HomeUS CoinsCommemorative Coin Stories: 1986 Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Coin Program

Commemorative Coin Stories: 1986 Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Coin Program


By David Provost for CoinWeek …..
Commemorative Coin Stories: The 1986 Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Coin Program by David ProvostAuthor’s Note: My intention for this series of “stories” is to present lesser-known information about the US commemorative coins series derived from my original research in the records of Congress and/or the reports and correspondence of the individual coin sponsors. The information presented will not simply be a reworking of the information presented in the standard reference works on the series. I sincerely hope you enjoy the backstories presented in this series and I welcome your comments and suggestions.

This installment of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island coin program story presents how the coin came to be; the conclusion (Part II) will discuss the coin as a collectible.

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Among all the modern United States commemorative issues, the coins struck for the Statue of Liberty’s 1986 centennial celebration are quite possibly the most “perfect”. They are well-designed, were affordable for most collectors at the time of issue, and were sponsored by a group tasked with raising funds for the restoration and preservation of two of America’s most important historical sites: the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. What fundraising effort could be more worthwhile than one designed to preserve the world’s most iconic symbol of freedom?

The fact that more than $165 million was needed to complete the restoration of the sites, however, illustrates how even icons can sometimes suffer from neglect.

The Need for Restoration

The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World was dedicated on Bledsoe’s Island in New York Harbor on October 28, 1886. President Grover Cleveland took part in the dedication ceremonies and declared in his address “We will not forget that Liberty has made here her home, nor shall her chosen altar be neglected.”[1]

Unfortunately, this promise was not entirely kept over the years and the statue suffered damage from the weather, the salt-air environment in which it stood and the stresses of millions of visitors climbing its internal stairs to experience the view from its crown.

Ellis Island, the first federal immigration center in the United States, opened in 1892 and served as the entry point for over 12 million immigrants looking to start a new life in America. After 1924, changes to US immigration laws slowed new arrivals and changed the way they were processed. This caused Ellis Island to transition from an immigration center to a detention center for those waiting to be deported. It closed in November 1954 when the Immigration and Naturalization Service moved its offices off the island and turned it over to the General Services Administration (GSA). Essential services to the island were soon discontinued and only the most basic security was maintained. As a result, the buildings on the island suffered extensive weather-related damage and were frequent victims of theft and vandalism.

Initial efforts to restore Ellis Island were launched in the early 1970s in preparation for the US bicentennial in 1976. Limited tours of Ellis began on May 28, 1976, but much of the island’s facilities remained closed to the public due to their advanced state of deterioration.

By 1981, there were at least five groups raising money or developing plans for the restoration of either the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island:

  1.  French-American Committee for Restoration of the Statue of Liberty: It was launched in 1981 to raise funds for the restoration and sponsored a comprehensive architectural/engineering review of the Statue to assess its condition.
  2. Statue of Liberty Foundation: Created in 1981 to raise funds for the celebration of the Statue’s centennial.
  3. American Museum of Immigration: Chartered in 1965 to create a museum dedicated to the story of immigration in America; it was to be housed in the Statue’s pedestal.
  4. Ellis Island Restoration Commission: Founded in 1976, the group was set up specifically to restore the facilities of Ellis Island and develop it as a museum.
  5. Coordinating Committee for Ellis Island: Organized in 1980 to raise public awareness regarding the historical importance of the Statue and Ellis Island; it also sought to raise funds to support their restoration.

The National Park Service (NPS), the bureau within the US Department of the Interior that was responsible for the Statue of Liberty National Monument (which includes Ellis Island), was not in a position to efficiently manage and coordinate the activities of the various groups. It was also concerned about their potential limited effectiveness if they all competed for donations among the same targets; multiple organizations seeking funds for similar projects could easily cause confusion among potential donors and thereby risk their contribution.

To address their concerns, the NPS sought the creation of a federal advisory committee to oversee the various groups and to serve as an intermediary between them and the NPS. The result was the 21-member Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Centennial Commission. The Commission was formally announced to the public on May 17, 1982, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. It was presided over by President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt. Lee Iacocca, then chairman of the Chrysler Corporation and rising American folk hero, was introduced by Watt as chairman of the new Commission.

Originally, the Commission was not expected to be the primary fundraiser for the restoration projects; the individual groups under their “umbrella” were to maintain this function. It soon became apparent to the Commission, however, that a centralized fundraising effort would be of more benefit. This realization gave rise in the fall of 1982 to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (created from the administrative infrastructure already in place within the Statue of Liberty Foundation noted above); the Foundation became the leader and organizer of all fundraising initiatives for the project. The Foundation also took on the task of planning the centennial celebrations at each site; the Statue of Liberty’s centennial would take place in 1986, the Ellis Island centennial in 1992.

