Coin Economics 101 & The Cost of Money

-A personal perspective, By Rob Lehmann

Business college taught me about traditional models. I gained insight into how various businesses ran. I learned that the snapshot of success or failure is usually disclosed by examining their finances. The nuts and bolts of any business can often be dissected by disseminating a P & L statement, balance sheet and associated ledgers. I also learned that a traditional inventory-based business sells durable goods at keystone or double cost (100% mark-up) and perishable goods at double or triple keystone (200-300% mark-up). In ordinary terms, this means that a shirt that cost a retailer $10, gets sold for a minimum of $20. A piece of fruit that cost a grocer $1, gets sold for $3-$4. Let’s now apply this simplified model to my business, The Reeded Edge. By definition, I am a wholesale-retail business. Ignoring the wholesale facet for a second, this means that in a traditional retail business model, a coin that cost me $100 needs to sell for a minimum of $200, a 100% mark-up or a 50% gross profit margin (GPM = the percentage of total revenue that becomes profit).  The problem arises in the word traditional. There is NOTHING traditional about the rare coin business. In fact, we defy tradition at almost every turn. Let’s go back to the example of the coin that cost me $100. On average, I sell this hypothetical coin for $115, $120-$125 if I’m lucky. This mark-up (or lack of) miffed my accountant. He told me that it was impossible for a business of my nature to sustain with this model. He and I had that conversation 31 years ago! How then, does my non-traditional business do it? To simplify the answer, I will address two extremely important concepts: inventory turns and cost of money. As we will see, this is a symbiotic relationship, meaning one factor impacts the other. First, let’s look at inventory turns. An inventory turn can be simply defined as my annual sales divided by the value of my inventory. For example, If I sell five million dollars worth of rare coins in a calendar year and my average inventory is valued at one million dollars, in this instance I would have 5 inventory turns per year. In actuality, the target number I need to hit is 6.5. Without micromanaging, this can easily be monitored by keeping a handle on my inventory levels and staying cognisant of my sales figures. Let’s look at the second factor or my cost of money. This is a bit more abstract, meaning that its harder to measure or quantify. If I maintain 6.5 inventory turns per year, then every $1.00 spent on coins, without any profit factored in, has yielded me $6.50 at the end of the year. Now let’s apply my non-traditional mark-up of 15% and see what happens.  My one million dollar inventory yields me $6.5 million dollars of annual sales multiplied by 15% or an additional $975,000 of profit. In this hypothetical example, I now have profit which allows me to pay salaries, rent, insurance, travel costs, advertising etc, etc….which is known as overhead. If I turn inventory less often, this profit number would decline. If I turn it more often, obviously it increases. The direct correlation between inventory turns and profitability of my business should be readily apparent. Let’s now look at cost of money. I will apply this simple definition. Cost of money is what every dollar is worth to me at the end of a calendar year. In the previous example $1 invested in inventory at the beginning of the year, yields me an additional 97.5 cents at the end of the year. Every dollar I gain, yields me $1.97 per year in round terms, and every dollar I lose, cost me $1.97. Therefor my cost of money annually, expressed as a ratio, is approximately 2:1. Why is knowing this number so important? For one, it allows me to assess the liability of dormant inventory. Not every coin, sells 6.5 times a year. Some are still in inventory a year later. For every dollar spent on one of those coins, it has cost me almost two dollars. Awareness is very important in business. It is one of the reason I constantly monitor stock codes and how they translate to the age of a coin in inventory. When a coin gets to a certain age, it needs to go. I will discount it incrementally until I hit the sweet spot and it sells. The actual loss sometimes is the least offensive aspect of ownership. The dollars the coin has tied up by not selling, and the value of those dollars in sustaining my business, is the more integral factor. A second and equally important component of understanding cost of money, is loan value. What exactly do I mean by this? Let me use a simple example to illustrate. If a customer decides to purchase a coin but needs an extended period of time to pay for it, I have to understand what it will cost me to do this transaction. Let’s say that customer wants to buy a $1500.00 coin which originally cost me $1250.00, and needs two months to pay for it. On the front end, I am making $250.00 of profit, but in reality, I am only making $250.00 less the cost of money of providing 60 day free financing. I know that my cost of money annually is about 2:1, which on a monthly basis, would translate to about 8%. That $250.00 profit times 8% times two (the number of months that I am providing free financing) , is now reduced by approximately $20.00 per month, netting me an actual $210.00. Is it now apparent why understanding my cost of money is so important?

Contrary to popular belief, the coin business really is extremely challenging. The margins are some of the lowest for any inventory-based business on the face of the earth. Challenges such as a declining market, slow-pay accounts, economic or seasonal factors and rising overhead, just to name a few, impact my business even further. Understanding and interpreting concepts such as inventory turns and cost of money are really not electives. They are at the very foundation of my business, and what allow me to continue selling rare coins for the next 31 years.

Note: Throughout this article, I have used the first-person. It is not just I who runs this business. Robbie Jenkins is both a junior partner in The Reeded Edge and an equal partner in The Reeded Edge Reserve Equity Fund, a related but separate company. Without Robbie’s knowledge, dedication and work ethic both companies would be nothing more than namesakes. I don’t want any of my readers to think for a second that our business is a one-man operation, because that would be the furthest thing from the truth.

Better Date Mint State Morgan Dollars – A Current Market Perspective

0112181893167-20112181893167-3by Robert Lehmann

Morgan Dollars have always been one of the backbones of the numismatic marketplace. It seems as Morgans go, so goes the overall market. This certainly has held true for generic, mint-state dollars. Generics are defined as coins that derive their value from grade, irrespective of date. 1879-1882-S, 1883-85-O and 1885-1887-P are a few of the more available “generic” date ranges that come to mind. Because certified quantities of these dates are readily available, they have always been a favorite of dealers and collectors. One cannot deny that the present state of the dollar market is healthy. But, is it really the generic sector that is leading this area of the coin market?

Although MS-65 through MS-67 generic Morgan Dollar prices have remained somewhat steady, this area is by no means bullish. Most of these coins are trading for less than they did during 2010-2012. However, true better-date, MS, certified Morgan Dollars have been red-hot. Many dates are largely unavailable at present. Even in the basal grade of MS-60, these coins are being chased by unprecedented numbers of dealers and collectors. As a market-maker in this series, I have an understanding about the scarcity, desirability and marketability of this area, so let’s examine all three.

To understand this area of the market, it is first necessary to define it. Here is my short list of true better-date Morgan Dollars, all coins which are legitimately tough to locate in PCGS/NGC-certified grades of MS-60 or above (with some being downright rare): 1879-CC (Capped and Regular), 1883-S, 1884-S, 1886-O, 1889-CC, 1892-CC, 1892-S, 1893, 1893-CC, 1893-O, 1893-S, 1894, 1894-O, 1894-S, 1895, 1895-O, 1895-S, 1896-O, 1896-S, 1897-O, 1901, 1903-S and 1904-S. There are several second-tier Redfield dates which almost made the list, such as 1885-S through 1889-S, 1898-S through 1902-S, 1890-CC and 1891-CC1. But for one reason or another, I felt these dates were less deserving.

In general, I find that there is a loose interpretation of what exactly constitutes a better-date Morgan Dollar. I have heard dealers refer to 1880 through 1885-CC dollars as better-dates. Although these Carson City cartwheels are certainly popular, in terms of rarity, they are by no means better. The same holds true for dates like 1878-S, 1881-O, 1882, 1882-O, 1884, 1888-O, 1890, 1890-O, 1897 and 1903. Some of these dates get conditionally scarce in grades of MS-64 and above, but none are really better dates. All exist in bag quantities, and average uncirculated specimens can be obtained relatively inexpensively, in roll quantities, and generally, on a moment’s notice.

Volumes have been written on date-by-date analysis of Morgan Dollars, and to evaluate each and every date for its particular merits is not my goal. Treating the above group as a whole, let me try to define scarcity and what it means in today’s numismatic marketplace.

Scarcity is not simply a coefficient of the number of a particular coin graded by PCGS or NGC, but rather a supply and demand curve of how many available coins exist verses the potential customers trying to obtain them. For example, there are approximately 3600 mint state 1886-O dollars graded between PCGS and NGC. This may seem like a large number, but when considering the collector base for Morgan Dollars, it actually is not. One abstract aspect of scarcity is that it is relative. Using the above example, there are potentially tens of thousands of Morgan Dollar collectors chasing a mere 3600 coins. Compare this to a rare dated gold coin where there may be less than a hundred known (The $5.00 and $10.00 Liberty series are both full of these type of dates), but only a handful of potential customers trying to procure them. Although the gold coin may be rarer in sheer numbers, the relative scarcity favors the 1886-O. I will take this a step further. By comparison, over 260,000 mint-state 1880-S Morgan Dollars have been graded between the two services.  In other words, an 1886-O Morgan Dollar in a PCGS/NGC-certified mint state holder is 72 times as scarce as its 1880-S counterpart. Using this methodology, is a certified 1886-O Morgan Dollar in MS-60 undervalued at a wholesale bid of $875.00?1 When examining the 1880-S in the same grade with a wholesale bid of $46.002, the price correlation to available supply also  heavily favors the 1886-O. This is yet another aspect of scarcity to examine, and it too, is relative.

Since it is my firm’s $875.00 MS-60 bid that the Coin Dealer Newsletter is presently reporting, I believe wholeheartedly in this date and its legitimate scarcity. I would make the same argument for every other date on my list above. In short, these all pass the scarcity litmus test; their populations are far less than what their corresponding bids indicate these dates should be worth. Perhaps more importantly, the mint state supply of these dates does not satisfy the present market demand, which is the true ultimate test of scarcity.

