The 1895 Morgan Dollar:
The 1895 Morgan Dollar is known as the "King of the Morgan Dollars" because it is the rarest and most valuable of the entire Morgan Dollar series. PF-68 specimens of this rare coin have sold for upwards of $120,000 at auction.
According to U.S. Mint records, there were 12,000 regular circulation Morgan Dollars struck for 1895, and 880 Proof specimens struck. However, only 75 to 80 of the 1895 Morgans have been accounted for, all of them Proofs. Where did 12,000 plus coins go?
A Mysterious Disappearance?:
Numismatic scholars are divided in their opinions as to why the 12,000 business strike specimens of the 1895 Morgan Silver Dollar have vanished into history. Most believe that the coins were never minted in the first place, and that this notation in the Mint accounting ledgers is in error. Some believe that the coins were minted, but melted down for various reasons. I even read one theory that proposes the coins were lost at sea in a shipwreck.
Why is it Called the "Morgan" Dollar when it Depicts Lady Liberty?:
Actually, the Morgan Dollar (so-called because it was designed by George T. Morgan) has been called much worse. When it first came out, it was an unpopular coin frequently derided as the "Buzzard Dollar" because of the shape of the eagle's head and the eagle's generally scrawny appearance. Another popular term for the Morgan was "Cartwheels." The proper term for the coin type is the "Liberty Head" dollar.
Millions and Millions of Morgans!:
Although the Morgan Dollar wasn't very popular when it first came out, we know today that it is one of the most popular coin types in the entire U.S. coinage series. Why did this change?
The answer is, millions and millions of Morgans! More than half a billion Morgan Dollars were made between 1878 and 1904, largely because of a law called the Bland-Allison Act, passed by Congress in February of 1878, which mandated that the Treasury must buy 2 to 4 million troy ounces of silver per month!
The "Silver Dick" Lobby:
The Treasury was forced to buy this incredible amount of silver, which was flowing out of the Comstock Lode in Nevada, because of a group of silver mine owners who had formed a lobbying group. Led by Congressman Richard "Silver Dick" Bland, the silver lobby was able to pass legislation that made the U.S. Treasury its biggest customer.
Of course, the Treasury had to do something with all this silver, so it had the Mint produce the Liberty Head, aka Morgan, Silver Dollars.
Morgan Dollars are Called the "Buzzard Dollars":
The Morgan Dollar wasn't very popular. The eagle was considered ugly, and the coin was derisively called a "cartwheel" for its large size and weight, so the Morgan Dollars sat in government vaults for many years, languishing in obscurity. Hundreds of millions of them were melted down again through the years, and many, such as the 12,000 made in 1895, are unaccounted for. But there were still plenty of Morgans to go around, since they only circulated in a few small areas.
The Silver Certificate Secret:
Sometime around 1960, certain coin dealers became aware that the Treasury was giving out Morgan Dollars that were more than 80 years old, on a dollar for dollar basis, in exchange for silver certificates. Many of the dealers were just after the silver bullion at lower-than-market cost, but others realized the potential collector value of these 60 to 80 year-old mint state silver dollars. Tens of millions of Morgans were bought at face value until 1964 when the Treasury shut this practice down.
The Public Finally Wakes up to the Beauty of the Morgan Dollar:
The Treasury had about 2.9 million Morgans left in 1964, mostly scarce Carson City specimens, which the GSA put up for public sale via mail-bid auctions starting in 1972. By 1980, as the supplies dwindled, the public finally became interested in the beautiful Morgan Dollar. The real feeding frenzy came, however, when an amazing hoard of more than 400,000 Morgans was found in the basement of Nevada miser LaVere Redfield after his death in 1975.
Morgan Mania at Last:
The Redfield find got a lot of publicity, and as the U.S. population had become a lot more familiar with the value of its silver coins in the years following the change from the silver coinage to the clad coinage, the Morgan Dollar finally came into its own as a popular collectible series. The publication of the "Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Peace and Morgan Silver Dollars" by Leroy Van Allen and George Mallis, (the VAM book) also spurred significant collector interest in Morgans.
Wham VAM, Thank You Ma'am:
The VAM book, so named for the initials of its authors, really boosted the values of Morgan Dollars into the big time. This book lists all of the known die varieties of the Morgan Dollar series, and got collectors to examine their coins more closely for detail. Coins that were previously valued based on a given year's known mintage of X number of specimens, now had sub-categories of specimens for that year based on die varieties. These sub-categories were naturally more scarce than just any coin from that year, so collectors who might previously have been satisfied with one specimen from each year and mint, now had to have several from each to complete the "set."
The Holy Grail of the Morgan Dollar Series:
For the rarest Morgan Dollar year/mint variety of them all, the 1895-plain, there are no business strike specimens known to exist. And even though 880 Proof specimens were struck according to Mint records, there are various estimates as to how many remain, ranging from 75 to 80, to upwards of 500! Some of the Proof specimens have been circulated, usually by accident because the Mint didn't always package them so nicely as they do today, but no business strike example of the 1895 Morgan Silver Dollar has ever been found.
Is it out there? Possibly. If so, if it ever comes to light, it will be one of the most spectacular finds ever in American numismatics!
Come discuss Morgan Dollars with us in the Coin-Collectors Forum.
Special thanks to WackyWolf, a Forum member who offered corrections for this article.