By Mark Benvenuto
The United States Congress brought a commemorative coin program back to life in 1982 in a quiet, almost simple sort of way. They authorized a single half-dollar coin honoring the 250th anniversary of the birth year of President Washington. The next year saw an explosion of commems, all aimed at the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. This included some gold pieces, but they are $10 eagles, were expensive to buy then, and remain rather expensive today. It wasn’t until 1986 that a $5 half eagle was put into the growing mix, one that would be the first of many.
The 1986 Statue of Liberty Centennial $5 gold piece has become something of a standard among the half eagles that have been minted in the modern commemorative program since then. The artistry of Mint Engraver Elizabeth Jones is superb, and remains a design that collectors truly enjoy. The overall mintage was high enough – 404,013 as proofs and 95,248 as uncirculated pieces – that the coin remains rather affordable today, considering that it is gold, and is minted to the standard of the classic half eagles from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Right now, the proof costs about $450 in a grade such as PF-65. And that is a number we should keep close at hand as well.
People who look for patterns can claim to find a couple in the United States modern commemorative coin series. The first is that the uncirculated versions of the coins, definitely of the gold coins, tend to have lower mintages than their proof siblings. That is because sales have routinely been from the Mint directly to collectors. And we want the sharpest-looking coins that we can snag for our collections, so more proofs are purchased. Sometimes this means the unc. pieces cost more, since there are significantly less of them. But since most collectors opt out of buying them in the first place, there’s little chance of them going up in value all that much.
The second pattern is a bit tougher to be certain of. It seems that there have been attempts to make a routine or standard out of some kind of offering, one that includes a base metal half dollar, a silver dollar that is 90 percent silver and a $5 gold piece. Yet there are plenty of years for which this pattern does not really hold. Nevertheless, now that more than three decades of the modern commem program have passed, there are dozens of half eagles from which we can choose in deciding what sort of collection we would like to build.
When it comes to price tags, plenty of folks can try to find one pattern or another for this series, but the one we will keep an eye on is simply how much does any specific piece cost when compared to the 1986 Statue of Liberty $5 half eagle. If today we want one of those 404,013 proofs, we’ll have to ante up the just-mentioned $450 at least. Since there are 0.2418 ounces of the precious metal in each coin, this is really not bad when compared to the current spot price of gold. For example, when gold rings in at $1,800 per ounce, there is $435.24 of it in every one of these modern half eagles.
The official number of Statue of Liberty half eagles is not the highest of any of the $5 gold pieces in the series. That came the next year, with the 1987 Constitution Bicentennial. This half eagle saw 651,659 coined as proofs and 214,225 as uncs. These two numbers are indeed the high point for the series, at least as it has developed thus far. As the years and the themes unfolded beyond these first two, a long, slow slide took shape, with a few bumps in the slope. The 1988 Seoul Olympics, for example, saw an amazing piece of artistry in the half eagle, again the work of Elizabeth Jones. But for collectors old enough to remember, there was some serious grousing about this commem, simply because the United States wasn’t hosting those Games. Collectors felt a bit like cash cows, and so the mintage for this beautiful piece dropped below 300,000 as proofs. It was 1992 and another set of Olympic commemoratives saw the official total for a $5 gold piece dip to 77,313 proofs, the first time that the official sum was down below six figures. Yet this half eagle costs pretty much the same amount as our Statue of Liberty piece.
This may be the most interesting aspect of this entire series of half eagles – many with rather small mintages still have prices that are close to the most common ones. Certainly, when it comes to cost, none of these coins will ever be below the price of the gold metal in them. But to be able to add a 1992-W Olympic Games $5 gold piece to a collection for this little qualifies as a real bargain.
Beyond these four, there are plenty of $5 half eagles from which to choose, including some that were produced in even smaller amounts, but which still don’t cost that much more. For example, the Mark Twain commemorative of 2016 consists of a silver dollar and a half eagle. The latter saw only 13,266 produced as proofs and a truly tiny 5,695 as uncirculated pieces. Admittedly, the price tag for the proof is not exactly the same as for the common pieces that were minted 30 years prior. Yet it doesn’t cost too much more. Sticking with a PF-65 grade, one of these can be had for about $500. It’s safe to say that this qualifies as something of a jaw-dropping price based on how many, or how few, were made.
There has not been a $5 half eagle issued with every single commemorative theme since 1982, but there are a lot. Any of us interested in the modern commemoratives, and in doing some bargain hunting for United States gold, will find this is a fertile area in which to go seeking good deals. Keep an eye on both the prices and the official Mint totals, and see where they take you.