Desirability is both subjective and difficult to quantify. However, as a full time dealer with over 30 years of experience, I am exposed to this area constantly. If a coin appears on collectors and dealers want list repeatedly, in short, it is desirable. This is a shared trait for each and every date of Morgan Dollar on my above better-date list. I recently had a customer call me requesting an 1893-O Morgan Dollar graded MS-63 by either PCGS or NGC. Despite increasing my bid to $5900.00, I still have not produced a coin for him. He is not an overly picky buyer, and nor in this instance, am I. It’s simply a matter of finding a coin that is being perceived as more desirable than my present offer to buy one. With 463 pieces currently graded MS-63 between the two services3, somebody unfamiliar with this series might get the impression that this date is overvalued. Without fielding phone calls, working want lists, attending coin shows regularly, and interacting with customers on a daily basis, it can be difficult distinguishing the more desirable from less desirable coins.

As a market-maker in better-date Morgan Dollars, I realize that I’m not only out there on a constant treasure hunt, but I’m also being looked upon by my peers to support my market. Consequently, I make a point of stocking the dates of Morgan Dollars that I am also trying to buy. As challenging as this can be at times, it has also proven invaluable for buying. This is especially true at coin shows, where my inventory often dictates what I am offered. With proper inventory control and point-of-sale programs, it is not difficult to track the marketability of any coin. I know from first-hand experience that the shelf life of most better-date Morgan Dollars is brief. There is an old saying in the coin business that a good coin is a sold coin. In this regard, and from a general marketability perspective, better-date Morgans just may reign as king of their numismatic domain.

Some Final Thoughts
Scarcity, desirability and marketability are the three forces that drive the better date dollar market. Being able to identify a true better date dollar and then apply how each of these components influence its price, is how one begins to understand this symbiotic relationship.
Morgan Dollar collectors exist at all levels, from introductory to advanced. Often, this is one of the first series that piques a collector’s interest; the coins offer beauty, size and age, all in an obtainable and relatively affordable package. Today’s collector who gets hooked on the allure of a gem 1880-S dollar may become tomorrow’s collector who will try to complete a high-grade Morgan Dollar set. This constantly evolving demographic has put unprecedented pressure on all of the aforementioned better dates. The challenge of locating enough coins to satisfy their growing appetite is what keeps this business interesting.


Philadelphia Minted Morgan Dollars: A Date by Date Analysis

By Rob Lehmann

The discussion and analysis of the Morgan Dollar series often focuses on the branch mint issues, most notably those emanating from Carson City. But, there were more Morgan Dollars minted in Philadelphia than any of the corresponding branch mints. Prior to 1878, Philadelphia had been the epicenter for the production of United States Silver Dollars, and their proficiency was not diminished at all during the Morgan Dollar years. However, one of the great misnomers is that Philadelphia Morgan Dollars are universally more common than pieces coined at the branch mints. As my analysis will show, this is not always the truth.

In the interest of time and space, I will limit my discussion to a brief analysis of each date, with an emphasis on the characteristics of mint state survivors.

1878 – Volumes of reference works are available on this date alone. Hundreds of die marriages resulted in many different design elements and sub-varieties. For simplicity purposes, here are the four major varieties of 1878-P dollars:

8 Tail Feather – The 8 Tail Feather Dollar was the first Morgan Dollar struck in Philadelphia. Mint records show an original mintage of 749,500 pieces, many of which still survive today. The typical mint state 8TF has satiny luster and is almost always well struck. Surface abrasions can be an issue, although a significant quantity of choice coins exist. True GEM mint state examples are somewhat scarce. 8TF dollars are scarce in prooflike (PL) and downright rare in deep mirror prooflike (DMPL). Curiously, a large number of one sided PL coins are known. These exhibit exceptionally deeply mirrored obverses or reverses, with non-PL, satiny luster on the corresponding side. At their best, these one-siders can be some of the prettiest of all Philadelphia minted Morgan Dollars.

7/8 Tail Feather – 7/8 TF Dollars are slightly more scarce than the 8 TF variety, but with some due diligence, high grade pieces are usually available. The presence of 4 or more underlying tail feathers is the most prominent diagnostic used for attribution. This issue is also found with satiny luster. Contact marks can be a nemesis, although choice and gem coins are available. PL examples are about equally as uncommon as the 8TF. In DMPL, this variety is downright rare with examples showing little contrast between the fields and devices.

7 Tail Feathers, Reverse of 78 – This is the single most common variety of 1878 Morgan Dollar. In grades of MS-60 to MS-63, it is readily available, a fact substantiated by its rather affordable $50-$85 CDN Bid range. In grades of MS-64, the 7TF variety is slightly scarce. In grades of MS-65 and above, it is of almost equal rarity to its 8TF cousin, although slightly less expensive. PL coins are fairly scarce, and DMPL examples are rare, almost as much so as the 8TF. Once again, most mint state examples will exhibit satiny luster with a virtually full strike. Surface abrasions are generally present on most, but not all, examples.

7 Tail Feathers, Reverse of 79- The Philadelphia Mint was pretty busy in 1878. This is the only year that Morgan Dollars were minted with so many different major design elements. One must admire the perseverance of mint officials working to get the design of the Morgan Dollar right. In terms of rarity, the 1878, reverse of 79 is probably the scarcest of the 4 major varieties, but only slightly so. This issue can exhibit pronounced cartwheel luster. Surface abrasions can be a real problem, perhaps a result of the vulnerabilities of a higher relief design. This factor generally excludes most mint state specimens from grading over MS-64. Current Greysheet BID on a MS-65 example is $1900.00. PL coins are scarce, and DMPLs are rare. When an example is located, it can be very attractive with deeply mirrored fields and cameo contrast.

1879- The typical 1879 Morgan Dollar exhibits satiny luster and an average strike. Despite the fact that this higher mintage date is known in bag quantities, it is a surprisingly difficult issue to find fully struck. Many mint state pieces show softness on the hair over Liberty’s ear as well as the high point of the eagle’s breast. I remember a bag of 1879 Morgan Dollars, lacking a single fully struck example. Luster can range from indifferent to slightly above average. This is the most deficient of all 1879 dollars, with Carson City, New Orleans and San Francisco examples almost always superior. Although I have handled a few truly amazing 1879-P dollars, they are definitely the exception. Both PL and DMPL examples are very scarce to rare. When found, they can show moderate contrast between fields and devices, but are seldom black and white.

1880- This date exhibits very similar characteristics to its predecessor, although it can be superior in both strike and luster to the 1879. There are many 1880 dollars with high point softness, but just as many that show an adequate to full strike. Luster also varies, ranging from indifferent and dull to booming, with some examples displaying a full cartwheel effect. Excessive contact marks can be problematic, and locating a GEM example can be elusive. In PL and DMPL, this is a very scarce coin. Most examples are grey in appearance with little cameo contrast.

1881- Finally, here is a Philadelphia Morgan Dollar that comes both well struck and very lustrous. As a matter of fact, this is the norm for this date rather than the exception. Unfortunately, most 81-P dollars are also very scuffy, and can be moderately to heavily abraded. Surface preservation issues make locating choice and gem pieces somewhat difficult.

In MS-64 and 65, the 1881 Morgan is less rare than both the 1879 and 1880, and probably on a par with the 1878 7TF. PL and DMPL examples are both very scarce. The latter occasionally comes deeply cameo. Although rare, these examples can be a sight to behold.

1882- This date defines rich, satiny luster, very similar in overall appearance to an 1884-CC. The strike can come soft, but usually is not an issue. Most 1882-P dollars suffer from one problem only: surface abrasions. Note the Greysheet price jump from of $62.00 in MS-64 to $430.00 in MS-65, a testament to this deficiency. PL and DMPL coins are similar in rarity to the preceding dates, although when found, they are generally more attractive. I have handled some DMPL 1882-P Morgans, that at first glance, appear to be proof. These pieces almost always exhibit dramatic cameo contrast. For the toning aficionado, 82-P’s can occasionally be found with vibrant color, the first date of the Morgan Dollar P-Mint run with this tendency.

1883- This is the first truly common P-Mint Morgan Dollar. There were many original bags of 1883-P Dollars in the Treasury hoards, contributing to its availability today. The typical 1883-P has satiny luster with an average strike. Bagmarks and surface distractions are not too big a problem, and GEM pieces are easily found. PL pieces, although not extremely common, are available for a small premium. DMPL examples are scarce, but not rare.

1884- Like the 1883, the 1884 is readily available in mint state. The average 1884 dollar has good luster, with some fully cartwheel examples. Bag marks can be somewhat of a problem, making pieces graded over MS-65 scarce. Locating a choice to gem example should be no problem. PL coins are not common and DMPL 84-P Morgans are rare, with most examples displaying only moderate cameo contrast.

1885- This is one of the most common mint state Philadelphia Morgan Dollars. Many bags of this date were released in the Treasury hoards. Apparently, most 1885 dollars avoided the melting pots under the Pittman Act. The typical 1885-P Morgan is nice, and occasionally, outstanding. Luster is usually satiny and above average. Most are well struck. Bag marks are not much of a problem, and examples up to MS-67 can be located. In PL and DMPL, the 1885-P is not rare, and either can be located for a modest premium. There are some vividly toned examples of this date, a coefficient of its normally rich luster.

