Collecting CC Morgans|
May 18, 2009
I think it's fair to say that the Morgan dollar, minted from 1878-1904 and then again in 1921, is one of the most widely collected of all U.S. coins. Of course, for most young people who began collecting coins when I did (in the 1950s), silver dollars were available at banks but too expensive to collect. After all, you could retrieve 100 scarce Lincoln cents from circulation for what it would cost you to set aside one silver dollar.
But at some point, a young collector becomes an older collector, and his or her finances improve to the point where collecting silver dollars doesn't seem too much of a stretch. And there are so many Morgans to accumulate that that's often the first dollar that calls to the collecting instinct.
If you think about it, there are many different ways to collect Morgan dollars. You can do it the old-fashioned, obvious way: try to obtain one of each date and mintmark combination. Of course, that turns out to be somewhat problematic, as there are some quite scarce (and pricey) coins along the way to set completion.
A simpler approach that would be far less expensive would be to put together a date set consisting of the least expensive example of each of the different years Morgans were minted. That is, you would have a complete year set without the focus on all the different mintmarks.
Another way to collect Morgans is by variety. If you decide to go this route, you'll soon find that the Morgan dollar has been extensively studied, and there are varieties galore for your collecting pleasure. Even A Guide Book of United States Coins, which is not known for having extensive, comprehensive descriptions of varieties, lists five different varieties of the Philadelphia-minted 1878 and another five varieties of the 1880-CC.
If you happened to be a collector living in the Deep South, and particularly in Louisiana, then you might choose to assemble a set of all the Morgans minted at the New Orleans Mint. Although New Orleans generally cranked out Morgans by the millions, there are a few scarce dates (1893-O, 1895-O) that are expensive in all grades.
Also, because New Orleans turned out so many of most dates, the results often were of rather indifferent quality. Because of this, some of the most expensive Morgans in higher grades bear the "O" mintmark. For example, the 1886-O, with an original mintage of more than 10.7 million, is valued at $220,000 in Mint State-65 in the 2009 U.S. Coin Digest. This is a coin that's worth only $23 in Extremely Fine-40.
Yet another way to collect Morgans, which you've probably surmised from the title of this article, is to focus on Morgan dollars from the storied Carson City Mint. In its simplest form, such a collection consists of just 13 different coins: 1878-CC through 1885-CC and 1889-CC through 1893-CC.
Putting together a set of each of the CC Morgans is definitely a good news/bad news story. It's good in the sense that there are not that many coins to get, and most of them are relatively plentiful in uncirculated. Unfortunately, the bad news is pretty bad: Four of the dates (1879-CC, 1889-CC, 1892-CC, 1893-CC) are fairly pricey in all grades. Also, even the "common" dates are relatively expensive because of demand.
Given its proximity to the San Francisco Mint, you may wonder why a mint was even needed in Carson City, Nev. The simple answer is that it was needed because of a major discovery of silver in Nevada, and the trip to San Francisco to have it minted into coins was both arduous and extremely dangerous.
The story of the Carson City Mint begins in 1859, when two prospectors, Patrick McLaughlin and Peter O'Reilly, discovered a huge silver deposit on land that belonged to Henry Comstock. Even though Comstock sold his claim to the land, his name remained with the silver deposit, which became known as the Comstock Lode.
To properly develop the Lode, the people of Nevada decided that they needed a branch mint, which was authorized by Congress in 1863. Unfortunately, this was during the height of the Civil War, so actual construction of the mint had to wait.
Ground-breaking for the mint took place in July, 1866, in the town of Carson, named by its founder after Kit Carson. Carson's founder was Abraham Curry, who not coincidentally became the first superintendent of what came to be known as the Carson City Mint. The new mint opened for business at the end of 1869, and the first coins struck there were 1870-CC Seated Liberty dollars.
From the outset, the San Francisco Mint tended to be favored over the one at Carson City, with the result that typically many more coins were stuck with an "S" mintmark than with a "CC" mintmark. In A Guide Book of Morgan Silver Dollars, David Bowers expresses it this way:
"By 1878, Curry was long gone as superintendent of the Carson City Mint, and James Crawford was in his place. However, San Francisco still tended to be favored, as evidenced by production that year: of the 1878-CC dollars, 2,212,000 were struck, compared to 9,994,000 of the 1878-S. In the next year, 1879, there were 756,000 1879-CC dollars made as opposed to a flood of 9,110,000 1879-S dollars."
Bowers expresses collector enthusiasm for CC Morgans as follows: "Today, Carson City Morgan dollars occupy a special affection, a special place in the hearts of collectors. Although the 1879-CC is rare in comparison to demand, and the 1889-CC is even more so, the majority of Morgan silver dollars from 1878 to 1885, and again from 1889 to 1893, can be acquired in Mint State for reasonable cost."
