Jeff Garrett: Collecting Silver Dollar Varieties

Posted on 3/9/2023

Collecting Morgan and Peace Dollars can seem daunting, but VAM guides help streamline the process.

Collecting US coins by die variety has its origins in early copper coinage. Some of the first specialty books for US coins were for Colonial coinage and Large Cents. Generations of collectors have been searching for rare varieties of these early copper coins. Over time, collectors turned their attention to other series of early US coinage, including the extremely popular Bust Half Dollars produced from 1794 to 1836. My library has dozens of specialty books and research materials devoted to these highly collected series.

Later, researchers devoted time and energy to studying coins produced after the advent of steam presses in 1836. Production of coins became more standardized, but plenty of interesting varieties were created to stimulate research and the specialty books. In recent times, books have been written that study nearly every series of coins the US has ever produced. Modern collectors are blessed with information previous generations of collectors could only dream of.

Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars struck from 1878 to 1935 are one of the most popular coins ever created by the US Mint. Morgan Silver Dollars are super popular for many reasons. Collectors love large silver coins, and they were produced in prodigious numbers. There are about two dozen issues that can be considered common and purchased for under $100 in Mint State. On the other end of the spectrum, the series contains many rarities, especially in high grade. Only mega-collectors can afford the expense of a complete set of Gem Uncirculated examples. Large numbers of coins were also produced at the very popular Carson City Mint. These can be found easily because of the GSA release of millions of Mint condition coins in the 1970s.

1890-CC VAM-4 "Tail Bar" Morgan Dollar
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Close-up of an 1890-CC VAM-4 "Tail Bar" Morgan Dollar
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Like many of the other series mentioned above, it was only a matter of time before researchers turned their attention to Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars. Starting in the late 1960s, Leroy C. Van Allen and A. George Mallis began to compile a list of every die variety for Morgan and Peace Dollars. Their combined efforts led to the 1971 release of the Comprehensive Catalogue and Encyclopedia of U.S. Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars. The book has been revised and updated many times since its first release more than five decades ago.

There are around 2,000 different varieties of Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars. The book is certainly "comprehensive," and nearly overwhelming in scope. Some dates have dozens of individual and distinct VAM varieties. The three-letter acronym "VAM" stands for the initials of the last names of the book's authors. With so many different varieties, collectors and dealers enjoy the fun and thrill of hunting for rare examples listed in the reference.

1922 VAM-12A "Moustache" Peace Dollar
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Close-up of an 1922 VAM-12A "Moustache" Peace Dollar
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With over 2,000 different varieties known for the two series, it would be nearly impossible to assemble a complete set of VAM Dollars. Plus, new varieties are discovered on occasion. The task is simply too daunting, even for hardcore devotees.

There are several different ways to explore and collect VAM Dollar varieties that do not require finding over 2,000 coins. One very popular method is to collect coins listed in the book The Top 100 Morgan Dollar Varieties: The VAM Keys, by Michael S. Fey, Ph.D. and Jeff Oxman. This handy guide identifies the 100 most popular and valuable Morgan Dollar VAM varieties. NGC recognizes Dollars listed in this book on their labels for coins submitted for variety attribution. Coins listed in this book are much more likely to command a significant premium compared to the many minor varieties listed in the book by Van Allen and Mallis.

Another source for information and collecting guidance is the Cherrypickers' Guide published by Whitman Publishing. The book covers major varieties for dozens of series, including Morgan and Peace Dollars. The Cherrypickers' Guide is a great tool for anyone who enjoys the thrill of finding unattributed varieties that can be worth a premium. It’s the closest thing to "treasure hunting" we have for the hobby.

Many of the most major varieties for Morgan and Peace Dollars can be found listed in the MEGA RED guidebook by Whitman Publishing. This carefully curated list of varieties has been chosen over the years by the esteemed team of Red Book contributors. Experts in the series have suggested listings for coins many would consider part of a comprehensive collection of Morgan Peace Dollars. The MEGA RED book has listings and illustrations for the most important varieties. The corresponding VAM numbers and additional collecting tips are given as well.

1880-O VAM-4 "Hot Lips" Morgan Dollar
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Close-up of an 1880-O VAM-4 "Hot Lips" Morgan Dollar
Click images to enlarge.

The following are some of the most interesting and valuable VAM Dollar varieties listed in the latest edition of MEGA RED:

  • 1878 8 Tail Feathers Obverse Die Gouge "The Wild Eye" variety (VAM-14.11)
  • 1878 7 over 8 Tail Feathers - "Triple Leaves" variety (VAM-44)
  • 1880-O Die Gouge "Hangnail" variety (VAM-49)
  • 1881-O Double Die Obverse variety (VAM-27)
  • 1888-O Obverse Die Break "Scarface" variety (VAM-1B)
  • 1888-O Doubled Die Obverse "Hot Lips" variety (VAM-4)
  • 1890-CC Die Gouge "Tail Bar" variety (VAM-4)
  • 1890-O Die Gouge "Comet" variety (VAM-102)
  • 1891-O "Pitted Reverse" variety (VAM-1B)
  • 1899-O "Micro O" variety (VAM 4,6,31,32)
  • 1901 Double Die "Shifted Eagle" variety (VAM-3)
  • 1903-S Small S variety (VAM-2)
  • 1922 Die Break "Ear Ring" variety (VAM-2A)
  • 1922 Die Break "Moustache" variety (VAM-12A)
  • 1923 Die Break "Whisker Cheek" variety (VAM-1D)
  • 1934-D Double Die Obverse variety (VAM-4)

The above list is just a small sampling of the fun and interesting Morgan and Peace Dollars that are known and available to collectors. New varieties are found regularly, most of which make headline news in numismatic press when announced. NGC has considerable information about Morgan and Peace Dollar VAM coins in its VarietyPlus section of the website, including new discoveries.

If you love Morgan and Peace Dollars but would like a new and more challenging way to collect them, consider some of the many dramatic varieties for your collection. How can you not love a coin nicknamed "Scarface!"

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