1886- Here is another very common P Mint Morgan. It is readily available in all grades, and is truly generic in nature. Strike tends to be good but not great. Luster, however, can be downright outstanding. PL and DMPL examples are both readily available, although most exhibit only moderate cameo contrast.

1887- An average to good strike, great luster and exceptional surface preservation are the norms for an 1887-P Morgan Dollar. PL and DMPL examples are both fairly abundant, though a stark cameo contrast is uncommon. This date can also be found with vivid rainbow toning. With the exception of the occasional striking deficiencies, a mint state 1887 Morgan can be a really eye appealing coin.

1888-This date is available and fairly common although not as much so as the previous 3 years. Most 88-P dollars are lustrous, but can suffer from striking problems. Fully struck 88-P dollars are somewhat unusual. This date does not come as heavily abraded as most of the other P-mint dollars. This lends itself to a large number of specimens graded up to MS-65. In MS-66, this date becomes somewhat scarce, and in MS-67, it is very rare. PL and DMPL examples both exist, and are only moderately scarce.

1889-This date is a bit of an enigma. In strict mint state, it is as common as any P mint Morgan Dollar. There were many 1889-P dollars in the U.S. Treasury hoards, and here on the East Coast, they appear often. Even today, original rolls of 1889-P dollars appear. The problem is 1889-P Morgan Dollars are seldom very nice. The average 1889-P has a sub-par strike, deficient luster (which can border on dead) and tends to be very scratchy. Although I have seen my share of 1889-P dollars with booming cartwheel luster, they are the exception to the rule. As for PL and DMPL examples, both are rare, and usually, unattractive. When found, they have grey, cloudy surfaces with only moderate contrast.

1890-This date is similar in many ways to the 1889, although not as common. In grades of MS-63 or less, the 1890 is very available. These pieces are often ugly. Indifferent luster and an incomplete strike limit many 1890-P dollars to the lower end of the mint state spectrum. Bagmarks can also be a problem. It appears that many of the 1890 bags were mishandled. Although nice coins were occasionally found in original bags, I have never seen or heard of a consistently nice bag. In grades of MS-64, the 1890 is no longer so available. In grades of MS-65 and above, this date is rare. For whatever reason, this date seems to be graded on a curve. I have seen more than few toned MS-65 examples with well-concealed surface distractions. If these same coins were entirely white, in most instances, I do not believe they would warrant the MS-65 grade. Try to find a blazing white, gem 1890-P; it’s not an easy proposition. The same comments about PL and DMPL 1889-P’s also apply to this date. But, in DMPL, the 1890-P is much rarer.

1891- The 1891-P Morgan Dollar is a conditionally rare coin. By 1889, quality control did not appear to be a priority with Philadelphia Morgan Dollars. The 1891 is a testament to this, and affected by a host of problems. Many examples are softly struck. Luster varies from indifferent to outstanding, with most of the latter resulting from increased striking pressure or heavy metal flow. Contact marks can also be a challenge. Finding an example with great luster, strike and surface preservation is extremely difficult. The PCGS population is just 108 pieces in MS-65. The Greysheet BID of $7500.00 reflects this rarity. MS-64 examples, are scarce. MS-63 pieces are still not common. Most uncirculated 1891-P dollars grade MS-60 to MS-62, and these coins are more available. Although there were bags of 1891-P dollars, they are nowhere near as common as any other Philadelphia date up to this point. PL coins will prove very elusive and DMPLs are downright rare. When found, they are somewhat attractive, more-so than both the 1889 and 1890.

1892- The 1892 is the first Philadelphia Morgan Dollar that is somewhat scarce in all mint state grades. There simply were not many surviving bags, and original rolls seldom surface. Mint state specimens can vary from ugly to nice. Strike is usually a bit soft, with a fully struck coin being very scarce. Bagmarks are also a problem with this date, with most examples somewhat abraded. Curiously, for a date that seldom has pronounced luster, there are a handful of very attractively toned pieces. Several of these reside in older PCGS holders, possibly emanating from the same original source. Like the 1891-P, PL and DMPL examples are both rare and expensive. This date, in my opinion, is both underappreciated and undervalued at today’s levels.

1893- Like all 1893 dated Morgans, the 1893-P is very scarce. This was a bi-product of tough economic times in tandem with greatly reduced silver dollar production. Today, collectors will find locating any 1893-P, even a well worn example, to be a tricky proposition. In grades above MS-63, this date is both scarce and expensive. The relative rarity of MS-65 specimens is similar to that of 1891 and 1892-P dated dollars, although this date gets more attention. Quality-wise, most mint state 1893 dollars are pleasing. They usually have attractive satiny luster and can be well struck, although neither is always the case. This date can be hindered with surface abrasions, which usually is the limiting factor in attaining higher mint state grades. In PL this date is very rare and a true DMPL example is all but non-existent. In the rare instance that one actually surfaces, don’t expect it to be attractive or have significant contrast between the fields and devices. I can only remember seeing one attractively toned 1893 dollar, and that was many years ago. Although others surely exist, they certainly aren’t common.

1894- Here is the undisputed key date Philadelphia Morgan Dollar (Since the 1895-P is only known in proof, I have purposely omitted it from my discussion). With only 110,000 pieces minted, the 1894 had the second lowest mintage of all Morgan Dollars, eclipsed only by the 1893-S. For this reason, it remains a collector favorite. Even low grade circulated examples fetch over $1000.00. The quality of mint state examples, for the most part, is sub-par. Luster is satiny and sometimes lifeless. Strike is seldom full. Bagmarks can be a problem, although this is not always the case. There were far more 1894 dollars saved than the similarly small mintage 1893-S. But, uncirculated rolls are rare and original bags could be counted on one hand. In PL and DMPL, no single Philadelphia Morgan Dollar, with the exception of perhaps the 1901-P, is more elusive. Attractively toned specimens, I am convinced, do not exist. True GEM pieces, graded MS-65 and above, are very rare. The finest two examples that I know of were both owned by Jack Lee and each graded MS-66 at PCGS. If one of these specimens were to become available in today’s market, it could fetch over $100,000.

1896- After minting only 110,000 coins in 1894 and a paltry 12,000 more in 1895 (all of which apparently were melted), the Philadelphia mint was back in full gear for 1896. A large mintage of 9,976,000 pieces resulted, with many survivors remaining for collectors. The 1896-P is not at all rare. Many bags existed, and an original roll, even today, is still not uncommon. 1896 dollars can be well struck and usually exhibit decent surfaces. Unfortunately, the luster is seldom lively, resulting in most coins grading MS-65 or lower. When found, a MS-66 or 67 1896 dollar can be a beautiful coin. But again, luster deficiencies prevent most coins from being graded this high. In PL and DMPL, this date is somewhat tough to find, especially when one considers how readily available it is in mint state. When a PL piece is located, expect it to be grey and somewhat unattractive, with little cameo contrast.

1897- To a great extent, an uncirculated 1897 Morgan is a virtual twin to an 1896. This date tends to come well struck with satiny luster that can sometimes border on lifeless. Surface marks are not much of a problem, and plenty of choice to gem quality coins exist. The 1897-P is a bit scarcer than its predecessor in all grades of uncirculated, but is still readily available up to MS-65. The number of MS-66 pieces is limited by luster deficiencies, and in MS-67, this date is truly rare. The same comments regarding PL and DMPL 1896-P dollars hold true for this date, although the 97-P’s are a bit tougher to find.

1898-The average 1898 Morgan is well struck with satiny luster and decent surfaces. Generally speaking, this is one of the more attractive later date Philadelphia Morgan Dollars. Abundant quantities of uncirculated examples exist, and they are readily available in grades up to MS-65. PL coins are not rare, nor are they common. DMPL examples are somewhat scarce, and when encountered, are grey with little cameo contrast.

1899- I question the validity of the reported mintage of 330,000 pieces. Many numismatic scholars believe that some of the reported 1900-P mintage were actually 1899 dated pieces that may have been struck later in the year. The 1899-P is still moderately scarce, more so than the preceding 3 years. This date remains very popular with collectors. Aesthetically, a mint state 1899 Morgan can be very attractive. Most have rich, satiny luster, and are almost always well struck. Marks can be a problem at times. Choice and Gem pieces both exist in ample quantities. PL specimens are also available, but DMPL examples are much scarcer. Because of the reported low mintage and the overall high quality of mint state survivors, prices on this date remain high.

1900- The C-4 reverse first appeared on 1900 dollars. The result was a shallower than normal strike which lacked detail, especially noticeable on the eagle’s breast feathers. That aside, a 1900-P can still be a beautiful Morgan Dollar. Luster can range from average to outstanding, and from satiny to booming. Some pieces may evidence a full cartwheel effect. There are plenty of gem pieces graded, so locating an example up to MS-66 should not be too difficult. This was a date released in ample bag quantities. A circulated example is many times rarer than an uncirculated counterpart. PL examples are very scarce to rare, and a DMPL would be an extraordinary find.

1901- In strict uncirculated condition, the 1901-P is, by far, the rarest Philadelphia Morgan Dollar, with only the 1894 coming close. In fact, in mint state, it is the 6th rarest Morgan Dollar overall, surpassed only by the 1893-S, 1892-S, 1884-S, 1895-O and 1889-CC. Circulated examples are another matter, with abundant quantities available. This is truly a date that saw commercial use, as most were released into circulation. Apparently, few were ever saved. A typical uncirculated 1901-P is deficient in all areas, exhibiting a mediocre to poor strike, indifferent luster and heavy surface abrasions. For these reasons, basil mint state pieces are often confused as sliders. A truly choice piece grading MS-63 or above is very rare, and a full gem grading MS-65 is extraordinarily rare. PL and DMPL specimens, essentially, don’t exist.

