By Victor Bozarth for PCGS ……
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Numismatic promoter Farran Zerbe was hired by the Panama-Pacific Exposition Company to sell the new coins at the fair. Despite the expo’s mandate that coins would be available for sale before the fair’s opening on February 20, Zerbe’s exhibit “Money of the World” had none of the five different Panama-Pacific Exposition commemorative issues to sell for at least the first three months of the event. Zerbe did have the souvenir medal produced by the United States Mint, at their exhibit–as well as prints produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing at their onsite exhibit–but no coins!
Zerbe’s sale of the medals and prints was slow. At best, Zerbe would have had Panama-Pacific Exposition half dollars and gold dollars available for sale no earlier than May 8, 1915, when those dies were delivered to the San Francisco Mint.
Dimensions of the two new $50 gold coins, in terms of both size and weight, proved problematic almost immediately. A new hydraulic press was shipped from Philadelphia to be used for the “slugs”. On June 15, the new press was used to ceremoniously strike the first octagonal $50 pieces at San Francisco. Nearly four months had passed since the February 20 opening.
This first octagonal $50 was struck by San Francisco Mint Superintendent T.W.H. Shanahan for presentation to the Panama-Pacific Exposition President Charles C. Moore. Nine more coins were struck for dignitaries at the time, including California Congressman Julian Kahn. Interestingly, anyone with $100 cash was allowed to strike one at this ceremony after the first 10 were struck. Maybe as an omen of poor sales, only three individuals paid for and struck one of their own. Remarkably, Zerbe struck coin number 19 that day, but the fair had been open nearly four months! Delays in production and delivery as well as the issue cost of all of the five different issues would be blamed for poor sales.
Prices at the fair for the individual issues and sets were considered expensive in 1915.
Individually, half dollars sold for $1 each, gold dollars fetched $2 to $2.25 each, quarter eagles took $4, and either of the $50 issues at $100 each. Sets offered included a three-piece set of the half dollar, gold dollar, and quarter eagle for $7; a four-piece set with the customer’s choice of either the round or the octagonal $50 sold for $100; and the five-piece set with all issues commanded $200. A 10-piece double set was reportedly $400, although some have argued all the 10-piece sets were prepared for dignitaries. All of these sets included special display cases that Zerbe had provided.
Although there was a slight discount in terms of premium over face value for the sets, all the Panama-Pacific Exposition items were nearly twice their face value. Prices hurt sales, and poor sales resulted in huge quantities of all denominations being returned to the Mint for melting. Although a quantity of 3,000 each for both of the $50 coins had been allocated, only 1,500 of each were produced. Only the gold dollar and quarter eagle achieved sales of more than half of their actual mintages. The half dollar, with an original mintage of 60,000, reportedly had 32,866 of that mintage melted, resulting in only 27,134 distributed. Only 46% survived.
Far fewer than half of the 1,500 $50 coins sold. When faced with the choice of a round or octagonal $50 gold coin, customers most often bought the more unusual octagonal issue, reminiscent of frontier coinage. Of the 1,500 of each issue produced, some 855 of 1,500 of the octagonals and 1,017 of 1,500 of the round issues were melted. Just 645 and 483 each, respectively, of the octagonal and round were distributed.
When the original 1,500 of each of the $50 issues was struck, an additional nine octagonal and 10 round coins were struck to be sent to Philadelphia for the 1916 annual Assay Commission meeting. Curiously, numismatic expert Roger Burdette reports that Director of the Mint Robert W. Woolley refused to sell Assay Commission members any of the 19 coins struck for assay. Normally, Assay Commission members were allowed to buy any coins, not used for assay purposes, at face value. All 19 coins were melted on Woolley’s order.
The delivery of both the half dollar and the gold dollar sometime in mid-May 1915 wasn’t received with much enthusiasm and sales lagged. Space was allocated to Zerbe at the U.S. Mint’s exhibit from which he could sell Panama-Pacific Exposition issues. He had both the half dollar and gold dollar available for sale. No mention was yet made in regard to the quarter eagle, but orders were being taken for the two $50 coins. Still, sales were sluggish.
Zerbe’s top-notch Money of the World exhibit was open virtually non-stop from the fair’s February opening through the December close. While the fair was but a memory, Zerbe continued selling Panama-Pacific Exposition commemorative issues through the mail until late 1916 on behalf of the expo. At some point in late 1916, Zerbe bought an unknown quantity for himself to supply potential customers of his own company. The remainder of the coins were returned to the Treasury and melted.
Zerbe’s original display and presentation cases for the Panama-Pacific Exposition issues, in addition to the coins themselves, are highly prized today.
The Panama-Pacific Exposition was a huge commercial success for both San Francisco and the United States itself. The expo company finished the Fair in the black. Most of the buildings and structures were built with staff – a combination of plaster and burlap fiber, to both speed construction and minimize cost. Several of the buildings, including the Exposition Auditorium, were built of steel and stone. Built by the Panama-Pacific Exposition Company, the auditorium opened January 9, 1915, and remained as a permanent gift to the city once the fair concluded. It was renamed in 1992 for longtime promoter Bill Graham.
Although rebuilt and repurposed, the Palace of Fine Arts exists today. The California, Missouri, and Philippine buildings built for the fair were saved most likely because they were built on land previously and still owned by the government then.
For numismatists today, poor sales of the Panama-Pacific Exposition commemorative have proven to be a boon, since a lower supply available today means the coins are both scarce and valuable.
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Bowers, Q. David. Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia. Bowers and Merena Galleries, Inc. (1992)
Burdette, Roger W. Renaissance of American Coinage, 1909-1915. Seneca Mills Press (2007)
Swiatek, Anthony and Walter Breen. The Encyclopedia of United States Silver and Gold Commemorative Coins, 1892-1954. Arco Publishing (1981)
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About the Author
Vic Bozarth is a Professional Numismatics Guild (PNG) member (#661). Both Vic and Sherri Bozarth are members of the ANA, FUN, CSNS, and many other regional and state coin clubs and organizations. Vic has had extensive experience both buying and selling coins into the mid-six-figure range. Both Vic and Sherri attend all major U.S. coin shows, as well as most of the larger regional shows.
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