What Makes a 1921 Silver Dollar Rare? An Expert Analysis

As a longtime coin collector and numismatic scholar, I often get asked about the most desirable issues in the classic Morgan dollar series. Time and again, the conversation turns to the 1921 Morgans – those elusive silver dollars from the final year of the series that seem to captivate collectors across generations. But what is it exactly that makes these coins so rare and coveted? Let‘s dig deeper than the surface level to uncover the many layers of rarity and value within the 1921 Morgan dollar.

A Tumultuous Time: The Historical Context of 1921

To fully appreciate the significance of the 1921 Morgan dollar, we must first step back and examine the era of its minting. In 1921, America was still reeling from the devastation of World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. The nation was on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties, but also grappling with recession, labor unrest, and Prohibition.

It was against this backdrop that coining presses in Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco struck what would unknowingly become the last Morgan dollars for nearly a century. According to Roger W. Burdette in his book Renaissance of American Coinage 1916-1921, the push to reauthorize the Morgan dollar design in 1921 came from Western mining interests and their allies in Congress who wanted to maintain a steady market for silver.

However, the U.S. Mint was already preparing to transition to a new silver dollar design, the Peace dollar, as a tribute to the end of the Great War. Therefore, Morgan dollar production in 1921 lasted only until the first Peace dollars emerged in December of that year, making the ‘21 Morgans an unexpected one-year swan song for the series.

Mintage Figures and Survival Estimates: A Closer Look

At first glance, the mintage figures for 1921 Morgan dollars may not seem particularly low compared to other years in the series. The Philadelphia Mint struck 44,690,000 coins, while Denver coined 20,345,000 and San Francisco produced 21,695,000, for a total mintage of 86,730,000. By comparison, many earlier years in the 1880s saw mintages well over 100 million coins at the main Philadelphia Mint alone.

However, raw mintage tells only part of the story when it comes to rarity. Equally important is the survival rate – the percentage of the original mintage that has survived to the present day in collectible condition. Morgan dollars in general have a relatively low survival rate, as many millions were melted over the years for their silver content.

Numismatic scholars have attempted to estimate the survival rate for 1921 Morgans, with the following figures being commonly cited:

Mint Mintage Survival Estimate % Surviving
P 44,690,000 ~5,400,000 ~12%
D 20,345,000 ~2,500,000 ~12%
S 21,695,000 ~750,000 ~3.5%

As we can see, only a small fraction of each mint‘s output is believed to still exist, with the 1921-S being especially elusive. These survival rates are just estimates based on the number of coins that have been graded by PCGS and NGC, as well as other factors like hoards that have entered the market over the years. But the key takeaway is that while 1921 Morgans may not have the lowest mintages, their rarity is amplified by the attrition rate.

Notably, the 1921 Morgans have a lower survival rate than some earlier key dates in the series like the 1889-CC and 1893-S. Q. David Bowers in his Guide Book of Morgan Silver Dollars attributes this to the release of previously sealed bags of earlier dates like 1881-S, 1882-S and 1883-O in the 1950s and 60s, which bolstered those coins‘ survival rates. Meanwhile, few bags of 1921 Morgans escaped the melting pot over the years.

Strike Quality and Eye Appeal: The Importance of Aesthetics

Within each mint‘s production of 1921 Morgan dollars, the quality of strike and overall eye appeal vary considerably from coin to coin. This becomes especially important for uncirculated examples. A poorly struck 1921 Morgan with mushy details and dull luster will command significantly less premium than a boldly impressed piece with razor sharp details and radiant mint luster.

As with many coins struck in high volumes, the 1921 Morgans were produced using already worn dies at high speeds, leading to many carelessly made pieces with striking deficiencies. According to the Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan & Peace Dollars by Leroy Van Allen, some of the most common striking weaknesses are seen on the hair above Liberty‘s ear and the eagle‘s breast feathers.

