HomeUS Coins1936 Elgin Centennial Half Dollar : A Collector's Guide

1936 Elgin Centennial Half Dollar : A Collector’s Guide

1936 Elgin Half Dollar. This example, graded PCGS MS68, was sold by Stack’s Bowers on March 24, 2023 for $7,800. Image: Stack’s Bowers.
1936 Elgin Half Dollar. This example, graded PCGS MS68, was sold by Stack’s Bowers on March 24, 2023 for $7,800. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

The 1936 Elgin Centennial Half Dollar: Purpose and Legislation

The 1936 Elgin Centennial half dollar was produced on behalf of sculptor Trygve A. Rovelstad for the purpose of raising money to erect a statue of his own design. Rovelstad had seen other communities fund local celebrations through the issuance of a coin, and sought the release of a coin to fund the erection of his monument. He established the the Elgin Centennial Monumental Committee to give his plan an air of propriety.

The bill authorizing the production of the 1936 Elgin Centennial half dollar was introduced into the House on May 27, 1935, as H.R. 8324. From then, the bill stalled.

Coin promoter L.W. Hoffecker got involved in the coin’s distribution after reaching out to Rovelstad as the Elgin bill languished in Congress. In a September 26, 1935 letter, Hoffecker told Rovelstad that getting a coin bill passed into law took special expertise – expertise that Hoffecker clearly had, having shepherded his Old Spanish Trail half dollar bill into law (Hoffecker claimed that he even paid President Franklin Delano Roosevelt a personal visit to make it happen):

After your bill is signed by the [P]resident, you will be asked to submit your design to the Commission of Fine Arts for their approval. This design would be an ink drawing about 10” in diameter. After they approve the design you will then be asked to submit plaster casts of both sides of the coins. These should also be 10” in diameter, and this is where your troubled commences.

These sculptors all want to incorporate their own ideas in the design and ask anywhere from $400.00 to $1,000.00 for their work, telling you what trouble it is to get the approval of the Commission of Fine Arts and many other things which do not exist.

Later in the letter, Hoffecker made his pitch:

I enjoyed the distribution of [1935 Old Spanish Trail] coins very much; would like to tackle another sale. Would your Committee entertain an offer to handle the entire issue? Understand that I am not a dealer and therefore there would be no complaints about your turning the issue over to me. I would agree to sell them at not more than $2.00; to string the sale out say for three months to give the collectors a change ahead of the dealers so as not to cast any reflection on your Committee. I can satisfy you as to my responsibility. In fact if we agreed on about what your expenses would be in disposing of these coins, I will agree to put up the money for the entire issue…

Given the increasingly negative collector sentiment forming around recent commemorative issues, this announcement must have caused some concern on the part of Hoffecker, who clearly was able to read the tea leaves and see that abuses in the commemorative coin “program” emperilled future releases.

On October 23, 1935, Hoffecker wrote to Rovelstad:

After careful consideration I will handle your issue in the same manner I handled ours; to wit, I will favor collectors in preference to dealers, not let any dealer have any great number of the coins. By continuing the sale for three or four months the collectors will have no right to complain if they fail to get any of the coins, and I will keep the price at $2.00 until the issue is exhausted. I now have a much larger mailing list than when I first started.

These issues cannot be handled in the future as some committees handled them in the past for the government will discontinue the coining of commemoratives entirely. I will pay for the coins, $5,000, the cost of the dies and the express, and pay to any bank you may designate as your agent, the sum of $12,000. In this way you will have no worry or uncertainty about how much you will have to spend or when you will get it.

Hoffecker’s figures were based on a distribution of 10,000 pieces. With a $5,000 face value cost, and a $2.00 sale price, Hoffecker was pledging $12,000 to the Rovelstad and intending to keep $3,000 for himself.

Rovelstad accepted Hoffecker’s terms on November 3, 1935, “contingent on the passage of coinage bill H.R. 8234.” At this point, he turned over to the promoter a batch of pre-orders from over 125 collectors. One collector, W.A. Schneider, suggested an order of 6,000 pieces. According to Q. David Bowers, Schneider’s final order was just five pieces.

H.R. 8234 was introduced into the House by freshman Congressman Chauncey Reed (R-IL11). As the bill languished, it became clear that the mintage had to be lifted from 10,000 to 25,000 to assuage Congressional concern about potential abuse.

A higher mintage reduced the feasibility of Hoffecker’s plan to distribute the coins at $2.00 each. In a February 21, 1936 letter, Hoffecker to Rovelstad that he would “not be able to get over $1.00 each for them, and consequently cannot make as much money as you could on 10,000 at $2.00 each.”

Hoffecker and Rovelstad traveled to Washington in May 1936 to press their case, but Congress was unmoved. Nearly a year later, the bill passed the House on May 7, 1936 and the bill was signed into law on June 16.

