by Mark Benvenuto
One of the amazing aspects of our hobby is that it is large and varied enough that every now and again a series that was once hot has cooled off, and thus deserves a second look. Those among us who remember the buzz surrounding classic commemorative coins back in the 1980s might just be wondering where they all are now and what sort of prices they command. There are certainly too many classic commemorative coins to pore over in a single article, but let’s see if there might be a handful that now qualify as a tad undervalued.
Some of the earliest U.S. commemorative coins were those honoring the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The timing was to correspond to the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ famous voyage, and so it seemed logical to produce a coin sporting an image of the explorer. What became the first year of issue, 1892, saw an output of 950,000 of them, which is impressively until we note that the following year saw an issue of 1,550,405.
When we look through all of the commemorative coins in the classic commemorative series (1892-1954) and compare mintages, those are pretty hefty numbers. Proof of the fact that these were a bit over-hyped and overproduced in their day is that after they were sold for $1 each as a commemorative souvenir, there were enough left over that they were eventually released for circulation.
Because the Columbian Expo’s half dollar was used in everyday commerce, there are plenty today that can be purchased in grades below mint state. But my reason for placing them first on my list is that they still cost only about $80 to $125 in Mint State-64 and -65. That’s quite affordable for a quality coin.
In the years between the Columbus half dollars and 1920 there were several themes honored with one commemorative coin or another, some in gold, most in silver. The Pilgrim Tercentenary was commemorated that year with a half dollar that showed an image of Gov. William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony on the obverse and the famous Mayflower on the reverse.
Most of us who are not avid historians will note that the Mayflower is the more famous of the two images, as almost no one can remember who was governor of the colony and when. Proof of that might lie in the fact that Bradford did not assume duties as governor until 1621, after Gov. John Carver passed away. Today we might further speculate that the second year of issue for this commemorative, 1921, might have been to rectify that.
What is probably more important for collectors is that 152,112 of these half dollars were minted in 1920, and 20,053 in 1921. It has been noted that 128,000 of these were later remelted at the Mint. Yet the 1920 remains a $125 coin in MS-64. That’s a pretty low price tag for a pretty low mintage coin.
The commemorative program had picked up steam in the 1920s, and in 1925 there were four separate issues honored on half dollars. One was the Stone Mountain Memorial. The full story of how both the mountain and the half dollar came to be is probably the fodder of a good docudrama, but a few of the highlights involve the first sculptor of the monument, Gutzon Borglum. He was the same sculptor who would go on to produce the very famous carving on Mount Rushmore.
Curiously, while Borglum did not begin his carving on the Stone Mountain until 1923, the half dollars (all 1.3 million of them) came out in 1921. The delay for Borglum had been due to the world war, and the fact that no techniques existed at the time to produce an image large enough that it could be traced or copied onto the side of the mountain. Eventually the artist and the directors of the organization that commissioned the sculpture came to such sharp disagreements over different aspects of the project that Borglum destroyed his models and left Georgia. His involvement, though, had necessitated that he develop techniques for projecting an enormous image, techniques that would later be used in the production and sculpting of Mount Rushmore.
While the actual memorial at Stone Mountain took decades to complete, the issue of half dollars was a done deal at the end of 1925. Since this was one of the highest mintages of any commemorative coin up to that time, the prices today remain fairly affordable. For about $80 to $150, a collector can snag an MS-63 or even a -64 example.
What may also be noteworthy is that MS-65 examples are not that costly, running only about $200. None of these grades may prove to go up in value any time soon, since the mintage is so high. But it’s fun to be able to purchase any MS-65 example of a classic commemorative at less than the proverbial king’s ransom.
By the 1930s, the commemorative coin program had branched out into numerous themes that were not really all that national. The Arkansas Centennial is one of them, since this half dollar honored a single state and its 100th anniversary of admission into the United States.
There are 15 different Arkansas Centennial half dollars if we consider different mintmarks, and the fact that the coin was issued for five years, 1935-1939. If we add to this the 1936 version with a different reverse—the reverse actually being a head (a portrait of then Sen. Robinson)—there are 16 possibilities.
None of the Arkansas Centennial half dollars can be called common. Of the 15 that differ only in date or mintmark, it is the 1935 that has a high mintage of 13,012. That single 1936 with Robinson on the reverse was produced to the tune of 25,265 coins. But all the others saw tallies below 10,000 coins, some near or below 5,000. And yet even in grades such as MS-64 or -65, these coins are not very expensive. For the majority of them, $150 will land an example in the mid mint-state grades.
Booker T. Washington
The tail end of the classic commemorative series will be my final addition in this list of what I believe to be the undervalued classic commemoratives.
Most who have even dabbled in collecting classic commemoratives are aware that the two different half dollars that honored Booker T. Washington did so with a hefty number of issues over several years. This half was issued from every year from 1946 to 1951.
The number of coins issued among what we might call the many Booker T. Washington half dollar possibilities is a serious case of highs and lows, and is worth taking a look at. The 1946 version from the Philadelphia Mint saw just over 700,000 minted, while in San Francisco that year there were just over 500,000 produced. But Denver only chipped in 50,000 that first year.
From then onward each issue was low, always less than 10,000 until the 1950-S, with over 62,000, and the 1951 from Philadelphia, with just a bit over 210,000.
If this quick string of numbers is confusing, breathe deep and enjoy this next number: $100. That is the highest price you probably have to pay for an MS-65 example of any one of these half dollars, even those with the low mintages.
The three that I just mentioned as the common versions cost only about $50 in this grade. It’s not hard to surmise then that the low prices for the low-mintage versions means very few people are avidly collecting them.
Are there other classic commemoratives that might prove to be excellent buys right now? Of course there are. The field is a big one, rich with a variety of themes, and laced with some good artwork. But as with any series, you can never be sure when a coin’s value and price will rise. What you can be sure of is that assembling a collection of classic commemoratives can be educational and a lot of fun. Why not have some fun by looking through the price list in an issue of Coins to see what else might be waiting for the sharp-eyed collector?
This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.
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