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Collecting Carson City Silver Dollars
By Mike Thorne
August 26, 2007

Carson City, Nev. The name conjures up visions of the Old West, gunfighters, playing cards in a saloon, with piles of silver dollars in the pot. And not just any silver dollars: These would undoubtedly be coins newly minted in either Carson City itself or San Francisco.

In my mind's eye, I see stacks of shiny cartwheels worth just a dollar apiece to their owners at the end of the 19th century but worth much more to their possessors a century later.

Amazingly, for all that's been written about CC Morgans, a complete collection of them (not counting minting varieties of some of the dates) consists of just 13 different date/mintmark combinations.

By the time the Morgan dollar came along in 1878, the Carson City Mint was in full operational mode. It had begun minting coins in 1870. With Nevada then and now a relatively sparsely populated state, you might wonder why it deserved a mint at all. The answer lies in a spectacular discovery of silver that came to be known as the Comstock Lode, named after Henry Comstock. Comstock didn't actually find the gold and silver. He simply appropriated the find from two hapless miners named Pat McLaughlin and Peter O'Reilly.

The discovery occurred in 1859 about 15 miles from Carson City, or, as it was known to the locals, simply Carson. Named for famed trapper, scout, Indian agent, and soldier Kit Carson, Carson had been founded in 1858 by New Yorker Abram (or Abraham) Curry.

Silver and gold mined near Carson from the Comstock Lode was initially shipped by rail over the Sierra Nevada mountains to the San Francisco Mint. This was both costly and dangerous, as bandits sometimes stole the ore.

Although there was opposition -- Mint Director James Pollock, for example, felt that it would make more sense to enlarge the San Francisco Mint --- the decision was made to build a mint in Nevada. Toward this end, Curry sold some land in Carson City to the government. Not surprisingly, Curry was the mint's first superintendent.

For all that its products are revered today, the Carson City Mint was unpopular during its lifetime. In fact, according to Q. David Bowers, writing in Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia, the local railroads set up tariffs that made it cheaper to take bullion from the nearby mines all the way to San Francisco to be turned into coins than to deliver it to the Carson City Mint.

Still, with all the contemporary opposition to it, the Carson City Mint turned out gold and silver coins that continue to fire the imaginations of today's collectors. Probably none of these coins are more interesting and widely dispersed than the Carson City Morgan dollars.

The Carson City Morgans can be quickly divided into two groups: the ones minted between 1878 and 1885 and the ones struck between 1889 and 1893. The key date of the first group, particularly in grades above Very Fine, is the 1879-CC. In the second group, the 1889-CC is the prize by far.

Relative to their contemporaries produced at the other mints, the Carson City products have low mintages. However, because of some hoards created through storage, some of the dates are much more available in uncirculated grades than you would expect from their low mintages. This is particularly true for the 1882, 1883, and 1884-CCs, all of which had mintages of just a little over 1 million coins apiece. As it turns out, few were released into circulation, and more than half of each date was still available in uncirculated condition at the time of the General Services Administration sales of unreleased Carson City silver dollars.

But let's begin at the beginning, with the 1878-CC. This date has the second highest mintage of the 13 CC Morgans -- 2,212,000. The 1890-CC has a slightly higher mintage (2,309,041). According to Bowers, "1878-CC dollars were released in quantity at the time of striking, unlike most later issues from this mint." Of these, 60,993, or 2.76 percent of the original mintage, were discovered in the GSA holdings.

With its relatively high mintage, the 1878-CC is one of the most affordable CC Morgans in all grades. According to Numismatic News' "Coin Market," the date starts at around $100 in lower circulated grades (e.g., Very Good-Extremely Fine) and is worth just $2,300 in Mint State-65. Bowers pronounces MS-64 as the optimal collecting grade in his Guide Book of Morgan Silver Dollars. It's worth $615 in this grade, according to "Coin Market."

As indicated above, the 1879-CC is the key to the first group of CC Morgans. In fact, according to Bowers, "Among basic date and mintmark issues, the 1879-CC is the first key or rare variety in the Morgan dollar series and is the second rarest (after 1889-CC) of all Carson City Morgans."

