About VAMs column from Aug. 22, 2016, Weekly issue of
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.