1902- In terms of scarcity, this date is about equal to the 1903-P. The typical 1902-P comes with mellow satiny luster which can be chrome-like. Strike is typical of the post-1899 dates, with a lack of the highest point definition, especially on the eagle’s breast. Surface preservation is probably this date’s strong suit. It is not unusual to find a 1902-P with fewer-than-average marks. What usually limits the technical grade of a 1902-P is indifferent luster. PL and DMPL examples are rare, with the latter being very rare. When located, neither one is very attractive.

1903- The 1903 Morgan is in reality no scarcer than the 1902, but due to its need for date sets, CDN bids reflect higher prices in circulated grades. In uncirculated, the 1903 is actually a bit more common than the 1902, especially in MS-65 and above. Here, the 1903 emerges as the best quality Philadelphia dollar minted between the years 1901-1904. Luster and strike tend to be excellent, and surface abrasions are not a real problem either. Some really beautiful 1903 dollars are available, and as prices indicate, it doesn’t take a king’s ransom to procure one. Like the 1900-1902 issues, this date is rare in PL and DMPL. The examples that I have seen lack contrast between the fields and devices, but are not as unattractive as the aforementioned dates.

1904- A good portion of 1904-P Morgans were released at issue, so circulated pieces are not uncommon. Although a few bags of this date were in the Treasury hoards, uncirculated rolls don’t show up often. A mint state 1904-P can be the worst of all worlds. Most are dull with indifferent satiny luster. The strike can vary from average to deficient, but it is seldom good. Marks plague this issue, and most uncirculated specimens are relegated to grades of MS-63 and lower for this reason alone. Trying to find a well struck, lustrous and mark-free gem is a real task. Although CDN shows a MS-65 bid price of $2450.00, I would argue this is underpriced for a true gem. The depressed bids, across the board for this date, are probably a reflection on the date’s popularity rather than its rarity. In MS-65, PCGS has graded just 178 coins. Compare this to 121 coins in the same grade for its San Francisco counterpart. But, here’s the real kicker; The 1904-S CDN Bid is $9500.00, or nearly 400% of the 1904-P, even though the 1904-S is just 45% less common. As Rodney Dangerfield used to say, this date “gets no respect”. In PL, a 1904-P is very scarce, and in DMPL, this date is about as rare as it gets. Very few pieces have ever been graded, and the few that have, may actually be uglier than their non-prooflike counterparts. Typically, they are grey and chrome-like, with no contrast. There are only 2 DMPL specimens graded at PCGS. Suffice to say, the rarity of a DMPL precludes any necessity for an in-depth discussion.

1921- This date is, by far, the most common of all Philadelphia-minted Morgan Dollars. Since all of this mintage was post-Pittman Act, no 21-P Morgans found their way to the melting pots in 1918. Consequently, a large percentage of the original mintage of 44,690,000 survived for today’s collector. In 1921, the dies were completely reworked, resulting in a lower relief design of both Miss Liberty and the Heraldic Eagle. A 1921-P can vary from well struck to poorly struck. Luster is usually decent, and sometimes outstanding. Marks tend to be a real problem, since most bags of these were tossed about in bank and treasury vaults for many years before their actual release. There were more 1921 Morgan bags released in the 50’s and 60’s than any other single date. Even today, it is commonplace to find original rolls. An original bag can still surface every now and then, as well. Although readily available in grades up to MS-64, gem MS-65 specimens are not common. This is due to the preponderance of surface abrasions. This date is fairly scarce in MS-66 and rare in MS-67. PL pieces are fairly scarce and DMPL examples are rare.

In Closing

Philadelphia Morgan Dollars are a fascinating group. By mintage figures alone, they would appear to be some of the most common dates of the series. However, in mint state, many dates are uncommon. The 1891, 1892 and 1904 are each conditionally rare and are seldom available above MS-64; The 1901 is one of the great Morgan Dollar rarities in any grade above MS-62. The 1893 and 1894 dates are scarce dates, and can be difficult acquisitions, even in circulated grades. Surprisingly, challenges really abound in assembling a complete high-grade set of Philadelphia issues.
Philadelphia Morgan Dollars may also represent some of best value in the entire series. Their branch mint counterparts tend to be more popular, and consequently, priced higher. For the astute collector, this phenomenon represents a great purchasing opportunity; Suffice to say, this pricing inconsistency won’t remain forever.

1893-1897 New Orleans Morgan Dollars

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Building a World Class Coin Collection

By Rob Lehmann

Rome was not built in a day, and neither is a great coin collection.

Assembling a collection of coins can be an arduous but enjoyable undertaking. And, like any goal that is accomplished incrementally, building your collection will require discipline and planning. I suggest laying the ground work for your coin collection with the following 6 principles in mind:

  1. Choose a series that interests you, but won’t force you to mortgage the farm. Remember, coins, or any other collectible for that matter, are supposed to be fun. Review your target series and ask yourself, “Is this do-able?” There are two factors which obviously are paramount to your answer and hence your choice. These are availability and affordability.Availability is important. Let me illustrate this point. I have always been fascinated by the Barber Quarter and Barber Half series. I feel that both of these series were largely ignored by collectors. Consequently, most Barber quarters and halves circulated without much fanfare. Finding these coins in AG and GOOD is not much of a challenge. However, try to find lightly circulated, problem-free examples, and it’s a whole another story. Now, if you believe the price guides, these coins are not that rare. But, scour a coin show, look at fixed price lists and hit the auctions, and then see what you come up with. My guess is that at 47 years old, my life is not long enough to complete either one of these sets, regardless of budget. Therefore, despite my affection to the contrary, this is probably not a collection that I want to undertake. Use some common sense, and choose a series to collect with availability in mind.
    is the next variable. It is my advice that you set a budget before starting your collection. There is nothing more disheartening or frustrating than to start a collection only to find out that you can’t afford to finish it. As a dealer, I have seen this happen countless times. Take into consideration your discretionary income, the time frame for completion and possible market swings which could affect prices. Know that some coins are going to cost you more than you initially expect. Forecast your investment conservatively, as I can almost guarantee that your collection will come in over budget!
  2. Buy the best that you can afford. For instance, if your budget is $100 per coin, find the best $100 coin that money can buy. This is the real challenge (and fun) in collecting, “the thrill of the chase”. You may go from one end of a coin show bourse floor to the other reviewing 20 examples of the same coin in the same grade. Within reason, buy the best of the 20, even if costs a little bit extra. You sometimes pay too much for the right coin, but you always pay too much for the wrong coin. Your attention for detail and quality in assembling your collection will not only be appreciated by you, but future owners, as well.
  3. Protect and display your collection. Your collection is for you to enjoy. However, by default, your collection can quickly develop into an investment. Proper protection in the form of an album, cabinet or holder is imperative. There are countless great products available in the open market. As collectors, we are nothing more than temporary custodians for our coins. There will be a next owner. A secondary goal of assembling a collection should be to insure that the next owner appreciates the coins as much as you did. And in all likelihood, your coins should also be worth more the second time around. But, much of that depends on proper storage and protection.
  4. Don’t flaunt what you’re doing. Although most collectors enjoy networking and sharing their collector experience with other like-minded individuals, too much of this can actually be detrimental. Again, use some common sense here. You don’t want to be a target at a coin show or in an auction room. If too many people find out what you’re doing, you will be forced to overpay for your coins. Discretion is the better part of valor. Over the years, the great collections, almost without exception, have been assembled quietly and under the radar. Define the network of dealers and collectors that you are comfortable dealing with early on in your endeavor, and try not to divulge too much information outside of this circle.
  5. Use all of the tools and resources at your disposal to build and enhance your collection. Nationwide, there are many great coin dealers. Dealers have exclusive resources and knowledge available to them that come with experience. A coin dealer that you both like and trust will be one of your best allies in completing your collection. Coin shows, when convenient, can also serve as a wonderful tool to acquire coins. Auctions are usually a bit more competitive. But, when searching for that special coin, they can also be invaluable. And with the advent of the internet, information is available at an unprecedented pace, a fact which you obviously are already aware of!
  6. Here is, in my opinion, the most important rule in assembling a collection….and, I saved it for last. Buy the book before you buy the coin! It amazes me how many collectors fail to follow this rule. Information and knowledge are an invaluable tandem. And, there are a host of great numismatic publications to help you in this part of your endeavor. By learning about the coins that you intend to collect, you will save yourself time, aggravation and money. Plus, your collecting experience will be greatly enhanced. I guarantee it!

Components of Grading Mint State Coins

By Rob Lehmann

I know that much has been written about grading uncirculated coins, most of it very specialized and analytical. I wanted to address grading as a much more generalized topic, and give some basic guidelines that would have multiple applications across the numismatic spectrum.

There are three major components of grading a coin: strike, luster and surface preservation. There are also many individual characteristics of each of these three components. Let’s examine each component and its individual characteristics in detail.


Perhaps no single area of grading has more impact on the value of an uncirculated coin than its strike. This is especially apparent in series like Mercury Dimes that are collected with “full bands”, Standing Liberty Quarters that are coveted with “full heads” and Franklin Half Dollars with their elusive “full bell lines”. A 1953-S Franklin Half Dollar with full bell lines recently realized $69,000 in auction, where a counterpart without the bell line definition would have brought several hundred dollars, at best. The same can be said for dates of the Standing Liberty Quarter series in full head such as the 1918/7-S, 1919-D & S, 1926-D & S and 1927-S, to name a few. Then, there is the 1945 Mercury Dime which has a value of $50 or so in MS-65. Add split bands to the equation and your value skyrockets up to $7500! So, what makes strike such a prized component, and how do I evaluate it in the overall grading equation?