Of course, what's reasonable for one collector may be prohibitive for another. Let's take an individual look at the 13 CC Morgans.
The first thing you notice, if you list all the different dates and their mintages, is that mintage is a poor indicator of a particular date's value. One reason for this lack of correlation between mintage and value can be summarized by three letters: GSA. That is, in some cases nearly the entire mintage of a particular date was found to have been retained by the Treasury, and these coins were later dispersed in a series of sales by the General Services Administration. Hence, some of the dates are much more plentiful in high grades than their mintages would suggest. That doesn't make them cheap, however.
With a mintage of 2,212,000, as I indicated earlier, the 1878-CC has the second highest mintage of the 13 dates, following only the 1890-CC (2,309,041). Although the 1878-CC exists in circulated grades, there seems little reason for the collector to settle for one that's not in mint state, as there's relatively little price differential between an 1878-CC in Very Good-8 and one in MS-60.
Bowers considers the optimal collecting grade to be MS-64, which lists in the 2009 U.S. Coin Digest for $625. Personally, I would probably settle for the date in MS-63 at $390. One reason for the large number of these in mint state is that more than 60,000 were sold in the GSA sales. Although that sounds like a lot, as you will see, it's minuscule compared to the number sold of some of the other dates.
With a mintage of 756,000, the 1879-CC has the sixth-lowest mintage of the 13 CC Morgans. That should put it about in the middle of the pack in terms of value, but remember, mintages for this series can be quite deceiving.
In fact, the 1879-CC is the key date in the first group of CC Morgans (1878-CC through 1885-CC). Just 4,123 were available in the GSA sales, and Bowers suggests, "There were probably hundreds of thousands of 1879-CC dollars melted under the 1918 Pittman Act.…" As a result, he estimates a population of no more than about 5,000 uncirculated pieces.
There are two major varieties of the 1879-CC: One has a large CC and the other has a large CC over a smaller CC, which is sometimes called the "capped die" variety. Although the overmintmark is the scarcer of the two varieties, the "perfect" mintmark is more popular and thus slightly more expensive in most grades.
In circulated grades, the 1879-CC is relatively reasonable, but prices of mint-state pieces ascend rapidly. The date starts at $165 in VG-8, goes to $185 in Fine-12 (which definitely seems a better buy than a VG-8), jumps to $285 in Very Fine-20, and then starts a more rapid ascent: EF-40 $735, About Uncirculated-50 $1,900, MS-60 $4,150, MS-63 $7,500, MS-65 $27,850, and in MS-65 deep mirror prooflike $48,750. These prices are for the large CC variety. In MS-64, Bowers' Optimal Collecting Grade, the 1879-CC is a $10,250 coin. Even with all the money I make writing for coin magazines, I'll have to stick with circulated varieties.
With just 591,000 minted, the 1880-CC has the fourth-lowest mintage of the CC Morgans. However, this is another case in which the mintage is quite deceiving. According to Dave Bowers, writing in Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States, more than 130,000 were sold in the GSA sales, with "perhaps 100,000 or more distributed earlier." This gives an estimate of 230,000, which is nearly half of the total Bowers estimates remained after melting.
As for die varieties, there are two major types: Reverse of 1878 (flat breast) and Reverse of 1879, which is more plentiful but similarly priced. In addition, "most if not all 1880-CC obverses were overdated" (80/79 or some variation thereof).
Values vary somewhat for the different varieties but not as much as you would expect. Also, with so many uncirculated pieces available, it would seem reasonable to me to purchase a mint-state specimen if you wanted to add this date to your collection. Values for the 1880-CC reverse of 1878 range from $175 in VG-8 to $2,775 in MS-65. The coin lists for $600 in MS-63 and $1.265 in Bowers' Optimal Collecting Grade of MS-64. As you can probably guess, I would (and did) buy the date in MS-63.
The 1881-CC has the second-lowest mintage, with just 296,000 struck. Again, this is deceiving in terms of the date's value, as the GSA sold 147,485 of this date, which is nearly 50 percent of the total minted. Thus, there are lots of uncirculated 1881-CCs for collectors to buy. Because of the availability of this date in mint state, the range of values for it is quite restricted in all grades below MS-65 DMPL. Also, because the difference in price between VG-8 and MS-60 is less than $200 ($375 and $555, respectively), it makes little sense to me to consider buying a circulated specimen.
For the 1881-CC, Bowers chooses MS-65 ($975) as the Optimal Collecting Grade. Naturally, the one I have is in MS-64 ($625). Fortunately, I bought it in one of the GSA sales for $45 or so, as it was in the "faulty" group, which I had read at the time was the category containing the best bargains. These were coins that GSA had decided were defective in some way. For the most part, they were toned coins, and in many cases they were worth considerably more than the coins in the "regular" category. As most of the dates were 1882-CC, 1883-CC, and 1884-CC, getting an 1881-CC was a stroke of luck and very exciting at the time, as you can imagine.
