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Coin Collecting: Commemorative Coins

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( Published 1963 )

As the name indicates, Commemorative coins were issued by the United States Mint by specific order of Congress at various times to celebrate some special occasion or event of importance. As such, they are considered an integral and important part of the history of this nation.

They have ranged in denomination from the 25-cent Isabella quarter, issued in 1893 by the Board of Lady Managers of the Columbian Exposition, to the $50 gold pieces, both round and octagonal, put out by the San Francisco branch mint in 1915 to commemorate the Panama-Pacific Exposition in that city. And their present values range from a few dollars for the commoner commemoratives to well over $4,000 for the round Pan-Pacific gold slug.

In a sense, commemoratives should be included among the Unusual Coins of the United States, for, although they are spendable, full legal tender, they seldom have been seen by the general public. With a few exceptions, these coins have never been in general circulation; many were sold at prices above face value; and generally they have been kept bright and shiny, just as they came from the mint.

The history of United States Commemoratives starts in 1892 with issuance of the Chicago Columbian Exposition half dollar, and ends rather abruptly 62 years later with the minting of the last of the Washington-Carver half dollars in 1954, In those 62 years, many important historic events were commemorated, as well as some of definitely dubious import.

The prices of Commemorative coins have had a somewhat spotted career. From the collector's standpoint, they alternately blow hot and cold. Currently, they're on the hot side. Indications are they'll stay that way. But, if history repeats, they may cool off without much warning and stagnate for months on end.

There have been gold Commemoratives, ranging in size and denomination from the tiny $1 gold pieces (Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark, Pan-Pacific, McKinley Memorial, and Grant Memorial) through the $2.50 gold pieces (Pan-Pacific, and Philadelphia Sesquicentennial) to the heavy $50 gold slugs of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. And there have been the Isabella quarter and the Lafayette silver dollar.

But by far the largest number of Commemorative coins have been half dollars.

In complete contrast to the government's view on postage stamp issues, Secretaries of the Treasury and Presidents have frowned on Commemorative coins. While the Post Office Department will issue a special stamp almost at the drop of a hat, the Treasury Department dislikes to issue coins which vary in the least from those which have become familiar to the American public through day-to-day purchases. A special stamp may be issued which looks like a refugee from a bottle of patent medicine, but few persons squawk. The stamp collectors are delighted that they have a new issue on which to spend their money. And the government takes in quite a bit of cash through such sales.

Commemorative coins, however, are minted only when specifically authorized by Congress. The original idea was to issue these coins to organizations which needed them for fund-raising purposes in connection with more or less historic celebrations. Thus, a 50-cent piece might be sold by the Commemorative Commission for a dollar, the 50-cent profit going for some worthy project, such as sculpturing a mountainside or paying the costs of a centennial celebration.

All too often, the commissions yielded to the opportunity offered by coin dealers to unload quantities of their coins.. It was a much faster way of meeting expenses than selling them one at a tune to collectors. The dealers, in business to make a living, of course, then peddled the coins to collectors for whatever they could get-sometimes quite a fancy increase over the original price. Before long, there arose an unpleasant aroma.

Secretaries of the Treasury, from Andrew Mellon on, tried to call a halt to the practice. By 1937, when the 76th Congress adopted H. R. Report No. 101, the thing was considered to have become something of a racket, with coin dealers about the only beneficiaries.

That 1937 House action effectively put a stop to Commemorative issues until, on the final day of the 1946 session, a pair of bills slipped through. One was to authorize an issue of half dollars to commemorate the looth anniversary of Iowa's admission to the Union, the other to aid the Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial.

Today, Commemorative issues do not easily get through Congress; and, when they do, they're vetoed by the President of the United States. President Eisenhower, during his two terms, vetoed three such bills.

So it appears that coin collectors will have to struggle along with the half hundred or so different types of Commemoratives that have been minted in the last 70 years. The type set collector of Commemorative half dollars need worry about only 48 types. If he's ambitious and wants all the mint marks and specials (Grant with Star, Missouri 2*4, etc. ) his goal will be 142 coins and he'll have to put out well over several thousand dollars to complete the full set.

