Morgan Silver Dollars 1878 – 1921
Most people have a Morgan silver dollar or two, some people have quite a few. When researching Morgan silver dollars you’ll quickly realize two things. The date/mint mark combination matter quite a bit and the so does the “grade” of the coin. It’s easy to establish what date your coin is and with a coin grading loop or a pair of reading glasses (if you’re my age) you can read the mint mark. Those two steps are easy but what about the grading? When it comes time to sell your coin collection you’ll be faced with the question of “grades” and I’m going to try to help you have a very basic understanding of the modern “Sheldon” rare coin grading system. My father owned a rare coin shop in Santa Monica Calfornia back in the 1960’s, it is with he and my brother that I learned to grade coins, let me share with you what I learned.
Let’s get some things out of the way at the outset of this blog. Never, ever clean your coins. Never. There are no exceptions to this rule. You cannot improve the originality of your coins by cleaning them. Listen to this rule and take it to heart; “something is original only once”. To the experienced collector that means that an original coin can never be made to look original again once it’s been cleaned. Next, if your coin has already been cleaned or it is damaged, it’s value is a mere fraction of what it would be had it not been cleaned or damaged. Damaged or cleaned coins have very little appeal to collectors and therefore they have very little value compared to an original specimen. Got it? Good! Let’s move on.
Mint State or MS indicates that a coin has been made for circulation. This is the type of coin you get at your bank or in change from a merchant.
Proof or PR indicates a coin made from specially prepared dies, for presentation, not circulation. These special presentation coins were made to illustrate the engravers skill in bringing the designers vision to life in coin form.
Mint Luster is the satiny finish that covers the coins surface on uncirculated coins. Over time as the coin wears the mint luster disappears.
Bag Marks are often found on Morgan silver dollars, they are evidence of the coins being stored in large canvas bags. When the coins were poured into the bags then moved around, they would bump up against one another and create marks. A coin can have bag marks and still be uncirculated.
So from here on out when you see a combination of letters and numbers like this MS65 or PR65, you will know that MS indicates a Mint State coin and PR indicates a Proof coin.
The Sheldon numismatic grading scale is numberical and runs from 1 to 70. 1 being the lowest with a designation of “poor”, 70 being the highest grade. Here is how the Sheldon grading scale breaks down for Mint State and Proof Coins.
About Good 03
Very Good 8-10
Very Fine 20-35
Extra Fine 40-45
About Uncirculated 50-58
Now we’ll go over the basics of grading with some digital images of Morgan silver dollars. We’re going to stay away from the numerical aspect of this scale as it can be very subjective and often leads to “splitting hairs”. We will however go over the basics from Good to Uncirculated so that you can see exactly how the process works.
Grading Morgan Silver Dollars:
The hair detail is very well worn leaving very little detail. Cotton bolls are worn flat. The rim of the coin is full on both the front and back of the coin. Notice that most of the feather detail is missing from the upper left portion of the eagle’s wing.
(VG) Very Good
Still quite worn but you will notice a little detail in the cotton bolls and more definition in Liberty’s hair. You will also see a bit more feather detail in the eagle’s wings. As with the Good grade, the rims must be full both front and back.
A specimen in Fine condition will have moderate wear but you’ll see more detail. Notice the hair detail is starting to become defined, the cotton leaves are outlined though worn. Look at the cotton bolls, there are two lines clearly evident in each boll. The rim and denticles are raised and clearly defined. There is light blending of the high points in the eagle’s wings but most of the feather detail is present.
(VF) Very Fine
Light to medium wear overall but again, you’ll notice the overall details becoming sharp and better defined. The cotton leaves are well outlined with inner detail visible though each feature is worn a little flat on the highest points. There is significantly more hair detail and possibly breast feathers visible on the eagle but keep in mind some coins come weakly struck so you will see softness there regardless of grade.
(XF) Extra Fine
The high points of the design will show light wear, Liberty’s hair will show some wear above the ear but overall the hair detail is very well defined. The cotton leaves will be crisp with only the lightest wear visible on the high points. Though worn slightly the breast feathers on the eagle should be clearly visible, there may be very light wear on the right wing. You will find traces of the original satiny mint luster between the stars and the lettering near the rim.
(AU) Almost Uncirculated
Only the slightest trace of wear is evident on the high points. There may be very light wear visible in the hair above the ear, tops of cotton bolls and edges of cotton leaves but overall the coin shows evidence of only the slightest wear to the high points. There will be more evidence of mint luster visible now. Essentially an AU can look almost like an uncirculated coin but if there is slight wear, it will grade AU. These range from AU50 to AU58 on the grading scale, an AU58 will have thick mint luster throughout!
(MS) Mint State
A mint state Morgan Silver dollar will have no signs of wear on the coin, none. There will be thick unbroken mint lust from rim to rim. The coin can have bag marks or contact marks but you won’t see actual “wear”. The coin has never been in circulation.
Determining what makes an MS60 vs an MS65 is a difficult thing to teach online. In my experience as a professional numismatist in Los Angeles it’s become evident over the years that some people are simply incapable of grasping the subtleties from one grade to the next. You should consult a professional numismatist in if you need assistance with grading. Please visit our website if you have more questions.
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