First, to answer the above question, you need to come to grips with one very important truth. Grading is subjective, and no matter how good the grader, is NEVER 100% consistent. With that said, I would say that strike accounts for 20-40% of the overall grade depending upon the individual circumstances. Is it the most important single component of grading? In my opinion, no, it is not. I reserve that distinction for luster, which I will address in a short while.

Evaluating strike can be somewhat tricky, especially if one is not extremely well acclimated with a particular series. A fully struck coin is the result of several things coming together in harmony. First, and most importantly, a fresh, sharply impressed die is imperative. Secondly, and closely related to the actual die impression, is the die state. A worn die with flaws, such as cracks, will produce an inferior struck coin to a newer die. Finally, the striking pressure of when the die contacts the planchet also plays an important part.

Quite often, first year type coins are extremely well struck. Examples that come to mind are 1892 Barber coinage, 1878 Morgan Dollars and 1948 Franklin Halves. It’s almost as if the U.S. Mint is proud of their product when it comes out of the gate, and puts forth an extra effort in the production process. This is just a hypothesis and would warrant further study to prove conclusive. But, the truth is this. Lousy strikes result from either poorly engraved dies, worn out dies or inadequate striking pressure, all of which are controlled at and by the United States Mint.


Where strike may be the most value-related component of grading, I would submit that luster is the most technical-related aspect. In other words, professional and amateur graders alike place more of an emphasis on the luster of a mint state coin in ascertaining its grade than either strike or surface preservation. I’m going to go out on a limb on this one and say that luster will comprise 30-50% of the overall grade of a coin, and a dull coin could NEVER (under any circumstances) be considered a GEM.

How does luster occur? Luster is the byproduct of light reflecting off of flow lines. Flow lines are the microscopic, symmetrical lines that are caused when the die strikes the planchet of the coin under pressure. These little raised lines result when the planchet’s metal flows outward from the central pressure of the die. As light comes in contact with these flow lines, it literally dances off of the surface of the coin giving us an effect that we call luster. When the die is heavily polished, this effect can be intensified. The polish transfers to the flow lines making them even more reflective and the luster more pronounced. Most new dies are heavily polished. Keep in mind, newer dies have little or no wear. Consequently, a new, polished die with no wear is much more likely to produce a GEM quality coin than an older die with little or no polish evident.

Since the highest points of a coin are these microscopic flow lines, they are also the areas that wear first. Luster will discolor or burn long before any wear is evident to the actual design elements. This is precisely why most graders place such an emphasis on a coin’s luster. Luster is directly correlated to the coin’s originality or “freshness”, and hence is the single most influential component in assigning a technical grade.

Surface Preservation

Surface preservation is probably the easiest of the three components to both evaluate and explain. Simply stated, surface preservation is a quantitative way of evaluating imperfections that occurred to the coin’s surface during or after the minting process. Most of these imperfections are relatively easy for even a novice to spot, although their origins are not always quite as easy to explain.

Some examples of coin imperfections would be reeding marks, raised die polishing lines, planchet flaws, struck-through materials, nicks and scratches. While some of these things happen during the minting process (die polish and planchet flaws), others happen after the fact (marks, scratches and other abrasions). Nonetheless, imperfections are always considered a negative and impact the grade, sometimes considerably.

How much consideration should be given to surface preservation? I would suggest that surface preservation can negatively impact a coin to a far greater degree than it can help the coin achieve GEM status. The sad truth is (as I stated earlier) that no matter how clean a coin’s surfaces are, it could never be considered a GEM without full booming luster and at least a decent strike. A good example that comes to mind is an 1892-O Morgan Dollar that I bought a few years ago from a local collector. This coin did not have a discernable mark anywhere on it. It was also free of hairlines or any other surface imperfection. Although it was a strictly an uncirculated specimen, it also had the dullest luster imaginable combined with a “pancake” strike. When the coin was submitted to PCGS for grading, it was assigned a basal uncirculated grade of MS-60 despite its remarkable surface preservation. Conversely, a coin with booming luster and a full strike that is riddled with bag marks may not achieve a grade of over MS-60 either.

A pitfall that many beginning collectors make is to place way too much emphasis on surface preservation. Yes, it is a component of the overall grade. But, it is by no means the single determining factor of the overall grade. Because you could never have a GEM or even a CHOICE uncirculated coin with numerous surface imperfections, surface preservation IS important. But, in the overall scope of things, I do not believe that it can positively influence the grade of a coin by more than 20-40%.

In Summation…

This is a very basic discussion of the factors that determine the grade of an uncirculated coin. By looking at the nuances of a particular coin or series, I could go into far greater detail. However, that was not the goal or the purpose of this article.

Hopefully, this general oversight has been helpful in explaining some of the basic terms and concepts behind grading uncirculated coins. Since understanding coin grading is imperative from both a monetary and technical standpoint, further research into this subject is greatly encouraged.

Key-date San Francisco Mint Morgan Dollars

By Rob Lehmann

There are many dates of Morgan Dollars which are collected as the semi-keys and keys. Carson City rarities, such as the 1879-CC, 1889-CC and 1893-CC have always been at the top of most collectors want lists. New Orleans, which produced both rare and deficient quality coins has their notable run of “toughies” between 1893 and 1897. All of these dates are scarce in mint state, and the 1895-O in particular, is downright rare. Even Philadelphia contributes the conditionally rare 1901-P as well as the proof-only 1895-P. Despite the aforementioned coins, no single group of collective dates in the entire series is as rare as the key-date San Francisco Morgans. There are eight dates in particular, and we’ll take an in-depth look at each in detail; 1883-S, 1884-S, 1892-S, 1893-S, 1895-S, 1896-S, 1903-S and finally the 1904-S.


Most uncirculated 1883-S Morgan Dollars came out of a handful of bags, several of which can be attributed to the LaVere Redfield hoard. Most 1883 Morgans produced in San Francisco found their way into circulation. This is a fairly common date in circulated grades, and is very available in grades up to AU. However, in mint state the 1883-S becomes scarce and in GEM BU (MS-65 and above) it is very rare. 1883-S dollars tend to be very frosty, and for the most part, are well struck. What plagues them, and this is especially true with the Redfield pieces, is a proliferation of bag marks. Finding a mark-free GEM with full, original blazing luster is a rare proposition. Although 1883-S dollars are known to exhibit semi-PL surfaces, and even some one-sided DMPL pieces are known, truly PL and DMPL two-sided pieces are rare. The most amazing example that this author has ever seen was the Clapp-Eliasberg specimen which graded MS-67PL at PCGS, and sold in the Eliasberg sale for $143,000.00. It was a truly GEM specimen, void of any mentionable contact marks and exhibited even satiny PL surfaces on both the obverse and the reverse. Overall, this is a greatly underrated date in GEM BU, and the current greysheet MS-65 price of $16,000.00 does not reflect its true scarcity.


The 1884-S Morgan is one of the great anomalies in the Morgan Dollar series. Coming from a seemingly high mintage of 3.2 million pieces, this date is plentiful in grades up to AU and is downright common in grades of VG-VF. Mint state coins are a whole different matter. From a population standpoint, the 1884-S ranks as the 4th rarest Morgan Dollar in mint state behind only the 1892-S, 1893-S and 1895-O. This is a date which before the advent of third party grading was neither considered rare or particularly desirable. This was due to an abundance of AU and slider coins which got passed off as uncirculated. Today, most of the known truly uncirculated coins fall into the MS-60 through MS-62 grades. Most of these pieces are well struck with nice satiny luster and an abundance of contact marks. There are a few semi-PL pieces also known, which may exhibit minor to major striking weakness. I have never seen a truly cartwheel, frosty 1884-S Morgan. Equally as rare are truly PL and DMPL coins. Choice MS-63 pieces are very scarce. MS-64 pieces are RARE. And any coins meriting MS-65 and above grades are prohibitively rare, surpassed only at this grade level by the 1893-S, 1896-O and 1901-P. The few gems that are known are absolutely magnificent., with the astounding George Bodway-Jack Lee PCGS MS-68 being the finest. These GEM pieces exhibit thick, satiny luster (much like the known GEM 1892-S survivors), with an almost total absence of bag marks. The appearance in the market of a GEM 1884-S Morgan is a rare instance indeed. Furthermore, the Redfield hoard did not yield any of this date.


The 1892-S is the bride’s maid of the Morgan Dollar series. Surpassed only in rarity by the 1893-S in uncirculated condition, this is a high-mintage date that apparently suffered it’s demise during the Pittman Act of 1918. Many 1892-S dollars must have been released early on, as low grade specimens are easy to find. In this author’s opinion, coins up to the grade of AU are overrated, and not difficult to locate. However, in uncirculated grades, the 92-S emerges as a major Morgan Dollar rarity. No original bags have ever appeared. Until recently, conventional wisdom had the majority of the very small mint state population listed as near-GEM and GEM. Lower grade mint state pieces were all but impossible to locate. However, that situation has changed in the last several years. A small group of MS-60 through MS-62 coins have found their way to the grading services and into the marketplace. It is hard to say if an original roll or two of this date may have been discovered and trickled their way out. But, from both the appearance and timing of these pieces, it is this author’s opinion that they probably have all come from a similar source. Despite these recent discovery pieces, a great majority of the small number of uncirculated survivors are beautiful coins meriting MS-64 through MS-67 grades. The typical 1892-S is well struck with rich, satiny luster. Their appearance is very similar to mint state 1884-S dollars, although the 92-S seems to come nicer. The most fantastic 1892-S was the Jack Lee specimen which was absolutely mark-free with a beautiful satin sheen. PCGS awarded it the grade of MS-68, and as such, is the single highest graded for the date. Despite the recent price movement for uncirculated 1892-S dollars, this author still believes it to be one of the better overall values in the Morgan Dollar series.