The mintage, for a scarce Morgan, was fairly substantial at 756,000. In fact, five other CC dates had lower mintages, but only two of these have higher values than the 1879-CC in MS-65. These are the 1889-CC and the 1893-CC.

Values of the 1879-CC are fairly reasonable in lower circulated grades (VG-VF), with a range from $115 to $200. After that, the date takes big jumps in value, going from $630 in EF to $25,000 in MS-65. Bowers suggests that hundreds of thousands of this date may have been melted under the 1918 Pittman Act, and there were only 4,123 sold in the GSA sales.v The major 1879-CC variety is a "large CC over small CC," which is sometimes called a "capped CC." Although this variety is actually scarcer than the normal CC, the normal mintmark coin is more popular and thus slightly more valuable in all grades.

The total mintage of the 1880-CC was 591,000, of which the majority have the reverse of the 1879 (rounded eagle's breast). Most of the other 1880-CCs have the reverse found on 1878 Morgans (flat eagle's breast).

Bowers points out that virtually all of the 1880-CCs have overdated obverses, with some showing enough of the underdate to be called 1880/79. According to the latest edition of A Guide Book of United States Coins (the Red Book), at any rate, none of these overdates has a value substantially different from any of the others.

One factor depressing the value of the 1880-CC is that a substantial percentage of the original mintage (slightly more than 22 percent) was sold in the GSA sales. With the reverse of 1878, the 1880-CC ranges in value from $110 in VG-8 to $3,125 in MS-65. In the same grades, the 1880-CC with reverse of 1879 lists for $115 to $1,450.

With a mintage of just 296,000, the 1881-CC has the second lowest mintage of the 13-coin series, bested only by the 1885-CC (228,000). The values of both dates are much less than you might expect them to be, however, and the reason can be summed in three letters -- GSA. Nearly half of the 1881-CC Morgans minted were sold in the GSA sales, with slightly more than 65 percent of the 1885-CCs included in the sales. Given this state of affairs, it's probably amazing that the two dates are worth as much as they are.

According to "Coin Market," the value of the 1881-CC ranges from $340 in VG-8 (in reality, it's probably rare in this grade) to $575 in MS-63. If you think about it, that's a small change in value for such a whopping increase in grade. In MS-65, the coin is worth just $925. The 1885-CC, with the lower mintage, shows the same pattern, with an increase from $470 in VG-8 to $700 in MS-63; the MS-65 lists for $1,325.

Actually, I have a certain fondness for the 1881-CC date, as this was the only "good" date that I got among my GSA purchases. I had read in a coin newspaper that the bargains were to be had in the mixed CC category. These were coins that GSA considered too tarnished or baggy (excessive bagmarks) to be sold as specific dates in the uncirculated CC grouping. Thus, they were offered at a lower price. I seem to recall paying $45 apiece for the coins that I received.

According to Morgan & Peace Silver Dollars, by Van Allen and Mallis, most of the mixed CC category consisted of 1882, 1883, and 1884 dollars, with much smaller percentages of the other dates. You can imagine my excitement when I opened the packages containing my CC dollars and discovered that one was in a different colored outer cardboard sleeve than the others -- I recall it being in a white sleeve rather than a blue one. This was the 1881-CC.

As it turned out, I quickly sold all but two of the dollars I had gotten from GSA. I made a nice profit on the bunch, but I still kick myself for not keeping at least one of each of the different dates.

The two coins that I kept were the 1881-CC and a particularly nice 1883-CC. Remember that these were GSA's culls, coins considered too baggy or toned to be sold normally. Well, I recently got the two certified by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. The 1881-CC came back MS-64, and the 1883-CC, which had once gotten an MS-63 grade from ANACS when it was still affiliated with the American Numismatic Association, received a grade of MS-66 prooflike!

Now you see why I've kept it all these years (the GSA sales took place in the early 1970s). Incidentally, the toning on the coin that kept it out of the "normal" category is actually quite attractive, and I'm normally not a big fan of toning.

The three most common CC dates, and the most affordable, are the 1882, 1883, and 1884. Of course, the reason they're so common and affordable is that the government had most of the original mintage of each date in storage, as I mentioned earlier. The actual percentages of each of the three dates held by the GSA at the beginning of the great dispersal are as follows: 1882-CC, 605,029, or 53.4 percent; 1883-CC, 755,518, or 62.75 percent; and 1884-CC, 962,638, or 84.73 percent.

