As the first commemorative Half Dollar struck, the Columbian Exposition Half Dollar holds a special place in the long and historic commemorative series. From the first proof striking that sold for $10,000 in 1892,(The first specimen struck was bought for $10,000 by the firm that made Remington typewriters, as a publicity stunt) and to the final 1893 business strike, Columbian Halves were popularly collected at the time and in the hundred years since.
In August 1892 Congress specially authorized the coinage of five million Columbian Exposition Half Dollar for sale during the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World. This was the first of the great World’s Fairs to be honored with a commemorative coin. The first issue was dated 1892. The Exposition was scheduled to open in Chicago in October 1892, but did not open until May 1893, at which time additional coins bearing this new date were struck.
The obverse features the bust right of Christopher Columbus. The Columbian Exposition Half Dollar was originally supposed to be made by U.S.J. Dunbar. His design was based on a portrait painted by Lorenzo Lotto of Columbus in 1512. The U.S. Mint’s Chief Engraver at the time, Charles E. Barber, derailed any attempt by Dunbar from producing the coin, and instead took on the project, basing his depiction of Columbus allegedly on a bust made by artist Olin L. Warner.
Barber clashed with Exposition officials over the reverse as well, favoring his own design of the Western Hemisphere covering the entire reverse. Exposition officials wanted a depiction of Columbus’ flag ship Santa Maria poised over two globes. Seeking to absolve himself of the argument, Barber delegated the task to his Assistant Engraver, George T. Morgan to design the reverse.
By the time a further quantity had been coined in 1893, public demand for the Columbian Exposition Half Dollar had lessened. An unknown quantity of half-dollars were used as collateral against loans made to the Exposition by banks. When the Exposition failed to repay the debits, the banks dumped the coins into circulation.
A mere 104 proofs are believed to have been struck of the 1892 Columbian Exposition Half Dollar, represented by the first 101 coins produced in addition to the 400th, 1492nd, and 1892nd pieces. Despite the significance of Columbian Exposition Half Dollar, proof strikings have been largely overlooked and were often mishandled by recipients, most likely dignitaries of the exposition and perhaps a few higher-ups in Washington D.C.
1892 Issue:The first half dollar was struck at the Philadelphia Mint in November 1892. A total of 950,000 coins were minted there, with an unknown number reserved for assay. It is believed that none were melted. They were distributed by the World’s Columbian Exposition and Chicago banks, which sold them for $1 each.
1893 Issue: The Philadelphia Mint began production of 1893-dated Columbian Commemorative Halves on January 3 of that year. A grand total of 4,052,105 pieces were produced (including 2,105 coins for assay purposes), but sales were nowhere near the levels hoped for by government officials. The Mint destroyed all of the unsold coins. That amounted to 2,501,700 coins which were melted.
We note that some of the examples that managed to avoid melting were placed into circulation. Even so, the 1893 Columbian is not a rare coin in the lower and middle Mint State grades. It is only above the Gem level that this issue assumes an aura of unquestionable rarity.
About the Exposition Itself:
Origins of the World’s Columbian Exposition can be seen in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia event marked the first large-scale effort of this kind in the United States. As early as 1880, advocates argues that a special exposition should mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus sailing to the New World. By 1888, the movement gained enough momentum to begin being taken seriously by the public, and by government officials. Early on, St. Louis was a leader for the site location.
By 1889, public opinion and individual efforts had mobilized enough support to launch the new exposition. Contenders for the massive exposition site included St. Louis, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D. C. In an effort to woo the U. S. Congress to select their city, Chicago businesses raised $5,000,000 to pledge to the fair, and promised to double the amount if Chicago was selected. After eight ballots, Congress finally selected Chicago as the site, by a vote of 157 for Chicago, 107 for New York, 25 for St. Louis, and 18 for Washington, D.C. The fair was considered the greatest event of its kind in history.
Design: Obverse by Charles E. Barber; reverse by George T. Morgan; the designs taken from plaster models by Olin L. Warner.
Mintage: Quantity Authorized: 5,000,000
Quantity Distributed: 1892: 950,000; 1893: 1,550,405
Composition: .900 silver, .100 copper
Republished with permission from the Author – Lee Gast
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Interesting Facts: The first specimen struck was bought for $10,000 by the firm that made Remington typewriters, as a publicity stunt. The 1892-1893 Columbian Exposition Half Dollar was the first U.S. legal tender coin to bear the portrait of a foreigner.