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Record Price 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. 2001.

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 well.

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 Norweb 1893-S.

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 inspected.

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 marks.

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 collecting community.

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 brighter.

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 of chemicals.

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 effectively invisible.

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 the toning.”

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 off”!

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 especially enticing.

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 ever seen.


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