VOL. XV No. 1
Power Vamming: A Quest For The Top 100
By Jeff Oxman
Like those few mountain climbers who aspire to the heights of Mount Everest or the far reaches of Kilimanjaro, a select group of U.S. silver dollar collectors have their own Holy Grail – a set of the “Top 100” Morgan dollar varieties. It’s true in both cases that such lofty goals are attained by almost heroic efforts. Always there’s a tremendous price to be paid in terms of time, money, and persistence. But to some, it’s everything to reach the summit!
Enter Mike Andrew of Orlando, Florida who attacked the task of completing the “Top 100” with all the gusto of a beer fancier at Oktoberfest. And, confined to his wheelchair, he succeeded in his quest where others before him had failed.
Interestingly, Mike Andrew only got involved in silver dollar collecting in 1994. After a year, he writes that “silver dollars had become a ‘yawn’ and I was thinking of getting out.” But like many fellow collectors, when introduced to the numismatic specialty of VAM collecting, the pursuit of Morgan dollar varieties captured his imagination in a way that literally changed his life. Does he think about anything other than VAMs? I would hope so, but I’m not at all sure!
A Quick Glance In the Rear-View Mirror
But where did VAM collecting come from? In the 1970’s the initial growth in collector interest was attributable to the research efforts of Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis, who published their findings in what is known as the VAM Book. Long considered by specialists to be the “bible” of Morgan and Peace dollar variety collecting, this encyclopedic work went through a number of compilations, revisions and editions, and today represents the only comprehensive listing of nearly every known 1878 to 1935 silver dollar variety. And there’s good, late-breaking news for VAM collectors – the next revision is scheduled for release in early 1998.
All would agree that as a result of this monumental cataloguing effort, Van Allen and Mallis have left an indelible mark on U.S. silver dollar research! And it’s particularly fitting that in lending their initials to the acronym, VAM, their names have become synonymous with Morgan and Peace dollar varieties.
Of particular importance to the dynamic nature of VAM collecting is the fact that new die varieties are constantly being discovered. This is the fuel that drives our segment of the hobby. The problem is that as the number of known Morgan dollar varieties rapidly approaches the 2000 threshold, collectors have found it almost impossible to personally storehouse the necessary knowledge to attribute such a large number of obverses and reverses.
In other words, there is simply too much to know! To use only one date as an example, there is probably nobody on the planet who could recite off the top of his head the diagnostics of the 58 listed 1878-S varieties. And this represents only one date out of 128!
So, what’s the solution? The key has been to focus on a more manageable number of VAMs, so that the spotlight is on the rarest, most popular varieties. These are the die varieties that commonly produce a premium in the marketplace, and are considered the most desirable varieties in the series. To this end, this writer, together with co-author Michael S. Fey, produced a ground-breaking volume entitled: The Top 100 Morgan Dollar Varieties: The VAM Keys.
The effect of “The Top 100” Book has been dramatic. Released in August 1996 in conjunction with the Denver ANA show, the entire first production run was sold out in less than five months. And in terms of excitement, its impact on the collector side of the somewhat sluggish U.S. silver dollar market of the early-1990s has been remarkable. Why?
The old adage about “an idea whose time has come” may apply here. It’s clear to most observers that more and more detailed variety information for every U.S. coin series is the future direction of the hobby. Look no further than the most expensive coins in every twentieth century coin series, and in nearly every case, they are die varieties. So, one could expect a variety handbook containing cutting-edge information about the hobby’s most popular coin, the Morgan dollar, to produce some exciting results.
What’s in a Name
Interestingly, even the terms “Top 100” and “VAM” have taken on a life of their own. Dealers now commonly include the designation “Top 100” in their advertisements to add value to their inventory. And recently, a few Auction Houses have dipped a toe into the water and have begun to use VAM Numbers. But most importantly, collectors are now using and accepting the term, VAM, as part of the everyday language of numismatics.
Surprising almost everyone, the final incarnation of the word has been its use as a verb. Now, in common parlance one hears such phrases as “I went VAMMING today at so and so coin shop,” or “Have you VAMMED the coins in your collection?” “VAM” has gone generic like Kleenex and Band-aids! Think about this – when was the last time you heard someone say he went “Bolendering” or “Overtoning?” Doesn’t have much of a ring to it, does it? But today, VAMMING is an integral part of collecting Morgan and Peace dollar varieties. And the final development has been the coining of the phrase, “POWER VAMMING,” which refers to the silver dollar collector’s all-out quest to complete the VAM “Top 100.”
Some might ask, why collect the Top 100 Morgan dollar varieties? In the first place, this is where the action is! This is where an 1899-O Morgan dollar, which just happens to have a Micro “O” mintmark, can be purchased for about $100 and sold for over $1300! Or where a low-grade BU 1887-P with a die break on “D” of “DOLLAR” can be sold for over $2000! The sometimes floundering state of the hobby is not a big topic of discussion here!
And not only has the term “Top 100” given new focus to the subject, but for collectors of U.S. Silver Dollar Collectors, together with the authors of the “Top 100” Book, offered a $1000 award to the first collector to complete a verified set of “Top 100” varieties. The challenge brought many new collectors into the fold, and now, in a little over a year, the first Morgan dollar specialist has reached the top of the mountain.
But most importantly, the allure of the “Top 100” Morgan dollar varieties is the same one that challenges collectors of all kinds – the thrill of the hunt. For those with an eye for detail and an adventurous spirit, a quest for the following “Top 100” can offer more than financial rewards – it can represent a lifetime pursuit that keeps your heart pounding with each new find! Just ask Mike Andrew.
About Mike Andrew:
Mike Andrew began coin collecting in 1978 when he came upon an 1898 Indian cent in one of the cash drawers in the restaurant he managed. In his own words, from there he was “off to the races.” Initially, Mike specialized in Lincoln cents and tells of having to borrow a pick-up truck to carry loads of “pennies.” Then, Mike was diagnosed with Leukemia in 1989, at which time he curtailed his collecting activities and sold his coin collection. However, in 1995 he returned to the hobby with renewed vigor, and began to focus on U.S. silver dollars. When that ultimately proved less than satisfying, he ventured into VAM collecting. This came about as a result of his visits to a local coin shop, where the owner would loan him his VAM Book and let him look through his silver dollars. But because Mike usually forgot to return the VAM Book, he was finally forced to buy one of his own… and the rest is history!