Here is the absolute key to the Morgan Dollar series, bar none. Even in circulated grades, the 1893-S is a scarce coin. This is no doubt due to the very low original mintage of only 100,000 pieces. Furthermore, mint state pieces were never saved, and most 93-S survivors grade only VG-VF. Although rumors tell of an original roll of mint state coins in the 1960’s, no quantities of high-grade specimens have ever been substantiated. The interest in this date has always been exceptionally high, and prices have consistently moved up. This does not seem to alter the overall demand for this date, which at present, is also very high. Greysheet shows a “bid” price of $2325.00 for this date in VG condition. Similarly, it is the most valuable business strike Morgan in all other circulated grades. The same holds true for uncirculated specimens, which are rarities at all levels. Greysheet currently shows valuations of $65,000 “bid” in MS-60 up to $300,000.00 “bid” in MS-65, although this author doubts that a PCGS or NGC certified piece could be found at those levels. This is a date that no matter what the published levels report it to be worth, almost always trades in excess of those prices. This is due to the large number of Morgan collectors that need high-grade specimens for their collections, and the minuscule number of pieces that are ever available to them, creating a demand that is unprecedented in the series (with perhaps the 1895-P being an exception). If you collect PL or DMPL dollars, forget about the 1893-S. I am not sure that a truly PL or DMPL example exists. And if it does, this author has never witnessed it firsthand. The finest two 1893-S Morgans are the Norweb specimen and the Stack’s specimen, both of which graded MS-67 at PCGS. Personally, having seen both, I give the edge to the Norweb specimen. It recently was offered to my firm at $1.25 million dollars, making it the single most valuable Morgan Dollar. Despite the high prices that perennially seem to follow this date, I feel that it is still a solid value even at today’s market levels.


Here is an interesting date that has a lot going for it. First off, it is scarce in circulated grades and somewhat rare in uncirculated grades. Fully GEM pieces are truly rare, although not so to the extent of the three aforementioned dates. Like the 1883-S, many of the known uncirculated coins came from the LaVere Redfield hoard. Unlike the 83-S, this is a low mintage scarce date (400,000) and is similarly tough to locate in lower grades, as well. What the 95-S also has going for it is that it appeals to Morgan date collectors assembling one of each date rather than one of every date and mintmark. With the 1895-P and 1895-O being prohibitively expensive in grades above 60, the 95-S becomes the obvious choice as a place holder for the date collector. Most 95-S dollars exhibit nice frosty luster, with many evidencing full cartwheel. Many 95-S dollars also show die polish most notably in the obverse and reverse fields. Although most 95-S dollars are well struck, few are absolutely fully struck. Semi-PL coins are not rare. But, truly PL and DMPL coins are very scarce, with the latter being very rare. The finest 1895-S that this author has ever seen was the Jack Lee MS-67 DMPL graded by PCGS. I have heard rumors for years about the existence of a superb GEM piece, although I have never witnessed it firsthand. Overall, GEM 95-S dollars are on a par with the 83-S. I believe that given the attention that this date has garnered in other grades, the GEMS are undervalued in today’s market. From a popularity standpoint, the 1895-S is probably the 2nd most in-demand “S” mint Morgan, surpassed only by the 1893-S.


The 1896-S had an original mintage of 5,000,000 coins. Many circulated pieces exist. On the surface, there is no apparent reason for it’s inclusion in this list. However, uncirculated coins are a whole different matter. Without the hoard of uncirculated pieces emanating from the Redfield hoard, the 96-S might well place in the top ten overall Morgan Dollars for rarity. Some of the comments valid for the 95-S also apply to the 96-S. Fully struck coins are very scarce. Bag marks are this date’s worst enemy. Luster tends to range from slightly above-average to excellent. Unlike the 95-S, die polish is seldom a problem. Consequently, very few PL coins are known. DMPL pieces are, to the best of my knowledge, nonexistent. GEM 96-S dollars are both very rare and extremely underrated. Greysheet reports valuations of $14,500.00 in MS-65 and $50,000.00 in MS-66, though I doubt an accurately graded piece with any degree of eye appeal could be located at these levels. The finest 2 1896-S dollars that I have seen are the incredible Jack Lee coin which graded MS-69 at PCGS and the Bill Lower/Ed Milas specimen which graded MS-67 PL at NGC. The latter coin was recently on the market for $125,000.00.


The 1903-S Morgan is the 2nd rarest post-1900 Morgan Dollar in uncirculated condition. It tends to be a very popular date with collectors, as nice specimens are available, albeit expensive. Even in circulated grades, the 1903-S is somewhat scarce, leading many numismatists to believe that this date was heavily melted. In mint state grades, most 1903-S dollars grade MS-63 through MS-65 with an abundant number of MS-64 and 65 coins available, especially surprising when the overall scarcity of the date is factored into the equation. Obviously, quality control at the San Francisco mint was higher than average in 1903. Most 03-S dollars have rich satiny luster, much like the 92-S in appearance. They tend to have above average surface preservation, which is also why they grade higher at the major services. The strike, as is usually the case on post 1900 Morgan Dollars, is seldom completely full, although it’s also better than most of its counterparts. There are few, if any, truly prooflike 1903-S dollars, and no DMPL pieces that I know of. All in all, 1903-S Morgans are attractive coins, and at a price, are somewhat available. The finest 03-S dollar that I can remember seeing may be the Eliasberg coin, which graded MS-67 at PCGS. It was a lovely light gold and blue toned specimen with outstanding underlying luster. Currently greysheet values this coin at $29,000.00, which would be a steal were it actually available.


The 1904-S is a date, which until recently, was largely undervalued and ignored by collectors. It is slightly more common than the 03-S in both circulated and uncirculated grades. Most 1904-S dollars are heavily bagmarked, and many are also unattractively toned. Luster can be a problem with this date and it can range from dead to slightly above average. Although lower grade mint state pieces can be found (MS-60 to 63), choice and gem coins are scarce. I’m not a real proponent of how the grading services grade this date, as I have seen many examples in MS-65 holders with indifferent luster. I think if the same criteria for the 03-S Morgan was applied to grading this date, the true rarity of MS-65 pieces would become evident. Because of the number of poor quality 04-S Morgans on the market, their prices remain somewhat deflated. In my opinion, at the current greysheet price of $6500.00 for a MS-65 specimen, a true GEM 04-S is grossly undervalued. However, given the number of unattractive coins in MS-65 holders, this may not actually be the case. Strike is always a problem on this date, and I don’t recall ever seeing a 100% fully struck piece. PL pieces are rare and DMPL pieces are extremely rare. But, with some patience and a lot of money, both can eventually be found. My feelings are that this date gets little respect because of the associated quality issues. Considering that not a single 1904-S Dollar showed up in the entire LaVere Redfield hoard, both its value and scarcity are unquestionable.

Few People Saved Philadelphia Barber Halves

By Paul M. Green
Numismatic News

Barber half dollars in general are the toughest type coin of the past century. Of the Barber halves, the most overlooked group within the set are probably the Philadelphia issues. Overlooking Philadelphia issues is easy to understand. As the main mint of the United States, Philadelphia generally did have the highest mintages and as a result the coins of Philadelphia would usually be the most available. However, in the case of half dollars especially that was not always the case, and that is seen in the case of Barber halves. Included among the Philadelphia dates are some very low mintage and surprisingly tough coins.

Low mintages are not everything when arriving at today’s prices, especially in Mint State, and that is where we see that many of the Philadelphia Barber halves tend to be lower in prices than those from other facilities. Philadelphia coins were generally more heavily saved. Plus, in the case of the Barber half, there were proofs every year, and that has helped the type supply today. Even so, it would be wrong to take the Philadelphia Barber halves for granted.

There were a number of factors working against the saving of Barber halves during the period from 1892-1915 when they were produced. The first factor was a simple one: that they were not very popular with the collectors of the time. To start with, collecting was in a slow cycle with the numbers of proofs being sold each year dropping. The national economy was also weak during the early years of the Barber half dollar. Further, no one was really impressed with the design. All of those considerations joined to makes the Barber half dollar a set that was not being filled by many.

The Barber half was a problem for collectors even if they were interested a half dollar was too much money for many collectors at the time. Nor did that situation change for a long time as even in the 1950s many younger collectors were not attempting Franklin half dollar sets simply because they were too expensive. That problem was seen in the case of Barber half dollars quite literally for the entire time they were produced. The average Barber half simply reached circulation and continued to circulate for decades. We see some strong proof of that fact in the New York Subway Hoard put together in the 1940s and purchased by the Littleton Coin Company back in the 1990s. The hoard included 24 complete sets of Barber half dollars, and to be available in the 1940s means that some of the dates had been in circulation for 50 years.

