The Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 brought what can be considered the first U.S. commemorative coin program. In a sense, the Columbian Exposition (with two years’ of half dollars, as well as the Isabella quarter) might come close. But as we know commemorative programs today, it was the Pan-Pac Exposition that fit the bill.
How the program managed to get approval is one of life’s little mysteries, although there was apparently a significant role played by Farran Zerbe, who was not at all adverse to using his American Numismatic Association position to make sure he ended up as the agent for assorted commemorative issues.
In the case of the Panama-Pacific coins, Zerbe seemed to be involved in the sale of pieces once the program was officially over.
With a gold dollar, $2.50, and two different $50s (one round, the other octagonal), as well as a half dollar, the Pan-Pac program gave anyone involved plenty to work with when it came to later sales. The program was simply far too big for most collectors of the day, although you could acquire an example of each coin issued in a nice copper frame.
At the time of its release, a decade had passed since the previous commemorative, the Lewis and Clark Exposition gold dollars of 1904 and 1905. Sales had been modest, and it seemed that either no one felt commemoratives were worth the effort or no one could think of anything to commemorate.
To suddenly have such a large program was probably a bit of a surprise. Moreover, in such a large program, it is very easy for some denominations to get lost. As the smallest of the gold coins involved, that would have certainly been the case with the Panama-Pacific gold dollars.
Featuring designs by Charles Keck, the obverse shows the head of a man representing a worker in Panama who had labored on the Panama Canal. The reverse has two dolphins encircling the words “ONE DOLLAR.”
Determining how many gold dollars to strike was probably a very interesting discussion. Previous gold dollar mintages had always been far too large, resulting in massive later melting. In this case, a total of 25,034 were apparently produced.
Of this number, it appears that 15,000 were sold or hoarded. In 1916, 10,000 examples were shipped back to the Treasury for melting.
How the 15,000 net mintage were divvied up is anyone’s guess. Certainly some were sold at the exposition. How many others were sold is unclear, as is how many ended up with Farran Zerbe.
We do know that a significant number of the Panama-Pacific gold dollars ended up with famous dealer B. Max Mehl, and the source of the Mehl coins was almost certainly Zerbe. Then Abe Kosoff apparently helped Sol Kaplan obtain some of the Mehl holdings in the 1950s. Slowly but surely, the hoards vanished, being sold to a later generation of buyers.
The result is that today, while not large, we do have a supply of the gold Pan-Pac dollar. It currently lists for $600 in MS-60 condition and $1,250 in MS-65. This creates a near-tie with the 1916 McKinley Memorial gold dollar (currently listed at $1,200) as the least expensive of the historic gold commemoratives in MS-65.
The Panama-Pacific gold dollar is a fascinating coin to add to any collection. However, you may find yourself wanting to complete the entire commemorative set, as this group comprises interesting and high-quality coins. The set unfortunately is expensive, but the gold dollar may be within reach for many.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.
More Collecting Resources
• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1901-2000 is your guide to images, prices and information on coinage of the 1900s.
• The Standard Catalog of United States Paper Money is the only annual guide that provides complete coverage of U.S. currency with today’s market prices.