The historic commemoratives that were produced from 1892 until 1954 are a fascinating story, but many times only part of the story is told. While the half dollar was the dominant denomination, there were others, including the Isabella quarter and Lafayette dollar. The most numerous of the other denominations, however, were assorted gold issues and their story is not often told.
With relatively little publicity, the early gold commemoratives also become a group of potentially good values as they have relatively few collectors. While the two Panama-Pacific $50 coins may be too expensive for many, the rest of the historic gold commemoratives are a possible group to consider collecting and as a group they take us to a place where you can see a completely new view of the old commemorative programs both in terms of their good points and their problems.
The idea of commemoratives was certainly not an American invention. In fact, commemoratives stretched all the way back to ancient times. Without many forms of communication at the level of ordinary citizen, a coin was seen as an excellent way of providing the people with news and information.
As a result, if a ruler wanted to tell the people of an important event or just remind them that he was a good ruler, the coins became the regular way to get that information out.
By the time there was a United States government, using coins as a form of communication was not important, although tokens, medals and sometimes paper issues were still a regular means of getting a political message out to the people. That was especially true in the Revolutionary period.
Even if there had been a desire to use the coins to communicate events in the early United States, it was unlikely as there were more than enough problems trying to get enough copper, silver and gold to simply make regular issues. Moreover, with a severe national coin shortage and coins from all over the world in circulation, it would have been somewhat less productive than in ancient Rome as the message might well have gotten lost in all the confusion. As a result, there was never any serious consideration of a commemorative in the first decades of U.S. coinage.
The old notion of using coins to commemorate important events and to send political messages would surface in the late 1840s when gold was discovered in California. The gold was important but back in Washington it was viewed as something of a political prize as the war with Mexico had been unpopular in some quarters and to have the prize in that war in the form of California to suddenly produce a major gold find was viewed as political justification for the war.
As a result, the first gold shipment to arrive from California was seen as especially important. In fact, just having survived the trip in the hands of Lt. Lucien Loeser, who was entrusted by Col. Richard Barnes Mason in Monterrey, Calif., to get the gold to Secretary of War W.L. Marcy in Washington was probably worthy of commemoration. At the time, getting from Monterrey to Washington, D.C., was no small matter as the gold and Loeser had to travel by ship from Monterrey to Payta, Peru, then by British steamer to Panama where before the railroad was built they had to cross the isthmus before going by ship to Jamaica and then New Orleans.
Once the gold arrived safely, Secretary of War Marcy and President Polk saw the gold as a means of show the doubters the wisdom of their policies and they decided to use it to make medals authorized by Congress for heroes of the conflict.
The remaining amount was used to create 1848 “CAL.” $2.50 gold piece, which in theory were to be placed in circulation so that everyone could see what California had produced.
It appears that special care was taken with the 1,389 1848 “CAL.” quarter eagles produced as the examples known today have raised die polishing and in some cases evidence of doubling, suggesting more than one strike. There are some circulated examples, which seems to indicate at least some of the coins got into circulation, although with the low mintage the coins were not likely to have caused many to rethink their opposition to the war with Mexico, but clearly they were commemoratives in the traditional sense of such issues.
Whether you consider them commemoratives or not, they are listed with the other gold $2.50 coins and they attract good prices. In F-12, it lists for $8,000. In MS-60 the price is $50,000.
It would be nearly five decades before there would be a formal policy regarding commemoratives as realistically President Polk and Secretary of War Marcy had basically used their offices to simply order the coins they wanted and ultimately that was not the best way to approach commemoratives. No immediate action was taken on a formal approach to commemorative coins simply because no others were even considered. The Mint remained busy with other more pressing problems, which because of the influx of California gold, included new $1 and $20 gold pieces in 1849, a new silver three-cent piece in 1851 and reducing the weight of silver coins in 1853.
The 1850s were a busy decade for the Mint. The Mint made progress on the national coin shortage, which was officially declared over in 1857 when foreign coins lost their legal-tender status, but then there was the Civil War and another coin shortage, which hardly would have seemed like a good time to issue additional coins to be hoarded by the public.
Once that period was over and things might have seemed normal, along would come the Bland-Allison Act in 1878 and with it the required production of large number of silver dollars keeping all mints busy making Morgans.
As it turned out, the time for the first commemoratives in 1892 was about the time the Morgan mintages would be reduced and when the Mint also felt confident enough to change designs on the dime, quarter and half dollar to the Barber design.
When it came to commemoratives, officials were in uncharted waters in terms of what denominations to use. We do not know if there had been some debate regarding what denomination to use for the first Columbian Exposition commemoratives. Officials decided on a half dollar, but the Isabella quarter quickly followed and as the century was ending there was the Lafayette silver dollar of 1900. None of these had been gold, but none had been of the same denomination either, so it was clear there was no set policy or pattern.
