By Rob Lehmann
In order to fully appreciate and understand the rarity of the 1893-97 New Orleans Morgan Dollars, one must first review the history of this period.
The Depression of 1893 was one of the worst in American history, with unemployment exceeding 10%. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that the economic contraction began in January 1893 and continued until June 1894. The economy grew until December 1895, but was then hit by a second recession that lasted until June 1897. The depression had been blamed on the deflation dating back to the Civil War, the gold standard and poor monetary policy. The economy was the subject of great debate in the political arena. While campaigning for president in 1896, Williams Jennings Bryan made his famous proclamation, “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.” The issue was whether to endorse the free coinage of silver at a ratio of silver to gold of 16 to 1.
The overall production of all branches of the U.S. Mint dwindled during this period, and most would-be collectors opted for spending their coins in lieu of saving them. These factors were responsible for creating several numismatic rarities, amongst them the New Orleans minted Morgan Dollars from 1893 to 1897.
Since the circumstances and details differ for each year of production, we will examine these New Orleans dollars on a case-by-case basis, starting with the 1893-O.
1893-O Morgan Dollar
With 300,000 coins struck, the 1893-O Morgan Dollar has the lowest mintage of any New Orleans minted Morgan Dollar, and is the 5th lowest overall mintage for the series. Scarce in circulated grades, it becomes very scarce in uncirculated condition and downright rare in gem uncirculated condition. The average uncirculated 1893-O can vary from flatly struck to well struck but seldom is fully struck, especially on the obverse. The luster ranges from indifferent to acceptable. Surface abrasions and bag marks tend to be a major problem. Although some small hoards of this date have surfaced, no original rolls have been reported. In prooflike, the 1893-O is very rare. Examples usually have little contrast between fields and devices and can be poorly struck. Perhaps the New Orleans Mint favored polishing worn-out dies in lieu of replacing them. Three obverse dies and two reverse dies were responsible for striking the entire mintage. The PCGS and NGC combined population for specimens graded MS-60 or higher is approximately 1250 pieces, with only 108 pieces graded MS-64, 11 graded MS-65 and a single coin graded MS-66. The PCGS and NGC combined prooflike population is a paltry 39 pieces. Deep mirror prooflikes are rarer yet, with only 21 pieces graded by both services. Two of the most remarkable 1893-O dollars known are the Amon Carter/Jack Lee specimen graded MS-65 DMPL by PCGS and the Eliasberg specimen graded MS-66PL by NGC. It should be noted that neither coin is fully struck over Liberty’s ear. Suffice to say, a fully struck, prooflike 1893-O would be a great find, if such a coin even exists. Greysheet currently values MS-60 specimens @ $1800.00 bid, a level at which this author believes is a bargain. MS-63 graded pieces jump to $5500.00 bid, MS-64’s bid at $13,500.00 with MS-65’s bidding at $155,000.00. For the collector trying to assemble a high quality Morgan set on a budget, a premium quality MS-64 specimen would present the best value, even if it meant paying a significant premium over the current bid levels. Greysheet bids for MS-63 to MS-65 DMPL examples range between $8,000.00 and $160,000.00, a very small premium over the regular mint state prices. I think it would be all but impossible to lure a DMPL specimen into the marketplace at these optimistic numbers. To illustrate this, the aforementioned Jack Lee coin traded privately several years ago, for in excess of $250,000.00. Although Wayne Miller stated that investors should avoid this date, I believe that this trend has changed. The 1893-O Morgan, at current levels, represents an excellent value, especially when compared to its much more common (and almost equally expensive) CC counterpart.