Coin Design and Initial Sales

Rovelstad’s design was approved by the Fine Arts Commission on September 1, 1936.

The coins were to be struck at the Philadelphia Mint. 15 coins were reserved for assay. 

In the August 1936 issue of The Numismatist, the Elgin Centennial Committee announced that L.W. Hoffecker would serve as their distribution agent. Hoffecker took orders from his P.O. Box in El Paso, Texas, and set the issue price at $1.50 per coin, with Hoffecker taking 35¢ and the committee taking the remainder, minus cost.

Before the coins arrived, Hoffecker reached out to about 3,500 subscribers to his mailing list, informing them that he had already received 7,000 advance orders for the coin and that they should not delay in placing their orders.

In a letter to collector Walter P. Nichols, Hoffecker groused about the difficulties he experienced promoting commemorative issues, writing: “In reference to the collectors financing an issue, I don’t see anything wrong about it if your accept their money and give them their coins, but they certainly do have a kick if their money is kept for three or four months and then returned.” He went on to say that he had made arrangements with his bank to carry the coins for him on their cash account.

In a letter to The Numismatist dated September 8, 1936, Hoffecker relayed that the dies were being cut and that he expected delivery of coins to begin around October 1. These plans were delayed by about two weeks, as Hoffecker didn’t receive the coins until Sunday, October 11.

Trygve Rovelstead travelled to Philadelphia and stayed with United States Mint Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock on the eve of the coin’s official striking. The next day, Rovelstead was handed the first 10 coins struck. The remaining 24,990 were shipped to Hoffecker in El Paso.

As for the distribution of the coins in Elgin, Illinois, that Hoffecker shipped, the Elgin National Bank and the First National Bank of Elgin both distributed small quantities of coins. 600 went to the First National Bank, while 500 went to the Elgin National Bank. 150 went to the Elgin’s Union National Bank. A local watch company ordered 100 pieces for its employees. Adding it up, a minimum of 1,350 coins were distributed locally.

Hoffecker’s efforts to sell the rest of the issue was met with mixed results.

Sixteen thousand and one hundred and seventy coins were sold by November 1936. Hoping for more money, Rovelstad tried to convince the distributor to raise the price to $1.75 but Hoffecker rebuffed the idea. Over the course of the next four months, Hoffecker was able to move just 2,620 more coins.

The portion of the proceeds that Rovelstad received from the sale of the coins proved to be insufficient to fund his statue project. However, the project eventually was shepherded to completion in the 1990s with the help of local, state, and private capital.

As of 1988, there were two known Satin Finish Proof strikings of the Elgin half dollar – which Chief Engraver Sinnock had created by dipping them in an acid bath. One, authenticated by numismatist Walter Breen, appeared in Superior’s Auction 88 and was in a December 1988 Numismatist ad as being for sale by dealer Brian McCaffrey of Bernstein, McCaffrey & Lee.

Market Data and Noteworthy Specimens

In an ad in the December 1947 issue of The Numismatist, dealer Earl C. School of Detroit, Michigan placed a wanted ad for commemorative half dollars, where he posted a buy price of $2.25 for a Brilliant Uncirculated 1936 Elgin Centennial half dollar. In that same issue, fellow Detroit dealer R. Bart Holmes offered examples for sale for $2.25; so too, did dealer Henry Grunthal of New York.

In a December 1974 Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine ad, dealers Frank and Laurene Karen of Silver Spring, Maryland, offered Brilliant Uncirculated examples of the Elgin half dollar for $100 each.

In a two-page ad published in the October 1976 issue of The Numismatist, dealer Joel Rettew offered GEM BU examples of the 1936 Elgin half dollar for $100 each.

Top Population: PCGS MS-68+ (4, 2/2024). NGC MS-68 (14, 2/2024). CACG MS-68 (2:0 stickered:graded, 2/2024)

The PCGS and NGC populations for MS-68 or better coins has only gradually increased since the early 2000s. The first PCGS MS-68+ coin was sold on January 9, 2014 by Heritage Auctions and remained the only coin so graded until 2019. As of this writing (2/2024), four coins have earned the top grade and all four are imaged on PCGS CoinFacts. This is an issue that typically tones in hues of red and green, and the typical coin was issued with frosty surfaces. Nearly all coins have some degree of toning or tarnish, save for those that have been dipped.

It is our opinion that examples with superior toning exist in grades MS-67+ and below.

