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

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


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.

Part I of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island coins story can be found here.

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The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island (SoL-EI) coin program was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on July 9, 1985, just a few days short of one full year before the planned July 4, 1986 celebration to mark the Statue of Liberty’s centennial. As had happened with the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics coins, Congressional delays in getting the SoL-EI coin bill approved and ready for Reagan’s signature created a compressed timeline for the United States Mint to design, produce and market the coins.

Fortunately, it had gotten a head start.


In anticipation of Congress’ eventual approval of the new coin program, Donna Pope, Director of the US Mint, had instructed Chief Engraver Elizabeth Jones and her staff to begin preliminary work on design concepts shortly after the coin bills were introduced in January 1985.

Annunzio had hoped that a national design competition could be held, but the idea was shelved in the interest of time. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (the “Foundation”) needed to begin receiving the funds to be raised by the surcharges collected on the coins sooner rather than later if it was to meet its July 4, 1986 deadline. Delaying the production and sale of the coins by months to conduct a design competition would have added even more stress to an already stressed production schedule.

The authorizing legislation for the coins included language identifying the theme for each of the three SoL-EI coins, but it left considerable room for artistic expression by the US Mint’s artists/engravers.

1986statueoflibThe gold half eagle was designed by Elizabeth Jones. It was the third coin designed by the recently appointed (1981) Chief Engraver; she had previously created the designs for the 1982 George Washington silver half dollar and the 1983 Los Angeles Olympics silver dollar.

Jones was the only member of the Mint staff to prepare designs for the gold coin; her staff decided on its own that the honor of designing the gold piece should be hers as Chief Engraver.[1] Assenting to their wishes, she worked only on the gold coin and left the designs for the other two coins to be developed by her team.

Jones believed a simple design was needed for the small gold piece:

“You simply have to have a bold concept when you do such a tiny coin. I didn’t want to cut the Statue in half, I had seen that on some medals and I think that’s a very graceless design on a small coin.”[2]

The design for the half eagle was required to be “emblematic of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty.”[3] Jones’ accepted obverse design features a close-up view of Liberty’s face as seen from just below. To support her desire for a simple design, Jones chose to limit the inscriptions on the obverse, including only “Liberty” and “1986”. On the reverse, she used the various inscriptions required by law to frame/encircle her depiction of a bald eagle in flight.

The design for the silver dollar was to be “emblematic of the use of Ellis Island as a gateway for immigrants to America.”[4] The designs of future Chief Engraver John Mercanti were selected. One of Mercanti’s obverse designs featured Lady Liberty personally leading a group of immigrants off of Ellis Island and into America. This design lost out to the now-familiar design featuring a full view of the Statue in the foreground with the Main Immigration Building of Ellis Island seen behind it.

1986statueoflib1On the reverse is presented a close-up view of Liberty’s hand holding her torch; rays are shown emanating from it. The torch is flanked by a phrase from the 1883 poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus. The inclusion of the Lazarus quote appears to have been driven, at least in part, by Chairman Frank Annunzio (D-IL11). He very much wanted one of the new Liberty coins to feature a quote from the poem, publicly stating that it would be done “[a]t my insistence.”

Though today the poem is inextricably linked to the Statue and can be found on a tablet mounted on its pedestal, the poem was not written with the intent of it becoming a part of the Statue. Lazarus wrote the poem at the request of William Maxwell Evarts. In 1883, Evarts was preparing an auction to help raise money for the Statue’s pedestal (recall that the people of France donated the money to construct the Statue, while Americans were engaged to raise the funds to build the pedestal upon which it would stand). He wanted to include a moving sonnet about Bartholdi’s copper-skinned colossus in the auction catalog. He called upon Lazarus, and she obliged by writing the poem on November 2. The poem gained a wider audience when it was later published in the New York World and the New York Times.

It was ultimately decided that the large planchet of the silver dollar coin provided the best opportunity to accede to Annunzio’s wishes without creating a design that would be overwhelmed by such an inscription. The reverse of the coin includes a portion of one line from the poem; the entire poem is presented here with the portion featured on the coin in bolded text.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The line selected is, without doubt, the most recognized line from the sonnet and was the ideal choice to reflect the mandated “gateway for immigrants to America” design theme.


The design for the clad half dollar was required to be “emblematic of the contribution of immigrants to America.”[5] This was the most imprecise of the specified design themes. While the themes for the gold half eagle and silver dollars evoked easy-to-conceive imagery of physical structures, the clad half dollar theme was more abstract. The task to create a visual image that simply and effectively expressed the countless contributions of millions of immigrants was a difficult one.