The Foundation had an immense task ahead of it.

The Foundation’s Plan

The Foundation’s initial fundraising plan of June 1982 set a target of $230 million for the restoration projects. It forecasted that it would need $39 million to restore the Statue, $128 million for Ellis Island, $28 million for centennial celebrations, $15 million for administration and fundraising, and $20 million to establish an endowment for future needs.[2]

Ellis Island

To meet its targets, the Foundation projected it would raise $100 million from corporate sponsorships plus $60 million from a capital campaign that would seek donations of $5,000 or more from corporations, foundations, and wealthy individuals. The balance of $70 million was to be raised via a grassroots campaign that would include direct mail solicitations and local fundraisers sponsored by civic and fraternal organizations as well as school drives. Notably absent from its plan at the time was any type of merchandising effort – no product licensing or coin program was included.

This omission would soon be thoroughly addressed. Ultimately, nearly 100 companies became “official licensees” of the Foundation and were therefore allowed to use its logo on their products and promote their affiliation with the restoration effort. More than 200 categories of products across a diverse spectrum were authorized with approximately 1,000 individual products becoming available by the time the centennial celebrations were held on July 4, 1986.

Included were traditional souvenirs such as commemorative medals, enameled pins, watches, commemorative plates, and limited edition art prints, but also featured were products such as women’s slacks, air fresheners, barbeque grills, potato chips, mattresses, fishing rods, and Harley-Davidson® motorcycles.[3] The Foundation and its licensing agency – Hamilton Projects – did not authorize all product proposals, however – a request from a coffin manufacturer, for example, was denied.[4]

Internal discussions of the possibility of the Foundation sponsoring a commemorative coin program were also soon initiated. Westport Marketing Group, the Foundation’s initial marketing agency, first explored the potential for a coin program with Representative Frank Annunzio (D-IL11), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage, in early 1983. The meeting was not well-received, however, as Westport had misled Annunzio and his staff.

When setting up the meeting, Westport had indicated that Lee Iacocca, the Foundation Chairman, would take part. Believing it could handle things on its own, Westport did not inform Iacocca of the meeting and moved forward without him. This upset Annunzio and his staff and had the potential to shut down the coinage program proposal before it even got off the ground.

Iacocca would later become more directly involved in the coin program and was able to gain Annunzio’s trust and support. It was made clear to the Foundation, however, that Westport was not to have further involvement in the coin program – if it did, there likely wouldn’t be a coin program. The Foundation agreed to this condition and moved the project forward with other staff.

In August 1984, confident that its proposed coin program was on track for approval, the Foundation updated its fundraising plan to include a $35 million target for the coins. This figure would be increased in future budget plans based on strong sales of the coins. The growing contribution of the coin program, however, was in marked contrast to the decreased targets for corporate sponsorships, the capital campaign, and licensing deals. The coin program eventually proved to be the single largest source of funds for the Foundation.

Introduced in Congress

On the first day of the 99th Congress, January 3, 1985, Annunzio introduced a bill (HR 47) calling for a three-piece commemorative coinage program: a copper-nickel clad half dollar, a silver dollar, and a gold half eagle. A companion bill (S 233) was introduced in the Senate by Alfonse Marcello D’Amato (R-NY) on January 22nd.

The bills each specified the minting of 500,000 half eagles, 10 million dollar coins, and 25 million half dollars. The gold coins were to be struck only in proof and only at one mint facility; proof and uncirculated versions were specified for the dollar and half dollar but only one mint facility could be used to strike each combination of denomination and quality. The final selling price of each coin was to include a surcharge of $35, $7, and $2 for the gold, silver, and clad coins, respectively.

Prior to the introduction of the bills, a silver 25-cent coin and a gold quarter eagle ($2.50) were also considered. They were discussed as a potential way to make a silver and gold coin available to collectors at a lower price-point and thus maximize sales and surcharge collection.


The bills also specified a design theme for each coin. For the gold coin, it was to be a design “emblematic of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty.” The design for the silver dollar was to be “emblematic of the use of Ellis Island as a gateway for immigrants to America.” Each of these readily brings to mind appropriate images, the statue itself (gold coin) and the main processing building on Ellis Island (silver dollar). For the half dollar, the design theme specified was the vaguest and would prove to be the most challenging for the artists of the US Mint; the half dollar design was to be “emblematic of the contribution of immigrants to America.”

