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GSA Dollar

Collectors who frequent coin price guides these days may have noticed certain dates in the Morgan Silver Dollar series have estimated values attributed to something called “GSA.” Let’s pick on the 1890-CC dollar as an example. The first 1890-CC row has values from lower to upper grades going across the page, as we are accustomed to seeing. Then there is an 1890-CC GSA row directly below this, with a different set of values for the same grades.

History of the GSA Dollar

The most noteworthy aspect about the GSA dollars is that many of them are worth more than non-GSA dollars in equivalent grades. What are GSA dollars and why are they more valuable? To answer these questions, we have to go back in time to the beginning of Morgan Silver Dollar production and move forward to understand the story of the GSA dollar.

The Bland-Allison Act of 1878 mandated the issuance of a new US silver dollar, which came to be called the Morgan Dollar, named after its designer, Mint Engraver George T. Morgan. Soon, the US Mint was churning out Morgan Dollars from all its active coining facilities at the time, located at Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Carson City (Nevada).

Almost immediately, it became obvious Bland-Allison was leading to the output of more silver dollars than the public could consume. Millions of silver dollars never escaped their original Mint bags and ended up unused in Treasury Department vaults. Morgan Dollar coinage continued until 1904, and was resurrected for one more year in 1921.

For decades, the massive supply of government-owned Morgan Dollars gathered dust, as neither banks nor the public showed much interest. Even the coin collecting community shunned them! Anyone could obtain an unopened Mint bag of 1000 coins at face value in exchange for silver certificate paper money, but there were relatively few takers.

This changed in late 1962 when news reports hit the airwaves of heretofore rarities (e.g. 1903-O) being uncovered, translating into a sudden demand for Mint bags and newfound interest in Morgan Silver Dollars.

By 1964, Treasury officials realized they were undercutting themselves by liquidating Morgan Dollars at face value, and called a “time out”. They needed to regroup and determine a more profitable approach to selling their remaining stash of silver dollars, estimated to number 3 million or so.

An audit revealed that most of the Morgan Dollars still in federal hands possessed the “CC” mint mark, indicating they were struck at the legendary Carson City Mint. Coin collectors are especially keen on Carson City coins, owing to a reputation of true scarcity and association with the idolized Wild West days of the American frontier.

It wasn’t until 1970 that a plan was approved to distribute the government’s silver dollar inventory. The General Services Administration, better known as the GSA, was tasked with selling the coins to the public in a series of mail-bid events. The GSA spent nearly one year organizing and packaging the coins.

The vast majority of the coins consisted of uncirculated “CC” dollars. These were packaged in rigid, black plastic containers. Most of the remaining coins were circulated Carson City dollars and those from other mints, and were housed in flexible plastic envelopes. Finally, details of the first sale were announced on October 31, 1972.

In all, there were five GSA mail-bid sales, the last ending on June 30, 1974. Results did not meet with expectations, leaving about 1 million dollars unsold. The GSA held another mail-bid sale in 1980, when the last of the government owned dollars found their way into new homes.
Now that you know what a GSA dollar is, we’re ready to the address the second question that started off this conversation: Why are GSA dollars usually worth more than their non-GSA counterparts? Let’s resume the story where we left off:

Almost as soon as the GSA dollars reached private enterprise, individuals starting removing them from their plastic holders, for a variety of reasons. Coin dealers often viewed the GSA holders to be too bulky for transportation and display. Some collectors wanted to insert them into coin albums or other devices. When third party grading services emerged and gained popularity in the mid to late 1980’s, led by PCGS and NGC, many more GSA dollars were “cracked out” so they could be submitted, graded, and encapsulated in a grading service holder. Coins certified by PCGS or NGC enjoyed increased marketability, and was a big reason why so many GSA holders vanished.

The status of the GSA holder received a major boost in 2003 when NGC announced it would grade GSA dollars and return them to their owners still contained in their original GSA holders. NGC official John Maben explained "The GSA dollars have long been a favorite item of collectors. Many feel the GSA holder itself adds a certain romance to owning them and makes the coins more desirable and collectable." Later, PCGS adopted a similar philosophy, still encapsulating GSA dollars in a PCGS holder, but adding a “GSA” notation to the label.

GSA Dollar Values

Since then, we’ve witnessed a divergence in retail values for GSA vs. non-GSA dollars of the same date and condition. Sometimes, the separation is minimal, but in some cases, quite significant. Consider the following examples taken from a typical coin price guide:

1880-S MS-64 $125
1880-S GSA MS-64 $800
1890-CC MS-64 $1700
1890-CC GSA MS-64 $6000

The primary reason collectors are willing to pay a premium for GSA dollars is rooted in solid principles: The number of genuine GSA dollars is limited in comparison to the overall population of silver dollars, creating an element of demand in and of itself, on top of numismatic value. A buyer who pays a premium for a GSA dollar is willing to do so in the confidence that another buyer will pay just as much if not even more at some point down the road.

Before closing, let’s speculate on another possibility why collectors have an affinity toward GSA dollars. Many of today’s collectors who can afford to acquire higher priced coins belong to the Baby Boom generation. To them, GSA dollars represent a nostalgic, tangible link to their youth, a time when the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration, and Watergate dominated the news. A silly thought perhaps, but it’s really not that unusual for emotion and perceived value for a few to translate into real value for all. Isn’t that why a vintage Barbie doll today can sell for thousands?

Most of the GSA dollar hoard consisted of uncirculated Carson City dollars and was housed in rigid black plastic holders as shown here. This 1890-CC GSA dollar was graded by NGC, as evidenced by the blue tamper proof wrap around label and is generally valued more than three times an otherwise identical non-GSA 1890-CC.

There were a few Morgan Dollars dispersed by the GSA that were struck at the Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco Mints. These, as well as circulated Carson City dollars, were usually packaged in soft, flexible plastic envelopes, such as the example pictured above. This 1903-O Morgan dollar was assigned a grade of MS-64 by NGC. Interestingly, in 1962, the 1903-O above was worth $500 (about $4000 in today’s dollars), only to see its price plummet with the discovery of hundreds of 1903-O’s in government vaults. This particular coin sold for $690 in June 2011.