The impact of the lack of saving, both when released and over the years in circulation, makes virtually every Barber half dollar a tougher coin than might be expected not just in Mint State but also in circulated grades. Moreover, with such a long time in circulation, it is entirely possible that numbers of many dates were simply retired as too worn and destroyed, potentially meaning the mintage totals might not be accurate guides as to the availability of some dates today.

The very first 1892 Philadelphia Barber half dollar pointed immediately to the fact that it could not be taken for granted that the Philadelphia mintages would be high. The 1892 had a mintage of 935,245, which was lower than the 1892-S. The 1892 might have been saved, not unusual for the first year of a new design. Today in G-4 the 1892 lists at $28.50 while an MS-60 is at $475, basically an available-date price, suggesting saving around Philadelphia. An MS-65 is at $3,400, slightly higher than the most available MS-65 dates, which are at $3,000. In this case the numbers at the Professional Coin Grading Service serve as a good guide to how available or tough other dates might be. PCGS reports 111 examples in MS-65 and better and over 500 total Mint State examples graded.

The 1893 would have a higher mintage of 1,826,792, but in fact it shows that there was definitely some saving in the first year as the 1893 is much less available in Mint State where it has a price of $535 in MS-60 and $5,500 in MS-65. Those prices are deserved as PCGS has seen around 125 examples in Mint State and of that total only 21 were MS-65 or better.

The 1894 and 1895 would be similar in that both had mintages of between one million and two million pieces. The 1894 would have the lower mintage at 1,148,972, which results in a price of $32.50 in G-4 today while the 1,835,218-mintage 1895 is at $17.50 in that grade. In MS-60 the 1895 becomes the more expensive at $595 while the 1894 is just $500. They switch places again in MS-65 where the 1894 is at $3,900 while the 1895 is $3,500. The close prices are no accident; PCGS shows just a one coin difference in the numbers seen of the two.

1896 again saw a low mintage of 950,000 at Philadelphia. The uneven nature of supplies in circulated grades is seen in the fact that the 1896 is just $20 in G-4, less than the higher mintage 1894. With so much time in circulation, it is possible that greater numbers of the 1894 were destroyed, making it the tougher date today. In MS-60 the 1896 is at $565, an MS-65 $6,000, that price justified with only 14 examples having been graded in MS-65 or better today.

The final Philadelphia Barber half dollars of the 1890s showed significanty higher mintages. The 1897 was near 2.5 million while the 1898 was over 2.9 million and the 1899 was at over 5.5 million. The three are between $12 and $15 in G-4 with each being $485 in MS60. In MS-65 the three are between $3,800 and $4,800 with the 1899 being he most expensive at $4,800 where CGS has only graded 14 examples.

What happens in the case of the Philadelphia Barber half dollar is that a pattern does not last long. The 1900-1902 dates all had mintages between four million and five million. Generally speaking, all three are equally priced equally available.

Just when the pattern seems to be established, there is the 1903, which had a decent mintage of 2,278,755. That is not a low total, so the 1903 is just $13.50 in G-4, which is basically the same as the dates from 1900-1902. In MS-60 it is also similar to the three earlier years at $500, but then suddenly as opposed to roughly $4,250 like the other dates it is listed for $11,000. That immediately raises the question as to whether it is that much tougher and in fact it is as PCGS has only seen five examples in MS65 or better while the three earlier dates are usually at a dozen or more pieces seen in top grade.

The 1904, mintage 2,992,670, was similar although not as extreme. Available in circulated grades, the 1904 is $1,300 in MS-60 and $6,600 in MS65, both premium prices. The question becomes, do the numbers support the prices? Once again they do. PCGS reports just seven examples in MS-65 and higher grades. With a number just two coins lower than the 1903 but a price at about 50 percent of the 1903 level in MS-65, the question might well be why the 1904 is not more expensive. There could be a few factors explaining that – with limited demand and a very limited supply, you have the elements of a volatile situation in terms of price. There is another factor to be remembered, and that is the presence of proofs. These are cases where the proofs can potentially be substituted for MS-65 examples by some type collectors.

The proofs are a very real consideration as today the 1904 in Proof-65 is $4,100, about $2,500 below the MS-65 price. In the case of the 1903, with a Proof-65 at $3,825 while an MS-65 is $11,000, there is a very real financial incentive to consider using a proof in a collection. PCGS shows safely over 20 examples of both the 1903 and 1904 in Proof-65 and many more in lower grades. This makes the proof not only much less expensive but also far easier to find offered.

The proof situation might surprise some, but we have to consider the times. The proof sales in 1903 and 1904 might have been around 700, down from over 1,200 in 1892. Even though the numbers moved up and down, the proofs sold each year had a very real advantage when it came to survival as the only people acquiring proofs were serious collectors, and that means much better care. We can see that in the famous 1895 Morgan dollar that was part of a set with an 1895 Barber half dollar. The total mintage of that set is put at 880 pieces, which was about average for 1895, yet the belief is that perhaps 600 examples of the 1895 proof-only dollar still exist. While the numbers are lower for the 1895 half dollar, the fact remains there are significantly more proofs available today despite the much lower mintage than there are examples in a grade like MS-65, and this trend runs throughout the entire period when Barber half dollars were produced – but only in the case of coins produced at Philadelphia.

In 1905 the Philadelphia Barber half dollar mintage suddenly dropped to just 662,727 pieces. We are not certain of any specific reason for the decline although Philadelphia throughout had other responsibilities that would cause its mintages to rise and fall sometimes for no apparent reason. The lower mintage makes the 1905 a $22.50 coin in G-4, and that has to be seen as a very good deal when you consider the low mintage. Perhaps the 1905 did survive in circulated grades, but it is also possible that being from Philadelphia it is simply overlooked. The 1905 is better in Mint State at $575 in MS-60 and $8,250 in MS-65 where the PCGS total is just 13 coins seen. Once again the Proof-65 is an option at $3,900 and the supply there is better as well, with more than 30 examples graded Proof-65 or better.

The 1906 and 1907 are basically at available-date prices of $12 in G-4, $485 in MS-60 and around $3,250 in MS-65. In both cases as well as a number of other dates, its worth remembering that these are not common coins. They are available dates among Barber half dollars, but in both cases there were mintages of under three million pieces. Under no circumstances can such a mintage be considered large, and these coins as well as the others were not saved in any numbers. They circulated for decades. Certainly over time there were many examples destroyed and lost. At today’s basic price of $12 in G-4, the conclusion has to be that any Philadelphia Barber half is a good value, and that includes even these more available dates.

In the cases of the 1908 and 1909, these are a couple of dates that on the surface seem to be available thanks to mintages between 1.3 and 2.3 million pieces. In all Barber half dollar cases the mintages are low, and that includes even the available dates. The totals of the 1908 and 1909, while low, make them average Barber halves. There were only a couple dates which would even reach the five million mark and none that would top six million. Under the circumstances, when it comes to availability, everything is relative to other Barber halves, and by that standard the 1908 and 1909 are at least available in circulated grades. Where the 1908 and 1909 prove to be better is in the case of the 1908 in MS-65 where it lists for $4,500 as only 17 examples have been graded MS-65 or better at PCGS. In the case of the 1909, it is the Proof-65 at $4,000 that is worth noting. In fact, the dates since 1907 are all higher in Proof-65 at $4,000 or more; the earlier dates tend to be $3,300 and up but usually in the $3,500 range. What the 1909 and others reflect is a continuing decline in proof mintages, making them less available than earlier dates, and that trend would continue with a couple exceptions until the end of Barber half production.

The 1910 would be the start of what is an interesting period. The mintage of the 1910 is just 418,551, and by any standard that is a low total. Yet its price is just $20 in G-4. A comparison with the 1938-D Walking Liberty half dollar might well show the value. The 1938-D, which was actually saved in some numbers, had a higher mintage of 491,600, yet today in G-4 the 1938-D is $120. There is no doubt that the 1938-D is more available, yet the lack of interest in Barber half dollars today allows the 1910 to sit at $20, making it a great value on an overlooked coin.

The 1910 is also very reasonable in Mint State as there it is the number saved and not the mintage that really matters. At $625 in MS-60 and $4,000 in MS-65 with a Proof-65 at $4,250, the 1910 is better but certainly not out of line considering its mintage and the PCGS numbers, which show 19 examples in MS-65 or better.

The 1911 saw a return to a more normal mintage of 1,406,543 and the 1912 would be similar at 1,550,700. As it turned out, the 1911 would be the available date of the two based on prices today while the 1912 is at a premium price of $4,200 in MS-65 and it may be a sleeper at that price as PCGS has only graded 11 in MS-65 or better.

The 1913 mintage began the final three years of Philadelphia Barber half dollar mintages, which were all extremely low. The 1913 had a mintage of 188,627 while the 1914 was at 124,610 with the 1915 at 138,450. Precisely what was happening at Philadelphia to produce such totals is uncertain, but in three years Philadelphia produced the three lowest mintages in the history of Barber half dollars and those three dates are extremely interesting today.

With such low mintages we might assume that the three dates were heavily saved at the time, but that is not the case. After all, there was a Barber quarter with a 40,000 mintage in 1913 and a Standing Liberty quarter with a 52,000 mintage in 1916 and those were just a couple of a parade of lower-mintage dates during the period. The 1913, 1914 and 1915 Barber halves did not stand out. We also have some proof that they circulated for decades without being pulled out of circulation by collectors or dealers. The New York Subway Hoard had not only 24 complete sets of Barber halves, but also many individual examples of these dates, so there is no doubt that they were in circulation at least into the 1940s.