In a rare move to help expedite the passage of the bills, a Joint Hearing was held before the House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage and the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee; a similar Joint Hearing regarding coinage had not been held in at least 20 years.

Annunzio called the hearing to order at 9:00 am on February 20, 1985. Witnesses included Mary Lou Grier, Deputy Director, National Park Service, Katherine Ortega, Treasurer of the United States, Donna Pope, Director, US Mint, and Lee Iacocca, Chairman, Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Centennial Commission. Somewhat surprisingly, and in contrast to the hearings associated with the recent George Washington and Los Angeles Olympic coins, no representatives specifically from the numismatic community were included.

The tone of the hearing was in stark contrast to the often acrimonious testimony of the Los Angeles Olympic coin hearings. Each witness that testified voiced their support for the program and its intended purpose.

The charismatic Iacocca was in good spirits at the hearing and even joked a bit during his remarks via references to his previous time before Congress when he was seeking Federal loan guarantees to help ensure that Chrysler would survive.

“I have mixed feelings about being here today. I never wanted to do this again, but here I am, back in Washington looking for money.

“But this time it’s different. I promise you that. The last time I was looking for a little loan of $1 billion on a pretty complicated issue, and it tied some of us for a lot of weeks.

“I sure don’t want to go through that again. This time I have a better idea, and it is so simple I don’t know why I didn’t think of it the first time around.

“This time I would just like you to ask the Treasury Department to mint some money for me, and I promise to use it very wisely.”[5]

He then turned serious as he discussed the need for Congress’ support of the proposed coinage program. “The coins will help celebrate the whole American immigration experience. They will recall the ideals that drew those immigrants to America. And they will recall the contributions of those immigrants in building this great country of ours … Seventeen million people passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954…Today 100 million of us, about 40 percent of the whole population, are their descendants.”[6]

“The Statue of Liberty is the symbol of the hope that brought people here, and Ellis Island is that symbol of reality…I think we and our kids need both of these symbols to remind us about what brought those millions of people to America and, of course, more importantly, about the contributions they made.”[7]

Iacocca reported that the restoration projects were “well underway” and that the Statue of Liberty would definitely be ready for the planned July 4, 1986 celebrations and the October 28th re-dedication ceremony. He also noted that while progress was being made on Ellis Island, its years of neglect were making it a much bigger project. He was confident, however, that with sufficient funding it could be restored in time for its 1992 centennial.

Iacocca reviewed the scope of the fundraising effort by the Foundation, noting that it previously had a target of $230 million but had recently adjusted it up to $260 million to ensure it could adequately cover unanticipated expenses. At the time of the hearing, the Foundation had raised $143 million in cash and pledges; $90 million from corporations and other foundations, $11 million from licensing deals, and $43 million from its “grassroots campaign” which was soliciting contributions from the general public, local organizations and school children.

He noted, however, that as most of the $143 million was in the form of pledges, the Foundation had only $67 million in hand. While Iacocca expected the majority of the pledges to eventually be fulfilled, he noted that it will take years for all of them to be realized and that the Foundation was in immediate need of funds in order to cover ongoing expenses related to the restoration projects.

In discussing why the coin program should be supported by Congress, Iacocca commented “I believe the process of raising the money is just as important as what it is used for. We don’t just want people to give money; we want them to get involved. That’s what really gives this project significance.”[8]

He continued, “Well, the coin project is an extension of this. It will not only help us reach our financial goal, it will also give more people a chance to become personally involved. Long after the campaign is over, the coins will keep the process going. They will become mementos passed from generation to generation.”[9] He believed the sales of the coins could generate $60 million for the Foundation’s efforts, with the possibility of even more, and noted that the funds were needed “to get the job done.”

Iacocca concluded his remarks with “I know that such commemorative coins are only authorized for rare and special occasions. I think there is a rare and special Lady in New York Harbor who deserves your consideration.”[10]

Following his statement, the Committee had nothing but praise for Iacocca and the progress being made by the Foundation; he received no follow-up questions or challenges.

Katherine Dávalos Ortega, Official Portrait
Katherine Dávalos Ortega, Official Portrait

Katherine Ortega, Treasurer of the United States, was then called. She began by noting that the Treasury was “in the business of minting legal tender coins for the money supply to serve the public interest and should not be involved in private fundraising ventures…[Treasury] hopes that the use of Federal minting facilities for such purposes can be limited in the future.”[11]

She also commented on the proposed legislation’s requirement that “The Secretary [of the Treasury] shall take all actions necessary to ensure the issuance of the coins authorized by this Act shall result in no net cost to the United States Government.”[12] Ortega suggested that to truly ensure this requirement, the subcommittee should “explore the possibility of the private sector underwriting the cost of this project.”[13] The Treasury had supported the use of private marketers for the LA Olympic coin programs and was clearly open to such an approach for the SoL-EI coins even though Annunzio remained firmly against it.