We can lump together the 1882-CC, 1883-CC, and 1884-CC, as they had similar mintages of slightly more than a million pieces each, which give them the ranks of seventh, ninth, and eighth, respectively, of the 13 dates. They are also valued similarly and, along with the 1878-CC, are the least expensive of the CC Morgans. As Bowers puts it, "The 1882-CC and the two successive Carson City issues…constitute the most widely available Carson City silver dollars. In 1964 the Treasury Department held back vast quantities of these issues, later distributing them to collectors and others [in the GSA sales]." In fact, the GSA sales distributed 53.4 percent of the 1882-CC, 62.8 percent of the 1883-CC, and a whopping 84.7 percent of the 1884-CC.
Because all of these GSA coins were in mint state, there's little reason to purchase any of the three dates in a circulated grade, or, for that matter, in any grade less than MS-63. As just one example of the restricted range of values you'll find for these dates, the range in values for the 1884-CC between VG-8 and MS-63 is exactly $100! In MS-63, all three dates sell for around $200 apiece.
I obtained one or more of each of these dates in my GSA purchases, but, for some inexplicable reason, sold all but one 1883-CC. Thus, when I later decided to assemble a set of the CC Morgans, I was forced to buy the 1882-CC and the 1884-CC, which, as you would expect, had risen dramatically in value since I sold the GSA examples.
The 1883-CC that I kept turned out to be one of my all-time greatest bargains. When I sent it to Numismatic Guaranty Corp., which certifies GSA coins in their original holders, it came back MS-66 Prooflike. It's hard to find a value for a coin in this grade, but I've seen them advertised for close to $1,000. Not bad for $45.
The 1885-CC is another of the low-mintage pieces (228,000, which gives it the lowest mintage of the lot) that is not worth nearly as much as you might think. Credit for this situation goes again to the GSA, which dispersed slightly more than 65 percent of the original mintage at the GSA sales. Again, there's little reason to purchase a circulated specimen, as the difference in value between the date in VG-8 and MS-64(!) is less than $200. Not surprisingly, Bowers' Optimal Collecting Grade is MS-65, which is valued at more than twice as much as the date in MS-64 ($1,450 vs. $720, respectively). Care to guess which grade I bought?
We've finally gotten to the big kahuna, the 1889-CC. In A Guide Book of Morgan Dollars, Bowers writes: "The 1889-CC dollar is one of the great keys in the Morgan series, and among Carson City issues it is far and away the most elusive. In comparison to the demand for them, examples are rare in all grades."
Its mintage of 350,000 gives it the third-lowest mintage of the 13 dates. However, unlike the last five dates I've discussed, the 1889-CC was not part of the GSA sales. In his Guide Book, Bowers writes, "Of the 350,000 1889-CC dollars made, many thousands were paid out in the 19th century, yielding a supply of circulated pieces for numismatists today." In Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars, he estimates that at least 250,000 of the date were melted and that there are no more than about 12,000 in all mint-state grades combined. From this, you can see that the vast majority of the remaining specimens are in various circulated grades.
Pricewise, the 1889-CC begins at $675 in VG-8, and this is a coin that I can fairly confidently predict will top the $1,000 mark in the not-too-distant future. It's $1,050 in F-12, $1,750 in VF-20, $3,650 in EF-40, $7,250 in AU-50, and $22,500 in MS-60. Obviously, there's a huge jump from the circulated category to uncirculated. In MS-65, the 1889-CC lists for $290,000.
At the end of his discussion of the date in Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars, Bowers writes, "Numerous '1889-CC' dollars have been created by adding mintmarks to common 1889 Philadelphia Mint coins. Unless you are an expert and can do it yourself, have any high-value 1889-CC dollar authenticated." To this, I would add, "Amen."
Bowers' Optimal Collecting Grade for this date is MS-63, which lists for a mere $43,500. I would have to win a sweepstakes in order to be able to afford an uncirculated 1889-CC, so I'll just have to be satisfied with a circulated specimen. Don't tell my wife, but I recently added such a coin to my collection. Graded F-15 by PCGS, I bought it at auction for a shade under $1,000.
The next two CC Morgans, 1890-CC and 1891-CC, had relatively large mintages, ranking 13th and 11th, respectively. Neither date was well represented in the GSA sales, with just 3,949 1890-CCs and 5,687 1891-CCs among the coins sold.
Summing the low estimates, Bowers thinks there are approximately 34,000 uncirculated 1890-CCs remaining and approximately twice as many 1891-CCs. Given the large number of mint-state specimens, it would seem reasonable to look for one in uncirculated rather than settling for a circulated coin.
