A look at this often-underrated yet highly interesting series
By Jeff Garrett for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) ……
For anyone looking for value when trying to decide what to collect, United States commemorative coinage is a great place to start. The series has been one of the biggest laggards over the last decades in relation to other areas of the market. Many coins in this series are also among the largest percentage losers from the highs of 1989 and ’90. A few years after third-party certification took hold, many areas of the market exploded, with commemoratives leading the way. In the summer of 1989, an NGC MS 65 1892 Columbian Half Dollar sold for $5,000 USD. Today, an attractive example can be found for about $400.
Walking Liberty half dollars and Proof type coins were also in the stratosphere before crashing a few years later.
The “classic series” of United States commemorative coinage began in 1892 when 950,000 half dollars were distributed and sold to help finance the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. The World’s Columbian Exposition was a seminal event for the United States. Our country was determined to outdo the French, who had conducted a spectacular exposition a few years earlier. A number of American innovations made their first appearance at the Chicago Exposition, including phosphorescent lamps, the Ferris Wheel, and Juicy Fruit gum. It was a smashing success, with nearly 26 million visitors at a time when the entire population of the United States stood at around 65 million.
The concept of creating commemorative coinage to finance a variety of causes was firmly established. Over the next 62 years, the United States produced 50 different issues of silver commemorative coinage. The last issues of the Classic Commemoratives were the Carver/Washington commemoratives struck from 1951 to 1954. Coins were struck to commemorate or raise funds for a wide variety of celebrations. A few of the later issues were clearly produced for profit, with questionable ties to historic events. Quite a few were flops after being produced and many ended up in the melting pots. This latter category is now among the rarest and most desirable issues, including the Hudson and Spanish Trail Commemoratives.
Several Compelling Reasons To Collect Classic Commemorative Silver Coins:
- Completing a set of commemoratives by type is within the means of many collectors. There are no real stoppers, with most available for less than $500 in Gem condition. The most expensive issue is the 1928 Hawaiian Half Dollar, and these can be purchased for around $3,500 in Gem condition.
- Classic Commemorative silver coins are among the most beautiful coins ever produced by the United States. There are a few that lack artistic merit, but most are very attractive and were designed by renowned sculptors of the day.
- A majority of the issues can be purchased in Gem (MS 65) for prices that are not greatly above the cost of a circulated specimen. An example is the 1936 Delaware that sells for about $200 in AU and $275 in MS 65.
- There is a tremendous amount of literature available for anyone interested in collecting the series. Classic Commemorative coins are among the most studied United States coin series.
- Commemorative silver coins also offer a variety of extremely interesting coins for anyone wanting to really explore this area of the market. There are several very rare Proof issues, and many like to collect original packaging that was produced at the time of issue. You could buy a complete set of commemoratives and consider yourself finished or spend a lifetime and never finish. The options are endless.
How To Collect Classic Commemorative Silver Coins (1892-1954)
As mentioned above, there are 50 different types of classic commemorative silver coinage struck from 1892 to 1954. A great place to examine these various issues is the Guide Book of United States Coinage (the “Red Book“). As mentioned above, there were also coins struck multiple years and from different mints. A complete set includes 144 different issues. More about the series and current price information can be found on www.NGCcoin.com.
Once you have decided on the most affordable grade that you can comfortably collect, your next decision is what kind of coin best suits your taste.
The most basic options are deciding if you want coins with original toning or coins that have been conserved at some point and are now frosty white. I can tell you from experience that there are about equal numbers of collectors who prefer one or the other. My first advice is to choose one or the other and try to assemble a matched set in appearance. It is critical that you choose coins with great eye appeal when collecting this series. I feel that one of the reasons silver commemoratives have grossly underperformed over the years is the abundance of unattractive coins in the marketplace. Many have dark toning with little eye appeal. Others have been over dipped through the years and have an unattractive appearance. Buying coins in the best possible grade with outstanding eye appeal will pay dividends when it’s time to sell.
Silver Commemoratives, along with Morgan silver dollars, are two of the series that many greatly covet with beautiful toning. Over the years there have been examples of amazingly toned coins selling for astronomical prices. An NGC MS 66 1926-S Oregon Half Dollar sells for about $400. In 2013 an NGC MS 67 coin with incredible toning sold for over $15,000. Some collectors buy silver commemoratives like they are purchasing fine art, the coins being the canvas for the gradual coloration created by time and the right conditions. This is a personal choice, but certainly not the best way to obtain the best value for this series.
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