The Best Dates and Mints (article)

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The Best Dates and Mints to Search for New VAMs
This article was written in February 2007 and is exclusively available on VAMworld.com. However, that may not be a bragging point…
The publication of The VAM Keys, a.k.a. the “Top 100” book, in 1996 by Michael Fey and Jeff Oxman generated an explosion of interest in Morgan dollar die varieties. Thousands of new eyes began looking at Morgans in a new way, and these eyes proceeded to discover and document hundreds and hundreds of new VAMs.
Now, just over a decade later, new VAMmers who wish to stake a claim on their own new VAM variety have a more difficult task than the VAMmers of just a few years ago. When I discovered my first three varieties in the late 1990’s, the discoveries warranted a press release to coin publications and a special insert into Top 100 Insights. Today a new discovery, although significant, probably will not make back page news in any coin periodical that does not specialize in VAMs.
Still, there are more VAMs to be found. They pop up all the time. Sure, there were a limited number of Morgan dies produced. But, in theory, there are an infinite possible number of VAMs, with gouges, die polishing, die scratches, clashing, pitting, die chips, and so on contributing to the all of the -A, -B, and -C suffixes we all enjoy.
However, if you do seek to discover a VAM, are there any dates or mint marks where you should focus? I wondered this myself and decided to do an experiment. My disclaimer is that the experiment is highly imprecise and relies on many unfortunate assumptions. The experts will find this humorous…but here goes…
Let us assume the existence of a fictional Morgan, the 1905-CC. How can you approximate the number of die varieties that might exist for this date and mint mark? The logical way is to take the number of die pairs used for the year and mint. So, if a total of 20 dies were produced for the CC mint in 1905, you would likely have 10 die pairs and, thus, 10 die varieties. These would of course be 10 “base” die varieties and would not include any subsequent -A, -B, and -C die gouges and such.
Next question: is the 1905-CC a good date/mint combination to scour for new VAMs? Answer: check the VAM book and use subtraction. If you flip through the VAM book and see that only 7 base die varieties that exist for the 1905-CC, then there are three out there undiscovered! Right?
Now the experienced VAMmers are rolling their eyes. Not a chance! There are too many assumptions that have to be made to get to this point. I will list the assumptions below:
1. The 20 dies were evenly divided between 10 obverse and 10 reverse dies.
2. The CC mint did not ever break up or mix die marriages.
3. The CC mint did not receive dies from other mints nor ship any of its own dies out.
4. The CC mint did not reuse any dies from previous years.
5. The CC mint used all of the 20 dies produced.
6. The 20 dies used for the 1905-CC were all produced in the fiscal year 1905, and no 1905-CC dies were produced in the second half of the fiscal year 1904, nor were any 1906-CC dies produced in the fiscal year 1905.
Huh? What in the world does assumption number 6 mean? Refer to table 3-2 in the VAM Book (page 60 of my 1991 Third Edition). This table lists the number of dies produced by each mint for each year. Assumption 6 is best summarized by Leroy’s footnote, “Since the fiscal year extends from July 1 of one year to June 30 of the next, the numbers only approximate the quantities of dies used to strike coins in any given calendar year.”
So, how do you get past assumption 6? You don’t. You make a judgment call and move on. In the example above, you take the CC dies produced for fiscal year 1904 (which includes the first half of calendar year 1905) and fiscal year 1905 (which includes the second half of calendar year 1905), divide them in half, and use that number as the number of dies used to make the 1905-CC.
Imprecise? Absolutely. This begs many questions as applied to the true, non-fictional Morgan set:
1. What do you do about 1878 P, CC, and S, when there is no fiscal year 1877 to draw from? (You just use half the number of 1878 dies only.)
2. What do you do for 1904 P, O, and S, when there is no 1905 year to take away half the number of dies? (Actually, this one is OK. There were no fiscal year 1904 dies produced, so 1904 totals are 100% composed of half the 1903 fiscal year number of dies, for our purposes here at least.)
3. What do you do about the fact that no dies were produced for fiscal years/mints 1894-P and 1886-S? (You just use half of the number of 1893-P and 1885-S dies only.)
4. What do you do about the years when we know there were an orgy of die marriage mixings, such as 1878-P? (You live with it and note it in the text later on...)
5. What do you do about issues such as the 1893-S and 1894-P, for which a ridiculously low number of varieties are known? (You assume the rest were melted down.)
