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Rewriting the 1921 Proof Morgan Story

Rewriting the 1921 Proof Morgan Story

By Jack Lee

 with contributions from Roger W. Burdette, Ash Harrison, and Crae Morton


Research at the Smithsonian Institution reveals that the last Morgan ever made was struck in 1922.  Although it is a proof, it is neither a Zerbe nor a Chapman!


Our story begins with a simple request to identify, finally and definitively, the dies used to produce the 1921 Zerbe “Proof.”  While many of you might assume this has been put to rest with Leroy Van Allen’s documentation of the VAM 47 (aka Zerbe Proof dies), the mystery remains as to what criteria the top two-thirds party grading services, PCGS and NGC, use to identify these coins.

After Ash Harrison reviewed and documented the Zerbe coin available at the Baltimore 2008 Summer show to identify the die markers, comparison coins were sought to confirm the analysis.  To this extent, Ash contracted Karen Lee at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. to review its 1921 proof Morgan. I volunteered to make the trip, figuring that regardless of which coin they had in the collection, identifying and documenting key die markers would be invaluable information.

Now for a bit of background.  For many years the Philadelphia Mint maintained its own internal coin collection, which was fully documented in 1908 by Mint Curator T. Louis Comparette.  The collection consisted of the most important U.S. coins produced up until that time, including many proofs.

In 1923, a year after Comparette’s death, Secretary Treasury Andrew Mellon directed that the collection be turned over to the Smithsonian.  What arrived were several boxes that contained 15,000 to 20,000 coins.  The indexing card system maintained by Comparette was also supposedly turned over, but this is in dispute.  What seems clear is that an accurate inventory of the collection was perhaps impossible because of changes that had occurred since the last audit in 1908.

Enter Walter Breen.  As a consultant to the Smithsonian and with many other sources, Breen published an encyclopedia of U.S. Coinage in 1988.  In it he claimed that the U.S. Mint produced 200 or so “Zerbe” proofs in May 1921 to placate Farran Zerbe over an unexpected delay in the production of 1921 Peace dollars.  Tens of thousands of business strike 1921 Morgans were apparently also made from the same proof dies, and the demarcation line between proof and business strike is murky, even to experts today.  Many disagree with Breen and consider Zerbe coins to be more of presentation piece quality rather than true proofs.

Henry Chapman, a Philadelphia coin dealer, supposedly complained to the U.S. Mint at that time about the quality of the Zerbe proofs.  To this end, in May or June 1921 the Mint subsequently produced a limited number of “Chapman” proofs with deep mirrors that were made using new dies that struck coins with the same “no-contrast” style of 1902 to 1904 proof Morgans.

These were claimed to have been sold to Chapman, and Breen reports a bill of sale from Chief Engraver George Morgan to Chapman for 10 coins.  However, over 20 examples are known to exist today, and the discrepancy is impossible to reconcile.

Of interest is that both Zerbe and Chapman coins are the D1 reverse type, the first design used.  In all, about 30% of 1921 Morgan dollar business strikes use this reverse.  The remaining, and later strikes, use the D2 reverse.  During the transition from the D1 to D2 reverse types a wide reed collar was employed.  The Wide Reeds are all Top 100 coins and have a reed count of 157.  All other 1921 Morgan dollars are known only with 189 or 190 reeds.

The major grading services accepted the Zerbe and Chapman versions of the facts for years and certified both coins as proofs.  But in 2006 PCGS abruptly changed the Zerbe designation from “Proof” to “Special Strike.”  The reasons for this are unclear but the Zerbe story is now considered dubious and the origin of the Zerbe is in doubt.

The TPGs themselves have historically differed over the Zerbe.  ANACS has never accepted Zerbes as a proof, although PCGS once did and NGC still does.  While Zerbes are not universally recognized as a proof, the Chapmans are.  But the Chapmans were not officially made by the Mint – at least it does not appear on available mint records.  They seem to have been a backdoor effort on the part of engraver Morgan, who was rumored to have a rare coin business going on the side.

On September 24, 2008 I went to the Smithsonian and the 1921 proof was taken out of the vault.  Having been forewarned not to expect a Zerbe, I was looking forward to photographing and documenting a Chapman style-proof.  As mentioned previously, both the Zerbe and Chapman coins have a D1 reverse.  However, the 1921 Morgan dollar I saw had, incredibly, a D2 reverse!  The coin has proof-like mirrors, a sharp strike, and near perfect surfaces.  It is not bag marked, although some wipe marks are evident on the obverse.  Better than a Zerbe, it is about the same level of quality as a Chapman and is also a no-contrast proof.

Over the years I have owned more than a dozen proof Morgan dollars, including two circulated proofs that were cherrypicked from dealer stocks.  In looking at this coin I had no doubt that it was not a business strike.  But the question remained, why would the Mint have produced it at all?

According to Comparette’s records, the first batch of proofs was from May 1921 when he went to the Coining Room and personally had pieces struck from a new die on a production press, rather than a medal press as was normally done with proofs.  He caught these on a cloth and treated them individually.  These would be the Zerbe coins, according to Breen’s date of production.

A second batch of proofs was also made a year later in May 1922.  Comparette described these as being struck on a medal press, but not “true proofs” – yet not inferior to the old proofs.  The second batch was not the clandestinely struck Chapman proofs, which were made in 1921.

What was made in 1922 and why can now be guessed at.

In the spring of 1922 Henry Chapman began selling his secretly made proofs through newspaper ads.  It is easy to conclude that George Morgan saw the ads and decided the Mint needed an authorized 1921 proof Morgan.  However, Morgan dollar production had ceased at Philadelphia in November 1921.

So, an old business strike die was re-polished and put into use.  This was likely the 1922 coin that Curator Comparette refers to in his notes as being struck on a metal press.  The coin was added to the Philadelphia collection and turned over to the Smithsonian a year later.  If so, then the last Morgan dollar ever made has been identified…as a proof!

In honor of the greatest Morgan dollar collector of our time, I have decided to name this new proof after the recently deceased Jack Lee (no relation).  Jack certainly would have wanted to own one.

The last Morgan dollar made is of interest to VAM collectors everywhere.  Photos of the scribbles area were sent to Crae Morton, who was able to track down the original business strike die used – 1921-P VAM 3BV.  Further, I’ve examined both the business strike discovery piece and the proof coin.  Besides the rim and strike, the denticles are much sharper and squared off on the proof.

Reed count on the business strike was a normal 189, but reed count on the “Lee” proof was unique: 181 reeds.  As a result, I want to urge VAM collectors to check their prooflike and DMPL 1921 Morgan dollars carefully and confirm with a reed count.  You may have a small gold mine there.

That said, the new “Lee” proof needs independent confirmation.  What’s next?  The Connecticut State Library has been contacted about the two 1921 “proof or near-proof Morgans” in its collection.  Library officials have promised large photos and it’s quite easy to surmise that one will be a D1 Reverse Lee proof.  If so, we have a firm basis for saying that the U.S. Mint did make an authorized 1921 Morgan proof dollar…which was made in 1922 and was the last Morgan dollar made.

I can’t wait to find out!

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