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Commem designs rated best, worst

The old commemorative half dollars of yesteryear, issued between 1892 and 1954 were an eclectic bunch of silver coins to say the least. These coins are all the same standard size as our half dollar today, all had the same weight and fineness and were legal tender. Just a handful of them ever ended up in circulation or were spent because they were originally sold at a premium to pay for historical celebrations or monuments. Therefore, many of them are found in uncirculated condition or better.

Here, I am not going to talk about how the subjects of these half dollars were chosen. In this review, I am going to forgo mentioning where the legends, mottoes, inscriptions and dates are placed as most are very similar.
What I am going to do is give a brief overview of the designs and critique the artistry of my favorite and least favorite sides of these old half dollars. I will list my top 10 favorites and the ten worst obverse or reverse designs.

As a longtime numismatist, artist and photographer I will tell you how I felt about each and what it said to me at first glance.  Read on and determine for yourself those that did indeed have superb artistic merit and which fell horribly short of it.

Modern Commemorative Coins

Do you know which modern commemoratives have the best potential for profit?

Counting down the 10 best obverse or reverse designed coins of the old commemorative half dollars begins with the Pilgrim Tercentenary that was first issued in 1920 and was designed by Cyrus E. Dallin, a Boston sculptor. The reverse is a true winning design. It is dominated by a three-quarters view of the Mayflower sailing on rough seas. I love how the image of this ship fills most of the space, showing its mast, sails and detailed water. The ship is majestically displayed in wondrous detail. It is a masterpiece in my opinion and a great coin to look at and enjoy.

There are many ship coins out there and most ship coins are done nicely, but that is beside the point. The reverse of this coin is simply done beautifully with much artistic merit and a well planned design.

Coming in at No. 9 on my favorites list is the reverse of the Grant Memorial. This half dollar coin was issued in 1922 for the centennial of Ulysses S. Grant’s birth and was designed by Laura Gardin Fraser. The reverse of this coin depicts a small frame cabin at Point Pleasant, Ohio, where Grant was born. The house is nestled under beautiful, tall protective trees. A split rail fence seems to surround the house. Almost the entire reverse is filled with this image and in my mind it is a true masterpiece. Like a tiny Norman Rockwell painting, you can’t help but study the detail and beauty of this coin. The fairly high relief plays into a nearly perfect design and creates even more depth.

In the No. 8 spot for the best old commemorative half dollar is the Stone Mountain Memorial half dollar that was issued in 1925 to raise funds for a monument to honor Confederate soldiers and President Warren G. Harding.
The half dollar was designed by Gutzon Borglum and has a masterfully done rendition of the American eagle perched on the edge of a steep cliff. I love how the mountain seems to fade into the background of the coin towards the five o’clock position, giving it an unusual appearance. There are 34 very faint stars in the background that represent the number of states at the beginning of the Civil War. This is something I have not seen too often on U.S. coinage, but I like how innovative the designer was in creating this optically stunning reverse. Almost invisible but there, I like how the stars are incorporated into the design. I have seen this coin both in blazing white as well as rainbow toned, and it is fantastic looking any way you examine it.

No. 7 is the Texas Independence Centennial, which was first issued in 1934. Pompeo Coppini, an artist from New York who was living in Texas at the time had the privilege of designing this elegant coin. While simple in concept it is an unusually good rendition of an American eagle standing in front of the well-known symbol of Texas, a lone star, it is still a perfect coin design. Bold, beautiful and strong are the ways to describe this powerful image of our beloved bird. Everything is right about the design on this side of the coin. The detail and stance of the eagle is nothing short of fantastic. Mr. Coppini also designed the reverse of this half dollar. See my list of 10 worst designs.

At No. 6 is the Connecticut Tercentenary designed by Henry Kreis and issued in 1935. While both sides of this coin are quite artistic, here I want to give top billing to its reverse. It is an amazing piece of artwork and a miniature sculpture all in one. It depicts one of the most beautiful renditions of the Charter Oak I have ever seen. The oak tree is set off center to the left so that the legend could be placed beneath its spreading branches. Highly detailed and magnificently finished it seems to shimmer in bright lighting. Looking at it, it comes to life with almost a three dimensional effect. This is all possible because of the high relief the coin displays. I love this design and have seen numerous examples of it in many different grades and with different patinas. All of them are amazing. I give a high-five to it’s master designer Kreis for a nearly flawless coin.
Maybe, just maybe, he “planted” some ideas in other designer’s heads to create other fantastic coin designs.