Finding a fully struck 1921 Morgan with crisp details is a noteworthy feat for collectors. In his book The Expert‘s Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins, numismatist Q. David Bowers recalls, "I have seen more than a few 1921 Morgan dollars that were weakly struck, with areas of flatness particularly on the high points of the designs."

Coins with strong strikes and superior eye appeal for the grade are conditionally rare and bring substantial premiums. An evenly toned, frosty and mark-free 1921 Morgan dollar is a sight to behold, and astute collectors are quick to snatch up such aesthetic wonders when they appear on the market.

The Role of Third-Party Grading in Assessing Rarity

In the modern coin market, third-party grading has become the standard for assessing a coin‘s condition and authenticating its genuineness. Grading services like PCGS and NGC encapsulate coins in sonically-sealed plastic holders with a numeric grade, creating a sight-unseen market for certified coins.

For the 1921 Morgan dollar, third-party grading data provides valuable insights into the distribution of coins across the grading spectrum. Here are the PCGS population numbers as of October 2022 for 1921 Morgans across the circulated to gem uncirculated grade range:

Mint AG-G VG-VF XF-AU MS-60 MS-61 MS-62 MS-63 MS-64 MS-65 MS-66+
1921-P 104,804 92,393 46,453 163,517 305,012 346,965 96,445 13,127 2,268 59
1921-D 44,968 61,325 45,064 99,474 125,760 101,704 28,023 4,270 753 47
1921-S 14,441 28,395 20,208 20,616 16,914 9,921 2,765 747 213 11

This data reveals some interesting trends. We can see the relative scarcity of the 1921-S across all grade levels, but especially in uncirculated grades. Meanwhile, MS-64 and higher examples are quite rare for all three mints. A key threshold seems to be MS-65 – PCGS has graded just a few thousand coins at this level for the P and D mints, and only a few hundred for the S-mint. In ultra gem MS-66 and above, all three mints are represented by mere dozens of coins.

Population reports like these are useful for relative rarity analysis, but it‘s crucial to remember that they represent only coins that have been submitted for grading, not the entire surviving population. There could be some "dark horses" that have not yet been encapsulated. Nonetheless, the grading data provides empirical evidence for the 1921 Morgan dollar‘s rarity, especially in problem-free gem uncirculated grades.

Varieties and Errors: Cherrypicking for Rare Die Marriages

Dedicated Morgan dollar collectors often pursue various varieties within each issue, most prominently VAM (Van Allen-Mallis) numbers. These are unique die marriages identified by distinctive characteristics like die cracks, gouges, or mint mark position. While many VAMs are relatively common, some are quite rare and command substantial premiums.

Several elusive VAMs exist for the 1921 Morgan dollar, including the 1921-S S/S VAM-1C. Dubbed the "Pitted Reverse," this variety shows a heavily pockmarked reverse die, likely caused by a grease-filled cavity that formed while the die was being polishing. Similarly, the 1921-D D/D VAM-1A "Thornhead" features a sharp thorn-like projection from the olive branch on the reverse.

Another eagerly sought 1921 variety is the "Zerbe Special." Named after prominent numismatist Farran Zerbe, these coins are believed to have been struck as presentation pieces for VIPs at the American Numismatic Association convention in 1921. They are distinguished by exceptional strike and luster quality. Roger W. Burdette notes in his book that only 24 Zerbe Specials are known – 6 for each mint.

While attributed varieties like VAMs and the Zerbe Special are collected by specialists, even "normal" 1921 Morgans can yield discoveries for astute variety hunters. Numismatist Mark Borckardt of Heritage Auctions advises collectors to pay close attention to the dies, stating "There are many surprises waiting to be cherrypicked by patient Morgan dollar enthusiasts."

Market Trends and Values: The 1921 Morgan‘s Premium

The market for 1921 Morgan dollars, like any rare coin, is shaped by supply and demand dynamics. Luckily for collectors, these coins have enjoyed consistently strong demand over the decades. Q. David Bowers describes the 1921 Morgan as a "perennial favorite" in his book, adding "there is always a strong market for them in all grades."

