No one was terribly upset when the Morgan Dollar shuffled off this mortal coil. The coin was huge – nearly palm-sized – and very heavy. How did this strange beast come into existence?
It started when the Comstock silver lode in Nevada was discovered. The mine yielded a million dollars’ worth of silver a week. This sheer quantity created a problem: If a market for all that silver wasn’t generated, Nevada’s economy could collapse. So in stepped Uncle Sam (at the urging of lobbyists). The Bland–Allison Act of 1878 was passed over President Hayes’ veto, requiring the U.S. Treasury to buy $2–$4 million of silver every month and turn it into silver coin.
George T. Morgan, an engraver at the Mint, designed the new silver dollar. The obverse featured Lady Liberty’s head, and the reverse featured an eagle. Less than two weeks after Congress authorized the coin, the first Morgan Dollar was struck, on March 11, 1878.
Most Morgan Dollars were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, but a small mint in Carson City was opened to process the silver closer to the source. The Carson City Mint started operations in 1870 and ran, off and on, until 1893. Carson City Morgan Dollars are much rarer and in greater demand than Morgan Dollars minted in Philadelphia. Although they were never very popular, over 500 million Morgan Dollars were minted.
Minting stopped in 1904, although the Morgan Dollar was again minted in 1921 and then re-retired. In 1918, over 270 million Morgan Dollars were melted down, and the silver was sold to Great Britain, which required financial relief after a wartime run on silver. Millions more were melted down over the years. In 1972, the General Services Administration auctioned off 2.9 million Carson City Morgan Dollars from its vaults, generating intense collector interest in the coin.
This interest was stoked by the death of LaVere Redfield, a wealthy stock and real-estate investor. Although he wasn’t a coin collector, Redfield distrusted banks, paper money, and the government. To store his wealth, he therefore bought 411,000 silver dollars over a period of 20–30 years and stored them behind a false wall in his basement. Approximately 85% of his coins were uncirculated, and in 1976 his hoard was auctioned. The collection was bought for an astounding $7.3 million.
By this point, the Morgan Dollar was highly sought after, and it remains one of America’s most desired coins to this day.
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