We have seen circulated prices of the three rising recently. It may be primarily a case of their low mintages attracting attention as they have been rising faster than other Barber half dollars. In G-4 the 1913 is now at $70 while the lowest mintage 1914 is at $150 with the 1915 at $90. In today’s market those prices are reasonable for coins with such mintages, but future increases may be limited simply because of a lack of demand.

In Mint State we see the 1913 at $1,150 in MS-60 and $4,850 in MS-65 while the 1914 is $1,400 in MS-60 and $7,500 in MS-65 with the 1915 at $1,250 in MS-60 and $6,500 in MS-65. The PCGS totals for the three show the 1913 with 16 pieces graded MS-65 or better while the 1914 is at eight and the 1915 is at 12. Those actually are pretty close to what you would expect based on prices although it must be remembered that there is still a supply of proofs for all dates. Interestingly enough, based on PCGS totals the toughest of the three in proof grades is the 1915.

Whatever grade you might select, there is really no doubt that the 1913, 1914 and 1915 are very interesting Barber half dollar dates and dates that still seem to have a lot of potential if additional demand surfaces.

Actually, the matter of additional demand is key to all Philadelphia Barber half dollars. Based on the numbers graded and their low mintages, the Philadelphia Barber half dollar certainly seem to have a great deal of potential. The only real question is whether that will be recognized by enough collectors to push their prices to new levels in the future.

Auction Prices Provide Historical Perspective

By David L. Ganz
Numismatic News

Auctions fascinate and engage us.

It’s not just eBay, but also mail-bid auction sales, live auctions and other sale methods where items go to the highest bidder.

dollar_1It’s a combination of skill – to win an item at the high bid but at the lowest possible price – knowledge (in knowing what to bid on, and how high to bid) and resources to accomplish the goal.
Sometimes it’s just a case of luck. Some 30 years ago, for example, I attended a Saturday morning auction of New England Rare Coin Galleries in New York City and walked in just as a 1922 uncirculated Peace dollar hit the block. It was rare, but the bid was uncovered – no reserve – and it was mine for a shouted $5 bid to auctioneer Herb Melnick, who knew how to coax extra dollars and bids on higher end items.

Another example, more interesting but less numismatic, came at an auction conducted by a major auction house 20 years ago cataloged as an “engraving of the presidents’ ” I looked at it and recognized it for what it really was: a presidential commission, signed by Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton. A nice prize for diligence.

Auctions are also important price histories, which show trends for individual coins and the marketplace as a whole. They show a story line that allows both graphic, chart and written comparisons to be made over an extended period of time and to give an impression of market segments as well as the whole shooting match.

I’ve been going to auctions regularly for more than 30 years, and I retain the sale catalogs. It’s useful, I find, to know where the bidding starts, where it ends and who the players are who bid on key lots. It also helps in the eventual pedigree of a coin – knowing who had the coin, and when.

That in turn allows for following values up and down over extended periods of time.

For more than 30 years, I’ve also charted coin prices for key dates – coins like the 1804 silver dollar, the 1913 Liberty nickel, the 1794 silver dollar and others – which I have augmented by acquiring older numismatic literature to round out the collection of information.

In 1973, when I worked in Iola, Wis., for Krause Publications as an assistant editor for Numismatic News, one of the most exciting stories took place in October, when the Gilhousen collection was first sold by Superior Galleries. Television producer Ralph Andrews was the buyer, but the quote from Larry Goldberg over the phone lines the next day was staggering.

“I just sold the first $100,000 coin,” he said, and it was big news.

It may seem commonplace right now, but in the backwater times of the 1970s, a sixfigure sale of a coin was something else. (The Ellsworth collection, which contained a 1794 dollar in uncirculated, for example, was purchased intact by Wayte Raymond for $100,000 in the 1940s.

The 1794 dollar is a coin with a story, and an impressive price record – not to mention pedigree. For convenience, I’ve started back more than a century ago, 1903, when the Murdock collection was sold in London and an uncirculated 1794 dollar brought £48, or about $230.40, in the sale.

dollar_2The announcement by Goldberg was a watershed, for it marked the true beginning of consideration of numismatic items as genuine investment vehicles worthy of consideration by Wall Street types, and others. Barely five years later, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston used its prestigious New England Economic Review to quote from the Salomon Brothers Survey of tangible assets to show that coins were indeed more than a collectible.

Of course, that’s not the final story for 1794 dollars.

Q. David Bowers, in his definitive Complete Encyclopedia of US. Dollars (1993), traces some of the subsequent history. It eventually wound up in the 1975 Bowers & Ruddy Newport Collection sale (Lot 371) where it realized $75,000; from there, it went to the block in heated competition. By that time, the Dow was at 857 and the CPI was 53.80 (again, 1982=100).

By 1984, the Amon Carter specimen (originally purchased at the 1947 Will W. Neil collection sale conducted by B. Max Mehl for $1,250) hit the block in uncirculated condition (described as proof-like by cataloger Norman Stack). It was a significant event for the numismatic community.

Ed Milas, of RARCOA, was in attendance and told me at the time that he “had $150,000 to bid and I thought that would take it.” He estimated its pre-sale value at $120,000 and seemed very confident. Bidder 187, Huge Sconyers, instead took top honors at $240,000 ($264,000 with the buyer’s premium).

By this time the Dow had moved to 1,212 and the CPI had started its inflationary march to 103.90.

The coin next showed up in the collection of Jimmy Hayes, which he sold through Stack’s in October 1985 as he prepared to run for Congress. Hayes was known for his discerning eye for high-quality, better-graded material – and in this coin he had hit a true mark.

David W. Akers attended that sale and spoke with me prior to the auction. He graded the coin MS-63+ and said that he had come to the sale expecting to buy the coin. It opened at a respectable $75,000 from a mail bidder, and moved rapidly in $5,000 increments to $80,000, $85,000, then $90,000. Kevin Lipton jumped in with a bid of $ 100,000, and it was off to the races.

When the smoke cleared minutes later, Akers had the bid at $200,000 (a $220,000 total price with buyer’s fee). The market for the coin was stabilizing, but not moving steadily upward. The Dow had advanced to the 1,547 mark and the CPI was at 107.60; gold was at $318 an ounce – a long way from the $35 an ounce it had been in 1968 and prior going back to the 1930s.

Another MS-63 specimen was the Amon Carter piece that showed up in a Superior Sale of the Hoagie Carmichael collection in January 1986. That brought $209,000 and traced its pedigree to the Mehl sale of the Will W. Neil collection of 1947, and by extension, the earlier Carter coin at $264,000 – a net decline over the two-year period. (The Dow was at 1,896 and the CPI was at 109.60, gold was at $368 an ounce.)

The companion Lord St. Oswald piece, sold to A.H. Baldwin and Lester Merkin on behalf of Ambassador and Mrs. R. Henry Norweb, was sold by Bowers & Merena in 1988. The price then: $242,000. Bowers said that which of the two coins is better (at MS63) remains a “toss-up”.

Not too many years ago, in 1995, Stack’s sold another 1794 dollar (described as gem brilliant uncirculated) in its Numisma ’95 venture with Akers and RARCOA. The final bid: $577,500. Its pedigree: Fred Boyd.

Since 1995, a number of 1794 silver dollars have hit the market, but most in about uncirculated condition, or extremely fine, or even fine – not uncirculated. The coin in that superior state of preservation is a genuine rarity.

Latest was the American Numismatic Rarities sale last year when a 1794 dollar took top honors with a $1.15 million final bid. This, too, has a pedigree showing that it came from the Boyd collection.

But if the first coin to hit $100,000 was a surprise in the 1794 silver dollar, there were lots of guesses as to which would be the first coin to reach $1 million – either by private treaty (i.e., a dealer sale) or by auction route.

It almost made no difference what the coin was – it was the concept of getting there, and there was plenty of speculation when it would occur, what the coin would be and whether the sale would be public or private.

By 1978, more than 15 coins had broached the $100,000 benchmark, and the race to a million was on. As the 20th Century ended, the million-dollar barrier, a Rubicon of sorts, had been breached three times ‘ once for a 1913 Liberty nickel ($1.485 million) and twice by different 1804 silver dollars ($1.815 million and $4.14 million, respectively).

Of considerable significance, beyond the one-shots, is that the overall market has risen – the high-priced singular items, like a tide, have lifted the rest of the ocean of coin rarities. Thus, coin prices of $30,000 or higher are no longer considered the novelty that they were a quarter century ago.

No one can really predict where the next level of coin prices will go, but what-is clear is that the rising tide has transformed the marketplace, adding a zero to the pricing of yesteryear, in the process creating a wholly new investment vehicle whose future will be grasped sooner rather than later.

Best evidence is that all 1794 dollars were coined on Oct. 15, 1794, from silver bullion deposited by David Rittenhouse, then director of the U.S. Mint and a prominent Philadelphia scientist. All 1794 silver dollars coined on this date were delivered to Rittenhouse. Thus, all 1794 silver dollars can trace their pedigree to him, who passed them out to friends, many of whom kept them, others were spent and circulated. The silver bullion deposited by Rittenhouse varied greatly, and there were many gas bubbles in the silver ingots, which later caused the laminations and planchet cracks that plague approximately 30 percent of the 1794 dollar population.

The 1794 silver dollar is an American classic, it is the first year of issue of our monetary unit, was struck in extremely limited quantities and the total known population is between 125 and 150 coins in all grades. Only about 12 uncirculated specimens are identified. Their sale prices offer a unique point of comparison of the date and the rare coin economy.