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What is a VAM?
(Or, Mommy Where Do VAMs Come From?)

You sometimes hear it said that collecting coins is a lot harder than it used to be. And in some ways it is! It's no longer a case of just pulling out a handful of change from your pocket and picking out some old Lincoln cents from the 1920's or buffalo nickels from the 1930's. Those days are long gone along with low taxes and horse- drawn buggies! What's happened is that coin collecting has gone in a much different direction. Rather than pushing Lincoln cents into penny-boards to complete a date collection, today's collectors look closely at the coins they encounter (and the ones they already own) to see if any are rare varieties.

Is this worthwhile? Yes, unless you've got something against winning the national lottery with a one-dollar ticket! Rare varieties abound in nearly every U.S. coin series, and Morgan and Peace dollars are no exceptions. Indeed, some veteran collectors seem shocked to learn that the key coins in most 20th century coin series are now the varieties of that series! Look no further than the 1969-S Doubled Die cent, the 1916 Doubled Die Buffalo nickel, the 1942/1 Mercury dimes, the 1918/17-S Standing Liberty Quarter, and a host of others. A bit like weather balloons rising in warm air, the popularity and value of varieties has taken off in recent years to the point that varieties can no longer be ignored. And the good news may be that we're still at the ground-floor level!

With the surge of mainstream acceptance in the coin hobby has come a new terminology. Each coin series uses its own language, and so it is with Morgan dollar varieties. In our own parlance we speak of "Hot Lips," 8-Tail Feather varieties, B1 reverses, "Alligator Eyes," "Shifted Eagles" and VAM Numbers. One could complain, "There's so much to know in VAM collecting!" And you'd be right. But with a little dedication and patience, the rewards can prove to be spectacular. Indeed, the terminology is certainly within reach of every collector. After all, to an extraterrestrial visitor (and some of us out here on the West Coast), the game of ice hockey appears to be diabolically complex!

VAMs in the Spotlight

So, what is a VAM? The heart of collecting Morgan and Peace dollar varieties is based on the idea of a "VAM," which is an acronym for the names of the two men credited with starting this fascinating area of collecting. In the early 1960's Van Allen and Mallis (VAM) developed the system of cataloguing Morgan and Peace dollars that we use now, where each different variety is designated a VAM with its own identifying Number. It's as simple as that.

Where can you find the listings and descriptions for a particular VAM? Go straight to what is called the "VAM Book," whose full title is: "The Comprehensive Catalogue and Encyclopedia of U.S. Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars". Whew! This important book by Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis may have an unwieldy title, but it's easy to use.

In the VAM attribution system, each variety for a given date and mintmark has been assigned its own number. For instance, the 1887-P overdate (which is now considered an integral part of any Morgan Dollar collection) has its own number, 1887-P VAM 2. By giving each variety a different number, it's possible to specify any particular variety simply by stating its date, mintmark and unique VAM Number. Currently there are more than twenty different 1887-P varieties known, but only the overdate variety is referred to as VAM 2. Each of the others has its own VAM Number, listed in the VAM Book as VAM 1, VAM 3, etc., up past VAM 20.

That's the point. Each date in the Morgan and Peace Dollar series has its own run of VAM numbers, beginning at VAM 1 and proceeding as high as necessary to accommodate all the known varieties for that particular date. Numbers are assigned in the order of the discoveries, so the next variety that came to light after the VAM 2 overdate was designated the VAM 3, and so on. But don't think that you have to remember all the VAM Numbers of all the varieties in the Morgan and Peace dollar series! The key is simply to look up the "date" in the VAM Book and then match the coin you have in your hand with the pictures and descriptions in the book. It's as easy as 1-2-3.

The Society of Silver Dollar Collectors, which is an organization of hobbyists specializing in Morgan and Peace Dollar varieties, is continually receiving reports from collectors. (Click here for more information about the SSDC) We receive truck-loads of emails and letters describing how a collector, armed with even a little knowledge about VAMs, found this or that amazing rarity worth hundreds (or thousands) of dollars in a coin dealer's inventory, and didn't pay a nickel premium over what was listed on the generic coin holder!

Those who find the "thrill of the hunt" an important part of their numismatic experience, most often take to VAM collecting like a duck to water. And today, it's the ultimate cherry-picker's arena. Many thousands of Morgan and Peace dollars still haven't been examined by specialists, and as a result, VAMs represent one of the last frontiers in all of numismatics. For those collectors who are adventurers at heart, VAM collecting may be the specialty for you!

Written By: Jeff Oxman -- Last Revision: January 2006 -- All rights Reserved