While there are several United States coin series that can claim to be the most popular with American collectors, I believe the consistent front runner in recent decades has been, and will continue to be, Morgan silver dollars.
While there are several United States coin series that can claim to be the most popular with American collectors, I believe the consistent front runner in recent decades has been, and will continue to be, Morgan silver dollars. Most collectors of this series are satisfied with the completion of a set by date and mint. The several key dates in the Morgan series, while not truly rare in overall numbers, present quite a challenge to one's budget. In the course of assembling their sets, however, many collectors will be intrigued by the numerous varieties in this series. Some are well known and are considered by many collectors to be a regular part of a complete set. These include the 8-tailfeather, 7-tailfeather and 7/8-tailfeather varieties of 1878, the several overdates of 1880 and 1887, the O/S varieties of 1882, the O/CC varieties of 1900 and the very obvious doubled-die varieties of 1888-O ("Hot Lips") and 1901 (doubled tailfeathers). These mainstream varieties are found in most catalogs, and their values are published in several price guides.
With such high mintages for this series, enough dies were created that there are literally thousands of minor varieties for the Morgan dollar. An extensive documentation of these is found in the landmark book Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan & Peace Dollars, by Leroy C. Van Allen and the late A. George Mallis. Now in its fourth edition, this book is also a well researched history of the Morgan and Peace dollar coinage and includes very useful technical information. Varieties in these series are identified by VAM numbers, this acronym being taken from the surnames of the two authors, Van Allen Mallis.
While the VAM book has been in print for about thirty years, the real popularity of collecting these varieties began less than ten years ago. Most VAM varieties, while technically interesting, do not carry any premium, and collectors were somewhat bewildered by so many choices. It was only with the recent publication of several books isolating the more desirable varieties that this facet of collecting achieved widespread interest.
The first of these specialized works is The Top 100 Morgan Dollar Varieties: The VAM Keys, by Dr. Michael S. Fey and Jeff Oxman. This pocket-sized guide was published in 1996, and it identifies and illustrates the 100 most desired VAM varieties within the Morgan series. The success of this book led to additional interest in VAM varieties, so co-author Jeff Oxman wrote a follow-up book in 2000 that was published by the Society of Silver Dollar Collectors. The SSDC Official Guide to the Hot 50 Morgan Dollar Varieties illustrates an additional 50 varieties that have come to prominence with the overall increase in VAM collecting. Though in a larger format than its predecessor, this book is light enough that it may be carried to coin shows.
I find the most interesting Morgan dollars to be the first issues struck by the Philadelphia Mint at the onset of coinage in 1878. These are the three dozen or so varieties coined from dies that were made from the original 8-tailfeather reverse hub. Many collectors specialize in this area, and attribution of these varieties was made much simpler with a book by Jeff Oxman and Les Hartnett titled The 1878 Morgan Dollar 8-TF Attribution System. Another SSDC publication from 1998, this book is similar in format to the Hot 50 guide and is just as easily used.
Also popular with collectors are the varieties in which the second reverse hub of 1878, having seven tailfeathers, was impressed into dies that had already been hubbed with the 8-tailfeather reverse. These so-called 7/8-TF varieties show anywhere from zero to seven of the underlying feathers, but they're still identifiable by other doubled elements on their reverses. Oxman and Hartnett teamed up once again to write The 1878 Morgan Dollar 7/8-TF Attribution Guide in 1999. It, too, was published by the SSDC, and all three such books feature the excellent photography of Bill Fivaz.
The final specialized niche in Morgan dollar VAM collecting are the several 1879-S varieties having the parallel arrowfeather Reverse of 1878. David T. Wang produced a very useful guide to attributing these varieties utilizing a format similar to the Oxman/Hartnett books. His well illustrated A Guide to the 1879-S Reverse of 1878 Morgan Silver Dollars, published in 2001, did for these varieties what the other specialized VAM books have done by making them easy to identify.
While not as popular as Morgan dollars, the Peace dollar series has its own favored varieties. Peace dollar dies often show extreme erosion, so variety attribution can be challenging. The SSDC once again was publisher of another Jeff Oxman book, this time co-authored with Dr. David Close. The Official Guide to the Top 50 Peace Dollar Varieties came out just last year. Using the same large format, this easy-to-carry book may finally popularize the collecting of Peace dollar varieties.
As the attributer of varieties for my employer, Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, I can attest to the usefulness of these various books. A new day has dawned for VAMers, who once felt very alone.
David W. Lange's column USA Coin Album appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.
Are you a Morgan Dollar Collector? Check out the NGC Coin Price Guide's Morgan Dollar coin prices.