In recent years, the premiums for high-end 1921 Morgans have surged as registry set collecting has gained popularity. Collectors and investors compete for the finest known examples to include in sets. An extraordinary 1921-D graded MS-67 CAC by PCGS sold for a record $156,000 in a September 2020 auction, demonstrating the premium attached to condition rarities.

Several other notable 1921 Morgans have brought impressive prices in the 21st century. In October 2014, an NGC-certified Proof-66 Cameo example of the enigmatic 1921 "Chapman Proof" sold for $176,250. Three years earlier, a PCGS-graded MS-66 1921-S realized $74,750. These prices underscore the immense desire among numismatists for the finest and rarest examples.

Of course, not every 1921 Morgan commands five figures. Circulated examples trade for more modest sums, although even those have appreciated as silver bullion values have increased. As of October 2022, a common date circulated 1921 Morgan retails for around $35-$40. Higher grade pieces naturally fetch more, with a select uncirculated MS-63 1921-S approaching the $1,000 threshold. The key is knowing which coins offer the best value for the grade.

Tips for Collecting the 1921 Morgan Dollar

For numismatists aspiring to collect 1921 Morgan dollars, I recommend a patient and disciplined approach. First, decide on the grade range you wish to focus on, taking your budget into account. If uncirculated coins are your goal, be prepared to pay strong premiums for pieces with superior eye appeal and strike. A coin that is sub-par for the grade is never a good value.

When cherrypicking raw coins, look for pieces with minimal bag marks, strong luster, and sharp strike. Focus your loupe on key areas like Liberty‘s cheek, the hair over her ear, and the eagle‘s breast feathers. Coins with rounded lettering and mushy details are best avoided. The more adept you become at grading, the better you‘ll be able to recognize good value for your money.

If you choose to collect certified coins exclusively, buy only examples in PCGS or NGC holders. Be wary of "crack-outs" and coins in non-mainstream slabs. CAC (Certified Acceptance Corporation) stickers add confidence that the coin is premium quality for the grade. Again, don‘t settle for coins with poor eye appeal just to fill holes in an album.

For collectors on a limited budget, circulated coins offer an accessible entry point into 1921 Morgan dollar collecting. A nice evenly worn set with matching pearl gray toning can be assembled for a reasonable sum. The 1921-S will present the biggest challenge in circulated grades. A well-worn VG-8 example still fetches over $100.

No matter your collecting approach, I advise buying the best you can afford without compromising quality. Cut no corners when it comes to strike, luster, and surface preservation. Most of all, embrace the thrill of the hunt and don‘t become discouraged if your 1921 Morgan dollar collection takes years to complete. Assembling a high-quality set is an immensely rewarding accomplishment.

Further Reading and References

If you wish to dive deeper into the intricacies of 1921 Morgan dollar rarity and collecting, I recommend the following sources:

  • Bowers, Q. David. The Expert‘s Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing, 2006.
  • Bowers, Q. David. A Guide Book of Morgan Silver Dollars. 5th Edition. Whitman Publishing, 2015.
  • Burdette, Roger W. Renaissance of American Coinage 1916-1921. Seneca Mill Press, 2005.
  • Miller, Wayne. The Morgan and Peace Dollar Textbook. Adam Smith Publishing, 1983.
  • Van Allen, Leroy & A. George Mallis. Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan & Peace Dollars. Worldwide Ventures Press, 1991.
  • PCGS CoinFacts. https://www.pcgs.com/coinfacts
  • NGC Coin Explorer. https://www.ngccoin.com/coin-explorer

In closing, the 1921 Morgan dollar stands tall among American numismatic classics, cherished for its scarcity, history, and timeless beauty. Whether you are drawn to the pursuit of a few choice pieces or a top-shelf registry set, 1921 Morgans offer endless challenge and allure. By understanding the rarity and valuation factors behind these prized silver dollars, you‘ll be better equipped to navigate this segment of the market as you build a collection to treasure for years to come.

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