The reverse of the Antietam half is No. 5. Issued in 1937 and designed by William Marks Simpson to commemorate the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War, the design is as handsome and as it is artistic. It features a beautiful quality rendition of the Burnside Bridge over Antietam Creek. Just a little overcrowded with lettering that explains the commemoration, this is a smart and wonderful looking half dollar. The bridge, intricate, interesting and pictured in sharp detail almost looks three-dimensional. The trees, bridge, water and banks show the skill of the engraver. This coin is very pleasant to look at almost like a painting or a well-executed photograph. Perhaps architecture and scenic depictions translate well onto coin designs, but the designer also has to have the ability to do that transformation. I have seen this coin many times in uncirculated condition, near uncirculated condition, in blazing white, and with rainbow colors. Once, I saw it with a brilliant magenta patina covering most of its reverse and it looked quite amazing. If anyone knows where this purple coin is, let me know.

At No 4 is the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge half dollar. Issued in 1936 and designed by Jacques Schnier, this coin celebrated the opening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Both the obverse and reverse of this beautiful half dollar are amazing in concept and in detail with the reverse being a true winner. This side of this coin is different and marvelous in many ways. Depicted on it are the beautiful Bay Bridge and also the Ferry Building that is in San Francisco. It also incorporates the Oakland shore and two ships in the bay. An unusual overhead view of the bridge is an amazing perspective that gives this coin the feel of something truly unique.
Rarely does a coin inspire, but this one does. The intricate detail of the bridge and building and even the water makes you want to look at this coin over and over again. The placement of its elements and its artistry far surpass most coins produced then, or that are on the market today.

It was actually this coin that got me interested in collecting and learning about the old commemoratives. I have seen this coin in many different grades, but mostly uncirculated. I have seen it with many different patinas, one being brilliant red and yellow. Go out and look at one, or buy one for yourself.

Placing at No. 3 is the San Diego Pacific Exposition half dollar obverse. This coin was minted in 1935 and 1936 and was designed by Robert Aitken. It was actually the first commemorative half dollar I ever purchased as I loved its design and because of its affordability at the time. The coin’s obverse is an adaptation or near rendition of California’s state seal. Minerva is shown flanked by a bear on the left side of the coin and a shield on the right done elegantly like many great old U.S. coins. Beautifully and artistically created it is a true American masterpiece containing a simple but powerful design. There is a tiny faint sailing ship just above the bear’s head, which I suppose is a representation of the vessel used by the Portuguese explorers that came to the area. The ship doesn’t enhance or detract from the overall beauty of this coin. It’s so faint and small, but I found it interesting enough to point out.

Magnificent are both the obverse and the reverse of the Oregon half. It is considered to be the most beautiful United States commemorative half dollar ever minted, including myself. This is why I place this half dollar at the No. 2 and No 1 spots. This half dollar was first minted in 1926 and was made for eight years by three different mints. Bravo, I would say to the designers, James Earle Fraser and his wife Laura Gardin Fraser for a truly amazing and wonderful coin. Mr. Fraser also designed our Buffalo nickel. Now there was an artist. The obverse of this beautifully detailed half dollar depicts a covered wagon drawn by oxen and led by a pioneer, his wife and their baby heading west toward a large setting sun. The sun’s rays span most of the coin directly behind the wagon. Under the wagon are five small stars. I could find no reason given for their incorporation into the coin, but they added interest to the overall design. From the spokes of the wheels to the detail on the oxen, to the layout of the coin, to the artistry and sheer workmanship, this obverse is quite amazing.

The reverse is equally magnificent in its workmanship and artistry. Depicted is a Native American standing directly in front of a map of the United States. He is facing towards the right and his left arm is outstretched seemingly touching the rim of the coin. Bold and beautiful detail abounds on this side of the coin also, with perfect execution. The relief of this coin in my opinion seems higher than normal, which further enhances its beauty. You cannot say a bad thing about this design, which is why I consider it the best of all the commemorative coin designs. Most of the examples I have seen seem to be uncirculated and show all of the great detail. I have seen an extraordinary piece with vivid electric rainbow toning that would truly amaze anyone.
On a side note with respect to this half dollar, I could not find out with any certainty, which side is really considered the obverse and which side is considered the reverse. Different reference guides expressed opposite opinions about which was which. I thought that it was very interesting that there was not a sure answer. If anyone does have an opinion on this, or can solve the issue I would be intrigued to hear from you.

