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.