  • PCGS MS-68+ CAC #25382530: Heritage Auctions, January 9, 2014, Lot 5609 – $49,937.50. Peripheral toning in dark red, orange, and blue. Top pop, pop one when sold.
  • PCGS MS-68 #46174189: Stack’s Bowers, March 24, 2023, Lot 7188 – $7,800. Iridescent red, gold, and green toning on the obverse and reverse.
  • PCGS MS-68 #45357289: GreatCollections, September 25, 2022, Lot 1146238 – $11,812.50. Red, gold, and green toning on the obverse and reverse.
  • PCGS MS-68 CAC #44996212: “The Gregg Bingham Collection of Silver Commemoratives”, GreatCollections, June 12, 2022, Lot 1157833 – $41,512.50. Gregg Bingham Collection. Iridescent rose, gold, and green toning on both sides. Perhaps the most attractively toned example in MS68.
  • NGC MS-68 #603475-001: Stack’s Bowers, April 7, 2022, Lot 6469 – $3,600. Pleasing iridescent red, gold, and green toning on the obverse and reverse.
  • NGC MS-68 #5749027-010: Heritage Auctions, September 18, 2020, Lot 3474 – $3,000. Pale green center toning with rust colored toning around the periphery.
  • NGC MS-68 #574370-005: Heritage Auctions, April 24, 2020, Lot 4188 – $3,000. Pale russet and lime green toning.
  • PCGS MS-68 CAC #25348656: Stack’s Bowers, August 15, 2019, Lot 5401 – $25,000 Reserve Not Met. Darkly toned around the periphery.
  • PCGS MS-68 #35366125: GreatCollections, September 9, 2018, Lot 607604 – $6,496.88; GreatCollections, January 6, 2019, Lot 656736 – $6,018.75; Heritage Auctions, March 14, 2019, Lot 3424 – $9,000. Red and gold allover toning.
  • NGC MS-68 #4627354-009: Heritage Auctions, December 13, 2018, Lot 4363 – $3,840. Faint rose toning.
  • PCGS MS-68 #02996183: As PCGS MS68 #7617094. “The St. Louis Collection”, Heritage Auctions, January 2003, Lot 9646 – $14,375. Old Green Holder; As PCGS MS68 #21627133. “JFS” Collection”, Heritage Auctions, August 2004, Lot 4264 – $9,775; JFS Collection on insert. “Richard Jewell Collection”, “New York Connoisseur’s Collection”, Stack’s Bowers, March 14, 2006, Lot 1878 – Passed. Red tab toning from 7 o’clock to 11 o’clock. As PCGS MS68 #02996183. Heritage Auctions, May 10, 2007, Lot 2418 – $10,925; Heritage Auctions, January 5, 2018, Lot 5750 – $7,800. JFS / Jewell on insert.
  • NGC MS-68 #3811416-003: Heritage Auctions, January 9, 2015, Lot 6384 – $3,995. Scattered red, gold, and green toning on the obverse.
  • NGC MS-68* #3727116-001: As NGC MS68* #1504740-008. Heritage Auctions, January 8, 2010, Lot 3194 – $10,925; As NGC MS68* #3737116-001. Heritage Auctions, January 7, 2015, Lot 4444 – $6,462.50. Frosty with tinges of red and gold toning around the obverse periphery from 2 o’clock to 7 o’clock.
  • NGC MS-68 #1657596-001: Heritage Auctions, January 10, 2008, Lot 2322 – $4,830; Heritage Auctions, June 27, 2008, Lot 1604 – $8,050. Muted red and green peripheral toning on the obverse and reverse.
  • NGC MS-68* #1873339-006: Heritage Auctions, March 25, 2005, Lot 6518 – $10,350. Iridescent red and green rim toning.
  • PCGS MS-68 #21765011: “The Bruce Scher Collection”, Heritage Auctions, February 25, 2005, Lot 4155 – $14,575.50. Bruce Scher on insert. Duplicate from Scher’s registry set. Dark crescent toning from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock. Otherwise, frosty.
  • NGC MS-68* #1657069-028: Heritage Auctions, July 27, 2002, Lot 5071 – $4,140.

Design

Obverse:

The obverse of this coin displays a profile bust of a pioneer man, whose full figure is repeated on the reverse as part of a grouping which also includes his wife and baby, as well as their grown sons. Aside from the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, the obverse features the word PIONEER, Rovelstad’s monogrammed initials and the dates 1673 1936. The latter date is self explanatory, but the earlier date refers to an entirely irrelevant event, the first European exploration of Illinois by missionaries Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet.

Reverse:

The reverse is dominated by a slightly modified rendition of Rovelstad’s Pioneer Memorial, lacking its monumental, inscribed base. Most of the lettering is mandated by law: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, HALF DOLLAR, LIBERTY and E PLURIBUS UNUM. The statuary is identified in tiny letters: PIONEER MEMORIAL and ELGIN, ILLINOIS.

Coin Specifications

Country: United States of America
Year Of Issue: 1936
Denomination: Half Dollar (USD)
Mint Mark: None (Philadelphia)
Net Distribution: 20,015
Alloy: .900 silver, .100 copper
Weight: 12.5 g
Diameter: 30.6 mm
Edge: Reeded
OBV Designer Trygve A. Rovelstad
REV Designer Trygve A. Rovelstad
Quality: Business Strike

 

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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