Now that it is obvious that this exercise may be a complete waste of time, I continue wasting time anyway and apply the formula to all real Morgan dates and mints:
As of February 2007
|| Theoretical total number of die varieties (undiscovered and discovered VAMs combined) ||
|| Date || P || O || S || CC ||
|| 1904 || 36 || 45 || 5 || ||
|| 1903 || 70 || 120 || 15 || ||
|| 1902 || 63 || 128 || 30 || ||
|| 1901 || 40 || 110 || 30 || ||
|| 1900 || 21 || 93 || 20 || ||
|| 1899 || 19 || 44 || 25 || ||
|| 1898 || 28 || 21 || 39 || ||
|| 1897 || 28 || 23 || 35 || ||
|| 1896 || 11 || 13 || 20 || ||
|| 1895 || 1 || 8 || 15 || ||
|| 1894 || 4 || 10 || 13 || 5 ||
|| 1893 || 8 || 13 || 16 || 13 ||
|| 1892 || 24 || 33 || 27 || 18 ||
|| 1891 || 44 || 40 || 38 || 23 ||
|| 1890 || 50 || 53 || 25 || 15 ||
|| 1889 || 55 || 72 || 25 || 3 ||
|| 1888 || 56 || 61 || 22 || ||
|| 1887 || 67 || 47 || 2 || ||
|| 1886 || 73 || 51 || 10 || 5 ||
|| 1885 || 65 || 46 || 30 || 10 ||
|| 1884 || 64 || 38 || 46 || 10 ||
|| 1883 || 55 || 36 || 46 || 13 ||
|| 1882 || 60 || 42 || 70 || 20 ||
|| 1881 || 87 || 50 || 78 || 19 ||
|| 1880 || 89 || 30 || 76 || 14 ||
|| 1879 || 62 || 10 || 96 || 33 ||
|| 1878 || 23 || || 48 || 25 ||
|| _._._. || _._._. || _._._. || _._._. || _._._. ||
Of course, applying the formula results in die varieties for the non-existent 1886-CC and 1894-CC. So, we will ultimately lump their varieties in with the previous year’s varieties. Also, we look at 1878-P and laugh that only 23 die varieties are predicted. This is actually OK. Remember, the goal is to see which dates/mints have the best potential for new VAMs. 1878 does have potential, but not as much as a function of number of dies, but number of die marriages. More later...
Now, we try to determine which date/mints have the least number of known varieties compared to the above theoretical number of varieties in existence. This should give us an indication of the best date/mints to search for new VAMs.
In a perfect world we would use the total number of actual known dies for each year/mint (hopefully there would be an equal number of known obverse and reverse dies). However, we tend to find that reverse dies are more difficult to distinguish than obverse dies. If nothing else, this is a function of the date being located on the obverse and each date variety being slightly different, but different enough to notice and catalogue. Search through the VAM book and you will find many dates that have many different obverses, but all or almost all of the reverses are listed indistinguishably as the ubiquitous C3A.
Since it is not a perfect world and we have so many indistinguishable reverse dies, we will thus take the number of known base die varieties (we don’t count the –A, -B, -C suffixes) for each date/mint and subtract it from the theoretical number of die varieties listed above. The resulting numbers will be the theoretical number of die varieties remaining to be discovered. More questions arise:
1. How do you account for varieties that are simply mixed die marriages, which can inflate the number of base varieties known? (As contemplated before, you do not account for them. You simply throw them in the lot and move on.)
2. With no 100% current list of VAMs readily available (Leroy could have catalogued more VAMs today, and more tomorrow), what list do you use to determine number of known base varieties? (I will use the VAMworld.com “Morgan VAMs by date” indexes for each date/mint and count the number of base varieties.)