As to the artistic merit of the various Commemoratives, there are many different opinions. Some contend that almost all these coins are not well designed. Others claim their historic importance far outweighs artistic considerations. Some think the lettering and legends required by law to be included (denomination, United States of America, In God We Trust, E Pluribus Unum, etc. ), make it impossible to design a simple and attractive coin. And there are many who are quite happy with the design and appearance of practically all the Commemorative half dollars.

In the last 15 years, many of these Commemoratives have shown startling price increases, some justified on the basis of heavy demand for a limited supply of coins. Others appear to have been overtouted and the prices elevated beyond what normally might be expected on a pure supplyand-demand basis.

In such cases, a dealer may find he has to move certain examples below the figures that enthusiastic boosters of Commemoratives have wishfully hoped for. However, through the years, like almost all items in the coin market, Commemoratives appear to have had their values adjusted in accordance with sound economic laws.

A few of the better-known Commemoratives and their prices of 15 years ago as compared with today's average market:


Coin and Year of Issue - 15 Years Ago - Present
Isabella quarter (1893) $7.50 $65 to $75
Lafayette dollar (1900) 10.00 75 to 100
Columbian Exposition (1892) 1.25 5 to 6
Panama-Pacific Expos. (1915) 17.50 70 to 75
Missouri Centennial (2*4) (1921) 35.00 110 to 135
Vermont Sesquicent. (1921) 4.50  37 to 50
Hawaiian Sesquicent. (1929) 27.50 335 to 460
Old Spanish Trail (1935) $12.50 $3.50 to 200
Battle of Antietam (1937) 4.50 55 to 95
New Rochelle, N.Y. (1938) 3.50 50 to 80

Portraits of living Americans have appeared on Commemorative half dollars (no living American has ever been portrayed on coins of regular mint issue). Thomas E. Kilby, governor of Alabama during that state's centennial celebration in 1921, appears on the Alabama Centennial half dollar of igzi. It was the first time in history that a living person's portrait was used on a United States coin.

In 1926, during the Sesquicentennial of American Independence, the portrait of President Calvin Coolidge appeared with that of George Washington on the Commemorative half dollar. This was another first: the first time a portrait of a president had been used on a coin struck during his lifetime.

Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, former Secretary of the Treasury, objected to the idea of using portraits of living men on coins. But he was overruled and his portrait appeared on the obverse side of the Commemorative half dollar issued for the Lynchburg, Virginia, Sesquicentennial in 1936.

In addition to the American eagle, Commemoratives have portrayed various birds and animals. Among those pictured are the California grizzly bear, a calf, beaver, catamount, badger, Texas longhorn steer, oxen, horses, owls, and dolphins.

Depicted on other coins are such bits of Americana as a gold prospector of 1849, an Indian warrior, Hawaiian native chief, pioneer settlers, the first white child born in America, and a Panama Canal laborer.

There have been plenty of ships: Columbus' flagship Santa Maria, the Pilgrims' Mayflower, the Half Moon of Henry Hudson, and numerous other sailing vessels with identities more or less certain.

Battles commemorated are a pair from the Revolutionary War-Lexington and Concord-and two from the Civil War -Antietam and Gettysburg.

Designers of the Commemorative coins have not been without a sense of humor: there's the picture of "one fatte calf" required to be given each year by the early settlers of what is now New Rochelle, New York, and a solemn portrait of that distinguished American showman, Phineas T. Barnum, who is credited with the saying, "There's a sucker born every minute:" There's even a pun on the Old Spanish Trail Commemorative-the explorer Cabeza de Vaca being represented not by a portrait but by a translation of his name, "head of a cow."

So, if you should decide that you simply must have a complete set of Commemorative half dollars, be prepared to spend in the neighborhood of $2,500 or more. Should you aim for the complete collection of 142 coins, you'd best double that estimate.

The wise collector, however, does not insist on completeness in Commemoratives or in any other series. He intelligently buys and saves those coins which appeal to him. And certainly there are many moderately-priced Commemoratives which are quite as attractive as those with top prices.