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Early commems often disappointed

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Many times we talk about the abuses and problems of commemorative coin programs before the start of modern commemoratives in 1982. Collectors who grew up in the circulation finds era knew the Treasury scotched any possible new ones after 1954. That created a drought that lasted 28 years.

Realistically, while we talk about such abuses and problems of the old programs the past problems of various commemorative issues are rarely explained. That’s too bad from an historical standpoint, but it also leaves a wide hole in our understanding of how the market for commemorative coins evolved.

After all, by the time the George Washington half dollar first appeared in 1982 there were decades of commemorative history and it would be wrong to think that those years of history had no impact on modern issues and the market today.

It is certainly easy to understand that when the first commemorative in the form of the 1892 and 1893 Columbian Exposition half dollars were authorized the situation would be one of trial and error. There were experiences to learn from as the only coin that could even remotely be considered a commemorative prior to 1892 was the 1848 “CAL” quarter eagle gold piece and it was not sold but rather released into circulation for political reasons to show the public that gold had been discovered in California, meaning the war with Mexico had not been such a bad idea after all.

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What was being attempted in 1892 was totally different. While commemorating 400 years since Columbus landed in the New World, the hope was to raise money to help finance the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The large mintages of 950,000 for the 1892 and 1,550,405 for the 1893 Columbian Exposition half dollar were if anything, a reflection of high hopes and no experience. In 1892 and 1893 even though the Columbian Exposition half dollar was being offered at the Exposition there was little chance that such numbers would sell especially when the price was $1 for each half dollar.

Though, there was a great deal of interest in the Columbian Exposition half dollar, it wasn’t enough and large numbers of the coins did not sell. Rather than being sent back to be melted as would later be the case, the coins basically ended up being used as regular half dollars.

Also, there was no pattern as to what denominations should be used for commemoratives, so the Isabella quarter followed and it produced a pattern which would be seen a number of other times. Once again, sales did not equal the mintage, but in this case coin dealers as well apparently as a member of the Board of Lady Managers who were responsible for marketing the coins ended up with examples at discount prices and they in turn would later sell the coins privately for a profit, so connections with those responsible for the marketing were turned into private gain and that sorry situation would happen many times.

The fact that the commemorative once approved was sold by the Mint at face value to a person or group who would be responsible for the sales simply lent itself to problems. Unlike today where the price is basically the same for everyone, the official price and the price someone would pay could be two very different things.

The Lafayette dollar of 1900 was a good example of this as it was offered for $2 each. It is believed that relatively few sold at that price as $2 was a significant sum for many at the time and the idea of actually collecting commemoratives was far from established.

There were published reports in The Numismatist at the time of people paying not the official $2 but $1.10 each for their Lafayette dollars. Of course, when such information became public knowledge it did little to help spur sales of later issues. Ultimately about 14,000 of the original 50,000 Lafayette dollars were returned to the Treasury before being melted in the mid-1940s. Even that showed the confusion still evident as to what to do about commemoratives as the 14,000 ended up producing less than their face value in silver and ironically just after being melted dealer Aubrey Bebee appeared ready to buy them and the price at the time was more than 10 times the face value.

Not only was there confusion as to prices and other aspects of the early programs there was certainly confusion as to what denominations should be used. The first three commemoratives were the Columbian Exposition half dollar, the Isabella quarter and the Lafayette dollar. There is certainly no pattern there and then suddenly the next commemoratives were gold dollars in the form of the 1903 Louisiana Purchase gold dollars and the 1904 and 1905 Lewis and Clark dollars. For collectors liking a low cost collection of the same denomination, this was definitely not a help in getting their interest and support.

Sometimes the logic of decisions is simply hard to determine even with the benefit of hindsight. If the Lafayette silver dollar could not sell 50,000 pieces precisely why a total of 125,000 of each of the two different Louisiana Purchase gold dollars were made is a little hard to imagine today. If you couldn’t sell 50,000 silver dollars, why would you then think that you could sell 125,000 examples of each of two different gold dollars? It is a leap of faith that is hard to imagine, but promoters of world’s fairs certainly had faith. The St. Louis world’s fair was a major event.

In the end, the 250,000 examples of two different gold dollars did not sell with roughly 215,000 being returned for melting. One design had Thomas Jefferson and the other had William McKinley. The reverse was the same for both. Final surviving mintages were 17,500 each.

Interestingly enough, somebody learned their lesson to a degree as only 25,028 Lewis and Clark dollars were produced in 1904 and a nearly identical number the next year and true to form only just over 10,000 of each sold with the majority again being melted. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark give the coins two heads, but the single design was issued in 1904 and again in 1905.
Two designs sold in one year were succeeded by one design dated and sold in two years.

