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Cincinnati names itself U.S. music center

Some stories are just so good that you want to repeat them over and over again. The Cincinnati Music Center half dollar of 1936 is one of those coins.

Some stories are just so good that you want to repeat them over and over again. The Cincinnati Music Center half dollar of 1936 is one of those coins. In fact, it could easily be called the Thomas G. Melish memorial half dollar as the good Mr. Melish sold the Cincinnati Music Center half dollars not to help out a worthy charity unless Melish himself qualifies in your mind as a worthy charity.


It is probably easy to be hard on Mr. Melish and his manipulation of the Cincinnati Music Center half dollar for his own gain. In fact, it is important to understand that what happened with the Cincinnati Music Center half dollar was going on to a lesser degree with other programs at the time. It was simply the Cincinnati Music Center half dollar that became the poster child for the commemorative abuses at the time.

It was, after all, 1936. If you look at the list of commemoratives for 1936 and remember that in theory at least, a commemorative should commemorate something of national importance, your likely reaction will be to question what the Congress was thinking was so important about Elgin, Ill., Lynchburg, Va., or York County, Maine, or any number of the other 20 themes from that year. That?s right, there were 20 themes.


Congress was probably not thinking of history. If anything, the members were simply horse trading, as if they voted for your commemorative, then you would in turn vote for their commemoratives.

Of course, the whole thing still leaves open to reasonable questions whether a proposal at least had to have some basis in fact. The Cincinnati Music Center seems to fall short on that count. The coin celebrated the 50th anniversary of Cincinnati as a music center. The only problem is that to date no one has been able to figure out precisely what happened in 1886 that would enable anyone to make the claim.

Something must have happened there. It might also actually cause some to be even more suspicious over the whole matter when the design is seen. There on the obverse is ?America?s Troubadour,? Stephen Foster. He certainly is appropriate on a commemorative involving music, but there is reason to doubt that Cincinnati would have primary claim on his talent.

The design had been the work of Constance Ortmayer of Washington, D.C., and it was an interesting looking coin. Whether it was $7.75 worth of interesting, which was the then-record price for a three-coin set, is another question.

Back in 1936 it was going to be tough to sell many new commemoratives simply because there were too many. When you get too many new coins, the frequent reaction on the part of collectors is to simply pull back and buy fewer than you might purchase otherwise. Perhaps you would buy no new issues. That left Mr. Melish, who had the entire mintage, in something of a bind. The coins would be sold off over time, but the record high price certainly did not help sales.

The final sales totals of 5,005 examples of the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco halves certainly do not make it a common issue. But, the number surviving is high. That puts the price of a type coin at $345 in MS-60 and $700 in MS-65. The three-coin set is at $1,025 in MS-60 and $2,850 in MS-65. It is not totally scientific, but based on the grading service totals, the Denver coin is the most available in MS-65, while Philadelphia is second and San Francisco third.