This past January, I had the chance to study and photograph the
VAM-14.11 1878 Morgan, 8 Tail Feathers dollar, one of the more elusive
varieties in the series.
This variety is extremely rare with fewer than 20 pieces reported
in the combined certified populations. The example illustrated had
just been won at auction for a little more than $16,000.
The variety was discovered in August 1995 by Les Hartnett. It is
described in the 1878 Morgan Dollar 8-TF Attribution Guide by
Hartnett and co-author Jeff Oxman.
The VAM-14.11 coin is also highlighted in the most recent edition
of The Top 100 Morgan Dollar Varieties: The VAM Keys by Michael
Fey and Oxman. In 1999, the Top 100 co-authors selected this variety
as a replacement for a piece of questionable existence, the VAM-11
1878 Morgan dollar, listed in earlier editions of their book. The
VAM-14.11 coin is a key to completing a Top 100 set and one of several
truly challenging components in a complete 8 Tail Feathers set.
The VAM-14.11 variety is identified by its obverse
characteristics, most notably the spikes protruding from the front of
Liberty’s eye, the result of die doubling. Die doubling appears on all
the obverse lettering, but similar doubling is found on other
varieties for this date. Die markers take on added importance when the
“Wild Eye” spikes aren’t clearly visible as a result of wear or
A distinctive pattern of rough lumps appears inside the first
digit 8. Long die scratches are located along Liberty’s chin and the
back edge of the Phrygian cap.
The strongest secondary diagnostic is a short diagonal die gouge
in the lower hair directly above the first right star. This is a
protected location that can withstand fairly heavy circulation.
The reverse die used for the VAM-14.11 variety is also paired with
no less than 10 distinct obverse dies. Eight of these marriages are
also considered rare.
It is likely simply a coincidence, but the question is worth
asking: Was there something about this particular reverse die that was
destructive to its mates?
John Roberts is director of attribution services for ANACS. He is
a longtime collector of Morgan dollar varieties and is considered an
expert in attributing Morgan varieties.