One approach could have been to focus on the accomplishments of one or two well-known individual immigrants. Such a design would likely have connected with the majority of those viewing the coin and could have illustrated the boundless potential offered to those coming to America.

The designs selected, however, focused on the “arrival experience” shared by the millions of immigrants who entered the US through Ellis Island rather than singling out individuals – a far more inclusive approach to the design. The obverse, designed by Mint sculptor-engraver Edgar Steever, presents an immigrant ship arriving in New York Harbor under the watchful gaze of the Statue of Liberty; New York City is seen in the background. Sculptor Sherl Joseph Winter prepared the reverse design that depicts an immigrant family standing on a dock at Ellis Island looking across the harbor to New York City. The designs effectively elicit thoughts of the potential awaiting each new arrival.

The Treasury/Mint did not provide advance public notice of the designs it had selected for the coins. The Foundation was involved in their development and selection, as were certain members of Congress, including Chairman Annunzio. The Treasury Department, however, did not want a repeat of the firestorm it created when it released preliminary designs for the Los Angeles Olympic coins. The draft designs were widely criticized in the media and triggered additional hearings within Congress – all of which created additional timeline pressures on the Mint to get the coins produced so they could generate funds for the Olympic Committees. To avoid a repeat, the SoL-EI coin designs were approved internally without public fanfare, and work on the coinage dies was begun.

Production Launch

“First strike” day for the coins was October 18, 1985. First to be struck were examples of the Proof gold half eagle at the West Point Bullion Depository (now the West Point Mint).

As he pressed the button to start the press, Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III commented:

“To strike a coin in the image of the Statue of Liberty is to strike a blow for freedom. It echoes the struggles and triumphs of our past, when millions who ‘yearned to breathe free’ came to the new world.”[6]

Foundation chairman Lee Iacocca and Congressman Frank Annunzio were among the special guests who took part in the West Point ceremony and were each given the opportunity to strike a coin.

Moments later, at the San Francisco Assay Office, presses were started to produce the first examples of the Proof silver dollar and the Proof clad half dollar.

A lower-key ceremony was held at the Denver Mint on December 9, 1985, to initiate the striking of the uncirculated version of the half dollar. Kenneth Bressett, editor of A Guidebook of United States Coins (the “Red Book”), was on hand to witness the first strikes. No significant ceremony was held in Philadelphia to mark the start of production for the uncirculated version of the silver dollar.

The Mint had tried valiantly to be in a position to have coins available for widespread delivery prior to the Christmas holiday season; the authorizing legislation allowed the 1986-dated coins to be sold beginning on October 1, 1985. With production not getting underway until mid-October, however, it was simply not to be. Nonetheless, the promotion of the coins began soon after the designs were finalized.

Promoting the Coins

The marketing campaign for the coins was launched in parallel with the start of production in October 1985.

The Mint had selected Grey Advertising of New York to head up its advertising for the program; Grey competed with 16 other agencies for the assignment. The first large-scale effort to be initiated was a direct mail campaign of seven million pieces; it was supplemented by print ads in general and specialty magazines.

As with new releases today, the Mint offered discounted “pre-issue” prices on each of the coins when ordered before January 1, 1986. The half dollars were offered at $5 and $6 for the uncirculated and Proof versions, respectively, versus regular prices of $6 and $7. Initial pricing for the silver dollars was $20.50 and $22.50, a $1.50 discount off their regular prices of $22 and $24. The gold coins were originally listed at $160 and $170 with regular prices increasing to $165 and $175.

Early sales were strong, especially for the gold coins. The full authorized mintage of 500,000 gold pieces was sold out during the pre-issue period; the Mint reported that more than 60,000 orders for the half eagles went unfilled. Final sales figures for the coin show the public’s overwhelming preference for Proof pieces over uncirculated versions – 81% of the gold coins sold were Proof versions (404,013 vs. 95,248). In the months following its release, the gold half eagle became a “hot” coin in the market, with selling prices reaching several multiples of its issue price.