|| Theoretical Number of Undiscovered Die Varieties (VAMs) ||
|| Date || P || O || S || CC ||
|| 1904 || 30 || 10 || -2 || ||
|| 1903 || 64 || 104 || 6 || ||
|| 1902 || 44 || 78 || 22 || ||
|| 1901 || 21 || 69 || 20 || ||
|| 1900 || -13 || 46 || 1 || ||
|| 1899 || 13 || 6 || 11 || ||
|| 1898 || 18 || -2 || 25 || ||
|| 1897 || 20 || 16 || 24 || ||
|| 1896 || -12 || -7 || 12 || ||
|| 1895 || -2 || 4 || 11 || ||
|| 1894 || 1 || 1 || 7 || ||
|| 1893 || 1 || 8 || 15 || 13 ||
|| 1892 || 17 || 19 || 18 || 6 ||
|| 1891 || 33 || 24 || 25 || 17 ||
|| 1890 || 31 || 26 || -5 || 5 ||
|| 1889 || 11 || 49 || 14 || -2 ||
|| 1888 || 19 || 31 || 9 || ||
|| 1887 || 53 || 16 || -11 || ||
|| 1886 || 49 || 33 || 6 || ||
|| 1885 || 40 || 22 || 20 || 11 ||
|| 1884 || 49 || -8 || 35 || 0 ||
|| 1883 || 36 || -18 || 38 || 5 ||
|| 1882 || 38 || -2 || 42 || 14 ||
|| 1881 || 70 || 15 || 17 || 13 ||
|| 1880 || 42 || -29 || -3 || 4 ||
|| 1879 || 12 || -30 || 40 || 29 ||
|| 1878 || -114 || || -52 || -1 ||
|| _._._. || _._._. || _._._. || _._._. || _._._. ||
By the pure numbers, here are the top 20 percent (19 total dates/mints):
Theoretical Number of Undiscovered Die Varieties (VAMs)
1903-O 104
1902-O 78
1881-P 70
1901-O 69
1903-P 64
1887-P 53
1886-P 49
1884-P 49
1889-O 49
1900-O 46
1902-P 44
1880-P 42
1882-S 42
1885-P 40
1879-S 40
1882-P 38
1883-S 38
1883-P 36
1884-S 35
Does this mean that there is more potential to find a new 1903-O VAM variety than for any other date/mint? Perhaps. But we know that the 1903-O was considered a rare coin until the great treasury vault release. Even after the market was flooded with uncirculated 1903-O coins, the issue still remains scarce. It is safe to say that a hefty sum of these coins was melted down as a result of the Pittman Act of 1918.
We all know that varieties are much easier to distinguish on mint state coins than heavily circulated ones. We also know that when we examine truly “original” rolls of Morgans, we often find concentrations of only a couple of varieties. This presumably occurs because the rolls were pulled from original bags that were composed of Morgans that came of the presses at about the same time and were thus from the same small sample of varieties.
Thus, it is likely that most of the existing uncirculated 1903-O coins come from a limited number of die varieties. The bags upon bags of 1903-O Morgans that were melted almost certainly contained some would-be VAMs that never saw the light of day.
So, where is the 1903-O new VAM potential? I would guess that the potential can be found in the relatively few circulated specimens out there. Perhaps all of these came from a small handful of mint bags, but they might be different varieties from those in the bags that were not circulated nor melted. Add the fact that their wear might hide some of the nuances that would be exposed on a mint state example, and we see potential. But I have not examined scores upon scores of circulated 1903-O Morgans. Who has?
The point I am trying to illustrate is that each date/mint Morgan has its own story to tell. The above list of the top 20% in number of theoretical undiscovered die varieties likely needs an asterisk and explanation for each example. Still, I see some potential in this list.
But the potential does not end with this one list. What about the 1878-P and 1878-S, which boasted the greatest negative numbers (-114 and -52 respectively) of undiscovered varieties? Well, these are obviously issues with a large number of mixed die marriages. Who is to say that more are not out there? They are worth checking for sure.
This experiment does not even mention the 1921 issues. This is because the VAM book does not list dies produced for the appropriate fiscal years for these coins. With all of the 1921-D die break discoveries, could we have found them all by now? I doubt it.
I will close the article by offering one more list, the 19 Morgan dates/mints (20%) with the lowest percentage of die varieties discovered (based on the total number of theoretical existing varieties):
||
% of theoretical varieties that have been discovered
1893-S 6%
1903-P 9%
1879-CC 12%
1903-O 13%
1883-S 17%
1881-P 20%
1887-P 21%
1884-P 24%
1884-S 24%
1891-P 25%
1902-S 27%
1885-CC 27%
1891-CC 27%
1895-S 28%
1893-CC 28%
1892-P 29%
1897-P 29%
1882-CC 30%
1902-P 30%
Under these rules, the beloved 1893-S is #1. As with the 1903-O, we conjecture that most all of these little guys were melted down. Interestingly, five CC Morgans show up on this lowest percentage list, while none were on the pure numbers list. As with the 1903-O, is there new VAM potential in circulated CCs for years like the 1885-CC, in which most all examples are GSA uncrculated? Perhaps.
Curiously, the pure numbers list had five O mint marks, but this lowest percentage has only one, our buddy the 1903-O.
Does any of this mean anything? Although I have not tested for statistical significance at all here, my guess is no. All we can really tell is that there are likely a lot of varieties left to find. But we all knew that already. Still, I will look more closely at any 1903-O, 1903-P, 1881-P, 1887-P, and 1884-P coins that I come across in the future. These four made the top 10 of both the pure numbers and lowest percentage lists. Maybe it does mean something…