Next, I am going to discuss my least favorite designs. Remember, I am looking at them from the point of view of an artist and photographer. With my love of coins thrown into the mix, here is my assessment.

Ranked No. 10 on this worst design list is the Norfolk half dollar issued in 1936. This odd and different coin is unlike any of its predecessors. This particular coin fails on many levels and is unsuccessful in its attempt to include three rings of lettering. Totally cluttered with dates and words at the center of all of this is a small ship.
Actually the center of this coin is a version of the seal of Norfolk, which includes the ship, a plow and three sheaves of wheat. Above the ship is the motto ET TERRA ET MARE DIVITIAE TUAE which translates to: “Both land and sea are your riches.” There are two scallop shells flanking the date 1936. This crazy design has way too much going on. Your eye see the smallish ship in the center, but thereafter does not know where to look. Yes, I do like the small ship. It has cute detailing even with it being so tiny, but everything else is horrible about the obverse. The designers William M. Simpson and his wife Marjorie E. Simpson just incorporated too much into this design. The entire side of this coin’s reverse is crowded and unattractive to me. My eyes feel tired just studying it. This half dollar was so unpopular that many were not sold, were returned to the Mint and then melted. I wonder why? Not.

I want to cry when I look at it the No. 9 coin on the worst list, the Old Spanish Trail. It marks the 400th anniversary of the opening of the Spanish Trail from Florida to Texas with the expedition of explorer Cabeza de Vaca. His name translated means “head of a cow.”

This coin was issued in 1936 and was designed by Abraham G. Carey. Anyway, about the horrible obverse, it pictures the head of a longhorn steer facing you dead on. Similar in design to the Montana state quarter, this commemorative does not feature a steer skull, although it can almost look like that at first glance. With nothing else in the background, it is just very basic looking. The lack of other elements makes the steer head stand out on its own. I really don’t like this design. If you like it, I have no “beef” with that.

We return to poorly designed commemorative half dollar No. 8 with Texas, which was first issued in 1934 and designed by Coppini. With his outstanding design on the obverse, I wonder how he created such a poor design for the reverse. This side fares much worse than its flip side. With a mishmash of elements, my eyes don’t know what to look at. My brain hurts comprehending all of the visuals thrown at me. The reverse shows everything from a winged Victory holding an olive branch with tiny portraits of Sam Houston and Stephen Austin, to a miniature of the Alamo on its right side and six flags that are flown above Victory’s head. Add in all the legends and mottoes and you have one crazy looking coin. With every square millimeter of space used up, this is a truly a terrible design. I will call the reverse side a “coin catastrophe,” if I may.

No. 7 is the Lexington-Concord Sesquicentennial half dollar. It was issued in 1925 and designed by Chester Beach to honor the Battle of Lexington and Concord. I truly disliked both the obverse and reverse of this half dollar and it was difficult to pick out which side I hated more, but the reverse wins out in this category by just a bit. Pictured is the Old Belfry at Lexington, where Massachusetts Minute Men were called to arms when they heard the bell ringing in this tower. I feel from an artistic viewpoint that this portrayal is not interesting at all.
There is not even much to describe here, as it lacks any detail. There is nothing in the background to enhance this structure and very little in the foreground. It almost looks like a basic sketch or drawing that wasn’t completely finished. I know that the tower has significant importance, but as a work of art, it is just plain boring.
There was nothing that I liked about this poor coin design. I wonder if anyone out there sees any beauty or artistry in it?

No. 6 in my coin “Hall of Shame” is the Wisconsin centennial half designed by David Parsons and Benjamin Hawkins and issued in 1936. Mr. Parsons was an art student at the University of Wisconsin who readied the models for this coin. Mr. Hawkins completed the finished design, which was considerably altered from the models. With both sides being not very good, the reverse is more outstanding to me in the poor design category. Here, the reverse is the seal of the territory, which shows an arm holding a pickaxe over a pile of lead ore. Wow! Beautiful? No. While the depiction may be exactly what the designers wanted, to me it is just another boring and silly design, much like many of the designs on the new commemoratives coins of today. I wanted to take my pickaxe and have a few swings at it.

