted to indicate
that only one 1893-S is currently PCGS graded
MS-67. A top ranking PCGS official has yet to
respond to my inquiry on this topic.
If a coin has been graded 67 by the PCGS in the
past, it is not necessarily true that it will be
graded 67 by the PCGS in the present. Even a
coin that has never been dipped or otherwise
conserved may receive a lower grade in the
present than it did in the past. There are
issues relating to coin grading that are not
totally explainable. It is often best for
collectors to seek the counsel of experts before
spending substantial sums on coins.
For years, there was a consensus among most
experts that the Norweb 1893-S WAS the finest
1893-S and the Vermuele coin was the second
finest. No others really came close. The
Eliasberg 1893-S is PCGS graded MS-65, and its
grade is not far from MS-66. The Amon Carter
1893-S is a nice MS-65 grade Morgan, or it was
the last time that I saw it. One to three other
true gem 1893-S dollars exist.
Even when the Norweb 1893-S was the finest
known, I very much liked the Vermuele 1893-S.
The multi-colored natural toning is extremely
cool, and there is just no way to accurately and
fully describe it. Shades of orange-russet,
red-russet, yellow, and various green hues, plus
other colors, came about in a really neat
manner. The underlying, completely original,
crisp luster sparkles through and around the
toning. The reverse (back of the coin) is
Indeed, for the rest of my life, I will remember
the first time that I saw the reverse of the
Vermuele 1893-S, and I am not a Morgan
super-enthusiast. It is the most exceptional
reverse of a key date Morgan dollar that I have