With the gold coins sold out, Grey and the Mint could focus their 1986 sales efforts on the silver and clad coins.

reaganstatuteA big component of the sales strategy was to make the coins available from 16,000 bank and savings and loan branches across the country as well as at approximately 3,500 department stores. Sears, Bloomingdale’s, Montgomery Ward, Service Merchandise, and K-Mart were all retail outlets that carried the coins. This number of sales outlets was a significant advance over the LA Olympics program which included roughly 7,500 outlets, most of which were financial institutions.[7]

In April 1986, Grey launched a $17 million television and print advertising campaign to promote the coins. The theme for the TV commercials was “Keep Liberty in Mint Condition”. One commercial featured an image of the obverse of a Proof half dollar rising over several scenes from across America – included among the scenes were the Golden Gate Bridge, an oil well in Texas, a Midwestern farm, a paddlewheel riverboat on the Mississippi River, and the Brooklyn Bridge with the New York City skyline in the background.

Another version took a futuristic approach, with a grandfather and grandson aboard a plane (of sorts) flying around the Statue of Liberty in the year 2050. The grandfather shows the boy a silver dollar and tells him how his grandfather had given it to him back in 1986. The way the two handle the unencapsulated Proof coin in the spot should make any numismatist cringe.

The commercials began running on April 1, 1986, and continued into July in an effort to capture the attention of consumers excited by the Statue’s July 4th centennial celebrations.

The television spots were supplemented by an extensive print campaign that included ads in Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, Sports Illustrated, Money, Boy’s Life, Field & Stream, and Life magazines, among others.

The print ad featured the headline “The dawn of a national treasure” and tied in to the “rising coin” TV commercial. The ad included four scenes representative of different areas of the US (the New York City skyline, a Maine lighthouse, a Midwest farm, and the West Coast shore) with the half dollar seen in the background of each scene.

Print advertising for the coins continued into December 1986, the last month coins could be struck, to help maximize sales and the funds raised for the restoration projects. Print ads in November/December used the headline “Now or never” to encourage consumers to purchase the coins before it was too late. Stressing the looming close of Mint production of the coins and making one last patriotic pitch, the ads concluded with “They make ideal holiday gifts but remember, the holidays will come again, Liberty Coins never will.”[8]

By the time the advertising had stopped and the sales period had been closed, records had been set that still stand today. More than 7.85 million clad half dollars were sold along with over 7.1 million silver dollars. No other US commemorative program has come close to these sales numbers.

Several Firsts

The SoL-EI coin program included several “firsts” for US numismatics.

It was the first US commemorative coin program to include a gold half eagle ($5.00) coin. Gold commemoratives had previously been issued in denominations of $1.00, $2.50, $10.00, and $50.00. The inclusion of a $5.00 gold coin in the program vs. paralleling the recent LA Olympics program’s $10.00 gold coin was driven by a desire to create a more affordable gold coin for collectors. The Olympic gold coins sold for $352 upon release, whereas the SoL half eagles were introduced at $160/$170 (uncirculated/Proof). This established a precedent for the modern US series – the half eagle has become the standard denomination for US commemorative gold coins.

The program was also the first to include a not-intended-for-circulation (NIFC) copper-nickel clad coin. Though clad circulating commemorative coins were issued for the US Bicentennial in 1975-76, all previous US NIFC commemoratives had been struck in either gold or silver with a fineness of 0.900. This established another precedent, as with only one exception–the 1993 James Madison/Bill of Rights half dollar–all modern US commemorative half dollars that followed have been copper-nickel clad coins.

The choice to include a gold half eagle and a clad half dollar in the program was made after a recommendation by David L. Ganz, a lawyer (and noted numismatic author) whose firm was engaged by the Foundation. He believed “a switch to $5 gold would increase sales and surcharges, and that addition of a copper-nickel clad 50-cent piece would yield both a surcharge reward and simultaneously broaden the appeal of the coin program.” Based on the sales of each coin, his instincts proved to be correct.[9]

The coins also marked the first time the iconic Statue of Liberty had appeared on a US coin. It had previously been featured on commemorative medals struck by the US Mint, first in 1965 and then again in 1976, but had never been included on a legal tender coin.

Collecting the Coins

The large number of coins sold at the time of issue has ensured that each of the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island coins is readily available in today’s market, with each among the least expensive coins for its respective denomination. Many, possibly the majority, of the coins were sold to the general public as souvenirs rather than to dedicated coin collectors. As a result, many of the coins have made their way into the secondary market.

Selling prices for the silver dollar and gold half eagle are currently driven more by their intrinsic value rather than any numismatic premium, and the copper-nickel clad half dollar can often be purchased for just two or three dollars. Considering the existing number of modern US commemorative collectors vs. the number of these coins available, the current pricing model for the SoL-EI coins seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Other Official Collectibles

A number of officially-licensed numismatic and philatelic souvenirs were also sold or used as promotional giveaways in 1985 and 1986. A primary feature of many of them was the authentic, but obsolete, Statue of Liberty material they contained.

