Q. David Bowers: The Rise and Fall of the Commemorative Coin Market

By Q. David BowersCo-Founder, Stack’s Bowers …..
 

If you’ve been following the coin market in recent years, then you might know that the prices of federal coins in 1988 were, on balance, tiny fractions of what many pieces sell for today. This is true across the board, from Colonials to Capped Bust silver coins, to large copper cents, to Liberty Head twenties, to, well, just about everything!

Records made since that time, say in the Eliasberg Collection sales of 1996 and 1997 over 20 years ago, are likewise in many instances bargains today. How happy anyone would be to purchase such pieces today at the record prices of yesteryear.

There is, however, one major exception to all of this.

The oddity is the field of classic silver commemorative coins from 1892 to 1954. Time was when just about every serious collector of American coins enjoyed commemoratives. Open an issue of The Numismatist from the 1950s or ’60s and you will see many advertisements. These were hot tickets, and everyone wanted them.

The low mintages of many of the dates and mintmarks–quite a few with 5,000 or fewer distributed–made them a magnet for investors. Can you imagine the excitement and scramble there would be today if the United States Mint issued a new commemorative with a mintage of only 2,000 to 5,000 pieces? Right out of the starting gate the coins would soar in the marketplace to multiple thousands of dollars!

Also, a magnet for investors was the usual grade of a classic silver commemorative: Mint State! For what more could one ask?

Enter a number of investment funds set up by Wall Street companies and others in the late 1980s. The idea was to sell silver or gold coins (copper coins were usually not involved) to individuals who had been aware of the great profits that carefully selected collections had realized in the past and wanted to tap into it. What better way to do it than to buy classic commemoratives in Gem condition with low mintages, and in a popular series?

Absolutely foolproof!

The race was on. Commemoratives proved to be very popular, and untold millions of dollars worth of them were sold. Prices went up, up, and up some more! It was very exciting, at least for a while. But, as can happen when investment replaces collecting as the focus of buying, what seems foolproof may not actually be so.

Investors flooded the market and prices kept increasing, attracting more and more attention. However, prices went so high that by 1988 most serious numismatists had dropped out. Few wanted to pay, say, $3,000 for a coin that a few years earlier could have been bought for $500 or even less. As investment-oriented coin circles have always done, in 1990 the market ran out of new faces. Few new investors appeared. Those who had poured large sums of money into commemoratives, without knowing what they were buying, sensed that the market was quiet. Time to sell! And so, the prices dropped, dropped, and dropped some more!

The result is that today, in the third decade of the 21st century, nearly all silver commemoratives sell for small fractions of what they sold for in 1988 and 1989.

Here are some sample prices for Mint State-65 commemorative half dollars in 1990 (from a study I did that year) and values from the most recent (2022) edition of A Guidebook of United States Coins (the “Red Book“):

  • 1892 Columbian: 1990: $3,850 • 2022: $275
  • 1915-S Panama-Pacific: 1990: $4,500 • 2022: $1,325
  • 1921 Pilgrim: 1990: $2,400 • 2022: $275
  • 1925 Stone Mountain: 1990: $650 • 2022: $175
  • 1927 Vermont: 1990: $2,400 • 2022: $460
  • 1928 Hawaiian: 1990: $10,500 • 2022: $3,500
  • 1935 Connecticut: 1990: $2,000 • 2022: $375
  • 1936 Bridgeport: 1990: $1,200 • 2022: $180
  • 1937 Roanoke Island: 1990: $700 • 2022: $230
  • 1938 New Rochelle: 1990: $1,025 • 2022: $375
  • 1946 Iowa: 1990: $400 • 2022: $110

But no matter the price history, to me, classic commemoratives are endlessly fascinating, and these are among my favorite series from a numismatic viewpoint. I have written a great deal on the series, including Commemorative Coins of the United States, A Complete Encyclopedia, published by Bowers and Merena Galleries, that sold thousands of copies (despite the market declining at that time). If you are looking for an interesting new field to collect, consider classic commemorative silver coins from 1892 to 1954. Here are some suggestions:

1. Each commemorative has its own story, always interesting, sometimes surprising–the last with fake sold-out notices and the like, as distribution in the 20th century was in private hands. If you had good contacts in Congress, then you could order commemorative coins, set the market price, and keep the profits. Two men who were later presidents of the ANA, Thomas G. Melish and L.W. Hoffecker, did just that! To learn more, first, check out what the Guide Book has to say, and then find a book or two or three on the subject and read them.

2. Cherrypick for quality. There are many certified MS-64 coins that are nicer than pieces that offer higher grades (and higher prices). Eye appeal is everything. You can see a lot by just looking, as Yogi Berra said, and so do just that!

3. Choose how YOU want to collect. Most people either acquire one each of the 48 different half dollar designs plus the 1893 Isabella quarter and 1900 Lafayette dollar or get one of each date, mintmark, or other half dollar variety–142 coins in all–plus the quarter and the dollar.

4. Once you start on your collection, take time to study each coin with a magnifier and enjoy its features.

Caveat: Although as I write these words the prices of these coins are at bargain levels, I see no indication that they will become hot tickets in the marketplace anytime soon.
 

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