Wayne Miller: The King of Silver Dollars

Posted on 2/10/2020

The Greysheet Daily News has published an article about the Montana coin dealer who wrote seminal works on Morgan and Peace Dollars. This is an excerpt. The full article, featuring his observations about the hobby's present and future, is here.

A 78-year-old coin dealer who has lived in relative obscurity in Montana most of his life wrote two books that transformed silver dollars from pretty but unpopular coins to collectibles of major importance.

Wayne Miller has not sought much attention since he wrote his two seminal works on silver dollars 40 years go. Yet many numismatists know he advanced knowledge about silver dollars and coin collecting in general by light years. These works are An Analysis of Morgan And Peace Dollars, published in 1976, and The Morgan And Peace Dollar Textbook, released in 1982.

Montana coin dealer Wayne Miller wrote two seminal works on Morgan and Peace Dollars.

“A lot of what we know and take for granted today is due to Miller’s research and writing decades ago,” said prominent numismatist Mark Salzberg, whose third-party grading service company, Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), is paying tribute to Miller with a special certification label hand-signed by the legendary researcher, author and dealer.

Entering the business

Miller started in the coin business in 1966, assembling proof sets and buying silver certificates to trade for silver. But he soon gravitated to silver dollars because they were plentiful, beautiful and popular. Another Montana coin dealer, John B. Love of the Record Coin Shop in Cut Bank, was the biggest silver dollar dealer. Miller visited his shop every month or so to go through Love’s accumulation of the coins.

Love was, like many professional numismatists, extremely knowledgeable. But he wasn’t interested in writing, Miller said. By the early 1970s, however, Miller realized interest in the silver dollar market was heating up and he had enough information to fill a book—literally. Plus, he felt like he needed to do something to elevate his status from a small-time silver dollar dealer among many.

“I knew I had to do something to put myself on another level.” Miller modestly points to Love’s contributions to the silver dollar market, but many people refer to Miller as the “King of Silver Dollars” because of his leading role in promoting a wider appreciation for their beauty and variety. Miller said he was glad his first book raised his profile enough that Love would partner with him.

It was an opportune time.

In the late 1970s, the coin collecting hobby saw tremendous growth in general, with silver dollars enjoying a special boost, thanks in part to the “Great Silver Sale,” a promotion by the US General Services Administration to distribute millions of Carson City Morgans and other silver dollars long held in government vaults.

Unpopular in much of the US

Miller was well acquainted with silver dollars.

Montana was one of five Western states where the coins were used in daily commerce. Although the US government has made silver dollars since 1794 and has minted nearly 700 million of them, the coins were unpopular in most places. The government continued to make them by the wagonload anyway, just to sop up excess silver being produced in US mines. Most of these coins were dumped in bags, shipped to banks and stored in their vaults.

But Montana was different.

Miller said that when he was growing up in Helena, where he was born, using a $1 banknote was considered unmanly. “It was part of the Old West mystique,” he said. “It was part of being a Western he-man—what he had in his pocket.”

In Montana and other Western states, people who didn’t trust the government or its paper money often accumulated the coins, sometimes in the 1,000-coin bags that they’d been placed in at the US Mint.

A Federal Reserve bank branch in Helena kept Montana supplied with Morgan and Peace Dollars, Miller said. In Nevada, where gambling was legal, casinos used them and kept them in circulation.

Close to its frontier past 

Montana in some ways is not far removed from its past as a wild, wooly frontier. On July 14, 1864, while most of the country was fighting the Civil War, a prospecting party later known as the “Four Georgians” found gold in a gulch off the Prickly Pear Creek, leading to the founding of a mining camp along a small creek they called Last Chance Gulch. Its name came from the four prospectors’ decision to search one more time in the gulch before they had to leave for the winter. It was their last chance, and they struck it rich.

Miller said his coin shop at 38 N. Last Chance Gulch, which he opened in 1981, is 100 to 200 feet away from where gold was discovered.

Over $3.6 billion (in today’s dollars) in gold was extracted in the city limits over two decades, making it one of the wealthiest cities in the United States by the late 19th century. By 1888, about 50 millionaires lived in Helena, more per capita than in any other city in the world.

First book a two-year process

By the time he started the two-year project to write his first book, Miller had personally examined over 2 million silver dollars and done research with other collectors and dealers.

He had a lot of data in his head but felt strongly that it had to be organized and presented in a “readable, sequential way,” something he achieved after six to 10 drafts of each section.

The photos Miller used in his books were taken of coins in his personal collection.

In 1968, Miller gave himself 15 years to put together the best collection of Morgan and Peace Dollars possible. The result was widely regarded as the finest of its kind. It included every business strike in the Morgan and Peace Dollar series, plus every known Proof from every US Mint branch, with each coin in exceptional condition.

He said he spent about $380,000 to assemble his collection and sold it in 1984 for a little over $1 million.

His collecting had the effect of making him a full-time coin dealer so he could earn enough money to buy coins.

“I never intended to do this full time,” Miller said.

An impact on others

In fact, Miller’s education and first career were quite different from his later passion for numismatics. After changing his major five times at Carroll College, a small Catholic school in Helena, he finally ended up taking classes in social work. He had helped at the Good Shepherd Home for Girls and still speaks with enthusiasm about renovating a two-lane bowling alley in its basement and starting a bowling team. He remembers one girl saying winning a bowling tournament was the best thing that had ever happened to her.

“This showed I could have an impact on people,” he said.

He earned a master’s degree in social work in 1966 from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he met Ann, his wife. He came back to Montana and worked for the state, investigating child abuse cases, monitoring children in foster homes and placing children in adoptive homes.

But he found he could make more money as a coin dealer, which also allowed him to continue his contributions to the community. He used half the proceeds from selling his collection to found a shelter for the homeless in Helena that Ann Miller still runs and where a son David Miller works. He has continued to support it financially, injecting $1.55 million since 1984. He and Ann adopted four children and raised a total of nine. He has 23 grandchildren, and more than 20 great-grandchildren.

The full Greysheet Daily News article is here.

Information on the Wayne Miller hand-signed NGC labels is here.

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