1894-O Morgan Dollar
Overall, the 1894-O is the most available of all 1894 dated dollars. Relatively common in lower grades, the majority of 1894-O dollars were released into circulation. It is probable that most surviving uncirculated coins were melted during the Pittman Act, as very few original bags have ever surfaced. Consequently, the 1894-O is a conditional rarity in any grade of mint state, and particularly so in the choice and gem grades. The greatest attribute of mint state 1894-O dollars is their luster. Rich, cartwheel luster is more the norm than the exception. The biggest problem with this date is the strike. In 30+ years of dealing in Morgan Dollars, I have never seen a fully struck 1894-O. In fact, it may be the single most difficult Morgan date to locate with a full strike. This is why so few pieces are graded MS-65. In fact, between PCGS and NGC there are a mere 13 pieces graded at this level, with none finer. At the current Greysheet MS-65 bid of $40,000.00, this date seems seriously undervalued. A recent PCGS MS-65 specimen sold at the F.U.N. 2008 Bowers sale for $48,300.00. The coin showed a light fingerprint in the left obverse field, and like most other 1894-O dollars, was flatly struck. In its defense, the luster and surfaces were both outstanding. But this probably is as good as it gets for an 1894-O. I am of the firm belief that if 1880-S grading standards were applied to this date, there would be no coins graded above MS-64. In prooflike, the 1894-O is very scarce. Most of these coins are dull and rather ugly in appearance. The luster tends to be gray and chrome-like rather than the outstanding luster normally found. The 1894-O is virtually unknown in deep mirror prooflike, and conditionally, is one of the major rarities in the Morgan Dollar series. From an investment standpoint, I believe that a certified MS-60 piece at the current CDN bid of $430.00 is one of the best affordable Morgan Dollar dates to salt away. According to the PCGS/NGC population reports there are a combined total of 893 1894-O dollars graded between MS-60 and MS-62. Despite this, trying to find more than 1 or 2 pieces at a major coin show can prove to be a real challenge.
1895-O Morgan Dollar
With a mintage of only 450,000, the 1895-O Morgan is a semi-key date. Like most of the other New Orleans dates discussed here, the majority of these pieces were released into circulation. Any 1895-O dollar is scarce, although circulated examples are hardly rare. In mint state, the 1895-O is the third rarest Morgan Dollar, eclipsed only by the 1892-S and 1893-S. I have never heard of an original roll of uncirculated 1895-O dollars, let alone an original bag. Whatever small quantities of this date that may have existed in high-grade, probably met their demise in the melting pots of the Pittman Act. The typical 1895-O is softly struck and will have very subdued luster. Bag marks and other surface abrasions are the norm. Only 3 obverse dies and 2 reverse dies are known. Extended die life could help explain the poor quality of most mint state survivors. Although any uncirculated 1895-O is a rarity, MS-63 and above pieces are extremely rare with a total of only 64 coins graded by PCGS and NGC combined. Out of this number, only 6 coins have merited a MS-65 grade, with 2 MS-66’s and a lone MS-67. The PCGS MS-67 piece is the ex-George Bodway/Jack Lee coin and is spectacular in every regard. This piece has thick satiny luster with a virtually full strike and pristine surface preservation. It is unlike any other 1895-O Morgan that I have seen. Quality control was simply not a priority at the New Orleans Mint in 1895, especially in the middle of a depression. A prooflike 1895-O Morgan is very rare, with few examples graded at either PCGS or NGC. There is a small group of DMPL 1895-O’s that have been labeled both Proof and Specimen by NGC. They are very different from the normal 1895-O dollar. Fully struck, these pieces also have partially squared rims and deep watery fields. Some collectors believe that these coins were struck with a special purpose, although most stop short of calling them proofs. Despite semantics, these are some of the most attractive of all known 1895-O Morgan Dollars. Locating one, let alone affording one, may prove difficult. At the current CDN bid of $13,700.00, MS-60 graded specimens seem properly valued. However, at the current $42,000.00 CDN bid, MS-63 examples still represent good value. A gem MS-65 piece has not recently traded. When one does, I predict that the current CDN bid of $160,000.00 will be yesterday’s news. Despite their current high prices, all mint state 1895-O Morgan Dollars should prove to be prudent acquisitions for the collector with holding power.