That conclusion would only be supported in 1903 when the first gold commemoratives were produced in the form of the 1903 Louisiana Exposition gold dollars. Precisely why gold dollars were chosen is unknown as realistically in terms of creating designs, the gold dollar greatly limits what an artist can do because of their small size. Also not exactly clear is how Farran Zerbe, who would later gain fame for suggesting the idea of a Peace dollar in 1921, managed to be picked to promote the issues, although his American Numismatic Association connections probably helped to make him a logical choice.
The idea was to make gold dollars to help finance the Louisiana Purchase Exposition to be held in St. Louis in 1904. It might well be that dollars were selected as they had the potential for greater profits.
Picking gold over silver might well have been a result of poor sales of the Lafayette silver dollar and the continuing production of Morgan silver dollars, as some might have felt the nation had more than enough silver dollars and that the gold dollar might be more popular in terms of sales than still another silver dollar. Or, since the United States had finally formally adopted the gold standard in 1900 perhaps it was thought that this action foreclosed using the silver dollar again.
With the gold dollar, another approach to commemoratives appeared that turned out to be one that would be seen over and over in the historic commemorative series. To put it simply, why make one coin when you can make two?
The result was one gold dollar with an obverse of Thomas Jefferson who was President at the time of the purchase of the Louisiana Territory while the other featured William McKinley on the obverse, who in theory was used as he sanctioned the exposition, but realistically having been recently assassinated in 1901 it might well have been called the McKinley Memorial dollar, though an actual Memorial dollar was created in 1916.
Clearly everyone was simply guessing as to what sort of sales they could expect, but based on the production of 125,000 of each of the two types of gold dollars, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that hopes were high. Reality, however, dashed those hopes as in 1914, essentially a decade after being produced, a total of 216,000 out of the 250,000 were returned for melting.
The date of the melting in 1914 might well stand out as it was typical of the situation at the time as the whole process was somewhat loose. It appears Zerbe was given basically an unlimited amount of time and credit to try to sell the coins. That sort of thing while perhaps not as extreme in later programs would produce hoards in the hands of various people and situations where the official offering price was sometimes close to the starting point for negotiations on the eventual price for each coins.
We are not precisely sure how many of each of the two dollars were melted, but the general belief today is that they are reasonably close in terms of numbers surviving, at 17,500. Both are $765 in MS-60 with the McKinley tending to be slightly more in MS-65 at about $3,300.
Apparently the whole thing did not discourage those pushing for commemoratives. Starting the next year in 1904 there would be another gold dollar that actually made the gold dollar the most regularly used denomination for commemoratives at the time.
The new gold dollar followed the basic pattern of attempting to help expositions, with this one marking the Centennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition in Portland, Ore. This time it was decided to issue the coin for two years as opposed to having two different coins.
The coin itself was unusual. The design of gold dollars was keeping Chief Engraver Charles Barber busy as he had prepared the designs for the previous issue and this time he came up with a two-headed coin featuring Meriwether Lewis on one side and William Clark on the other. It might not have been his intent, but he was stuck as a gold dollar was so small you could not possibly get both men on one side, so he did what he could under the circumstances.
A total of 25,028 pieces were struck with the 1904 date along with a similar number dated 1905, but eventually roughly 15,003 of each of the dates would be melted, making the final mintage 10,025 for the 1904 and 10,041 for the 1905. The totals while not what some would have hoped to sell are large enough for the two to be available today, with the 1904 being $1,350 in MS-60 while the 1905 is $1,625. In MS-65, the 1904 is $12,250 while the 1905 is $18,500.
Apparently the two issues of the early 1900s were enough, at least for a while, as there was no attempt to have additional gold commemoratives until the 1915 Panama-Pacific program, which came along right after the final melting of the Louisiana Purchase dollars in 1914.
Precisely how approval was gained for an enormous program is hard to imagine, but it was certainly unlike anything seen before with a half dollar, gold dollar, gold quarter eagle and round and octagonal $50 coins all marking the opening of the Panama Canal with their production taking place at San Francisco, site of an international exposition.
Marketing such a group was going to be a challenge, although the coins were available individually or as a set. Once again, Farran Zerbe took center stage as the man responsible for marketing the ambitious program.
The gold dollar was a design by Charles Keck showing a canal worker on the obverse with a reverse that had dolphins encircling ONE DOLLAR. The mintage was 25,034, with 34 examples being for assay. As the lowest gold denomination of the program, it is thought that thousands probably were sold at the time, but Zerbe also appears to have been selling examples for an extended period of time with significant numbers either going directly or indirectly to the emerging Fort Worth, Texas, powerhouse dealer B. Max Mehl, who was still selling them into the 1950s. The supply today makes the Panama-Pacific dollar a $750 coin in MS-60 while an MS-65 is at $2,450.
