When it comes to collecting modern United States commemorative coins, many people seem to do it one set at a time. What we mean is that since the mid-1980’s, when the Olympic sets came out, or when the set of half-dollar, silver dollar, and $5 gold pieces came out honoring the 100th year of the Statue of Liberty, our commems have always been sold in some kind of set. It’s quite logical then to purchase a set, and to add that small group of coins to any growing collection of commemoratives. But how many of us focus just on a single denomination? Specifically, how many of us look only for the $5 gold pieces – the gold half eagles – and attempt to string together an entire assembly of them? The chances are, not that many. But let’s take a look at what has become a series over nearly four decades. Let’s see if there are any key dates in this series, and if there are any bargains.
The first gold $5 piece, or half eagle, that the United States Mint produced since it had last made them for circulation back in 1929 was the one that was issued as part of the set of three coins which honored the Statue of Liberty centennial, back in 1986. The weight is the same as in the old days, 8.359 grams, and the fineness was the same, 90 percent gold, 10 percent copper, for a net of 0.2418 ounces of gold per coin. This standard has stayed the same since that initial offering, no matter what person, place, or thing was honored.
The most common half eagles
When we get started collecting any series, it’s wise to find out right at the gate which dates are common, and which are rare. Let’s take one more gander at that Statue of Liberty half eagle and make some comparisons with other $5 gold pieces issued at about the same time.
First comparison, the Statue of Liberty saw 404,013 proofs made. It also saw 95,248 uncirculated pieces made, a big difference by any measure. This is the result of a Mint policy at the time, of letting folks order directly, and only minting what was ordered and paid for up front. Most collectors opted for the proofs, which makes sense as far as what has the best eye appeal. Right now, one of those proofs costs about $525, perhaps a bit more. That’s not too bad when we consider the amount of gold in the coin is worth about $435 when the precious metal trades at $1,800 per ounce on the world markets. But curiously, the much less common uncirc. version costs virtually the same. That may make us raise an eyebrow, but what it means is that very few people are collecting this coin in both finishes.
Second comparison, the proofs of the Statue of Liberty piece against the Constitution Bicentennial issued the very next year, and the 1988 Olympics commem issued the next, and also the Bicentennial of Congress issue of 1989. The 1987 Constitution half eagle saw a proof output of 651,659 pieces, an increase over the first year of these modern half eagles. The commem for the Seoul Olympics of 1988 saw a huge drop in output, to only 281,465, despite Mint Engraver Elizabeth Jones’ gorgeous design work on that particular half eagle. And the Congress Bicentennial piece of 1989 saw that nose-dive go into overdrive, with only 164,690 proofs to its official tally. Surely, we can be forgiven for thinking that the prices must go up as the total output went down and did so in such a dramatic fashion. Perhaps happily, we’d be wrong. The $525 price tag we just mentioned is fixed to every one of these four gold beauties. This may mean that folks are simply not collecting this growing series of U.S. gold.
Third comparison, this just-mentioned quartet of gold beauties against the 1992 half eagle that is part of the three-coin series honoring the quincentenary of Columbus’ historic voyage, plus the half eagle that was part of the 1992 Olympic Games held in Barcelona. The h-352467 Columbus piece saw only 79,730 proofs produced, while the Barcelona Games $5 gold piece saw an even leaner 77,313 minted. This was the first year that the production of a commemorative gold piece in proof condition dipped below the six-figure mark – and it did so for two different themes. Compared to the much higher mintages that we’ve just seen; it seems obvious that these two glittering pieces of gold must have heftier price tags attached to them. But they don’t – as Mr. Ripley said many times, “Believe it, or not.”
The not-so-common half eagles
It doesn’t take an accountant or any other serious numbers cruncher to realize that eventually these mintages, which appear to have closed into some kind of death spiral, must get low enough that prices have to rise. So, let’s look farther and see just what might be available when we talk about the lowest of the low.
We could start with the four different half eagles issued as part of the whoppingly huge set of commemorative pieces honoring the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, all of which had mintages that were very low. But there are actually several commems with even lower official mintages; so let’s begin with them. For example, in 2011 the Medal of Honor was commemorated, but with only 17,999 proofs. The same year the United States Army saw 17,148 proofs made as part of a three-coin set. The next year, 2012, saw a commem for the Star Spangled Banner, but only 18,313 proof half eagles. The year 2013 kept a military theme going, with our five-star generals being that theme, yet with only 15,844 gold proofs. And in 2016 it was none other than Mark Twain who was commemorated in a two-coin set which included a rather anemic 13,266 proof half eagles. If we were to add these numbers together, the total for these five modern commemoratives do not even come close to the totals of any of the common pieces with which we began this search. There’s no two ways about it, this more recent fistful of gold has to be considered rare. The numbers we just looked at are certainly far, far lower than the official tallies for such well-established rarities as the 1916-D Mercury dime, the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter, or the 1909-VDB Lincoln cent. But the price tags for these modern gold rarities? It’s still $525, maybe a bit more. Amazing really.
In an attempt to take this hip-shot examination of rarity among our modern commemorative $5 gold pieces even farther, we’ll look at the 2017 Boys Town Centennial piece, with only 7,370 to its tally, and the 2019 American Legion proof half eagle, with no more than 3,190 minted – and we bothered to double check that low, low number through several sources, including the United States Mint web site. Unbelievably, the Boys Town piece still lists at about $525, but the American Legion $5 gold sees a price rise – yet only to $650. We’ve said it before, but it bears saying again: Amazing!
The overall prognosis
We have not bothered to touch on every single proof half eagle in the modern United States commemorative coin program, simply because the list has over the years become a rather long one. But we did pin down prices for some of the most common, as well as for some that were made in such small numbers that they would be considered screaming, barking, yelping rarities in any other series of United States coinage. In the process we have seen that the prices are a flat line, not reflecting any increase or decrease in Mint output. There is really only one conclusion we can draw from this. This is that no matter the theme, no matter how attractive the design, these $5 gold pieces are not being actively and avidly collected by many people within our collecting community. While that’s a shame, that’s also an opportunity for those of us who want to jump into a new area, and who want to expand our collections. It looks like there is some very attractive gold waiting for us, coupled to very attractive prices.