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Classic Commemorative Half Dollars of 1936

Taking a look at the many different events and anniversaries that were honored with a half dollar in that year, including the California Pacific International Exposition, Cleveland Centennial, and several tercentenaries.
1936-D Providence, R.I., Tercentenary half dollar. (Images courtesy United States Mint.)

1936-D Providence, R.I., Tercentenary half dollar. (Images courtesy United States Mint.)

Many collectors have no memory of the heyday and heady feel that there once was for collecting our classic commemoratives, which means a long string of half dollars for the most part. That’s probably not all that bad a thing, actually. Back in the 1980s, right when the idea of third-party grading was taking hold, there was a lot of buzz about the series of classic commems that spanned from 1892 to 1954. There was interest in just how common or scarce each issue was, and how much some of these would surely rise in value if only we could get our hands on them right now. Plenty of big-name dealers and authorities were in this chorus of voices. And yet, a bit like the fabled tulip bulbs long before, the hype could not be sustained. Looking back now, a serious collector might be able to see what was overlooked in that earlier time of hype. Basically, there are some downright rare pieces that are still good buys today.

The year 1936 appears to have become the year in which Congress went gonzo crazy and authorized more commemorative half dollars than ever before – and then more than ever after. There were 14 different events or anniversaries honored with a half dollar that year, and the total climbs higher if we include mintmarks. Because of this huge number, we’ll confine this bargain hunt to 1936, at least for our first foray into the U.S. classic commemorative series.

As with several of our other searches, we’ll establish some price points right off the bat. It would be great to land any of the 50-cent pieces we are about to look at for $100 or less. This can indeed be done, but we’d have to satisfy ourselves with examples in grades like Extra Fine, or EF-40. If we are willing to push the ceiling up to $200, we can set our sights on Mint State specimens, in grades such as MS-64 or maybe even MS-65.

The first of the halves we’ll take a peek at is the 1936-D California Pacific International Exposition half dollar. The total mintage for this attractively designed piece was 30,092, and the MS-64 price tag today is about $125 – and only $150 in the often-coveted MS-65 grade.

Let’s think for a moment about the numbers we just tossed out here. This coin is nine times less common than the 1916-D Mercury dime, and just over 15 times less common than the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent. Yet as an MS-65 coin, it costs only $150. There’s no other word for it: amazing!

The next 1936 50-cent piece we’ll take a look at is the Providence, R.I., Tercentenary halves – and that is plural, because they came out of the main Mint as well as the branch facilities in Denver and San Francisco. Their mintages were all smaller than what we just mentioned for the California piece – only 15,011 for the “S”-marked coins – yet the price tags attached to them are virtually the same in both MS-64 and MS-65. Maybe we’ll need a better word than “amazing” to describe what we can land when it comes to these three. If there is any complaint a collector might lodge about this coin, it is that the design is just plain cluttered with lettering. That may, however, not be too much of a complaint at all when we consider how low the cost is.

The next half on our list of 1936s will be the Cleveland Centennial – Great Lakes Exposition pieces. Artistically, most collectors find them to be better than the Providence, R.I., halves, but that’s setting the bar pretty low. When it comes to outlay, though, this half dollar is a definite winner. The price for an MS-64 appears to be $120, while an MS-65 is only $125, really. When the price for the grade we all seem to pine for is only $5 more than the next step down, it’s a good indicator that this coin is a real sleeper, at least for the moment.

We can post the Long Island Tercentenary as the next 50-cent piece on our growing list. This one has a hefty mintage, at least by the standards we see among these halves – 81,826 in all. But the price tag for the MS-64 is a wonderfully low $100.

York County, Maine, was another locale having a tercentenary in 1936, which may give us some sort of record for using the word “tercentenary” in one discussion. A bit like the Providence half dollar, the York County piece has so much lettering, and such large lettering, that even the severely nearsighted can read just about everything on it. Since its total mintage is down at 25,015, it’s not too big a surprise to find that we’ll have to pony up $175 for an MS-65 example. But once again, the cost for this high, Mint State grade is only a bit more than the MS-64. Twice now we seem to have an under-collected item on our list.

The last 50-cent piece we are going to add to our growing line-up of 1936 commems is the Columbia, S.C., piece – this time commemorating a mere sesquicentennial (naught but half of a tercentenary!). Concerning it, we’ll start with the bad news: this glittering piece of history will cost us about $225 in MS-64 condition. But we will follow up with the good news: it came out of the Mint in Philly to the tune of only 9,007 pieces, the Mile High City branch to the tally of only 8,009 pieces, and the Granite Lady of San Fran to a total of only 8,007 pieces. Again, we can take a moment to pause and compare the rarity of these three halves with what they cost. Can we ever find another United States coin that has this tiny a mintage for this small a price? That would be quite a find, indeed.

When all is said and done, we’ll make no predictions as to whether this group of half dollars will make any jump in value, either now or in the future. But this cluster of 1936 50-cent pieces appear to have some sleepers snuggled into the clutch right now, in a chapter in U.S. coinage history that some of us have pretty much forgotten. This means, though, that yes, there are definitely some bargains to be found among this classic silver.