Having failed to sell anything close to 50 percent of the gold struck for three straight years, everyone took a break from commemoratives for roughly a decade. Of course that too is hardly a way to build buyer loyalty as most collectors like to add at least one coin to their collection each year.

When the next commemorative program was authorized, it turned out to be the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal. The idea was fine, but the program involving a half dollar, gold dollar, gold quarter eagle and round and octagonal $50 gold coins was large enough that if sales had been good they might have been able to use the profits to build another canal. The price of the complete set was way beyond the financial means of many at the time.

Selling the sets as well as individual coins fell to Farran Zerbe, who was in charge of marketing. In fact, Zerbe, who was a leading American Numismatic Association figure and the man responsible for suggesting the idea of a Peace dollar, was something of a mysterious figure at the time as he seemed to use his connections to end up in the position to be in charge of marketing many early commemorative coins, especially the gold coins.

We know in the case of the Panama-Pacific gold dollar and quarter eagle as well as in the case of the earlier Louisiana Purchase dollars that Zerbe had the marketing rights and especially in the case of the Panama-Pacific coins he was selling them for years after their official issue date of 1915. It was not a case where Zerbe did anything illegal or by the standards of the time improper, although it certainly did not hurt his chances to gain the right to market the issues that he was connected with the ANA and clearly he was not doing the marketing for his health – all of which was enough to make some uneasy over time as to just what he was doing and what he should have been doing.

The role of the gold commemorative seemed to decrease after the Panama-Pacific venture. There would still be additional gold dollars in 1916, 1917 and 1922 – most of which seemed to end up in large numbers in the hands of emerging Texas coin dealer B. Max Mehl – and a quarter eagle for the nation’s 1926 Sesquicentennial, but realistically the commemoratives of the day were increasingly becoming half dollars after 1915.

It was much less expensive just based on their face value for collectors to save half dollars than it was to save gold issues of assorted denominations and at least for some years after the Panama-Pacific issues, the half dollars while not having many coins each year still tended to have mintages that did not sell.

The Lincoln-Illinois half dollar of 1918 was an excellent example as while 100,058 were allegedly sold, in fact they were appearing at banks for years. In his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards author Q. David Bowers reports, “A Springfield, Ill., bank retained about 30,000 pieces until the Bank Holiday of March 1933, after which most went to dealers at a slight premium over face value, and a small number may have reached circulation.”

Even though these were the early years of regular half dollar mintages and not usually associated with problems, the adventures or misadventures regarding marketing seemed to be many and varied. In the case of the Maine half dollar of 1920 we know that despite solid sales many ended up with the state treasurer, turning that office into something of a coin shop for a period.

In the case of the 1923-S Monroe Doctrine Centennial half dollar like the Illinois-Lincoln half dollar a few years earlier, many seemed to end up in circulation at face value again leaving those who paid the asking price of $1 with a feeling that they had paid too much.

The way coins were marketed was as varied as the topics and certainly there were problems that saw the modern commemorative sponsors in 1982 emphatic that if the United States was to have a return of commemoratives private marketing was not going to be a feature of the new issues.

The Oregon Trail half dollars, which have one of the more attractive designs in the historic commemoratives, were in a class by themselves when it came to trying to increase sales. The Oregon Trail half was first made in 1926 and then it continued to be produced on and off until 1939. There are 14 pieces in this set alone. The public might have easily mistaken it for the regular half dollar had the mintage not been low. It should be no surprise that rolls were still being sold in the 1950s.

It has to be observed that at least some issues did meet with success when it came to sales. We might view the situation with some suspicion today, but the Stone Mountain half dollar ended up with special counterstamps and marking from individual state sales agencies. Popular all over the South, the Stone Mountain half dollar of 1925 probably had more groups selling it than any coin in history and ultimately it paid off with sales of 1,314,709 – not only a record for historical issues but a pretty good total even if it were for a half dollar of today.

In the 1920s almost every idea that could be imagined was tried. The counterstamps of letters and numbers on the Stone Mountain half dollar was not really new as there had been other attempts that were far less successful for earlier issues like the 1921 Missouri, 1921 Alabama and 1922 Grant. Some issues for no apparent reason were successful, such as the 1924 Huguenot-Walloon half dollars, which were sold through the Fifth National Bank of New York and ended up with approximately 87,000 pieces bought up both individually and in bulk lots.

The Hawaii Sesquicentennial half dollar of 1928, however, had sales of only 10,000, but while low, it was one of the few issues that seems to have sold virtually its entire mintage to individual buyers with the issue actually selling out and rising in price shortly after being offered, something that was virtually unknown in the case of the historic pre-1955 commemoratives.

