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( Article orginally published November 1961 )
The start of the Chicago World's Fair in 1892 caused the issue of our first commemorative coins, the Columbian half-dollars. Designed to help defray expenses, they did not, at first, meet with great enthusiasm.
A good many were coined in 1892 and still more in 1893. It was hoped the near 2,500,000 of both dates could be sold at one dollar each.
Many were sold, brought home by visitors, and kept for years as souvenirs of the Exposition. A great many, however, did not sell, and ultimately were placed in circulation at face value. For many years it was not unusual to receive one of these, particularly the 1893 date, in one's pocket change. The Isabella quarters, struck in 1893, were in much smaller quantities and therefore were not a drug on the market, as the Columbian halves became for quite some time. Even though these commemoratives were not met with great enthusiasm, the series had been started, as if by accident, and the idea of selling special coins at premiums to raise money for special events took hold.
In 1900 we had our first and only commemorative dollar, the Washington Lafayette. Up to this time no special denomination had been adopted for commemorative coins and they then began to appear in all kinds.
With the advent of the 1903 Louisiana Purchase commemorative gold dollars we have a series of gold dollars and quarter eagles. Even the 1915 Panama Pacific $50 slugs appearing from time to time make up quite a series.
These were coined in very limited numbers and were issued more as historical souvenirs than coins designed to raise money. Even so at the time of issue trouble was encountered _ disposing of these coins at over face value.
It seems people resented having to pay a premium for a coin, no matter how interesting it was or how small an issue. Little did those buying know the great increase in value these pieces would come to.
Even in the late 20's, dealers would be more than pleased to get their capital investment out of the Panama Pacific $50 pieces, and a small premium for their efforts. I can remember the pair, both octagonal and round, being offered, circulated, for as little as $125 the pair! Twenty-five dollars face value!
While there were approximately a thousand of these struck of each type, their original sale was difficult and nearly half of them were turned in to the mint to be melted up. This leaves a little over a thousand of both in existence today.
The Panama Pacific set the two fifty-dollar gold pieces, a gold quarter eagle, a gold dollar, and a fiftycent piece, were the first great urge to encourage more of this interesting series. This commemoration having adopted so many different denominations helped mold the future denomination to be used, the half-dollar. It seems both price and size were the most popular, so future commemorative coins soon exclusively were struck in this denomination.
In 1918 we find the Lincoln Centennial half-dollar. From 1920 on, one or more different commemoratives came out every year.
Difficulty was found selling all that were authorized of each issue, for while the series had enlisted many ardent followers there were not as many as the number of coins struck. A goodly amount were therefore available and consequentlv kept the values down for a long while. As collectors were always told these commemoratives were limited issues and would become valuable, their lack of response was disappointing. In 1921 the idea first appeared of making varieties that would be rarer than the regular series.
We find the Missouri with and without star, and the Grant with and without star. This seems the first step toward trying to sell more coins to a limited number of buyers. The practice ultimately became so abused as to cause the Administration to frown upon the issuance of any more commemorative coins.
As time went by, many commemorative halves were issued, some by associations which only desire l to dispose of enough to fill their needs for funds. Others, more enternrising, had the halves made for many ,years, from many mints, and mith all kinds of minor varieties to create rarities.
The quantity issued hit its peak around 1935 and 1936. Interest at that time also hit a peak. Speculators and collectors were getting on the band awagon, buying them in quantities, making up sets, and carrying around graphs showing the fluctuations of price trends. It was nothing for the "boys" to deal in hundreds or thousands of one issue.
It sounded like Stock Market speculation at its wildest. Some rare issues skyrocketed from $5 to $50, or even $75 within a week! Such rapid profits were unheard of in the numismatic world.
As can be expected, it couldn't last. The crash came. Overnight no one wanted to buy any commemoratives, and everyone was loaded with hundreds of one kind.It took many years to get over this debacle and many years for holders of commemorative to disspose of their hoards. This was accomplished finally. Then, with wide distribution of nearly all issues, the gradual and more secure rise in values began.
The sale of new issues after 1936 became very difficult, and the government would not approve any new issues. For many years the only new ones struck were those under authorization from previous years such as the Boone, Oregon Trail, Texas, and Arkansas issues.
Very few were struck each year because of the sharply reduced demand and the repetition of designs. Collectors were disgusted with the "rackets" as they called them.
Some hope was raised with the issue of the 1946 Iowa Centennial for this was a new, singie, and interesting one. However, it was quickly followed by the mass of varieties of the Booker T. Washington, and Washington-Carver series, the last of which, with 30 different varieties, ended in 1954.
At present the Administration, particularly through the advice of the mint, frowns upon commemorative issues. The exploitation of many of the series has caused a good deal of discontent.
The feeling is that the mint is too busy to issue these special coins, and that commemoratives tend to confuse the coinage of the country, creating too many designs. Also that commemoratives should be issued in the form of medals.
Medals, however, have never reached the popularity among collectors that coins have for the collector likes to feel his collection is of basic intrinsic value, no matter how little. This is evidenced by the number of medals versus proof sets issued by the mint.
It is too bad the situation has developed to such an impasse. I feel a series of commemorative coins is educational, interesting, and can, within reason, be a profitable investment.
The fault lies in the manner of distribution. I feel we should restrict the issue of commemorative coins to one of importance per year; have them issued by the mint direct and in PROOF condition as it issues proof sets; issue as many as it has orders for; and charge a premium.
We would have a very interesting series, fairly issued, and at a reasonable price. Proofs would not normally get into circulation, and the mint would be able to make money on the series. If the denomination to be used for these commemoratives were a silver dollar instead of half-dollar, the size would be larger, designs would be more attractive, and the dollar's unpopularity in circulation would help keep our coinage from becoming too confounded due to too many varieties, about which the mint complains.