1899 Micro O Guide
1899-O Micro O Attribution Guide
(Orginally published in VAMview, December 2005, Revised since then by the VAMworld crew!)
In 1899, some of the New Orleans Morgan dollar dies were prepared with a smaller O mint mark punch, now referred to by collectors a “Micro-O.”
This mint mark is almost round and does not have the taller oval shape seen on most other Morgan dollars. For an unknown reason, this smaller mint mark punch made for the Barber quarter was used on a few Morgan dies. Today, five different 1899 reverse dies are known to have Micro-O reverses. Of particular note is that one of the 1899 Micro-O reverses, VAM 6, was used as the master to create counterfeit dollars with Micro-O reverses dated 1896, 1900 and 1902.*
The 1899 Micro-O coins are hard to find, as the majority of coins produced used the standard size mint mark. When encountered, they are often heavily worn. The condition rarity point seems to be between XF and AU. AU coins are much harder to find, are worth a significant premium and are more desirable. Mint state examples are extremely difficult to locate. Specimens in VG condition are available and one dealer has managed to accumulate a couple of rolls over the last decade. The five different 1899 Micro-O VAMs can be hard to differentiate. The first Micro-O die was reported in 1951 and three different dies were known by the late 1997 when Fey and Oxman published “The Top 100 Morgan VAM Keys” igniting the search for Micro-O coins. It wasn’t until 1999 that Michael Fey noticed slight differences on some Micro-O coins and reported two additional reverse dies.
Because there are not complete attribution photos for all five dies in the major VAM reference books, and because the differences between some are subtle, 1899 Micro-O are often misattributed. The mint mark position of these dies can be used to attribute individual VAMs, but the differences are terribly subtle making this technique too difficult to be practical.
Below are attribution hints that can be used to identify the Micro-O reverses that do not rely on the mint mark position alone. If you work through the possible VAMs in the order presented, it eliminates the easiest attributions and focuses down on the features that will differentiate the harder varieties.
1899-O VAM-6: Begin with the obverse of the coin and check the date position. The only 1899 Micro-O with a near date is VAM 6. Figure 2 illustrates the date position for VAM 6 where the left edge of the bottom of the 1 is aligned over a denticle gap. All other Micro-O coins have a date alignment where the right edge of the 1 is aligned over the center of a denticle as shown in [Figure 3]. If you have a near date, your coin is a VAM-6, verify that the attribution by checking for a unique die polishing line between the eagle’s neck and the wing as illustrated in figure 4. VAM-6 also has slight doubling that can be seen on high grade examples at the base of the ear and at the right inside of the ear.
1899-O VAM-5: For coins that do not have a near date position, check the reverse and examine the lower portion of the lower wing on the right side of the eagle. VAM 5 has strong die polish lines that run diagonally up and right [Figure 5]. These lines are unmistakable on all but the most worn examples and are a lock-in feature for attribution. VAM 5 was identified in the Top 100 book as the most desirable of the Micro-O coins and commands a price premium over several of the other Micro-Os. If additional features to confirm the attribution are needed, VAM 5 also has a small polishing line emerging from the lower rear of the nose, and the date slants with the 1 closer to the denticles than the 9s. Some VAM 5s are clashed and show a line from the neck and triangular clash marks inside the right side of the wreath. Be aware, however, that VAM 4 coins can be clashed too, so clash marks alone are not unique enough to make an attribution – but they can winnow down the options.
1899-O VAM-4: A die gouge through the lower middle tail feathers is the key to identifying a VAM 4. Figure 6 is a close-up of this feature and shows the fine line specific to this VAM. A unique die crack is present on the upper reverse running through OF [Figure 7]. Additionally, this die pair has a faint polishing line between the left most cotton leaf and the wheat leaf in the hair.
1899-O VAM-31: A pair of unique die scratches can be seen inside the left leg of the Eagle as you view the reverse of VAM 31 coins. This protected area preserves the markers on all but the most worn specimens and locks in the attribution quickly when present. [Figure 8].
1899-O VAM-32: If you’ve made it this far, the coin is likely a VAM-32. This is often the hardest reverse to diagnose so it was left as the last possibility in the attribution aid. The pickup points are subtle. One marker to look for is a fine, tiny die scratch running upward and out from the third interior feather on the Eagle’s right wing as viewed.
(figure 9-11 replaced with updated photos below)
In researching this article, the Micro-Os of four large VAM collections were studied. Most coins labeled VAM 4 were actually VAM 31. In pursuing coins to study, a hoard of 50 circulated Micro-Os was made available for examination. More than 80% of them were VAM 6 or VAM 31. Three VAM 5s were present and a VAM 32 was in the cache. Three low grade VAM 4s were also part of the collection. While this is not a scientific study by any stretch of the imagination, it appears the population reports of 1899 VAM 4 Micro-O s are over inflated from misattribution. VAM 32 may actually be the rarest of the Micro-Os, with VAM 4 and VAM 5 being about the same order of rarity. Armed with this knowledge, go hunt out the highest grade examples you can find of the less common 1899 Micro-Os!
I want to thank Dennis Halladay for contributing coins to study and photograph, which helped make this article possible. Leroy Van Allen also supplied photos of the VAM-32 features and provided invaluable assistance covering the entire Micro O landscape.
Leroy Van Allen has authored a 40-page report, “Micro O Mint Mark on Morgan Dollars (Are they all for REAL?)” that provides an extensive study of all known Micro-O reverses, including those from 1880, 1896, 1899, 1900 and 1902. Copies are $10 to cover printing and postage from: Leroy Van Allen, P.O. Box 196, Sidney, OH 45365.