Is the 1896-O VAM-22 Morgan Dollar Wrongly Condemned?

Posted on 11/10/2015

Thought to be counterfeit when first discovered, a new case has emerged that coins struck from this die pair were indeed produced by the US Mint in New Orleans.

When it was first added to the VAM listings [?]

VAM is an acronym for the last names of Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis, authors of a comprehensive Morgan Dollar die variety book. Their work was first published in 1971 and created a market for certain die varieties of Morgan Dollars. With the aim of being comprehensive, new VAM varieties continue to be added as they are discovered.

VAM varieties start anew with each date/mint combination, VAM-1 typically denoting a coin from "normal" dies. Recognizable varieties are then numbered sequentially for that particular date and mint (VAM-2, VAM-3), though certain minor varieties and die states have been labeled as VAM-1A, VAM-1B, etc.

in 2008, the 1896-O VAM-22 was deemed a counterfeit. By the time VAM-22 was discovered, there were already two counterfeit 1896-O dollars included in the VAM listings, VAM-4 (Micro O) and VAM-21. Both are members of the “Micro O” Family [?]

The "Micro O" Family is a group of related fake Morgan Dollars with dates spanning from 1893 to 1902 and including the well-known Micro O counterfeits: 1896-O VAM-4, 1900-O VAM-5 and 1902-O VAM-3. Coins in the Family share common dies and many other attributes.

Interested in learning more? Read about the discovery of a counterfeit 1893-O Morgan dollar with C4 Reverse Hub.


Specialists were already suspicious of coins dated 1896-O and, in combination with some unusual characteristics of this new discovery, VAM-22 was included as a member of the Family as well. Some of the physical characteristics of VAM-22 are indeed unusual. For example, the ring-like raised defects seen most prominently under the E in AMERICA and elsewhere are not found on any other VAM the author has ever seen. In addition to the ring-shaped marks, the lack of detail and sharpness of the obverse devices, most notably the lips of Ms. Liberty, can be indicative of counterfeit pieces struck from transfer dies. But these factors do not by themselves condemn this coin. Many oddly-shaped die flaws can be found on genuine US issues, and mushy detail is very commonly found in Morgan Dollars minted in New Orleans, and especially so during the 1890s. Perhaps condemning VAM-22 was simply a case of guilt by association.

1896-O VAM-22 Morgan Dollar
Click images to enlarge.

Unlike other known counterfeit Morgan Dollars, no direct physical evidence confirms VAM-22 is counterfeit. Given the circumstantial nature of the evidence against this coin, more analysis is needed. During a period of study, multiple examples of the 1896-O VAM-22 were tested and scrutinized in order to gather all relevant data and characteristics of the die pair as best as possible.

Analysis began by testing surface metal composition. The US Mint has always used very exact standards and measurements of purity and weight of Morgan Dollars. The Comprehensive Catalogue and Encyclopedia of US Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars by Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis states that silver ingots for Morgan Dollars were considered to be proper fineness if they were between .8980 and .9015 fine. Metallurgical analysis was conducted on five separate examples of 1896-O VAM-22, as well as three known, undisputed counterfeits, one each of 1900-O VAM-22C1, 1896-O VAM-21, and 1902-O VAM-67, all members of the “Micro O” Family. Silver content for the counterfeit pieces ranged between .9195 and .9384, with an average silver fineness of .9280, too pure for US mint standards. Other published analyses of these coins have yielded similar results. By contrast, the four examples of the 1896-O VAM-22 were found to have fineness between .8956 and .9066, with an average silver purity of .9006. All examples tested were squarely within US Mint tolerances for fineness.

Shown are the unusual ring-like marks used to identify these dies. At left is the small, faint mark on obverse adjacent to the 9th star and the rim at 4:00. At right, is the larger ring on reverse found under the E of AMERICA.
Click images to enlarge.

Next a thorough visual analysis was performed to learn more about the dies and collar that produced VAM-22. While the above listed characteristics are anomalies, the VAM-22 has the correct hub type and reed count for genuine 1896-O Morgan Dollars. While readily apparent, it should also be stated that VAM-22 is definitely die struck, as indicated by metal flow, die wear, sonar resonance, and lack of all characteristics that point to other methods, such as a seam or casting flaws. If counterfeit, VAM-22 would need to have been struck from transfer dies. Repeating elements are always present on counterfeits made using transfer dies. A host coin will undoubtedly possess some bag marks and/or die cracks. Tooling marks made during the removal of imperfections on transfer dies are also commonly found on such fakes. Examination of multiple high grade 1896-O VAM-22s in varying die states at the same time using both a loupe and stereoscope by several leading experts on counterfeits yielded no trace of tooling marks, matching depressions, or other red flags that are indicative of counterfeit coins.

Of special importance, the die marriage of VAM-22 is unique; neither obverse nor reverse is known to be paired with any other dies – genuine or counterfeit. Thus, there is no direct die-linkage to the “Micro O” Family. The vast majority of die-struck contemporary counterfeit Morgan Dollars used the same counterfeit dies to produce multiple date and mintmark combinations. Here again, the VAM-22 is atypical of known counterfeits.

Detail images of reverse die cracks through STATES and AMERICA.
Click images to enlarge.

In addition to the metallic composition and die analysis of the 1896-O VAM-22, the frequency with which it is encountered is most definitely in line with production and survival rates of a genuine Morgan Dollar. Some of the most common examples of counterfeits coins in all of US numismatics are not seen as frequently as VAM-22 is relative to a generic 1896-O dollar. If counterfeit, its production would have required a massive scale. In addition, the VAM-22 has been observed in a full progression of die states — very unusual for counterfeit coins — and the progression is in no way suspect or different than other observed Morgan Dollar die progressions. The author has seen an early die state example of VAM-22 with prooflike attributes. Additionally, on VAM-22, a developing die crack pattern through AMERICA and the weakening of the ring-like die defect under the E of AMERICA have been observed. The frequency of appearance and the full die progression align its production with that of a typical Morgan dollar die pair, 100,000 or more coins, further suggesting this variety is a genuine US Mint product.

Undeniable proof that the VAM-22 is a genuine US Mint product is obtainable in two ways. First, proof could be found if an 1896-O Morgan Dollar is discovered that includes either the obverse or reverse die from VAM-22 paired with a known genuine die already in the VAM listings. Second, proof could be found if an 1896-O VAM-22 is identified with an early enough pedigree to suggest that it came directly from the US Mint in New Orleans. While the Eric P. Newman collection has an 1896-O VAM-22, graded NGC MS 61, the pedigree cannot be verified to be early enough to conclusively state that the coin is unquestionably genuine [link to auction]. Both forms of proof remain elusive.

Likewise, conclusively proving that the 1896-O VAM-22 is counterfeit would require that an unquestionably counterfeit Morgan dollar be found using the obverse or reverse die used on the 1896-O VAM-22, or that repeating die marks are found showing the coin to be struck from transfer dies. The latter seems highly unlikely as extensive efforts in this vein have been made.

The evidence that is currently available and discussed here all leads to the same logical conclusion. The 1896-O is a genuine, slightly unusual looking Morgan Dollar variety that has been called not genuine as a result of superficial features and its affiliation with a date and mintmark combination that is known to have transfer die counterfeit pieces. On the basis of this analysis, NGC certifies examples of VAM-22 as genuine.

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