This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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It is hard to tell whether the stories about the Panama-Pacific International Exposition $50 are better than the coin itself. Since the Panama-Pacific $50 had the lowest sales totals in the history of U.S. commemorative coins, that is saying a great deal as the Panama-Pacific $50 is an awfully good coin.
The best place to start is with the Panama-Pacific commemorative program itself. How those supporting the program managed to convince Congress to approve a half dollar, gold dollar, gold $2.50 and two $50 gold coins is one of those little mysteries of life. In fairness, the commemorative program at the time had no real direction and no one was concerned about too many coins. Since no one was forced to buy the coins and since it was a worthy cause, Congress apparently just went along with the idea.
Collecting and Investing Strategies for U.S. Gold Coins
From the start the $50 was going to historic as the U.S. had only ever produced patterns for a $50 gold piece. There had been privately produced $50s in California, but the U.S. had never gone beyond a double eagle in denomination.
The $50 was designed by Robert Aitken. The obverse features a helmeted head of the Roman goddess Minerva while the reverse displays an owl, the symbol of wisdom. Some might have been questioning the wisdom of so many coins and such a high denomination. The $50 was made in two shapes: round and octagonal. The octagonal version has eight dolphins in the angles on both sides and slightly smaller devices.
Mintages for the $50 coins were 1,509 octagonal and 1,510 round. However, sales were not up to the expectations. That happened with other denominations as well. In many cases coins were returned to the Treasury for melting while others were kept at their face value for later sale. It appears that no supplies of the $50, which was a hefty amount by itself, were kept for later sale. Final sales totals were 483 round and 645 octagonal.
The extremely small sales along with the high face value made the Panama-Pacific $50 an immediate key commemorative and an expensive one. Of course, in some respects, the sheer cost of the coins and the fact that there were no other $50 gold commemoratives probably hurt the potential demand.
The low totals were noticed by investors. In his book, American Coin Treasures and Hoards, Q. David Bowers points to some indication that a group of investors had been able to acquire “between 19 and 26 of the coins.” Bowers went on to quote one of the leaders of the investment group trying to hoard the Panama-Pacific $50 gold coins as saying, “We went into it for materialistic reasons and not aesthetic reasons.”
The whole situation raises some interesting considerations, especially when someone is so blunt about their motive. If we check the price movements since 1998, we find that the round was $24,000 in MS-60 and $99,500 in MS-65. Today it is priced at $60,000 in MS-60 and $145,000 in MS-65. For the octagonal, the 1998 listing was $22,000 for an MS-60 and $88,000 for an MS-65. Those prices have become $55,000 for an MS-60 and $148,000 for an MS-65.
Whether the prices have increased by the amount the investors expected is another matter. In fact, what the investors may have overlooked is that the $50 Panama-Pacific commemorative has some limitations. The first is that not many collect earlier gold commemoratives.
The second limitation is that most of the original mintage is still known. There was a recent report out of Panama of the family of an original worker on the Panama Canal selling an example to a jewelry store where it was melted, but that is the exception. In most cases the coins still exist. In fact, the Professional Coin Grading Service alone has graded almost as many coins as were sold. The grading tells us that the investors have a long way to go as more than 100 of each type had been graded both in MS-63 and MS-64. The totals in MS-65, however, were just 10 round and 15 octagonal, so that may be where the profits will be and not in simple quantity.