A particular point of interest for many collectors of the Morgan Dollar series are those coins found with deep mirror prooflike (DMPL) or prooflike (PL) surfaces. Although prooflike coins sometimes occur within other series, they are most frequently noted, collected, and studied for Morgan Dollars. The reflective or mirror-like surfaces make these coins immediately noticeable and, depending on the depth or reflectivity and contrast, among the most beautiful circulation strike examples of both the series and denomination.
The term prooflike comes from the similarity to true proofs that these pieces have, although the differences between the two are quite evident. First of all, prooflike Morgan Dollars were struck for general circulation and did not receive the special care that would have been exercised for true proofs, which were struck for collectors and handled carefully throughout the minting process and afterwards. This is a very important difference, as it explains for excessive bag marks and weak strikes that are often seen on prooflike coins.
The creation of DMPL and PL Morgan Dollars mostly occurs in the production process of the individual dies that are used to strike the coins. Dies were made individually from a so-called master hub with all of the major design elements which are then transferred to the individual dies. These dies are then basined, which is where the prooflike factor comes in. During this process the dies were placed against a zinc receptacle that contained water and fine grind particles that were slowly revolving, continually polishing the die. Depending on the amount of time the die was polished a prooflike or even deep-mirror prooflike die could be produced. Q. David Bowers proposes in his Guide Book of Morgan Silver Dollars that the dies that struck DMPL coins were inadvertently polished for too long, but this is merely a theory that has not been confirmed. It is possible that some dies were polished longer than others on purpose, perhaps to show off the quality and workmanship of the employees at the various mints.
When freshly polished dies went into production a small number of strikes would have the full prooflike or even deep-mirror prooflike surfaces. Immediately after a die was put in use the reflectivity of the fields would start to wear down, creating coins with more typical brilliant surfaces. As such, only a small number of coins would be struck with the full prooflike fields that were created as a result of this process. Sometimes, once a die had been in production for awhile the fields would be polished again, creating more prooflike coins, although these tend to have less contrast between the fields and devices than the earlier coins struck by a particular die.
Determining if a coin is prooflike or deep-mirror prooflike can be difficult to even the most experienced collectors. The most reliable way is to hold the coin on a newspaper and see how many lines you can clearly see reflected on the coin. A prooflike coin should have a minimum of 2-4 inches visible, while for a coin to be a deep-mirror prooflike it should have as much as 6-8 inches of lines clearly visible. The third party grading company PCGS uses the designations DMPL or PL on their holders, while NGC uses DPL and PL. In order to receive the designation, both sides of the coin must exhibit the necessary characteristics.
During the decades that Morgan Dollars were struck, production varied widely from year to year and from Mint to Mint. As a result each issue can be distinguished from others by the reflection of the fields, the brilliance of the devices, and the appearance of the prooflike coins. This is especially apparent with the coins that were struck around the turn of the century. Post 1900 coins are more brilliant and noticeably scarcer with prooflike and deep-mirror prooflike fields due to a change in the production process around this time.
Collecting a full set of DMPL Morgan Dollars is virtually impossible, as some are simply issues not known or exceedingly rare with the designation. While a few 1884-S Morgan Dollars have been certified as PL, overall quality is lacking and no DMPL coins are known to exist (this is also one of the most difficult Morgan Dollars to find in any uncirculated grade). The 1901 is virtually unknown as well, as are some of the other later dates, such as the 1902, 1902-S, 1903-S, 1904 S, and all of the 1921’s. Most of the earlier dates are generally available, but quality is often lacking, especially the contrast. On the other hand, there are some issues which are more frequently found in DMPL or PL with relatively few bagmarks, such as the 1880-S and 1881-S Morgan Dollars, which are perfect coins to seek if you want only one outstanding example for your collection.
One final thing to consider when collecting DMPL or PL Morgan Dollars has to do with the appearance of bag marks on the coins. While coins with the designations do not necessarily attract more bag marks, the surfaces make them much more easily visible. This means that most prooflike Morgan Dollars in grades below MS63 may have highly visible bag marks which detract from the eye appeal of the coin. Whether or not to purchase such coins is something that each collector should decide on his own, but it is definitely something to consider.
Overall, deep mirror prooflike or prooflike Morgan Dollars represent a challenging but rewarding collecting opportunity that is very popular with specialists of the series and can truly represent a lifetime of specialized collecting.