Every so often it is fun to consider the wild and perhaps out of control days of the commemoratives of the 1930s. If it were not for the fact that public money and the good idea of having commemoratives were involved it would almost be enough to make you want a return to the good old, bad days of private marketing and strange happenings in the commemorative program. You could easily chuckle and suggest that they may not exactly have been honest and forthcoming, but they sure were entertaining.
A good example of the situation might be the Old Spanish Trail half dollar of 1935. It was designed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Cabeza de Vaca Expedition through the Gulf states in 1535.
In fact, it was kind of an interesting coin as the explorer’s name literally means head of a cow, which might make you question whether other family members were also named after barnyard animals. It might have resulted in some kidding in the schoolyard back in the late 1400s, but it did produce a nice obverse for the coin along with a map of the Old Spanish Trail and yucca tree reverse.
In fairness, the coin was nice enough. At least it was simple and different, but selling commemoratives back in 1935 was a real problem. There were simply too many and the topic and design by L.W. Hoffecker with models prepared by Edmund J. Senn were not going to stand out enough to produce many sales. In the end, the number of coins sold was put at 10,008.
Precisely how many of the 10,008 actually ended up in the hands of buyers at the time is another issue. The man credited with the design also was the promoter. That might seem a little odd, but these were times when just about anything happened. The fact that Hoffecker ended up selling the coins from El Paso, Texas, should not be surprising.
What might be surprising is that Hoffecker would make all sort of claims about the coins. In his book “American Coin Treasures and Hoards,” Q. David Bowers wrote, “However, much of what Hoffecker said and wrote was false.”
That did not stop Hoffecker from writing Abe Kosoff in 1953 that he was selling two or three coins a week at $15 each. Since he had gotten them at face value less than 20 years prior, it was a satisfactory profit.
In his estate there still were 63 of the coins. That was in 1987. It was obviously a lifetime effort to sell the coins.
The wealth did get spread around. Bowers reported that the estate of Rev. Edward M. Catich had 400 uncirculated examples that “sold for a million dollars at the height of the 1979-1980 coin investment boom.”
That looks like a pretty good price today. Currently, the MS-65 is $2,000 and the MS-60 is $1,375.
Prices are one thing, but the story of the Old Spanish Trail half dollar is interesting to learn. Hoffecker and Catich managed to strike gold with these silver commemorative coins. With so many other commemoratives issued during the period and so many other interesting approaches to their sales, it shows that Hoffecker knew how the game was played at the time of issue and he was a winner as a result.
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