“What on earth were they thinking?” is a question sometimes asked about historic commemoratives, as it can be hard to imagine the reason certain issues ever received approval. The Fort Vancouver Centennial half dollar is one of the very first coins for which this is the case.
By 1925, the commemorative coin program was not out of control. There had been an increase in the number of issues in the 1920s, but 1922, 1923 and 1924 were each years with just one new coin. Suddenly, however, there was a host of new issues: half dollars for the California Diamond Jubilee, Lexington-Concord Sesquicentennial and Stone Mountain Memorial. Then came the Fort Vancouver Centennial half. Guess which one seems to have had a limited audience of buyers?
There were some interesting aspects to the Fort Vancouver coin, which was designed by Laura Gardin Fraser. Dominating the obverse is John McLoughlin, who built Fort Vancouver, while the reverse has a pioneer settler with buckskin suit and musket. Fort Vancouver is in the background. Its very solid design fit with the other half dollars of that year, making 1925 one of the best for commemorative designs in U.S. history.
However, a couple of things were missing. First was a small “S,” as the coins were made at San Francisco but did not have a mintmark. That has never been explained.
Also missing were buyers. The coins were priced at one dollar, with profits going to a pageant marking the centennial. If these profits were intended to be a key part of its financing, organizers probably had to do without, as sales were a very modest 14,994.
It was not that there were no coin buyers in 1925. The Stone Mountain half dollar sold over 1.3 million, with the Lexington Concord topping 160,000 and the California Diamond Jubilee rounding out sales at just over 86,000.
During this time period, if a half dollar was not selling, those marketing the coins would sometimes save examples and continue to sell them even after the activity or year had passed. Those coins would be counted as sold, since they were not returned for melting.
However, it was long believed that unsold Fort Vancouver Centennial half dollars were returned and destroyed. With no hoards in existance and such a low mintage, the Fort Vancouver coin was potentially one of the toughest half dollar commemoratives to obtain. Estimates put fewer than 300 choice Mint State examples in existance.
In 1982, however, numismatic researcher Q. David Bowers reported that his firm purchased a group of 257 Fort Vancouver Centennial half dollars. In his book “American Coin Treasures and Hoards,” Bowers recounts, “I was eventually led to believe that no more than 500 totally came to light.”
Certainly that hoard helped with the modest available supply, although it is not enough to meet the demand. With its low mintage, the Fort Vancouver coin ranks as one of the most elusive and expensive of the historic commemorative half dollars. It currently lists for $320 in MS-60, while an MS-65 example is at $500.
We cannot say conclusively that there are fewer than 600 Fort Vancouver Centennial half dollars to be found, as would be the case if you took the old estimate of 300 and added the 257 purchased by Bowers. The number is higheer ,but still very low, making the Fort Vancouver coin a top commemorative half dollar.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.
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