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The Conundrum of Classic U.S. commemoratives

Shown here is a group of three Commemorative U.S. Coins. The coins included are: a 1900 Lafayette Dollar AU53, a 1926 Sesquicentennial Half Dollar VF25, and a 1926 Sesquicentennial Half Dollar VF35. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.)

When the US Mint began irregular issues of Commemorative Silver Coins in 1892 with the Half Dollar honoring the 400th Anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World, there was no consensus on how the Mint would issue following commemoratives.

Among the commemoratives struck up to 1954, some, such as the Columbian Halves, were placed into circulation as well as being sold to collectors. Others were exclusively sold to collectors at a premium price, though a handful ended up being cleaned or placed into circulation. One issue was a silver quarter and one a silver dollar, while the other entire Classic silver coins were issued as half dollars. The gold commemoratives were mostly one-dollar coins, but two issues were $2.50 quarter eagles, and another two were huge $50.00 pieces.

There was no formal plan for the Classic commemoratives such as today, where the US Mint issues commemoratives for two themes annually. So, from 1892 to 1954, there are many years where no commemoratives were struck. There are also years, such as 1936, when a wide variety of commemoratives were struck.

Some of these Classic commemoratives were only issued in one year from a single mint. A few had two varieties issued from one mint in only one year, while some were struck for two years at a single mint. Others were issued at all three mints in just one year. Still others were struck at multiple mints over a period of years. The President Grant commemoratives had the same design on both the gold and silver coins, though some of each have an incuse star above the word “Grant” on the obverse and some do not. The silver and gold commemoratives for the Panama-Pacific Exposition each have unique designs, except that the $50.00 pieces only have different shapes.

To make things even more complicated, should the US Mint’s 2015 Norse-American Centennial Medal, a commemorative that was not a legal tender coin, be included in any collection of commemoratives?

With so much variety in how these coins (whether or not you include the medal) were issued, it can be difficult deciding how to collect the Classic commemoratives, with the result that many collectors don’t even bother. In making that decision, though, American numismatists are missing out on some fascinating stories behind what led to the various issues.

For collectors on a budget, the 50-piece type set of Classic silver commemoratives, with only one example of each design, can allow a numismatist to become immersed into these stories. For a bigger challenge, the collector can seek all 144 different types, dates and mintmarks of the silver issues.

As there were only a total of thirteen different gold commemoratives, those who pursue them generally seek the eleven gold dollars and quarter eagles as being the most affordable option. Those with much larger budgets can consider acquiring the low mintage and very expensive $50.00 round and octagonal issues from the Panama-Pacific Exposition.

A high percentage of these Classic commemoratives, especially the silver ones issued in the 1930s and later, have survived in very high grades. While the 1935/34-D Daniel Boone Bicentennial half dollar may have a meager mintage of 2,003, the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) have together certified more than 900 specimens in Gem Mint State-65 and all higher grades. A type set collector would likely skip this coin, as there are 16 different dates and mintmarks of Daniel Boone commems, with a combined mintage of more than 85,000.

Many, if not most, of the commemoratives are significant rarities compared to US coins struck for circulation. Yet their relatively low prices today do not seem to reflect this rarity. How come?

Prices of rare coins, just like everything else, are subject to supply and demand. Supplies of many issues may be low in absolute terms, but so is the demand from collectors. These coins are mostly scarce enough that it would be difficult to acquire a large enough inventory for a company to promote them in a major sales campaign (Note: because of this difficulty in acquiring sufficient quantities, such companies tend to market modern issues where they can obtain hundreds or thousands of pieces, often from other nations, in pristine condition). But, without promotions of Classic US commemoratives, collector demand lags.

Another means by which interest in a numismatic niche is stimulated is with the appearance of major reference catalogs. For commemoratives, though, a number of in-depth references already exist.

So, for a collector looking for a numismatic niche to pursue, where there is relatively low-downside price risk and also a prospect of higher prices in the future, would Classic US commemoratives be a possibility?

Unfortunately, my answer is a definite—maybe.

In the 1970s, the founder of Liberty Coin Service surveyed people selling coin collections as to their involvement in the hobby and whether or not they were selling at a profit. What he learned is that those who bought rare coins because they heard it was a good investment, but who didn’t bother to become numismatists studying coins and paper money, lost money more than 90 percent of the time. In contrast, those who became collectors and did so for at least five years ended up selling at a profit more than 90 percent of the time.

I think the same kind of results would apply with forming a collection of Classic US commemoratives. If you study the series, become knowledgeable about grading them, and track price trends, you are much more likely to be financially rewarded. If you think about acquiring these coins only considering the investment prospects, your eventual results are not as promising. The numismatic adage of “buy the book before the coin” is definitely true for Classic US commemoratives.

Patrick A. Heller was the American Numismatic Association 2018 Glenn Smedley Memorial Service Award, 2017 Exemplary Service Award 2012 Harry Forman Dealer of the Year Award, and 2008 Presidential Award winner. He was also honored by the Numismatic Literary Guild in 2017 and 2016 for the Best Dealer-Published Magazine/Newspaper and for Best Radio Report. He is the communications officer of Liberty Coin Service in Lansing, Michigan and writes Liberty’s Outlook, a monthly newsletter on rare coins and precious metals subjects. Past newsletter issues can be viewed at http://www.libertycoinservice.com. Some of his radio commentaries titled“Things You ‘Know’ That Just Aren’t So, And Important News You Need To Know” can be heard at 8:45 AM Wednesday and Friday mornings on 1320-AM WILS in Lansing (which streams live and becomes part of the audio and text archives posted at http://www.1320wils.com).

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