The United States Postal Service (USPS) created a unique commemorative souvenir that generated approximately $500,000 for the restoration project. It created a philatelic cover that featured its 22-cent Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi commemorative stamp of 1985 along with a custom insert card that featured the “Official Centennial Seal” embossed on copper foil.

USPS-CopperFoil-FDCThe copper used for the foil was distinctive not only because it had come from the original Statue, but also because of its trip into space. The USPS obtained 40 pounds of copper “saddles” removed from the Statue during its restoration; the “saddles” were used to secure the copper outer skin of the Statue to its interior support frame. From these pieces were created two identical 15-inch replicas of the SoL. The two miniatures were then flown on Space Shuttle Discovery during its April 1985 mission. When the replica statues returned to Earth, one was sent to New York to become part of the museum within the Statue’s pedestal, the other was melted and used to create sheets of copper foil.

The postal souvenirs were originally sold for $10.00 each, with the proceeds being donated to the Foundation.

Sears sold a range of officially-licensed centennial souvenirs, including glassware, clocks, paperweights, and a “limited edition” official commemorative medallion. The piece featured a mid-relief version of the “Official Centennial Seal” on its obverse and a commemorative inscription on the reverse. Planchets for the medallions were advertised as being made from 95% authentic materials. The 1-1/2” medals sold for $20 in a custom-printed plastic case that included a Certificate of Authenticity.

Sears was celebrating its own centennial in 1986; the company was launched in 1886 as the R.W. Sears Watch Company. To celebrate the dual anniversary, the company also issued a 7/8” medal that used the same obverse design as the 1-1/2” medal with a reverse design that featured a stylized “100” logo with “Celebrating Sears New Century” superimposed upon it. The small Liberty/Sears medals were sold in sets of three in a custom plastic case for $15. Single medals were also used as promotional pieces and given away.

The Nestle Company, an official sponsor of the Foundation’s restoration work, pledged a minimum direct donation of $5 million to the effort. It also engaged in additional fundraising by committing to donate a portion of the purchase price of selected products to the Foundation. One such product was a solid milk chocolate Statue of Liberty figure. It also had struck a 1-7/16” brass medal that was distributed in exchange for supporting the restoration. The medal features a head-and-shoulder view of the Statue on its obverse and a commemorative inscription on its reverse. Today, the Nestle medal is readily available in the marketplace for just a few dollars.

strohslibThe Stroh Brewery Company was one of the corporate sponsors of the restoration effort, pledging a total of $3 million. It met its pledge amount via a combination of direct donations and sponsored fundraising events. One such event was its October 1985 “Run for Liberty II” 8K race, held in 127 cities across America. The net proceeds from the entrance fees for the race were donated to the Foundation. As a “Thank You” gift for participating, the SoL-EI Foundation and Stroh gave those paying the entrance fee a commemorative souvenir medal. It featured the same obverse design as the Sears medal, with a “Run for Liberty” commemorative inscription on the reverse.

Any of these officially-licensed souvenirs is a natural tie-in to the three US commemorative coins as they had the same goal as the coins – to help raise funds for the restoration of the treasured monuments.
© Copyright D. Provost 2022. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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Works Cited

[1] Bowers, Q. David. Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia. Wolfeboro, NH: Bowers and Merena Galleries, Inc. 1991: 659.
[2] Coin World Almanac, 7th ed. Sidney, OH: Amos Press Inc. 2000: 144-145.
[3] Public Law 99-61. 99th Congress. July 9, 1985.
[4] ibid.
[5] ibid.
[6] “Statue of Liberty Gold Coins Minted to Aid Restoration”, Los Angeles Times. October 19, 1985.
[7] Dougherty, Philip H. “Statue of Liberty Coin Drive”, New York Times. March 26, 1986.
[8] US Mint Advertisement, New York Magazine. December 15, 1986: 57.
[9] Ganz, David L. Rare Coin Investing: An Affordable Way to Build Your Portfolio. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2010: 151.

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. Hi do u guys have a link to the coins with crowdfunding platform on them or the mint crowdfunding platform I’m haveing trouble finding it. Is it just for gold and silver? Any links are apreciated ty.

  2. i have 10 miniature 1986 liberty $5 gold coins. the cert is from, The Mint Collection – Dover De. i am having a very hard time finding and information on line about these coins. they each weigh .3 grams. might you point me in the correct direction?
    thank you and Happy Holidays


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