Things were not exactly perfect when it came to the 1936 Cleveland Centennial/Great Lakes Exposition commemorative half dollar. That should not be surprising for a number of reasons, but it does make for a good story.
On the surface, this subject had as much or even more reason to be approved as any other half dollar of that year. After all, Cleveland was a major city playing host to an exposition in conjunction with its centennial. Congress could be tough about many things, but any sort of exposition was apparently not one of them. If you called a backyard cookout an exposition, you had a pretty good chance of getting a commemorative to help cover costs.
Things went a little sideways when it came to getting the Cleveland Centennial half dollar produced. The fairly straightforward design should not have been the cause. Moses Cleveland appeared on the obverse, with a map showing nine Great Lakes cities marked by stars on the reverse. When gaining support for a project or promoting sales, it certainly does not hurt to have nine different cities being featured. But despite the efforts of everyone, the striking of the Cleveland Centennial half dollar did not take place until 1937, after the 1936 festivities were already over.
The next matter that seemed to not work all that well was sales. This was turned over to Thomas G. Melish, a Cincinnati entrepreneur and coin collector. That should have raised a few cautionary flags, since the 1936 Cincinnati Music Center commemorative half for which he was responsible was probably the most notorious commemorative half. Cincinnati had never to the best of anyone’s research been called a music center. Moreover, the coins were the highest priced in history at the time, and no one could really explain what happened to the profits.
The situation with sales of the Cleveland Centennial half was not quite that bad, although it could hardly be called a model, either. A total of 50,030 were struck, even though there was almost no possibility of that many selling no matter who was depicted on the obverse or what exposition was being financed. The commemorative market was flooded, and when that happens, collectors generally stop buying because they get discouraged.
When commemoratives did not sell, the coins were many times returned and melted. Apparently this was not so with the Cleveland Centennial half, as pieces were available in quantity for years. It also appears that Melish supplied quantities to his friends, dealers Sol Kaplan and Abe Kosoff. In an attempt to pump up the prices, Kaplan even ran a number of advertisements offering to buy examples.
How well the efforts worked is hard to determine. Numismatic scholar Q. David Bowers observed in his “American Coin Treasures and Hoards” that “It was not unusual for rolls (20 coins per roll) to be offered at coin conventions.” Bowers was referring to the 1950s, a couple decades after the Cleveland Centennial half dollar was originally offered.
Given its large mintage that ended up in the hands of dealers and not in circulation or the melting pot, the Cleveland Centennial half dollar is relatively available today. It lists for $120 in MS-60 condition and $180 in MS-65.
These prices are very modest for a half dollar of the period, which is not too surprising. You are getting an interesting story, not a rare coin, as the supply today is far better than many other 1936 commemorative half dollars.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.
More Collecting Resources
• The 1800s were a time of change for many, including in coin production. See how coin designs grew during the time period in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900 .
• Start becoming a coin collector today with this popular course, Coin Collecting 101.