It is really not often discussed, but the 1928 Hawaii half dollar was the last of the commemoratives in what might be called the orderly period. Now there is reason to suggest things had been anything but orderly, but after the Hawaii half dollar, there would be no issues until 1934 and then suddenly it appeared that everyone had simply lost any interest in controlling the commemorative issues of the United States.

The gap in production between the Hawaii half dollar and the flood that began in 1934 just happened to be the worst part of the Great Depression. Herbert Hoover was in the White House 1929-1933 and he opposed commemoratives. It also is very possible that there was simply no conviction that anyone would buy half dollars for $1 or $2 each no matter what they were commemorating. Hungry people don’t buy souvenirs.

Of course the other impact of the Great Depression was that there was virtually no money available for worthy or unworthy projects. Commemoratives might well have been seen as the answer as they provided money that governments could not afford.

Suddenly in 1934 there was a Maryland half dollar and a Boone and a Texas. Three half dollars in one year was not out of line but what was unusual is that both the Boone and Texas would not end in 1934 as both continued to be produced until 1938.

The number of issues increased in 1935 and in the numbers were additional seemingly open-ended programs and the Hudson, N.Y., Sesquicentennial, which was a sign of things to come.
It’s nothing against Hudson, but its 1936 commemorative is a very tough coin to justify as being of national interest. State anniversaries and other topics can be justified as being of national interest but Hudson, while important in a small region of New York, falls far short of being of national interest as would York County, Maine, Bridgeport, Conn., Lynchburg, Va., Elgin, Ill., and a host of others that would follow.

Any vague notion of control of the commemoratives being approved simply vanished in 1936. In that year alone 15 new issues were introduced and then there were others continuing from early years. Moreover, the idea of having a coin produced at more than one mint had been discovered so a number of the 1936 issues were not a single coin but rather a single design produced at Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco and that was also true of the continuing issues like Texas and Daniel Boone.

These issues were authorized through simple congressional horse trading as if one congressman could be convinced to approve an Albany half dollar then the sponsor of the Albany half would be obligated to vote for the Norfolk, Va., half dollar and so on.

If there had been no serious attempt to control what and how many events were being commemorated there was certainly no effort made or perhaps even possible to determine precisely what was going on once an issue had been approved, produced and supplied to the person or group responsible for marketing.

As Q. David Bowers puts it well in his American Coin Treasures and Hoards regarding the situation, “Perhaps the most egregious in this regard is the 1936 P-D-S Cincinnati set of half dollars, planned, ordered from the Treasury Dept., and entirely sold by Thomas G. Melish; these coins were strictly for his private profit, although the coins bore reference to the 50th anniversary of that city as “A Music Center of America.”

It was even worse than Bowers suggests. Melish not only got the Cincinnati coins to sell, but also the 1936 Cleveland-Great Lakes Centennial half dollars. Additionally, the Cincinnati half dollars as a three-coin set were the most expensive commemorative half dollars in history and they really commemorated nothing as all research to date has failed to turn up a single reference to Cincinnati as a music center even of Ohio much less America and Stephen Foster depicted on the obverse appears to have had little or no connection with Cincinnati and certainly none in establishing the city as a music center.

As often happens when any government issues too many commemoratives, sales simply fell and the numbers in 1937 and 1938 were vastly reduced. In fact, officials realized the whole thing had given the idea of commemoratives a black eye and they were determined to stop any new commemoratives from appearing. As it turned out, a couple did sneak through, including the 1946 Iowa, which provided a new twist.

The 1946 Iowa half dollar sold well. There is no dispute over that point although it had a peculiar price structure as initially the coins were cheaper for residents of Iowa and the mere 5,000 allocated for people from out of state were more expensive at $3 as opposed to $2.50, but then it got truly bizarre as 1,000 coins of the 100,057 produced were set aside by the state to be sold in 1996 and 2046. The only problem was the state could not wait 50 years and offered the first 500 in 1992 at a price of $500 each, which had no similarity to the market price at the time. In fact, the $500 has no similarity to the market price today as an Iowa half dollar in MS-65 is just $260. Suffice to say most of the first 500 are still in the vault and what the price will be in 2046 or whenever the state decides to raid the vault again is something that makes some shudder to even imagine.

The historic commemoratives ended with the 1951-1954 George Washington Carver-Booker T. Washington half dollar, which was another fiasco. Many of the coins ending up right back where the commemoratives had started in 1892: being sold at face value.

This is just a sampling of the problems experienced in the early days of commemoratives. The majority of issues had a story and usually it was not one of a perfectly run program. It goes a long way toward explaining why lawmakers were so concerned when the first 1982 Washington half dollars were created. They had a lot of proving to do that commemoratives could be approved and programs run without problems. We are still working at it, but suffice to say commemoratives have come a long way. They may not always raise as much money as sponsors hope, but they are not being produced to benefit private marketers with congressional connections.

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