The 1884-CC is worth a bit more than the others in all circulated grades but drops below the other two in all uncirculated grades. The reason for this is obvious. Most 1884-CCs that still exist, and that's most of the original mintage, never entered circulation. In MS-63, the three are worth $245, $230, and $225, respectively. In MS-65, the values are $600, $470, and $445, respectively. As you can see, the uncirculated values are correlated with the numbers of each date sold in the GSA sales.

After 1885, silver dollars weren't minted at Carson City until 1889, which turns out to be the big key to the CC Morgans. In fact, it is one of the keys to the entire Morgan series. Bowers, writing in the Morgan dollar Red Book, says, "In comparison to the demand for them, examples are rare in all grades."

Bowers reports, "Of the 350,000 1889-CC dollars made, many thousands were paid out in the 19th century, yielding a supply of circulated pieces for numismatists today." If you're interested in owning one of these circulated specimens while there are still some priced below $1,000, I would urge you to purchase one soon. According to "Coin Market," they begin at $625 in VG-8, jump to $900 in F-12, and after that, it's onward and upward. In MS-63, the coin lists for $34,000, and if you want one in MS-65, be prepared to shell out around $315,000!

The 1890-CC has the largest mintage of all the CC Morgans, although the number produced is only slightly more than that of the 1878-CC. Unlike the 1878-CC, however, very few of these were in the GSA hoard. As a consequence, the 1890-CC is relatively common and inexpensive in circulated grades but rises in value rapidly in uncirculated grades.

In the "normal" variety, without a bar extending from an arrow's feather on the reverse, the value begins close to $100 in VG-8, is only $215 in About Uncirculated-50, is $1,050 in MS-63, and in MS-65, the 1890-CC will cost you somewhere around $7,000.

The "tail bar" variety, which Bowers calls "popular, if not rare," is pricier than other varieties of the date. It begins at $135 in VG-8, is $900 in AU-50, $4,000 in MS-63, and no value is listed for the date in MS-65, although in MS-65 deep mirror prooflike it's listed at $9,800, which is only $50 more than the normal variety in the same grade.

With an original mintage of 1,618,000, the 1891-CC is not rare, by any means. However, only 5,687 of these were sold in the GSA sales, so this is another CC dollar that is relatively common and inexpensive in circulated grades but less so in uncirculated. Bowers notes that the date is "not in the 'common' class. Still, enough are around, especially MS-63 and MS-64, that you can find a choice one."

Like the 1890-CC, the 1891-CC starts at about $100 in VG-8 and is worth $215 in AU-50. After that, its value is actually lower than the earlier date, climbing to "just" $5,450 in MS-65.

Unfortunately for collectors of CC Morgan dollars, there were no 1892-CCs in the GSA sales. With a mintage of 1,352,000, this date begins at $135 in VG-8, is worth $670 in AU-50, and lists for $11,000 in MS-65. According to Bowers, the optimal collecting grade is MS-64, which is worth $4,150, according to "Coin Market."

The 1893-CC is one of the six CC Morgans that began life with a mintage of less than 1 million pieces. The actual figure is 677,000. Again, this is a date that was not represented in the GSA sales, so values in most grades, particularly in uncirculated, are appropriately steep.

The 1893-CC begins at $215 in VG-8, climbs to $2,350 in AU-50, and is a $55,000 coin in MS-65. Bowers notes that the famous "Redfield hoard (1976) contained a few thousand, many of which were scraped by a counting machine used to inventory the pieces."

As you can see from my survey of the CC Morgan dollars, all of the 13 dates are collectible, particularly if you're willing to settle for circulated examples in a few cases (1879-CC, 1889-CC, 1893-CC). Because of the GSA sales in the 1970s, a number of the dates are downright common in uncirculated grades (e.g., 1881-CC through 1885-CC). Of course, because of the popularity of CC Morgans and the continual demand for them, even the "common" dates are not necessarily priced accordingly. Still, if you decide to put together a set of these 13 dates, you're likely to find that it's a "Lucky 13."


Collecting Carson City Silver Dollars - CC Morgan Dollars - Carson City Mint

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