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The VAM 44
King of VAMs

It's been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, some things are beautiful on their own terms. What person with two eyes could view the spectacular colors of a Caribbean sunset and not have their breath taken away? Or what about the dramatic setting of a Rocky Mountain waterfall? Throw in a Vatican ceiling or two, and you get the point -- the world contains exquisite beauty, if you know where to look.

And the same holds true even for something as earth-bound as coin collecting. Show me an individual who is excited about numismatics, and I'll show you a person interested in beauty. More to the point, collectors of Morgan dollar varieties are fascinated by the allure and beauty of their own particular specialty, where beauty is often defined as a "Doubled Stars" obverse or a "Shifted Eagle" reverse. But what is THE most beautiful variety? Let me make a case for the 1878-P VAM 44!

First, the VAM 44 obverse is one of the most clearly defined Tripled Dies in the Morgan Dollar series. The leaves, cotton bolls, and the adjacent central areas of Liberty's head-dress are unmistakably tripled. This feature alone, sets the VAM 44 apart from 99% of the known Morgan and Peace Dollar die varieties.

Second, the 7/8-TF VAM 44 is ultra-rare, with 40-45 specimens known to exist. As hobbyists, we collect what in principle are "rare" coins. Dealers are in the "rare coin" business. But as we all know, coins with surviving mintages in the millions are often referred to as "rare." Well, here is one superstar that lives up to its billing!

Lastly, the VAM 44 also holds the important distinction as being the most desirable Morgan dollar variety, and these die varieties don't come cheap. A recent transaction involving an XF specimen which was cherry-picked for about $20 netted the seller over $1000! And a couple of AU specimens were recently in the marketplace for approximately $2500 each. Putting this into perspective, there are less than 50 pieces that must satisfy the demand of thousands of collectors.

For the highly vaunted VAM 44, the thrill of the hunt involves more than finding another specimen, although that would certainly be reward enough. During the past decade, the aim has been focused on finding specimens in uncirculated condition. Most VAM 44's have graded in the VF to XF range, with a few AU50's and a few more AU55's. But the total number of BU VAM 44's totals less than eight. Hence, an AU specimen for all practical purposes represents the top of the line for any collector hoping to complete an 1878-P 7/8-TF Set.

The Tale of One Young Cherry-Picker

Mystery novel fans take heart -- the story of the particular specimen featured here has more turns than an Agatha Christie novel. Purchased on the West Coast at a small, club-sponsored show, it would have been the most unlikely of venues for a major discovery. After all, cherry-pickers require lots of coins to examine, whereas this show offered relatively few coins to choose from.

Yet there it was, a coin viewed by several hundred potential buyers, all of whom passed it by. Marked "1878 7/8-TF" on the flip (the dealer thought it was the common VAM 33), the coin was overgraded at MS63, but this young collector, with his burgeoning interest in silver dollar varieties, bought the coin anyway. He said later that he had "felt" there was something different about this coin! Later, after a close inspection and a comparison with pictures in the VAM Book, the collector contacted the SSDC to corroborate his attribution. Was this the famous VAM 44? It sure was. Imagine, one of the premier coins in VAM collecting was acquired without either the dealer or the collector knowing its true identity!

Having been contacted, there was lots of good news and a little bad news to report. The good news was that the lucky collector had indeed hit a home run. Without question, this Mark McGwire long ball not only carried the outfield wall, but landed in another country! The only issue was the grade. It appeared to this conservative grader to be an AU58. Would it stretch to an MS60? Was that a trace of wear or a touch of flatness about Liberty's ear. The lustre was full, but did it have enough "pizzazz" to be a "new" coin? Hey, why fret? It was the VAM collector's find of a lifetime in either case.

The moral of the story? Cherry-picker's dreams can, and do, come true. This VAM 44, which was originally purchased for less than $100, subsequently sold in an SSDC Mail Auction for $2400! The collector who acquired this ultra-rare specimen later called to say that this was the happy ending to his dream of completing a 7/8-TF Set, a feat duplicated by less than a dozen numismatists worldwide. And the consignor, who couldn't help but write the Society about the details of his adventure, was particularly thrilled with the results. And why not? There's something magical about spinning straw into gold!

Written By: Jeff Oxman ..... Last Revision: December 1999 .... All Rights Reserved