The gold quarter eagle was a combined design effort by Charles Barber and Georgia T. Morgan and it shows Columbia with a caduceus in her left hand seated on a hippocampus signifying the use of the Panama Canal while the reverse showed an American Eagle with raised wings.
The quarter eagle at the time being a new denomination for commemorative use (if we don’t look to 1848) had to be expected to have uncertain sales and in this instance they were simply very low. San Francisco produced 10,017 with 17 being for assay, but even that proved to be far too many. In 1916 3,251 were returned for melting, leaving a net of 6,749 and even that is suspect as Zerbe was attempting to sell them for some time. With such a low mintage, the Panama-Pacific quarter eagle is $2,100 in MS-60 today while an MS-65 is at $8,000.
Historically for collectors, the real story of the Panama-Pacific program has been the two gold $50 coins. These are the first $50 gold coins ever issued by the United States. Both featured the same basic design by Robert Aitken with a head of Minerva on the obverse and an owl symbolic of wisdom on the reverse. There were both octagonal and round examples, with the octagonal having eight dolphins in the angles on both sides.
Their high face value was going to naturally limit sales and that was the case, with 1,509 examples of the octagonal and 1,510 examples of the round being struck and even those low totals were too many as in the end 645 examples of the octagonal and 483 of the round were sold. Those are the lowest totals for any U.S commemorative coin and the result is high prices today. The $50 round currently at $60,000 in MS-60 while the octagonal is $55,000 while in MS-65 the round is $145,000 with the octagonal at $148,000.
There has been a report of an attempted hoard of the two involving 20-25 examples back in the 1980s, but there has been no report since and no irregular price movements of either, so if any hoard did exist, it appears to have had no impact on the prices of America’s most valuable commemoratives.
While the Panama-Pacific program was going on, Charles Barber and George Morgan again teamed up on still another design. This time it was for the William McKinley Memorial dollar, which was authorized to help in the construction of a memorial to the late president in Niles, Ohio.
The initial production of the McKinley Memorial dollar was 20,026 examples of the 1916 along with 10,014 examples of the 1917. Of the roughly 30,000 examples made, approximately 20,000 were sold, with the estimate being that 15,000 were dated 1916. In this case, dealer B. Max Mehl appears to have made a deal purchasing an estimated 7,000 examples of the 1916 and 3,000 more of the 1917 while other dealers are thought to have acquired smaller numbers.
With so many examples ending up with dealers, the coins were saved from indifferent handling and that makes them somewhat more available than their mintages would suggest, with the 1916 currently at $685 in MS-60 while the 1917 is $800 in the same grade. In MS-65 the 1916 is $2,350, which along with the Panama-Pacific $1, makes it the least expensive MS-65 commemorative gold dollar while the 1917 is $3,800.
The next gold commemorative came along in 1922. This time the program would mark the centennial of the birth of Ulysses S. Grant with a half dollar and gold dollar both designed by Laura Gardin Fraser.
There was a special feature as a special star was added to some primarily to promote sales. In fact the mintages turned out to be basically 5,000 pieces struck with or without the star.
The gimmick did not help as Q. David Bowers observes in his book, American Coin Treasures and Hoards that, “only a few were sold to the general public and not many were sold to numismatists at the time.”
With virtually identical mintages, the prices are similar as in MS-60 without a star the Grant gold dollar is $1,900 while having the star it is $1,950. In MS-65 the Grant without the star is $4,900 while the with star variety is $4,400.
The final gold commemorative in the period came in 1926 in the form of a quarter eagle for the Sesquicentennial of the United States. Certainly it was an important topic. Sales were expected to be high, although having a striking of 200,226 pieces appears today to have been optimistic. It certainly turned out that way as 154,207 were later melted.
There were no major hoards known although a 1976 Parke-Bernet auction did feature 71 examples, including a bank-wrapped roll of 46. The mintage of 46,019 has proven to be high enough to make the Sesquicentennial quarter eagle available at $565 in MS-60 and $4,200 for an MS-65.
There would be no additional gold commemoratives as after the issuing of the Gold Recall Order of 1933 there would be no gold coins of any type. It is hard to know if there would have been more had gold ownership not been prohibited, because the old commemorative program ran until 1954. We will never know.
While a complete set is possible many cannot afford the Panama-Pacific gold $50s, but all the others are readily available despite their frequently very low mintages. They make an interesting collection and a very interesting group to study as the gold commemoratives are the lesser known part of the old commemorative story, but their history is every bit as interesting as our other commemoratives.