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1938 commem wrong coin at wrong time

Exploring the story of the New Rochelle, N.Y. 250th anniversary half dollar helps to shed light on the problems with commemoratives of the period.

Let?s begin with the basic fact that we are talking about a half dollar for New Rochelle, N.Y. If you happen to believe that commemoratives should mark some event of national significance, the New Rochelle half dollar is suspect from the start. A 250th anniversary is a milestone, but New Rochelle is not Boston or Philadelphia.

In 1938 the commemorative coin program was basically out of control. New Rochelle got a commemorative, and so did Norfolk, Va., Elgin, Ill., York County, Maine and many others.

Item0715-b.jpgThe New Rochelle coin was designed by Gertrude K. Lathrop, and it was definitely an interesting design. The obverse shows John Pell with the yearly fattened calf that was to be given away by June 20. This was apparently part of the initial deal when the Huguenots purchased the land from the good Mr. Pell.

The reverse displays a fleur-de-lis that was taken from the seal of the city. The design was appropriate for the anniversary, and it was important that the town keep its image intact. New Rochelle was the place to live within easy commuting distance of New York City.

The Westchester County Coin club wanted to sell the coins but the idea was shot down, perhaps from this same concern for being appropriate. It could have been seen as an unfavorable precedent. One could debate the situation of whether a coin club should market a commemorative, but in 1938 things were a little too far gone to suddenly become concerned about who was doing what.

As it turned out, a little marketing help would have been in order. A total of 25,015 1938 New Rochelle half dollars were made and turned over to the First National Bank of New Rochelle. In the end, 9,749 of them were returned for melting. This left a mintage of 15,266, and of that total it is thought that hundreds ended up in the hands of the coin club members.

There is some indication that the New Rochelle half dollar had better than average care, which suggests that coin club members did own many examples. Today an MS-60 lists at $445, while an MS-65 is at $610.
That?s just a $165 difference between a below average ? but still Mint State ? coin and one of the best. The grading services basically support this tight spread, as a reasonably high percentage of the New Rochelle half dollar can be found in upper grades.

However, the fact is that the New Rochelle half dollar was the wrong coin at the wrong time. Sales were low since people had been buried in commemoratives. Even if intentions were the best, the coin was of little consequence, except that today we have a small supply of nice examples.

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