VOL. XXIII, NO. 1
Looking in the Rear-View Mirror
(A Personal Perspective on the VAM Market)
By Jeff Oxman
SSDC President, NDSR Vice President
It’s rarely a good idea to make pronouncements, but judging from the results of last November’s Heritage ‘Palm Beach’ Auction, a case could be made that VAMs have finally “come of age.” Indeed, if it’s true that at least part of the revival of VAM collecting could be traced back to the creation of the SSDC in 1988 (when there were fewer than ten active VAM collectors!), then it follows that the VAM market began its critical “growth stage” in 1996, when the “Top 100 Book” by Michael Fey and myself was released. Now, fast forward to the present and there are literally thousands of VAM collectors across the country many of whom scour every coin show, attend every auction, and tirelessly surf the internet to find every possible variety. And voila! VAM collecting matured into one of last year’s favorite numismatic debutantes. The coming out party? Look no further than the Heritage ‘Palm Beach’ Sale, where the exciting “Top 100” and “Hot 50” VAM collections of Rafael Romero crossed the auction block!
Initial preparations for the big dance began almost two decades ago with the efforts of a small group of intrepid SSDC members. The first order of business in 1989 was to publish SSDC Journals to disseminate cutting-edge VAM information to as wide an audience as possible. Then, for the next seven years, twenty-six SSDC Mail Auctions supplied material for this emerging market. And finally, the last element to be put into place was spreading the “good word” about VAMs. Simply put, those of us who were committed to VAM collecting hit the road to share what we know and convey some of our own enjoyment in putting together first-rate VAM collections. Hobbyists responded, and the emphasis on information and research was a key piece of the strategy that later evolved into today’s SSDC VAM-E newsletter. This communication device, if I might be allowed to editorialize, is the envy of coin clubs around the country. (Kudos to John Baumgart for his considerable efforts in organizing and sending out the weekly VAM-E communications!)
Along the way, books and CDs which focused on very specific segments of the hobby were published. The effect? When the 8-TF Attribution Guide was first released in 1998, MS63 “common variety” specimens sold in the $50 to $55 range. Try to find one today at double that price! Other books followed, including fine efforts from David Close, who helped me compile the “Top 50” Peace Dollar Varieties, Rob Joyce (1921-D VAMs), David Wang (1879-S Rev. 78 VAMs), and other volumes, including the popular “Hot 50” Morgan Attribution Guide, helped to stimulate interest in VAMs. My point is this: VAM collecting, like all numismatic specialties, is basically an “information-driven” market, and these books, starting with only a spark of collector interest, ultimately fueled a raging inferno in the VAM market.
The current firestorm of enthusiasm could be seen in the Heritage Palm Beach Auction, where the top end of the VAM market literally exploded. Collectors find it hard to believe that when the SSDC began, all but a few of the rarest VAMs sold for less than fifty dollars. It’s true! Consider the 1880-O “Scarface” variety, which in the early 1990s sold in MS61-62 condition (where nearly all the extant population exists) for around $110. Today, any offer to buy one of these specimens for $2000 will undoubtedly produce a disinterested shrug of the shoulders and a quick “No thanks” reply. It’s amazing, but in 2005 a number of rare 1878 8-TF varieties in top condition are bumping up against the $10,000 barrier, and all of the more desirable VAMs are getting “jaw-dropping” prices. Now my confession – I just paid $6500 for an NGC MS62PL 8-TF VAM 14.13, so I must be as crazy as everyone else!
What does all this mean? Go to coin shows, local shops, large auctions, or visit the internet, and you’ll see that VAM varieties are everywhere! Recent converts to the joys of VAM collecting find it hard to believe that this was not always the case. The fact is that coin dealers and collectors in the 1980s were uniformly resistant to the idea of Morgan and Peace dollar varieties. In those days, just asking a coin show dealer, “Do you have any 1878 Morgans?” was a prescription for instant rejection and a barrage of abuse. Dealers (like everyone else!) knew little or nothing about VAMs, and many of them resented specialists “cherrypicking” their inventory. (Yes, it was okay for unknowledgeable collectors off the street to buy their coins, but heaven help the VAM guy!) But lest anyone despair, there’s been a true Hollywood storybook ending to the tale, since the VAM market has now caught fire, and many of those same dealers are now heavily involved in buying and selling VAMs!
And this brings me to the now legendary Heritage Palm Beach Auction. Having viewed the auction lots in Las Vegas prior to the auction in Florida, I had an opportunity to study the individual VAMs offered for sale. And they were, indeed, spectacular. Even a quick perusal of the prices in the chart accompanying this article would inevitable lead to the conclusion: VAMs are Hot! To get a feel for the heat generated by this market, I invite you to examine the actual prices realized for the “Top 100” and “Hot 50” varieties. And thanks go to Heritage for its support of VAMs.
Let me close with this: In the summer of 2004, a spectacular event changed aviation history. To the amazement of all, Burt Rutan’s Space Ship One rocketed through the atmosphere into space to become the first private plane to leave earth’s atmosphere behind. It was an astounding success, and it represented the culmination of years of persistence and effort. Well, it seems to me that the VAM market is showing signs of following in the path of Space Ship One. Prices have never been higher. There are more VAM collectors than at any time in history. And the excitement level for VAMs is now at a fever pitch. Indeed, the market for Morgan and Peace dollar varieties seems, for all intents and purposes, to have left the forces of gravity behind. And what about the future? Everything’s in place for the next generation of VAM collectors to step forward, spread the word, and organize behind the SSDC. Like Rutan, our battle-cry should always be “Claim the Sky!”
Supplement to Jeff Oxman’s Article
The numbers are astounding, but Heritage Numismatic Auctions offered 5,544 lots in its November 4-5, 2004 Signature Auction in Palm Beach, Florida, and the prices realized totaled more than $12 million. A significant part of this success was internet and mail bidding, which Heritage said accounted for nine of the top ten individual prices. When asked about the number of internet and mail bidders who participated in the auction, Heritage estimated that over 2,000 bidders, not in attendance, submitted bids for the Palm Beach Auction.
Of particular interest to us in the Society of Silver Dollar Collectors is one of the featured consignments, the Rafael Romero Collection of “Top 100” and “Hot 50” Morgan dollars. Because of the importance of this collection, we have put together several charts which present the actual data as to the date and mintmark, VAM number, type of variety, grade and the price realized for most of the VAMs in this landmark event.