For both dates, Bowers considers MS-64 the Optimal Collecting Grade. Values in this grade are $2,650 and $1,450, respectively. As both dates list for less than $1,000 in MS-63 ($950 and $800, respectively), you can imagine which grade I would try to add to my collection. Actually, I bought a nice NGC-graded MS-62 1891-CC for slightly more than half the MS-63 price. I'm still looking for an appropriately priced 1890-CC.
Both dates have interesting varieties that are worth slightly more than the normal versions. For the 1890-CC, Bowers' Guide Book listed variety is called the 1890-CC Tail Bar because of a bar extending "from the bottom arrow feather to the olive branch below.…"
The well-known die variety of the 1891-CC is the so-called Spitting Eagle variety, the "saliva" created by "a tiny gouge or chip out of die in space between upper and lower beak points…," according to Bowers' encyclopedia. In the Guide Book, Bowers notes, "Any promoter wanting to sell one of these for a stretchy price had better hide a copy of The Top 100 Morgan Dollar Varieties from potential customers [because it says the variety] is not only 'not rare,' but is actually the most common of all the 1891-CC varieties!" Values listed for the variety in Coin Digest are slightly higher in all grades.
Like the 1889-CC and the 1893-CC, the 1892-CC Morgan was not part of the GSA sales, so its value in all mint-state grades is much higher than you would expect for a coin with its mintage (1,352,000), which is the tenth highest in the series.
Taking the low estimates, Bowers suggests that there are about 32,000 survivors in uncirculated, so if you can afford the price, obtaining one should not be difficult. Again, his Optimal Collecting Grade is MS-64, which lists for $3,750 in Coin Digest.
With the 1892-CC listing for $1,650 in MS-60 and $2,450 in MS-63, for now I'm going to be satisfied with one in circulated condition. Last year, I bought a Professional Coin Grading Service-graded EF-40 for about $440, which is less than its Coin Digest value of $535. It's an $800 coin in AU-50.
The last date in the 13-coin set, the 1893-CC, is another of the big-ticket CC Morgans, at least in grades of EF and above. Part of the reason for this is its mintage, which was 677,000 pieces, and another part is that it was not included in the GSA sales, as I indicated above. Using his low estimates again, Bowers suggests a survival of approximately 18,000 uncirculated pieces.
This time, Bowers' Optimal Collecting Grade is MS-63, and the reason for this is obvious when you look at the MS-64 value ($14,000). Unfortunately, the MS-63 value of $6,800 is beyond my collecting budget as well. Actually, the 1893-CC doesn't get into my range until the grade of VF-20, which lists for $725. In fact, I bought an ANACS-graded VF-20 at auction for about $475 earlier this year.
The 1893-CC starts at $265 in VG-8, is $345 in F-12, lists for $1,850 in EF-40, $2,350 in AU-50, and hits $3,700 in MS-60. If you've got the money, the MS-65 value is $56,000. In Guide Book, Bowers writes that uncirculated 1893-CCs are typically quite baggy. He also says, "Many attractive circulated coins exist and for many buyers will neatly fill the 1893-CC space." Perhaps I'll trade up to an EF-40 some day, although the better part of $2,000 seems a lot to pay for a coin that's so far below uncirculated.
As you can see from this discussion, none of the 13 CC Morgans is really all that rare, at least in lower grades. Some are quite rare, however, and priced accordingly, in higher mint-state grades.
At least three of the dates (1882-CC through 1884-CC) are actually fairly common in mint state, which leads to the question: Why are they priced so high (around $200 apiece in MS-63)? The answer can be summed up in one word: demand.
At the time of the GSA sales, many predicted that the price of CC dollars, particularly the ones heavily represented in the sales, would drop once the coins hit the market. In fact, just the opposite occurred, and the reason is fairly obvious: Dates that had once been considered rare now became plentiful enough that most collectors could afford them.
Think of the 1884-CC as an example. In terms of the numbers of coins available to collectors, this was a relatively rare date until the GSA sales dispersed nearly 85 percent of the original mintage. Collectors that previously had considered the CC Morgans impossible to find now begin to think of most of them as readily obtainable. This, of course, increased demand for the dates across the board, and prices rose even as quantities soared in some cases.
If you like Morgan dollars, and most collectors do, then the compact, 13-date set of Carson City Morgans has much to recommend it. From my experience, I would encourage you to get started collecting them sooner rather than later if you want to be able to afford one of each date. Also, try to get the key dates (1879-CC, 1889-CC, 1892-CC, 1893-CC) as quickly as you can, as I can fairly confidently predict that these will rise in value at a greater pace than their more common brethren. As always, happy collecting.
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On May 22, 2009 Chris Ford
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