Rather than formally oppose the coins, however, Ortega simply offered two recommendations for changes to HR 47 (and/or S 233) that would give the Treasury and Mint the manufacturing and marketing flexibility it believed it needed. The first was to not limit the gold coin to only proof coins. She noted that by allowing an uncirculated version of the coin to be struck, it would enable the Mint to market a complete three-piece uncirculated set to collectors as well as provide a coin much more suited to the jewelry market as uncirculated pieces do not show scratches and general handling marks as quickly as proof coins.

The second recommendation was to allow the Mint to use any or all of its various facilities to strike each coin type so that it could be as efficient and cost-effective as possible vs. being forced to use just one minting facility for each.

Chairman Annunzio raised two concerns. The first was in regard to how the Mint would manage the coin program; the second related to the Treasury’s request to allow the same coin to be struck at more than one mint facility. He recalled how a task force was formed within Treasury to manage sales for the Los Angeles Olympic coins and was against something similar happening for the SoL-EI program. He described how the Olympic task force, seemingly acting without senior direction, had decided to have gold coins struck at additional mints beyond West Point and how this decision negatively impacted coin collectors who were suddenly forced to spend more than $1,000 extra to have a complete set of the coins. Annunzio also made clear his frustration with the task force’s decision to move ahead with the additional gold coins over his strong objection.

Ortega assured Annunzio that the program would be fully managed within the Treasury and Mint and that the request for the ability to strike coins at multiple mints was made simply to give them the manufacturing flexibility they needed to address “unforeseen circumstances.” She countered Annunzio’s complaint about the additional cost of the gold coins by describing how the decision to mint additional Olympics gold coins “generated close to $7 million in surcharges … [and] had it not been for that action, I’m afraid we would not have met our goal.”[14]

She believed the additional Olympic gold coins reinvigorated the program’s sales in a “sagging market” and sought comparable flexibility for the SoL-EI program should a similar market weakness develop.

Representative John Hiler (R-IN) was up next and chose to revisit Ortega’s testimony regarding the committee exploring the private sector underwriting the coin program’s costs. Hiler stated that it was his understanding the program’s costs were to be recaptured by the Mint out of the revenue generated by the sale of the coins and so was unclear why Ortega had made such a suggestion.

The Treasurer responded by confirming Hiler’s understanding, but also noted the possibility that the Mint’s operating costs could exceed their earnings from sales of the coins if the marketing of them proves unsuccessful and a large quantity of produced coins remained unsold (as what had happened with the LA Olympics coins). She described the coin program as a “business venture” with “risks involved as to whether the coins will be accepted by the public, if they will buy these coins, and if we are able to maintain our operating costs within those guidelines.”[15] She continued, “there is no way that we can say with any assurance that there will be no net cost to the taxpayers. Certainly we will monitor the program as we proceed to ensure that we in fact do not have cost to the taxpayer.”[16]

Following the hearing, a markup session was held and an amended version of HR 47 was reported out of the subcommittee. The bill was changed to reflect the Treasury’s request to allow uncirculated gold coins to be struck in addition to Proof pieces but continued to require that all gold coins be struck at a single mint facility thereby ensuring that collectors would not be faced with the prospect of having to purchase gold coins struck at Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco.

The amended bill was brought up for discussion in the House on March 5, 1985. Each representative that rose to speak voiced his enthusiastic support for the bill and urged its passing. The “debate” on the coin program lasted less than 30 minutes and resulted in passage via voice vote. It appeared that the bill would sail through Congress and be on the president’s desk for signature within just a few weeks. It was not to be, however.

The bill was held in the Senate’s Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs for two months before it was reported out favorably on May 7, 1985, without amendment and in lieu of Senator D’Amato’s S 233. It would then be another six weeks before it would be considered by the full Senate.

The delays were not caused by objections to the bill within the Senate, in fact, the opposite was true. Its passage was viewed as a near certainty which made it an attractive target for those looking to attach unrelated pieces of legislation in hopes of getting them approved as a byproduct of the coin program’s approval.

Among the potential amendments discussed were those calling for gold and silver bullion coins, something that multiple members of the Senate and House of Representatives had been trying to get approved for several years. They believed it was time for the US to enter the bullion coin market and compete against Canada, Mexico, South Africa, and other countries that were selling millions of such coins each year to investors and collectors.

