U.S. Government Discovers Hoard of Carson City Morgan Silver Dollars in a Treasury Vault
Until 1964, people in the U.S. could redeem Silver Certificate paper money for the old silver dollars made at the nation’s mints between 1878 and 1935. The Treasury’s supply of silver dollars dwindled until only about 3 million coins remained, most of them having come from the Carson City Mint, which ceased coining operations for good in June 1893. The Treasury Secretary exercised an option and from that time (1964) on, persons redeeming Silver Certificates would receive only bullion in exchange. The Treasury froze the stock of old silver dollars until the government could make a decision about what to do with the remaining stash. The silver dollars were transferred to the West Point Silver Bullion Depository in New York for safekeeping.
In 1970, Congress authorized the General Services Administration to sell the hoard of silver dollars to the public. Officials devised a mail bid system, with minimum prices for each dollar established, and limits placed on the quantity any bidder could buy. The proceeds from the sales, in excess of expenses, would go into the national treasury.
Plans Forged for Sale
The sorting process began. A team of GSA workers organized the nearly 2.9 million Carson City Morgan silver dollars and less than 30,000 silver dollars (some of the “Peace” variety) from other mints into categories in accordance with the coins’ perceived condition ratings. With guidance from a committee of numismatic experts, the GSA staff relegated the coins they deemed better quality to the “Uncirculated” category. More than 2 million Carson City silver dollars received this distinction. Into a second group, which the GSA team called “Mixed Carson City,” went approximately 690,000 pieces, considered by the sorters to rate as Uncirculated but inferior in some way because of oxidation-caused patina, unsightly abrasions, or a combination of both. The third category, consisting of less than 100,000 coins, was created for Carson City dollars that GSA workers viewed as Circulated, in other words having signs of wear from service in commercial circles. Some of the coins from this “Mixed Circulated Carson City” section have baffled collectors in ensuing decades, because their quality is every bit as good, if not better, than ones seen in the “Uncirculated Carson City” category. The GSA reserved a fourth category for the approximately 85,000 – 95,000 Circulated silver dollars that did not come from the Carson City Mint. And finally, the GSA designated a classification for the 300 or so rejects, which it labeled “Not Salable.”
With the categories established, final tallies were taken for each, and handsome plastic slabs were manufactured for the coins in the top three tiers, with the remainder being placed in thin, flexible Mylar plastic sleeves, encased in blue envelopes. The more stylish plastic slabs, some with the word UNCIRCULATED on them and some without the word, were placed in black boxes lined with a light-blue velvet-like material and personalized with a message from President Nixon. Cards inscribed with a brief synopsis of how the silver dollars were made of Comstock bullion, minted in Carson City (if appropriate), and preserved and sold by the U.S. government completed the package.
The GSA launched a massive publicity and advertising campaign, which included the mailing of hundreds of thousands of enticing brochures (most of which are collectibles today). The Nevada State Museum in Carson City published a book about the history of the Carson City Mint called Mint Mark “CC”, and collaborated on the production of a documentary, .900 Fine, which served as a great audio-visual introduction to how Carson City silver dollars came into existence.
The GSA launched the first sale of Carson City silver dollars on Nevada’s birthday, October 31, 1972. Dubbed “The Great Silver Sale,” it offered about 1.7 million of the three most common dates in the Carson City Morgan silver dollar series: 1882-CC, 1883-CC, and 1884-CC. The GSA established the minimum bid at $30 per coin, with limits placed on the quantity each household could order. This sale netted only about 700,000 coins sold.
With approximately 1 million silver dollars left over from the first sale, the GSA tried again, this time with “The Great Silver Sale – Extension,” which commenced on February 14, 1973 and ended on April 30, 1973. This second attempt, which was technically an extension, fared worse than the first one, with a dismal total of 10% of the silver dollars offered sold.
A second sale, with the romanticized name “The Coins Jesse James Never Got,” lasted from June 1, 1973 to July 31, 1973. A greater assortment of dates and condition ratings gave bidders more choices in this sale. The offering included a selection of some of the better dates from 1878-CC to 1885-CC, as well as the 1890-CC and 1891-CC. Buyers could choose from minimum bids ranging from $3 to $30, with category names such as “The Potluck,” “The Silver Bonanza,” and “‘CC’ Triple Choice.” Bidders snatched some 453,000 silver dollars out of this sale, which still left the government holding about 1.7 million pieces.
Nearing the end of the first twelve months of the campaign, the GSA held what it called a “30-Day Surplus Dollar Sale,” which covered the period between October 1, 1973 and October 31, 1973. This event featured 1880-CC, 1881-CC, and 1885-CC silver dollars, all with minimum bids of $60 apiece. This resulted in approximately 213,000 coins sold.
The fourth sale, conducted during February 1974, offered 3,609 of what the GSA considered the rarest date in the Carson City Morgan silver dollar series, the 1879-CC. This group sold out quickly.
To cap off the GSA’s efforts in the 1970s, prolific publicity announced “The Last of a Legacy” sale, which began on April 1, 1974 and ended June 30, 1974. The government hoped to clean out its vault filled with nearly 1.4 million silver dollars with this last big push. Bidders could choose from coins at the $15, $30, and $60 levels. In the end, buyers absorbed slightly less than 420,000 silver dollars, leaving approximately 1 million in the Treasury’s reserve.
Problems escalated in the sixth sale, which the GSA named “90% Silver, 100% History” and scheduled for February 8, 1980 to April 8, 1980. The rapidly rising price of silver bullion in early 1980 and a seemingly disoriented plan, confounded the GSA during this sale. The practically 925,000 silver dollars it offered sold out though, within two weeks of the commencement of the sale.
This left about 55,000 silver dollars to dispose of by the time the GSA announced the seventh and final sale, which happened during July 1980. Bidders consumed the remaining 1880-CC, 1881-CC, and 1885-CC silver dollars in the hoard.
All seven sales grossed in the neighborhood of $100 million. It’s incomprehensible to estimate the total impact of the GSA sales, not only in monetary value but in how they influenced the numismatic world, and more specifically the Carson City coin market. If the Treasury had melted down the nearly 2.9 million “CC” silver dollars instead of offering them for sale to the public, the total population of “CC” coins (all denominations) would have decreased by about 72.5%. Many of the dates in the Carson City Morgan dollar series would be rarer to exorbitantly scarcer. The 1884-CC and 1885-CC come to mind. There’s no doubt that the GSA’s sale of the hoard brought the Carson City Mint and its coins to the forefront of the numismatic scene, and that its enduring legacy has breathed life into this special niche of the hobby.
Collectors today are passionate about Carson City Morgan silver dollars in their original GSA packaging. The fact that hundreds of thousands of these dollars have been removed from the government slabs, and the black boxes and accompanying cards have been discarded, adds to allure of pursuing a collection of GSA Morgans. Fortunately, Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) began grading GSA dollars in their original government slabs in 2004. NGC’s census report of coins graded provides us with a valuable tool in analyzing the rarity of the different dates in the GSA Carson City series, especially as the coins ascend the grading scale.
Interest in GSA Carson City silver dollars should increase substantially in the future, and even more so as we approach the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first GSA sale in 2022.
For a printable version of the above table, click here: Carson City GSA Morgan Silver Dollars Original Mintages and Hoard Totals