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A VAM Enigma Reappears at Last

NSDR Journal

Vol. XXVI, NO. 2

Winter 2008

A VAM Enigma Reappears at Last

By Dennis Halladay

It’s been in the “Big VAM Book” for 37 years, yet no other example of an 1880-O VAM 2A “Impaled Eagle” has ever been located.  Why?  Photos suggest it isn’t a die variety at all, but a mutilated (cut) coin.  What’s more, it doesn’t appear to have a mint mark either.  The coin’s whereabouts were unknown for 40 years until it appeared on eBay last month – starting a brand new chapter in its mysterious history.


It’s a Morgan dollar tale with a hint of “Jurassic Park”:  A legendary thing last seen during the Stone Age of VAMing suddenly appears out of nowhere on eBay.  Collectors are both amazed and stunned, and everyone who has searched in vain to find one has the same questions:  What is it and where did it come from?

The “Impaled Eagle” is back.

A photo of the coin appears on page 201 of the 4th and 3rd editions of “The Big VAM Book” and on page 147 of the 2nd edition.  It’s an iconic image that has been in print – always the same picture that isn’t quite big enough and isn’t quite clear enough – for 37 years.  That’s because it seems to be the only picture that was ever taken before it appeared on eBay.

What’s even more interesting is that no VAM collector has ever seen the Impaled Eagle in person, including Leroy Van Allen.  That means it is the only coin ever put into The Big VAM Book which he did not inspect personally – a unique ‘pedigree’ that assures the Impaled Eagle of a place in VAM history forever and also begins this story.


First Appeared in 1968

The Impaled Eagle seems to have first appeared on the numismatic landscape on April 28, 1968 in Canton, N.C.  It was from there that Hal S. Justice sent a letter to James G. Johnson at Coin World which said in part:

“Am enclosing three more silver dollar variety photos made recently; I do not recall any of these being published or reported, so thought I would include these just in case.

  1. 1.      1880-O Impaled Eagle
  2. 2.      1921-D “TRU T” filled S in TRUST
  3. 3.      1885-O lines from arrow feathers to wreath “These are the only ones of the variety I have seen; have not seen any duplicates.”

Johnson apparently answered that letter on May 3, because Justice refers to it in a second letter he wrote on May 6.  In it he said the Impaled Eagle and TRU-T were sent to him by two different ladies at about the same time.  He also said he no longer had either coin, although he had initially worked out trades for both that fell through during the week he gave the ladies to think them over.  He wrote

“Friends, as usual, gave both women ideas of possible worth of $1,000 to $10,000, as they soon traded back.

“We are still friends, and could probably borrow one or both for further study.”

Later in that same letter Justice makes detailed comments about the Impaled Eagle:

“The 1880-(O?).  Heavily covered with tarnish, both sides, could not clean until trade finalized.  The “O” looks peculiar, is faint and almost into wreath.  If it is an O, it is the large O variety.  If I get it back will try to get permission to clean.  The O on coin in question is larger and rounder than the large slit-O usual large O.  The stick thru eagle’s neck looks genuine in sense it is raised and there is no evidence of scraping or instrument work around it.”


Van Allen Also Contacted

On May 2, Justice also sent a version of letter #1 to Van Allen about the three Morgans as well as duplicate photos.  When we contacted Van Allen for his recollections about them he said:

“I didn’t reply to Justice about the coin, but used the photo he provided to list it.  I never did see it – a mistake.  Since then I have a policy of only listing coins I have examined.  I now think the Impaled Eagle is a damaged coin with just a cut across the eagle, and have de-listed it.  But I would be very interested to finally see it and determine if it is a damaged coin or a die gouge.”

It strongly appears that one of the unnamed ladies referred to by Justice in letter #2 was the mother of the man who offered the coin for sale on eBay in mid-November.

“Joey,” who asked that his last name not be used, said he grew up in the same area where Justice lived.  Now in his early 40s, he recalls being given the coin by his mom at about age 10, protected in a standard 2×2 holder that it stayed in until he removed it to take photographs for the eBay auction.

Joey says his mom remembers few details and no exact dates about how and when she acquired the coin, only that it was given to her by a co-worker at the local Inca Textiles plant near Asheville in the late 1960s.  Neither Joey nor his mom has ever been even a casual coin collector, and neither had ever heard the word ‘VAM’ before selling the coin.  “Mom tried to get me started on coins in the ‘70s with some proof sets, but it didn’t take,” he recalls.  “Instead I decided to collect vintage fishing lures.”


Put Up for Sale on eBay

During his boyhood, Joey says the coin was kept together along with his other small treasures and knick-knacks.  As an adult he thought about it only occasionally, and says no one has seen it since his mom gave it to him.

“I also always had a little thought in the back of my mind that maybe it was a fake, so I never was really too anxious to take it out and look.”

Now a realtor, Joey has been on eBay for over 10 years and has a perfect feedback rating on more than 1,450 transactions.  Most of his sales have been antique fishing lures.  He says the recent downturn in the real estate market got him to thinking seriously about the Impaled Eagle.

“We decided to put it on eBay, and if it was something good, we’d find out,” he recalls.

Virtually as soon as he posted the coin for sale – “with a ridiculous reserve,” Joey admits – VAM collectors began sending e-mails about the coin and its history.  Learning that it was something special, he stopped the auction, wrote a more informative description, and re-listed it without a reserve.  He says he had no idea what it might sell for.

Told about the VAMworld website, Joey says he watched all the posting and comments about the coin while the auction was running, including a few from people “who said one thing in their posts and something much different to me [through eBay].”

The auction’s final sales price of $1,700 was by far the most he has ever sold anything for on eBay.  Ten different bidders participated, and five offered at least $1,000 each.

Joey confirmed that Mark Rawls, who claimed to be the winner in a VAMworld message board post, is indeed the buyer.

During a lengthy interview he was asked to look closely at the coin and comment about the reaction many VAM collectors have had when seeing pictures of the Impaled Eagle:  that the line looks like a cut.

“I don’t really see that it’s a cut,” he said.  “It looks raised to me.”

One new piece of information that did emerge concerns the distinctive dark area on the eagle’s lower neck.  Rather than being a patch of “gunk,” Joey says it is clearly a recessed area in the metal that “looks like it wasn’t ever there.”


Leroy Will Finally See the Coin

Perhaps the best and most fitting part of this new chapter in the Impaled Eagle’s story – and also the most ironic – is that after more than 40 years Van Allen is going to finally get an opportunity to examine the coin in person.  With it will hopefully come an answer to the lingering question, “What is it?”

In his most recent post as we went to press with this issue, winning bidder Rawls said he has been in contact with Van Allen, he plans to send him the coin for inspection, and he “can’t wait for him to look at it.”

That’s a sentiment all of us can agree with, isn’t it?


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