By June 21, 1985, the backroom deals had all been worked out and only one amendment was proposed for the coin bill. It was introduced by Senator James McClure (R-ID) and it gave the Secretary of the Treasury the authority to strike a one-ounce silver bullion coin. Representing Idaho, a state that was a large silver producer, McClure’s amendment established the silver “Liberty Coin” (what is today referred to as the American Silver Eagle).

The amended bill passed the Senate the same day and was sent to the House for concurrence.

Representative Jerry Lewis
Representative Charles “Jerry” Lewis, Official Portrait

When brought up for discussion in the House, only one representative stood up to oppose it – Charles “Jerry” Lewis (R-CA). Representative Lewis was a strong proponent of the US introducing silver as well as gold bullion coins. His objection was not the addition of the silver bullion coin to the bill, but the amendment’s lack of a gold bullion coin.

Annunzio tried to persuade him to retract his objection by stressing the urgency of getting the bill passed quickly so that there would be enough time for the coins to be struck and serve as a meaningful fundraiser for the Foundation. He also promised Lewis that discussion of a separate bill calling for a gold bullion coin would soon follow. Lewis would not yield, however, but took his objection offline for a private discussion with Annunzio.

An hour later, the Senate-amended HR 47 was again called up for discussion. An agreement had been worked out between Annunzio and Lewis, and Lewis now used the open session to get his agreements with Annunzio entered into the official record. When Lewis appeared to be going off-topic and opening a discussion on the apartheid practices of South Africa, Annunzio broke in and requested that such discussions be held for a time when a gold bullion coin program was being debated. Lewis agreed, dropped the discussion, and withdrew his objection.

The bill passed quickly via Unanimous Consent.

HR 47 was presented to President Reagan on July 2, 1985, and signed into law just a week later on July 9th. With Reagan’s signature, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island commemorative coins were a reality and the US Treasury was cleared to enter the silver bullion coin marketplace.

In the conclusion to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island story, I’ll discuss the development of the coin designs and review the various promotional approaches used by the Mint and Foundation to market the coins. I’ll also take a look at some of the other official numismatic commemoratives the Foundation authorized.

© Copyright D. Provost 2022. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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Works Cited

[1] Blumberg, Barbara. Celebrating the Immigrant: An Administrative History of the Statue of Liberty National Monument 1952-1982. US Department of the Interior, 1985: 4.
[2] Restoration of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. US General Accounting Office, June 1986: 29.
[3] ibid, 90-93.
[4] Landis, Dylan. “Patriotism for Profit: The Licensing of a Very Popular Lady.” Chicago Tribune, July 6, 1986.
[5] United States. Joint Hearing: House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage and Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. HR 47 and S 233. 99th Congress, 1st Session. February 20, 1985: 28.
[6] ibid, 29.
[7] ibid, 29.
[8] ibid, 30.
[9] ibid, 30.
[10] ibid, 31.
[11] ibid, 39.
[12] HR 47. 99th Congress, 1st Session, 1985.
[13] Joint Hearing, 39.
[14] ibid, 45.
[15] ibid, 46.
[16] ibid, 46.

David Provost
David Provost
David Provost is a numismatic writer and commemorative coin specialist. Among other roles, Provost has served as President of the North Carolina Numismatic Association (NCNA) and Editor of the club's quarterly NCNA Journal.

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  1. I really enjoyed this article. One of the greatest mistakes (in my opinion) of the modern commemorative coin programs is not consistently issuing commemorative half dollars in silver. I believe only two issues were released in silver, with the rest in clad. The Statue of Liberty half-dollar is one of my all time favorite commemoratives, but the fact that it is a clad coin is truly unfortunate. When can we expect the second installment of this essay? Thank you.

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed you enjoyed the piece. I

    I agree that it would have been nice if the modern half dollar series had continued to be struck in silver like the half dollars of the classic era, but the switch to copper-nickel clad half dollars was made in an attempt to provide a lower-cost option for young collectors and those on limited budgets. The decision is understandable.

  3. Hi David. First, thank you for the enlightening articles. I own the $1 and 50 cent piece in proof, and look forward to acquiring the Half Eagle. I recently purchased a SoL commemorative medallion claiming to use materials from the restoration. The obverse depicts the statue with 10 stars above and a banner below, a plain edge, and a reverse of the torch in similar. About the size of a silver dollar, it has a cupping design inside the rim. It has a certificate of authenticity describing the maker as Plume & Atwood, a division of Diversified Industries. Would you provide some background on this piece, if known? Thank you.


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