Understanding New Orleans Dollars
BY PAUL GREEN
We like to think we have a solid understanding of coinage releases. Some, like the coin buyers at Littleton, hold quite a bit of knowledge. Even still, there are some coins that have a way of keeping us all humble. Just when you think you have them figured out, along comes some new information or a new discovery, and the old facts or theories suddenly change. If there is one group of coins that has caused more experts to change their views than any other, it would probably have to be the Morgan dollars produced by the New Orleans Mint.
The old New Orleans Mint itself has an interesting history. Established as one of the three original branch mints, New Orleans was essentially seen as a complete mint, unlike the other two facilities at Dahlonega, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina. The other two only produced gold coins from gold found in the area, but New Orleans struck both gold and silver coins. From 1838 when it minted its first coin, until at least 1854 when San Francisco opened, the New Orleans Mint was clearly America’s secondary mint.
New Orleans had a checkered history. In early 1861 it was seized by state of Louisiana forces, and eventually fell under the control of the Confederate States of America. In the first few months after its seizure, the dies and metal in New Orleans were used to strike additional U.S. coins for use by the Confederacy. There were even four half dollars produced for the Confederacy, but the metal supply was not high enough to produce a regular mintage.
Closed after the Civil War, everyone assumed New Orleans had made its last coin. But then came great silver discoveries like the Comstock Lode. In an attempt to support the price of silver, Western mining interests passed legislation requiring the purchase of large amounts of silver to make Morgan dollars. Suddenly, all the production capacity possible was needed. As if back from the dead, the old New Orleans facility sprang to life in 1879.
At least until 1892, when New Orleans began to produce additional silver issues, the facility had very limited responsibilities. It basically produced gold coins and silver dollars, with an emphasis on silver dollars.
For many years New Orleans would have substantial silver dollar mintages, even though the use of those coins in the area was limited. As a result, Morgans piled up by the millions in the New Orleans vault. At the time, numismatists had no information as to what dates were in storage.
As time passed, it became clear that despite their large mintages, some New Orleans dates like 1898-O, 1903-O, and 1904-O were almost impossible to locate. That was especially true of the 1903-O, which was almost unknown in Mint State and therefore seen as a great rarity.
It seemed there was only one logical reason why those three dates in particular were so tough to locate. It was assumed that they had been destroyed under the provisions of the Pittman Act of 1918, which had resulted in the melting of just over 270 million silver dollars.
It was correct to believe that the 1898-O, 1904-O and especially the 1903-O had been melted in large numbers, but everyone’s assumption simply went too far. While most of the coins produced for those three dates had been melted, not all were destroyed. The 1903-O was the most extreme case, having soared to around $1,500 in Mint State in the early 1960s. Then a surprising thing happened – starting in late 1962, bag after bag of the 1903-O began to appear. When it was all over, perhaps 250,000 Mint State examples of the 1903-O were released, and the price dropped significantly. Everything numismatists knew at the time had to be revised when it came to Morgan dollar rarities.
While those three dates suddenly became far more common than expected, it worked the other way as well. Some New Orleans dollars have turned out to be much less available than was originally assumed, especially in top grades. What makes it all the more interesting is that some New Orleans dates that are less available seem to be so for different reasons.
The 1895-O had a low mintage of just 450,000 pieces, so it was expected to be a more difficult date. It was not expected, however, to be virtually impossible to find in a grade higher than MS-63, even considering the fact that New Orleans Morgan dollars were sometimes weakly struck.
It appears that large numbers of the 1895-O were released into circulation. That’s surprising, as back in 1895 there were more than enough silver dollars in circulation. But the 1895-O seems to have been released when demand surfaced at the time. When you figure too that some were probably melted as a result of the Pittman Act, and the fact that New Orleans dollars are sometimes not well struck, you suddenly have a combination of factors that make the 1895-O nearly impossible to find in top grades. That situation was magnified when no examples of the 1895-O appeared from the Treasury vaults in the early 1960s.
While a low mintage contributed to few examples of the 1895-O being available, this was not the case with every issue. The 1886-O is also unavailable in top grades, but it had a mintage of 10,710,000. So its lack of availability cannot be blamed in part on a low mintage. We have circulated examples today, meaning it was released in some numbers back when it was produced. But it’s certain that more than 10 million coins were not released, so something else had a huge impact on the supply.
In fact, it appears that the assumptions made about the 1903-O really apply to the 1886-O. Some 1886-Os may have trickled out over the years, but we have no reports that it suddenly became available. Basically, we are left with just one answer; that the 1886-O was melted in huge numbers back in 1918. Nothing else can explain its rarity in top grades, as it was not found in Treasury holdings, the Redfield Hoard, or any other hoard. It simply vanished – and that suggests it was destroyed.
Such analysis is required in virtually every Morgan dollar date from the New Orleans Mint. More than any other Morgan, you cannot generalize about those produced by New Orleans, as they are more likely to produce surprises than any other. That may make New Orleans dollars frustrating for experts, but they are a great deal of fun for those who enjoy solving mysteries.