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What is a VAM Morgan Dollar?

A VAM Morgan dollar is a Morgan die variety. VAM Morgan dollars and VAM Peace dollars were first identified by numismatists Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis in “The Comprehensive Catalog & Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars.”  

VAM is an acronym for both authors’ last names, Van Allen and Morris, and was adopted after the book was published. 

Who Were Van Allen and Morris?

George Mallis began collecting coins in 1928 after he inherited his uncle’s foreign coin collection and focused on American silver dollars after his work took him to Washington, D.C.

After he noted a variety of unique issues in an 1878 Morgan silver dollar bag, Mallis began recording his findings. By 1964, he had inspected more than 64,000 silver dollars and published his observations in a List of Die Varieties of Morgan Head Silver Dollars.

Mallis and Van Allen’s collaboration began in 1966 and their work was published in 1971. They published a revised edition in 1977 and a second revision in 1993.

History of VAM Dollars 

The goal of Van Allen and Morris’s work was to identify, catalogue, and photograph Morgan and Peace silver dollar varieties by mint mark and date. Their definitive work on VAM dollars, The Comprehensive Catalog & Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars names more than 800 die varieties. 

There are more than 3000 different VAM varieties found, although the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) recognizes 52 VAM Peace dollars and 317 VAM Morgan dollars. 

Are VAM Dollars Mint Errors?  

While some coin collectors may have mistaken VAM dollars for error coins, they are not mint errors. Contrary to today’s minting operations, there were no computers, lasers, or computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines in 1878.  

Coin dies are subject to immense pressure from each strike and have a limited working life before damage from the striking process requires a new die. Because of this, multiple dies are used to produce coins.  

Is There a Difference Between VAM Varieties and Other Issues? 

The only difference between a VAM dollar and another Morgan or Peace dollar is that a VAM die variety is unique and has been identified, numbered, and cataloged.

How are VAM Varieties Made?  

VAM die varieties diverge from their origin in one of two stages in the minting process. 

The first potential for divergence is in the creation of the die from the coin hub. The hub has a mirrored image of the coin’s design, but slight changes and variations occur while crafting the die from the hub. 

The second potential for die variety creation is the process of die maintenance. Workers may try to prolong the working life of a die by repairing damage and polishing the die before it returns to production. 

Every time a die was changed, adjusted, or modified in any way, the coins turned out slightly differently. For a die to be recognized as VAM, its unique characteristics must be evident on each coin struck from the same die or dies. 

One example of a VAM is the 1878 7/8 Tail Feather Morgan dollar. The dies were intentionally changed from eight feathers to seven feathers. This resulted in a collection of Morgan dollars with seven tail feathers over eight tail feathers.  

Among the 8 Tail Feather, 8/7 Tail Feather, and 7 Tail Feather Morgans, there are three categories of VAM and nearly 100 identified variations of those categories.  

When you see VAM dollars listed for sale, there will always be a number following VAM, and there may be a letter following the number. Each VAM variety is sequentially numbered as it is discovered. 

Letters following the number of a VAM designation describe the state of the die. 

How Can I Identify VAM Dollars in My Coin Collection? 

Identifying VAM Morgan and Peace dollars in your collection requires inspecting your coins for unique varieties. The VAM cataloging process began with two numismatists noticing minor differences in dollars, so we will begin there with the naked eye. 

  1. Look for differences between your Morgan dollars and Peace dollars with the same year of issue and mint mark.  
  2. Use a magnifier or loupe and pay attention to minor details. Some of these differences are visible without magnification, although other differences are more subtle. 
  3. Thoroughly inspect the details of the wings and tail feathers with magnification. Make a note of how many tail feathers you find. 
  4. Examine the eye, hair, and nostril details on the face with magnification and keep a keen eye out for extra hair details. 
  5. Survey the coin for die clashes or gouges in Liberty’s eyes. 
  6. Look for the position of the mint mark. 
  7. Find a guide, like The Comprehensive Catalog & Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars, or A Guide Book of Morgan Silver Dollars.

What are the Most Valuable VAM Morgan Dollars? 

If you identified a VAM dollar in the above step, save the champagne. Not all VAM varieties add a significant premium to the selling price.  

There are varieties that command a high premium due to their rarity and demand among collectors. Some of the most valuable VAM Morgan dollars include: 

  1. 1878 Morgan dollar VAM-14.11: Wild Eye Spikes. 
  2. 1878-S Morgan dollar VAM-27: Long Arrow Shaft. 
  3. 1888-O Morgan dollar VAM-4: Hot Lips dollar. 
  4. 1888-O Morgan Dollar VAM-1B: Scarface dollar. 
  5. 1891-O Morgan dollar VAM-1A3 Clashed E Reverse. 

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