1896-O Morgan Dollar
With a mintage of 4,900,000 pieces, the 1896-O can hardly be considered scarce. Every time that our firm purchases a circulated group of silver dollars, it is littered with 1896-O’s. So then, what’s the big deal about this date? In five words I will sum it up-Uncirculated coins were NOT saved. Conditionally, the 1896-O is a rarity. As a date, it is not. CDN illustrates this point, as XF pieces bid at only $16.25, whereas MS-60 pieces bid at $1075.00, or a multiplier of 67 times. As one moves up the grading scale, 1896-O dollars become more and more elusive. This date is a rarity in MS-64, with only 32 pieces graded between PCGS and NGC. In MS-65, the 1896-O is one of the rarest of all Morgan Dollars. To quote Wayne Miller, “No other Morgan Dollar is consistently deficient in luster, strike and degree of surface abrasions as the 1896-O.” My observation is that the majority of uncirculated 1896-O Morgan Dollars look like sliders. This is usually due to their drab, lifeless luster. I can think of no other date, 1901 included, that has worse luster than an 1896-O. Strike and surface abrasions are also major problems with this date. But, I believe either or both could be overlooked if this date possessed more vibrant luster. By far the finest 1896-O Morgan I have encountered was the Jack Lee coin graded MS-66 by PCGS. This piece had nice satiny luster with a good strike and absolutely pristine surfaces. Although many high-grade 1896-O dollars have shown up in treasury bags, most of these pieces are sliders by today’s standards. I have never seen, or heard of, an original, uncirculated bag of 1896-O dollars. Most of this date was released into circulation. If any quantity of mint state pieces survived, they probably met their demise in the Pittman melt of 1918. Prooflikes are very rare and deep mirror prooflikes are extremely rare. When encountered, they are unattractive with grey brilliant surfaces and flat-matte devices with little or no contrast. What has always held the price of this date back is its lack of appeal. With such a high mintage and so few attractive survivors, all but the most ardent collectors have steered clear of 1896-O Morgans.
1897-O Morgan Dollar
1897-O concludes the rare run of mid-90’s O Mint Morgans. Similar to the 1896-O in many regards, the 1897-O had an ample mintage with few nice survivors. Like its predecessor, the 1897-O is very common in circulated grades but gets conditionally rare in MS-60 and above. The typical mint state 1897-O dollar will have a below average to average strike, soft satiny luster and an abundance of surface abrasions. Most mint state survivors tend to grade MS-60 through MS-62. In MS-63, the 1897-O becomes fairly scarce, as evidenced by the current CDN bid of $3550.00. MS-64 pieces are rarer yet, with PCGS and NGC grading a combined total of only 51 coins. At the current CDN bid of $12,600.00, these MS-64 pieces seem undervalued. Although GEMS are very rare, a few really super pieces are known. Amongst the finest are the Jack Lee coin and the Eliasberg coin, although the latter has a curious circular mark in the right field of the reverse. Both coins have intense satiny luster with good strikes and pristine surfaces. Another gem graded MS-66 by PCGS from the 5/06 Superior sale boasted an outstanding satiny sheen with beautiful peripheral toning and equally superb eye appeal. This likely is the same piece that Miller described in his Morgan and Peace Dollar Textbook as “by far, the finest known”. Prooflike and DMPL 1897-O dollars are very rare, although not quite to the extent of the 1896-O. They tend to be grey brilliant prooflikes with little or no contrast between the fields and devices. An extremely attractive example graded MS-64 DMPL by PCGS exists. However, this coin has not made an appearance in over a decade. In today’s market, this piece would probably sell at multiples of the current greysheet bid of $30,000.00. As unattractive as the typical 1897-O dollar is, the few eye appealing specimens that occasionally surface excite both collectors and their checkbook to levels far exceeding any published price guides.
Perhaps no other anomaly in the Morgan Dollar series is as intriguing as the 1893 through 1897 New Orleans minted coins. Speculation is that most of these coins were initially ignored by collectors. The depression further compounded the survival rate, as only well-healed collectors could afford to save coins. And then of course, many silver dollars were melted during the Pittman Act.
With the advent of the internet and information sharing at an all-time high, it is only a matter of time before these dates are all fully understood and appreciated for their true rarity. After all, they are cornerstones in the Morgan Dollar series, which remains one of the most popular in American numismatics.