The fifth half dollar that I did not like so is the half dollar for the Cleveland Centennial in 1936. Its designer was Brenda Putnam. The reverse shows a map of the Great Lakes marked by eight stars for the important sister cities of Cleveland. A large compass is placed almost in the middle and points to a little bigger star representing Cleveland. The Great Lakes are all flat looking as is the entire reverse.  A visually dull coin having even less eye appeal than most, this half dollar gets the thumbs down. There is not much to even describe. I didn’t see anything very likable or artistic about this plain design.

No. 4 is the York County, Maine, Tercentenary half dollar. It was designed by Walter H. Rich and was issued in 1936. There were quite a few commemorative half dollars issued that year and this was most likely the worst. It shows the lack of experience of the designer and it is truly evident on both the obverse and reverse of this coin. With both sides being equally poor, I choose the reverse as the winner for this list.

Depicted is a fort with a tiny man on horseback placed in front of it. In the background is a rising sun with the word LIBERTY within its rays. On the outer perimeter of the coin the words: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and HALF DOLLAR encircle the small and basic design of the fort, man and horse. I point this out on this particular coin because the lettering is very detracting from the design and is too large for the scale of the coin. Perhaps the artist knew it wasn’t all that great and decided to use up most of the coin with lettering? This amateurish design makes it among the least attractive half dollars in the entire series.

Third place on the worst list is the Booker T. Washington half dollar, which was issued in 1946 and was minted through 1951. There were approximately 3.1 million of these coins minted over the span of those years. What was the government thinking? Anyway, this souvenir coin was supposed to finance the memorial of Booker T. Washington and five million pieces were commissioned to be minted, but almost a million fewer were actually coined. This was the first U.S. commemorative to celebrate an African-American, a milestone at that time. But it is the total lack of artistry of the reverse of this coin that I am going to discuss. This side is quite crowded with lengthy inscriptions and depictions and shows the Hall of Fame on the top on the bottom half, Washington’s birthplace. Not very detailed nor well executed, I find this design odd, and not at all interesting. This half dollar reverse is what I would call a “non-coin”; there is just nothing about it that would give it eye appeal. It is dull, boring and lackluster. I am judging the coin on artistry, not historical significance.

The Rhode Island Tercentenary half was issued in 1936 and was designed by John H. Benson and Abraham G. Carey and it is this half dollar that takes second place for my least favorite coin design. When I first looked at it I could see right away it was different and rather odd. Unlike most other coins that seem fluid in design, this particular coin seems stiff. Upon reading about this coin I soon discovered the reason for its lifelessness. Its designers were stonecutters and were not familiar with medallic art. With simplicity displayed on both sides of this coin the reverse gets the award for being the poorer of the two sides. It displays an Anchor of Hope, and the state’s motto on a ribbon. While looking like some sort of sketch, the reverse is cluttered with very large lettering and a bland depiction. Overall it is a poor design with major problems in detail and artistry. They should have tied that anchor to a bag with the whole mintage of these coins and threw them overboard.

The No. 1 worst commemorative of the 1892-1954 period is the Washington-Carver half. First issued in 1951 and designed by Isaac Scott Hathaway it is the second coin to commemorate the African-American leader Booker T. Washington in as many years joined by George Washington Carver This reverse reminds me of many of the state quarter designs, using outlines of maps and the like. This side of the coin features right in the center an outline of a map of the United States with USA superimposed in large letters. Around the border is the motto: Americanism: Freedom and opportunity for all; beautiful motto. To me it looks like a child designed it. My apologies to its designer, but come on, this coin has nothing. No eye appeal, no interest and a basic map with letters over it. There is nothing else to describe here, that’s it. I wondered when looking and learning about this series, how some coins ever were approved for minting and this one had me dumbfounded. This not only was my least favorite design, but was also the last of the old commemoratives ever minted. Maybe that was a good thing.

When you observed these coins or their pictures, were your views about the artwork similar or vastly different than mine? What would you include on your list of the best and worst commemorative half dollars? I hope you have enjoyed my take as an artist and have formed your own opinion about your likes and dislikes.

Perhaps this article will help you look at coins more closely, to enjoy their differences and the detail of each and every one of them. Good or bad, they all deserve to be studied and enjoyed. Quite possibly our future designers will take heed and try to produce better and more beautiful coin designs.

Numismatic News would love to get feedback about your observations of the old commemorative half dollar series and whether you made the same determinations I did.  Write editor Dave Harper and let him know.

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