Evaluating the VAM-4B variety of 1902-O Morgan silver dollar

About VAMs: Cause of strange die failure unknown
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 08/05/16
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About VAMs column from Aug. 22, 2016, Weekly issue of Coin World:

Several varieties of 1902-O Morgan dollars have similar patterns of pitting and crumbling around the obverse lettering, stars, and date. The strongest is the VAM-4B, reported in February 2007 and cataloged in New VAM Varieties of Morgan Dollars by Leroy Van Allen.

A strong patch of pitting is found just to the right of the date and the internal points of many of the stars show significant crumbling. The die failure is progressive, but fairly rapid, and the later stage as illustrated is the most commonly encountered. Actually, it appears to form too rapidly to simply be caused by die wear. 

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The date has been studied in great depth by researcher Alan Scott, culminating in the work 1902-O Morgan Dollar Series Attribution Guide. It was Scott who pointed out the similarities between several marriages while conclusively demonstrating they were not simply different stages of the same die. It is unclear why this pattern repeats. But improper annealing is a prime suspect for this form of die failure.

In October 1901, the Philadelphia Mint moved to a new location and, along with the new building, a whole array of new equipment was placed into service. New gas furnaces were an important component of the upgrade, and these were used for all of the melting, hardening and annealing procedures the Mint employed.

It is very likely that it would have taken some time and practice to get used to the new furnaces and how the die steel would react.

In this era, the Philadelphia engraving department made all U.S. coinage dies for itself as well as all of the other Mint facilities.

Perhaps one day a numismatic historian will uncover an internal Mint memorandum that mentions problems with dies from the changeover to new equipment.

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