Question: My husband's uncle gave him an 1884-S Morgan silver dollar as a gift. Since then, we've found out it's known as a key coin. What is a key coin? And without knowing the condition, would you estimate its value?--F.C.
Answer: Quite often coins are collected by series or denomination. This means that the collector wants to have an example of each coin minted by date and mint mark. More sophisticated collectors also seek varieties. Varieties can include overdates or design changes (clearer lettering, more defined features) that will change the characteristics of a coin even though the date and mint mark remain the same.
In order to complete a set, several coins in that set may be difficult to obtain. These are usually the coins with lower mintage or availability. Such coins are called the key to the series. They are usually more expensive and more elusive. In a long series, such as the Morgan dollar, which was minted from 1878 to 1921, there are many key dates. Few collectors manage to complete a Morgan dollar set, even though these coins are quite popular. You will find vast numbers of them at coin shows. But when it gets to key dates, the supply dries up.
Dick A. Reed in "The Complete Investor's Guide to Silver Dollar Investing" lists Morgan dollars as to their availability in Mint State 60 and better. That means coins that are uncirculated. The 1884-S is the second rarest in this series, according to Reed. First is the 1893-S dollar, with an estimated 203 coins available in uncirculated condition. The 1884-S is second with 717. This is interesting because the 1884-S had a total mintage of 3.2 million, which indicates the low number kept in a high state of preservation.
I don't know how Reed determined the number of uncirculated dollars available, and he may be off slightly here or there, but the market reflects his judgment. Other scarce uncirculated Morgan dollar dates, according to Reed, include the years 1889-CC (2,845), 1892-O (2,596), 1892-S (789), 1893-O (2,007), 1894 (3,644), 1895 (747), 1895-O (1,901) and 1901 (1,834).
On the opposite end of the uncirculated Morgan dollar scale, according to Reed, are the 1880-S (1,064,500), 1881-S (1,183,500), 1884-CC (1,117,000) and 1921 (5,062,500).
You can see from this a pattern of how coin prices are determined. Coins of equal wear will still be priced differently, and the less wear, the more valuable a coin becomes. When the availability of a coin is quite low, that coin becomes a key date.
Since your 1884-S dollar is a key date, you can expect to get more for it than you would from a common date. If your coin is circulated, it's worth between $12 and $25. Uncirculated prices can range from $1,000 to $20,000.
An alternate way to buy and sell coins is the bid board. Many of these boards are situated at coin stores, and often it's a way to pick up a bargain or sell a duplicate coin in your collection. One of the newest bid boards around--and one of the most active--has been established by George Zawalonka at his Glendale Stamp & Coin Co., 1605 Glenoaks Blvd., Glendale.
"I hope to feature high-quality coins in the $1-to-$1,000 range," Zwalonka says.
Coins will be sold at two-week intervals initially, he said, with a fee of $1 for a bid number and 10% fee paid by the seller. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Bids close on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.